Guitar Player, January 1994
BLOOD ON THE TRACKS
Pearl Jam cut their deepest grooves yet on Vs.
Mike McCready dissects
by James Rotondi
WHHUUMMPP! The entire stack has been pushed over, and electrical smoke is beginning to pour out. Standing ankle-deep inside his fallen Marshall cabinet, Pearl Jam's Mike McCready raises his Gibson Black Beauty above his head and smashes its charcoal body down against the ripped grille cloth and splintered wood. But except for a few bruises and a missing tone pot, the Beauty refuses to die. A possessed McCready tries again, then tosses the tortured instrument aside and walks offstage as feedback continues to wail through the hall.
The 27-year-old Seattle native has been described as "explosive" and "unpredictable," both for his ability to inject instant juice into a jam and for his wild, often destructive stage behavior. His earthy, one-of-the-dudes nature not withstanding, McCready get intense about his rock n roll, as he did during Pearl Jam's recent MTV Video Music Awards appearance with Neil Young, described above.
"Mike gets this look in his eye," warns guitar tech Jeff Ousley, "and you KNOW something's about to happen." That volatile, razors-edge tension is part of what makes McCready's raw, Hendrix-inspired lead work so vital to Pearl Jam's multi-platinum debut LP Ten, and it's a critical element of the band's notably aggressive, groove-heavy new Epic release Vs.
In many respects, the 12 tracks on Vs. paint a very different portrait of the quintet that recorded Ten with producer Rick Parashar in 1991. And that's not surprising: McCready, rhythm guitarist Stone Gossard, bassist Jeff Ament, and singer Eddie Vedder toured for 18 months straight between '91 and '93, honing their rhythm section around the post-Ten addition of Austin-bred funk drummer Dave Abbruzzese. "Dave has added a whole new dimension to the group, and we've gotten a hell of a lot better and tighter," insists McCready, who notes that Pearl Jam was only three-and-a-half months old at the time their first sessions began. "We were green when we make Ten; aside from Jeff and Stone, nobody else had really done a record before."
Well, the greenhorns made good: In music biz terms, Ten has virtually redefined what it means for an album to "have legs" - after over 100 weeks on the Billboard Top 200 Album Chart, it still hovers in the top quarter, having sold over five million copies. Album rock hits like "Jeremy," "Alive," "Black," and "Once" remain among the most heavily played songs in the country. A top attraction on 1992's Lollapalooza bill, Pearl Jam is now a major worldwide concert attraction, sharing stages with U2, Keith Richards, and Neil Young.
"Just being able to see Neil Young with Booker T. & the MG's every night from the front of the stage was amazing," relates McCready. "They're the greatest band in the world; I've never seen one better - so tight, but laid-back and groovy too. We got to jam with Keith Richards on a song called "Going Down," and that was the high point of my life. I can't believe I'm jamming with Keith Richards - what's up with with this?" Singer Eddie Vedder crooned with the surviving Doors at last year's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame gala, and, with McCready on guitar, performed a stirring "Masters of War" at the recent Bob Dylan tribute concert in Madison Square Garden. Just as importantly, Pearl Jam in much more than a popular band to the many who look to their emotion-driven music for comfort, solidarity, and a sense of connectedness.
But their success has brought struggle as well. A writer of deeply felt if purposely vague lyrics, Vedder has unwittingly become a hounded media figure, the details of his turbulent family life fodder for the tabloid reflex of magazines from Rolling Stone to Musician to Time. The new album's cover image - an ornery sheep trying to butt his head through a wire fence - illuminates tge catharsis of "Leash" ("Drop the leash/Get out of my fucking face") and "Blood," which, in the context of the pressure surrounding the world's hottest young rock band, isn't too hard to feel. Regarding the often overzealous press corps, McCready reasons, "That's the writer's function, to get an angle and get the dirt: 'Let's get what everybody really wants to read.' That's fine, but it's bullshit at the same time." After the sustained media exposure they've already endured, McCready half expects the worse: "We'll probably have some sort of media backlash now, but I'm expecting it, so what the hell. You can let it bum you out, but ultimately you have to focus on the music."
