When SPIN last caught up with Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready in the spring of 2021, he showed off a new version of his limited-edition signature Fender Stratocaster, the original of which was the first “big-ticket item” he bought when the band blew up in the early 1990s. For years, McCready mistakenly thought the guitar, for which he thinks he paid $7,000, was a 1959 model (the same one played by his late hero, Stevie Ray Vaughan), but it was actually manufactured a year later.
“It’s got a sound that is almost exactly what my original sounds like,” he enthuses while noodling with the guitar on a couch at Fender’s factory in Corona, Ca.
The new edition replicates all of the unique nicks of the well-worn surface of the original guitar, which also incurred significant damage when Pearl Jam (minus Eddie Vedder) hit the road with a fellow rock legend in the summer of 1995. “I originally did it on a tour when we were in Neil Young’s backup band and we were in Israel,” he recalls. “I was jamming my guitar neck into the speaker, I think at the end of ‘Down by the River.’ I did it on purpose, trying to take out a speaker, but I missed the speaker and I hit the wood part and it chipped the top of the guitar off. I’m like, ‘Oh, I better not do that anymore with that guitar.'”
McCready chatted with SPIN about the new guitar and the progress Pearl Jam is making on its 12th studio album, which is being produced by Andrew Watt.
Beyond the damage to the top of the guitar, what other moments stand out from the Neil Young tour in 1995?
The thing about Neil was, he was so cool. He was like, ‘OK, what do you guys want to play?’ and I’m like, ‘okay, oh my God, “Down by the River,” “Cinnamon Girl,” and “Rockin’ in the Free World.”‘ We’re such big fans of so many of his songs, and he was very amenable. I remember playing ‘Cortez the Killer” for like 25 or 30 minutes. We’re in Israel and we’re playing on this old Roman stage and it was very intense. You get sucked into his world. It’s his thing, and you hope to get in his vibe.
How has it been working with Andrew Watt?
He brings this very positive energy and knows how to get really good sounds. At the same time, his energy kind of kicked us in our asses a little bit. He would be like ‘Come on, dude,’ you know? He is kind of yelling and jumping up and down a lot and being happy. He’s a fan, but he has great structure ideas, great sound ideas, and song ideas. I’m so excited about what he did with us.
In what sense?
The record’s gonna have some great examples of Matt Cameron’s drumming that just blew my mind. He took it up about 10 notches for this new record, and it really is because of Andrew’s enthusiasm, and, again, him jumping up and down and saying ‘Try it again!’ and then saying ‘Oh, we got it!’ and on to the next thing. He pushed us to play as best as we could. It’s hard for us to listen to other people because we have so many ideas ourselves.
What was the last time someone dared to do that?
It’s been a long time. Probably Brendan (O’Brien).
The first or second string of albums with him?
I would say first and second time. I mean, Brendan I love, and we’ve done so many amazing records with him. Andrew is part of this new generation of guys that know exactly what they want to hear. Brendan was that way too. A great producer has an overall vision of what your band can be that maybe you don’t see. Andrew has that in spades. He wants us to sound like the energy of the early days, with music that is of the present. I know I keep saying it, but he kicked our asses in the greatest way possible.
Did you have any material ready to go or did you write in the studio?
We wrote right on the spot.
Have you all ever worked like that before?
I don’t know if that’s ever happened. We’ll always get together before [the studio] and work on demos with our friends. Richard Stuverud will do stuff with Jeff. I’ll use Mike Musburger. Then we’ll bring them into the main band and get feedback: ‘I like this’ or ‘I’m not responding to this.’ But we always come in with way too much stuff, which is a good problem to have. This time, we brought nothing in. It was intriguing, but a bit scary.
Were you anxious about changing up the way you’ve been doing this for so many years?
There was a little bit of anxiety but also, I feel like we’re at a point in our career where we can take chances and not do the same thing. I think we have a mindset of being open to that. Andrew told us not to bring any of our stuff, except for Matt’s drums. Andrew, or Brendan for that matter, knows exactly what each amp sounds like and what they’re gonna do. I don’t know that until I’m doing it. I just know what I like to hear.
Maybe you will have to get him one of these new signature guitars.
I gave Andrew one of the [2021 replica models], and he loves it. I guess back in the day, in terms of being a guitar player, he was a big fan of mine.
You’re saying that in an incredulous tone of voice.
A bit. I can tell you this funny story. We were playing in New York [at Irving Plaza], which must have been more than 15 years ago when Andrew was 15 years old. As I was leaving after the show, there was this guy and his kid waiting to talk to somebody in the band. He says, ‘My son Andrew here really wants to play music. But I want him to go to college.’ I said, ‘Well, the music business is really hard, right?’ and I turned into my dad in that moment [Laughs]. ‘It’s very hard. You’ve got to have something to fall back on. I think you should go to college but you should also play music and have fun with it.’ We joke about that now, because he didn’t go to college and now is this multi-million-dollar producer, despite me giving him bad advice!
Not bad advice. Safe advice.
Yes, exactly. He didn’t listen to it and he’s become this huge producer. I never knew that story until we started working with him. He was a fan and is a fan of the band, so that has helped with making this record.