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Jeff Ament keeps traveling a circular route, from his home state of Montana to arena-sized concerts around the world and back.

After Pearl Jam finished a European tour in July, they jumped in a car with some friends for a road trip around Montana to see skateparks he helped build: Lewistown, his hometown of Big Sandy, and then to Box Elder on the Rocky Boy Reservation, where a brand-new one just opened.

The 55-year-old has been returning to Montana to live part-time since around 1993 to 1995, when Pearl Jam's first run of albums suddenly placed them among the biggest bands in the world. Coming back to Missoula, where he studied at the University of Montana, was a relief from the oddities of fame.

"Seattle was a hard place to be at that time," he said earlier this month during a visit to the UM campus. "I lived in this little community in lower Queen Anne or wherever, and all of a sudden I couldn't go to the grocery store without it being weird, you know?"

During time off from the band, he'd hang out with friends and family here, and spend his free time mountain biking or taking trips to Flathead Lake or Glacier National Park.

"I just fell in love with Missoula all over again," he said. He'd return to Seattle and the band feeling fresh.

"I thought, 'Wow, there's something to the lifestyle that is out here.' That's how it's been for me ever since. If I have more than two or three weeks off from the band, I'm here," he said.

** **

To casual Pearl Jam fans around the United States and the world, the group's 2018 U.S. tour schedule has an anomaly. This year, Missoula is one of ​only four U.S. cities, and the others have relatively gargantuan ballparks​:​ Seattle (Safeco Field, 47,000​ capacity​) and Chicago (Wrigley, around 40,000) and Boston (Fenway Park, around 37,600).

The band has played in the Garden City, a comparatively tiny market for a stadium act, every time U.S. Sen. Jon Tester has run for office since 2006. 

Ament, about six years younger than Tester, knew the Democratic hopeful from growing up in Big Sandy.

He said it's his "big ask of the band over the last 12 years" to play these shows.

"The entire band is totally proud of him in how he's approached his politics," he said.

Concerts like the upcoming Missoula​ date​ are "the pinnacle," according to Ament, who is almost certainly the first and only Montanan in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (The state has a short list of musicians who've found success outside, and the hall couldn't verify it for sure​.)

"You want to do a show in front of your family, your friends, your community, and the fact that you can help out a fellow Big Sandy kid try to keep his Senate seat, that just adds a whole 'nother level to it. And to be in this location. And to be back in the stadium again," he said, while standing on the upper deck. "We haven't been here for 20 years, so I have to admit I was nervous whether if we were going to sell tickets," adding that you don't want to play a half-full show at Washington-Grizzly.

Despite any nervousness on Ament's part, UM expects around 25,000 people to turn out on Monday.

For the Missoula concerts, lead singer Eddie Vedder lets Ament "drive the set list," he said. Political songs will make their way into the show. Beyond that, they look at what they played the last time and mix in new songs along with other tracks they haven't played.

"That's sort of the work that goes into a set list every time we play a city, no matter if it's New York, or wherever. You try to create something brand-new every time, and luckily we have 150 songs that we can choose between. We can mix it up pretty good," he said. "'Even Flow' and 'Alive' will always be in there, but the rest of the songs are kind of up for grabs."

***

When Ament was growing up, the Hi-Line wasn't a place where one could expect easy entertainment, outside of ball games on TV and whatever fun you could find on your own: basketball, football and bicycles.

"I think my work ethic and my imagination, and maybe my attraction to people that are passionate and people that are excited about what they're doing, I think all of that kind of came from growing up in Big Sandy," he said. While some people, often those who grew up in the suburbs complain about getting into trouble out of sheer boredom, it wasn't the case for him.

"I don't ever remember being bored," he said.

After he came to Missoula for college, he briefly played basketball for the Griz. He studied under printmaker James Todd, whose art he collects. He also skated, and played in local bands, including a punk group called Deranged Diction. After he moved to Seattle, he formed Green River, then Mother Love Bone, and then Pearl Jam, a succession of foundational groups in the Seattle scene.

***

In the nearly 30 years of its existence, Pearl Jam's music has had subtle hints of Montana.

"I do the bulk of my writing out here. There's so much I'm still trying to understand about how I grew up, the community that I live in, the community that I still live in," he said.

Ament wrote the music for "Jeremy" and "Nothing As It Seems" and "Smile," among others. 

In his case, a song can sometimes make it "too far along" to bring it to the band, and he'll funnel it toward solo projects. In the spring, he released his third solo album, "Heaven/Hell" where he takes the lead on vocals.

