Inside Brendan O’Brien: Hidden Hand Behind PJ’s Signature Sounds

By Guest Contributor, Bernie Tylor

Rarely Stepping into the Limelight, O’Brien’s Recent Interview with Rick Beato Exposes a Deft Touch at Shaping Pearl Jam’s Greatest Tracks 

Rock Producer Brendan O’Brien doesn’t grant interviews often and shies from attention. He likes it that way. 

Thankfully, he recently agreed to talk with Youtuber Rick Beato. A lot. O’Brien’s blend of hard work, musical genius, creative thinking, and a touch of luck enabled him to help define Pearl Jam’s sound and leave an indelible mark on rock history.  His recent sit down with Beato offers a rare glimpse into the mind of a true maestro.

By Way of Background

Pearl Jam fans are likely familiar with him. Those who have read the inside cover page and lyrics in the albums/CDs, probably noticed his name in the liner notes. However, they may not know how crucial he has been in the making of many Pearl Jam hits. In “his first ever full interview” with Rick Beato entitled “The Unsung Hero Of Rock Music” O’Brien talked at length about his time with Pearl Jam.  

For those who don’t know Beato, he is a YouTube content producer with 4.2 million followers. He’s regarded as an authoritative resource on music production, songwriting, and music theory, breaking down the nuts and bolts of familiar popular songs that have hit the charts, and unfamiliar but significant B-sides.  For a long time, variations of his “What Makes a Song Great” segment have remained entertaining and insightful.

A former producer and accomplished musician himself, Beato is a highly popular content producer whose straightforward, engaging videos educate viewers on the complex ins and outs of studio recording and mixing, music theory, songwriting, and the music industry.  He comes across as a cool, hip professor who naturally draws the attention of students as they willingly soak up his wisdom. Not surprisingly, Rick and Brendan, a highly accomplished producer and musician himself, paired well.

O’Brien Opens Up about PJ

O’Brien’s memories of working with Pearl Jam, running the gamut from big production decisions down to the smallest of details, are worth every second.  A few examples include: being caught off guard when suddenly selected to produce Vs. and hurriedly flying from the U.S. to Europe to meet with the band; piecing together numerous puzzle pieces to achieve the right sound in the studio (including a rushed trip to a department store to fetch a cheap instrument on the fly), and finding a way to make the band shine in the Vs. recording sessions notwithstanding Vedder’s disdain for the cushy studio in Marin County where the recordings took place. It’s indeed the stuff of legends from an otherwise private man.

Understated Producer with an Impressive Resume

Listening to O’Brien casually chat about his experiences in an unassuming manner, you might not realize that he is a legend who has worked with numerous iconic bands and put his stamp on rock music history. In addition to Pearl Jam, he’s worked with the likes of  AC/DC, Stone Temple Pilots, Soundgarden, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bob Dylan, Rage Against the Machine, Bruce Springsteen, Korn, Limp Bizkit, and Incubus.  Not too shabby! 

In fact, O’Brien’s self-deprecating manner and casual, low-key approach are probably what has led so many bands to work with him.  When at the helm of the studio controls, he is absorbed in the process and entirely focused on doing what is needed to draw out the band’s excellence and to achieve its vision for the songs.  He has a knack for identifying a band’s greatest skills, gifts, and unique chemistry, and drawing them out and enhancing them.  

If that is not enough, he is also an exceptional guitar player and keyboardist.  When the Black Crowes needed a guitar solo for Hard to Handle, O’Brien picked up a guitar and delivered a blistering solo. Yup, that’s Brendan. He’s also added electric piano/organ components to songs when requested or his instincts called for it, to enhance a song’s composition – akin to George Martin’s keyboard contributions to Beatles’ greats like “In My Life.”  

Pearl Jam’s “Sixth Man”

During 30-minutes of a three-hour exchange with Rick Beato, O’Brien divulged specifics about his place in Pearl Jam’s ascent. In an almost offhand way, he matter of factly shares fascinating details about sessions with Ed and crew. It quickly becomes apparent he’s the invisible “sixth man” on the Pearl Jam creative team – going back to the Beatles analogy, the George Martin of Pearl Jam, if you will.  

O’Brien’s “fingerprints” of improvisation and skill are all over the band’s albums to improve the end product. He served as producer, mixer, and engineer for: Vs. (producer, engineer, 1993); No Code (producer, mixer, 1996); Yield (producer, mixer, 1998); Binaural (mixer, 2000); Riot Act (mixer, 2002); Backspacer (producer, 2009); and Lightning Bolt (producer, mixer, 2013).  His crafty, innovative instincts and outside-the-box input can be heard on so many memorable jams — Dissident, Daughter, Elderly Woman, Betterman, and many more.

How Did O’Brien Get Selected to Work with Pearl Jam?

O’Brien provides listeners rich nuggets about how he was ever even considered in the first place to produce for Pearl Jam. As he put it, anybody who has success must work hard and have some luck. Those two factors ultimately earned him his ‘under the radar’ stardom status. It also helps to know people.  

His earlier interactions with the band were spotty.  At one point, as he said, they asked him to rework a PJ song for a video on MTV (“Jeremy”) which the band liked, and word got to him that his previous efforts with the Black Crowes impressed Jeff and Stone.  Kelly Curtis, band manager, was also a friend, who contacted Brendan about working together for the next album. One problem: when he found out about their interest in gauging whether or not there was a fit, he was in Los Angeles, and the band was touring in support of Ten in Nuremberg, Germany!   

O’Brien knew this was a rare, possible career-defining opportunity. As he said, the proper answer was, “yes, I’ll be there.” He flew all the way out to Europe to meet the band and cement the deal. He also credits recommendations from music executive Michael Goldstone (who signed PJ to Epic Records early on) and the Red Hot Chili Peppers – the “best kind of” referral – as crucial to his landing the job. 

