Pearl Jam's Mike McCready talks Layne Staley and Mad Season's Above reissue

"Mad Season changed my life in a million different ways," says Mike McCready (left) of his mid-'90s band that also included John Baker Saunders, Layne Staley and Barrett Martin.
"Mad Season changed my life in a million different ways," says Mike McCready (left) of his mid-'90s band that also included John Baker Saunders, Layne Staley and Barrett Martin.

"It was a brief lightning bolt of music that lasted six months, tops, and then it was gone," says Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready of Mad Season, the mid-'90s band he formed with Alice In Chains singer Layne Staley, Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin and bassist John Baker Saunders. "We did a lot of stuff in that short period of time. Luckily, most of it was documented."

There were a tight handful of Mad Season shows, such as those at Seattle's Moore Theatre and that city's famed (and now-defunct) RKCNDY nightclub, but most notably, there was the band's sole full-length disc, 1995's Above, an engrossing collection of moody, blues-and-jam-oriented songs that yielded the radio hit River Of Deceit.

Following the release of Above, McCready and Staley returned to their full-time bands, and while there was some talk of Mad Season reconvening, the deaths of both Saunders (in 1999) and Staley (three years later) effectively put an end to the band. Recently, Above received the deluxe reissue treatment, with the package including a DVD of both the Moore Theatre and RKCNDY gigs, along with three long-dormant, previously unreleased tracks that Screaming Trees singer Mark Lanegan wrote lyrics for and has now put vocals to. Also included in the set is Mad Season's version of John Lennon's I Don't Wanna Be A Soldier that the original band recorded for the 1995 John Lennon tribute album, Working Class Hero.

McCready recently sat down with MusicRadar to talk about the reissue of Above, how the band formed and functioned, and his recollections of both Layne Staley and John Baker Saunders.

Artists don't usually listen to their own albums a lot. Had you listened to Above much, or at all, since it came out?

"I listened to it all the way through probably two times in the 16 years since it came out. I have heard River Of Deceit on the radio since then. But I haven't listened to the album because, for me, it's very sad. Baker and Layne both died, so there's a sadness that hangs over the entire record; I wasn't willing to live that again. Those couple of times I did listen to it, it was tough.

"When I went back and heard it again, it was freeing and sad. I cried and laughed and felt proud. I felt a real mixture of emotions that'd I'd never had with any other music I'd done, because two of the guys passed away, and I miss them."

So, obviously, working on this reissue was very bittersweet.

"It's kind of bittersweet, yeah. It's bittersweet talking about it - I wish that they could be here talking about it, too. I'd like to see what they'd be like now, when they weren't as young as they were 16, 20 years ago, whenever we made the record. But in terms of the music and getting it together, that was kind of the cool part.

"While bittersweet, there was also a feeling of closure, because we sort of put out everything we did. That was a big deal. To be able to do two DVDs from two shows, one at the Moore Theatre and one that I forgot we even had, at the RKCNDY, was pretty cool. It was good to just say, 'This is what we did in a short period of time. We were a quick flash, and then we were gone.' But it re-flashed with Mark Lanegan singing on a few songs."

Mark is a very different singer from Layne, but he fits with the music. I understand that you wanted him to sing these songs for quite a while. What took so long?

[Laughs] "That's a good question. I'm just grateful that he did it. I had approached him over the years, you know, 'Hey, man, would you be interested in listening to these songs and singing over them?' Mark was kind of the true right guy for it. In my mind, I couldn't think of anybody else. I know a lot of great singers and have luckily been able to work with Eddie [Vedder], Chris [Cornell], Layne and Star Anna, all of these great singers from Seattle, but Mark… he just wanted to do it now.

"The timing was never right before - I was on tour, Mark was on tour; he's got his solo thing and doesn't live here anymore. Maybe it just struck him as something he didn't want to do. And I didn't want to keep bugging him about it; if I'm working with somebody, I want them to be as excited about something as I am. You can't just go, 'Be excited about it.' [Laughs] And I think he was. Barrett approached him, and you know, they're very close - they'd played in The Screaming Trees together. Mark trusts Barrett's intuition on a lot of things, and I do, too. I think Barrett came to him in a cool way, and then Mark put those ideas down."

On Mad Season's formation, McCready (right) recalls, "I was like, 'I've got these guys. Let's try to do something. Let's just see what it is."

Help me with the chronology of how Mad Season came together. Were you talking to Layne first, or did it start when you met John?

"I was in rehab in Minneapolis in 1994, and I saw this kind of crusty old guy pull up to the place. He drove a Dodge Dart, and it had a bumper sticker that read, 'What We Have Here Is A Failure To Give A Shit.' [Laughs] I just thought, 'This guy is awesome. I've got to meet him.'

"A couple of days passed, and we're doing whatever it was that we were doing, and then I heard Bob Dylan playing from this one room. I thought, 'Well, that's interesting,' because we weren't supposed to play music. I went in the room and said, 'Oh, cool.' And it was Baker. He and I started talking about Bob Dylan. We struck up a friendship, and when we got out, he was living in Minneapolis, and I just wanted to stay there for a while and not go back to Seattle.

"When it was time to come back, it was right around the time that we had to find a new drummer - that's a whole other story - and I just said to Baker, 'Hey, do you want to come back with me?' I don't think he had anywhere to go in Minneapolis, so I just moved him here. I had met him first, but I had called Layne from Minneapolis. He was receptive. When I got back, Layne was off the road, and Pearl Jam was off the road; there was Barrett from The Screaming Trees - I had always wanted to work with him because he's a fantastic drummer - and I was like, 'I've got these guys. Let's try to do something. Let's just see what it is. Let's jam and maybe do a record.' It was more of a jam thing at first."

