Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready has an identifiable sound. You hear him in a song and know it's him. He can destroy with distortion, or he can go aqueous with a phaser pedal and trace intricate music box dream-state lines. Mainly, McCready pulls from a three-tiered turret of influences: Ace Frehley, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Jimi Hendrix. Coming up in Roosevelt High School in Seattle, McCready's blues-based fingerprint of KISS could be heard in his first band, Shadow. From there, it was Temple of the Dog, then Pearl Jam. In 1994, McCready formed Mad Season with Layne Staley of Alice in Chains, Barrett Martin of Screaming Trees, and bassist John Baker Saunders—they released one studio album called Above. Sadly, addiction took hold of Staley and Saunders, claiming both their lives and spelling an indefinite end to the band.
On April 2, a deluxe edition of Mad Season's Above will be released with two CDs containing the original studio album, three previously unreleased tracks with Mark Lanegan singing, and a DVD that includes videos of their last show at the Moore and their New Year's Eve performance at the now-defunct RKCNDY. Mike McCready spoke.
When you think about Mad Season, what's the first thing that comes to mind?
Sadness. Tragedy. I think about Above, I think we made a good record. Sadness that Baker and Layne aren't around anymore and that I can't talk to them about stuff. I wonder what they would be like now. Would they be parents? What would they be doing? I miss them. I'm proud of the record, but sad as well.
How did Mad Season begin?
I was in rehab in 1994, getting sober for the first time, and I met Baker there. Layne was a friend of mine, and I knew he was struggling, I started thinking that I wanted to help him out. I was naive back then, thinking I could save people. My initial inclination with it was to help Layne out and to get to play with Barrett—I'd always loved his drumming.
Please talk about the song "River of Deceit." It's so lucid and composed.
It was a mellow riff I was playing around with. I used a Strat on the out of phase position, so it sounded more Stevie Ray Vaughan–ish I guess. I did a harmony over the top of it at the beginning. I feel like the song is like the title—a slow moving river, not to be too obvious [laughs]. It became so much cooler when Layne put lyrics to it. He sat me down and explained the lyrics "My pain is self chosen/So the prophet says." They were from a Kahlil Gibran book called The Prophet. It's always resonated with me—when you're struggling in the midst of any addiction, it's your choice to do that. It's pretty profound, for a young guy like Layne to say that at the time. Barrett added some viola to it and gave it this quality that made it different than a rock song. It was more poetic in a way.
Y'all caught something on that album.
It did all happen quickly. I think we played a total of six shows—two of them were videotaped, which we're including in this rerelease. We did a lot of stuff in six to eight months. It was easy, not forced. Lighting in a bottle.
There are some sensitive and intense things there, with the losses of Layne and Baker. Were you all conscious there was a struggle with drugs? Or was it something that just went on socially without the thought that it could possibly kill you?
One thing led to another. Everyone was partying a lot back then—there was a lot of drinking and there were drugs around. When you're young, you don't think it's something that's going to kill you. You're in a rock band, you think it's going to last forever. You buy into your own press a little bit. But if addictions aren't dealt with, they'll end in jail, institutions, or death. Those aren't good options.
How were you able to pull back and climb out of the addiction?
I wish I knew. I just started seeing that there were other things worth more than what I was doing. Somehow I got lucky. But I honestly can't tell you the real reason I was able to pull out of it and other people weren't. Between inches and seconds in people's lives, and they're gone. I work at it. I'm very serious about it.
Thinking of Layne, he seemingly had it all: the voice, the bands, his presence. But that's on the outside, you never know what's going on inside someone's head.
Yeah, I couldn't tell you what was going on inside his head. And I'd known him for a long time. Pearl Jam opened for Alice in Chains on our first tour when we were called Mookie Blaylock. I got to know Layne on that West Coast tour. We were brand-new. It was an amazing time—we were stoked, celebrating; we were young and got to quit our day jobs. With Soundgarden and other bands at the time, we all came up together. My band Shadow would open for Green River, punk bands would play with metal bands, we all knew each other. Seattle didn't really help rock bands then, you had to do it yourself, so we put on our own shows, rented the rooms. Layne was a good soul, he just got caught up in something that he couldn't get out of. He was the kind of guy who never talked shit about anybody. A lot of Seattle musicians can be cynical and all that, including myself [laughs], but Layne was never that way. It was refreshing.
Let's talk shit about some people right now. Who do you want to talk shit about?
[Laughs] I don't want to talk shit. I was saying I did it when I was younger, out of naiveté and fear.
Eddie fucking Vedder. Let's talk some shit about him. That guy can't sing for shit.
No [laughs], he sings amazingly.
As far as your playing, how do you approach recording your solos? How do you get yourself optimal?
If I don't think about it and just do it off the top of my head, that's usually best. That's always been the case. I'll hear the track, go over it a bit, and then I'll record something—generally that's the best one. Or I'll do a compilation of the first two. If I do any over three, it starts sounding really thought out, not as soulful.
I think you harness your influences in the right way. The influences are there, but you are your own player. Is your playing more Jimi Hendrix or more Stevie Ray Vaughan?