Apart from an increasingly cagey lyrical bent, the musical fallout from all this activity has been a refinement of the band's sound, a dual focus that both clicks and clashes. On one hand, Vedder's folk roots are sprouting to the surface, with convincing results. On the strummy "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town," the G,G,D,G,B,D-tuned "Daughter," and Victoria William's "Crazy Mary" (Pearl Jam contributed a tune to Sweet Relief, a recent tribute/benefit album for songwriter Williams, a victim of MS), Vedder's emotive baritone truly sounds at home, his lyrics and delivery reflecting the folk tradition of simple situations that reflect deeper truths. The band downshifts into a steady folk-rock vibe withouth a hitch. "I love Gram Parsons," grins McCready, who's clearly been nurturing his subtle, song-supportive side. "I'm trying to play with that Flying Burrito Brothers sound."
Conversely, on cuts like the physically charged, drop-D tuned "Go," the raging "Blood" (also in G,G,D,G,B,D), and others, the musical passport is from Groove Nation; it's no coincidence that Abbruzzese composed key riffs on both tunes. The drummer's minimalist kcik, hat, and snare patterns are aggressive bu never busy - the backbeat kick on the AND of two is a staple - and rhythm guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament lock into syncopations with an earthy, organic precision. It's tempting to suggest the term grunge-funk.
"Well, Eddie has always been into old Michael Jackson and Jackson Five stuff," Mike responds. "I love Funkadelic, Stone's into rap, and we're all totally into Ice Cube, so that probably had an effect. Not the we consciously sat down and decided to be funky - we're just exploring different directions and combining our influences."
The less elastic rhythm feel means there isn't quite as much playroom for Vedder's vocal phrases as on the looser Ten, but Vedder thinkgs like a musician; on "Rats," for instance, he goes with the evenflow, adopting cool rhythmic cadences that suggest Jim Morrison informed Jamaican dub. Setting up nice textural contrasts, Ament's bass line shifts from puckish reggae figures that tug at Abbruzzese's solid open-hat groove to driving eighth notes that build up to a dramatic modulations during the tune's rideout. (Ament has a way with those epic "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" - style rock endings- think of the powerful, cello-accompanied last 30 seconds of Ten's "Jeremy.") Meanwhile, Gossard, normally a reticent lead player, jams a quick pentatonic solo dripping with classic wah-wah quack. And groove is certainly the word on the tom-tom laden "WMA," on which Gossard, in otherwise standard tuning, drops his B-string down to an A. Vedder tries a different tactic, singing long notes over a repeating A-C-G bassline while McCready, cranked to the hilt, etches acidically on a '67 Tele oscillating through an MXR Phase 100.
The band's creative partner for Vs. was Brendan O'Brien, who, in addition to numerous high-profile mixing and engineering credits, has produced the Black Crowes, Dan Baird, and Stone Temple Pilots. The Atlanta native is a superb roots guitarist in his own right - check out his gripping lead work on Mick Jagger's Wandering Spirit - and his facility, knowledge, and consistently good hands instantly earned McCready's respect: "The guy can play every song ever written. He's crazy - a great guitarist and a really good poker player." From the start, Pearl Jam and O'Brien agreed to complete mixdowns during the recording process, rather than hedging their sonic bets until all the titles were in. "Personally, I loved it," says McCready firmly. "It kept us focused, kept the basic tracks more live, and kept us working."
Shooting for fresh first takes, O'Brien suggested the band set up much as they do live, hoping to pull at least some solos from the heat of the moment. Still, didn't McCready ever comp multiple lead tracks to construct that one perfect take? "Some of the stuff on Ten was done that way," he nods sheepishly. "Sometimes I'd get frustrated if I couldn't get the whol thing down, so I'd put down three different leads and then comp the best of that. Sure I'd always rather do it straight, but when that doesn't work, I start thinking about it too much and then it really doesn't work. It becomes methodical, and that ruins it for me." The inclusion of intermittent count-offs, sloppy endings, and freaky displaced riffs gives Vs. a comfortable, casual vibe that McCready says "was just what was going on while we were recording. We'd screw around at the end of go off into a jam, and we wanted to maintain that."
