I Don't Wanna Be a Soldier: An Interview with Pearl Jam's Mike McCready
Mad Season only produced one album, but Pearl Jam's Mike McCready is still surprised by its legacy, and recounts its simple genesis: a project wherein he could try to keep his friends sober even as things began slipping away ...
On April 29, 1995, Mike McCready took to the stage at Seattle's venerable Moore Theatre, looking to begin a new chapter in both his personal and professional life. It'd been a little over a year since the passing of Kurt Cobain, and McCready was doing his best to steady his own personal demons. Just a few months out of a successful stint at Hazelden Rehabilitation in Minnesota, where the Pearl Jam guitarist came to terms with his drug and alcohol addictions, McCready was intent on distancing himself from the tales of heroin addiction and personal excess that were beginning to plague the beleaguered Seattle rock and roll community.
He manifested this intention with Mad Season, a collection of Seattle-based blues musicians and friends. Well attended by friends, family, rabid fans and curious industry folk, the Moore Theatre performance was their coming out party. While the Moore Theatre show doesn't get mentioned in the same breath as Nirvana's string of 1991 dates at the OK Hotel, or Pearl Jam's free performance at Magnuson Park in 1992, this isn't for lack of sonic clout. Offering a looser, more elastic approach to their songwriting than their punk-influenced Seattle brethren, Mad Season offered fresh-faced hope and promise to a musical community that so desperately needed it.
Mike McCready chuckles now when thinking of that performance, which is one of only a handful as Mad Season. Onstage were four musicians with the purest of intentions: writing and performing new music as a cleansing ritual. After being showered with praise throughout the explosion of Pearl Jam from 1991-1993, McCready took to drugs and alcohol to assuage the constant exposure. But Mad Season offered a way out.
"Creativity and writing songs became very much more important to me around that time," says McCready bluntly. "I know it did."
McCready takes half an hour out his morning to speak to PopMatters, a morning that's already been filled with exercise, feeding his children and sending them off to school and even beginning to work out ideas for the upcoming Pearl Jam record. There's a noticeable enthusiasm and energy to the 46-year old. And it wouldn't be a stretch to trace the roots of this energy back to that performance at the Moore Theatre, 18 years earlier. For a time, Mad Season looked to have the ability to throw a fresh, more benign coat of paint on the drug-riddled Seattle community. Being sober allowed McCready a renewed sense of creativity. So he took a chance with Mad Season and ran with it.
"When you're in a band, you're just trying to do whatever you can to keep your band together," says McCready of the volatility that had encapsulated Pearl Jam and Seattle in 1994. "You're thinking very inwardly, very myopic," he admits.
"But at the same time, if an opportunity like Mad Season presents itself, I had to take it. You didn't know what was going to happen next, so you had to jump on these things. And being the kind of person I am, I can't sit very still. I needed to do something at the time, and I seized it."
THE PROMISE OF NAIVETY
Mike McCready's renewed sense of creativity wasn't without consequence. Ironically, though McCready was now operating sober for the first time in years, his judgement and intentions with regards to creation of Mad Season were slightly clouded. Though admittedly, his heart was in the right place.
It was at Hazelden that McCready met John "Baker" Saunders, a blues bassist from Chicago. Ripe with good intentions, McCready and Saunders vowed to write and record music together after their rehab stint came to an end.
McCready soon got in touch with Barrett Martin. The Screaming Trees drummer took not only to the idea of playing in a blues-rock band, but a band who presented a sonic aesthetic that had very little in common with the music emerging from Seattle in 1994.
With the core of this yet-to-be-named act in place, McCready knew there was only one singer for the project. After all, McCready's original intentions with this band were to save that very singer, his friend Layne Staley. His role within Alice in Chains as lyricist and vocalist was beginning to become more prominent, though he was also deeply entangled in his heroin addiction. And McCready believed, naively, that in being around sober musicians, he was offering Staley a way out of addiction.
