Biography and Profile of Pearl Jam

pearl jam photo
Pearl Jam. Photo: Danny Clinch.

Pearl Jam was one of the most influential Seattle grunge bands of the 1990s, but their formation did not come easily. Bassist Jeff Ament and guitarist Stone Gossard had been members of two short-lived '80s bands: Green River and Mother Love Bone. Seeking a fresh start, Ament and Gossard teamed up with guitarist Mike McCready to record some demos, which found their way to Eddie Vedder, a singer based in San Diego. Inspired, he recorded vocals to accompany the songs. Impressed, the group invited Vedder to join the band. Dave Krusen was the band’s first drummer, but the group would go through several in their career.

A Winning Debut

Released less than a month before Nevermind, the breakthrough album of fellow Seattle band Nirvana, 1991's Ten helped establish grunge as the era's predominant rock style. More soulful and emotional than the hair metal acts that had been popular, Pearl Jam emphasized moody, introspective music that highlighted guitar hooks influenced by hard rock and punk. And Vedder’s impassioned wails and vulnerable murmurs made him the prototypical frontman for a new generation. A huge seller, Ten represented a more accessible expression of disillusionment than the snarling Nevermind, balancing rage with moments of hopefulness.

Grunge's Golden Age

By the time Pearl Jam worked on its second record, the group had gone through two drummers. Krusen had left the band, and his replacement, Matt Chamberlain, had also exited. Now with Dave Abbruzzese on drums, the group recorded Vs. Released in 1993, Vs. sold approximately 6 million copies in the U.S. as grunge dominated the charts. As with Ten, Vs. came out around the same time as a Nirvana album, In Utero. And just as Nirvana was trying with In Utero to distance themselves from a massively successful record, Pearl Jam adopted a grittier tone on Vs., though that didn’t prevent the album from producing four singles.

Pearl Jam's Next Phase

1994’s Vitalogy was the first Pearl Jam album after Kurt Cobain’s suicide in April of that year, so fairly or not many looked to the record as the band’s response to the tragedy. Rather than self-consciously addressing Cobain's death, Vitalogy demonstrated that Pearl Jam were focused on the future, confidently balancing the darkness of Vs. with the uplifting spirit of Ten. Vitalogy also set the stage for the next phase of the band’s career, which would focus on more eclectic albums that encompassed many different styles. It would also be the last album with Abbruzzese on drums.

An Underrated Gem

After serving as Neil Young’s backing band on his 1995 release, Mirror Ball, Pearl Jam returned with their own record, No Code, in ’96. Sporting the band’s new drummer, Jack Irons, formerly of Red Hot Chili Peppers, No Code signaled a more insular sound for the group, concerned less with obvious singles than sustaining a cohesive album-length mood. Perceived by some as a commercial flop because it “only” sold a million copies in the U.S., No Code is the group’s underrated gem, a daring attempt to merge mysticism, folk and Neil Young-style garage rock into the grunge framework.

A Comeback ... and an Unexpected Hit Single

A bit of a commercial comeback after No Code’s disappointing sales, 1998’s Yield streamlined some of the previous album’s experimentation while maintaining its commitment to layered, challenging songwriting. By this stage, Pearl Jam’s best songs were not necessarily easily digestible radio singles, as typified by the seething “Do the Evolution,” a diatribe against consumerism. Ironically, the band had one of its biggest smashes when it covered Wayne Cochran & the C.C. Riders’ “Last Kiss,” which landed at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1999, a higher charting than any original Pearl Jam song.

At a Crossroads

At the end of the '90s, Pearl Jam shifted drummers again, with Irons leaving and former Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron taking over. But as the band moved into the 21st century, they watched as their fan base continued to shrink. 2000’s Binaural and 2002’s Riot Act captured the group at a crossroads, moving further from traditional grunge but uncertain about a new direction. Both albums had songs worth seeking out, but neither record possessed the inspired spirit of No Code or Yield. But while their creative spark may have gone out, the band rewarded longtime fans with a series of official bootleg live albums.

A Return to Form

Leaving Sony, their home since Ten, Pearl Jam signed with J Records, the label of record mogul Clive Davis. Hungry for a fresh start, the band’s 2006 album, simply titled Pearl Jam, represented a critical resurgence, if not quite a repeat of the band’s sales of the early 1990s. Overtly political but focused on accessible radio singles, Pearl Jam was a welcome return to form and a sign that the band members still had plenty of life left in them.


Pearl Jam announced that their next album, Backspacer, would be released September 20, 2009. The album marked the return of producer Brendan O'Brien who worked on Pearl Jam's Vs., Vitalogy, No Code, and Yield albums and had not worked with the band since their 1998 Yield album. The band self-distributed the record on their own label, Monkeywrench. In preparation for its release, Pearl Jam performed "Got Some" on June 1, 2009, during the premiere episode of The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien.

Lightning Bolt

Pearl Jam reconvened with producer Brendan O'Brien to record their tenth studio album between 2011-2013. The resulting album, Lightning Bolt, was released October 11, 2013 and was praised by critics as a return to their early sound. The album topped the U.S., Canadian, and Australian charts and produced the minor hits "Mind Your Manners" and "Sirens."

Current Members

Jeff Ament - bass
Matt Cameron - drums
Stone Gossard - guitar
Mike McCready - guitar
Eddie Vedder - vocals, guitar

Essential Album: Vitalogy

Pearl Jam's third album is their boldest, angriest and strangest. And yet, it's also their most beautiful as Eddie Vedder guides the band through the graceful reflection of "Nothingman" and the sympathetic "Better Man." Other records sold better, but Vitalogy marks Pearl Jam's ascension from hitmakers to artists.


Ten (1991)
Vs. (1993)
Vitalogy (1994)
No Code (1996)
Yield (1998)
Binaural (2000)
Riot Act (2002)
Lost Dogs (outtakes collection) (2003)
Rearviewmirror (greatest hits) (2004)
Pearl Jam (2006)
Backspacer (2009)                                                                                                                                   Lightning Bolt (2013)

(Edited by Bob Schallau)