It's early 1994, and Mike McCready is pissed. So much so, his cheeks are red and his face is scowling. For the last hour he's been instructing two fans on the art of guitar smashing -- and they aren't quite getting it. For the sixth time, McCready hands the battered instrument to the guy on his right, who proceeds to clumsily swing it 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 Strat copy and whips it around his head like a woodchopper's axe, bringing it crashing down with a wood-splintering crash. "There, now you try it."
The fan tries in vain to imitate the simple maneuver and finally succeeds in breaking the guitar -- by dropping it again.
"Cut! That's a keeper!" The camera stops rolling and McCready's stint as teacher at the Rock Star Fantasy Camp ends with applause and laughter. The segment will air the following week as a parody sketch on the cable-syndicated Seattle comedy show, Almost Live! But while McCready is only too happy to belie Pearl Jam's super-serious image by playing the clown for a day, he's got a real reason to celebrate. After years of struggling with substance abuse and alcoholism, McCready has recently become clean and sober.
"I learned a lot about myself while in rehab," says the strikingly healthy Pearl Jam guitarist. "But I still have a way to go."
Given the pressures of being in one of the world's most inhumanly popular bands, and having the kind of disposable income Donald Trump envies, it's surprising that during Pearl Jam's first three cataclysmic years, McCready didn't end up killing himself with booze and drugs. But that's all behind him now as evidenced by his calm, clear-headed demeanor. Having successfully completed alcohol and drug rehabilitation early last year in Minneapolis, McCready is anxious to get back to what he does best -- playing guitar with passion, conviction and unparalleled intensity. These qualities help make the band's new album Vitalogy its strangest and strongest to date.
Guitar.com: The new record is a hybrid of punk, melodic ballads, Neil Young-metal and free-form beat poetry. What inspired such creativity?
Mike McCready: It came from being on the road, and it was recorded while we were on the road. Then 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. [Vocalist] Eddie [Vedder] had a few songs like "Better Man," which was an old tune of his. [Bassist] Jeff [Ament] had "Nothingman." Those songs mostly came just from jamming while we were on tour. 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. I don't know if that was because I was so fucked up when we were recording it. I like it now, but I'm ready to do another one, just because I've been clean. Before, I couldn't even come up with an idea for a fucking song, but now I can actually put two things together. I have about 70 songs right now. Some are good, some are shit. But I'm finally focused. That's one really good aspect of cleaning up. I also have a lot more confidence now whereas before I was kind of intimidated by [guitarist] Stone [Gossard] and Jeff because they're really good songwriters].
Guitar.com: Does Eddie play guitar on the album?
McCready: Yeah, he plays a lot. He plays on "Better Man" and "Not For You," and a lot live, too. It's added a whole new dimension by having three guitars. 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 doors to a whole new thing. Eddie's always played guitar.
Guitar.com: "Not For You" is obviously a real Neil Young influenced song. You've jammed with Neil quite a bit over the last several years. What's that like?
McCready: It's amazing. It's like, "Oh, my God; I'm jamming with Neil Young! What the fuck is up with this?" It freaked me out a little bit at first, but he was real cool to us. He's the nicest guy, real mellow and totally funny. We just clicked for some reason. It's a total privilege to share the same stage with Neil. He plays through a tiny amp, this little Fender, and some weird old vocal amp. He has the weirdest amps I've ever seen, but he gets the coolest sound.
Guitar.com: Have you learned anything by hanging around him?
McCready: I want to steal a lot of his licks [laughs]. When we toured with him, he had the greatest band, Booker T. and the MGs backing him up. That was the best band I've ever seen. I think I learned a little bit about the longevity of bands and maybe having to go through different paces. I don't know how long I want to be in a band, but it makes me think I can do something when I'm older. It gave me a good perspective.
Guitar.com: Vitalogy, even with all its idiosyncrasies, sold nearly a million copies its first week out, just like Vs.
McCready: That to me is so far out there, I don't even understand it. It does fuck with my head, but at the same time, if I try to figure it out, it'll make me crazy. I'm happy we sold that much, but I have no idea why it sells. The thing that really fucks with my head is when really weird people follow us around at airports and hotels. Fans are pretty cool, but then there's obsessive people that occasionally freak me out. Now that I'm clean, I can see through it a bit better. Before, I was really paranoid. I never wanted to leave my house.
Guitar.com: You turned down an offer to tour with the Rolling Stones. Why?
McCready: I don't think Jeff or Eddie was into it. We got to play with Keith Richards on New Year's, and Keith is one of my idols, so I felt like I had already done it. It would have been cool to tour with the Stones, but at the same time, we like playing by ourselves. I was going through rehab at that time, too.
Guitar.com: Did your bandmates ever talk to you about your drinking and drug abuse?
McCready: Oh, yeah, many times [laughs]. We had a lot of meetings where they would say, "Hey, 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 on the road. I was drunk and making an ass out of myself and they were concerned about it. I finally went in and made a decision to go into rehab, and they were very supportive. Stone even came out and visited me. But it's been on 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. I think we're a lot tighter now because 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. Coming back to that, getting clean, I said to Eddie, "Listen, man, I know I've been fucked up for a long time, but I want to get back and re-establish our relationship that we had in the beginning."
Guitar.com: Do you ever feel the urge to return to your old ways?
McCready: I want to drink every day. But the longer it goes, the urge get less. I do get depressed sometimes because I'll be in a social situation where people are drinking, and I want to get in on it. But at the same time, 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 things ended up. Things are good and bad now. The highs are a lot higher and the lows are a lot lower because I can't cover my emotions with alcohol. Playing live, I'm a lot more focused on the music rather than just being in a daze. And the whole concept of me thinking that I needed something, be it valium or crystal meth or pot, to write songs or to 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 in a lot more ways than it helped.
Guitar.com: Is that all behind you now?
McCready: I think it is. 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.