"Grunge" was still just a noun meaning “dirt” when the newly formed band Pearl Jam made their smash debut, Ten. But the vibrant Seattle scene that spawned them was already inspiring musicians and fans.
For example, the band Mother Love Bone, led by Andrew Wood, generated lots of local and label interest in the late ‘80s. The group—which also included guitarists Stone Gossard and Bruce Fairweather, bassist Jeff Ament and drummer Greg Gilmore—signed with PolyGram, and hopes were high for their first full-length, Apple (1990). However, Wood suffered a fatal drug overdose just before the album’s scheduled release date, leaving his bandmates to grieve and question their next step.
After Wood’s passing, Chris Cornell, of another local band, Soundgarden, asked Gossard, Ament and vocalist Eddie Vedder to record a couple of songs in tribute to Wood. The project, under the name Temple of the Dog, grew into an eponymous full-length album, which was released in December 1990.
Temple of the Dog was a one-off, but Ament and Gossard had found their new frontman in Vedder. They formed a band, then called Mookie Blaylock, with Vedder as lead singer/lyricist, Dave Krusen playing drums, and Mike McCready on guitar along with Gossard.
The new group, soon renamed Pearl Jam, then signed with Epic. So it was a new band, albeit one with some emotional and musical history together, that began pre-production for Ten in Seattle’s London Bridge Studios in March 1991.
Ten was produced by Rick Parashar (then also the owner of London Bridge) and engineered by Dave Hillis, a Seattle musician/engineer who was friendly with some of the musicians and who’d had his own successes in the Seattle scene.
“I was signed to Metalblade Records when I was 17 [as guitarist for the metal band Mace] and ended up touring a lot,” Hillis says. “When I came back to Seattle, Stoney [Gossard] and Mike McCready and I ran around together, and Mike and I had a rehearsal room together for a while.”
Hillis had joined the London Bridge staff at Parashar’s request, during the last stages of the Temple of the Dog project. A self-taught engineer, Hillis says that Parashar taught him essentials about acoustics and physics that have helped him throughout his career.
Work with Pearl Jam started with a couple of month-long demo sessions. “Then they came back in and we started the real record, and it was nonstop,” Hillis says. “We just worked and worked. They are the hardest working band I’ve ever been around. We filled so many reels of 2-inch tape, you literally couldn’t see through the window to the lounge. Every song was live, take after take; they would do it till they got it right.”
London Bridge Studios (londonbridgestudios.com) is a high-end facility with a large, well-tuned live room and prized gear. Sessions were tracked to a Studer A800 machine. The Neve 8048 was the same vintage as the now famous console in Sound City Studios (Van Nuys, Calif.), where, at the time Pearl Jam got rolling, Nirvana was soon to begin final tracking for Nevermind. The control room monitors were a pair of Yamaha NS40s that Hillis liked so much, he bought them from the studio and still uses them today.
“Rick and I had most of them together in that big, beautiful room,” Hillis recalls. “Eddie was in a small booth area in between [the control room and live room] so he could look at everyone.” Vedder sang into a U 87, through a Neve 1081 pre, UREI 1178 Silver Face compressor, and an ADR Vocal Stressor. “Pretty much everything went through that Neve,” Hillis says. “The main thing was to keep their vibe and just get things locked in—for everyone to connect and be a band.”
Hillis says that McCready added numerous guitar overdubs on the album as a whole. “We had a Sennheiser 421 on his Marshall amp with a 57 next to it through a 1959 Bassman amp that Rick got just for him from Danny Mangold [of Danny’s Music, Everett, Wash.], who built gear for Nirvana. We mixed [the 57] with the Marshall, and at the same time, put that through two channels of Neve and printed that to tape.
“Another thing I remember doing was that we used two Lexicon PCMs in stereo—two mono ones together—with an Eventide H3000, and we’d bring those up on the bus faders and slowly bring them in and out for any type of reverb or ‘milk and honey,’ as I called it, to put on anything. I also used a lot from the room mics, which were key. In London Bridge, if you have room mics up, you can do anything. But overall, this was pretty straightforward, classic recording. That Neve is so good; other than tape splicing, there weren’t a lot of tricks.”
Tape splicing was actually key on “Even Flow,” a funky, hard-rocking, revealing portrait of homelessness with lyrics by Vedder and music by Gossard. Hillis said that the band played dozens of takes on the song, trying and re-trying till 2 or 3 a.m. to get the take. “They kept saying, ‘It’s not the one, it’s not the one,’” he says.
The experience seems to have stuck with McCready, who said in a March 2009 interview with the UK’s Daily Record, “We did ‘Even Flow’ about 50, 70 times. I swear to God it was a nightmare. We played that thing over and over until we hated each other.”
