Surfing the Astral Waves
Surfing the Astral Waves
A Q&A with Nick Rhodes
Of the Ten Band
By Geoff Gehman
By day Nick Rhodes teaches algebra in cyberspace. At night he surfs Eddie Vedder’s astral waves.
Rhodes is the lead singer of the Ten Band, a 12-year-old ensemble that performs songs created and recreated by Pearl Jam, Vedder’s 25-year-old collective. A Pearl Jam fan since elementary school, Rhodes channels Vedder’s burrowing, blasting voice; cracked-mosaic, cracked-actor gestures, and volcanic, shamanic personality. His four comrades, including founding bassist Todd Kaczorowski, are well known for their kinetic electricity and elastic, even-flowing set lists, including a regular dose of the Who’s “Baba O’Riley.” In 2014 they were rewarded with a showcase on the AXS TV show “World’s Greatest Tribute Bands.”
On Feb. 20 Rhodes and his Ten mates will turn the Mauch Chunk Opera House into a searching, surprising sanctuary. Below, in a conversation from a car driven by his wife to band practice, he discusses his admiration for Pearl Jam’s creative longevity, his friendship with one of Vedder’s famous friends, and his reluctance to do what Vedder did back in the day: take a daredevil dive from a leaning Tower-of-Pisa TV tower.
Q: What was the first Pearl Jam tune that stuck to you like glue?
A: Oh my gosh, I hope you have a lot of time. “Animal” from [the album] “Vs.” was probably my first Pearl Jam experience. My stepsister had a boyfriend who liked rock music and was into the grunge scene. One morning we were having breakfast and he said: “Hey Nick, you have to hear this band.” He played a cassette tape with “Animal” and I heard Vedder singing and I said: “Who’s that? That guy’s voice is awesome. And the guitar player–what’s his name?” [Mike McCready] It was only a two and a half minute song but it was powerful.
I started listening to the rest of “Vs.,” to “Daughter” and “Rearviewmirror”: that’s probably my favorite song on that record. My stepsister’s boyfriend said: “You know, there was another [Pearl Jam] album before this.” So I went back to “Ten” and I fell hard for “Alive” and “Jeremy” and “Black” and “Evenflow.” And I thought, you know, I think I’ve heard these songs before, even though I didn’t know Pearl Jam at the time. I thought “Ten” was 10 times better than “Vs.” From that point on I was a huge Pearl Jam fan. I bought every album the first day it came out.
I talked to my sister’s old boyfriend for the first time in years a few months ago. I thanked him for getting me into Pearl Jam. I give him lots of credit; I wouldn’t be in a Pearl Jam band without him. .
Q: What do you understand and/or appreciate about Vedder and his comrades that you didn’t appreciate and/or understand before you joined a Pearl Jam band?
A: Their longevity. The fact that they’ve worked out a lot of issues, inside and outside the band: issues with their record companies; issues with Ticketmaster [price gouging]; issues after their concert when nine people died [suffocated in a mosh pit during a 2000 music festival in Denmark]. Not only they able to perform after that tragedy, they wrote a song that referred to it [“Love Boat Captain”]. I also admire that everybody contributes to the songwriting. In many bands the lead singer is in charge of writing the tunes. It’s a truly talented group, and not just musically.
Q: Have you been tempted to imitate the old daredevil Vedder who jumped into and surfed over mosh pits and climbed lighting rigs to hang from ceilings?
A: I think I’ve gotten pretty high up in Baltimore, where they have a little tower for me to climb. Mosh pits are pretty much done now, so you can’t have fun jumping into the crowd. I’ll always remember a ’92 show where Eddie jumped 75 to 100 feet from a TV camera stand. It was in the Netherlands and it was very cold: you can see his breath. He stood there dancing a bit during the nine- to 10-minute jam during “Porch.” He wanted to be angled a certain way into the audience. Then he jumped from this 45-degree angle into the audience and then the audience pushed him back on the stage.
It’s probably one of the top five classic Pearl Jam scenes. It’s also a very famous moment in grunge history. On eBay you can probably buy a picture of him on that stand, or at least in mid-air. Every time I see the YouTube video I think: You are crazy.
There are no camera crews, or camera stands, for our shows [laughs]. If a mosh pit was allowed, I don’t think I’d jump into it. I’m definitely on the conservative side. I have a two and a half year old daughter and she can’t risk losing her dad.
Q: Speaking of good health and sanity, I hear that you eat well, run well and drink well to keep show fit.
A: I eat healthy most of the time, although I do love my chocolate and I do love my glass of red wine at night; it’s a health benefit for the heart. But I don’t drink [alcohol] the day of a show. And I’ll run five or six miles; supposedly exercise opens up your vocal cords a bit. And I’ll drink plenty of water and get plenty of sleep. And I enjoy my sports: golf in the summer and ice hockey; I’m a goaltender. Hopefully I’m on my A game
Q: Vedder has been known to psyche himself before shows by listening to Jethro Tull’s 1969 album “Stand Up.” Do you have any inspirational pre-show rituals?
