"It's a lot heavier than you'd expect": Mike McCready on Pearl Jam's next album, working with Andrew Watt, and the state of the US

Mike McCready with a Fender Stratocaster
(Image credit: Ryan Piorkowski)

As the Rolling Stones reminded us with this year’s long-awaited new album Hackney Diamonds, the bigger the band, the slower it moves. With four years elapsed since Pearl Jam’s last studio release, Gigaton, they might be positively stately these days compared to the early-90s alt.rockers who spat out almost an album a year. But as guitarist Mike McCready tells us, with a North American tour in full swing and new music mooted for 2024, they’re still alive and kicking.


It feels like a long time since the release of Pearl Jam’s 2020 album Gigaton. Are the band less prolific than they used to be, or is that just what happens to big bands? 

[Late Soundgarden frontman] Chris Cornell once said something to me. Before he passed, we did a Mad Season concert with the Seattle Symphony, and he said: “You can get eighty musicians to show up in an orchestra, all on time, but you can never get five guys in a band to show up.” When we get together in Pearl Jam, the music is the priority, but we all have our own lives. But we still play, as a unit, like no other five guys do. It’s because we’ve been through so much, for thirty years. The history, the dynamics, the stupid jokes, all that stuff comes back. 

So when can we expect the next Pearl Jam album? 

I’m hoping it’s gonna come out next year [this interview took place in 2023]. We have a bunch of songs tracked. We worked with Andrew Watt, who’s a younger pop producer-type guy, but he’s really a rock guy at heart – I think we’re his favourite band. When we were in the studio with him this past year, he really kicked our asses, got us focused and playing, song after song. It took a long time to make Gigaton, but this new one didn’t take long. Andrew was like: “You guys take forever to make records. Let’s do this, right now.” 

What does the new material sound like? 

It’s a lot heavier than you’d expect. There’s the melody and energy of the first couple of records. Andrew pushed us to play as hard and melodic and thoughtful as we’ve done in a long time. I feel like Matt Cameron’s drumming has elements of what he did in Soundgarden. 

For better or worse, you’re gonna hear a lot more lead guitar from me, stuff I haven’t done in a long time. I went crazy, like with Chris Cornell and Temple Of The Dog on Reach Down [1991], all those years ago. I got to do it again. Usually the first or second takes are best. After that I start thinking about it and it doesn’t have the feel. But Andrew caught the lightning in a bottle, as they say.

This year Fender issued a seriously beat-up Mike McCready signature guitar. 

It’s based on my 1960 Stratocaster. Y’know, that thing is a workhorse. I really get into it when I’m playing live – and I’m not faking it, I’m feeling it. So I’ll start picking really hard, and that’ll take off the top of the paint. For thirty years I really beat that thing down – but not to the point of breaking it. It’s even got a chip out of the top where I tried to take out a speaker once. 

You’re not far off sixty now. Do you still check in with your inner punk kid? 

I think that kid still comes out, but he’s a lot less full of anxiety now. Back in the early days, on the first couple of records, when everything was blowing up it was always, like: “Oh shit, it’s all gonna fall apart!” I feel like we’ve got to this point now where we can do whatever we want. 

The band’s frontman Eddie Vedder is a socially conscious man. The state of the US must be killing him? 

Oh yeah. I think Ed has always been very aware of everything that’s going on and always fighting for the underdog. Certainly America has got so many fucked-up issues. Guns. Racism. That idiot Trump. All that stuff has always been there, but you have to be aware of it and consciously fight it, because you want this to be a better world, if you’re a good human. And I see Ed as that, and hopefully we are. We try to be proactive and solution-oriented, and not sit back and do nothing.

Pearl Jam are out on the road right now. How’s it going? 

The passion of the crowd and the excitement of playing, there’s still nothing like it. You want to be the best you can be. It took a second to get into it. Y’know, I played Even Flow not as well as I wanted to the other night, so I was kind of pissed. But I just want to keep getting better. Playing Chicago was exciting, because Ed’s from there, and we brought Chris Chelios from the Blackhawks hockey team up on stage and surprised him by telling him they were retiring his number. Little memories like that. 

How many guitars do you reckon you’ve you smashed on stage during your career? 

Over my lifetime, maybe fifty. This year I haven’t smashed any – but the year’s not over yet. Never say never. What’s the best thing you’ve heard in rock’n’roll this year? I’ve been listening to Deep Sea Diver [pop-rock band based in Seattle] a lot this year. I’m excited about the new Thunderpussy record they’re putting out. But I’m mainly stuck in historical stuff. Like, I’ll say: “Okay, I’m only going to listen to The Beatles until I’ve figured it out.” I always listen to English bands, because everything from England is the best, in my mind. 

What do you think are the best and worst things that could happen in 2024? 

Oh god. Well, if Trump got elected, that’d be the worst thing in the world to me. I’d rather think about the best things that can happen. We have to come together. We have to be compassionate. We have to take care of the environment. We have to not be racist. We have to not be idiots. There’s all these things we can do. But we have to choose to think that way.

The Fender Mike McCready Stratocaster guitar is available now.

Henry Yates

Henry Yates has been a freelance journalist since 2002 and written about music for titles including The Guardian, The Telegraph, NME, Classic Rock, Guitarist, Total Guitar and Metal Hammer. He is the author of Walter Trout's official biography, Rescued From Reality, a music pundit on Times Radio and BBC TV, and an interviewer who has spoken to Brian May, Jimmy Page, Ozzy Osbourne, Ronnie Wood, Dave Grohl, Marilyn Manson, Kiefer Sutherland and many more.