A better man

Drummer Dave Abbruzzese considers life after Pearl Jam

"Does anyone know if I won a Grammy last night?" Dave Abbruzzese wonders. He says this as an afterthought, in the middle of a casual conversation with producer David Castell as the two stand in the messy kitchen area of Castell's Garland recording studio. The night before, Abbruzzese and the rest of Pearl Jam had been up for a Grammy in three categories for 1993's Vs. album, but Abbruzzese did not think to actually watch the televised awards show or check the day's paper to see if he had won the award. And he is not at all disappointed to find out Pearl Jam had lost to such bands as Soundgarden and Aerosmith.

"At the very least," Abbruzzese shrugs, "you could say I was a Grammy-nominated artist."

It has been a few months since the Dallas native was handed his pink slip from the world's most popular rock band and replaced by former Red Hot Chili Pepper Jack Irons, who is also among singer Eddie Vedder's best friends. And Abbruzzese has said little--to friends or to strangers--about his abrupt dismissal, refusing to feed a rumor mill that has cast him as everything from a backstabber to a greedmonger.

It has been well-publicized that he has been in Dallas for about a month now, recording at Castell's RSVP Studios with Ten Hands members Paul Slavens and Gary Muller, former Whild Peach guitarist Doug Neil, and Little Sister bassist Darrell Phillips (a bandmate of Abbruzzese's in the long-defunct funk-rock Dr. Tongue). Hell, it was in Rolling Stone's "Random Notes" section before any local paper had mentioned it.

But Abbruzzese has said nothing about the subject and does not really want to go into it on the record. After all, no matter what happened, no matter how many insider tales of conspiracy and manipulation Abbruzzese tells when the interviewer's tape recorder is off, his side of the story would be emasculated with one sentence from Eddie Vedder, whose every belch is taken as Sacred Truth from the believers. Suffice it to say Pearl Jam is Vedder's band, and Abbruzzese was expendable--last man hired, first man fired.

Consciously or subconsciously, he will make such comparisons for many years to come, like the minor-leaguer who recalls his few days spent in the Big Show.

"I think Pearl Jam will continue to make great music," Abbruzzese says. "As a band in the sense that I view a band, Pearl Jam hopefully is a band now. But to me, one of the main ingredients of being in a band is communication, and there's too many ingredients that aren't addressed by the members--too many things me as the drummer wanted to ask Eddie as the singer but couldn't because then he'd get freaked out and wouldn't talk to anybody for a week.

"Musically, I just think playing an average of five nights a week for three years does something for a person. Playing with that band helped me to develop. I always wanted to consider myself a melodic drummer more so than just a rhythm machine, and that band was a good tool for learning how to do that."

For the past month, Abbruzzese, Slavens, Muller, and Neil (with Phillips coming in and out every few days as his Little Sister touring schedule would allow) have been in the studio cutting hours and hours of tape. Though Abbruzzese had planned to record with Phillips long before he was kicked out of Pearl Jam, the loose, pressure-free recording session had extra significance for the drummer who was seeking to rid himself of the bad taste and feeling caused by the Pearl Jam debacle.

"I was comin' down for five days to visit my folks, and I was like, 'Shit, I wonder what Darrell's doin' and if Dave's studio is open and grab Doug and Darrell and go in and jam,'" Abbruzzese says. "I just felt like playin'." Slavens, who happened to be hanging out at Castell's studio when Abbruzzese called, was later brought in, and then Muller was added when Phillips left to go on the road with Little Sister.

"It just felt great to be in the studio with people that ate meat and smoked cigarettes and laughed and felt seemingly comfortable with who they were," Abbruzzese says. "They didn't worry about being politically correct or any of that. They were just themselves, getting along. To me it was something I needed to do. To quote Paul, he said I needed to get rid of that 'soul poisoning,' so it was something I felt would be good for me.

"But I also thought that to get all of these guys, who I have a tremendous amount of respect for, in the studio for a month would be a treat."

Most of their material will be filed away, protracted jam sessions from which actual songs might be salvaged at some point. But there are at least 12 complete songs among the lot, pieces that range from the funk-rock-reggae "Waiting for Sid" to the jazz-rap of "2926 Refugee" to the faux-French-cabaret of "Poop de Deux" (recorded during lunch hour in an Oak Lawn cafe). Undoubtedly, it contains some of Slavens' finest vocals ever set to tape; he sounds, at various times, like David Bowie, Peter Gabriel, and a male Marlene Dietrich, showcasing a range only hinted at all these years as Ten Hands' frontman. Moreover, the music is wonderful--dense with fragile guitar and powerful percussion, the sounds of accordion and bass and ambient noise perfectly piled upon each other.

"We came into it with the idea we wouldn't have a direction, we would just go with what happened," Abbruzzese says. "If we left here with an hour's worth of music that sat well together in a record standpoint, then we'd have a record. If we left here with two things that we were really proud of, we'd be happy with that two. We'd have a tape we could give our friends for Christmas.

"It was a big thing to me to make sure nobody felt like there was any pressure for us to do anything. One thing I told everyone was, 'If you wake up in the morning and coming to the studio doesn't put a smile on your face, then don't come. It's no trip.'"

Abbruzzese does not plan to release any of this material, at least not yet. To his ears, the collected music does not add up to a "cohesive listening experience for a record" because it does not "make a journey." At the very least, he will bring Slavens and the rest of the band to Seattle for another few weeks of recording, after which time they'll decide whether they have enough material for an actual album they could shop around to record labels.