A: I have a huge dinner and a huge dessert about an hour before the show. Guys ask: How can you perform after you’ve eaten a huge chicken breast and a huge piece of chocolate cake, after you just consumed like 5,000 calories? The answer is: a massive meal gets me psyched. When I eat I’m happy; when I don’t eat I’m not happy. So feed me, feed me.
I don’t listen to an iPod. I don’t do a thousand pushups or situps. I just go with the flow. What’s the crowd like? What’s the energy of the room? Going with the flow is what I’ve learned from teaching.
We go with the flow with our set list, too. We change shows depending on the mood of the crowd and mood of the place. We may come out with a fast tune or a slow tune. We move blocks around: one night it could be the first six songs; another night it could be the bottom five songs. We do that to keep the show fresh. You can play “Evenflow” a thousand times but if you play it in the same place it gets boring. So we move it around to different positions and it takes on a whole new level.
We may pull out five obscure songs from show to show. Songs like “In Hiding,”
Which a tribute band may not attempt or even Pearl Jam won’t attempt. We make sure we fill in that gap.
Real diehard Pearl Jam fans don’t want to hear “Evenflow” or “Jeremy,” songs they heard 24/7 on the radio. They want to hear deep cuts: “Indifference.” “Whipping.” Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.” “Baba O’Riley”; we play that every show.
Another reason we change the set list so much is that Pearl Jam’s sound has changed so much from album to album. “No Code” is probably my favorite Pearl Jam album; it has everything from heavy rock to a little bit of country. If you’re in a tribute band, you have to pay attention to details to capture the attention of fans from all eras, including the ones who came late to Pearl Jam’s first three albums. You have to pay attention to the music, the lifestyle, the present, the past.
Q: Are your math students ardent fans of their Pearl Jamming teacher?
A: I get Facebook requests from students. When they come to our shows they get to see the two different sides of Nick Rhodes. I’m responsible when I’m teaching. When I’m performing I’m the showman who jumps around and throws the microphone stand around. Don’t get me wrong; I’m crazy in the classroom, even though in cyberschool the only thing I have is my voice and slide shows. The important thing is that they see me putting passion into my performance the way I do in my teaching. I try to put the same passion into being a father and a husband. Those are the four things I focus most on; if I can do those four things really well, I can be happy with myself.
Performing makes me a cooler teacher. My students like to say: You’re a rock star. I tell them: No, I’m just a normal Joe singing covers, who gets to get into a trance and get away with it. I do it for the fun of it, and I do it for the fans of Pearl Jam who can’t see the band because tickets are too expensive or because they’re playing across the world. They get their fix when we recreate the music they’ve listened to for all these years. Maybe a husband and wife want to come without the kids and relive their grunge years. They tell us: “Thank you for making me feel like I’m back in ’92. Thank you for the flannel shirt, the ripped jeans and the Doc Martins” [laughs].
It’s easy being personable with Pearl Jam people. They just want to have fun with us, although I don’t know why they want to take pictures with me. I’m not anybody’s Eddie Vedder.
Q: Have you had any significant encounters with the Pearl Jammers?
A: Well, I know Sean Casey [ex-major league first baseman turned major-league baseball broadcaster], one of Vedder’s good friends. He came up to me after a Ten Band show and said: “Dude, you’re Eddie Vedder. I’m going to call Eddie right now and tell him.” Sean was probably drunk, so I wasn’t sure he was actually friends with Eddie. But he showed me all these pictures of him hanging out with Vedder, so I believed him. In fact, he hired me to perform Pearl Jam songs at his house.
If I met Vedder and the other members of the band, I’d thank them for all their years of dedication to the music and for helping people. All their songs—musically, lyrically—relate to other people’s lives and help get them through their troubles. I’d love to perform with them; I’d love to have Eddie say: “Hey, Nick, come on up and sing with us!” I’d love to lose myself with those guys for four minutes for 6,000 people.
Nick Rhodes: The Scoop
The first song he couldn’t forget was “Purple Rain,” which he heard courtesy of his mother, a big fan of Prince, Madonna and other ’80s pop/rock heroes. “That guitar solo at the end pretty much did it for me. Most of my favorite songs have great guitar solos.”
He and his wife had their first wedding dance to his recording of Lifehouse’s “Everything.”
He joined the Ten Band in November 2005, moving to Pittsburgh, the group’s headquarters, from his native Long Island, where he was an accountant. “I knew I’d find work in Pittsburgh: there are always accounting jobs.”
He’s worn a baseball cap backwards in tribute to Vedder wearing a backwards baseball cap during Pearl Jam’s pivotal 1992 MTV “Unplugged” concert.
His No. 1 Bucket List item is playing the 21 states he hasn’t played.
His No. 1 Fuck It List item is news reporters addicted to bad news. “They pile on the shit–a burglary, a murder, a baby abused in a family across the street–and I wonder: How could you do that for a living? I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars. I’d like them to talk about all the positive things: the food pantries, the shelters, the blind guy who works for a computer company. Let’s just forget about the bad stuff and live in harmony. We could make our country seem better than it is.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He heard Pearl Jam members Eddie Vedder and Mike McCready perform “Masters of War” during Bob Dylan’s 30th-anniversary all-star concert in 1992 at Madison Square Garden. He can be reached at email@example.com.