Pearl Jam’s celebrated lead guitarist, Mike McCready, knows a thing or two about the importance of healthcare. McCready, who has suffered his whole life from Crohn’s Disease, which causes inflammation in the digestive tract and often leads to very severe symptoms like constant and painful defecation, began to speak out about his affliction later in life. Since then, McCready has learned what its like to find community around a shared problem and how important that cab be when coupled with proper care.
As such, McCready recently joined forces with SMASH – or, Seattle Musicians Access to Sustainable Healthcare – to raise money and awareness for the organization, which offers mental and physical health services to musicians who often don’t have health insurance. For this partnership, McCready has joined forces with the mighty Seattle rock ‘n’ roll band, The Black Tones, which is co-founded by twins Eva and Cedric Walker.
“SMASH,” says organization officials, “is meant to create a sustainable life for musicians in the Pacific Northwest – because everyone needs music and a local music scene!” SMASH supports musicians by prioritizing their health, and their lives, by providing access to free and low-cost healthcare services. When the pandemic hit in March, SMASH immediately responded to the crisis by launching additional services for the music community, including funding mental health therapy. Black, Latinx and Indigenous people have been disproportionately affected by the unrelenting COVID-19 pandemic, social isolation, and the continued oppression of BIPOC communities. With donation support, SMASH can offer working musicians in our region an ongoing program to provide free and low-cost medical, dental and mental health services. We take care of musicians, because music takes care of us. Tickets for the Nov. 22nd ‘Songs of Hope’ Benefit can be purchased HERE.
For the benefit, McCready and The Black Tones recorded a cover of U2’s “Pride (In The Name Of Love).” Other pairings for the benefit include Dave Matthews with Tomo Nakayama and the trio of The Head and the Heart with Allen Stone and Whitney Mongé. We caught up with McCready to talk to him about the importance of SMASH, what it was like to work with The Black Tones, why U2 is an important historical band and much more.
Why is SMASH important to you?
In these times of COVID-19, healthcare is more important than ever. And to be part of a benefit like this – I’ve been asked to do it before but I’ve never had a chance to do it. Healthcare is super important to everyone, which is the most obvious statement. I have Crohn’s Disease and I have a pre-existing condition. And a lot of people are going to lose that or have been losing that if the administration that is in there now continues to be there.
But in terms of musicians that need healthcare, insurance – everyone is out of work right now. I’m lucky and I’m in a band where we can afford to not work. But we still have employees. The thing is that it’s the small bands that are suffering. Whether it’s mental health stuff, drug addiction stuff – musicians assistance is needed out there. Because it’s a valid form of work and a lot of people I think don’t look at it that way.
But, as we know, being in a band or starting out as a singer-songwriter, you don’t have any money and you’re just barely trying to make it. And for sure you don’t have any insurance. So, if there is any kind of alcohol problems – and there are great programs that are out there that I think SMASH helps with. So, that’s why it’s so important.
As you mentioned you have Crohn’s and you have a pre-existing condition. Can you talk about your work in healthcare, in general, and why it’s important to you?
When I finally started to talk about having Crohn’s it was about almost 20-years ago. I’d talked about it prior but then I finally – my wife was tired of me complaining about it. And she was like, “We have to go find some other people that have this or some sort of a support group.” So, we looked up in Seattle and there was this place called the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America at that time. And we went there and there was probably two or three people working there. It was very small. Crohn’s a very debilitating and embarrassing disease. You shit yourself, it’s bloody. It fucking hurts.
When I finally realized that I just needed to start talking about this, that’s where the healing is, I needed to find other people who had it. Because I could never relate to anybody that didn’t have it when I was trying to tell my story. So, subsequently over the years, [my wife] Ashley and I and my friend Chris Adams got involved. But what really made me come alive and feel more sensitive and try to be part of the solution was getting to know kids that had it.
We do a benefit every year called Flight to Mars, our UFO tribute band, and all the money went to sending kids to camp out of state to Camp Oasis. That’s where kids who have Crohn’s or Colitis would go. They would go to California, generally, from here. This was over a period of 20 years. The first five years was great until we started getting kids from Montana and the west coast. So, we decided to start our own camp here in Washington State – Ashley and Chris, along with the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation. We now send 200 kids a year to that camp here in the Northwest.
When I got to visit the camp first when it was in California, it was life changing. There were all these kids playing but there were also doctors, and the kids were making fun of their disease. It’s a really debilitating and embarrassing disease and kids don’t want to talk about it. But when they’re in these camps, they hang out and make fun of it. They have these different teams. So, that’s what I found – aside from raising money for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation and doing the research. My wife and Chris and I felt it was equally important to have a place for kids to talk to other kids or adult to talk about the issue.