Stone Gossard, aware of O’Brien’s jetlagged overseas fatigued travel, greeted him in Germany upon arrival with enthusiasm, and deadpanned, “man, you must really want this gig.”

Beato and O’Brien’s Pearl Jam Tidbits – 30-Mins of Bliss: Three Highlights

Though it’s not possible to list all of the eye-opening Pearl Jam details O’Brien discussed with Beato, three takeaways made a lasting impression:  His recollections on recording in a studio that Vedder hated, the moment he realized that Vedder was recording vocals that were as good as anything he had ever heard in rock history, and his creative and herculean efforts to achieve just the right sound on “Betterman.”

Let’s break it down.

‘The Site’ in Marin County, CA: Ed’s Bad Mood When Recording Record-Breaking Vs.

O’Brien’s first real assignment with Pearl Jam started out rather inauspiciously.  It’s long been an open secret that Eddie Vedder disliked the recording studio where Vs. was recorded, a luxurious location in California’s wealthy Marin County called “The Site.”  In fact in a 1993 Rolling Stone article “Five Against the World” by Cameron Crowe, Vedder said: “I f-cking hate it here. I’ve had a hard time. How do you make a rock record here? Maybe the old rockers, maybe they love this. Maybe they need the comfort and the relaxation. Maybe they need it to make dinner music.”   

Ed also mentions it in his Howard Stern interview – referencing a “compound called The Site” in Marin County as he explained how he wrote Elderly Woman one morning, riffing on some chords between two speaker stacks, prompting Stone to ask him “what was thing you were playing?” when stepping outside for coffee.

O’Brien validates with Beato that Ed wasn’t happy there. Too elite, too polished. After shopping around for venues, they landed on The Site which is a residential studio near San Rafael. It was selected as a compromise since Brendan lived in LA, and Pearl Jam was situated in their homebase of Seattle. As Brendan said, “Everybody liked it there quite a bit, except Eddie. Eddie hated it, okay. Hated it. And I’m not. I’m not telling tales here. He said that himself. So that part was difficult. But he did it, you know.”

How did the band deal with this problem?  O’Brien explains that the band developed and rehearsed the songs in a place more conducive to the creative process.  O’Brien recalls meeting the band in Seattle to rehearse in a metalworking shop in a beat-up warehouse – the very opposite of a luxurious rock star venue – which of course was perfect for Eddie and company. Laughing, he added there was a mean watchdog that he thought wanted to kill him. Along the journey of putting Vs together, they arranged some songs there, and then others at The Site. Just cool stuff!

Fun Fact: Turns out, Vs. set the record for most copies of an album sold during its first week, a record it held for five years.

When Beato Played Back Dissident for O’Brien’s Reaction: What to Say, What to Say?

During the interview Beato played a snippet of “Dissident” to get O’Brien’s thoughts on the recording.  Leaning in, O’Brien nodded and declared with emphasis, “It’s as good as anything I’ve heard on records.” He placed Vedder’s voice on par with, or better than, classic rock standouts.  O’Brien continued, “I remember he sang this one, I mean, I knew already he was a great singer. Yeah, but when he sang this one, I remember thinking that is as good as anything to me.  Like Sam Cooke or anything Paul Rodgers, like the great singers I grew up listening to. But, his performance was as good as any singer I’d heard on records. Yeah, I remember just thinking, whatever is happening here, I’ve just got to keep this all together.”

Betterman from Vitalogy: The Sum of Live and Recorded Parts 

O’Brien’s flexible, creative, “outside the box” approach to recording is revealed in his account of how “Betterman” was assembled. 

Remarkably, the final product on the album features a combo of studio and live recordings, including drums, bass, and Mike’s part taken from performances at Fox Theater live in Atlanta, including sections captured from sound checks.

If that wasn’t complicated enough, before the song was put to bed, O’Brien got a call from Vedder when the editing was almost finished, and said the vocal sound was “too big” in the song’s opening. O’Brien understood how important it was to address Ed’s concern and invited him to come from Seattle to a studio in Atlanta where O’Brien was working on a different project. Ed made the trip to the east coast. 

“At first, ‘Betterman’ sounded really good and it didn’t sound quite so poppy,” said O’Brien. “But, Eddie calls me last minute and says, ‘I gotta tell you, I appreciate everything you’ve done with this, but it’s just too big at first. I can’t live with the first chorus. The song starts too big’.” 

O’Brien continued, “I told Ed, let’s see if we can fix it. Whenever an artist calls you and says, I can’t live with something, I gotta fix it. He was right about it because the intro in the first verse of this is amazing. It really is. He was 100% correct about it. And it’s better than the version we would have initially done.”

The goal was to re-do the intro and choruses, which they did in a long afternoon. O’Brien and Vedder huddled with “hammers and cloths” to sculpt the sound, until Vedder and O’Brien were comfortable they achieved the right sound that they were looking for, delivering the song’s meaning exactly as Eddie intended it.

Tune-in for Rare and Riveting Insight (Pearl Jam chat runs 1:24:22 to 1:53:28)

There’s much more in this fascinating interview, not only about Pearl Jam, but many other bands.  The whole thing is worth a listen.  However, if you don’t have time for the 3-hour interview and you want to go straight to the Pearl Jam parts, watch between 1:24:22 to 1:53:28.  Either way, music brilliance awaits.

A career communications professional in the DC-area, I have been a longtime freelance writer of concert and music performance reviews for publications covering a wide range of artists – from Pearl Jam, to the Psychedelic Furs, to Ben Harper, and many more in between.  I’ve been hooked on Pearl Jam since the band’s debut.  A proud father and husband, I enjoy contributing to causes and nonprofits that help make the world a better place.