A couple of hours before Pearl Jam played the Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, South Carolina, on April 21st, guitarist Mike McCready called into Rolling Stone to talk about the band’s ongoing North American tour. The shocking news of Prince’s death hit earlier that day, and that night he’d sprinkle a bit of “Purple Rain” into the band’s show-closing rendition of “Yellow Ledbetter.” We already shared McCready’s take on Pearl Jam’s complete-album shows, but a ton more was discussed, including the group’s decision to cancel their show in North Carolina, what’s happening with the next Pearl Jam LP and where he sees the band going many years from now.
I still can’t believe this news about Prince.
I keep getting texts. It’s devastating and shocking. I remember one time we met him. He was really cool. I asked him a silly guitar question, and he said he didn’t know what he did to get his sound, but his tech would know. And then he said he was very into our Ticketmaster battle. I think this was at a party in 1995. It felt really good to know he was behind our Ticketmaster battle.
I must have seen him four or five times times in concert. Every time I was like, “OK, he is the best guitar player I’ve ever seen.” I’d go to his show and get completely blown away by his technique, and mostly just his feel and how fast he could play. He can stop and just milk the notes. He was just so phenomenal on the guitar. And then a year would pass and I’d forget and I’d see him again and go, “He’s still the best guitar player I’ve ever seen in my life.” And I’ve seen a lot. He just blew my mind.
How is the tour going?
Musically, I think we’re hitting our stride right now. We’re playing pretty great. I didn’t feel that way after the first couple of shows. I felt like I messed up a lot on a few songs and we just didn’t really have our bearings as a band. But by the third or fourth show it came together. I think it was in Hampton, Virginia. … It was one of those things where the crowd involvement was phenomenal. In the past we haven’t done that well in the South. We were excited to be playing those big places, especially in Florida. Now we’re in the groove, in terms of music.
But we did have to cancel that show in North Carolina. That was a thing we thought really hard about. As a band, we just don’t tolerate any kind of abuse or intolerance of any kind of LGBT people by any kind of government. We felt we needed to support people that didn’t have a voice.
It must have been an agonizing decision since there’s nothing but bad options.
It was a long, drawn-out meeting that we had over a period of days. “Should we do it? Should we not do it?” It turns out that [Bruce] Springsteen had kind of set the mark there. We felt these transgendered people are being discriminated against under this law, and there’s just no room for that in my mind. We felt very, very sad that we had to not play. We wanted to play. But at the end of the day, we felt like we couldn’t do it. It was a moral belief. We had to boycott the state.
How much rehearsal did you guys get in before the tour began?
Not enough [laughs]. I’d say we did about a week. In my mind, we should have done a little more. I was talking to Duff [McKagan], and they [Guns N’ Roses] rehearsed for a month and a half straight, though they hadn’t played together in a long time. I thought, “Wow, we should try that!” Stone [Gossard] has always been of that mindset, but I don’t know if it’s ever going to happen. We kind of fly by the seat of our pants. We do rehearse when we get to the show and in the hotel and stuff like that, but we did about a week at our place in Seattle before the tour. I’m over-answering your question.
Who makes the set list? Is it all Ed, or do you guys chime in too?
I would say that 99 percent, 98 percent of it is Ed. He’s very meticulous about what we played and where we played it. If we’re in South Carolina, he’ll look at every set list we’ve ever played in South Carolina, and figure out which songs we’ve opened and closed with and try not to repeat them.
Tonight we’re doing a whole bunch of new stuff that I’m going to go woodshed as soon as we get off the phone since we had kind of a spotty soundcheck. But, again, it’s mostly Ed. But we’ll chime in and go, “Well, maybe don’t put that there since that’s in the same key. We did that last night.” So I’ll throw an idea here and there, or Stone or Jeff [Ament] will, or sometimes Matt [Cameron]. But it’s generally Ed’s vision.
