Nirvana's Nevermind. Pearl Jam's Ten. Hole's Live Through This. Smashing Pumpkins' Siamese Dream. Soundgarden's Superunknown. The list goes on and on and on. The '90s flannel scene was rife in classic albums. But none quite as unexpected as Above, the alternative moody blues set and only release from Seattle supergroup Mad Season.
Pearl Jam's Mike McCready, a founding member of the short-lived quartet, recently told Fuse about the "tear-jerking" process of prepping the extras-packed Above reissue. He also told us the story behind the band and album, the good times and the bad. Fuse also called up Screaming Trees drummer and Mad Season founding member Barrett Martin, who filled in the blanks and revealed a few interesting tidbits, including that R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck had joined Mad Season to help write and record their ultimately-unreleased second album. Buck's contributions were never heard outside the studio, until now: One of his Mad Season songs was remastered and included on the Above reissue.
Fuse chats with Martin from his Seattle home...
Hey Barrett. What does Above mean to you 20 years later?
They say that you don’t really know what art is until a considerable amount of time has passed and you can look back on it. For some people, 20 years is a long time. For me, the time flew by because I worked on a lot of other projects during those 20 years. I’m proud of all the albums I’ve played on, but this one really stands out. I don’t listen to it often, but every now and then a song will come on my iTunes and it really makes me listen.
What about its sound is so magnetic?
What’s special about this record is that it has a deep atmosphere that few other records do. That has to do with the fact that we recorded it live as a band, in the same room together, with minimal overdubbing. So this is what Mad Season sounded like live. This is the band.
"The idea was to do something different from what those regular Seattle grunge bands had done"
Mike and Baker met in rehab, but how did you enter the picture?
Mike and I had known each other for a few years, but never played together except for a couple of jam sessions at parties. He called me up and asked to meet for dinner to talk about a project. He said, “I’ve met this bass player and he’s really great; really cool guy. Let’s jam and see what comes of it.” The first jam session was Mike, Baker and I as a trio and we immediately had basic ideas for the songs that would later become the album. Mike said, “Well I’d like to bring a singer in and I’ve been thinking about Layne. He’s interested—how do you feel about that?” I had done a world tour with the Screaming Trees and Alice in Chains in 1993 and I became friends with Layne, so we brought Layne in for the second rehearsal and it immediately started coming together. He had lyrics that he’d been working on in a journal, and I think he really wanted to do an album with his own lyrics and ideas. Not that he didn’t want to do Alice in Chains, but there was a desire to do something different.
What was the mood during recording?
We were all sober during that period. Mike and I both are to this day. But so was Baker and Layne and we were trying to do something with sober minds that we hadn’t done before, so that had a lot to do with it. I think that’s why it’s very special musically. Songs like “Wake Up,” I mean it’s a quiet song and it has a vibraphone. It’s not typical grunge from Seattle in 1994. Layne’s lyrics are very introspective and mystical; I can’t really think of another Seattle lyricist that had that quality, except for like Jimi Hendrix. That was a very different quality for that period of time. The lyrics aren’t dated for a period, they’re timeless. That’s why it holds up 20 years later.
"Layne’s lyrics are very introspective and mystical. I can’t think of another Seattle lyricist that had that quality, except for Jimi Hendrix"
Being sober for the first time ever, did that help with the clarity or continuity of recording?
When you’re sober, your mind begins to clear up and you look inward, within yourself, and start to see that there’s a whole other reality that you weren’t aware of because you were self-medicating and not being a responsible human being. We also actually liked each other as people. We were good friends. I’ve been friends with Mike [McCready] now for 25 years. Baker and I had a good friendship; we lived on the same street! And we spent a lot of time together after Mad Season and before his death. In fact, I spoke with him on the phone the night he died, which is very hard for me. But I remember what a wonderful guy and how funny he was. And, of course, I became friends with Layne; we did a world tour with Screaming Trees. That might actually be a more important story—the fact that we had these long-standing, deep friendships in addition to this band.
What is your fondest memory of Mad Season?
I remember how inspired and magical the recording sessions were because we recorded it quick. We did everything in about two weeks, and that’s not working every day. The Moore Theatre concert, too, I remember that being an incredibly special night. It’s considered to be one of the great musical performances in Seattle during that period of time. There was a real magical quality in the theatre. It was sold out and the crowd was so happy to see us play live, and we played incredibly well live. It might be the most special night I remember. That’s why we edited the entire film and remixed the live footage [for the reissue].
Also, I remember Layne was reading a lot of mystical books, like The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. We’d talk about the importance of speaking truth in songs. There were special moments just talking to each other and realizing that we were having fun.
Do you have a favorite lyric from the album? Or one that encapsulates Layne’s style?