Timing is a major factor in what songs make it onto a Pearl Jam record, he said.

"We really could've made 10 totally different records than what we ended up making, only because so much happens when we're all in a room together," he said.

That's his preferred method: getting together and letting ideas unfold spontaneously and recording for a couple of weeks.

"There's some magic coming out of the ether," he said. "That's more exciting to me than writing a song and presenting it to the band and having Ed sing your words. … It does feel like magic, it does make me believe in God or something or some sort of power, because you don't know where that stuff comes from. Best part about being in a band, really."

The group is one of the last standing from its era, either due to break-ups or tragedies. Aside from switches in the drum chair, now occupied by longtime member Matt Cameron, the original line-up is intact: Vedder, Ament and guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready.

Ament attributes the longevity to their work ethic: The band members stay busy with other projects and all write their own music. For his part, working on his solo material makes him appreciate his band members more.

"If you're not really a drummer, and you're trying to play some drums on your solo record … then you go, 'Wow, Matt Cameron is so amazing. I always knew he was amazing, but he's more amazing than I ever thought.' And I could say that about every single guy in the band," he said.

The group, which now plays 2 1/2-hour sets, is a stronger live act now than ever to his ear.

"We're better players and we're better listeners," he said.

***

The band plans on recording more this fall for an 11th studio album, already having released a single, "Can't Deny Me," which references #MeToo and other current political movements.

He said that "it's hard for that stuff not to seep in" when they're writing, and the band has never masked its politics.

"We were never thinking about bumming somebody out because we had a different opinion. We were just sort of wearing our heart on our sleeves. If there was some sort of injustice or there was something going on that we felt needed to be talked about, we've never had a problem throwing it out there and saying, 'This is who we are, this is where we come from,'" he said.

The band came of age when a rock band's politics could be headline news, and their statements weren't always welcome.

Ament said it's not "spewing politics," but comes from genuine concern.

He and the band "feel like there should be more opportunity for everybody, no matter what. There shouldn't just be opportunity for white men," he said. 

"I love that it makes people mad, or confuses people, or makes people say like, 'Shut up and rock.' Well, we're doing both, man. Part of the reason that we're rocking is that we really (expletive) believe in what we're doing," he said.

For his band, there's "nothing halfway about playing a song. We're playing the song because we're all in on this. I can't imagine doing it any other way. Again, as much as I love feel-good music and party music and whatever, once you've​ ​experienced making this kind of art, you can't really imagine doing it any other way because there's so much weight in it. … At the end of the night, you feel like you did everything you could in that particular moment," he said.

***

Ament had quit skateboarding for awhile, but picked it up again after the band's first stop in Australia, where he saw a ramp on the beach near the hotel. Back in the States, he met ramp-builders like Grindline and Evergreen, both of which have brought their skills to parks around Montana. Ament said he kept meeting more skaters who traveled long distances around Montana, and efforts to build parks would grow from there.

"We'll do matching funds, we're creating a scenario that will work for those places and it's just magic for me," he said. It gives him a good reason to travel around the eastern half of the state, and "the energy around it is so fantastic," he said.

"I can't imagine a more fun thing to come out of being in a rock band," he said.

Traveling around Montana has made a mark on the band's discography over the years: Ament's photographs are on the covers of two albums. The confrontational black-and-white close-up of a sheep's mouth poking through a fence on "Vs." was shot on a sheep ranch in Victor. The cover of "Yield" is a traffic sign and classic Montana highway vista, "where the road looks like it's infinite," he said.

He remembered the spot, between Lincoln and Great Falls on Highway 200, while the band was having "big, lofty" discussions about the album title.

"It's almost dead-center between here and where I grew up," he said.

***

So what goes through someone's head when they play a stadium at their alma mater?

"Did I get everybody on the guest list?" he said with a laugh. "You don't want to have that eight songs in, like, 'Oh, my God, I forgot to put my uncle on the list. Is he in the parking lot right now? I need to go tell my tour manager in a few songs, make sure my Uncle Pat gets in.'"

He said it's easy to focus amidst the chaos of a big show like this one, which he described as a big-tent concert with friends, family and fans of all political persuasions, set in his favorite environment.

"As you get older, you hear parents and grandparents say, 'My favorite time of year is when all the family gets together', and that's what this is for me. It's the family reunion, with however many hundreds of thousands of watts running through the P.A.," he said.

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