Stone Gossard and Mason Jennings: Shield Bearers

John Patrick Gatta on March 26, 2021
Stone Gossard and Mason Jennings: Shield Bearers

Six years after issuing their first Painted Shield single, Stone Gossard and Mason Jennings have grown their slow-burn project into a de facto supergroup.

What’s a musician to do when he’s in one of the biggest bands in the world but that band has been known to take up to seven years between albums? For guitarist Stone Gossard—who also played in the seminal grunge bands Green River and Mother Love Bone before co-founding Pearl Jam—the answer is to work with different collaborators until his well of ideas solidifies into the new musical vehicle. And the Seattle musician’s latest, slow-burn project is Painted Shield, a de facto supergroup featuring Los Angeles-based former Pearl Jam drummer Matt Chamberlain, Twin Cities singer-songwriter Mason Jennings and Seattle singer/keyboardist Brittany Davis. Created in a socially distant manner by sharing files, years before that recording method was a forced norm, the band’s self-titled debut incorporates elements of electronica (“I Am Your Country” and “Evil Winds”), pop psychedelia (“Ten Years From Now” and the title track), lo-fi (“On the Level”) and upbeat funk-rock (“Knife Fight”).

Painted Shield’s origins date back to a series of instrumental demos Gossard and Chamberlain started casually working on a number of years ago. Sensing the possibility of a more formal collaboration might be on the horizon, a mutual friend then introduced the Pearl Jam guitarist to Jennings, which resulted in Painted Shield’s 2014 limited-edition 7-inch single, “Knife Fight.” The song was well[1]received, but, before they had time to push out another single, the musicians turned their attention elsewhere: Gossard focused on Pearl Jam, who continued to tour sporadically and released Gigaton right as the global pandemic took hold of the US, while Jennings worked through some heavy personal issues on his 2018 release, Songs From When We Met.

Finally, in 2018, Jennings and Gossard started hashing out some more ideas, quickly passing those sketches along to Chamberlain and Davis. And, after hearing what the four musicians had worked up, producer/engineer John Congleton signed on and ended up mixing the nine tunes.

“I love making music, and I especially love collaborating with other musicians,” Gossard says. “A song can feel like a painting or a piece of a sculpture. Little by little, as you work on it, a song reveals itself and becomes what it is, and that’s what we have now.” Stone, why did you put together a new band rather than make a solo record at this point in your career?

STONE GOSSARD: I’ve made some solo records where I sing and write the general arrangements, but I always have somebody else play on them, too. As you do that, you learn that the best stuff happens when somebody else’s ideas are mixing in with your own. It’s the most interesting way to work and, also, it’s got the most upside.

You don’t know if it’s going to succeed or fail. But, if you bring different parts together that have different points of view and you can make them harmonize, then it gets back to that classic band scenario. Think of your favorite bands as kids and none of them would be the same without all four or five people in there doing their own unique thing. The alchemy of bands still intrigues me.

MASON JENNINGS: Originally, when Stone and I met, this was just a fun idea. I was looking for some way to collaborate and he was an awesome person to collaborate with.

My wife listens to a lot of different types of music. When we started this up again a year and a half ago—when we would listen what we had recorded—I noticed that she would sing some other part of a song, some keyboard part or some bassline that I wouldn’t even be hearing. I started thinking to myself, “Wow, there might be a huge part of music that I’m not hearing because I focus so hard on the melody, the lyrics and the basic chordal structures.”

Thinking about Stone, it seems like we might listen to slightly different parts of the song and then, when we work together, these songs have been getting better and better. So, it’s been experiential. Also, I started thinking, “Maybe I can’t hear everything or maybe I can’t hear all the cool stuff that’s in here but Stone can.” Then, to go further with that, Matt Chamberlain and Brittany Davis hear different stuff than Stone and I as well. So, it’s about the four of us. And then having John Congleton as a producer just made it that much better. So, that was really cool growth for me.

The first song you collaborated on was the single “Knife Fight.” How did things develop from there?

SG: “Knife Fight” was instantaneous. That baited the hook. We were like, “This is great. It couldn’t be better.” As we worked more, there were more songs where our fishing line got tangled or where we got into the weeds. Then, we got into the actual process of having a back and forth, which can go either way. Sometimes, those exchanges can be fruitful and, sometimes, they can just peter out because there’s not enough forward momentum.

But, we found our forward momentum again and there were 3-5 other ones toward the end that were instantaneous, like “Knife Fight.” But we worked through some songs, too. We pushed through “Painted Shield” and “Time Machine” and there were a few in there that we really needed to rewrite, rearrange—it was more like sculpting stuff off, adding it again and repainting it.

Then we were patient in the sense that we didn’t try to figure out exactly what it was at the beginning. And we didn’t try to write eight songs like “Knife Fight” as soon as we figured out how to write that song. Instead, we introduced other artists like Brittany and Matt into the mix and, as the process got further along, we encouraged them to write songs, too. After that, we gave the whole process over to John Congleton and asked him to assume the fifth position in this band. We said, “Do exactly what you would do to elevate these songs and don’t worry about what the band was going to think.” We got into more of that, sharing and not having expectations.

That’s the thing about rock-and-roll, and rock songs: Sometimes, you can throw something down and it doesn’t really work but the smallest thing can shift on it and, all of a sudden, it becomes your favorite part because of someone’s reaction to it or because of how it kept it all up in the air. Somehow, mistakes can turn into glorious moments. You try not to give up on anything until you have to.

MJ: I heard a quote this morning from Stephen King where he said, “Don’t put your writing desk in the center of the room. Put it to the wall because the center of your life can’t be writing.” That’s the same thing with this. My life has to be my life, and then Painted Shield has to be over on the side wall. But, because of that, I actually end up working on it a lot. I’ll check in with it, here and there, every day, and it’s great because I feel fresh when I’m interacting with it.

