In a gesture many of us are familiar with these days, Stone Gossard held up his fist in defiance while discussing his new band with Minnesota music mainstay Mason Jennings.
“We will play this stuff live!” the Pearl Jam guitarist declared in a three-way Zoom interview with Jennings last week.
The band is called Painted Shield, and obviously its live debut will have to wait until after the pandemic. However, the coronavirus did not stall the release of the group’s eponymous album.
In fact, Friday’s release of Painted Shield’s experimental-yet-lyrical, song-driven debut LP was somewhat quickened by 2020’s lockdown.
“We were working from a distance all along,” Jennings noted.
Strangers but mutual admirers when they first started working together, the Twin Cities-based singer-songwriter and the Seattle-area Rock and Roll Hall of Famer made most of this new record from their respective homes 1,700 miles apart.
Along the way, they also enlisted drummer Matt Chamberlain in Los Angeles — now the drummer in Bob Dylan’s retooled band — as well as keyboardist and co-vocalist Brittany Davis from Seattle.
Cobbled together from a very safe distance, Painted Shield’s album was also quite a long time coming.
Its origins go back to 2014, when a mutual friend first suggested that Jennings and Gossard work together. They were both “trying to work outside our boxes” at the time, Gossard recalled.
“I’m always stockpiling demos, and eventually I’ll go to my Dropbox and there will be 100 to 200 things in there,” the guitarist said.
“I can always finish them by myself and call them Stone Gossard solo songs, but ideally they’ll wind up being a collaboration. I just personally get more excited hearing two people working together, especially two people you maybe wouldn’t associate working together.”
He and his new associate wound up issuing a 7-inch single. The A-side of that release, a frayed and post-punky rocker called “Knife Fight,” is also one of the nine tracks now featured on the full-length album.
“It felt like we were off and running with that song,” Gossard said, but their respective careers and personal lives got in the way.
Around 2018, though, Jennings raised the idea of recording together again — somewhat out of desperation, he admits.
“I’d gone through a difficult divorce and was dealing with a bunch of legal crap, and I just wasn’t really ready to do my own usual stuff,” the 45-year-old singer-songwriter recounted. “I wanted to get outside myself more.”
For longtime local fans of Jennings, Painted Shield definitely sounds like a big sidestep — much louder and rockier than the folky, soft-voiced musings he’s best known for, but also much more embellished and psychedelic-leaning than his one full-volume electric album, 2009’s “Blood of Man.”
Gossard’s grungy but groovy, stylish guitarwork on the record is more familiar; the wicked solos and fills on the politically blown epic “Evil Winds” are as fiery as anything on Pearl Jam’s return-to-form 2020 album “Gigaton.”
However, Gossard said he eagerly altered his approach and experimented more to suit Jennings’ style — sometimes with Chamberlain also helping shape the sonic backdrop.
“When these songs were in demo form, you’d think, ‘Ah, yeah, sounds good — sounds like a guitar player and a drummer going at it,’ ” he said. “But when you’d get the story and personality and emotion from Mason, it’d really jump to the next level.”
While Jennings is known for sometimes writing starkly personal songs, he, too, changed his approach somewhat for Painted Shield. Case in point: The Flaming Lips-like hazy highlight “Ten Years From Now” started as a post-divorce dirge, but with Gossard’s help he turned it into more of a universal and hopeful gem.
“Stone was like, ‘Why don’t we take the same narrator and have him looking at things from 10 years out?’ ” he recounted. “I stuck with the same idea of conflict, but spread it out, with not such a pointed perspective.”
Similarly, he said the angsty, atmospheric single “I Am Your Country” started as more of a personal diatribe but became more political.
“If it’s my own song, I’m fine with just putting it out there as is and standing behind it,” Jennings added, “but when it’s with other collaborators, I want them to stand behind it, too. I want it to also resonate with them.”
As Gossard said, the songs resonated with him enough to want to stand behind them on stage once concerts can resume in full.
They would probably have to work around Pearl Jam’s 2020 makeup gigs, but the duo half-joked that a bigger problem might be Chamberlain’s schedule drumming on Dylan’s famously “never-ending” tour.
“We wouldn’t play without Matt, so hopefully Bob won’t want to do 250 shows next year, which I wouldn’t put it past him,” Gossard said. “But we’ll just set up and play an afternoon gig in whatever city Bob is in if we have to.”
More from Painted Shield
Stone on Mason: “As I listen back to the record, I really love the subtle ways he wears his influences. You hear these elements of other people, and yet it all sounds like him. He filters the influences in a way that’s uniquely him, in his unique voice. I hear Iggy Pop or Bob Dylan or these subtle influences that I usually share, too. And his lyrics are just really powerful in terms of the honesty in them, but never sacrificing a melody.”
Mason on Stone: “I was really focused on being a guitar player in my teens, and Stone obviously created a handful of the most classic guitar parts that everyone my age and younger learns early on. But what I learned is he’s also very literary. He’s always reading and always thinking about lyrics. It was like, ‘Oh, this is somebody I can talk to about the narrator in the song, or what the emotion is going to be.’ He’s also really good as a producer. He’s willing to sacrifice a really great part he did if he thinks it makes the song better.”