Jeff Ament and Mike Lull

January 4, 2012
imgIn a nondescript industrial park near downtown Seattle, a giant machine is whirring to life. It’s days before Pearl Jam is to launch its PJ20 tour, and there’s lots to be done. Downstairs at the band’s warehouse, techs and assistants scramble amid towering shelves of gear to prepare for rehearsal—one of just a few remaining before the tour—while upstairs, the office buzzes with phone chatter securing deals and locking down details. Still, there’s a prevailing calm in the facility at large (no doubt sustained by the knowledge that on-site batting cages and skateboard half-pipes await, should stress levels rise too high).
 
It’s been 20 years since Pearl Jam leveled the landscape with Ten, an album that remains one of the most important rock records of all time. In the years that followed, the band has gone on to establish itself as one of the genre’s fiercest live acts. It’s a journey artfully chronicled in PJ20, the new Cameron Crowe documentary now available on DVD. For every high-profile plot twist in the band’s story, there are other tales that are perhaps less dramatic, but are equally important. The longtime relationship between bassist Jeff Ament and luthier Mike Lull is one of those stories.
 
At Pearl Jam headquarters, Jeff and Mike escape the din of the warehouse for a moment to reflect on the work they’ve done, and the future work that lies ahead.



How did you two start working together?
    Mike Lull It all began with [manager] Kelly Curtis. He used to be on the Heart road crew back in the ’70s and ’80s, when I did Heart’s repair work. Later on, Kelly walked into my shop with Stone Gossard and Jerry Cantrell, saying, “Mother Love Bone and Alice in Chains are going to be the next big thing. Take care of my boys.” I said, “Mother Love Bone? Alice in Chains? Nice names, guys.” We all had a laugh, and then got to business. I was already doing work for Nirvana at the time—mostly piecing Fender Mustangs and Univox guitars back together for Kurt Cobain to just turn around and destroy right away. Once Nirvana made it big, people were giving them guitars all the time, and they didn’t have much need for my services. But I did do a lot of work for Krist Novoselic over the years. It seemed like everybody was coming through the shop—Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Mudhoney, Screaming Trees. I believe the first bass I did for Jeff was a grey ESP bass with three pickups—one he broke apart and then put back together.
    Jeff Ament That was a P-Bass at one time.
    ML Yeah, and then you put a J-Bass pickup in it. That was the first bass I ever worked on for you, and the first one I built for you was your fretless.
    JA Right, with an ESP neck and a Warmoth body. I played that one a little bit on the Mother Love Bone record. When we started Pearl Jam, I decided I would play fretless on as many songs as I possibly could, just to change things up. That fretless ended up being all over the first Pearl Jam album, and a lot of the Temple of the Dog record, too.
    ML Jeff brought me a fretless ESP neck, and said he wanted me to build a fretless bass with P/J pickups and an oil finish. I slapped it together with Bartolini pickups and a 2-band Bartolini EQ. It was pretty basic, and it just worked—it sounded great.
    JA That bass recorded really well. My setup at the time was a little bit odd. I was using Energy cabs, and I had an MXR compressor and a graphic EQ pedal. The EQ gave the bass some grind; that was before I figured out how to plug into a distortion stompbox! [Laughs.] That thing crapped out pretty early, and it was hard to get that sound back. We found a few duplicate pedals, but they all sounded different.
    ML From there, we collaborated on a few “NBA” basses.
    JA Yeah, we had two of those, which both met their demise on the road, which bummed me out. That first NBA bass was probably the first really nice bass I ever had. It had good electronics and played great.
    ML That was the first time we had used a big Bartolini humbucker in the neck position and a pair of Bartolini J-Bass pickups. It had a u-sized J-style alder body, a maple neck, and a rosewood fingerboard. Jeff did all the graphics on it, which was pretty extreme. It also had high-end hardware—I think it had Gotoh tuners and a Ken Smith bridge, since they were the big high-mass bridges of the day. That first one was a pretty tremendous sounding bass.
    JA I think that one got destroyed in Vancouver. Right at the end of the main set, somebody in the audience threw a full 7-Up can at the stage and it hit me right between the eyes. I remember being stunned for 10 or 15 seconds, and then looked down to see 7-Up spraying out of the dented can. Then I got super pissed! I didn’t mean to break that bass. Back then we were pretty loose—I’d throw basses across the stage to George [Webb, Pearl Jam tech]. But that time I just threw it back towards my amp and went back to the dressing room. I was really upset—we don’t play music to get full cans of soda thrown at us. I wasn’t going to return to the show, but the guys talked me into coming back out. When I did, George handed me my crappy backup bass and said, “You broke your bass.” It was horrible—a double whammy.
