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Guitar World 4/95

ALIVE - Pearl Jam's Mike McCready Says Goodbye To Drugs and Alcohol And Is a Better Man For It
By Jeff Gilbert

Mike McCready is pissed, so pissed that his cheeks are red and a scowl is etched across his face. For the past hour he's been instructing two fans in the art of guitar smashing... and they aren't quite getting it. For what seems like the hundreth time, McCready hands the battered Strat copy to the guy on his right, who proceeds to clumsily swing it around, like he was a member of the Spin Doctors, before losing his grip and dropping it on the floor.

"No, not that way, you yuppie scumbag...This way!" McCready grabs the guitar, whips it around his head like it was a woodchopper's axe and brings it crashing down in an explosion of splinter. "There, now you try it."

The fan tries in vain to imitate the simple maneuver and succeeds only in breaking the guitar... by dropping in again.

Laughter and applause by onlookers break up the scene. "Cut! That's a keeper," shouts a director. The camera stops rolling, ending McCready's stint as a teacher at the Rock Star Fantasy Camp. The Pearl Jam guitarist is taking part in a satirical sketch that is being taped for broadcast on cable channel Comedy Central's "Almost Live!" He ambles off stage, smiling. He is followed by Soundgarden's Kim Thayil, who plays the rhythm track to "Black Hole Sun" as a group of shirtless, short-haired hopefuls try their hand at being sexy lead singers. Later, Nirvana's Dave Grohl will be taped demonstrating the finer points of drumstick twirling and accepting MTV awards. Like McCready, Thayil and Grohl are having a lot of fun taking jabs at their own celebrity.

But there is a serious side to all this alternative cheekiness. The camera sets up to shoot a bit on how to party hearty like a rock star. A bar table is covered with full bottles of beer and Jagermeister and heavily salted snack treats. The on-camera players, whose job is to look as drunk and wasted as possible, crowd around. McCready declines the offer to sit in on the shot, not wanting to perpetuate the association between himself and alcohol. He's recently attained clean and sober status and is not being preachy... he's being honest.

"I learned a lot about myself while in rehab," he says, "but I still have a ways to go."

Given the dual pressure of being in one of the world's most popular bands and, in his mid-twenties, having the kind of disposable income that Donald Trump would envy, it's not that surprising that McCready overindulged in booze and drugs during Pearl Jam's first three meteoric years. But he says that's all behind him now, a claim that he substantiates with his calm demeanor and clearheaded thinking and speech. Having successfully completed drug and alcohol rehabilitation late last year in Minneapolis, McCready is anxious to get back to what he does best... which happens to include turning guitar into kindling.

The cast and crew break for lunch. McCready, still squirrely with adrenaline, jumps onstage and jams with Bill Stainton, the show's producer, on drums, and Joe Lockett of the Kiss tribute band Gene's Addiction on bass for an impromptu reenactment of Kiss' Alive, minus "Cold Gin." The makeshift band bulldozes through "She" and "Black Diamond" as McCready lights up the room with some electrifying soloing. Young, rich, famous and alive, he's at the top of his game.

"Vitalogy", Pearl Jam's latest album, is also flying high so to speak. Like its multi-titanium predecessors Vs. and Ten, the diverse and experimental (and occasionally downright confusing) record sold a staggering one million copies in its first seven days. With their popularity soaring to cosmic levels, this spring Pearl Jam will embark on a world tour that will last into the summer.

Until then, the revitalized McCready looks forward to the March release of an album by Mad Season (Columbia) a side project he formed with members of Alice In Chains and Screaming Trees. A no-frills, melodic slab of moody guitar rock, Mad Season showcases McCready's powerful, minimalist riffing. "It gives me free reign to play a lot of leads, too," he says with a grin.

Time to go back to work on "Almost Live!" McCready joins Thayil in a bit of how to make rock star faces. There's the "heavy metal magazine" face, the "rock video" face the "album cover" face, and the "screaming guitar solo" face. McCready, 13 million Pearl Jam album sales behind him, knows them all, whether the camera is rolling or not.

GUITAR WORLD: Tell me about Mad Season.

MIKE MCCREADY: We have Layne Stanley on vocals, Martin Barrett (Screaming Trees) on drums, and a guy I met in rehab who's become a good friend of mine, John Baker Saunders, playing bass. Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees) came by and helped out on a couple of songs; he sings with Layne on "I'm Above," which is our first single. I called up Layne when I was in rehab in Minneapolis to see if he wanted to play some music together.

