Mike McCready of Pearl Jam says that even after 12 years and eight albums that have sold a million copies or better, he never takes that status of the Seattle group for granted.
"My mind has always kind of operated with this band like it's gonna be over tomorrow," says McCready, 36, who co-founded the quintet in 1990 and has watched it survive a succession of drummers and, more importantly, the kind of publicity hype that has plowed under many other bands.
"When we take a really long break, I get antsy," McCready adds by phone from his home in Southern California. "There's a gray area about whether we'll come back. Generally I know in my heart that we will, but I question that sometimes.
"We generally tend to keep to ourselves when we're off the road. But I'm calling up the other guys saying 'Hey, what's going on?,' or our manager, just to see what's up -- just something to make me feel like it's still together."
So far, McCready hasn't had to worry. The newly released "Riot Act" is Pearl Jam's seventh studio album and not only finds the band in fine, energetic form but also shows it's open to new creative directions.
The album introduces new producer Adam Kasper -- who was introduced to the band by drummer Matt Cameron -- though longtime cohort Brendan O'Brien handled the mixing. It also integrates keyboardist Boom, who brings additional textures to Pearl Jam's sound.
"When we got together, we hadn't seen each other for awhile, so it was very fresh," McCready says. "We wanted to kind up open up the sound a little bit; I think that comes with the comfortability of getting to know each other over the past (12) years.
"We're more comfortable than we were at the beginning. We want to push boundaries, musically, if we can and come at things from a different direction."
Former Soundgarden drummer Cameron -- who joined Pearl Jam in 1998 and co-wrote three songs on "Riot Act," including the first single "I Am Mine" -- adds that "I dare say maturity has sunken in with this group. You get some confidence in your songwriting abilities and go for the essentials -- guitar, bass, drums, vocals. Those are the basic band essentials that have to be in place before you go any further.
"This is a good example of a band that has stuck to that golden rule and really grown from there."
McCready says the band was particularly invigorated on "Riot Act" by frontman and lyricist Eddie Vedder, Pearl Jam's reluctant focal point.
"I've never seen him that excited," the guitarist notes. "He was up and down the stairs writing lyrics the whole time, whereas in the past he'd had, like, a mental block maybe halfway through the process.
"This time he just went all the way through it without a break. He was really excited about the process, and that made the rest of us, in turn, feel the same way."
Pearl Jam, of course, is never fully free from the expectations generated by the group's early success. It's 1992 debut album, "Ten," sold more than 10 million copies, while hits such as "Alive," "Jeremy," "Black" and "Daughter" established the group -- along with Seattle mates Nirvana -- as a voice of its generation.
That rankled the populist-minded musicians, particularly Vedder. Much of the next decade -- including a nasty battle with the powerful Ticketmaster organization that hampered Pearl Jam's ability to tour -- was spent bringing things back down to earth.
"When I was with Soundgarden, we were watching those guys go mega in front of our eyes," Cameron, 39, recalls by phone from Seattle. "It was a trip...and we kinda noticed they had to pull back a little bit, just kinda take control of their careers, which in the end turned out to be the right decision. That's why they're still here."
Pearl Jam has scheduled appearances on "Late Night with David Letterman" on Thursday and Friday [Nov. 14-15] and a benefit concert for four charities on Dec. 8 in Seattle. The group then hits the road in earnest on Feb. 8 in Australia, with a return to North America planned for the spring and summer.
By then Pearl Jam plans to put out a collection of B-sides and rarities that will include songs that have never appeared on Pearl Jam albums and some that have never been released at all. But while group's 2000 tour yielded a surprisingly successful series of 72 live albums, it hasn't decided whether to do the same for its upcoming outing.
McCready, meanwhile, says that out of habit he's likely to worry about the future of the band when touring wraps up again. But he adds that things feel as good now as they ever have.
"There's just a new feeling about it now," he says. "I think we've reached a level where, hey, we hit 10 years and we're still around and we're still friends and we still joke around with each other. I think we appreciate what we have and will work to preserve that."