Rock and roll lore, stoked decades ago by Spinal Tap, would have you believe that the drummer’s stool is a literal musical chair—that percussionists are easily replaced, their work robotic at best and forgettable at worst. Fairly or not, history supports this perception. See Pete Best, Keith Moon, and the four guys who preceded Dave Grohl in Nirvana.
Pearl Jam, which will join Grohl’s former band in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on April 7, fits the formula, with five drummers in its 27 years. But PJ’s legend is different, in that each drummer helped shape the band’s trajectory, if not its sound. Had just one of them joined or left at any other time, Pearl Jam might not be headed to eternal acclaim as a still-relevant act.
The Rock Hall itself didn’t deem all of Pearl Jam’s percussionists worthy, which is why only founding member Dave Krusen and current drummer Matt Cameron will be inducted, along with frontman Eddie Vedder, bassist Jeff Ament, and guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready.
Earlier this month, though, Pearl Jam publicly acknowledged the “distinctive mark” its drummers made and invited them all to the ceremony. It was also an olive branch to one of the three snubbed players, who had blasted the Hall of Fame—and his former bandmates—on Facebook.
How did these drummers help Pearl Jam evolve? Which ones first pounded out “Alive” and “Corduroy” and “Sirens”? Why would no others do? Let’s break it down.
DAVE KRUSEN | 1990–91
Ament, Gossard and McCready needed a drummer and a vocalist for their fledgling band. Their instrumental demo was recorded with Cameron, who was then a member of Soundgarden, filling in on drums. As it was passed from former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Jack Irons to vocalist Vedder, then in California, the band auditioned Krusen, who had seen Gossard and Ament play in Mother Love Bone around Seattle. “I jumped at the chance to jam with Jeff and Stone,” Krusen told Seattle Weekly.
Vedder arrived shortly after Krusen was hired, and the quintet hit it off. In under a week, the band then known as Mookie Blaylock wrote and recorded enough songs for an album.
“It was the fastest, most creative thing I’ve ever been a part of,” Krusen recalled in the 2011 book Pearl Jam Twenty. “It was so quick, and ideas were flowing so fast. I just remember Eddie had papers laying all over the place and was constantly scratching down lyric ideas.” The breakneck stride is reflected in the drummer’s crashing snares and cymbals between the warming fade-up and hard gallop of “Once,” the first song on Pearl Jam’s inaugural album, Ten.
The pace didn’t lag. The band played several club shows around the city, signed with Sony’s Epic Records, toured the West Coast, and contributed to Cameron Crowe’s film Singles—all in the span of a pregnancy. Then Krusen bowed out to address the alcohol problem that his band couldn’t ignore. “They saved my life,” he says now. “It was the only thing that woke me up.”
Despite his addiction rendering him “inconsistent,” his playing did set the bar for future drummers. Krusen’s snare flourish closes the cathartic “Even Flow.” His marching lead grounds the iconic bass intro of “Jeremy.” His crisp fills and cymbals propel the screaming solos of “Alive.”
MATT CHAMBERLAIN | 1991
Chamberlain didn’t write or record with Pearl Jam, but he was the band’s first televised face behind the kit.
After just a week of rehearsals following Krusen’s departure, Chamberlain joined the band for its first national tour. Concertgoers in Chicago, Philadelphia, New York City, and elsewhere had no idea that Chamberlain wasn’t the original drummer, and the perception that he was grew exponentially with the release of the “Alive” music video.
In the video, recorded live at Seattle club RKCNDY, the new drummer, in grunge-requisite long hair and flannel, struck his toms with patient calm. His snares were high and snappy, and he wrapped the song with a machine-gun flourish that was so close to the studio version that many people still don’t know that the drummer in the video didn’t play on the “Alive” single or the record that it helped sell.
Chamberlain left to join the Saturday Night Live house band before Ten was released. His mark on Pearl Jam carried on, though, as he suggested that the band bring on Dallas drummer Dave Abbruzzese. Chamberlain recalled in Pearl Jam Twenty, “They sent [Abbruzzese] a tape, and he said, ‘This is the shit! I love it!’ He got the tattoo on his arm of the little stickman. I was like ‘Excellent! I hooked somebody up.’”
DAVE ABBRUZZESE | 1991–94
Abbruzzese joined as the band was riding a wave of publicity. There were appearances on MTV Unplugged and Saturday Night Live, where the drummer pounded blithely behind Vedder, as well as the Temple of the Dog side project, the Singles soundtrack and the controversial “Jeremy” video. Massive crowds overflowed every show.
