In the fall of 1994, just months after Kurt Cobain's downward-spiral drug addiction ended in suicide, members of Seattle's white-hot grunge bands—Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Screaming Trees—found themselves back home pursuing a common goal: staying sober. It was this struggle, however (un)successful, that resulted in one of the best alt-rock albums of the '90s: Mad Season's Above.
Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready, fresh out of rehab in Minnesota, returned to the Emerald City with John Baker Saunders, a jazz-blues bassist he met in treatment. To encourage their sobriety, he threw together an ad hoc band with Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin. McCready then invited in the wild card, Alice in Chains singer Layne Staley, in an attempt to help his close friend overcome heroin addiction.
Open-ended jams quickly led to local shows at Seattle's infamous Crocodile Cafe, and soon to a recording studio. Above, released in March 1995, was notable for its varied styles; this wasn't just more sludge rock moping from Seattle; it was alt-jazz fusion.
Saunders brought a moody, jazz-flecked groove to tracks like "Wake Up," "All Alone" and "Long Gone Day," which blends samba bass, xylophone, saxophone and backing vocals from another confidant, Screaming Trees singer Mark Lanegan. The LP also features some of the career-best lyrics from Staley, now free to experiment outside the confines of Alice in Chains. The centerpiece track is "River of Deceit," a shimmering guitar swell with Staley's skyward croon about his losing fight with addiction, but through the lens of Khalil Gibran's classic book of poetry, The Prophet: "My pain is self chosen / Or so the prophet said..."
Twenty years later and the band's goal is only half realized: Saunders relapsed and died of a heroin overdose in early 1999. Staley died of a cocaine and heroin overdose in April 2002. McCready and Martin lived. Above would be Mad Season's first and final album, only adding to its mythical status.
This week, a deluxe version of Above has been reissued, complete with covers, b-sides and even unearthed demos from a short-lived attempt at a second album, tentatively titled Disinformation, in 1996 (Staley, then severely addicted and rarely leaving home, never showed up to the sessions).
McCready, who went on to record acclaimed albums with Pearl Jam, talks to Fuse about forming the band, recording Above, the reissue, Mad Season's legacy and more.
How has this album changed for you over the past 20 years?
When the band happened, it was an integral part of my life. I just got sober and I wanted to help out Layne. But I had a naive take on things back then. Everything was brand new with getting sober. I was uncomfortable writing songs in Pearl Jam because I felt like I was in a band with a lot of really good songwriters, and I didn’t assert myself as much as everyone else. Mad Season opened up that door to writing and having the confidence to write songs. I will always be totally grateful for that experience. I was like, "Oh I can do this too! I can write songs and I can communicate right with Layne and Barrett and Baker." It was an open pallet for Layne—it was like, "Write whatever kind of songs you want!"
"We were listening to the remaster and it was so powerful I started crying. And I’m not a guy that cries all the time."
Would you occasionally listen to Above over the past 20 years, or even hear it on the radio?
I would occasionally put it in. But it’s really painful to listen to because it would remind me of those guys. I just didn’t really want to feel that sadness and loss every time I heard it. I’d hear "River of Deceit" on the radio and would feel proud and think, "Yeah, that was a good thing."
It's a beautiful song...
I’m very proud of that song; Layne’s lyrics are beautiful. Like, “My pain is self chosen.” He told me that that was from a Gibran book and hearing it brought me back. It’s sad but it’s also beautiful that [the album is] a document of where those people were at that time. It’s a document of what Layne was singing about. It was a struggle, but people can relate to that struggle and get something positive out if it, and that’s good.
You met Baker during rehab. What was the next step?
I was talking to Baker and thought he was a funny old blues guy. He was cranking Bob Dylan in his room and started talking about Muddy Waters. Baker had been playing since high school. I had thought about how I’d like to help Layne, and that I’d like to work on music together. I called Layne and he was into it. I didn’t know if it was going to be a band or a side project, or if it was even going to happen. I loved Barrett as the drummer from Screaming Trees. He was one of the best. That guy’s a monster. He’d hit so hard and knew how to groove. After I returned from rehab, we started rehearsing at a little place in West Seattle. It all came together very quickly.
Four drug addicts, all attempting to get sober for the first time and joining a band. How did that change the music?
It was like, "Let’s all support each other and try to get through this and stay sober." It didn’t work out for two of us, but that just shows you how devastating alcoholism and addiction can be. But there was a lot of honesty that came out of this session because we weren’t hiding behind anything. We were creating music and Layne was singing from his heart about his struggles, his life, his experiences.
Was the album’s genius immediate? Did you know you were creating a classic album?
It’s something I noticed over the years from hearing people going, "Oh, I love this record and it means a lot to me." I’m always kind of shocked because we recorded it very quick. We were all between other very successful projects, except Baker who hadn’t had a real big success. I knew it would do okay [sales-wise] because we were in popular bands and it was released by Columbia Records. But I didn’t realize it would go gold. That blew my mind.
There are interesting, different sounds…
Yeah. “Lifeless Dead” and “I Don’t Know Anything” have these weird grooves. Then there’s “November Hotel,” which is about my dad in Vietnam. He was a pilot and flew FR-Phantoms and "November Hotel" was on the back of his fin. Imagine a plane coming off a carrier—that’s what I was thinking when we were recording it—then Barrett’s thunderous drums. And there was more mellow stuff like “You’re Saying” and “Long Gone Day,” which is jazzy—that’s Bakers’ influence.