Wow. Um... [pauses]. If I had to say, I couldn't say [laughs]. I guess I'd say Hendrix, because we're both from the Seattle area. But how I understood Hendrix better was by seeing Stevie Ray live four times. To watch him when he played "Voodoo Child," playing with his thumb and hitting the chords. I got to see him from the front row at the Gorge during the In Step tour, and it was unbelievable. That's when I started to understand. Though I still don't fully understand Hendrix. I mean, nobody ever will.
Stevie was very important to me early on. I think the reason I'm in Pearl Jam is because Stone Gossard saw me jamming on "Couldn't Stand the Weather" at a party and I was trying to learn how to play like Stevie. I had delved deeply into the blues, after my metal upbringing, and I had a hybrid of those two.
Now I'd like to mention another name. It's two words that go beautifully together. The first one is Ace and the second one is Frehley. That would be a Mr. Ace Frehley of KISS. I believe you are an Ace fan.
Yes, very much so.
And we have an Ace question for you from a Pearl Jam fan in New York—a guy by the name of Dan Lifshey, the world's biggest Pearl Jam fan. Dan's question is about a Peal Jam show at Madison Square Garden in 2008. Ace Frehley came onstage and y'all played "Black Diamond." What was that like for you?
For me, if I were 14 years old again, I would have passed out. If I knew then that Ace Frehley would even know my name. I started playing music because of KISS. There was no other reason. I was a Cub Scout. I played soccer. One day, I heard about KISS from a friend down the block and started listening to music. Somebody had a KISS lunch box, and I told my dad, "I don't want to be a Cub Scout anymore, I want to do this." Had KISS not happened, I would not have played music. They're that important to me in my spectrum of playing music. They changed my arc of life.
There's a KISS streak that runs through Pearl Jam—Matt Cameron was in a KISS tribute band, Jeff Ament was in a punk band that played "She." I had a KISS room when I was a kid, every wall covered with KISS. I've gotten to know Ace, and being friends with him blows my mind. It's rad to talk to him. If you listen to the beginning of "Alive," it's from "She." And Ace got it from Robby Krieger and the Doors' song "Five to One." Getting to play with him, and having Matt sing "Black Diamond" was incredible. It's funny you asked this question, or I should say Dan did, because I was just listening to it yesterday.
How did y'all decide to play "Black Diamond"?
I think Matt and I decided. It's my favorite KISS song, and Matt had played it in his tribute band when he was 14. Playing with Ace at Madison Square Garden was a crazy dream come true. Nice question, Dan!
You said you used to have a KISS room. Let's be honest. You still have a KISS room. Where's the KISS lunch box now?
There may be some KISS stuff around, you're right. I don't know where the lunch box is, it was my friend Rick's. I have some KISS pins, that's the last thing I got. I got them for Christmas, or should I say KISSmas? [Laughs]
What do you think of the Vinnie Vincent era KISS?
I'm not so into it. "War Machine" was okay, and "Creatures of the Night." It wasn't Ace, so it's hard for me. With Ace, it's all about the feel and the bending of the notes. It's something I imprinted on early. Either you love KISS or you don't. And I'm a purist, I guess, when it comes to the original band.
So we don't have to worry about you going through a Vinnie Vincent phase anytime soon.
Well, I kinda went through my metal phase when I was 16. I'm actually learning "Eruption" right now. That's been my journey for the past six months, learning "Eruption." Some guy on the internet is really good with it, he does it note for note. It's making me think differently about how I play.
For the Mad Season reissue, you all have Mark Lanegan singing three new songs. How did you decide on those three?
We didn't choose the songs, he chose them. I've been wanting Mark to sing on that stuff for 16 or 17 years. It just never worked out because everyone was always so busy. About a year ago, I was looking through the Pearl Jam vault and I found a dusty old two-inch tape of Mad Season Live at the Crocodile, which was our record release show. Seeing that made me think about the second album that we never finished, called Disinformation at the time. I thought it would never see the light of day, ever—the record that could have been. It finally turned into something when Barrett asked Mark if he was interested in singing on any of the stuff. One of the songs he sings on was written mostly by Peter Buck called "Black Book of Fear." There's another one called "Locomotive" that's kind of the single right now, and then "Slip Away" which is kind of our Pink Floyd one. So Mark is singing over material that we recorded all that time ago.
Will there be any Mad Season shows with Lanegan singing?
I'd love to do some shows. It's kind of up to Mark, but Barrett and I are very receptive to the idea. We've been playing with Duff McKagan lately, and we've revisited a bunch of these songs. We'd love to do it with Mark, but I think he's kind of busy with solo stuff at the moment, so I don't know if it will happen or not. Incidentally, I went to high school with Duff. It's all small-world-y. We've got some new songs we're trying to find singers for. Jaz Coleman from Killing Joke sent in some ideas that I'm pretty stoked about. Whether it's going to be called Mad Season or not, we don't know. We're just happy to be doing more music. I would play with Mark Lanegan in a second.
Speaking of new music, how's the new Pearl Jam stuff coming along?
I think we're about halfway finished with the next album. We have about seven tracks where the basics are finished, and we're writing more songs right now. I think we'll have it finished this year. We've been doing it for about two and a half years—the longest we've gone between records—just taking our time and working with Brendan O'Brien again, which we're psyched about.
And this is unofficial, but Pearl Jam will be changing their name to the Mike McCready Invasion.
After the Vinnie Vincent Invasion? [Laughs] Well, I'm glad it's unofficial. We'll have our lawyers contact Vinnie's lawyers to contact our lawyers.