"I was young and I thought 'Hey I can do this,'" says McCready. "I saw Layne spiralling down and I wanted him to have a life. There was a part of me that was nervous and I certainly wouldn't try anything like that now. I try not to be around those kind of people anymore. But Layne was a human being that I wanted to help."
THE GOOD IN EVERYONE
Acts that are hastily put together often have a short shelf life, especially those born out of a particularly unsettling time and place. It would be easy enough to attribute the demise of Mad Season to a mismatch of characters and personalities. It was around this time that Pearl Jam were suffering from a lack of communication and power struggles between Eddie Vedder and then drummer Dave Abbruzzese. Coupled with McCready's drug and alcohol abuse, many wondered if Pearl Jam could survive as an act.
Mad Season, however, was different. The anticipation in playing with a fresh batch of musicians was genuine, and the desire to make music free of premeditated hype was evident.
"I didn't know Barrett that well, but I really respected his drumming," says McCready. "I'd met Baker in rehab, he was this funky blues cat. He fit right into the scene in Seattle. We had these four distinct personalities, and we created the music very quickly. We managed to create it very honestly," he adds fondly.
Once the line-up was set, McCready suggested taking the standard route, by setting up some studio time to track demos, and build the foundation of a band that could possibly sustain itself long term. McCready even went so far as to book a few secret, unannounced shows at Seattle's Crocodile Café just weeks after their initial rehearsals as a means to smooth out the rough ideas McCready, as the principal songwriter, had. The band was now referring to themselves as The Gacy Bunch, in honour of both serial killer John Wayne Gacy and The Brady Bunch. Slowly but surely, McCready's plans of building a stable band were coming to fruition.
Layne Staley however, had other plans.
"Layne was adamant about getting into the studio immediately," admits McCready. It was at the behest of Staley's insistence that the band begin recording their full-length immediately. McCready, perhaps overwhelmed with the flurry of activity and sensitive about keeping Staley active and interested, obliged.
With a window in Pearl Jam's schedule, McCready hastily organised recording sessions at Seattle's Bad Animals studio. Brett Eliason, whom Pearl Jam had entrusted as their sound engineer previously, served as the album's producer. Eliason notes in Everybody Loves Our Town, Mark Yarm's oral history of grunge that during recording that from the outset, Staley's health nearly jeopardised the entire project.
"Layne was not healthy," Eliason has been quoted as saying. "Heavy, heavy drug use ... the problem was getting him there. We were in cahoots with his roommate, who'd help get Layne off the couch and point him in our direction.
"Layne would show up and he'd go back to the bathroom and be doing dope back there and you'd wait for hours before he was ready to come back out. He was pretty open about it. I asked him, 'Why? Why are you doing this to yourself?' He said, 'I'm either going to drink or I'm going to do dope, and drinking is harder on me.'"
McCready seems to bear no ill will towards Staley and his effect on the project. After all, many relationships between musicians in Seattle had become frayed at best. Cobain's death, combined with a growing distrust of certain acts that were attempting to capitalize on commercial possibilities in Seattle created a wide-ranging sense of cynicism in Seattle. This cynicism was addressed by Mudhoney on "Into Yer Shtik," released just weeks before Mad Season's debut:
"You're so tormented
To all the assholes (Just like you)
Who've come and gone (Before you)
Just plain dull
Why don't you
Blow your brains out, too"
Mark Arm, singer/lyricist of Mudhoney, admits in Greg Prato's Grunge is Dead that the song is built upon examples of those in the Seattle music community, even going so far as to name Layne Staley.
As deep as he was within his heroin addiction, Staley was becoming aware of the growing backlash towards his traditional rockstar excess and the perception it created of the Seattle community. His window of opportunity to give a voice to the volatile lifestyle and cement a viable artistic legacy was shrinking.
In short, Mad Season was Staley's opportunity to prove himself amongst a peer group which had abandoned him.
