Interview: Mike McCready on Mad Season Reissue and New Pearl Jam
McCready opens up about Mad Season, remembering bandmates Layne Staley and John Baker Saunders, and Pearl Jam’s forthcoming album
In 1994, Pearl Jam lead guitarist Mike McCready exited an alcohol rehabilitation center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In addition to successfully kicking his addictions there, McCready also met a kindred spirit in the form of Seattle-area bassist John Baker Saunders and the two bonded over their shared love in music. After they left Minnesota, McCready and Baker got together in Seattle and with Pearl Jam on a temporary hiatus, decided to form a musical side project. To fill out the group they enlisted the help of drummer Barrett Martin of Screaming Trees and Alice in Chains frontman Layne Staley. Thus Mad Season was born.
Now, nearly 20 years later, McCready and Martin are reissuing Mad Season’s one and only album, Above. The album, currently available for pre-order, releases on April 2 and comes in a deluxe two-CD/one-DVD set. In addition to the original material, extras include previously unreleased tracks from the band's unfinished sophomore album with new lyrics and vocals by Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan. Also included is Mad Season’s first official DVD release of the group’s last show ever performed, Live At The Moore, and an unreleased full concert video of the band's New Year's Eve performance at now-defunct Seattle club RKCNDY.
We catch up with McCready to get the scoop on the Mad Season reissue as well as the gear he’s been favoring lately and what to expect from Pearl Jam in 2013.
How did the Mad Season project first come together?
When we got together in 1994 the initial idea of it from my point of view…I was in rehab for booze and I met this guy Baker [John Baker Saunders] in there who played bass and I liked a lot. He was just this funny, crusty old blues player who had some pretty cool stories and was cranking Bob Dylan in his room; I just immediately liked him. So I said, ‘Do you wanna play some blues sometime or come back to Seattle and jam?’ My thought process back then was to help people who were suffering from addictions or alcohol to maybe do a project. That was where my heart was at the time, however naïve it was. That’s kind of where the initial idea for Mad Season came from.
How did Layne Staley get involved?
I knew Layne was kind of on that journey so I called him and said, ‘Hey dude, you wanna come make a record?’ and he was into it. I told him that I wanted to play with Barrett Martin because I loved the Screaming Trees and he was a fantastic drummer and I had this guy Baker that he would probably like and then we all got together.
What was Layne’s contribution to Above?
I talked to Layne about it and said, ‘Hey man, you bring in whatever you want. You sing, you write the lyrics; you’re the man. If you have any song ideas bring them in.’ It was a free form thing that we all kind of did and it was an expressive thing out of that initial inclination to get us all kind of clean and sober. It didn’t end up working, but you have to live and learn. You have to do those things.
What was Layne’s state of mind like during this time?
His state of mind, from what I recall, was very receptive to doing these songs. I felt like he was singing honestly from his heart about his struggle and I felt that he was really into it. He would show up for everything we did and made decisions and had artwork. He was there 100 percent in my mind. He may have been struggling at that time with things, but my recollection was that he was there. If you listen to the lyrics I think that can kind of tell you where his mind was at that time.
Was it difficult to get so many guys from other bands all together at one time?
We were all luckily not doing anything at that time. Pearl Jam wasn’t in the studio, Alice in Chains wasn’t out on the road and the Screaming Trees were back so we had a little time. It ended up being like a window of six to eight months where we ended up playing six shows, filmed them, and did the record. We did a lot in a small period of time.
What were the sessions themselves like?
They were fun and kind of quick and easy. They sounded really raw to me. We had Brett Eliason, who was doing our Pearl Jam sound at the time, and I wanted him to do the record because I liked how he got sounds and we communicated in the same way. So we rehearsed a bit at a studio in West Seattle and just came up with rough ideas. They were all kind of songs that happened because of the four guys that were in the band. I guess that’s what happens in all situations, but they were songs that were different than what I would have brought to Pearl Jam at that time.
I’ve read that you used a Gibson EDS 1275 double-neck guitar on Above.
Yeah, the double-neck, yes I did. My kind of influence and brain at that time was way into Jimmy Page. I still have it and I think I used it on “Lifeless Dead” and a couple others. The one that sticks out the most and still kind of does in a haunting sort of way is the last song, “All Alone.” If you can hear that, you know what it is. I was playing the 6-string neck with the pickups off so you’re getting the relative harmonics off that with what is happening on the 12-string neck up top with the pickups on. That actually happened out of an accident, I was just messing around trying to get the 6-string neck to work but I didn’t have my switches on in the right order but I heard this chiming kind of thing coming out of the guitar. I was like ‘We gotta do something with this, let’s just jam on it.’
