Pearl Jam is usually defined by Eddie Vedder’s angst. But during the past year, Mike McCready had plenty of tumult in his own life.
Ten months ago, the Pearl Jam guitarist was in a Minneapolis rehabilitation center, battling the alcoholism he says has gripped him for the past 15 years - particularly since 1991, when the Seattle band exploded into a chart-topping, multimillion-selling rock phenomenon.
McCready’s stay coincided with a rough time for Pearl Jam, too. Kurt Cobain’s suicide was an emotional blow. Its summer tour was canceled, and the group hauled Ticketmaster before the U.S. Justice Department. Drummer Dave Abbruzzese was fired over musical and personality differences. And there was a palpable sense of splintering as the remaining musicians pursued other projects.
“I think we all became detached from one another,” says McCready, 29. “We had to redefine our relationships and why we started the band in the first place. We lost that for a little while. I was definitely lost, drinking all the time.
“Now we’ve become a band again, whereas we hadn’t been for a long time.”
McCready cheerfully reports this is a particularly upbeat time for him and the group. Pearl Jam’s third album, “Vitalogy,” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts in November and has sold more than 4 million copies so far. The group, with new drummer Jack Irons, recently finished a concert tour of Australia, New Zealand and Japan, and it begins a U.S. tour - using its own California-based ticket service - June 16 in Casper, Wyo.
Pearl Jam also served as the backing band for good buddy Neil Young’s new album, which is due out in early June.
Meanwhile, McCready’s been clean since his stay in Minneapolis - and he plans to stay that way. He’s also climbing the charts with another band, Mad Season, a casual side project he formed with members of Alice in Chains, Screaming Trees and the Lamont Cranston Band.
The other Pearl Jammers have found diversions of their own. Vedder’s recording and touring with Mike Watt. Guitarist Stone Gossard operates his own label, Loosegroove. Those outside projects, McCready says, were what the band was crying for last year and will ultimately give Pearl Jam more longevity as a group.
“The band got so huge so quickly that we maybe lost our focus,” he says. “It’s weird to look back on; it was kind of a blur. I think when that happens, you have to get away from each other to regroup, clear your head, to go ‘OK, why are we doing this?’
“So you kinda look for things like the Mad Season project, or Stone’s label, or jamming with other people, to keep your sanity. It reminds you why you do music in the first place. That gives you the impetus to get back together … and do what we love doing.”
It seems inevitable that Pearl Jam would suffer such an impasse, even if it came early in the group’s career. Formed from the ashes of Seattle’s Mother Love Bone - and from Temple of the Dog, a tribute project to the late MLB singer Andrew Wood - Pearl Jam was an immediate click. Its tightly wound combination of hard rock power chords, punk energy and slinky grooves was a formidable attack - fresh, intense and decidedly modern while still drawing from classic rock influences.
Timing was on the band’s side, too: coming in the wake of the first Lollapalooza tour and Nirvana’s commercial breakthrough, Pearl Jam’s debut album, “Ten,” made its impact on a market hungry for new bands to make the Next Big Thing. That’s what Pearl Jam was by the time the group appeared on the second Lollapalooza bill in 1992.
Vedder’s tough, confessional lyrics - poetry about alienation, isolation, romance, longing and an unrequited search for beauty and peace - hit an audience nerve and earned the singer the unwanted distinction as spokesmen for a generation.
That’s a heavy load for a group whose members had toiled in obscurity and didn’t necessarily aspire to this stature.
“I think my idea of fame was a lot different,” says McCready, who’s been playing guitar since he was 11 and cut his teeth in a hard rock band called Shadow when he was a teenager. “I think I wanted to be in a successful band, to be on guitar magazine covers and things like that.
“I don’t want to seem like another person bitching about being famous. But I do view it as a very strange thing.”
Drinking was McCready’s way of dealing with the insecurities he felt about his own musical abilities. He occasionally missed band meetings or rehearsals. During concerts, his behavior was sometimes erratic and decidedly unmusical.
“Mike’s a pretty awful drunk,” Gossard told Musician magazine. “He would get out of control consistently. … I got upset that he might throw away a great opportunity to be in a cool band and work it out.”
Gossard says the group was “thrilled” when McCready checked into rehab. He flew to Minneapolis to visit, while the other band members kept in touch by phone. But even with the Pearl Jam support network, McCready was tentative about picking up his guitar again.
“Once I cleaned up, I couldn’t play for a week and a half,” he says. “I’d been so used to being screwed up and playing. … It was a psychological thing.”
Mad Season was born during McCready’s time in Minneapolis. He met bassist Baker Saunder at the rehabilitation center and jammed with him around town. Returning to Seattle, McCready called up Layne Staley and Barrett Martin to jam and lured Saunder from Minneapolis. After a couple of shows - one billed as the Gacy Bunch - the quartet decided to try their hand at an album.
“We were all looking for other things to do at the time,” McCready explains. “I needed to get my confidence back. We wrote a couple of songs and made some up onstage. … It was much less deliberate than what we do with (Pearl Jam).
“It was just kind of an exciting, new thing to do. It actually gave me a lot of confidence, which is something I never had before.”
So it’s a more assertive McCready that’s part of Pearl Jam now. Instead of “cowering in the corner” when he doesn’t agree with something, he speaks his mind and contributes ideas.
“I think Mike will be trying on the outfit of a songwriter as much as anyone,” Gossard told Musician. “He’s a treat to be around. He’s just as raw and … crazy as he ever was, but he’s not drinking.”
Listening back to “Vitalogy,” which was recorded while he was still drinking, McCready says “it’s good to be clear-headed and think ‘Wow, we did a good album in spite of the fact that I was kind of out there.”’ He also says the addition of Irons, who was the first choice for the Pearl Jam drum chair, has strengthened the band.
Like his bandmates, McCready has learned that the way to cope with the hype that is part and parcel of the Pearl Jam experience is by keeping control - whether that means not doing videos for MTV, not dealing with Ticketmaster or generally avoiding the media. But both McCready and Gossard have been doing interviews to hawk their extraband projects.
“We’re a band that likes to do things our own way,” he says. “We want to map out our own future.”