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?
Is that the official line then?
Look. People have been saying we're over since Dirt. And people will say now that this is our last record and that we'll never tour again. Go ahead and think that. We're the kind of band that has always been able to do the opposite of what people expect.
The media has a tendency to find a weak link and keep hammering on it until it breaks.
Totally. They'll pick on a sore spot until it's an infected scab. Hey, if you want to keep licking, that's cool, but I don't have to let you pick my scabs. I pick my own. [laughs] It's hard not to give people that power. At the end of the day, we've done an incredible job, have great fans and awesome people around us. The band sticks together because we're a tight bunch of friends. We've got that "in the trenches" vibe. Nobody knows what the fuck that's about except for your buddy right across from you.
I'll tell you, the whole experience has been interesting, and I wouldn't have it any other way. I've lived some of the most incredible moments and had some of the most insane adventures of my life -- and I'm only 29 years old. It blows me away sometimes. I feel so thankful for my experiences. Hold on -- I think I'm gonna cry. [laughs]
How has your outlook on life evolved since the band took off?
I think I ended up right back where I always was. Sometimes you have to completely lose yourself to find yourself. There were times in the last year and a half when I didn't even want to play anymore. Or, at least, I thought I didn't want to play. All of the baggage and bullshit that comes along with it didn't seem to be offset by the music we created. I finally slapped some sense into my head and realized that you couldn't ask for anything better than the work we've done and the people we've been fortunate enough to play for. Our fans are almost as die-hard and tough as we are. To take that for granted would be a sad thing. But at the same time you have to be a human being. When you hurt and it's time to rest, you have to sit down, chill out, and hope you can come back swinging.
Overall, has the band's success had a positive or negative impact on you?
It's been positive to me, man. I own my own home, I can feed myself, I can enjoy time with my friends...
Those are certainly the financial rewards, but what about artistically?
Artistically, I'm fine. Success has a lot to do with luck, but it also involves a lot of real hard work. The thing about success is you really can't gauge things by album sales. Of course, I want to sell as many records as I can, but that's not why I do it. You finish a record because you think it's fucking good. We wouldn't be putting records out if we didn't think we were topping ourselves each time. I say that with confidence. I hope I don't come off sounding like a braggart, but it's good shit. There's other great shit out there, but I think we're right up there with the best of them.
What are your thoughts on the new Seattle music explosion? A whole crop of bands, notably the Foo Fighters and the Presidents Of The United States Of America, are all showing up on the charts at the same time, just as it happened with Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice In Chains a few years ago.
The Foo Fighters are bad-ass, man. I like The Presidents and the Supersuckers, but my favorites by far are the Foo Fighters. I'm just so blown away by the fact that a drummer can play guitar. [laughs] Sorry, Dave! It has meaty, powerful, cool riffs and great vocals, which I totally respect because playing guitar and singing is a bitch. It's like walking on tacks. I can sing fine and I can play guitar fine, but put 'em together and it becomes a thoughtful effort. But the music currently coming out of Seattle has no association with the music that came before. The sound is more pop/punk-oriented, very garagey.
Do you think the Seattle music scene changed after Kurt Cobain's suicide?
I really didn't know Kurt. I ran into him a couple of times and I wish I had known him better. But I felt I knew him through his music. Just the beauty of his songs and how Krist and Kurt and Dave played together was unbelievably cool. I really miss that. But if you're asking if things have become more serious around here since Kurt's death, I don't think so.
Let's talk about your new album. Wasn't this originally intended to be your solo record?
No, though there are two songs, "Grind" and "Again," that came from the demo project I halfheartedly worked on while Layne did the Mad Season sessions. To be honest, I'm too much of a sentimental fuck; I don't want to play with another band. I didn't feel I could put something else out that could top what Alice In Chains could do together.
One of the great things about a new Alice In Chains record is that you never know what it's going to sound like.
We've been really good with the element of surprise. We're a tight bunch of guys. Even now that we live apart and have our own places, that musical tightness never leaves.
Do you still consider Alice In Chains to be a "heavy metal" band or are you just "rock" now?
