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Pearl Jam's Ten: "It was a mind-f*** but it was awesome"

Pearl Jam in 1992
(Image credit: Niels Van Iperen/Getty Images)

Pearl Jam are not exactly a band prone to nostalgia. That said, when lead guitarist Mike McCready is asked about the origins of the band’s debut album, Ten – which, given the speed at which they moved in the early days also dovetails with the origin of Pearl Jam itself – acknowledges that he looks back at that time and marvels at how it all went down. 

“I go: ‘How did that all happen? And why did it happen?’” he tells us. “And I still don’t have answers for that, other than, you know, fate or time or luck or talent.” 

It’s likely to be a combination of all those things. But however Ten came together, the fact remains that the album, released in August 1991, was not only an unequivocal smash but is also one of the defining pillars of 90s rock, with a reach and influence that has loomed large for decades.

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Given that Eddie Vedder came into the band a bit later, it was you, Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard who more or less formed the musical core of the group for Ten. And while the songs on it are certainly rooted in a classic rock sensibility, you each brought your own individual style and taste to the mix. Where did the band members differ and where did you intersect? 

Well, I had been playing in bands since I was eleven. My band before Pearl Jam, which was called Shadow, we were kind of a punk-metal thing. So I went through a metal phase, and I lived in California for a year, from eighty-six to eighty-seven, trying to make it. And actually, I had kind of quit playing guitar about a year before Pearl Jam happened, because I was so disillusioned with trying to make it. 

But I had known Stone since, like, sixth or seventh grade. We went to Judas Priest concerts together. We learned how to headbang at Iron Maiden shows. So there was a metal thing between us. Whereas Jeff came from more of a straight-edge, Minor Threat, Ramones, punk rock kind of thing. 

Stone had a little bit of that too, but I was more Iron Maiden and Judas Priest and Kiss. And I also liked the Rolling Stones and that stuff. So there was a classic rock thing, a metal thing and a punk thing in those three personalities right there. And then at the same time, I was also coming out of all that eighties stuff and getting into Stevie Ray Vaughan and BB King and the blues. I was into it very deeply and very earnestly. So you had that in there too. 

But that being said, we all had our similar influences. We loved old Alice Cooper. We loved Aerosmith. I feel like Stone had a groove to him and a real kind of Aerosmith vibe. And if you look at the Mother Love Bone-era stuff, you can see how he and Jeff would groove when they wrote those songs. I also recall Stone, when we started playing together, he wanted to play something darker than what he had been doing previously. I remember him saying that, and I didn’t know exactly what that meant at the time.

You mention that you had started to really immerse yourself in the blues around the time you joined Pearl Jam. You can certainly hear that influence in your guitar playing on Ten

About a year prior to playing with Stone I got way into the blues. I saw [The Band’s concert movie] The Last Waltz on TV, and I watched the part with Muddy Waters and it just blew my mind. There was something about his music that changed me from doing this stuff [grabs his Strat and plays a tapping lick], which I was pretty good at, to playing in a way that was like… less is more, I guess. That got me into Stevie Ray Vaughan, and that’s when I went straight into the blues. 

You use the term ‘less is more’, but the lead guitar approach on Ten could also be characterised as ‘more is more’; there’s a lot of soloing going on

There is a lot of lead playing on that album. But I was still playing less on Ten than I was five years before that. Because five years earlier I was doing a lot of pyrotechnics and dive bombs and things like that. But when I started to get more interested in the blues I tried to consciously or subconsciously pull it back a little bit and feel it more. But yeah, you’re still hearing a lot of playing on those songs. Iwas kind of given free rein, like: “Hey, just go for it, do your thing.” 

But you know, something like Even Flow, there’s a lot of notes on there, but I wanted it to be like Stevie, I wanted it to be like Hendrix. There’s a note that Hendrix hits in Machine Gun [the high, sustained note at the beginning of his solo], and it’s just the most glorious, beautiful, tension-filled, sad, disruptive, amazing, beautiful sound I’ve ever heard. I’ve been trying to hit that note my entire career. So if you hear me hold some of those notes in Alive or whatever, I’m going for that. I know I’m never going to get there, but in terms of feeling, to me that’s the height.

