Back in 1995 when grunge was arguably at its height, a Seattle supergroup dropped its first – and what would turn out to be their only – album.
Though it consisted of 75 percent scene luminaries (Alice in Chains vocalist Layne Staley, Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready, and Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin), Mad Season were actually more of a next-generation blues band.
That album, Above, went gold on the back of the single “River of Deceit,” and was vital to the development of the four musicians in the group (bassist John Baker Saunders rounded out the lineup), all of whom had struggled with substance abuse but managed to clean themselves up. “There was a spiritual elevation that we all felt when we played together,” Martin tells EW. “Part of that was because we were all sober at the time. There was a real heightened awareness in that band. Everything seemed to awaken within us when we played together.”
The group only played a handful of shows, and though they began work on their second album in 1996, Above was Mad Season’s only album. (Saunders passed away in 1999; Staley passed in 2002.) But a handful of recordings from those second sessions have made it onto Above: Deluxe Edition, the new multi-disc package celebrating one of the great all-star acts of the alt-rock ’90s. In addition to a handful of previously unreleased bonus tracks, with vocals provided by Mark Lanegan in place of the late Staley, there is also a live recording of a legendary live performance in Seattle from 1995, as well as a DVD featuring video footage of that show plus a handful of other thrilling live moments.
Martin, who worked with McCready and original Above producer Brett Eliason on the reissue (and also wrote the extensive liner notes), talked to EW about the band’s origins, its legacy, and its unusual chemistry.
Entertainment Weekly: How did Mad Season first come together in 1994?
Barrett Martin: Mike called me and said he wanted to do a side project with this bass player that he had met when he was in rehab, and I said absolutely.
I had been on tour for a couple of years with the Screaming Trees, and we were on break. So the three of us got together for the first jam session to work on some new songs. Mike had started to write “River of Deceit,” and Baker had some ideas, and I had some ideas. Then Mike said he wanted to bring in Layne to be the singer, and I was excited because we had done a tour with Alice in Chains in ‘93, so Layne and I had become friends. I loved him as a singer and just as a human being. I don’t think we had a plan as to what it was going to sound like, it just sounded the way it sounded, but we were all very happy with that, because it didn’t sound like any of our other bands. It had this unique quality to it. I just call it an atmosphere, because half the songs on the album are kind of quiet and atmospheric and very haunting, and then the other half are just very sonically heavy and loud and powerful. But it was an extremely dynamic band. In fact, I think it might be the most dynamic band I’ve ever been in, its ability to be very quiet and sparse and haunting and then be a hurricane at the same time.
In the liner notes for Above: Deluxe Edition, you talk about Mad Season like a pure blues band, and there is a certain minimalism to it, especially compared to the bands everybody came from.
We recorded all of the songs live. All four of us. Layne did do layers of vocals, but we recorded all of the music and in some cases Layne’s vocal was done live. That is why there’s more of a sparse minimalism to it. Mike might have done a little guitar harmony or overdub or something like that, but for the most part, that is a very live record. And yes, blues for sure. A lot of that can be attributed to Baker, who had grown up in Alabama, kind of followed that classic bluesman trajectory where he went up to Mississippi and found himself in Chicago. He played with blues bands in Chicago. I don’t think he ever even played in a rock band until we did Mad Season. He was knowledgeable about rock, but generally speaking, Mad Season was the first rock band that he’d ever been in. Our chemistry as a rhythm section was very bluesy and had that backbeat swing to it. I’ve always been interested in the blues, and over the course of my life, I’ve gotten more interested. I’ve made a couple trips to the Delta. And of course you can hear Mike’s blues influence. I know that he’s influenced by Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan and all the great blues guitar players. For whatever reason, it just really naturally came out in Mad Season.
The live recordings on this new package are particularly great, and it’s sort of shocking that Mad Season only played six total shows.
