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Made in Montana

Pearl Jam and Ames Bros present 13 years of posters

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Truth be told, Barry Ament wanted nothing more than to get the hell out of Dodge. The younger brother of Pearl Jam bassist and University of Montana graduate Jeff Ament, Barry spent his teenage years looking for any opportunity to put rural Big Sandy in the rearview. He’d do just about anything to see the world, and perhaps follow the footsteps of his brother to Missoula and Seattle. Barry, nine years younger than Jeff, even considered becoming a dentist.

“The dentist up in Havre probably had a nice house and a decent car,” Barry, 35, says now. “I was just trying to figure out what I would do. It’s pretty limited in Big Sandy. You say, ‘I could farm or I could farm.’ I was just looking for something. I knew I wasn’t going to be a farmer, and I couldn’t fix cars. What I wanted to do was draw.”

Luckily, things sort of worked out for Barry. Instead of landing someplace exotic, he enrolled at Montana State University to take advantage of its graphic design program. There he hit it off with Coby Schultz, who grew up near Kalispell. After two years at MSU and a year abroad in Holland, Barry started as in-house designer for Pearl Jam in 1991, then created Ames Bros, a small Seattle-based graphic design shop, with Schultz a few years later. Finding their first client was easy. In 1995, Barry designed a rough silkscreen concert poster of a man holding a snake for Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy Tour. Thirteen years and 229 posters later, Ames Bros, along with longtime band artist Brad Klausen, still create new posters for each Pearl Jam concert. And their body of work has now been captured in a beautiful hardbound coffee table book released earlier this month, Pearl Jam vs. Ames Bros. Looking back, Barry credits Big Sandy with fostering his talents and launching his career.

“I don’t think it was a hotbed of art and music at the time, not by any means,” he says. “But as far as places to grow up, I think Montana and especially Montana at that time, it was a great place to be a kid. There wasn’t a lot of pressure and kids could just be kids. I was never a great artist, but I was allowed to be an artist there.”

Proof of Ames Bros’ prodigious achievements has come in the massive self-published collection. Working backward from the band’s 2006-2007 World Wide Tour to that first snake poster (“I can look at that first one and just find a million things wrong with it,” Barry says) there are 264 pages of youthful experiments turned into finished products and, in most cases, treasured collector’s items.

For instance, Shultz’s second poster ever for the band was cut out of two sheets of rubylith and depicted a devil and a mosquito for a 1996 No Code Tour stop in Istanbul. In the book’s poster-by-poster commentary by the artists, printers and band members, Jeff Ament refers to it as “the grail of PJ rock posters,” despite Shultz’s admission that it’s still a raw, unrefined piece of artwork.

Then there’s a 1996 poster for a Washington, D.C., show done by Ames Bros collaborator George Estrada featuring a buxom mermaid emerging from emerald green waters. Barry recalls Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder seeing the work in progress and being silently disgusted.

“We almost blew the whole thing right out of the gate,” writes Barry. “Note to self…Juggs Magazine (no, I’m not f#$cking kidding) isn’t a good resource for a Pearl Jam poster!”

“We’re lucky that there is a lot of trust,” Barry says of the band’s relationship with Ames Bros.

Once the band starts a tour, Ames Bros usually has just two or three days to produce each finished piece, creating a “crazy” deadline schedule. Sometimes the band will ask to pre-approve artwork, but often time doesn’t allow for proofing or changes. “Things happen really fast…Honestly, I think there are a lot of times where my guess is they aren’t seeing a poster until someone comes up after a show and asks them to sign it.”

That puts immense pressure on Ames Bros to create fresh designs—they rely a lot on the band’s outspoken political views and lyrics for inspiration—and ensure the final products will be up to Pearl Jam’s standards. There’s also increased demand to live up to the growing expectations of fans and collectors, a burgeoning community ever more critical of each poster. In one sense, these enthusiasts make a book like Pearl Jam vs. Ames Bros possible, but they’ve also changed how Barry works.

“Way back when we were making one poster for one night, a couple hundred people would buy it and that would be the last you’d hear about it,” says Barry. “Now, they’ll do a show in Europe and somebody’s taking a picture with their phone and uploading it to a website and everyone’s discussing it over here. There are a lot more eyeballs, a lot more people who want to critique. The God’s honest truth is I can’t go to those sites. If I’m satisfied with it and the band’s satisfied with it, that’s good enough for me.”

And so far, so good. Although Ames Bros got its start with Pearl Jam, the Seattle-based company has built a client list that now includes MTV and Virgin Mobile, and also produces T-shirts. They hired a third designer last year to help meet demand. For Barry, it’s all a long way from trading sketches at the post office with his best friend in Big Sandy as a five-year-old, or doodling portraits of classmates and teachers in study hall.

“I didn’t really appreciate Big Sandy or Montana growing up. I just wanted to leave and follow my brother or do something, anything, different,” says Barry. “Now, I realize it was a good place for me to learn. Whatever limited access we had to the arts, I just remember my parents took advantage of it. My dad helped us build skateboard ramps; everyone took piano lessons. My parents set me up with art lessons with a lady up the street who did landscapes. My brother was always sending me ideas and encouraging me. Whatever it was, we were exposed to it. Looking back, I guess Montana wasn’t so bad.”

Pearl Jam vs. Ames Bros is available online at pearljam.com and amesbros.com for $50. A special limited edition signed by the artists and featuring 32 bonus pages runs $200.

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