The band Pearl Jam is embarking on a brief, four city North American tour that includes a show in Missoula. Part of the proceeds from the concert will go to a get-out-the-vote effort in Montana. The band’s founding member, bassist, Montana native and part-time Missoula resident Jeff Ament sat down in our studios with Sally Mauk to talk about that – and about music and politics.
Sally Mauk: Jeff, I want to talk first about your philanthropy in Montana. Everyone knows you're a rock star, of course, but I'm not sure everybody knows how much you've given back to your home state. A lot of what you've given back is building skate parks all over the state. Partly you are interested in skate parks because you're a longtime skateboarder yourself, it's a personal passion. But you believe that those skate parks do more than just provide a few hours of fun for kids.
Jeff Ament: Yeah, yeah. Typically a skater kid is a kid that isn't playing team sports, and especially in the rural areas, a lot of times those kids don't have any outdoor activity to focus on. And what we've sort of found is they sort of form a little clique. You know what we've seen — we've certainly seen it in Missoula — but we've seen it in Browning on the Blackfeet reservation. I mean, there's 30 or 40 kids up there that have become really good skateboarders and they really care about the skate park and there's sort of pride in their little community that they're forming. And it's really exciting for me to sort of witness a group come together like that in such a positive way.
SM: You have a new project in Montana. It's called Rock2Vote. Tell me about that. It's basically, as I understand it, getting people out to vote, getting people registered, getting them interested in exercising their right to vote.
JA: Yeah, we're involved with some local groups, Forward Montana and Montana conservation group, Planned Parenthood, Montana Native Vote; mainly to try to get young people excited about making change and keeping the state a great place to live. It seems like a lot of young people are really interested in conservation and clean air and clean water and being able to hike and fish and hunt and all the things that historically are important to people in Montana. And voting is a way to protect those rights that you have.
SM: Historically it's not a demographic that is interested in politics in recent years, and/or in voting, for that matter. But in the wake of the Parkland shooting and the big movement that grew out of that with all those high school kids getting involved. Are you hoping to build on that kind of momentum?
JA: Yeah. I mean how awesome is it to have those kids be in your peer group? To look to those kids, you know, the amount of passion they have for the things that they're trying to change. I think you can roll over a lot of energy into just our local elections. And this next election is an important one in the state and in the country and it just takes a little bit of momentum to really shift things. So, there's a lot to fight for and the future is important.
SM: Because a lot of people react to the current state of politics as a pox on all their houses, right? There's not a Democrat or Republican or Independent that they see as having the integrity that they would want in their politicians, and then that turns them off of participating.
JA: That's what I think's unique about Jon Tester. I think he's probably trying to bridge that gap as much as any congressman out there.
SM: Full disclosure: you and Tester go way back.
JA: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I worked on Bud Meyers farm, you know, from 1977 to 1980 which was right against the Tester farm, and so at least a couple three times every summer he would be driving a tractor, I'd be driving a tractor; we'd get out of the tractor say hey what's going on.' And he was always the nicest guy. He was five years older than me, and a lot of the guys in his class and the classes around his class used to pick on us pretty hard, and he never — he was always really nice to me, so I feel like I owe him for that.
SM: Your personal politics, I think, are pretty well known. But the Rock 2 Vote Project is not partisan, necessarily, right? You want everyone who has any stake in whatever issue to get out and participate?
JA: Yeah, I think you want people to get out and have a conversation and talk through the process. I remember being in college here and I remember that was such an exciting time, coming from a pretty conservative place in Big Sandy and coming to Missoula which was a little more progressive and a little bit more left leaning. But it was exciting for me. I started off my freshman year sort of arguing from more of a right-wing perspective, because that was what I knew, and within a year I was completely on the other side of it.
It was through those conversations you had, you know, with the people in your art class or the people you're going to see music with. It's such an exciting time because you're forming as a human being at that point because you don't have the shadow of your parents in the shadow of your community. You're in a brand new place.
SM: What do you say to people, though, who say I can't even talk to people who have a different point of view than me. It's just I've lost my ability to have the kind of patience or tolerance that I need to have to have that conversation. But those are important conversations to have and it seems like we're losing that ability. What do you think?
JA: Well, I think if you can be as non-emotional as possible in those conversations — and I know it's hard because there's a lot at stake — I think that's the only chance you have of being heard. I think if you go into it yelling at somebody — I know if somebody is yelling at me I just shut down. I think if you focus on a particular point I think you can make your point. I think you can make people think about it. You know, they might lay in bed that night and go, 'wow that sort of makes sense.'
SM: Jeff you know this as well as anyone. Montana, historically, people have had their differences, political differences, but still felt like they could be friends with their political enemies. I saw this a lot in the Legislature when I first started covering it. That's not as true now. Things have changed.
JA: I mean, do you think some of it is that we're just more disconnected? You know, like people aren't in social environments as much as they used to. A lot of it's like you have the protection of being behind your phone and you can sort of say whatever you want and you can curse and say 'you're an idiot' or 'you're stupid'. And I think if you're in the room you sort of have to deal with the reality of like, wow, if I say something too bad they could punch me, or say you're not my friend anymore. I don't know why that's shifted. It's pretty easy to blame it on technology.
I feel like I'm the same way. Sometimes I get so dug in on the things that I believe in and I had to constantly remind myself, well I need to hear them out. Because they're smart, they're a good person, they're people that are involved in the community and great parents and great family people, and they've just happen to have voted for Trump.
SM: There's critics who would say folks like you who are celebrities should just let politics go. That is not your bailiwick. Leave it to other people. No more. What do you say to those folks?
JA: The thing that really got me into music was punk rock music, and in particular, punk rock music that was political in nature. I was really into Krass who is an English band who was vegetarian and they were anarchy and you know really so far to the left. But it was interesting to me. And then also I was really into the Dead Kennedys. And Jello Biafra was really eloquent — he ran for mayor of San Francisco — and sort of presenting things from a side that I had never heard explained intelligently before. And there was real power in that to me. Like it gave the music and the heavy rock gravitas. Like, I love Van Halen, but Van Halen was just sort of a party band and you went had fun and forgot about your problems or whatever. But when you saw a band that was up there really convicted to the things that they believed in and they were putting that through thousands of watts of amps. It was something else that just hit you harder and it was a sort of band that I always wanted to be in. And putting this band together from the very beginning sort of where we come from.
JA: And we're citizens like everybody else. You know we have an opinion and it just so happens that we have a platform. And it's no different than anybody else's platform , like lobbyists or people that do that for a living.
SM: And music, historically, has been part of a lot of political protest movements and action for sure. Played a key role, and still does.
JA: Yeah, some of the most powerful events in history. You think about Woodstock and those sorts of really powerful events. You know it's a platform that we worked for and nothing's changed for us. We've been doing it this way for 27, 28 years, and we're proud to do it. And we're proud to have a community that we have conversations with on a regular basis and share information. And it's mostly our interest in the future of our country and the future of the world, and most of the things that we support we're just trying to help people.
SM: Well your big concert is August 13 in Washington Grizzly Stadium. It's already sold out, but a lot of the proceeds from that concert are going to go to this Rock2Vote project that you're doing, right?
SM: Well, I've been speaking with Jeff Ament of Pearl Jam and Jeff it's been a pleasure to have a conversation with you today about your project. Thank you so much.
JA: Thanks for having me.