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A spiritual mission: the tragic story of grunge supergroup Mad Season

Mad Season
(Image credit: Lance Mercer)

It all happened so quickly it almost seems like a hazy, sweet daydream. A Seattle supergroup stitched together from members of Alice In Chains, Screaming Trees and Pearl Jam, Mad Season lasted for six months, six shows and one album before floating off into the ether. Within 10 years, half of the band would be dead, essentially sealing Mad Season’s fate forever. But a funny thing happened on the way to oblivion. 

Mad Season’s free-flowing psychedelic blues has continued to resonate through the years, gaining a hardcore cult audience that extends well beyond the grunge faithful. Songs like River Of Deceit and Long Gone Day channelled the agonies of youth and the everyday apocalypse of addiction with such immediacy that they still sound like fresh wounds on old warriors. 

In 2012, nearly 20 years on from their meteoric rise and subsequent demise, the surviving members reunited to tend to their legacy, and to look forward to the future. 

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In 1994, Barrett Martin was the drummer with Screaming Trees. He joined the band after the dissolution of proto-grunge noisemakers Skin Yard. The Trees had finally broken through with their landmark 1992 album Sweet Oblivion, and had spent the next two years relentlessly touring the world. Back in Seattle for a brief break in the action, Martin got a call from his old friend Mike McCready. The Pearl Jam guitarist was fresh from rehab and wanted to talk. 

“I thought we were just grabbing dinner and catching up on life,” says Martin, “but he proposed this idea that we form this band. He had just gotten out of rehab with Baker. I hadn’t met Baker yet, but Mike said: ‘I met this amazing bass player in rehab in Minnesota, and he’s just the coolest guy, and we should jam.” 

John Baker Saunders was a well-known musician from the Chicago blues scene, who worked with local legends such as Hubert Sumlin and Sammy Fender. 

“So that was the initial jam, the three of us,” Martin continues. “Mike had already suggested Layne [Staley] as a possible singer. That’s basically the way it went: me and Mike having dinner, then jamming with Baker, and Layne came in by the second session. It was pretty fast.”

Originally the band was purely for fun, as evinced by the serial killer-referencing name The Gacy Bunch that they used for their first few shows. 

“I didn’t even know we were called that for a while,” laughs Martin. “I know that Mike came up with that at the last minute for one of those secret shows we did, but I wasn’t actually aware of it when it happened.” 

When it became obvious that the band was becoming a real and vital entity, McCready suggested a less tongue-in-cheek name. “I got it from a term I heard when we were mixing the first Pearl Jam album in Surrey, England. The people who worked at the studio, they told me the rainy season was upon us, which they called the mad season. This was in 1991, and I always kept that in the back of my mind as a cool term. It’s when the hallucinogenic mushrooms come up. 

"Later down the line I had wanted to play with Barrett because I thought he was a fantastic drummer from watching him with the Screaming Trees. It just came from that. I got in touch with my friend Layne, and with Baker, and luckily we all had time to do something. It happened very quickly and it was over very quickly."

“The thing about it was, these kind of jams were happening all over Seattle all the time,” says Martin. “What would happen was that everybody would be home from touring around the holidays, so we’d go to people’s houses and there’d be a Christmas party or a New Year’s Eve party, and there would be these jams. I mean, at one point I remember one party it was me and Mike, and Kim Thayil from Soungarden, and I think Mark Arm [Mudhoney] was singing. That was in somebody’s basement.” 

History can be cruel to its participants, especially in rock’n’roll. Since two of Mad Season’s members died from heroin overdoses since they dissolved, it may seem like Mad Season was a drug-addled collective. However, as Martin and McCready explain, it was actually the opposite. Mad Season was a recovery band.

“That was one of the original intents on my part,” says McCready. “I definitely wanted to help out Layne and Baker. And myself too, really. We were all on the trek together. It didn’t work out, unfortunately. It did for some but not for others. But that was the intent, initially. That and to play music, of course.” 

“We all wanted to stop drinking and using drugs,” says Martin. “Mike and Baker had gotten out of rehab, I had just stopped drinking. And you know how it is, you build this mutual support network, because everybody’s sober and working together and talking about it. You also have to be able to laugh at all the nonsense you got yourself into. And there was actually a good and light-hearted atmosphere of support in that first jam session. 

"I remember everyone was feeling good and laughing. It was during that honeymoon period when you’re newly sober, and you’re like, ‘Wow, there’s a whole world that I’ve been missing out on.’ I don’t know what was going on with Layne exactly, but I do know that he was happy and he looked good, and he was very excited to do a side project because he’d always done Alice In Chains. He wanted to do something different. I think he wanted to write his own lyrics and just see what he could come up with on his own."

Sober, happy and prolific, Mad Season began writing and rehearsing what would turn out to be their sole album, Above. Their signature sound, a kind of loose, gloomy psych-blues, came together quickly. 

“For me, Mad Season was an escape from Pearl Jam,” says McCready. “I was and still am in a band with really prolific songwriters. At the time, I was really feeling that I’d like to write some more songs, but I kinda didn’t have the guts to do it back then with Pearl Jam. Mad Season offered the opportunity to write some songs and not feel that kind of pressure. 

"I took into account how Barrett played the drums, and how Layne sang, and Baker was such a bluesy guy. But I was probably listening to a lot of Zeppelin at that time, and I wanted to come up with some riff songs. Those were the kind of songs that would work with these guys. And they did.” 

“Mike is heavily influenced by Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan, and both of those guys reinterpreted the blues through rock’n’roll,” says Martin. “And I had been listening to a lot of Delta blues at the time. Also, my favourite bands are heavily influenced by the blues – Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones. So you can’t really get away from the blues, especially if you’re in an American rock band.” 

