Millions of listeners worldwide entered the world of Seattle grunge through brilliantly raging, early ’90s gateway songs like “Alive,” “Even Flow,” and “Jeremy.” Two decades later, lightning continues to strike for the band that brought those tunes to life.
Circa 2014, Pearl Jam is still filling and thoroughly rumbling stadiums around the world, and their newest album Lightning Bolt continues the band’s timeless synthesis of songwriting honesty, raw musicianship, and a predilection to transcend flavor-of-the minute trends.
Key to Pearl Jam’s current sound is Hawaiian keyboardist Boom Gaspar, who has been called the band’s unofficial sixth member. Gaspar met frontman Eddie Vedder while surfing and struck up a friendship, having never before heard of the singer or the band. Gaspar began working with Pearl Jam in 2002 and has recorded and toured with them since; live concerts often find him trading B-3 solos with guitarist Mike McCready during the band’s more raucous numbers.
Here’s what Gaspar, and Pearl Jam keyboard tech Josh Evans, had to say about adding keyboards to the world of a Seattle grunge legend.
What was your musical background before joining the band?
Boom Gaspar: I first started playing when I was nine years old. I had a small organ and a cheap little amp at the time. I joined a band a month later and have been playing ever since. I played a lot of clubs in Hawaii over the years, including a lot of commercial music in order to make a living. I moved to Seattle in 1973 and played in a local blues band—and also in the backing band for blues guitarist Albert Collins. I moved back and forth from Seattle to Hawaii playing with a number of groups.
Pearl Jam already had a cohesive sound before you started working with them. How did you find your place, especially amidst all the loud guitars?
BG: I didn’t want to take anything away from what the band had already laid down or pull songs in a completely different direction. My approach was to stay in the flow and do my best to enhance what Pearl Jam had already established. You have to find your own lane — but not go way out there—and try to be a supportive keyboard player.
How have you chosen specific keyboard sounds to fit with Pearl Jam’s repertoire?
Josh Evans: Having live access to software like Miroslav Philharmonik on Boom’s Muse Receptor works well for Pearl Jam because the sounds can be so much more organic and realistic. Pearl Jam isn’t really a synth band, so I want to make sure that all of Boom’s sounds fit in with the aesthetic of the band, and sound just as organic and real as the rest of the instruments on stage. The combination of the grittiness of a vintage B-3, the reliability and quality of the Nord Stage, and the flexibility of the Receptor and [Native Instruments] Kontakt allows Boom to have a good hybrid between vintage keyboard sounds and modern synthesis and expandability.
What are some of the biggest overall challenges of playing with Pearl Jam?
BG: Learning what Pearl Jam is, and learning each of the band members’ different styles. It’s such an education for me. Every night is different and playing with them is amazing. I love challenges. They make you a better player and challenges are what music is all about.
Who are your personal keyboard heroes?
BG: Booker T. Jones. When I started playing organ, Booker T. and the MGs had released “Time Is Tight.” It was the first instrumental song that I’d heard with keyboard solos. It was gritty. It was my father’s favorite—he always had it playing on the eight-track deck in his van when he would pick me up from gigs. Also, Gregg Rolie in early Santana. He brought the organ to the forefront again. He had a lot of minor-key licks, which I love. Finally, Chester Thompson. It makes me mad, how good he is! He’s my favorite B-3 player.
What have been some of the biggest changes in the touring rig, and how will it change down the road?
JE: The biggest changes have happened on the synth side. When I started with Boom five years ago, he was just using the B-3 and a Kurzweil SP88 for piano sounds. It got the job done, but there wasn’t any room for customizing Boom’s palette of sounds. With Backspacerand Lightning Bolt, there became more of a need for a bigger variety of sounds. The biggest change in the near future could be the addition of a laptop-based system for the software synths.
Has Pearl Jam ever thought about touring with a real grand piano?
JE: I don’t know what Boom thinks—but as the guy who would end up tuning the piano everyday, I vote no!
What do you do when you’re not working with Pearl Jam?
BG: When I’m not playing with Pearl Jam, I play music with my Hawaiian band Pō and the 4fathers. We’re currently doing production on new songs. The website is poandthe4fathers.com.
Any final thoughts?
BG: Who would think that a Hawaiian like me from a small island would be able to see the world because of music and playing keyboards? I’m living the dream.
Hammond B-3: The centerpiece of Boom’s touring rig is a late ’50s Hammond B-3 organ that Pearl Jam keyboard tech Josh Evans describes as “stock, other than general maintenance and upkeep. The only modification is the addition of a Trek II SC-60 frequency converter kit so that the organ will play in tune overseas on 50Hz power.” The B-3 runs through two Leslie speakers, “a model 45 that sits onstage for Boom to monitor, and a 145 that sits under the stage so that it is sonically isolated from the rest of the sounds,” says Evans. “The 145 is miked up with two Sennheiser E609 mics on the top rotor and one Sennheiser 421 on the low rotor.”
Nord Stage, Novation, and more: Boom grabs piano and Wurlitzer sounds from a Nord Stage, which he also uses as MIDI controller assigned to channel 16. “There is also a Novation Impulse 61 controller assigned to MIDI channel 1, and an off-stage M-Audio 25 key controller assigned to channel 5,” says Evans. “All the MIDI signals are mixed together through a MIDI Solutions QuadraMerge and are then fed into a Muse Receptor 2.”
Muse Receptor 2 and Virtual Instruments: “The Receptor 2 is used to run Native Instruments Kontakt 4 and Pro-53, IK Multimedia Miroslav Philharmonik, GForce M-Tron, and other programs,” says Evans. “I use some off-the-shelf sounds like Clavinet, dulcimer, and Rhodes, but I also build custom instruments in Kontakt whenever there isn’t a commercial option available.”
As of the writing of this article, Evans recently created such custom instruments for the portative organ (a small pump organ) melody on “Just Breathe,” from Pearl Jam’s Backspacer album; the Clavinet, electric piano, and backwards guitar intro sounds on “Infallible” from Lightning Bolt; and the sound effects and reverse piano texture on “You Are.”
“It’s great to be able to create custom instruments for Boom and Pearl Jam because we aren’t limited to pre-packaged sounds, which can at times sound generic or cheesy,” says Evans. “It’s also super-great to have the ability to expand Boom’s sounds on the fly—like when the band decides to do a last-minute Devo cover, which they did a few years ago in Philadelphia on Halloween.”
Gear in the Studio: For the recording of Lightning Bolt, the rig was completely different, says Evans, and was based on the needs of longtime Pearl Jam producer Brendan O’Brien. “In the studio, we used a Yamaha C7 grand piano, Hammond B-3 with a Leslie 122, a Korg Triton, and lots of the new digital Mellotron M4000D,” continues Evans. “Brendan tracks the synths through guitar pedals and analog filters — too many to keep track of here!”