I've known Layne socially for a long time, but we really didn't know each other on a personal level. I started coming up with specific song ideas that I could just hear his vocal over, like "Life Or Death," which I thought would be a cool, heavy thing. So I methodically tracked him down. [laughs]

The band came together after we had jammed together two or three times and decided to do a gig. We did a show at the Crocodile Cafe (a watering hole popular among Seattle's rock-scum elite), just making up shit as we went along. We had a couple song ideas and knew that it was clicking really well, so we thought we'd hit the studio. It's hard to describe the album. Martin plays some vibes and Layne plays guitar, there's some jazzy stuff, some blues, some arena rock. I bought a Gibson Jimmy Page double-neck [EDS-1275] for the sessions. I look like an idiot with it, but it sounds so cool. I can totally get Jimmy's "Stairway To Heaven" sound.

But who knows what the plans are for the project. We'll probably just do this one album. We're going to one show in New York city and one in L.A. but other than that, all I want to do is play around Seattle.

GW: How does working with Layne differ from working with Eddie Vedder?

MCCREADY: Both Layne and Eddie will write out lyrics while we're recording basic tracks. But they're very different people and just the process of working with a different person has added a whole new dimension to my playing.

Layne is more spontaneous because that's how Alice In Chains work. We did all the Mad Season music in about seven days. It took Layne just a few more days to finish his vocals, which was intense since we only rehearsed twice and did four shows. So this has been the most spontaneous thing I've ever been involved in. This was done even quicker than Temple of the Dog which took about four weeks.

When we sit down to Pearl Jam material, we'll work for maybe a month or two, then go do an album, except for "Vitalogy" which we did sporadically. With Mad Season we just went in and started jamming on tunes and everybody had ideas and it just happened with three or four days. I like to work quickly... it's the only way to catch a really fresh vibe. I think music has to happen that way.

GW: What do Stone, Eddie, and Jeff think about your solo project?

MCCREADY: They thought it was cool. They like the fact I'm getting experience doing something else. For a long time, I kind of went along with everybody else's ideas. I've never been a very assertive person. They're excited about me finally being clean and gaining confidence as a player... and they like the music, too.

GW: What's the significance of the name Mad Season?

MCCREADY: A lot of hallucinogenic mushrooms grow in the area around Surrey, England, where we mixed the first Pearl Jam album, and people there call the time when they come up the "Mad Season" because people are 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.

GW: Did members of Pearl Jam ever talk to you about your drinking and drug abuse?

MCCREADY: Oh, yeah, many times. We had a lot of meetings where they would say, "Hey Mike, you're getting way too fucked up." But we're all really good friends and we love each other and I think they actually thought I was going to die, but they never took steps to kick me out of the band, which I can't believe because I fucked up so many times. I was drunk and making an ass out of myself and they were concerned about it. I finally made a decision to go into rehab, and they were very supportive. Stone even came out and visited me.

But it's been an ongoing thing for a couple of years: "McCready's fucked up again!" I'd clean up for a little while then I'd fall off the wagon, like addicts do. They called me all the time, and it was cool because I really needed their support. They're my greatest friends. I couldn't believe it; when you clean up, you start realizing that people actually care about you. You just don't think about it when you're using all the time because you're only into the people you're using with. It clouds everything.

I think we're a lot tighter now that I'm not fucked up. Stone and Jeff and I go pretty far back; Eddie and I have been kind of distanced from each other over the past couple of years because of my condition. I didn't have a lot of confidence; I was literally afraid of everybody. I didn't know how to relate to Eddie, and after the band really took off, I went off in my own world. When I started getting clean I told Eddie, "Listen, man, I know I've been fucked up for a long time, but I want to reestablish the relationship that we had in the beginning."

GW: You've described how you dealt with the pressure brought about by the band's huge success, but how did everybody else deal with it? The press had made Eddie out to be some sort of manic- depressive freak.

MCCREADY: The press is the press. They're going to write whatever they want because that's what they do. People don't know Eddie. He's one of the most caring individuals I've ever met in my life, if not the most caring. He's very intelligent. I think he gets freaked out about people following him around.