    Mike built another one, and that one broke at the first Lollapalooza show [July, 1992]. For the first four songs of our first Lollapalooza show in San Francisco, there were about 200 photographers up front and my rig wasn’t working. By the second or third song it started coming back. I went back out, but then it died. So I hucked my bass straight up in the air. As it was up in the air, I walked over to George and said, “I’m not going back out there until you get this rig running.” But the bass didn’t make it. Unfortunately, being young and stupid can ruin some good things.
    Were you seeking a particular sound with those two basses?
    JA On my fretless, that Bartolini J-Bass pickup gave me the midrange I was looking for. At the time, we were starting to write songs like “Animal” that had a wide dynamic range. On those, I was trying to go back and forth between punk and reggae bass sounds. That’s where the neck pickup came in. I could roll to that pickup, and without needing any sort of pedal, I could get that fat sound.
    ML You were way into getting that huge low end. You used to run your onboard bass control wide open, so it would be something like 16dB of boost at 60Hz.
    JA We were really loud on stage in those days, so I could get away with it. As soon as we dialed it back—especially when we started playing with [drummer] Jack Irons, who wasn’t as hard of a player—everybody started looking at me, saying, “What’s going on over there?” Dave Abbruzzese had played hard. Plus, he had a wall of wedges behind him with drums cranked up. We basically had to build our sound around whatever was coming out of the drum kit. For my rig, I think I had SWRs on the low end, with Pearce Audio amps on the high end. In ’96 or ’98, I switched over to Ampeg SVTs.
    What are some of the other basses you to have collaborated on?
    ML After the NBA basses, it mutated into basses with Modulus necks and full-sized Jazz Bass bodies, again with a large neck humbucker, two J-Bass pickups, and a 2-band EQ, all by Bartolini. We had four or five of those. Jeff has always had a large complement of vintage instruments you’ve bought and used along the way. But those five basses were mainstays for a long time.
    JA Yeah, those basses are indestructible. We built that orange one in ’93, and that’s still one of my favorite live basses. Back then, Hamer made me a few 4-strings, too, but I remember knocking them out of tune and feeling the neck move while I was playing. I picked up a Modulus somewhere—maybe San Francisco or Denver—and after that we reached out to those folks asking if they could send Mike a neck and a body so he could tweak it the way we want it. That’s how we made the next few basses.
    ML We were basically getting Jazz Bass blanks, so I’d cut it out for the neck pocket, the pickups, and the electronics, and I’d fret the necks. Then we’d send them back to Modulus. Jeff had very specific ideas for paints and stains, and they were more than happy to do that work.
    Were you building basses under your own name at that point?
    ML That was about the time that I realized I was getting some press for doing work for Pearl Jam and the larger Seattle community, so I thought it would be a good time to do my own thing. So I designed my own headstock and logo and pursued it. At the time, Jim Roberts was the editor of Bass Player. He sent me a ’59 P-Bass with a maple neck that was just a few serial numbers away from a ’59 P-Bass that I had. I re-fretted the neck on his, because somebody had rehabbed the neck their own way with a can of varnish and pliers to pull out the original frets. I rebuilt the neck for him and sent it back. He was really happy with it. He wanted to do a series on luthiers from around the country, and he picked us as the very first one to be featured. Then the magazine did a very positive review of one of my 4-strings. A little later, he called up requesting a 5-string for a shootout review the magazine was doing. I didn’t even make 5-strings at the time, but I put one together and sent it down. Out of the 20-something basses reviewed, we were rated right in the middle. For my first 5-string, I thought that was pretty good! [Laughs.] Things have only escalated since, and being tied to Pearl Jam has been nothing but a blessing.
    You’re now collaborating on a Jeff Ament signature bass. What’s the story there?
    JA A few years back, when I bought my first Gibson Thunderbird—an old one—I thought it would be great to make a slightly bigger version of that bass, so the body would balance better. Right about that same time, I heard that Mike was starting to work on a Thunderbird-style bass, so I got one. Mike’s always made incredible stuff, but as soon as I plugged in his T-Bass, I knew it was the sound I was looking for. That’s what got the ball rolling. I contacted Mike and asked if there was a way he could make a T-Bass that was about 20 percent larger.