Mad Season in a press photo.
In the process of getting this reissue in order and ready for release, did you encounter any difficulty, emotionally speaking, in listening to those songs you did with Layne and John Baker Saunders on tape?
Tons. I hadn’t listened to that record for 10 or 12 years. I’d listen to it if it was on the radio and I’d feel happy but sad, I don’t know if that makes sense. I’d feel like, I’m proud of this song but I’m also very sad that my friends are not around anymore. So getting over that and listening to the record again and listening to some of the live stuff, is kind of bittersweet. It makes me sad that Layne and Baker are not around to experience life now as an older guy. My values now are different than what they were when I was 26 and I think about what those guys would have been like if they were still around. It’s hard.
What led to the decision to re-release Above now?
The decision to do it came around a year ago. I was wandering through the Pearl Jam vaults and just looking at stuff we have in there and I looked over in the corner and I noticed a small two-inch tape of Mad Season live at the Crocodile Café. I thought to myself, ‘I don’t remember recording that!’ [Laughs]. I didn’t realize that existed so I was kind of shocked. Then it came back to me that we did have a mobile unit and Brett Eliason was recording it outside the old Crocodile Café. That was our record release show. I was intrigued and wanted to listen to it, so I got a copy of it and sent it off to Barrett and said, ‘Are you interested in doing anything with this record again?’ and he was into that.
How did Mark Lanegan get involved with adding vocals to the unreleased tracks?
We recorded a second record that we were going to call Disinformation. It was about 12 or 13 songs, eight of which were pretty realized —the rest were just demos. So we had all this music that was just sitting there that I thought would never see the light of day but luckily Barrett called his friend, Mark Lanegan. I’d wanted Mark to sing on this stuff forever, for 15 years, but it never kind of worked. So he said send me the stuff and picked three songs, “Locomotive,” “Black Book of Fear,” and “Slip Away,” and was agreeable to put them on the re-release. I can’t think of anybody more perfect to sing on any type of Mad Season stuff than Mark Lanegan now.
Let’s talk a little bit about your gear. What amps are you currently using right now?
I’m using 65amps right now—I think it’s a 30-watt. Peter Stroud makes them and I love the amps a lot. So I’m using that in conjunction with a Satellite head—Satellite is a local [Seattle] company—and I think it’s a 32- or 35-watt. I run both of those consecutively generally through four Marshall 25-watt speakers. I run a combination of the 65 and the Satellite generally the whole time when we’re doing Pearl Jam shows live. Then I kick on one more head called a, uh…hold on I’m trying to remember. I just changed my rig around…I’m never kind of satisfied.
Don’t worry, no guitarist ever is.
Yeah! What is that? It’s just kind of this obsessive weird thing.
I know exactly what you mean; I’ve blown so much money over the years. You can’t ever seem to get what you want.
Hence the Stones song. Who knew that song was about guitar players and their rigs? [Laughs.] But that third amp is a Savage head made by Andy Wolf who is the Stones guitar tech. I use the Savage for a clean tone, which goes through two 10" speakers. I use the two consecutively as I said before then when I’m about to do a solo I kick all three on. I think I might also use this Billy Zoom Reverb and Tremolo unit that I bought from him when X was out. He makes these things and they are amazing and I would highly recommend them to anyone.
What is on your pedalboard?
It has a myriad of things on it right now. I’ve got the tried-and-true original Ibanez Tube Screamer because Stevie Ray Vaughan used one and I’ve been using it ever since. I love the fuzz from it. I also use a Dunlop Crybaby Wah pedal. The thing I’ve been really excited about lately that I saw the guys in Soundgarden using at their rehearsal is the POG2—the Poly Octave Generator. I’ve been doing a little bit of scoring and I worked on an episode of Shameless and did this movie Fat Kid Rules the World and ended up using the POG on a few things because it makes the guitar not sound like a guitar. It makes it sound like a weird calliope or an organ—kind of makes some cool sounds. I also have a Line 6 delay, a Line 6 phase, the old MXR Phase 90 for sure. I just bought a 670 DOD flanger but I’m not sure if I’m going to use it or not but I’m gonna try to. That’s kind of it for my rig right now, but I’m always open to new things. Like you said, never satisfied.
What guitars have you been playing lately?
Well there’s the King of Kings, the 1959 Gibson Les Paul that I love and cherish. I was very lucky to find it from Danny’s Music in Everett [Washington] about 17 years ago. Right around the time of the Mad Season record actually. It was ridiculously priced back then, it was like $25,000 or something.
