Even Flow

Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder is an avid wave rider. World champion surfer Kelly Slater is a closet guitarist. Together they've formed a mutual admiration society—one based on music, travel, and regular board sessions from Hawaii to Australia. Recently, Outside associate editor Anthony Cerretani caught up with the pair between sets.

Slater and Vedder backstage at Pearl Jam's July 7 concert in San Diego.     Photo: Steve Sherman

Outside: What kind of friendship do you guys have—blood brothers, distant cousins, partners in crime?
Slater:
Strictly business.
Vedder: Yeah, I'd take a bullet for him, and yet he does his best to kill me in the surf.
Slater: I would take a splinter for you, man. Anytime.

How did the friendship start?
Slater: Back in '92, I was in Africa, and I really sat and listened to Ten, Pearl Jam's first album. It had a real connection with surfing. I didn't know anything about Eddie; I didn't know if he surfed or where he was from, any of that. I always knew somehow we'd end up being friends. But we didn't meet until '96, when we were both at a Grammy Awards party.

Right when your career was skyrocketing. Was that the connection?
Slater: When I first started winning, I wasn't in control of my stuff like I should have been. You're really not sure what the "top" is, then you get there and maybe it's not all it's cracked up to be.
Vedder: If you're up in the clouds on this ladder that leads to nowhere and it stops in the middle of the sky and there's no one else around, and you look around and see this other guy 50 yards away and he's got a ladder that's popped up through the clouds and he's up there looking around, it's like two guys waving: "Hey, how's it going? Are you doing OK? Are you going to stay up here? You want to go down? Let's go down. Let's go surf, let's play."

And things just evolved from there?
Slater: I don't think we exchanged numbers or anything like that at the time. We made a connection, but it wasn't until a year or two later that we ran into each other in Australia.
Vedder: Yeah, we didn't really date until the late nineties.
Slater: I kept seeing him, but we weren't "seeing each other." Seriously, we didn't become friends until we understood enough about ourselves and our lives for it to mesh really well. Eddie's at the top of what he does, and I've been fortunate enough to have the same kind of success, so there's a familiarity with surrounding circumstances and how to deal with them. You recognize the same things in each other.

What brings you together now?
Vedder: The ocean and music—that's what supplies the bond. Maybe he can learn a few bits from me musically, although he's really established with the way he can play, as opposed to me with my surfing. It's like a clinic to be around Kelly with the waves.
Slater: There's so many different places that we end up meeting up or having connections with. One time Eddie wanted to go to Florida and surf, and I couldn't be there, so he just met up with my brother. Even those times are like being together, because you're sharing those common people.

How often do you actually see one another?
Slater: We might see each other a few times in a year and then we might not for a year. It's here and there. When you know your friends are going to be somewhere in the world and you're going to be close to there, you make it happen.
Vedder: I can't think of anyone I've ever met who's more of a citizen of the world than Kelly. The interesting thing is that—sorry, Kelly—you don't really sit still, ever. Even when you're sitting down, you're moving. It's a tremendous force to be around. He just travels the world and, wherever he shows up, it's like an old John Wayne movie: Everyone knows him. He could be in South Africa, Australia, Tahiti, anywhere. And everyone's so happy to see him.
Slater: You know, it's hitting me full on right now because I travel so much. I'm just a shooting star at this point. It's going really fast and I'm getting to see all this stuff and cover a lot of ground, but I maybe don't quite get the connection I want with the things that really matter.
Vedder: Well, the nice thing when you do settle down is that you'll be able to sit on the porch and have no regrets about things you could have done and places you could have gone. You've done it.

Describe a typical Eddie-and-Kelly surfing session.
Vedder: He's gotten me in some pretty hectic wave situations. They've also happened to be some of the greatest moments of my life. I relish every second we have together, whether it's playing ukuleles or talking about fin design or figuring out how to capture a wave by looking at maps on the Internet or charts on a kitchen table.