But there are lots of moments when you deviate from the set list and do something totally spontaneous. Are you able to play any song in the Pearl Jam catalog at the drop of a hat?
Um … It depends on how far you drop the hat [laughs]. If you drop the hat and it lands on our feet, no. But yeah, hopefully we could play anything that was called out. We did that the other night. I think we took out “Rival” and put “Ghost” in there. We didn’t go over it. Sometimes Ed will look at the crowd and go, “Oh, that guy wants to hear ‘Present Tense’ or ‘Inside Job.'” I think we just did “Rats” without any rehearsal. But there’s certain songs you want to rehearse that are more meticulous, and there’s some we can do at the drop of a hat.
What is this tour exactly? A few months ago I remember hearing it might be a 25th-anniversary tour, but it hasn’t been billed like that.
I would say it’s an extension of the Lightning Bolt record that we put out three years ago now. We’re still on that tour. We have the same staging and we’re doing those songs and even though they’ve been around for a while, they still feel new to me in the set.
We’re all aware of the 25 years, and we’re happy about it. The person that cares about that stuff the most is probably me. Jeff and Stone, maybe not as much. They’re kind of always thinking forward. Ed also cares about the legacy and all that. But I feel like we might have covered it in the 20th with the PJ20 shows we did.
But we’re happy to be around for 25 years. It’s kind of an anomaly. Sometimes I just pinch myself and go, “Oh, my gosh, we’re still playing together and we’re still telling the same silly jokes on the road. But we’re all 50-plus and we have these new generations of fans that are coming to see us.” That’s a gift. We’re very aware of it.
Many bands that have been around as you guys are always sniping at each other and they go through all sorts of drama. You guys have had a pretty smooth run for a really long time now.
I would say that. I mean, I’ve known Stone since we were in sixth grade. Jeff and Stone have known each other forever. We’ve gotten into our squabbles and fights over the years, but the thing is, we just don’t do it in the press. You kind of just talk to each other. We’re always working on our communication, which is something that’s important. Instead of going through managers to discuss things, we will sit down and have meetings about things. That’s a process. And you have to be able to be honest with each other as much as you can. Sometimes that hurts. Sometimes that sucks. And a lot of the time it’s amazing.
We don’t hang out a ton off the road. We go out on tour and when we go home we have our own lives. Stone and I do see each other, though. But I think that it helps. It feels fresh when we get back together again.
Are you purposely hitting smaller markets on this tour? I saw you guys in a 9,000-seat arena in Hampton. You could be playing a place twice as big.
That’s an interesting thought. Going to Florida last time, I don’t think we could have played larger places. I’m not sure how big we were down there eight years ago. We are doing Wrigley [Field] and that sold out. That’s an indicator that we can do very well. It just depends. We’ll go to South America and play to 60,000. It’s insane. Then we’ll be here and play to 9,000. We’re lucky. We can go to Australia and play to 30-to-40,000. We can do that in certain places in the States, but not everywhere. It’s just where the offers are coming in. We hadn’t been to the South for a while, so that’s why we decided to come down here.
We’re getting ready to play Jazz Fest and that’ll be pretty big. I love playing those big ones, but I feel like a lot of the guys in the band like to play to about 10,000. In our minds, that’s big. That’s where a community happens. You can see the fans. I’m always looking at everybody and trying to hype everyone up over on my side. When it’s a smaller arena I can do that and feed off that energy a little bit different than I can off of a gigantic crowd.
You also keep ticket prices so low. There’s no sponsorships. There’s no VIP crap where you can go backstage and meet you guys.
We’re gonna start doing that [laughs]. I’m gonna start right now, right as we’re speaking. You can meet me for 50 bucks. Just kidding! We can do it for 25 [laughs]. But you’re right. None of that. We don’t do any of that stuff.
Most groups do everything they can to squeeze every possible penny out of every situation.