That’s definitely been something I’ve learned a lot over my life because I was an obsessive teenager and I was obsessed in my 20s. I would spend so much time working on music—to the point where, over time, a lot of stuff didn’t get released because I got burnt out. Late in my 30s, I would work four-hour days. Now, in my 40s, I’m working in an even looser way but the quality keeps getting better and better.

Whether it was recording each member’s parts remotely or being so open in handing over ideas and songs to each other, how did the album’s creation take you out of your comfort zones?

MJ: At the beginning of this, I was way out of my comfort zone. I felt like I was reacting, trying to be like, “What would a singer in this song sound like?” Over time, you learn that’s one of the great things with patience. The idea of being patient, creatively, is out of my comfort zone, too. But, slowly things started working and then—talking to Stone and doing 20 songs or something like that over the last few years together—I realized that the stuff that was working was the stuff where I was completely trying to tune into my own frequency. That actually made the song better. If you walk into a party where everybody’s wearing a certain thing and you might say to yourself, “Should I wear this shirt? Should I wear these pants?” But, eventually, you’re like, “I’m just going to wear what I’m wearing because this is too hard to anticipate. Maybe they’re going to like me. Maybe they won’t.” That’s been the growth as far as getting more comfortable in my own skin here.

SG: We had a couple of songs that were written by Matt, where he brought in the arrangement and Mason sang over it. And I said to myself, “You’ve got to play something like a guitar player plays to fit in.” You can be a rhythm-guitar player and be down on the ground floor. You’re not going to screw anything up because you’re part of the foundation of this song but now, suddenly, you are playing a role where you add color and you start to think to yourself, “How do I fit in when I’m playing around the singer?” I barely can play in key, to be honest. So, I got to be a guitar player in a way that I’m not used to at all and it worked out. I wasn’t on the ground floor anymore, but I found parts that I ended up really liking. It was a confidence builder but I was honestly terrified.

Did the final result match your initial vision?

SG: It could have been a punk record. I had no idea where I was going. It’s really a smorgasbord. It’s a patchwork quilt in a rock-and-roll way. You could hear our influences, where this song might be coming from, but it’s a mish-mash, which is what I love about it.

It’s the luxury of being completely unknown and under the radar.

SG: And I liked that! We’re writing another record now. So, it’s interesting—we have to try and make a different record. We know what we did last time but we’ve also already found some new paths. But how do we keep all those doors open so that stuff keeps coming in—more nutrients in the currents—so that everybody keeps growing? MJ: It’s less minimal than I thought it was going to be. Even with the song “Knife Fight,” the original version was more stripped down. Once Jeff Fielder played guitar on it, the song changed. Once John Congleton and Matt Chamberlain got on board, it really blew into this new territory. It also feels much more modern than I expected, which is really refreshing to me. I thought it would sound a little more like what you would imagine Stone and I would sound like, and this is more progressive and modern—in a good way. That was exciting for me.

Did creating music help ease the sting of not being able to tour this year?

MJ: It was huge. I was on the road and I had a huge amount of touring scheduled. I was in New York in March and things were canceled right away, on the first day of the tour. So, it has been awesome to have the time to work on this music. John Congleton’s schedule was canceled so we could all work on this over the summer. And, as Stone said, we’ve already been working on the next record, too.

SG: When we’re writing, every three or four days, I’ll get either a new track that somebody’s added to or something entirely new from somebody. And those little bursts of, “Oh, my God! That’s so great!” can carry me for a few days. It’s really been a light for all of us to have something that was making an impact.

Stone, you’ve mentioned that you’re trying to figure out some way to perform during the pandemic.

SG: My gut feeling is that we’ll do something in a studio before we probably play a live show. If we’re in the studio at any point together, or even in the same town, then we’ll definitely rehearse, and I’m sure we’ll film those rehearsals to capture us playing together for the first time. It’ll be documented and it’ll be fun because we’ve never played together in a room—it will be interesting to see how the puzzle pieces will fit together in a live situation. It’s going to be fascinating. It’s going to be a thrill. The ultimate goal is to play some shows. I think it’s going to work out that, sometime in the next nine months, it can happen.

Speaking of puzzle pieces, what did Brittany Davis add to the project?

SG: She’s an amazing person. I met her because I’m making a record with her. She’s a singer-songwriter herself, and she is making her own solo record. In the process of making that record, I got to witness her talents and she’s an incredibly gifted keyboard player—a thrilling piano player—and has this enormous ear. She just sits down and hears a song once and does something fantastic with it, which is magic. I always go back to X and think about how X would still be cool if that band was only John Doe—he writes great songs. But the genius of Exene [Cervenka]—the way she sings, the uniqueness of her harmonic information— is what created this voice that is undeniably original and undeniably bigger than the individual parts. That idea could even go further in terms of how Brittany’s spirit and harmony can meld with Mason’s and make something truly special.

Painted Shield’s debut album is out on your Loosegroove Records. What led you to revive the label?

SG: It’s a series of opportunities that all ended up being presented right at the same time—wanting to collaborate with Regan [Hagar, Loosegroove co-founder and onetime bandmate in Brad] and having records that we were excited about and connections to the Orchard [the music distribution company that operates in 45 markets worldwide], which has been incredible. It’s Loosegroove but it’s really the Orchard. That’s the foundation of our label. But, everybody’s doing their own thing these days. Waiting for a major label to pave the way for you—those days are long gone, if there ever actually were those days. It’s fun to collaborate and to tinker with your friends.