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Originally published Monday, December 17, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Ames Bros., Pearl Jam's visual chroniclers

At every Pearl Jam show, a crowd gathers around the merchandise stand with a collective eye on one thing: The poster. The unique, one-of-500 show...

Seattle Times staff columnist

At every Pearl Jam show, a crowd gathers around the merchandise stand with a collective eye on one thing: The poster. The unique, one-of-500 show poster designed by the legendary Ames Bros.

At some point, the harried clerk turns and takes the display poster down. That means that's it. No more.

And every time, a groan passes over the crowd like a rogue wave, washing half of the fans back to their seats.

"They do?" Coby Schultz asked the other day.

"Really?" Barry Ament followed.

Forgive them. Ament and Schultz — the Ames Bros. — are never at the shows to see the way their work is received by some and coveted by most. They're too busy creating posters for the next run of Pearl Jam shows, putting an image to the cities, the sets and the times we're living in.

The posters are a rock 'n' roll tradition, and a Pearl Jam signature that the Ames Bros. have been keeping alive for 13 years.

This week, the artistic team — along with Pearl Jam in-house designer Brad Klausen — will release a hefty tome called "Pearl Jam vs. Ames Bros: 13 Years of Tour Posters."

The book, available on www.pearljam.com and www.amesbros.com, features 229 posters and sells for $50. A limited, signed and numbered edition goes for $200, and includes 32 bonus pages with more than 250 sketches, notes and original poster art, as well as eight Mylar overlays.

"Everyone is confident that people are going to be blown away by it," said Tim Bierman, head of the Pearl Jam fan organization Ten Club. "Besides an actual recording or a live show, the posters evoke more excitement than any aspect of the Pearl Jam culture.

"It's not about merchandise or commercialism," he said. "It's close to the music. It's part of the creative process."

And it is a nerve-racking, sleep-robbing affair for Ament and Schultz, who are still a little amazed at the path their childhood doodling has taken.

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Both grew up drawing caricatures of their teachers, or designing tattoos for their friends.

"I found some the other night," Schultz said. "Cried laughing."

Ament, 35, had plans to be a dentist but abandoned that once he realized that while he loved math, he "couldn't deal" with blood.

Schultz, 36, dreamed of playing baseball professionally, then entered college studying chemical equations. ("I hated it.")

They met in a color-theory class at the University of Montana in 1990 and became close when they were both accepted for a one-year stint at a design school in Holland.

Together, they were nothing but trouble. T-shirt scams. An aborted attempt to make fake IDs with a hand-drawn seal of the state of Montana.

They decided to get serious, and, inspired by graphic icons such as Hank Trotter and Art Chantry, set out to make posters.

"We had this connection to Pearl Jam, so we took advantage ... ," Ament said.

There is that: Ament's brother, Jeff, plays bass for the band.

Jeff Ament came to Seattle first. When Barry arrived, the two brothers planned to start a graphic-design company.

Then Pearl Jam's first album, "Ten," hit in 1991, and Jeff (who designed the album art) had other things to do. So Barry took over the band's graphics work.

"We were selling a lot of records," Jeff Ament said — indeed, "Ten" went platinum 12 times — "but the organization was really small. So it made sense to be hands-on with Barry."

Band members are still involved in some designs — Eddie Vedder and Ament with album packaging; Vedder and Stone Gossard with T-shirts.

"It's all there for anyone to take," Jeff Ament said.

Still, design and graphics needed special attention, and Barry Ament was the guy for the job.

He started designing Pearl Jam's newsletters and CDs, their T-shirts and tube socks, along with something called the "executioner beanie."

When Schultz joined him in 1995, posters took center stage, with the band's blessing.

"We wanted to treat each show as a one-of-a-kind night," Jeff Ament said.

They turned out to be the art form where the Ames Bros. felt most challenged, and fulfilled.

"If you like music and art and design, you want to do posters," Schultz said. "It's the holy grail."

Said Barry Ament: "It's the special thing that 500 people are going to get a copy of. It puts a face on the concert."

Does he remember the first one he did?

Ament wishes he didn't. It was for Pearl Jam's "No Code" tour of 1999.

"A 'Snakeman,' " he said with a smirk. "It was what it was."

By 1998, the Ames Bros. had been nominated for a Grammy for their package design of "Yield," and were taking on more clients such as MTV, Nike, Absolut, Cooper Mini, K2 and Ride Snowboards.

So the band hired Brad Klausen to design Ten Club material and album art.

Klausen, 31, was raised in Los Angeles, attended the University of Colorado and, upon graduation, got a job in a motion-graphics firm.

One disillusioned day, he created a résumé for the Pearl Jam organization — a 4-foot-wide poster with his credentials worked into the design.

Thanks but no thanks, the band said.

Eight months later, Klausen had been fired from the motion-graphics firm and was traveling through Europe with his girlfriend when he got a message from his mother: Pearl Jam called.

He moved to Seattle in 1999 and was soon designing the CD packages for a band he had loved for years. No pressure there.

He started with Pearl Jam's 1999 Christmas single, designed 2000's "Binaural," and has since designed six more albums, seven official bootlegs and three DVDs.

"You have to think, 'What does the music look like?' so you're listening, pulling apart lyrics," Klausen said. "Knowing the band's tastes is really helpful."

Klausen started doing posters in 2004, in a style he describes as "subdued." He also does posters, Web content and album artwork for Built to Spill and Queens of the Stone Age, among other bands.

"I like making the image so you don't get it right away," he said. "It doesn't hit you over the head."

The Pearl Jam posters feature geography and politics, superheroes and cowboys, tractors and lawn mowers in styles both futuristic and retro.

The Ames Bros. keep sketchbooks and idea banks, magazine scraps. Everything is a possibility.

There is a method to the madness, though: "You can't just have a guy," Schultz said. "You have to have a guy with a thing."

So there is a pilot with a martini. A cowboy-hat-wearing gorilla with a mosquito resembling Dick Cheney, with "666" on its head.

President Bush has been a constant inspiration. For the 2006 show in Bern, Switzerland, he was depicted as Mad Magazine icon Alfred E. Neuman. For the Benaroya Hall show October 2003, Ament created Bush as four monsters: a vampire, a werewolf, a devil, Frankenstein.

You get the idea.

"We strive not to do the same thing twice, and try to make something for everyone," Ament said. "Somebody may hate the Denver poster, but they really love Detroit."

Jeff Ament is grateful for the trust the band has with the three artists.

"They represent themselves as much as they represent us," he said. "If it were up to us, we would be very Luddite in our art."

One sore spot: Those who sell the posters on eBay for 10 times what they paid at the show.

"You put your creativity into a poster, and this person gets to come along at the last minute and make a profit off of something they had no part of," Klausen said bitterly. "A poster for them is a voucher for cash. Parasites."

Now with the book, every fan will have access to every poster — and a bit of history, too.

"It's a book about posters, but it's also a book about a relationship, making it to 13 years together," Ament said. "There's blood involved."

Nicole Brodeur: 206-464-2334

or nbrodeur@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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