I think we would just feel embarrassed by that. We’ve had many opportunities to do that, to have sponsors. It always felt like you have to give something up to do that, even if the payday is really, really big. You might have to give up some of your freedom or you’ll have to go on the road at a time when you don’t want to go on the road. There’s always a catch to it. We value doing things grassroots, even at this level. That means no real high ticket prices or meet-and-greets and all that kind of stuff.
What’s the status of the next Pearl Jam record? Are you in discussions?
We’ve been discussing, yeah. We have been talking on it a little bit, on and off. I think early in the year we had talked about going in this summer to start doing some demos and things, but this tour is happening now so we’re kind of in that mode. But that being said, we’re all working on demos for it. And we’re not sure when we’re going to record it, though. That’s the question right there. But I think that organically sometime on the tour we’ll go, “Hey, let’s book a couple of days in Seattle in July,” and we’ll all end up being there. We’re not actually going to be there in July, but if it happens, that’s how it’s going to happen. There’s my non-answer for you. Yeah, I don’t know yet. But I feel like we will do some demos together this summer.
You guys are doing baseball parks in August. Any tour plans beyond that?
Then there’s a couple of festivals that have been announced. There’s Pemberton, Telluride, Bonnaroo. I think that’s about it. I think before we would go out again, we would probably do some more music for our new record. That being said, I think what we’re doing is on the books now.
What drives you guys to do such long shows? The encore break is basically the halfway mark by now.
We did have a meeting about this before the last tour. We said, “Let’s think about maybe cutting the set down a little bit. We’re all getting a bit older. Let’s try to make it a little more concise.” But that meeting went right out the window as it always does, and we’re back to doing these two and a half hour, three hour, shows. I think we just get really pumped up from the crowd. And the set does go by really quickly. You’re like, “Oh yeah, we’re already on that second encore that’s longer than the first set.” It just happens very quickly. We have a lot of songs. The reasoning is, “Well, let’s keep playing.”
But there’s definitely times I’d rather just play for two hours. My back would agree with that. But it never seems to happen. I think Ed gets into it and we just follow his lead.
Just about the same time you turned 50 was the 25th anniversary of the Temple of the Dog record.
Yeah, I know. I love that record so much. That was my first time getting to play on a major-label record, and my first time getting to play with some of the big boys in Seattle. Before that I played in a lot of bands that never made a record. In terms of getting to be trusted by Chris Cornell and those guys to be able to play these kind of poignant, heavy songs … Some were about Andy [Wood] and some weren’t, but most were. I remember hearing Chris Cornell sing on the his demos and going, “Oh, my God, this guy is a monster.” Being part of it was amazing.
Are you going to do anything with the anniversary? Put the album back out as a deluxe edition? Do something live?
I would love to do something. I would love to play live anytime with those guys. That’s kind of Cornell’s thing. I don’t know what the answer is with the re-release of the record. But I would play live with those guys in a heartbeat. We did a couple of songs last January. I did Mad Season with a symphony and Chris was nice enough to come out and sing for that. We did two Temple of the Dog songs. My feeling was, “Wow, it would be cool to do this again.”
You guys are eligible for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year. Do you ever think about that?
Yeah. Of course, it would be a great honor to get in. I remember when I saw Iggy and the Stooges get inducted, it was really cool. Jeff, Eddie and I ran up there when he invited everyone onstage. For us to be inducted would be an honor. I would be happy about it. But you never know. I don’t know their process and how they pick. It could be a couple of years from now. I mean, Cheap Trick took forever to get in. So did Deep Purple. But we’re aware of it.
Do you think the band will still be together in 20 years?
I can only answer that with I never thought we were going to last longer than a year when we started. I kept thinking it could end tomorrow. I really don’t think like that anymore. I kind of think that everything changes, but we’re still here doing music together within that change. And I hope we’ll be inspired enough to play. We may be coming out in walkers and wheelchairs, but hopefully it’ll still be inspiring and fun.