Seven Things You Might Not Know About Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready

MikeMcCready-3-KathyDicksonPhotos by Kathy Dickson

Mike McCready has played for millions around the globe as lead guitarist for Pearl Jam. He’s composed an original piece and performed it with the Seattle Symphony in front of a sold-out Benaroya Hall. He’s raised the 12th Man flag high atop Seattle’s Space Needle for the Seahawks, played the Star Spangled Banner at a Mariners game, and thrown out the ceremonial first pitch. He’s given a face to Crohn’s disease and has smashed his share of Les Pauls and Telecasters.

And now, in honor of his 50th birthday, let’s take a look at 7 things you might not know about Mike McCready:

1. He’s a KISS fanatic.

We’re not talking fan here. As a boy, Mike admits he was borderline stalker when it came to KISS. He discovered the band on a school bus in the sixth grade in 1976. The superheroes-cum-rock stars on his friend’s lunchbox intrigued Mike, so his friend, Rick Friel (who would later play in Mike’s high school band Shadow, and later in the Seattle supergroup the Rockfords), turned him on to KISS’s music and BAM! Mike was a goner.

Despite the flak he took for it in school, Mike became obsessed with KISS and their larger-than-life personas. He dressed up as Peter Criss for Halloween and often jumped around strumming a tennis racket, pretending to be Paul Stanley or Ace Frehley. Mike credits the two KISS guitarists as having the greatest influence on him. They were the reason he says he picked up the guitar as an 11-year-old. “They were the Beatles to me,” he says. “I worship KISS.”

As the ultimate fantasy and a high watermark in his life, Ace Frehley joined Mike and Pearl Jam on stage at Madison Square Garden back in June 2008 to play KISS’s “Black Diamond,” which, McCready says, blew his mind. Mike was also tapped to play alongside his boyhood hero on the KISS classic “Cold Gin,” which appears on Frehley’s new LP of cover songs titled ‘Origins Vol. 1,’ set for release on April 15.

2. He’s a huge sports fan.

Mike’s dad made sure to involve him in sports from a young age. Mike grew up playing soccer and basketball among a host of other sports. He follows the beloved Seattle Seahawks football team, University of Washington Huskies basketball (both men’s and women’s) and the Seattle Mariners baseball team. He believes musicians and athletes are part of a mutual admiration society and that they lead parallel lives. After all, both professions use the word “play” and not “work” to describe what they do, he says, and both have a desire to play in the other’s profession.

3. How he came up with the name “Mad Season.”

Mad Season was the mid-’90s band Mike formed with Alice In Chains singer Layne Staley, Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin, and bassist John Baker Saunders, whom he met during a stint in rehab. The short-lived band put out their first and final album ‘Above’ in 1995 before going on a semi-permanent hiatus a year later for McCready and Staley to return to their full-time bands. Mad Season completely dissolved several years later with the deaths of both Saunders and Staley.

As for the significance of the band’s name, Mike tells Guitar World that it originated from the abundance of hallucinogenic mushrooms that grow in the area around Surrey, England, where Pearl Jam mixed their first album. Natives refer to the time when the mushrooms come up as the “Mad Season” due to the number of people who wander around mad, picking mushrooms, half out of their minds. The term has always stuck in McCready’s head as he relates it to the season of his drinking and drug abuse.

4. How he REALLY came to join Pearl Jam.

In an interview with Guitar World, Mike cleared up once and for all exactly how he became part of the band:

“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 [Gossard], 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.”

MikeMcCready-2-KathyDickson5. He is the peacekeeper of the band.

While Eddie Vedder, Jeff Ament and Stone all have strong opinions that sometimes clash, Mike tends to go with the flow. Whatever opinions he has concerning the group, he keeps to himself in the interest of keeping the band viable.

There were decisions made early on in Pearl Jam that Mike says he didn’t necessarily agree with—like not doing videos, interviews, or attending award shows. He recalls a record company exec warning the band that if they didn’t do a video for “Black,” the band would be finished. Like his more peevish bandmates, Mike balked at the idea of a video for “Black,” but at the same time he thought (though never voiced) that maybe it would be kind of cool to make the video.

“For a long time, I kind of went along with everybody else’s ideas. I’ve never been a very assertive person,” he told Guitar World back in 1995. Despite his reluctance to stir the waters when differences of opinion crop up in his band, Mike says you have to be able to trust and take criticism and let your ego go. And it’s tough sometimes. But he believes that when you’re in a band, you do whatever you can to keep your band together.

6. Mike’s sweet spot.

Although his parents bought him his first guitar on the condition that he take formal lessons, which he did, Mike isn’t a very technical player. His method of playing is more intuitive than learned.

The best Mike can hope for when soloing is to have nothing going through his head. He tries to tap into a more meditative state, where random thoughts that skitter through his mind are stilled and silenced, allowing him to feel the music flowing through and out of him without obstruction.

There have been a couple of times when Mike says he sat down and thought out solos. “Amongst the Waves,” from Pearl Jam’s ‘Backspacer’, is one example. Compare that recording to his live work—with his head thrown back and his eyes closed—and you’ll get an idea of the magic to be had when Mike gets all Zen.

McCready tells NPR Music that, “The euphoric state that happens that you kinda always are striving for…doesn’t happen all the time. You can’t make it happen. It just kinda happens.”

In an interview with Artist Direct, Mike said his five favorite Pearl Jam songs to play live are “Alive,” “Black,” “Off He Goes,” “Inside Job” and The Who’s “Baba O’Reilly.” Of the top five, “Black” holds a special place in his heart.

So what is Mike’s favorite song that he wrote? “Inside Job,” he says, on which he received his first lyric credit for Pearl Jam after more than 15 years with the band.

Mike tells Artist Direct that the premise for the song was his search for a kind of a spiritual answer to whatever maladies were in his life. He realized that he had to go inside himself first before he could be open to outside ideas. “The song has a lot to do with Crohn’s disease and how to deal with it. It doesn’t spell that out,” he says. “However, to me, it feels like how you have to deal with things from the inside and not with the outside perspective sometimes.”

In an interview with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Mike said of the process that, “I just tried to write some lyrics. Ed looked at the song and he really liked it and I was honored. He said I gave him a full dinner because his plate was running low. After that, I actually sang it for him and that was intimidating. Then he put his vocals over my lyrics and helped with the bridge. It was a huge collaborative effort. It’s a song I always wanted to write and I hadn’t previously. I need to give the band a lot of credit because they really helped me organize it.”

Aside from his personal connection to “Inside Job,” Mike is pretty jazzed about the big double-neck guitar he gets to play on the song too.

Happy 50th Birthday, Mike! Here’s to the second half of life. Looking forward to seeing you from the pit in a few weeks.

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