It was a very exhilarating band to play in. There was a real energy amongst the four of us. I really hadn’t experienced that for a very long time until the current band that I’m playing in, the Walking Papers. I’m not trying to plug that, I’m just saying that it’s very rare to have that kind of chemistry come up in a band. You can play in some great bands and make some great records, and it doesn’t mean that you don’t have a chemistry, but a very special chemistry is very hard to find.
There was a second Mad Season album planned, and you recorded a little bit in 1996. How much did you get on tape then, and how much made it onto this reissue?
We really only did one recording session, and during that we recorded 17 musical ideas. The band was very prolific, because we were all writing and when we got into the studio, it just really flowed. But Layne never sang any lyrics on the songs. The plan for that second record was to have him and Mark Lanegan in a more collaborative scenario. I remember having a conference call with the president of Columbia Records when we started that second album, and he said, “Well, how many songs did you have?” I said, “This first session, we’ve got a cushion of 20 songs, and this is just the first session.” So I said, “We might be prepared for a double album if it comes to that.” So that was being bandied about a little bit, and the working title of the album was Disinformation. We were pretty happy with how that first session came about, but then Layne felt deteriorated and then we lost Baker. That’s when the band ground to a halt and we just put everything on hold. When it came time to get stuff together for this reissue, I pulled out the CDs that I had from 1996 that had those rough mixes on it. I made a copy for Mike, and I made a copy for Mark Lanegan. I said, “Here’s the music that I know we have. I don’t know what states the tapes are in, but this is what I have on CD.” It only took Mark a few days to go through it and he said “You know there’s three songs I really like. I immediately know what I want to sing. But I only want to do those three.” So he wrote his own lyrics and sang a fresh vocal track for each song, and those are the three bonus songs: “Locomotive,” “Black Book of Fear,” and “Slip Away.”
How did R.E.M.’s Peter Buck end up with a co-writing credit on “Black Book of Fear”?
Peter came to the studio when we did that first block of sessions in 1996. He had this riff that he brought to us, and then we arranged it into a song. The first four Mad Season shows were all done at the Crocodile in Seattle, which is the club that he and his wife owned. Peter saw those shows and he loved Mad Season. He loved the blues thing because he’s from the south and had grown up with that, and he just thought we were a great band. I was also doing a little work with him with R.E.M., and he said, “If you guys ever need a second guitar player or just want to jam, please call me.”
Was it strange to go back and re-live all of this material, especially considering that half the band has passed away?
Of course it’s hard any time you lose somebody that you were good friends with. We were all very good friends. I became immediate friends with Baker, and I was the last person to talk to him before he died. It was terrible in the beginning, and then with time, you come to realize this is life. This is a human experience, it’s not just a rock-band experience. I’ve lost other friends since then that were not rock musicians and did not die of drug overdoses, but death is just a thing that every human being has to deal with at some point or another, and the older you get, the more you’re touched by this.
Was there anything about the video footage that surprised you? The New Year’s Eve show at RKCNDY is especially electric.
Mike and I didn’t even know that that footage existed! When we went down to the Pearl Jam vault and started pulling out tapes, it’s like, “Woah, here’s this video tape of us at RKCNDY, and I didn’t even know that this existed.” One of the Pearl Jam crew guys had set up a video camera and had filmed the entire show. It’s just the one-camera shot, but it was also recorded it on a multi-track so we were able to mix that show and sync it up with the videotape. When Mike and I sat there and watched it, we both looked at each other and I think we both said, “Oh my god this is really good. I can’t believe we didn’t even know about this.” What I like about that RKCNDY show is that it’s New Year’s Eve, it’s in this relatively small club that probably held only 500 or 600 people, it’s sold out, people are going crazy, and the band is on fire. Layne looks great. He’s just killing it, and nobody ever saw that except the people who were at that show. It’s one of my favorite additions to this box set.
Mad Season’s Above: Deluxe Edition is available Tuesday, April 2, via Columbia/Legacy. A vinyl version will be available on Record Store Day.