    ML I was a Thunderbird fanatic back in the ’70s, and I’ve owned a bunch of them. But I found them to always be a little unwieldy—they played kinda funny and sounded tremendous. And what says “rock” more than a Thunderbird bass? I hated the ergonomics, but loved the sound. So I put my mind to making a bass that balanced well, and sounded like the originals. It was more of a task than I thought. We designed a new bridge and tailpiece. I took a set of original ’64 Thunderbird pickups apart and found out exactly why they sounded the way they did. I started making pickup covers out of a nickel-silver alloy, magnets out of alnico 4. A typical humbucker has two coils and a magnet down below. This one has two coils with the magnet standing vertically between them. The result is a thin, very high-output humbucker. The neck pickup measures 8k [resonant frequency], and the neck pickup is 9k. The steel base plate becomes part of the magnet structure. I had to have all these pieces made from scratch. In the process of researching this project, I found the company that made pickup covers for Gibson back in the ’60s.
    JA Those original pickups were for lap steel guitar, right?
    ML Gibson had discontinued an 8-string lap steel in 1962, and they had a ton of these pickup coils laying around. They took two of those coils, stuck them to a steel base plate, and put a nickel-silver alloy cover on it, and suddenly they had a new bass pickup. So I made them just like that. The T-Bass pickup sounds exactly like the original ‘60s Thunderbird pickup, but they’re more consistent.
    After I conquered the pickups, I needed to find a way to make the bass balance. So I went with a somewhat thicker body and carved out the back in such a way that the bass doesn’t want to flip away from your body when it’s on a strap. Our neck, with its smaller headstock and lightweight tuners, made a big difference, as well. The bridge was the same design as the original, with steel inserts and a brass base plate, but we moved it and made it wider so the bass could intonate better.
    When Jeff asked for a version of the bass that was 20% larger, I basically took a tracing of the instrument down to Kinko’s and enlarged it on the copy machine. [Laughs.] Twenty percent was just too big, so we went with 15%. The bigger one was cumbersome, so we lopped off a half-inch of material from the back of the bass. It’s a passive bass—these pickups sound so good they don’t need a preamp. I’ve put preamps in some T-Basses for people who ordered them that way, but it’s unnecessary, as far as I’m concerned.
    Why did you want the bigger body?
    JA Partly, it was aesthetic. But I’ve found that I just like the sound of my larger basses. The balance is a lot better, and they’re not that heavy.
    ML Honduran mahogany is dense, heavy, and in very short supply. So we’ve been using African mahogany, which is lighter, but sounds the same. The originals had neck-through construction; mine’s a bolt-on. Removing the raised center block on the back and contouring the bass really brought ergonomics back to the instrument. Jeff has always liked bigger basses.
    JA There was a phase in the ’80s where a lot of manufacturers were making their bass bodies smaller. I always thought that looked kinda goofy.
    On this tour, do you have one primary bass you’ll be playing, or do you have a number of different instruments?
    JA I’ll be switching around quite a bit, because we play a lot of tunes in drop D and tuned down a half step. There are a few songs where a want a tighter sound. For those, I play my Modulus with the Bartolinis. For the most part, I can make these new basses work for pretty much everything.
    Will you be taking a 12-string?
    JA Yeah, for a few songs off the first album, and for songs like “Leash,” “Brother,” and “Hold On.” I’m actually playing it more now than I have for 10 or 12 years, which is really fun.
    How did rehearsals for this tour work?
    JA Ed came in with what he thought should be the 60 or 70 tunes we’d play for the first few shows. Then we started adding and subtracting songs to that list as we played through them. We hadn’t played a show for about a year, so we’d play through everything except songs like “Evenflow” and “Alive.”
    What do you work on in particular?
    JA There are a few new basses getting thrown into the mix, and every bass is a little bit different. I need to figure out which basses work for which songs. Mostly I’m just trying to get my live chops back. It’s a different thing when you’re just sitting around at home playing. It sounds goofy, but you try to make your body do the things you’re going to be doing live. As you get older, it gets harder.
    Do you play much bass in your time off?
    JA I don’t play a whole lot of bass. Usually I’m playing an instrument to write music. I’ll play acoustic guitar or piano until something interesting happens. Lately I’ve been writing a little more on bass, as well. For the last ten years, I’ve been playing it right, trying to develop as a songwriter.
    Fretless and upright would be the kinds of instruments you’re really need to keep your chops up with. What are your strategies for that?
    JA I have a double bass at home, and I’ll play it a little every time I walk by it. And usually before a tour, there are two things I’ll do: I’ll play double bass for a half hour a day, and I’ll put brand new Rotosound strings on one of my electrics and I’ll play it just so it shreds my fingers. I’ll start to do that a couple weeks before a tour. The key to playing fretless is just being able to hear yourself. Since I started, my intonation has gotten pretty good. But if you can’t hear yourself, it’s really tough.
    Who are your favorite fretless players?