“River of Deceit.” That’s why it was actually a hit single and it still gets played on the radio today. His lyrics are so timeless and classic. When we played that song at the Moore Theatre, everybody sang the lyrics. We’ve played it a couple times over the years with another singer named Jeff Rouse [Alien Crime Syndicate, Loaded], a Seattle guy that really loves Mad Season and loves that song. The whole audience sings along and they’re louder than he is.
Most music fans seem to know the words...
At a certain point a song becomes the people’s song. It doesn’t belong to Mad Season. It’s out there and anybody can sing it. One of the best ways to preserve music is through the oral transmission of it—hearing it, singing it, repeating it. Songs are better preserved that way than if you write or record them, because they’re in the people’s memory. “River of Deceit” is one of those songs.
Tell me about the attempt to record a second album...
We started working on a second Mad Season album in 1996. Above came out in 1995 and the band played those two shows, then Columbia [Records] asked if we wanted to do another record, and we did. We already had more song ideas. I’d gone back to the Screaming Trees and recorded the Dust album and Pearl Jam had another record out, but we always had extra ideas and new ideas that seemed very appropriate for Mad Season. And so we reconvened at Ironwood Studios, now called Avast, in Greenwood, Seattle. The idea was for Mike, Baker and I to record some musical ideas and give those rough mixes to Layne and Mark [Lanegan]. Like, we’ll get some ideas started; and Mark was going to be more involved in the second record as well. But those two guys never wrote anything.
Well, the truth is that Layne was deteriorating. We all hoped that the music would help, but the bottom line is nothing was ever sung on those 17 basic tracks.
How did Mark get involved with singing on the reissue?
Mark and I have stayed friends over the years and we’d just done the Screaming Trees Last Words album—we put together the final recording that the Trees had done—and I said, “Hey, if you want to do this again… except this time, you would actually have to sing on stuff that is from 1996. He said “sure,” so I sent him the rough mixes and he picked those three and called me about two days later.
I understand Peter Buck from R.E.M. also plays on those old demo tracks.
Yeah. One of those songs, “Black Book of Fear,” features Peter Buck playing tremolo guitar. He’d seen the first couple Mad Season shows at [Seattle venue] The Crocodile because he and his wife owned it, and loved us. He saw the whole bluesy thing and said, “Man, if you need a guitar player please call me.” So when we were doing those basic tracks for the second album, I called and said, “Come down and we’ll jam.” He had this riff and we arranged in on the spot.
So what happens to the other demos?
I don’t think we’re going to put that stuff out. Some of the ideas were really cool, but a lot of we were still trying out ideas. That’s part of the process of making albums: if you’re really trying to be a progressive and experimental, then you spend a lot of time trying a lot of different ideas.
Alice in Chains reformed with a new singer and have found tremendous success. What do you think of their choice to continue without Layne? Would Mad Season ever do the same?
There’s no talk of reforming or playing any shows, and I don’t think we would. I’m not saying that we wouldn’t play a special show, but… I was doing interviews for another project at the time Alice in Chains reformed and I was asked this question. I believe that [Alice in Chains] totally have the right to keep Alice in Chains going. It’s a terrible tragedy that we lost Layne. It haunts everybody in the same way that Kurt’s death does. When it happened, it took the foundation right out of the bottom of Seattle.
It was an awful period of time. But at the same time, here are these other great musicians, like [drummer] Sean [Kinney] and [guitarist] Jerry [Cantrell] and [bassist] Mike [Inez]. Why are they supposed to never make another record again? They have every right. They built this band and great catalogue of songs; their last record was really good and I can’t wait to hear their new record. I totally support them going forward.
What about the spirit of the early ‘90s, especially in Seattle, that has a kind of timeless presence?
Good question. I’ve been thinking about that on my own. There’s a renewed interest in grunge and some new bands that are doing that [sound], so I hope they evolve the form and keep building upon the old by creating new ideas. There hasn’t been a huge rock scene in 25 years, nothing on the level of what happened in Seattle which had global impact both musically and culturally. That’s because the Seattle bands knew how to hold on to classic qualities of rock n’ roll and give it a bit of mystery. That’s why Soundgarden is able to disappear for 15 years and then come back as good as they were at their peak, maybe even better.
We’ve lost something with the digital age—there’s no mystery anymore. Every band posts their record online and everything is laid out. In the Seattle days, it was “Let’s form a band and see what we can come up with.” There’s a loss of mystery. And there’s something to be said for community. The Seattle music community is very tight and powerful with how we work together and support each other. The thing that was amazing about late ‘80s and ‘90s in Seattle is that everybody loved each other’s bands. We were excited to hear what each band was going to record and what their records would sound like. It was friendly competition to see who would play a better show, but it was mutually supportive. People from other cities and music scenes would say, “Man, [our music scene] is cutthroat and back-biting.” That was not the case in Seattle. When you have that foundation, everybody excels.