1996 Guitar World Interview: Jerry Cantrell of Alice In Chains Discusses Songwriting and Band's New Self-Titled Album
Here's an interview with Jerry Cantrell of Alice In Chains from the January 1996 issue of Guitar World magazine. To see the Cantrell cover -- and all the covers from 1996 -- click here.
While Seattle has certainly enjoyed its 15 minutes of fame as “the capital of grunge,” the city has also paid a heavy price for its rock and roll notoriety. A recent newspaper headline proclaimed it “Drug Town, U.S.A,” while a noted music critic estimated that “one in four Seattle musicians is involved with heroin.” Rolling Stone even went so far as to wryly note that heroin was “back on the charts,” and that Seattle, along with New York and Hollywood, was a hot spot for the drug.
While claims that Seattle is a heroin mecca may be exaggerated, there is more than a grain of truth to the rumors and media assertions about the drug's prevalence in the city. One can only assume that the high profile overdoses of Mother Love Bone's Andrew Wood, Seven Year Bitch's Stephanie Sargent and Hole's Kristen Pfaff are but the most visible manifestations of the drug's impact on the local music scene.
Among the most highly publicized long-term drug sagas has been that of Alice In Chains vocalist Layne Staley, whose on-again/off-again involvement with heroin has sometimes attracted nearly as much attention as the band's music. "Alice In Chains' videos are elegant little travelogues of junkie life," wrote Spin magazine in March 1995. "Heroin addicts and struggling former addicts hear something in Layne's grade-school junkie poetry, a kind of siren."
Plagued by persistent reports that they had been torn apart by drug-related internal stress, haunted by morbid death-pool predictions that consistently pick Staley as Seattle's "most likely to O.D.," stymied by Staley's recent collaboration with Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready in Mad Season and hampered by an apparent inability to make it to prestigious gigs like Woodstock '94 and the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame grand opening, Alice In Chains responded with a self-imposed media silence.
"We made one final statement to the press when we decided to break the lines of communication," says guitarist Jerry Cantrell. "We were a fucking overloaded sponge that needed to be wrung out. We seriously needed the time to sit down and start fresh. That's what we did."
He pauses before adding, "We're definitely not perfect people, but I'm not apologizing for shit. I'm doing the best I can with what I got and that's all anybody in my band is doing."
Except for talk specifically related to the new record, the band's vow of silence remains unbroken. Cantrell refuses to discuss any of Alice In Chains' past or present problems or comment on Staley's drug use, but is happy to talk about the group's new self-titled album. Building on the exquisitely sinister, squalid self-loathing that permeated Dirt, which many critics hailed as the drug album of the Nineties, Cantrell and company have forged their most darkly introspective work to date. From the magnificent black walls of guitar riffery that propel "Grind" and "Sludge Factory" to the lush, kaleidoscopic harmonies of "Heaven Beside You" and "Frogs," Alice In Chains finds the band once again scraping the bottom of their psychic barrels to emerge at the top of their musical game. As Cantrell enthusiastically remarks, it's a "fuckin' dangerous record."
GUITAR WORLD: Does Alice In Chains plan to tour in support of this album?
Absolutely. I'm so anxious to get back out on the road. We worked on this record for six months, so completing it was a big monkey to get off our backs. I don't mind saying that it feels real good to be done with it. It was really hard to stay focused with all of the rumors flying around. You can say, "Fuck you, you don't know what's up" to people as many times as you want, but it still hurts. We've taken some ragging. It's the "kids on the playground" thing: "Those kids are calling me names. What am I gonna do? Am I gonna cry? Am I gonna lower myself to their level and fight them? Or am I gonna say 'Fuck you' and walk away?" We walked away and did our own thing. That's what the record is. We learned to survive on the playground. You can't lower yourself to their level and you can't let them get to you. Because at the end of the day, they'll be the guys working at McDonald's with bald heads and five kids and three ex-wives hollering for child support.
When Alice In Chains dropped off the Metallica tour in 1994, it generated a lot of speculation about the band's future.
Actually, the speculation started before that, with the lyrics on Dirt. That was the beginning of it all. That's a hard record.
The new one is hard, too.
Yeah, this record is also lyrically hard. I can't say one record is better than the other, but this one is a lot more tongue-in-cheek. It has a lot more irony.
The first line on the album is, "In your darkest hole, you'd be well-advised not to plan my funeral before the body dies." That seems to set the tone for the entire record and fire one back at the rumor mill.
You're right; it pretty much says it all right there.
After leaving the Metallica tour, you also dropped out of Woodstock '94 and then recently canceled your appearance at the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame grand opening concert.
The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame concert came in the middle of us making this record. We really didn't have the luxury to go out and do it. It's unfortunate that we missed gigs that people wanted to see us play. That's the thing that pisses me off the most. I take responsibility for that as much as anyone. But shit happens. What are you gonna do?