The obvious question, then, is how much of this relaxed situation was a reaction against the one he faced with Pearl Jam, a band that approached each recording session as though the weight of the world was perched upon Vedder's flannel-clad shoulders?

"I think this was just more of an open way to record," Abbruzzese says. "There's less ego in the room when the four of us plus Dave Castell are together, so that enables us to explore more. If someone has an idea, no one's freakin' out that their idea isn't being considered because everyone's being considered. It lent itself to a process which had similarities to Pearl Jam's, but also it was different because of the different people and because my ideas were able to be presented. It wasn't just the drummer giving ideas, but a member of the group of people working."

The drummer. If he says nothing else about his experiences with Pearl Jam, the sneer with which he says those two words spells it out. When he talks about the recording process with Pearl Jam, detailing the origins and evolutions of such songs as "W.M.A." and "Aye Davanita," there is no anger or bitterness in his voice; he speaks of technical tricks and musical madness, of Eddie Vedder's ability to make up lyrics over a simple drum-and-bass jam in the studio, of producer Brendan O'Brien's ability to bring out the best in a band that never worked the same way twice. At the very least, Abbruzzese knows he is left with two albums (1993's Vs. and last year's Vitalogy) that feature some fine work--such moments as "Go," "W.M.A.," "Animal," and "Satan's Bed," songs on which he is as integral to the melody as to the rhythm.

Yet Abbruzzese, who will continue to live in Seattle, concedes he was unhappy in the band for more than a year, feeling as though his opinions about music or other band-related dealings were given little, if any, consideration. The drummer. He says he had actually thought about quitting some time ago, but hung on because he genuinely liked the guys in the band, felt they were becoming his friends; and then there were the slight matters of fame and fortune to consider. When asked if his departure from Pearl Jam was inevitable, with him either being fired or quitting, he pauses for a second, then grins.

"When I told a friend of mine I got fired, his response was, 'Well, good,'" Abbruzzese says. "And I was like, 'What?' He said, 'You've been talking for a year wondering if you should leave or not,' and his theory was the only things that kept me in the band were the wrong reasons. Sometimes I think it was an inevitability, but at other times I think if I were still in that band the only thing that would keep me in it were the illusions of it all--the money and the fame part of it. And it would continue to make me sick just like it did before. It is the best thing.

"The biggest letdown to me was how it happened, which now in the long run supports how fucked up the situation was. If we would have all been in the same room and those guys would have looked me in the face and answered my questions rather than walking around them...They gave me excuses for why they were getting a new drummer rather than the reasons for why I got fired. If there's any hard feelings, any grudge that I have, it's to them for the way it was handled more so than actually what happened because I know now and I knew then that I would be the better off for being out of the band."

At the time he was fired, he was writing and recording with former Supertramp frontman Roger Hodgson, though Abbruzzese is unsure of what will become of that project. He also lent his playing to an orchestrated Hendrix tribute album being prepared by former Led Zeppelin-Hendrix producer Eddie Kramer that also includes Sting, Hendrix bassists Noel Redding and Billy Cox, Steve Vai, former Living Colour-turned-VH-1-jock Corey Glover, Spin Doctors guitarist Eric Schenkman, Stanley Clarke, and dozens of other musicians.

Since his departure, he has been asked to join several bands, including an "alternative supergroup" one label is attempting to assemble. But he is in no rush to join another band right now. The considerable money made from Pearl Jam album sales and tours will continue to pay the bills for quite a while; in fact, he is paying for the studio time with Castell out of his own pocket, and he brought down most of his own equipment to use in the recording process.

"I have a roof over my head," he says, "and I've got a great family and my girlfriends and pets. Right now it's more important for me to get in touch with all this shit that was ruined, all the good stuff that was turned to shit by the soul poisoning of the Pearl Jam experience of the past year. Until I come to terms with that and feel like I'm standing on my own two feet, I don't have anything to offer someone. That's where this project is important to me...

"There's still a lot of questions in my head about the future and things like that, but as far as my own state of mind and the way I feel musically, this was exactly the perfect thing. It was exactly what I needed to realize some people are fucked up and some people aren't, and if you get yourself in a situation that isn't supported by your own instincts, that situation is no good no matter how much money you're getting from it or how much acclaim or how much fame or whatever. It's just not worth it."

Scene, heard
Tripping Daisy's long-awaited follow-up to Bill, cumbersomely and curiously titled I Am an Elastic Firecracker, is scheduled for release in June, about a month later than originally planned. The 13-song album was produced by Ted Nicely (of Fugazi fame), and the band will tour behind the album throughout the summer. Though the band was accepted for South by Southwest, they decided at the last minute to pull out of the conference and do not have any local shows scheduled for a while...

Just as Spot--Reggie and Chad Rueffer's band, the brothers late of Mildred--prepares to release its debut album on Ardent Records in late April, the boys are faced with having to find another drummer. Earl Darling abandoned ship to join Jackopierce, who lost their drummer Scott Churilla to Reverend Horton Heat when Patrick "Taz" Bentley went with Tenderloin. Speaking of the Rev, he's been in the studio cutting demos for the title track to the next Ace Ventura, Pet Detective. Reverend Horton Heat, gearing up for a White Zombie tour, is scheduled to begin recording its next album in April, with a likely release date sometime in early fall.

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