Then suddenly, after hours of attempts, they knew they had it: “At one point I looked up and saw the tape run out—it goes spinning off the reels,” Hillis says. “And the next thing they’re all celebrating in the room, going ‘We got it!’ and I thought, ‘Oh my God, we didn’t get it.’ We didn’t get the last 10 seconds. I had to grab another take and edit those 10 seconds onto the end of the tape.”
It was a scary moment for the young engineer, but he was able to make a seamless fix, and once all the songs were in the can, the bandmembers took their record to Ridge Farm Studios in pastoral Surrey, England, to be mixed by Tim Palmer, whose credits before Ten included Robert Plant, the Mission UK, Mighty Lemon Drops, Gene Loves Jezebel and Bowie’s Tin Machine, to name a few.
Ridge Farm—which closed in 2002 but is still a rentable (unequipped) space—was a popular residential studio where the property included a 17th-century Medieval farmhouse. The facility had famously hosted sessions with Queen, Thin Lizzy and Roxy Music, among many others. “It was a fabulous studio to work in,” Palmer says. “You basically took over the premises, and the amazing location took your mind away from everything, except for the music.”
Palmer points out that at the time he mixed Pearl Jam, grunge hadn’t exploded yet, so Epic had no preconceived notions about Ten’s audience. “That meant that instead of feeling pressured to make a dry, grunge-sounding album, I was free to use all the sonic colors that I chose to use. Reverb, delays and backwards reverbs were all still de rigueur, so I did not feel limited. Had the album been mixed a year later, I am sure that the band would have wanted a more ‘honest’ low-fi sound.”
The mixer goes on to describe the atmosphere at Ridge Farm: “The main control room was set up at one end of the main barn; it was elevated to give a good view of the recording that would take place in the barn below,” he says. “The console was a Neve VR60, and I think they had Quested monitors. I can’t remember for sure, but I think by that point I was using my Genelec 1031a speakers as near-fields. I really liked the fact that they always had a lot of outboard gear in that room. They had Lexicon 224 digital reverb, AMS Harmonizers, Eventide Harmonizer, MXR Flanger/doubler, PanScan and reverb by EMT, both Gold Foil and 149 stereo plate. The acoustics of the room sounded good; there were no surprises when you listened in another environment.”
Palmer recalls that, on Ten generally, “I used reverb and delays to add to the depth of the sound: the EMT plates and a Lexicon 224. At that time, I really enjoyed moving from a fairly ambient sound straight into a very dry sound—especially on drums and vocals.”
He also remembers adding some drum samples that were “...fired live on an AMS Harmonizer just as support to the snare. I didn’t replace any sounds. I didn’t need to; the recordings were very good. As we were stuck in the middle of the countryside, getting equipment was very slow. I wanted to add some small percussion parts to a couple of tracks but didn’t want to wait around. I just used what was in the pantry rather than waiting; hence my credit for ‘pepper shaker and fire extinguisher.’”
Palmer says though he loved the album, he was as surprised as anyone when, after Ten and Nirvana’s Nevermind were released within a couple months of each other, the whole music business seemed suddenly to revolve around the new grunge genre and what some now call Seattle’s “big four” bands: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains. But if fans loved grunge, “Even Flow” was a natural hit. The song defined the grunge movement’s hallmark distorted guitars, intense dynamic vocals and dark themes. “Even Flow” rose to Number 3 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart and 21 on the Modern Rock chart.
Pearl Jam suffered a setback after Ten; Krusen left the band to check into rehab. However, he recovered and his musical career is going strong. The other original bandmembers stayed together; their current drummer is Matt Cameron of Soundgarden.
Palmer eventually relocated to L.A. and then to Austin, Texas, where he now mixes in his ‘62 Studio (timpalmer.com). His more recent credits include H.I.M., Blue October, Jason Mraz and The Polyphonic Spree.
Meanwhile, Pearl Jam revisited Ten in 2009, when they asked producer/engineer Brendan O’Brien to remix the record as a bonus/addition to the deluxe reissue of Palmer’s original mix. The remix employs that “dry, grunge-sounding” approach Palmer described, and the various reissue packages (Legacy, Deluxe, Vinyl and Super Deluxe) sold 60,000 copies their first week of release.
Hillis now owns and operates Starlodge studio (davehillismusic.webs.com), where he often works with Krusen and other stellar Seattle musicians. He says he hasn’t, and won’t, listen to the Ten remix. “Brendan O’Brien is one of the greatest producers ever,” he says, “but Tim made it the hit record it was, and to me that’s the record.”
“I really feel Pearl Jam had tapped into a fresh new feeling, and a new musical page was turned,” Palmer says. “Finally there was a move against all the hair bands of the ‘80s. Pearl Jam offered something with more substance, more mystery; it was raw and ultimately believable.”