No, we're part of the metal thing. We're a lot of different things, too. I don't quite know what the mixture is, but there's definitely metal, blues, rock and roll, maybe a touch of punk... The metal part will never leave us. And I never want it to.
Coming, as you do, from a metal and hard rock background, do you mourn metal's passing?
No, not at all. One thing I've learned about our band is that you never count anything out, ever. Because when you do, it usually snaps right back up and pops you in the face. As far as the passing of metal goes, we're part metal and we're still around. It's a very cyclical progression; rap had that big cycle, the Seattle bands had that cycle, now the pop-punk thing is having its cycle. But the fact is there are still plenty of metal bands out there.
Metal bands today seem in disarray. Many are obsessed with making things heavy, at the expense of creativity or originality.
I've always been interested in bands that make heavy shit without sounding so obvious. There's something about having strength and not flaunting it. It's not about coming out and mauling your ass, but easing in. Before you know it, you're in a death lock, which you didn't see coming because it was so smooth and seductive you didn't know it until it had your face down on the canvas. To me, being heavy has nothing to do with how many speakers you blow or how many decibels you play at.
The type of material you're writing now is light years ahead of where you began, as a riff-based metal band. Have you thought about what contributed to that progression?
I think the longer you stick with something the better you're going to get at it. I'm going to keep thinking about topping myself every time. I can say very confidently that Alice In Chains have done that on every record. It surprises me. I don't go in there expecting that but I do go in there hoping for it.
Does everybody in the band write?
Yeah, everybody. We have shared tastes as well as shared dislikes. It's an unspoken language that we have. That's not to say that we don't sometimes disagree on stuff. There have been plenty of times where I think something is completely horrid and the other guys will make me check it out again. For weeks I'll be like, "God, that sucks!" Then one day it's like, "Ohhh, I get it. Okay. That's good!" [laughs]
Did that happen to you while you were putting the new album together?
I thought the solo on "Hate To Feel" was a piece of shit. And the solo on "Grind," for that matter, which is lifted off the ADAT demo I did for the album, works fine. That was the first take I did when I recorded the song. I didn't think it was that strong, but I never got around to fixing it. Toby [Wright, the bands producer] kept trying to sell me on it. I kept telling him I wanted to do it better because it just didn't seem to work for me. In the end, it's perfect for the record, but it took me a long time to feel comfortable with it.
So you do the bulk of the songwriting?
[tentatively] Yeah, but that's a pretty misleading statement.
Are you the catalyst, then?
I wouldn't say that either. [Bassist] Mike Inez adds a whole lot to the mix, as well. But I'd say the place where 70 percent of the songs start is with me and Sean [Kinney, drummer]. I'll start a riff, he'll start banging away, and before you know it we're somewhere we didn't expect to be. Without him to bounce shit off of and lead me-and me to lead him when we're both unconscious [laughs] -- it'd be real hard for me to play. Nobody plays like him. I think the great thing about Sean is that he 's got a great sense of humor and isn't full of himself. The fact is he's just a fuckin' Class A, monster player.
You've developed your songwriting skills into a sturdy pop craft without sacrificing the heaviness. Was that the result of touring with and becoming friends with Van Halen, a band that evolved similarly?
I wouldn't necessarily pick Van Halen. But on this record I did something that started to scare me for a while. I started to really hear a lot of other influences from my youth. They really started to flow freely. I'd go, "Okay, that sounds like Brian May," or "that sounds like Eddie." There's a riff on the end of "Frogs" that, thanks to that Rotovibe, reminds me of [Robin Trower’s] "Bridge Of Sighs." To date, this record probably offers the clearest view of my influences. I could point out 50 of them, from Brian May to Lindsey Buckingham, Davey Johnstone to Hendrix, Iommi to Page; there's all kinds of shit in there. There's some riffs that are pretty obvious. I have to admit that I started to feel really weird when that began happening.
It freaked you out?
It did, but it felt so natural that I didn't let myself worry about it. We're pretty self-correcting as far as what is right for us goes. There's not a lot of fucking around.
The guitar solos on this album are shorter and more abstract than your past work, as if you're reaching for something other than the standard "been there, done that, bought a shirt" lead break.