Honestly, I don't know what he has to go through. The level that I'm on is very strange to me, and he's got the same thing... only 20 times more so. He can't really go out in public, which has to fuck with your head. He's not bitching for the sake of bitching; he just needs his peace.

After we got so big, everything got kind of weird between the members, so when I got out of rehab, we sat down an asked each other what we wanted to do and got all the shit out on the table. We needed to do that.

Basically, we agreed that we had to decompress and find the same space we were in when we first started the band. We've experienced so many strange and exciting things already, now we just want to get back and do music like we used to. When everything blew up, everybody kind of lost their minds. Actually, Jeff and Stone had a pretty good hold on it throughout, and I think Eddie did too... but everybody has their own ways of dealing with it. And mine, for a long time, was getting fucked up. I was clean for about a month... well, semi-clean; I can't bullshit about that... but I fell off the wagon after the Kurt Cobain thing. That fucked with everybody really hard. I mean, how do you get to that point of depression where suicide's the only way out?

GW: This is probably a redundant question at this point, but how are things going for you now that you're clean?

MCCREADY: Things are good. It's great to be clear-headed and wake up early and get on with my day. And putting this Mad Season thing together has been a blessing. It's weird, though. I want to drink every day. But the longer it goes, the more the urge lessens. I drank for 15 years and I do want to drink, and I get depressed sometimes when I'm in a social situation where people are drinking and I want to get in on it. But I realize I can't do that because I'll end up on the floor, puking and pissing my pants and rolling around in the street naked and blacking out and breaking things, which was always the way I seemed to end up.

Things are good and bad. The highs are a lot higher and the lows are a lot lower because I can't cover up my emotions with alcohol. Playing live, I'm a lot more focused on the music rather than just being in a daze, the way I was before. And the whole concept of me thinking that I needed something... be it valium or crystal meth or pot... to write songs or be creative is bullshit. I couldn't put anything together when I was doing that crap. LSD might have helped me in certain ways, but it fucked me up a lot more than it helped.

GW: Is that all behind you now?

MCCREADY: I think it is. But like they say, it's just one day at a time. I want it to be over. I don't want to go back to feeling like shit every single day of my life and blacking out. If I go back, I'm gonna die.

GW: "Vitalogy" is a strange album, very eclectic.

MCCREADY: There is some weird stuff on there. It came from being on the road; it was mostly recorded while we were on tour. We did a little bit at Bad Animals Studios in Seattle at the end of our Vs. tour, then some in New Orleans and some in Atlanta. They were songs we had been doing at soundcheck. Eddie had some old tunes, like "Better Man." Jeff had "Nothingman." Those songs mostly came just from jamming. At first I didn't think it had any continuity. It was weird; when I heard the final album, I didn't really like it, which may have been because I was so fucked up when we recorded it.

I like it now, I think it's cool, but I'm ready to do another one right away, just because I've become clean. I couldn't even come up with an idea for a fucking song before. To be honest, I couldn't even put a song together. I'd come up with parts of songs like "Glorified G," but now I can actually put two things together. I have about 60 songs right now. Some are good, some are shit. But I'm finally focused. I also have a lot more confidence now, whereas before I was kind of intimidated by Stone and Jeff because they're really good songwriters.

GW: What happened to the solos on this album? I think I might have heard one.

MCCREADY: Vitalogy is not really a "solo" album. I don't think the songs demanded solos; it was more of a rhythmic album.

GW: Does Eddie play guitar on the album?

MCCREADY: Yeah, he plays a lot. He plays on "Better Man," "Not For You," and a couple of others. He plays a lot more live too. Having three guitars has added a whole new dimension to the band. He has this kind of punk rock way of playing, and Stone has this weird rhythm, and I do the leads, so it's opened up totally new doors.

GW: Vitalogy, even with all its idiosyncrasies, sold nearly a million copies its first week out.

MCCREADY: That to me is so far out there that I don't even understand it. It does fuck with my head, but at the same time I try to figure it out, it'll really make me crazy. It's very strange. Granted, I'm happy we sold that much, but I have no idea why.

The thing that really freaks me out is when really weird people follow us around at airports and hotels. Fans are cool, but these obsessive people just scare me. Thankfully, now that I'm clean, I can see through it all a bit better and understand that this is part of the whole thing. Before, I never wanted to leave my house. It's still fun for me, but I feel stupid sitting around bitching about it. I was the same way [as those fans] with bands when I was a kid. I hid underneath the Scorpions' limousine when they played the Hec Ed Pavilion in Seattle with Iron Maiden. [laughs]

GW: I know what you mean. I'm surprised Kiss didn't have me arrested for stalking them when I was in 8th grade.