I know Emerald City Guitars downtown in Seattle has one priced at like $300,000 now.
I know dude, and last year it was like $400,000! I went down there and played it and I look at that thing all the time but I go, ‘I can’t pay $400,000 for a guitar.’ It’s like buying a fucking house, but I felt that same way when I bought this one for $25,000 years ago. I was like ‘This is a ridiculous amount of money.’ I traded a bunch of guitars in for it but I’m very glad I did.
Do you take that guitar on the road?
It depends. Some places I do and some places I don’t. I’m probably not going to take it out as much coming up but it’s hard because nothing sounds or plays that good. I use it for “Alive” when we’re out there. I can’t get the tone from any other Les Paul that that thing gets. I mean to be Spinal Tap about it, with the sustain I can hold it, have a bite and come back. [Laughs] It’s totally true though, the thing just plays like butter and it’s beautiful, a little dinged up. That being said, I’ll probably bring it out on the road this year. I probably shouldn’t but guitars are meant to be played. I don’t want to hold it and be precious with it to the point that I don’t enjoy it and it makes the songs sound better to me when I use that guitar.
What other guitars are you using at the moment?
So I have the ’59 Les Paul, I have a ’59 TV Yellow Gibson Les Paul Junior—kind of Johnny Thunders cutaway—which I totally love. Then I bought a ’56 single-cutaway Gibson Les Paul Junior. The latest one that I love a lot is the David Gilmour Fender Black Stratocaster. Whew! Andy Wolf had one of those and I played it and I was like ‘This thing plays amazing!’ I also have a ’52 refinished Fender Telecaster and a Gretsch Billy Zoom model. Those are my main ones right now.
How does your approach to playing a solo differ when you’re playing in the studio versus playing live? And how do you approach a solo in general?
I would say that 98 percent of the time my solos in the studio are either first or second take. When I’m not thinking about it and just feeling it, it’s always been the case that that’s been the best solo. So I usually just go with what my initial inclination is of what I grab out of the air. I don’t really know how to put it in any other terms than that. There have been a couple of times when I sat down and thought out solos. [Producer] Brendan O’Brien had asked me to do that for “Amongst the Waves” [on Pearl Jam’s Backspacer] so if you listen to that, that is a more thought-out solo. Live, I will definitely take more chances but that could be out of laziness. I didn’t want to figure out all my solos after I did them [Laughs]. Also, I feel different ways on different nights so I may start off fast, I may start off slow. Hopefully I’m not thinking about it too much and am just feeling the moment of the song. That’s when the best solos come out and I do the best stuff and it makes me go, ‘Wow, I just did that?’ And I don’t know how to get back to there, but that’s okay because it’s just a snapshot of that moment. Feeling is number one, which is such a cliché but it is definitely true.
McCready onstage with Pearl Jam. Photo by Karen Loria
Just to touch on Pearl Jam for a bit, I’m sure you’ve heard that Ten has just become only the 22nd album ever to sell more than 10 million copies. What does that mean to you?
Wow! It’s almost unreal. I think back when we were doing that record and how it was such a long journey for me to get there. I’ve been playing in bands since I was 11 years old and that’s all I ever did. So when I finally got the chance to do a major label record and to play with some guys who were all really good, I knew something was good there. I didn’t know how good it was, but I knew everyone was firing on all cylinders and I just felt like, ‘Yeah, we can go kick some ass.’ Cut to a year later when that thing was selling a million records, I had no idea that that was ever going to come. I was just amazed to get a record deal and to quit the day job and not work as a prep cook anymore. So when I hear that we’ve sold 10 million records and it’s only the 22nd time that that’s ever happened, that’s all cake. The fact that it’s still selling and that people are buying it—I am just honored.
I know Pearl Jam is currently working on the new album. What you can say about it right now?
Well, we’re gearing up to finish the second part of the record that we started about two years ago. We all decided to pull back a little bit after we had done about seven songs, which I think are going to be on the next record. I’m not really sure. It all depends upon how this next session goes. I have a feeling that we’ll have something out this year. We are all very prolific in bringing in ideas and we’re all in conversation and are starting to rehearse in about a month. I feel like we’ll have something by this year. I don’t know that everyone in the band feels that way, but I’m going to do my damndest to move it along if I can have any kind of say in it. I would really like to get it out this year because we would really like to do some touring and things like that.
I’m curious to know, when you guys are recording and are all bringing in new material, do you personally write fully fleshed out songs in your off time, or do you bring in ideas and all kind of all collaborate together?
