Seattle rock veteran unites with Joseph Arthur and Richard Stuverud to create beautiful noise that belies its "side-project" trappings
In April 1990, Jeff Ament was reeling from the death of his friend and bandmate, Mother Love Bone frontman Andy Wood. But it wasn't the subsequent, much mythologized formation of Pearl Jam that righted his course. It was an unexpected set of jam sessions with fellow Seattle outfit War Babies.
"I was having a tough spring and a tough summer," Ament said recently over lunch at the Breslin in New York's Ace Hotel, War Babies drummer Richard Stuverud seated just to his right. "I felt like [Mother Love Bone] was my shot at being in a band that could put out records. But War Babies had lost their bassist and Richard had asked me if I would play with them. So we'd get together to just jam and I'd bring along a Prince song or a Cameo song, just some kind of rhythmic workout." Stuverud interjects, his eyes wide: "It was so refreshing. It was this big, amazing beginning, of letting go, of trying new things. I never knew about Cameo. It completely changed my world."
"And I," Ament continues, "went from feeling like I was going back to art school to, within a few rehearsals with Richard, thinking, 'Oh, this really is what I'm supposed to do.' There's nothing that gives you that feeling. It's a volume and a connection that you have. Something happens to your body chemically when you play music, especially when you connect."
And though Ament would go on to form Pearl Jam alongside Mother Love Bone guitarist Stone Gossard instead, that chemistry and connection between Stuverud and Ament brough them back together again as two, time-keeping thirds of RNDM — a recently formed, Joseph Arthur-fronted psych-rock unit that was born during similarly spirited jam sessions early this year. Arthur first met the 49-year-old, Montana-born bassist in the late '90s when opening for his long defunct side-trio Three Fish (which also included Stuverud on drums) at a small show in lower Manhattan. Ament, a fan of Arthur's work and voice, kept in touch over the years, eventually asking him to sing on "When the Fire Comes," a spare, spectral number he wrote for his quietly released solo LP, While My Heart Beats. (Pearl Jam devotees may recall the two performing it together at at the band's 20th anniversary festival, PJ20, last Fall, where Arthur also provided opening support.)
"I don't have a great voice or even a good voice," Ament says. "But Joe has a great voice, a really resonant tone and texture. I always want to hear those voices alone, like in the beginning of [2000 Clash documentary Westway to the World,] when Joe Strummer sings 'White Riot' by himself. That's the essence right there. We've all made records that were slightly bloated and had too much going on, maybe a little too much paint on the canvas. This is an opportunity to do something different."
Ament invited Arthur and Stuverud to his home, 30 minutes outside of Missoula, and within hours of landing, the three had set up to start playing in Ament's studio-living room-basketball court. Not one of them knew they'd begin recording two LPs worth of material together in just days, but they did, finishing one another's already written songs and following every whim, creative or otherwise. "I remember eating dinner pretty late the night and we were starting to joke around about what the name of the band would be, what we were going to do on tour and the T-shirts we'd design," says Ament. "By the third day, all of those jokes became sort of serious. We were realizing that, maybe we actually have a record here."
The name RNDM (pronounced "random") was one such joke. Originally, the three had settled on the name "Random Gong," after a chance encounter Arthur had recently had with a gong owner in upstate New York. "He had eight gongs, in this little apartment," says Arthur. "'Who needs more than one gong?' I asked him, 'What's with all the gongs?' He says, 'Do you want to hear them?' I said, 'sure,' and he hit each one. It was amazing. I told these guys that story and I don't know who, but someone said, 'We should be Random Gong.' A couple of days later Jeff said, 'Maybe we should lose the gong.'"
They did, and although there's an unreleased, instrumental track ("Theme From Random Gong") from those sessions that lives on, the resulting full-length, Acts is a loose and liberating rush of guitar-phrased exchange that's testament to the intense bond the the three come to share. (There is a more experimental EP ready to go, which Arthur calls "acid jazz" to Acts' more streamlined Thriller.) That extends to more than just the music: on this particular day in New York, their heads are all freshly shorn and Ament, the son of a barber, having convinced his bandmates to adopt his mohawk-like mane, as captured in the silent film-like clip for the single "Modern Times." It's another part of the less-is-more philosophy on which their still growing output seems to be founded.
"[Pearl Jam] made that record with Neil Young [1995's Mirror Ball] and after we were done," Ament says, thinking back to an experience he drew upon for RNDM, "he was telling how great we were at holding back. We were like, 'Really?' He would come in with a song and he'd play it for us once and then say, 'OK we're going to record it.' We didn't have time to learn everything and there were moments when someone didn’t know the part so they'd just lay out. He took that as us being like, 'We're only going to play when we need to play.' But there was a lot to learn in that. On tour, we would watch the Booker T. and the M.G.'s guys learn how to play with Neil and it was incredible. Neil speaks in tongues. He's talking about colors and how something feels and you'd see them make the adjustment, make a hole where there wasn't one before. That profoundly changed how I played music. The people Neil chooses to play with and why he chooses to play with them when he does, I get that. I get why it took him 10 years to play with Crazy Horse again." With his hands, he gestures to his bandmates on either side of him. "Because we're a trio, there's more space and there's a little more pressure. You can't really hide behind a wall of guitars as much."
But that pressure, felt most when the three perform together (as they have on a month-long North American tour this November) bears no connection to their hefty pedigree. And though they're both old friends and veterans, all three talk about this band like it was their very first. "I don't really have any expectation for RNDM," Ament says, his face glowing. "I just want it to continue. I mostly hate to tour and the only reason why I committed to this tour was because I love this band so much. I rarely bring my side projects to the people in the Pearl Jam office, especially not until everything's done. But with this, the day I got back to Seattle after we finished recording, I came right in was like, 'I gotta play you something.'"