MCCREADY: I worship Kiss. They're the whole reason I started playing guitar.

GW: How do you feel about Pearl Jam's occasional punk leaning, given that punk rock is not your background?

MCCREADY: That's not my background at all. Mine's more metal and arena rock. I think it's cool, though. It's new for me... that aspect is definitely coming from Eddie and Jeff and Stone... but I'm into it. I'm into all kinds of music.

GW: How do you relate to punk, then?

MCCREADY: It's music. It's the common denominator when we get together and play. We play well off of each other despite our different musical backgrounds.

GW: What are your thoughts on the new punk explosion? Do see it as succeeding Seattle as "the next big thing?"

MCCREADY: Yeah, it's probably a natural progression, though I'm not really into bands like Green Day or Offspring. I think Nirvana did the punk thing really great. I think the Clash were a really good example of a great punk band. I wasn't into them when they were around, but now, looking back at them, I can see that they were great rock and pop songwriters, as well as being punk.

GW: Do you think people are attracted to Green Day and Offspring because of their sense of humor? Do you think they need some relief from the 'seriousness' of the Seattle sound?

MCCREADY: Could be. But we don't actually take ourselves as seriously as people think.

GW: Has Pearl Jam's conflict with Ticketmaster worked against you in any way?

MCCREADY: It's eliminated us from certain venues, but we won't know how it's really affected us for a while. We're working on an alternative right now.

GW: Pearl Jam turned down the opening slot on the Stones tour. Was that because Ticketmaster had their weenie in that campfire?

MCCREADY: No, I just don't think Jeff and Eddie were into touring with them. We got to play with Keith Richards on New Year's Eve last year, and even though Keith is one of our idols, we felt like we had already done it.

GW: Can a band of Pearl Jam's stature survive without touring, or maybe doing just selective touring?

MCCREADY: We'll see. We're taking off soon to go to Japan, Australia and New Zealand, so we are touring, we're just not gonna do as much as we used to. We'll do a month and a half, take some time off, then go back out for another month. That's a lot easier. We did the first tour for a year straight, and it fried us out. We were getting frazzled and I was drinking a lot. But we became a much better band from playing every night.

GW: What's the story behind the live global radio broadcast you guys did in January with Soundgarden and some other Seattle bands?

MCCREADY: That was something Eddie arranged through a Seattle radio station (KNDD 107.7 FM). The Seattle community got so big so fast, and then when Kurt killed himself, it seemed like everything was unraveling, falling apart... which it did. This was Eddie's attempt to just get everybody together and jam. Soundgarden came down, Krist Noveselic read some poetry, Mudhoney played, The Fastbacks played, Pearl Jam played and Mad Season played. We did it in Eddie's living room. It was great because it was a chance for everybody to get back together and just jam and talk. It was a loose vibe. You didn't really think about it going out live all over the world.

GW: How is it working out with you new drummer, Jack Irons? Wasn't he the one who referred Eddie to you guys when you were originally looking for a singer?

MCCREADY: Yeah. Jack's amazing. Dave was a great musician, but I think Jack is a little more of a Matt Cameron (Soundgarden) type of drummer and is better suited to us. We actually feel like a complete band now for the first time. We're Spinal Tap when it comes to drummers [laughs], but I think this is gonna be the final change.

GW: Finally, could you clear up one thing? I've heard different versions of how you became part of the band. What is the real story?

MCCREADY: I was sitting around at a party with Pete Droge, an old friend of mine. I had my guitar and I was just jamming to a Stevie Ray Vaughan record when Stone, whom I'd known for a few years walked up and said, "Wow, you're really good!" At the time Stone's band, Mother Love Bone, was happening, so I was really pleased that he liked my playing. About three months later, Stone called asking if I wanted to jam. So we got together and everything clicked.

A short while after we played together, Stone called and asked whether I'd be interested in joining his new band. At the time I was working at a restaurant called Julia's in the Wallingford district (an upscale hippie/brown rice community in North Seattle), so it didn't take me long to decide. It all stemmed from that party. God knows why it happened.