So you and Layne hadn't talked about doing something prior to this; it definitely started with John.

"It started with John Baker Saunders, and I appreciate you bringing that up. He doesn't get talked about a lot in the history of Mad Season. It was pretty awesome when he moved to Seattle. He fit right into the scene here; he had a cynicism and dark side that worked with all of the Seattle guys. Jeff Ament was very nice to him and let him borrow a bass for a few things. Just recently, he gave me the bass that he borrowed, and I was very touched by that.

"Everybody sort of gravitated towards Baker. He was a real honest, really cool bluesman. I think that Layne felt that - the honesty and the realness - and so did Barrett. When we first got together to jam, it was a free-form, fun thing; there wasn't any pressure, like, 'This isn't my band, Pearl Jam.' I didn't have all of the insecurities that went along with that. Running back to that time, I definitely needed something to help me gain confidence in my songwriting. Mad Season was kind of the vehicle for that."

That's interesting. I've never heard you talk about that before.

"Well, I was in a band with some very prolific songwriters, guys who know what they want and know how to get it. I was not that way - back then. I've completely changed, of course, but for the first three records, I didn't really write anything on them. After Mad Season, I started writing my own music for Pearl Jam and brought it in. Given To Fly came out of that, and so did Faithful - those were on Yield, which came after Mad Season. I can draw a direct lineage in my confidence growth after we did that record. Mad Season changed my life in a million different ways."

So you were looking to boost your confidence as a songwriter. What about Layne? Did he ever tell you what he was looking for in Mad Season?

"That's a good question. I don't know. I can only interpret his lyrics and what I think they mean to me. I think they're him searching for a way… [sighs] to get out of the spiral he was in. Or documenting it - documenting the pain and the suffering he was feeling, knowing that he couldn't get out of it, the horror that goes along with it. But he's also being very honest about it; he's dealing with some very heavy stuff - some addictions, his girlfriend dying and things like that. It's very intense and artistic, how he did that. Wow… It's almost too heavy to think about at times.

"I think that he might have just felt like it was a good break from his band, as it was for me from my band, and as it was for Barrett. He might have felt as though there was more freedom in this. This was a jam. Baker brought this blues element to it that he hadn't had before; we were all heavier and more 'rock.' This was a new experiment: We were using cellos and vibes, Baker was a new element, and I was the only guitar player, but I think Layne was used to that with Jerry. Although I wasn't used to that; I was only used to two guitar players, sometimes three! It was very freeing thing."

River Of Deceit has an opening guitar figure - and tone, as well - that's very reminiscent of Pearl Jam. Were you maybe working on it for that band, but it wound up with Mad Season?

"It's hard to remember, but I think I so, yes. I think I had that part kind of hanging out. I definitely had the verse part. [Sings the verse guitar riff.] That part I had. I might have done the intro while we were doing Mad Season - it's hard to remember. But I definitely had chords like that going on, but I didn't really do anything with them until I was in the room with those guys. I was unafraid to go somewhere with it, whereas I might have felt that way with Pearl Jam at that time."

The riff for Lifeless Dead is a monster. Where did that come from?

[Laughs] "Thanks. I was way into Jimmy Page at that time, so I was trying to write a riff-type thing in the vein of that. The intro was maybe more Pink Floyd, but I did use the Gibson doubleneck SG, so the vibe is very Pagey - I think. That's what I was listening to back then."

What time signature is that song in?

"You are asking the wrong guy. I don't know! [Laughs] I'd have to ask Barrett - he would know."

The turnarounds in the guitar phrase are so unexpected. When I listen to it, I think, "He's going to miss that one note."

"That's Barrett and me. He's counting it out and playing in a certain way that makes it go like that. On my side, it's pure feel; I couldn't count it out like he does."

Who brought up the idea of doing John Lennon's I Don't Wanna Be A Soldier?

"That was me. We were approached by Hollywood Records, and I think it was John Dee, who is Mark Lanegan's manager now, who asked us to do a song for a John Lennon tribute record. It was a fat check, too, so we were like, 'Sure!' [Laughs] That helped pay for most of the Mad Season record. I can't remember where the idea of the song itself came from, but I always thought it was cool. Those guys gravitated towards it. Layne did a great job on that."

The band did some shows, but how and when did it all come to an end? Were you indeed looking to do another album?

"It's kind of blurry. It was mid-'94 to '95, or mid-'95 to '96, and we all went back on the road. Pearl Jam did the Yield record, and we got a new drummer, Jack Irons, at that time. I went back into that world, which was all encompassing. Barrett went back into the Trees. Layne was struggling, but his band went in to do their last record with him. I'd say the band ended right around the New Year's Eve show we did at RKCNDY.

"I haven't watched the live shows all the way through, but I want to watch the RKCNDY one again, because that's when Layne was feeling really good. I remember it as being a good example of us firing on all cylinders."

Joe Bosso

Joe is a freelance journalist who has, over the past few decades, interviewed hundreds of guitarists for Guitar WorldGuitar PlayerMusicRadar and Classic Rock. He is also a former editor of Guitar World, contributing writer for Guitar Aficionado and VP of A&R for Island Records. He’s an enthusiastic guitarist, but he’s nowhere near the likes of the people he interviews. Surprisingly, his skills are more suited to the drums. If you need a drummer for your Beatles tribute band, look him up.