It’s all of those things. Specifically for myself, I will demo ideas in my studio and try to make them as good as possible and if Matt [Cameron] isn’t around I will use a local drummer friend of mine to help me get an idea down. So I’ll bring fully realized demos to the equation and then it all kind of changes from there because everybody kind of goes, ‘Well why don’t you take out this part or put this in here or move this over here or do half of that?’ Stone [Gossard] and Jeff [Ament] are great editors so once you have your demo you bring it in and people scrutinize it and they either like it or they don’t. If they do then I just go, ‘Dude, if you have any ideas, just go for it.’ I also want to be able to add to people’s songs in the way that I do and I think I’m kind of the coloring on top of a lot of ideas and melodies at times. I feel like if Ed [Vedder] brings in a song, I want to be able to do a solo that’s cool for it. He may not have any ideas for what that is yet until I do it right there on the spot. Sometimes Jeff will bring in a couple of riffs and we’ll just jam on that. Matt will bring in parts of stuff. That being said, everyone brings in fully realized demos, too. It’s like everything; we have a lot of stuff. We don’t have any outside songwriters. [Laughs.]
With the new Mad Season reissue and the recent Pearl Jam Twenty documentary directed by Cameron Crowe as well as the reissue of Ten a few years back, it seems like you’ve been spending a lot of time looking back on your career and I’m wondering if that is something you especially care to do?
For myself, I like to look at things in a historical sense just to have some sort of feeling from it. It’s twofold really, there’s part of me that likes it and there’s another part that goes, ‘Well, we have to continue, let’s keep moving forward.’ The most exciting thing is to create new things, but to revisit the Mad Season record has been sad and exciting and important to me to kind of put this thing out in a coherent sense for people to get a feeling about it. There’s an art in that itself. Out of that though came a bunch of new stuff that Barrett Martin and [Guns ‘N’ Roses bassist] Duff McKagan and myself did from that second unreleased Mad Season record. We pulled from those ideas and kind of tightened them up a little bit. We’re now currently looking for singers for that project, which probably won’t be called Mad Season—it will be called something else. We’ve just gotten some initial vocals from Jaz Coleman from Killing Joke, which sound really amazing. So we’re hoping we can find some singers out there that would like to sing over this. There is a new element to the Mad Season thing is what I guess I am trying to say.
How did you get involved with Duff McKagan?
I’ve known him forever. He went to Roosevelt, the same high school that I went to, and he’s a dear friend of mine. I always looked up to him as the cool punk rock kid that was around in Seattle, Washington. I was like a metal kid. He was definitely ahead of his time when he was around here in Seattle. He came down to my band Shadows’ practice place the night before he moved down to L.A. and we were like, ‘Dude, what are you doing?’ I think he had a Gibson SG slung to his back, and he was like, ‘I’m moving to L.A. to become a rock star.’ We were just like, ‘What?’ Then the next year or maybe six months later they had that [Guns ‘N’ Roses] Live ?!*@ Like a Suicide album out and I was like ‘He did it!’ So Duff and I have now formed a little musical partnership and friendship with Barrett and we’re doing a new project right now.
I saw that you also hit the stage with Soundgarden at the Paramount Theater in Seattle. What was that like?
Soundgarden was amazing. I’m a total Soundgarden fan so I hovered around them a lot. I think I became either very annoying or they were happy to see me, I don’t know. I brought them pizzas one time at their practice right before that tour and Matt [Cameron] called me up and said, ‘Hey, do you wanna come out and jam on the song ‘Tighter and Tighter”?’ Which is a song Stone and I had been talking to Matt about and saying, ‘God, you gotta do that song. It’s so killer.’ So Matt said, ‘Do you wanna come out and play on it?’ I was like, ‘Yes!’ It was fun. I got to see Matt Cameron play with Soundgarden and he is a monster with them. He plays differently then he does with us so it was cool to see him from another point of view and kind of go, ‘Oh my God! Jesus Christ that is some of the best drumming I’ve seen in my life.’ It kind of felt like a coming home I guess. Like, oh yeah, we're all still doing stuff. It kind of reminded me of 20 years ago when we were just starting with Temple of the Dog. I love seeing those guys, even just around town.
Mad Season came about in such a dynamic moment in time from
Seattle—1994 was almost like the crest of a wave in that scene. What is
the legacy of Mad Season?
I hope the legacy of Mad Season is one of Layne Staley and Baker’s memory. Showing where they were at all those years ago musically and lyrically from Layne’s perspective. To know that we existed for a brief moment in time and there was a lot of triumph and a lot of tragedy as there is in life. I just hope people can listen to those and get a feeling from that.