    JA Mick Karn was probably the main reason I picked up fretless. I loved Japan back in the ’80s, and his playing was a huge part of that. Tony Franklin is another guy who showed that you can make a fretless bass sound heavy. And I especially like Pino Palladino’s playing, because he does it in such a unique, melodic way that’s more pop than jazz. Andy Wood, the singer from Mother Love Bone, is the guy who first turned me on to him. He said do me once, “Hey man, do you know Pino Palladino?” I think he just liked saying his name. But he mentioned a Gary Neuman album Pino had played on, and I got way into it.
    How did Tres Mts., your band with dUg Pinnick, come to be?
    JA I love dUg. As much as I love King’s X, I’ve always wanted to pull him out of that because I love his voice so much. In a few places on the record, we got it to where the focus was on his voice, which is great. He’s as good a bass player as he is a singer, but I figured if I could just play something supportive on bass, that he could just really cut loose. We did a few shows on the East coast that were just unbelievable. It was a little frustrating—we all wanted to keep it going, but I couldn’t spend the time. Hopefully we’ll do some more recording.
    Do you do regular setups on Jeff’s basses?
    ML Whenever Pearl Jam goes on tour, George Webb [Pearl Jam tech] will bring everything over to have a once-over. Plus, the guys have acquired a pretty large number of instruments over the years, so when they pick up something new, we’ll do whatever it takes to make those instruments road-worthy.
    Do you have a particular way you like your basses set up, Jeff?
    JA I like the action to be fairly low on my live basses. I won’t mind a whole lot if some of my older basses for the studio have somewhat higher action. Sometimes that makes them sound a little bit better. But live, I don’t want to struggle with the instrument any more than I already am. [Laughs.] We play two and a half hours a night, and it’s a pretty physical thing. It takes me a couple weeks of a tour before I start to feel normal.
    ML Jeff’s always had a medium-low setup for most of the basses that have come through before a tour. We can get the action a lot lower on basses with the graphite Modulus necks, because those necks don’t flex.
    Any parting thoughts on your work together?
    JA Mike talks about how lucky he was to be working in a time and place where all sorts of bands were breaking through, but we were all lucky to have such a great luthier in town. That I could go to him with some crazy idea that maybe wasn’t in his wheelhouse and have him give it a try was pretty amazing. I always want to have instruments that inspire me, whether it’s live or sitting down to play a song. Now I have a stable of incredible basses that Mike either built for me or sold to me from his personal collection. I haven’t purchased all that many basses over the years, but whenever Mike had something, I knew that the bass had to be pretty good. In that regard, I’ve been lucky to have him here in town.
 

PJ Playlist
“For the past several years, I’ve built a playlist of 20 or 30 songs before each Pearl Jam tour,” says Ament. “They’re songs that aren’t necessarily bass-centric, but they’re all definitely improved by their bass parts. I’ll listen and try to absorb things through osmosis.” Here are 13 lucky tracks that made the cut for the band’s PJ20 tour:
    “Dig A Pony” by the Beatles [Paul McCartney]
    “N.I.B.” by Black Sabbath [Geezer Butler]
    “Regiment” by David Byrne & Brian Eno [Busta “Cherry” Jones]
    “Why Can’t I Touch it?” by Buzzcocks [Steve Garvey]
    “Magnificent Seven” by the Clash [Paul Simonon]
    “I Am the Owl” by Dead Kennedys [Klaus Flouride]
    “Mexican Standoff” by Elbow [Pete Turner]
    “Way of the World” by Flipper [Will Shatter]
    “I’ll Be Creepin’” by Free [Andy Fraser]
    “Cogs in Cogs” by Gentle Giant [Ray Shulman]
    “Soutanbi” by Hassan Hakmoun [Hassan Hakmoun]
    “Hang Up Your Hang Ups” by Herbie Hancock [Paul Jackson]
    “The Trooper” by Iron Maiden [Steve Harris]


SELECTED DISCOGRAPHY
With Pearl Jam (on Epic, except where noted) Ten [1991], Vs. [1993], Vitalogy [1994], No Code [1996], Yield [1998] Live on Two Legs [1998], Binaual [2000] Riot Act [2002] Pearl Jam [J, 2006] Backspacer [Monkeywrench, 2009], Live on Ten Legs [Universal, 2011], Pearl Jam Twenty (Soundtrack) [Columbia, 2011]; With Tres Mts. Three Mountains [Monkeywrench, 2011], With Green River Rehab Doll [Sub Pop, 1988]; With Mother Love Bone Apple [Stardog/Mercury, 1990]; With Temple of the Dog Temple of the Dog [A&M, 1991]
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