The drummer loved it. He was all in, as the band logo on his arm proved. But as Pearl Jam recorded its follow-up album in 1993, Vedder spurned the spotlight, turning down interviews and further music videos. The backpedaling irked Abbruzzese. He wanted to go big.
Vs. did just that, selling nearly a million copies in its first week. It featured two notable Abbruzzese contributions: the drums on “Go,” which kick the record off with a furious, driving blast, and the closing moments of “Rearviewmirror,” where his sticks hit the wall in a woody clatter. What you don’t hear is the drummer punching a hole in a drum, taking it outside and throwing it over a hill. Tensions were high.
Abbruzzese was further incensed by Pearl Jam’s 1994 anti-Ticketmaster tour—haltingly put on while they recorded their next album, Vitalogy. It’s no coincidence that he was dismissed only weeks after Gossard and Ament testified against the ticketing giant’s practices in Washington, D.C. As Abbruzzese noted to Spin in 2001, “I had just soured. I didn’t agree with the Ticketmaster stuff at all.”
Old-school fans disagree on his legacy. Some side with the band, which clearly had its reasons for moving on. Others cite the percussionist’s tight, clean beats (in “Go,” “Animal,” “Corduroy,” and others) and lament his absence. Those in the latter camp have launched a change.org petition to include the drummer on the Hall of Fame roster.
Abbruzzese himself was pissed about the snub, publicly calling it an “injustice.”
JACK IRONS | 1994–98
You can hear Irons’ influence on the final track of Vitalogy, “Hey Foxymophandlemama, That’s Me.” Cymbals crash discordantly over a galloping snare beat—for almost eight minutes. It was Irons’ only contribution to the band’s third record, and it doesn’t fit. That may have been the point.
One could argue that Irons didn’t fit in Pearl Jam in general. He hailed from outfits that leaned on funk and glam and metal. But Vedder’s old friend settled in with them to record Neil Young’s 1995 album, Mirror Ball. Irons’ flashy cymbals and chunky fills gave Young’s huge fuzz proper grounding.
PJ’s next release, No Code, owes much to Irons’ sensibilities. “Sometimes” meanders in with a subtle beat. “Who You Are” features hand-slap rhythms and a clacking bell. A complex, rolling staccato lays the foundation of “In My Tree.”
The band was not aiming for radio-friendly singles. “There was a lot of jamming,” Irons said in Pearl Jam Twenty. “We’d get into the studio and start kicking it up. Next thing you know, there’s a fairly loose track. It was a defining moment for me as a drummer to create songs that way.”
Yield was more straightforward, but with plenty of Irons’ exotic rhythms and timing. “MFC” sports a just-off snare accompaniment to the chorus, the soaring hit “Given to Fly” rolls on a wavelike tribal rhythm showered with splashy cymbals, and the untitled track credited to Irons alone is a percussive world-music cacophony.
Irons left the band to manage a bipolar condition following the album’s release.
MATT CAMERON | 1998–present
Vedder invited Cameron—who was free, as Soundgarden had split in 1997—to tour with them behind Yield, resurrecting Pearl Jam’s demo-era incarnation.
The new drummer learned much of PJ’s catalog in a few weeks. He was also instantly beloved by his new bandmates. Cameron’s devoted, workmanlike approach fit right in with the band’s new focus on both its legacy and future. As Vedder noted in Pearl Jam Twenty, “Our friendship became much deeper—and our relationship to each other as bandmates.”
Fans impressed by Cameron’s rock-solid, sometimes tricky percussion in concert had to wait until 2000 to hear it on a studio record. Binaural delivered, featuring punchy, crisp, complex drumming. “Evacuation” (credited to Cameron), “Of the Girl,” “Rival” and “Sleight of Hand” showcased the drummer’s penchant for unique time signatures.
Cameron wrote the music for several songs on the band’s next album, Riot Act. He crafted the unique, chunky guitar sound of “You Are” by feeding chords through a drum machine. It was another left-field move, and again, it worked. “It’s just another example of having your band elevate your music to a level you’ve never envisioned,” Cameron said in Pearl Jam Twenty.
More examples appeared on 2013’s Lightning Bolt and the band’s 2016 official bootlegs. Percussion is a living, electric element of the band’s sound more now than ever before. Hear the odd stomp of “Yellow Moon” and the skip-hop of “Let the Records Play.”
Maybe it’s the fifth drummer’s long tenure that makes a sixth one seem impossible. Maybe it’s his laid-back, likable demeanor. Or maybe it’s his band’s adulation.
“The thing that a drummer sits on, it’s a stool. It’s a small chair. But they call it a throne,” Vedder said during a 2013 show. Then he raised his wine bottle. “Matt Cameron, you’re definitely the king.”