We also do runs and I’ve done a few half-marathons. There are benefits all the time. So, that’s been – that’s how important it is to me. It’s made me aware of more than just my own self. And that was important for the healing. I’ve heard from a lot of kids that this is an important thing. So, I’m grateful that happened. I’m so happy it turned out that way. We’re still doing it! But right now nobody can go to camp so we have to do cyber camp. We’re trying to adjust like everyone else.
How did you get connected with The Black Tones, a band for which you’ve put out a 7”. And what has it been like to work with the band on music for SMASH?
It’s funny because I never actually talked to Eva or met Eva or Cedric before the single came out [on my label]. I wanted to but the schedules never worked out. But how I found out about them was through Molly and Whitney from Thunderpussy, who said they were great. And then I saw them on the Band in Seattle television show flying back from L.A. And I was like, “What the fuck? This is amazing! Who is this?” I knew – I had heard the name but I was like, “Oh my god!”
Eva, she’s got this intensity and this coolness and cool guitar playing with a killer voice. The fact they’re brother and sister is awesome. The songs were cool. There’s an edginess to it. It felt real to me. So, I was like, “This is fucking great! Let’s get ahold of these guys!” Then we put out the singles and I wanted to go to the record release party [in March] but I think I was sick, which makes me sad. Then lockdown hit.
But how this thing came along, I got a message from SMASH that said The Black Tones want to do “Pride (In The Name Of Love” and would you play guitar on it? That’s how I heard it and I was like, “Hell yes, I do!” I’d much rather do it with the band playing in the studio, you know what I mean? I’d rather do it when we’re all together but we can’t do that now, unfortunately.
Eva is a star ready to rise. I don’t know these things for sure, of course, but I just know that she has that charisma and that energy. And I feel like if I can be part of anything to raise awareness of The Black Tones – and SMASH – then it’s a double win! It was really fun to play on the track, too.
Yeah! U2 – what does that band mean to you? The song has to do with Martin Luther King Jr. and talks about Memphis, where he was shot. And now there is a museum there. But what does U2 and the song mean to you?
I saw U2 at the Paramount [in Seattle] on the War tour. That was in ’82, I think. I’ve been aware of them for a long time and always loved them. I was kind of more of a metal kid back in the day but when U2 came along they were something new, fresh and exciting and they had substance to them. Subsequently over the years, I saw the Joshua Tree tour in ’86. And Pearl Jam opened up for U2 a couple times. They’ve always been really cool to us. And I think we kind of have a similar ethos at times. But what I feel about U2, I love them as a band. They’re a fantastic, incredible band. The song “Bad” is one of my favorites ones, that’s the next song I’d like to play with Eva and Cedric.
But “Pride (In The Name Of Love),” in terms of Martin Luther King. I love Martin Luther King. Every year, we watch his 1963 address at the National Monument, his famous speech. I’ve read Letter from the Birmingham Jail, which is mind-blowing about the church’s inability to go along with him while he’s being persecuted. It’s still so timely. Martin Luther King was so, as we all know, he was touched in a way – he’ll forever reach people in the right way because of how he did it. And his preaching of nonviolence and sit-ins and how eloquent – once in a millennia people like that come along. I love him. I love everything about what he stood for.
So, U2 wrote that song and I always thought it was a cool song. It was their Civil Rights song. And I kind of know Edge a little bit. I know his guitar tech better, Dallas. And I called Dallas and asked how Edge got the affect for the song. Dallas gave me a pedal, a prototype of Edge’s pedal. So, I have that here. But it’s so fucking confusing! I texted Dallas and he sent me, like, a graph back of what I should do. And I’m like, “I don’t know how to read any of that stuff.” I just play by feel. But I did play it on the pedal. So, I think I got the slap back.
I think the song sounds cool in the end. But I recorded it here on Garage Band this weekend by myself because I’ve learned how to do that during quarantine! [Laughs] But when I was asked to do it and talked with Eva about it finally, she was so enthusiastic about how she loves Bono’s voice and I do too. It’s kind of perfect for her to sing that song and for Cedric to play it and they do it with conviction and style and soul. I was stoked. I love that it’s exciting to me. I learn by playing with other musicians aside from just my band and I love that. It’s fresh and new.
What do you love most about music?
Music is healing. Music is my sanctuary. At it’s best, for me, when I’m not – if I’m playing guitar and I’m not looking at the neck and we’re playing live or something and I’m not thinking about it, that’s when it’s best for me. It’s the most satisfying, consistent friend, I guess, that I’ve had since I was 11-years-old. Music informs almost everything in life. I have to have a soundtrack per day. It’s a spiritual thing for me. It can be intellectual at times, but that’s only in the studio side of it. But the feeling part of it is everything to me. Music is everything to me. I don’t know how to put it in other words. It’s my sanity. It’s my insanity [Laughs]. It’s my fun. It’s never my enemy, you know? I know that’s a weird way to put it. But music, for me, it adds purpose to my life. It’s not the only thing but it’s a major thing.
Tickets for the Nov. 22nd ‘Songs of Hope’ Benefit are HERE