Vs. is a very different animal from Ten. The songs are less anthemic but every bit as gripping, ripe with meaning that gradually unfolds upon deeper listening. The album's economical, in-the-pocket approach complements its focused, stripped-to-the-basics guitar, short, riveting bursts, and concise lyrical lines. You've got to admire the terse, blinding fluidity of his solo in "Go," and his melodic, country-rock articulation on the semi-acoustic "Daughter," a song reminiscent of Jimmy Page's open-G ditty "That's the Way," from Led Zeppelin III.
"That's one of the few solos I really had to sit down and work out," says McCready, who goes on to suggest that the deft way he winds in and around Vedder's vocals is a natural by-product of playing together so much: "Eddie's voice is definitely the focus of the whole band - it takes us to a whole different level - and at some point I've just learned where to come up, where to go down, and how to follow Eddie's lyrics." Vedder wrote the linear, almost New Wave-ish verse lick on "Rearviewmirror" that eventually breaks down into a chaotic melee where McCready, on O'Brien's suggestion, experiments with E-Bow.
Under the heat lamps of superstardom, Pearl Jam is growing, and McCready continues to unearth music that resonates with the sounds inside his head. As Mike discussed in our Feb. 92 feature, Muddy Waters' performance in the film "The Last Waltz" bowled him over ("Muddy definitely changed the way I play"), and by the time he joined Pearl Jam, McCready had become strongly attracted to the music and techniques of Stevie Ray Vaughn. Lately McCready's been studying the mojo of artists like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lead Belly, and the great Mississippi John Hurt. "He rules," McCready says with relish. "That music is so peaceful and beautiful and soulful, you could just walk out into a field and say 'OK, I can die now.'"
Ironically, McCready, along with players like the Black Crowes' Marc Ford and Cry of Love's Audley Freed, is introducing classic blues-based rock guitar to a younger generation not weaned on Buddy Guy, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, or Steve Cropper. It's a responsibility he humbly accepts. "But I'm still the way low man on the totem pole," he laughs, offering this tale as illustration: "One night we playing 'Rockin in the Free World' with Neil and Booker T and the MGs, and I was standing right next to Steve Cropper. Steve looks at me, nodding for me to play a lead. So I do a lead, and then does one and nods back for me to do another. So I do another lead, and suddenly he plays this fucking lead that just ripped my head off." Mike shakes his head and grins. "All I could do was laugh and go back to playing rhythm. It was like he was testing me: 'OK - you're still not shit."
McCready was born on April 5, 1966, in Seattle, Washington [ed. note - wasn't he born in St. Petersburg, Florida?], where his mother was an elementary school art teacher and his father worked for the city. An only child, his first musical experience was hitting his dad's bongos with pencils and imbibing his folks' Hendrix and Santana records by household osmosis. When his grade-school buddies turned him on to Kiss and Aerosmith, the smitten 11-year-old went to a local music store, Kennelly Keys, for his first electric, a Mateo Les Paul copy that he still owns.
With his new ax and a 10-watt Fender Champ amplifier, McCready began taking lessons from local instructor Mike Wilson, picking up what Paul Stanley, Joe Perry, and Ritchie Blackmore licks he could handle. Soon he was exploiting his knack for chaotic noises: "I used to play 'Smoke on the Water,' and I remember my dad coming in and yelling at me because I was getting feedback out of the amp; I just thought it was really cool." By eighth grade, McCready already had some jamming experience under his belt, and he formed his first band, Warrior, which would soon become known as Shadow.
