More than a decade after the height of the Seattle rock explosion, Nirvana, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains are long gone and Mudhoney have become a cult band. Pearl Jam are the last man standing.
And despite their best efforts to maintain a low profile, their Riot Act debuted at #5 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, selling more than 165,000 copies. No one could be more surprised than guitarist Mike McCready.
"I'm amazed that people are even still wanting to listen to us," he said. "With all the other music out there and the shifting times, I'm surprised that people still consider us relevant. I'll hear us on classic rock radio stations and I'll go, 'Oh, my God, we're getting old!' I'm just grateful to still be around."
McCready credits Pearl Jam's longevity to their chemistry and work ethic. And taking breaks from the band hasn't hurt any either.
"We tend to stay out of each other's lives as much as possible when we're not working," McCready said. "We see our different friends and just get away from each other so when we get back together everything is fresh. When we all met in the studio this time it felt like coming home."
Riot Act is more of a foot-to-the-floor rock record than 2000's Binaural. "Save You," "Ghost," "Get Right" and "Green Disease" are loose and stormy, expressing the band's interest in up-tempo garage rock, and slower tracks like "Love Boat Captain" and the single "I Am Mine" are scruffy and galvanic. Drummer Matt Cameron, who assisted with songwriting, provides technical heft, keeping the beats tight when his bandmates start to sprawl, and producer Adam Kasper encouraged Pearl Jam to keep their arrangements sparse and rocking.
Although none of the songs on Riot Act directly addresses the events of September 11, McCready said the tension and tone of the album was colored by the aftermath of the terrorist attacks.
"The events that have happened since then were weighing heavily on our minds or had changed us emotionally and psychically," he admitted. "So there are some darker themes on this record and that's probably indicative of where some of those harder songs came from also."
Almost half the cuts on Riot Act are augmented with keyboards by frontman Eddie Vedder's friend Kenneth "Boom" Gaspar, who provides an additional dimension.
"When there's keyboards you have to kind of play less on guitar," McCready said. "But having more keyboards was something I always wanted since [having producer] Brendan O'Brien play on 'Betterman.' It was a conscious effort to bring another sound into the equation."
McCready said that, for him, "I Am Mine" is most indicative of Pearl Jam's current frame of mind. It may be a somewhat melancholy bar room song, but it glimmers with hope and optimism.
"It was more about the positive theme that in between life and death I have my mind, and that's the only thing I can control. Everything else is pretty much out of control, but that's all right. I can live. I think the song has a very positive feeling to it. The way the song's written and the way Eddie sings it, it feels like we're back and we're still relevant."
The second single from Riot Act will likely be "Save You," written mostly by McCready. Built around a high-octane rhythm, the song starts out in overdrive and doesn't relent.
"It just came from a guitar riff that I had," McCready said. "When we got together to work on the record, I brought in two ideas. One idea I worked really hard on and I thought it was really cool. I showed it to [guitarist] Stone [Gossard], and he goes, 'Um, you got anything else.' And so I went, 'OK, sh--. And I played him the 'Save You' riff, and he seemed excited about that."
Pearl Jam will play charity benefits at the Key Arena in Seattle on December 8 and 9, then the group will head to Australia and Japan before touring the U.S. next spring. The band is negotiating to bring Audioslave and Sleater-Kinney on tour, but nothing's been confirmed yet, McCready said.