What about just hanging out?
Vedder: A lot of friends or family—if you get together, you get a rack of beer and a few bottles of wine and talk about the past and you'll laugh and have a great time. With Kelly, you won't be sitting down talking about things you've done. You'll be doing things. Unforgettable stuff. There's new life being created and new memories. And we'll always end up playing music. I could sit around in Seattle with some of the greatest musicians in the world and we'll never play music, but with Kelly, it always happens. Around campfires, in the living room, whatever.
Slater: For me, that's an inspiration in itself. You know, to play with you. It's not often in life that people get to meet someone they think so highly of and then become close friends.

Sounds like a case of reciprocal hero worship.
Vedder: I think that's unspoken and you're making us feel very uncomfortable... [Laughs]
Slater: I'm actually not uncomfortable with that at all, because I've had that with Eddie since way before I knew him. It's not something I'm ashamed of.

All the shared surfing and music—is it therapy?
Vedder: For Kelly, I see music as being like a religion.
Slater: I just couldn't live without it. Literally. Playing music every day—it's like eating food. Lately, I've been doing it more than I've been surfing, by a long shot. It's my outlet for what I can't express in surfing.
Vedder: And I think surfing is kind of my religion. Kelly felt the connection to the water in our first record, and he didn't have a clue that half those songs were written in the water. That's where everything for me always comes from. When I'm spent—I've exhausted all my accounts and the interest is gone—all I have to do is get in the water for a few days, hopefully a month, and then I'm back in the black. It's absolutely a necessity for both of us: music for him, water for me.

Does that make it strange to watch each other perform professionally?
Slater: When I hear "Eddie Vedder," it's not just a person; it's this thing that people have ideas about, that they love or praise. They grew up with the music. So, yeah, it's funny to be sitting on the side of the stage watching the whole thing happen. You're seeing your friend, who has done something so important and means so much, having all those people know him at an intimate level and, at the same time, not know him at all. I guess I have that in my own world, too.
Vedder: I remember one time we were out paddling on some little waves in Hawaii and there was a dad with his seven-year-old on the front of the board. And the dad paddles up and he sees that it's Kelly and his eyes get big as saucers. He's so excited. Sometimes people ask you for more. Kelly will deliver on all ends. He's an incredible ambassador for the sport, he'll never let anybody down. He's really giving in that kind of way.

So who's got the better job?
Vedder: I've got to give it to Kelly. Because he doesn't have to—careful what I say here... Pittsburgh's great, and Cincinnati's great, but—
Slater: Leave it at that. And yeah, I would have a tough time saying anyone has a better job than I have. I get a salary to go surf around the world.
Vedder: This might be my only thing that I've got on Kelly: I can create my own schedule. The band will democratically agree on a touring schedule; when Kelly's on the tour, he has to be there.
Slater: But you don't have the most admirable hours.
Vedder: Well, yeah. I just don't sleep.

Kelly, you recently played "Rockin' in the Free World" with Pearl Jam onstage in San Diego. What was that like?
Slater: I'm going to give the moral to the story here. The moral is that everyone deserves a second chance in life. Eddie actually invited me onstage in '99 and I totally wussed out.

How did he do, Eddie?
Slater: I did pretty average.
Vedder: No, no, no. Sparks were flying. I think that honestly, with no sarcasm, it was great—he was cool and calm and collected and loud. It wasn't any kind of air-guitar display. The man can handle himself on a big rock stage.

Compare the energy of a packed house and a big wave.
Slater: The fear onstage—it probably affects me more physically. I get nervous. But the actual danger level is not really there—unless you've got a heart condition.
Vedder: With a packed house, unless you say something incredibly offensive to God or country, a crowd of 15,000 people will not kill you. I guess they could if they wanted to, but they will not all jump on you at the same time and hold you down for two minutes. That's the difference between a big crowd and a big wave. When Kelly takes me to Waimea Bay, that wave does not give a shit who I am.

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