ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, MAY 29, 2003
By Steve Newton
Pearl Jam is one of those hugely influential, multiplatinum rock acts that’s notorious for refusing to talk to the press, often for extended periods of time. So when PJ guitarist Mike McCready calls from the “lovely offices” of Vandenberg Public Relations in Seattle, my first question is, Why now?
“We go through phases where we do press and we don’t do press,” he admits. “But I talked to [vocalist] Eddie [Vedder] earlier on and said, ‘Look, if we can do one-10th of what U2 did on their last tour, presswise, it would be rad.’ And I don’t know if we’ve even achieved one-10th of that, but I looked at them as an example.”
The affable McCready certainly seems happy to chat at length about everything from the Seattle music scene to the recent backlash against the George Bush–bashing Dixie Chicks. His openness is a far cry from the situation in the early ’90s, when, at the peak of its rocket ride to fame, Pearl Jam took a pronounced step away from stardom.
“Probably around our second or third record, we started pulling back,” McCready confirms. “Eddie wasn’t very comfortable with how everything had blown up; he wasn’t very comfortable in his skin, and a lot of that was to do with the press and how big we had gotten. So we made a conscious decision: ‘Hey, we’re not gonna do any more videos, we’re not gonna do this and that. We’re gonna hold back.’
“And had we not done that,” he continues, “we might not be around; I wouldn’t be talkin’ to you right now. We might have been just totally overblown by the whole thing. I’m sure it alienated us from some fans and some people, but I think for the sanity of the band, consciously pulling back was the right thing to do.”
Then there was the matter of that much-publicized battle with Ticketmaster. In March of ’94, the band announced its intention to keep ticket prices for its upcoming summer tour below US$20, and in so doing challenged what it felt were unjust service fees being charged by the ticketing agency. This sparked a hullabaloo within the concertgoing community, and an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice’s antitrust division. But in the end Ticketmaster came out with its service charges—not to mention those pesky “handling fees”—intact. The only way you can buy tickets for Pearl Jam’s gig at GM Place on Friday (May 30) is through the much-maligned monopolizer.
“Ticketmaster has certain contracts with certain venues,” McCready explains, “and those venues are the ones where our fans could see us the easiest. If we didn’t use them, people would have to drive two hours to go see us in a field somewhere, and that’s just a big pain in the ass. Our fans have been through that before with us, and we don’t want to subject them to that again.”
In November of last year Pearl Jam released its seventh CD, Riot Act, which sees the band distancing itself somewhat from its grunge roots, while chief lyricist Vedder continues to ruminate on heavy topics such as death. The intense “Love Boat Captain” refers to the 2000 Roskilde Festival in Denmark, at which nine fans died in a crowd surge during the band’s set; on the fast-rocking “Save You”, Vedder expresses his frustration with seeing drug-addicted friends kill themselves.
Dedicated to fallen bassists John Entwistle, Dee Dee Ramone, and Ray Brown, Riot Act has sold half a million copies in the States—not huge by Pearl Jam standards—but with its local arena show on the brink of selling out, the quintet’s popularity remains solid. One thing’s for sure: you can’t tune in to any of today’s modern-rock stations without hearing someone paying stylistic homage to the grunge pioneers.
So is McCready ever taken aback by how far-reaching his group’s influence has become? “I’m happily surprised,” he replies, “and sometimes irritated. Being inside the band itself, it’s hard for me to say, ‘Wow, we had a big influence.’ But if I look at it from an outside perspective, seeing all these bands that are cropping up with guys that sound like Eddie, yeah, I can definitely see that.”
Vancouver’s own Nickelback is the latest rock act to hit the jackpot with the help of an unmistakable Pearl Jam vibe, but that band is not among the ones that cause McCready irritation. “Nickelback doesn’t bother me,” he points out. “I actually like some of their tunes. They kind of have their own sound, too.”
The compliment-tossing guitarist is not just an admirer of Lotusland’s top-selling group, he’s also a huge fan of their city. “I love Vancouver,” he raves, “and I’ll tell you why. Growing up in Seattle, as a teenager in high school my friends and I would go up there and go to these killer record stores around Granville. A&B Sound was there, and Revolution something, near Gastown, and we’d go up there to look for records and spend the weekend in this really dive-y Granville hotel and party. I loved it! Whatever we were into at the time—posters, KISS things, Aerosmith—you could always find more stuff in Canada.”
Mike McCready sounds off on the things that enquiring minds want to know.
On whether the band’s latest CD, Riot Act, is a politically oriented album: “I think there’s political overtones to it—there’s ‘Bushleaguer’ and a couple of others. But there’s also ‘I Am Mine’, and that’s not political, that’s more of a spiritual song. Ed is definitely very socially conscious, so he’ll sing of political-type things, but not always overtly.”
On the recent backlash in America against the Dixie Chicks for their disparaging comment about George Bush: “I thought it was ridiculous. Growing up in America, we have our freedom of speech and our constitution, and these are the things that I learned growing up, and still adhere to. You know, you should be able to say what you wanna say.”
On touring and recording with Neil Young: “He’s just the man. He’s like a wise prophet or a sage—I don’t know what the right word is—and we learned a lot from him. The main thing that I always come away from him with is: you can go through cycles as a musician and as a band, and in a career can go from very high—playing arenas and having sold-out shows—to back to playing clubs. He’s been through that, and he told us to expect those kinda things, and that to weather them will make you stronger and make you a better man.”