Given your background and the musical climate in Seattle, did you have to consciously hold back your shredder tendencies? 

The truth is it just felt like that stuff didn’t work. And honestly, we were so sarcastic and mocking of a lot of that stuff back then, for better or for worse. But I loved Randy Rhoads. I totally loved Eddie Van Halen. I saw Eddie four times with David Lee Roth back in the day. Stone did too, we went together. But it just didn’t seem like that stuff worked. And at that time, I had kind of gotten away from it anyway. 

So it wasn’t like you had some inner dialogue going where you had to tell yourself: “If I start tapping they’re gonna throw me out of Seattle.” 

[Laughs] I didn’t think about it that way. But yeah, you’re probably right. It wouldn’t have been something that would have been accepted. Which is so pretentious when I think about it, this punk-rock ethic where we were not supposed to like certain things and whatever. That’s really stupid. But when you’re in your twenties you’re just trying to make it happen. It’s a weird thing to look back on. 

Ten was a really massive success. But it wasn’t a hit right out of the gate, it took some time. 

It took about a year before it started really going. But coming from the context of my mind back then it was like: “I dropped out of college and I just got to quit my job at Julia’s. I’m in a van with guys and we’re touring across Texas!” That to me was such a success, because I had been trying to get to something like that since I was fifteen, sixteen years old and I was in my band Shadow. I’d wanted to do this since I was a kid, trying to make it happen but never thinking it was actually going to happen.

When did you start to notice things were really happening for the band? 

When we got invited to do Lollapalooza. But that’s when it blew up. It’s like, we’re the second band, we’re playing at four o’clock in the afternoon, going on right after Lush, and there’s thirty thousand people just running toward the stage. It was a mind-fuck. But it was awesome. It was like my dream coming true in front of my face. And when that happens you just ride it, because you don’t have any control over it anyway. 

That said, you actually did try to control it. In the years following Ten it sometimes seemed from the outside as if PJ viewed their success as a curse as much as a blessing. The band continued to record and tour, but pulled back from the public eye and MTV and the media. 

The decision to pull back and to not do videos and to slow down interviews, it was all about Jeff and Stone and Ed thinking it was necessary. And Ed was getting way more scrutiny than anybody. It was probably overwhelming for him. It was for all of us at the time. But I remember not wanting to pull back, saying: “This is what we’ve wanted since we were kids. Let’s keep doing this. Let’s do videos, let’s keep going, let’s embrace this.” But they weren’t into it. They said: “No, we’ve got to, because this is all gonna fall apart if we don’t.” 

And I think they were right. I feel like we’re still around today maybe because of that first major decision to try to do it our own way. We made a lot of decisions that were counter to what the record label wanted us to do: “You’ve got to do a video for Black or you’ll never sell any more records.” Which I remember was a thing with them. But it’s like, yeah, that didn’t happen. So we were lucky, but it was our decision: pull back, five against one; let’s huddle in our stagecoaches and try to figure out what all this is. 

That’s how you responded to Ten at the time. What do you think when you look back now?

I have great memories of that time. You know, going to England for the first time to mix the record at Ridge Farm Studios… These were fun things. And just in general, recording an album and feeling the songs, knowing that we were a good band. It was the first time I was in a situation where everybody was firing on all cylinders. It was creative, it was exciting. And it’s like: “Oh my god, I’m making a record for a record label!”

That’s what I would dream about. That’s why I had a room full of Kiss posters when I was a kid. And now I was a part of it. And I was grateful to Jeff and Stone because they had kind of been through this process before. They knew what was going on. So I felt lucky to be in that position.

If you could go back, is there anything you would change about Ten?

I’ve always wanted to do a better Even Flow solo than the one that’s on there. I shouldn’t say that, because I think some people like it the way it is [laughs]. Although when we’re playing it live I always want to do it better. But I don’t think there’s any other aspects I would have changed on that record. I mean, it was a dream come true.