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Mad Season still a landmark in the 90s heyday of Seattle rock

For Journal Register Newspapers

» See more SOUND CHECK

The last thing Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready expected to do in rehab nearly 20 years ago was start a new band.

And give birth to a legend.

But that's what occurred back in 1993, when McCready checked into a Minneapolis treatment facility where he met John Baker Saunders, a fellow Seattle musician and member of the Walkabouts. The two struck up a friendship, and back in Seattle they decided to make some music together, recruiting friends Layne Staley from Alice in Chains and drummer Barrett Martin from Screaming Trees.

The supergroup of sorts, dubbed Mad Season and emerging at the height of Seattle's musical prominence, recorded just one album, 1995's "Above," which is being re-released this week in a deluxe edition featuring some new tracks and previously unreleased live material. "It's something I'll always hold dear as a triumph and a tragedy in my heart," says McCready, who ultimately watched Saunders relapse and die from a heroin overdose in 1999 and Staley succumb to his own drug demons three years later.

"It's a record I couldn't listen to for a really long time, just because of Layne and Baker both dying and the darkness that kind of followed that record," McCready says now. "I'm very proud of it. A lot of people have come up to me and said it's their favorite record and it made a difference in their lives.

"So that makes me kind of happy to know that it did that. It gives it some value beyond what we could have expected."

Mad Season and "Above" may well have saved McCready's own life, too.

He was riding high with Pearl Jam at the time; the group's first two albums had gone multi-platinum, and it was in the midst of making its third, "Vitalogy" when his alcohol and drug demons got the better of him and all concerned decided he should take time off for treatment. "I was hitting a real bottom, and I got out of it," recalls McCready, now 46, who says that the idea for Mad Season didn't come to him until after he returned to Seattle.

"I was in such a fog I couldn't remember a lot of stuff," he says, "but when things started to clear up a little bit in my brain I felt like, 'Yeah, I met this guy named baker in there, and he's cool. I'd been thinking about Layne, too, and Barrett I always wanted to play with because I thought he was such a phenomenal drummer.

"It was just phone calls from there. It all happened to work out. We all had time to do it, a small window of time that everybody kind of agreed to, and it was kind of easy. I had talked to Layne and said, 'Whatever songs you want to bring in, just do it.' There were no constraints on who wrote what or anything.

"It was kind of a recovery thing in itself, you know? We all had issues and I was in my early phase of being sober and being super-naive and thinking I could save everyone else, too -- not realizing that people have to save themselves."

Making "Above," however, did give all four Mad Season members a fresh new situation and take them away from the attendant pressures of their other bands. The group hit the studio with mere ideas for songs, turning them into a 10-song set that was certified gold, with the gently atmospheric single "River of Deceit" -- a confessional lyric by Staley ("my pain is self-chosen) that McCready calls "a small poem" -- hitting No. 2 on the Mainstream Rock Song chart and No. 9 on the Alternative Songs survey.

Mad Season also played a handful of shows, including one at Seattle's Moore Theatre that yielded the 1995 DVD "Live at the Moore." The group even set to work on a second album, tentatively titled "Disinformation," but it was scuttled when neither Staley nor Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan, who provided backing vocals on five of "Above's" tracks, showed up for the sessions.

"We had music but we didn't have anybody to sing over it, so that was kind of that," McCready recalls. The group members continued with their other musical endeavors, and the subsequent deaths of Saunders and Staley seemed to put Mad Season to bed for good. "I wonder what those guys would be like now," McCready says. "I wonder if Layne would be a dad or Baker would be a dad. The kind of things that are important to me now as opposed to when I was in my 20s are so different, and I wish they could experience that."

Some of those second album songs are the crux of the "Above: Deluxe Edition" reissue, which comes out Tuesday, April 2. The project started when McCready found some tapes of a Mad Season show at Seattle's Crocodile club. It put him back in touch with Martin and started discussions about doing something with the material, which in turn led to an idea to revisit some of the second album songs with Lanegan.

"We felt he was the natural successor or kind of the right person to sing over the top of this stuff, because he was on the first record and he was friends with Layne," McCready says. "Luckily (Lanegan) was interested in doing it, so we got three songs out of him" -- "Locomotive," "Black Book of Fear" and "Slip Away" -- and I was very happy because that stuff would've sat dormant otherwise."

Packaged with a wealth of live material, including audio and video from the Moore concert, the "Above: Deluxe Edition" package "just gives a sense of what the band was and what we were doing back then," according to McCready. The new recordings, meanwhile, have opened the possibility for more Mad Season music in the future, and the guitarist says he and Martin have sent instrumental tracks to other singers and have gotten a couple ideas back already from Killing Joke's Jaz Coleman.

"We're going to do something with that," says McCready, who's in the midst of making Pearl Jam's next album and also guested on the new Soundgarden release, "King Animal." "I'm not sure if it's going to be Mad Season or if we'll call it something else. I would love to do some sort of show, too, but you have to figure out how to do it right and with class and with respect to Layne and Baker.

"The door should always be open, I think. Mad Season was that time, but it can also be other things, too. We don't have any solid plans to do anything right now other than re-release ('Above'), but nothing's out of the question as long as it stays true to what the band originally was."

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff


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