As one of the founding members of Pearl Jam, Mike McCready can pursue almost any endeavor he chooses during the band’s down time. So it might seem odd that the lead guitarist would elect to form a tribute band dedicated to ’70s rockers UFO as a recurring side project over the last 10 years. That is, until learning of the spirit behind it.
McCready formed Flight to Mars in 2003 with five other Seattle-based musicians as a way to raise money and awareness for two nonprofit organizations dedicated to helping people with Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disorder that McCready has battled for more than 20 years. As part of a seven-city West Coast benefit tour, Flight to Mars is playing the Hard Rock Café on the Strip, with proceeds benefiting Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America’s Camp Oasis and Advocacy for Patients with Chronic Illness.
“Those are two things that are important to me, and I love rock, so I just thought, ‘Why not [UFO]?’” McCready says. “I don’t think there’s a lot of UFO tribute bands out there. I could have done something like Zeppelin or the Stones, but this seemed a little less obvious. It’s certainly more obscure.
“Some people think it’s great, and some people go, ‘Who is UFO?’ I just do it because it’s fun and I get to play like [former UFO guitarist] Michael Schenker, play a little bit differently than I do in Pearl Jam. I can play more metal and fast, kinda what my roots were.”
The bulk of Flight to Mars’ set comes from UFO’s acclaimed 1979 live release Strangers in the Night. That is the album that introduced McCready, 46, to the band as a kid. “I don’t even remember where I first heard it,” he says. “But I remember it having a deep impact on me.” And it was Schenker’s unique style that made the biggest impression on the future guitarist. “He had something else,” McCready says. “He had that German preciseness but with a feeling to it.”
The opportunity to explore musical avenues outside of Pearl Jam is nothing new for McCready—or the rest of his bandmates. Frontman Eddie Vedder is touring this year behind his solo album, while drummer Matt Cameron has been working on an album with Soundgarden. McCready says having those outlets has not only contributed to Pearl Jam’s longevity, but also expanded their musical palette.
“Luckily, we’ve all been receptive to other people’s projects,” he says. “And I think we’ve even learned from [playing with] other people. Whether it’s been the Rockfords, Mad Season, Flight to Mars or Star Anna, I’ve learned how to play with different people, and I learn different things from that, and then I bring that back into [Pearl Jam].”
McCready will reconvene with Pearl Jam for a few shows in Europe this summer, and the band is also working on their next album, which is tentatively scheduled to come out next year. “There are a bunch of songs brewing right now,” he says, “but they’re by no means ready to be out there yet.”
In the meantime, McCready will continue his fight against Crohn’s disease and colitis. “Certainly when you put some sort of light on it, it helps diffuse the mystery or the shame, or the sadness and the pain a bit,” he says. “And I found that has happened since I’ve done that.”