Where does the band name come from?
I had heard the term Mad Season many years before when I was mixing the first Pearl Jam record in Surrey, England. The people that worked at the studio said, “Oh it must be the mad season,” because that’s the time when psilocybin mushrooms come out in England, during the raining season. I thought, ‘Oh that’s a cool title.’ So I always kept that in the back of my brain.
What’s your fondest memory of recording the album?
Hanging out and talking about life, laughing. I don’t have one specific memory. I remember Mark [Lanegan] and Layne harmonizing on “Long Gone Day” and “I'm Above.” I have fond memories of those two guys singing together live because they wanted to. They were friends. Watching two really powerful Seattle singers sing together—much like Chris Cornell and Eddie Vedder [who both sang in McCready's other band Temple of the Dog]—was powerful and cool and subtle and dark and poetic.
Tell me about bringing in Mark Lanegan to sing on these “new” songs.
We started our second Mad Season record—we were going to call it Disinformation—about a year after Above. Now [R.E.M.'s] Peter Buck was part of the process too. Layne never showed up, so we ended up finishing 13 [instrumental] demos. I’d listen to them periodically and think, “I wish that something would happen with this." I was in the Pearl Jam vault just looking around and saw the two-inch reel to reel tape of Mad Season: Live at Crocodile Cafe and I was kind of shocked—I forgot we recorded that. That was our record release show. I started talking to Barrett and the Mad Season stuff started coming up. Around that time he called Mark and said, ‘Hey are you interested in singing for any of these tracks that we did from back in the day?” Mark was interested in singing on three—“Slip Away,” “Locomotive,” and “Black Book of Fear,” which is the one that Peter Buck plays on and pretty much wrote. We were like, ‘Yes! Finally!’ Then Barrett and I got together with [Guns N' Roses bassist] Duff McKagan to rerecord and tighten up some of those old Mad Season tunes. We’ve been trying to find somebody to sing over those, because Mark is busy doing solo stuff this year. We got Jaz Coleman from Killing Joke.
This is a new band, then?
Yeah. I don’t know if it’s going to be called Mad Season… We'll see what happens.
Alice in Chains reformed and have been very successful. How did you feel about them going forward without Layne and would you consider a Mad Season reunion?
Those guys are friends and I certainly wouldn’t begrudge them doing that. I want them to be able to put food on their table. And their new singer William is great. AC/DC did it; you have to do what you have to do to survive. I appreciate that they’re still going. As for Mad Season, I’d love to do something but it has to be classy and respectful to Layne and Baker. Nothing is in the works, but I’d love to play a couple shows with Lanegan singing, but I don’t think he’s interested in doing that.
Do you have a favorite track on Above?
I love “All Alone” because of how it went down. Barrett, Baker and I put that down; I wrote that guitar part on my Gibson double neck, the same guitar Jimmy Page uses on “Stairway to Heaven.” It happened by accident. I was playing on the 6th and 12th string neck, and the pickup was off on the 6th string, but on for the 12th string, so I was hearing all these relative harmonics by accident—all those whooshing, church organ sounds. It was a beautiful accident. Layne came in and sang those harmonies—it gave me chills. It still does today. It blew my mind.
What did Layne bring to this album lyrically that he didn’t to any of his other work?
Layne had total free rein to write what he wanted. He wrote all the lyrics, so it was very honest for him. Not that his other stuff wasn’t, but it was freeing for him. It was also his cry for help. I feel a lot of honesty and pain in his lyrics. He was f-cking great.
"Layne had total free reign to write what he wanted... this was his cry for help."
Why did Seattle become the epicenter of the grunge scene?
I grew up here [in Seattle] and have played in bands since I was 11 years old, but for many years, the local government wasn’t receptive to all-ages clubs or band promotion—you had to do it yourself. My band Shadow always put on our own shows or sold our own tickets. It was a lot of work, and bands from Green River to Soundgarden to TKO to Culprit did the work themselves. And playing over and over and over again in our garage made us really good. We were isolated up here, so we created our own scene. We’d all end up at each other’s shows and see each other at parties. It was just so small up here. We’d listen to [L.A. goth-punk band] 45 Grave or Black Flag or Motorhead or Iron Maiden—it all mixed together. And we were all friends in a way. It was a very small scene. With so many influences and everybody playing music, there were a lot of really good bands.
Considering all the death surrounding this album, and the greater grunge scene in Seattle, what is the takeaway? What are the lessons learned?
Hopefully the lesson is simply, “Don’t do drugs.” Not to be facetious, but abuse ends in either jail, institutions or death, unless you can get clean and sober. There are answers out there, That’s just the reality of it—you’re going to die. This record is very important to people and I feel very grateful that something triumphant has come from this tragedy. I’ve seen hundreds of Mad Season tattoos and I always forget that it means a lot to people. But that’s what music is about; it moves people. I look at it now as something I’m very, very proud of. But it’s very bittersweet because two of my friends are gone. I wonder what Baker and Layne would be like today. Like, would they be parents? All the stuff that I care about now is completely different than what I cared about when I was 28.