One thing both men readily agree on is that Alice In Chains frontman Layne Staley quickly became the band’s visionary. His shamanistic swirls of moans and howls and deep, multi-layered lyrics belie the band’s hit-the-floor-running origins. 

“I think Mad Season was like a spiritual mission for Layne,” says Martin. “He was lugging around a bunch of books around that time, and I remember one time when I saw him reading The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. That’s a common book about spirituality. He was reading it when we were in rehearsal and in the studio. I believe he was drawing on some deep insights and introspections that he’d had.” 

“Layne made Mad Season whole,” adds McCready. “He made it what it was. He put a voice to it. My initial conversation with him was: ‘Sing whatever you want to sing. Just do it. You’re a fantastic singer and songwriter, so just go in the direction you want to go.’ I didn’t have any rules or anything, I just wanted him to be free to create what he felt, and I think he felt some freedom in that and he went for it.”

Above was released in March 1995. It quickly went gold, buoyed by the stirring lead single River Of Deceit, a Top 10 hit in the US. Excited by the album’s success, Martin and McCready hoped to seize the band’s moment. But unfortunately, their window was quickly closing, for many reasons. 

“Columbia wanted us to make another record, and we said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it,’” Martin remembers. “Nobody ever quit the band, nobody ever called up and said: ‘I can’t do this.’ “Mike, Baker and I had been working on riffs and chord progressions. We went into the studio and started recording basic tracks and, basically, Layne never came back. Mark Lanegan came down for one day. He sang on a couple of songs from the first album, but he wasn’t ready to sing on anything at that point. The truth was, Layne’s health was deteriorating and I think he really wanted to do it but he just couldn’t.” 

“We were going to call the album Disinformation,” McCready remembers. “We recorded a whole bunch of demo ideas for that. But Layne went back to do another Alice In Chains record, I think. And then he started struggling with his addictions and we could never get him back after that. We tried. And then I had to get back on the road, and the Trees had to get back on the road, and Baker joined The Walkabouts, so people went their separate ways. 

"It’s too bad, because I had expectations for Mad Season. I thought, ‘Let’s do another record and see where that goes, and then maybe go on the road.’ But Baker died, and Layne died, so it was lost forever in time.” John Baker Saunders died from a heroin overdose on January 15, 1999, effectively ending any chance of Mad Season continuing. The news of his death hit Barrett Martin hard.

“It was a very big shock to me, because we bought houses that were just a few blocks apart, and he would come to my house almost every morning,” he says. “We’d sit and have coffee with my girlfriend, and we’d just laugh all the time. He had a lot of great stories about playing the blues. He and I had talked the night before he died about how we were going to meet and have breakfast at a diner in our neighbourhood. He died that night. I got a call early the next morning about how he had died from an overdose and I was in complete shock, because I had no idea that that was even a possibility, because, like I said, I saw him almost every day. It was bad.”

Three years later, on April 5, 2002, Mad Season’s frontman, Layne Staley, was found dead in his home from an overdose of heroin and cocaine. 

“You know, it’s weird to do an interview about this,” McCready says, “because I’ve been thinking about those guys a lot. I wish they were still around, and it makes me sad. I think about what it would be like if they were fathers. I think about what it would be like if they had grown up a bit, like I did. I wish I could just sit around and laugh with them again, because Baker was super funny, and Layne was a guy who never had a bad word to say about anybody. 

"That’s what I remember most about being around him. And that’s not really easy to do around a bunch of Seattle musicians. We’re really a bunch of bitchy guys, complainers and passive-aggressive types. But he was really funny, and he never had anything negative to say, and I miss him."

Because of their schedules, Mad Season played only six shows. After the deaths of Baker and Staley, the proposed second album sat unfinished and unreleased. Barrett Martin played with Screaming Trees for another five years. McCready went back to Pearl Jam. Both men have had long and successful careers, but Mad Season has always felt like unfinished business to them. 

When it became apparent to McCready that Mad Season’s sole album still meant something deep and strong and true to many people, he decided it was time to tend to the band’s legacy. “I’m honoured that people now consider the album classic,” he says. “At the time, I didn’t think so, but over time I’ve seen, like, Mad Season tattoos on people, and now I can see that it meant a lot to people, and that makes me very proud and grateful. At the time, it was done very quickly and it was very fun and exciting, but the depths of it were unknown to me until now, really.” 

In 2011 McCready once again gave Martin acall. This time it was about re-releasing Above. And together the two men curated a box set that included a remastered version, plus a DVD of two live shows, three songs from the aborted second album, finished by long-time friend and associate Mark Lanegan, and much more. 

“I’d like to put some closure on Mad Season’s legacy,” says McCready. “That’s what this release is. Almost everything we did in that six months is going to be released, and it will give people a little time capsule of what we were about for that brief moment in time.” 

Perhaps even more importantly, the project brought these two rock’n’roll survivors together again. They’ve done soundtrack work together, recorded a song for a Jimi Hendrix tribute album and are even reworking some Mad Season songs with old friend Duff McKagan

“In a very real way, I feel the spirits of Layne and Baker,” says Martin. “I can always feel those guys around. They were helping to guide this thing together. I did a lot of meditating and praying about what was the right thing to do, because I want it to be in memory of them, but I also want people to hear a great band and some great new songs. I think their spirits being involved is what got me and Mike working on some stuff, together. And I feel very blessed."

The original version of this feature appeared in Classic Rock 188, in March 2013.