I've never been a big soloist; I just put in what needs to be there. I'm more of a rhythm player who plays lead -- or tries to play lead. I'm not saying I do bad shit, but I just do what fits the part. I'm more interested in what the whole picture is instead of creating a big vehicle for Cantrell to wank off all over everybody.
Your guitar tone on this album is huge. What's your recipe for monster tone?
My guitar tech, Darrell Peters, is my right-hand man. He's the brains of the outfit, and I'm just the body! I have a basic tone, and if l can verbalize to Darrell what changes I want, he'll get it. Even if what I'm saying makes no sense, he usually knows what I mean and will find what I'm looking for.
My basic set-up, which we used on almost every song, consists of a Bogner Fish preamp and my main G&L Rampage guitar. I also used a Les Paul through a Peavey 5150 amp. Ed [Van Halen] gave me three stacks after we did the tour with him a few years ago. He'd just come out with his new Music Man guitar and the 5150 heads, and I asked him if I could maybe buy one off him. When I came back home after the tour, there were three stacks waiting for me in the fucking garage! [laughs] The guy was totally fucking cool! Plus, he gave me a couple of his guitars, too.
Super kind. And at the time, I was living in the basement of our manager Kelly Curtis' house, so it was completely full of gear! By the time I got back there, there wasn't even room for me in there!
How many tracks of rhythm guitar do you usually stack up on a given track?
I always record one rhythm guitar on the left, one on the right, and a lead track up the middle. I've been hard-panning the rhythm guitars like that for a long time.
Do you ever overdub additional guitar parts just to add incidental sounds and textures?
No, I pretty much just stick to two rhythm guitars panned hard left and right, with a solo track up the middle. Any additional feedback noises or guitar sounds come from those three guitars. People always ask me, "How do you recreate all of the different guitar parts live?" Well, it's never actually a problem, because I always make sure the first guitar part can stand on its own when I play the song live.
As far as the second track of guitars goes, I'll record a single complete track from the beginning of the song to the end, and for that I'll go by feel: I'll get feedback here, or some harmonics there, and that way it'll be different from any other track I'll put down. When we put the tracks together, they usually fit so well that we can fade either one in and out. I cut each new track without thinking about the other one.
Do you work out any of your solos?
I used to; I'd sit down and really work out something for each tune. Now, I don't think about it at all, and I feel that approach works a lot better for me. Generally, I can't tell people exactly what I played because I don't even know myself!
Would you say that part of your overall approach to recording is to take chances while the tape is rolling, just to see what will happen?
That's definitely the Alice In Chains way. It's a whole lot of not thinking about it, and a whole lot of just doing it -- and making sure the tape is always rolling. We had tape running constantly. Even if we didn't have two-inch tape running, we had DAT's running constantly. We have so many DAT's of so much shit that didn't get used; we have bibles full of outtakes! Maybe we'll release some of the stuff some day. When I was a kid, I always liked outtake records and bootlegs where you could hear little fuckups and the guys in the bands talking between the tunes. I thought that was the coolest stuff; it let you in on their vibe. You felt like you were in with the club.
I've often heard you talk about Layne's studio prowess.
Layne is amazing. We'd go in the back and play football while he was doing vocal tracks. We'd come back and he'd have five awesome-sounding vocal tracks cut. Toby would listen to it and say, "I couldn't have told you to do anything differently."
Speaking of Layne, what do you think of Above [Columbia], the Mad Season album?
I think it's fucking great. I totally have to 'fess up-I was jealous as shit when I first heard it. It's like somebody taking your girlfriend out. [laughs] But after that initial reaction, I went and saw them play at the Moore Theater and I was so proud, I was beaming for them. I almost started crying while I was watching them because it was so cool. Then I felt pissed again because I wasn't up there playing! [laughs] I talked to Layne a lot about the record. It was good for him because it blew a bunch of shit out of his head. I've been credited for being a writer and putting out a lot of material with this band and sniff, so I think it was real healthy for him to be able to do that. I have nothing but the greatest respect for the guy. And that record's very soulful. There are some real low, cobwebby passages on that fucker that are cool as fuck. Layne has the most beautiful way of saying something horrible I've ever heard.