The sense of urgency with which Staley felt towards McCready's project was becoming ever more obvious. Though the swagger of "Artificial Red" is as loose and freewheeling as anything that came out of Seattle in the mid-90's, Mike McCready insists that it was Staley's insistence on spontaneous recording that gives Above its edge.
"The spontaneity of the project reminded me a lot of what Temple of the Dog was, even though I didn't write anything on that. It felt like we had a window of time, and we all happened to not be on the road then."
McCready understood that if Mad Season was going to be an effort to steer his friend Layne Staley in the right direction, he had to give him free reign over the lyrics. Staley needed an opportunity to rediscover his creative potential, much as Mike McCready had months earlier. So that's what he gave the embattled vocalist.
"I gave Layne a blank slate to bring in lyrics, write songs, do whatever he needed to do. I think that was very freeing for him. And it was for all of us. We were getting to know each other a lot better."
Still, McCready was so focused on making Mad Season beneficial for everyone involved that he may have overlooked how quickly Staley was unravelling. Ultimately, it was a downward spiral that McCready was unable to put an end to.
"Listening to Layne's lyrics now, I can hear how honest and prophetic they actually are," says McCready solemnly. "He really detailed his struggle."
Soon after the band ditched The Gacy Bunch name, they settled on Mad Season. Perhaps Mad Season was doomed from the beginning. After all, the very name Mad Season is derived from a term surrounding the time of the year when hallucinogenic mushrooms were in season near Surrey, England, where McCready and Pearl Jam mixed Ten, Pearl Jam's debut.
McCready attested in a 1995 interview that people in Surrey were "wandering around mad, picking mushrooms, half out of their minds. That term has always stuck in my mind, and I relate that to my past years, the seasons of drinking and drug abuse."
Even with his unrestrained enthusiasm in tow, leading the charge within a band was a role that McCready had yet to master. Though McCready's talents as a soloist were in no short supply throughout Ten and the endless touring of Pearl Jam's debut, 1994's Vitalogy hardly featured any of McCready's trademark blues-influenced solos. As much as Mad Season offered Layne Staley an opportunity to turn his life around, it offered McCready a chance to expand his role from simply the tertiary guitarist he'd been delineated to on the rhythm-heavy Vitalogy.
Mad Season was supposed to offer hope for musicians and fans struggling to make sense of their place in the larger scheme of things. Mike McCready knew what he wanted, and swung for the fences on Above. "X-Ray" mind features a solo very much in the vein of Stevie Ray Vaughan, who McCready credits as one of his strongest influences. And "I Don't Know Anything," hears McCready regaining the unrelenting, sludgy stroke that gave Ten its depth.
"In the early days of Pearl Jam, we were caught up in such a whirlwind that I was just trying to keep my head on straight and play music. I didn't have the kind of confidence that other guys in the band did," says McCready in retrospect. For him, Mad Season has become as vital an element to his career as a guitarist as any Pearl Jam record. "I was playing with some very prolific songwriters with Jeff, Ed and Stone," he continues. "I didn't assert myself as much back then. I didn't feel like I had it."
Collaborations and "supergroups" are so often dealt unfair and unrealistic expectations because of the singular achievements of their members. Just as often, they prove not to be greater than the sum of their parts. What's more, nothing is often expected of these collaborations beyond one rushed record and a tour that's as much about capitalizing commercially on temporary relationships as it is about actual performance.
McCready had lofty expectations for Mad Season. Perhaps too lofty. Seattle was now struggling for a figure to step up, move forward and continue making music. The city and its now saddened collection of musicians needed Mike McCready. He approach Mad Season with both with a clear mind and a long-term plan. There was unmitigated promise at a time when it was so desperately needed.
"There was such a sadness going around," says of late 1994 to early 1995 in Seattle. "You just wish Kurt was still around to be making music, but at the same time, if it wasn't working out for him, perhaps he just should've quit making music. It's hard for me to get into that mindset, because back then, I was just happy to be alive. I was excited to simply be moving on."