In the early days, the group would play for their classmates during free periods. "We actually played Kiss' 'Black Diamond' in the lunchroom once," McCready reminisces, "without any vocals. How boring must that have been?" Influenced by UK metal bands like Def Leppard, Iron Maiden, and Thin Lizzy, Shadow began writing originals while McCready discovered the poetent lead guitar of Eddie Van Halen, Jimi Hendrix, and Randy Rhoads. "It took me a while before I was confident to play lead," he says, "because out lead guitarist Danny Newcombe (now with Seattle's the Cheap Ones), was so good. I was really into Eddie Van Halen - I must have seen him five times - but at 15, that stuff was too hard to figure out. I was always into Sabbath and Ozzy, so when Randy Rhoads came out, it was like 'Wow, that that's what lead is all about.'"
After high school, Shadow set out for Los Angeles in hopes of getting a record deal. Living near Melrose Avenue, McCready found a job at Aron's Records, while the band did and endless series of disillusioning gigs before returning home 13 months later. "We played to a couple bartenders down there," McCready shrugs. "But even though it was a bad scene, it was a good experience. Basically, weren't that great a band, and we didn't realize it until we got down there. I guess we lost our focus, got really bummed out and came back to Seattle. Shadow split up six months later.
It was 1988, and McCready as all but given up playing guitar. He reenrolled in a local community college, cut his hair, took a job at a video store, and rarely played, too depressed to confront his instrument. Mike credits a pal named Russ Riedner with "getting me out of my college mode and back into playing guitar." With Stevie Ray Vaughn's electric blues as soul food, McCready started back slowly, jamming casually with friends until he formed a short-lived psychedelic blues band called Love Chile. Soon after, he received an out-of-the-blue phone call from Stone Gossard, whose band Mother Love Bone had disbanded following the drug overdose of their talented and charismatic singer, Andrew Wood.
"I had known Stone from the Shadow days, before he had even begun playing guitar," McCready points out. "We used to trade rock pictures and stuff like that." Though the pair had lost contact over the years, Gossard had a good feeling about McCready, and after seeing him with Love Chile, he knew he had his man. "Stone and I just clicked together," McCready marvels. "He had tons of songs - the beginnings of 'Alive' and 'Black' - and I was like, 'Shit, yeah!' Our guitars really complemented each other; his sense of melody and rhythm, my lead style." Meanwhile, MLB bassist was still undecided about his next move, staying busy sitting in with local gigsters War Babies and picking up shows with a loose jam posse called Luv Company. "But at some point, he and Stone talked and decided to get together again," recalls Mike, "so we just had to find Eddie and a drummer." We had to find Eddie. Thinking back, who could imagine anyone but the earnest, poetic surfer with the passionate baritone filling the group's frontman role?
Just as the band - originally named Mookie Blaylock after the then-New Jersey Nets guard - was beginning to take shape in early '91, McCready, Gossard, and Ament began recording on weekends with Soundgarden's Chris Cornell and Matt Cameron on what would become the extraordinary Temple of the Dog album. Cornell had written two songs, "Say Hello to Heaven" and "Reach Down," in Andrew Wood's memory, but the project soon took on a life of it's own; the tunes kept coming, either from Cornell alone or from collaborations with Gossard and Ament. Vedder joined in, and there was a remarkable ease of execution. "It was one of the greatest time in my life," McCready fondly recalls. "It was my first experience doing an album, and yet it was really laid-back and easy."
Gossard's liberal use of tunings like open-D and G didn't throw McCready, but some of drummer Cameron's tricky time signatures and turnarounds offered a challenge. "The timing of stuff like 'Pushing Forward Back' messed with me," he explains. "See, I have to learn things by doing them over and over; I can;t just sit down and read anything. I have to assimilate it by doing it and doing it." Working out parts on Temple's fine compositions helped prepare McCready for the intense work he'd do on Ten, complementing another batch of unusually strong hard rock material.
"Because Temple was so easy to do, I figured Ten would be the same," says McCready, "but it wasn't." We had to delve into it much more." The lanky guitarist pauses, measuring his words. "It was fine for what it was," he sighs, "but I think we were all kind of tired of it after a while. Not to put it down at all - I love that album - but it's an old album and we'd probably heard it too much. We were all really excited about recording new stuff, and our goal was just to go down to San Francisco and get as many fresh takes as we could."