Interview: Jerry Cantrell Discusses Alice in Chain's 2009 Comeback, 'Black Gives Way to Blue'
Not everything that happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, and for Jerry Cantrell of Alice in Chains, that’s a good thing these days. Earlier this year Cantrell had what he calls “a thunderbolt moment” in a Vegas recording studio, and one that he now looks on as perhaps the high-water mark of his long career. It was the kind of moment Cantrell can’t stop talking about, and in the course of several interviews, over progressive days, the guitarist goes back again and again to an image of…well, a piano.
There was once a time in Cantrell’s long and storied career when the idea of Alice in Chains in Vegas with a piano might bring up bacchanal images to rival anything in a Seth Rogan movie. That would have been Alice 1.0, back in the Nineties, when the Seattle band were poster boys for both crunchy guitar riffs and rock and roll excess. That was back when lead singer Layne Staley was still alive, and when Alice rode a series of hits like “Rooster” and “Man in the Box” to the top of the charts, selling more than 17 million albums in the process. When Cantrell pauses to talk about those heady days, his speech slows like he’s trying to describe an accident that he witnessed but doesn’t quite believe.
“What happened to all of us in Seattle was, and still is, a special thing that doesn’t happen very often,” he says. “Still, you feel like an old fuck when somebody lists you as an influence.” A raspy laugh follows.
At 43, Cantrell has lanky good looks that belie his age, but that dark laugh also suggests a life that has left scars, both visible and hidden from view. He’s buried more than a few friends, done things he regrets and watched addiction derail his band in the public arena. Not much shakes Jerry Cantrell, but back in Vegas, it took only a grand piano and a sheaf of sheet music.
The piano belonged to Elton John, and it was sitting in a Vegas studio one day earlier this year. Even before Sir Elton walked into the room, Cantrell says he felt something shift just looking at the piano and knowing it was involved in something he had created. “It was truly magical for me,” he recalls. “It was this inanimate object, but it was magical.” Though Cantrell grew up idolizing guitar players like Eddie Van Halen and Jimmy Page, the songwriting of Elton John had an indelible effect as well, particularly when Cantrell began to craft his own songs.
“He was the guy who got me turned on to music,” Cantrell says of John. “It is really hard to put into words how deeply I felt about it.”
The moment was all the more poignant because the words and music sitting on Elton’s piano were from the title song to the new Alice in Chains album, Black Gives Way to Blue, Cantrell’s ode to Layne Staley. Elton was providing the piano track.
At first Cantrell didn’t know if he could write the song “Black Gives Way to Blue”—or, for that matter, if he should. In the seven years since Staley’s death from a heroin overdose, Cantrell found it hard to talk about his friend’s passing, much less eulogize him in music.
Cantrell’s song to his lost comrade became an exorcism of sorts. He calls it the album’s “benchmark,” but it also could serve as the start of the second half of Alice in Chains. In the months before writing it, Cantrell had been suffering from an unexplained illness. “I got deathly ill,” he says. “I had these mystery migraines, intense physical pain, and I’d even gotten a spinal tap to test for certain things. They never could find anything wrong with me. I felt I was puking up all this undigested grief in losing Layne.” Once Cantrell started writing the song, and the rest of the album, his mystery illness disappeared.
“Black Gives Way to Blue” was one of the first songs he penned, but it was also the last track the band recorded for the album. Cantrell wrote a demo of the song first, but it wasn’t until he’d sent it to the other band members that he trusted his instinct to move ahead with it. “It is one of the heaviest songs I’ve ever written,” he says. “And that’s fucking heavy.”
Getting Elton John to play on the record was serendipity. John was recording down the hall in the studio Alice was working in, so Cantrell sent him a note and a tape. “I explained that this is the title track, and a song from the heart for Layne. I said, ‘Would you consider playing some keyboards on it, whatever the hell you want?’ ”
Cantrell didn’t hear anything for a week and thought that was the end of it. Then he was out to lunch during a studio break and his cell phone rang. “The studio manager called and said that Elton wanted to talk right now.” Cantrell left his burger sitting on the plate and rushed back. John said he was moved by the track, was a fan of Alice’s and Layne’s and would be glad to play on it. A few weeks later Cantrell watched John add piano, and in a few short takes a band known best for guitar riffs had its first signature piano track.
No conversation with Cantrell stays on pianos for long, however. Prior to our first chat, Cantrell had spent the morning working on his guitar rig, which he’s always fine-tuning. He prefers Bogner amps but says he’s a bit of a Luddite when it comes to new technology, as well as new music. “I don’t listen to the radio even.”
Over the past decade a lot of rock radio has shown influences of Alice, even as the band itself has been missing in action. Echoes of Cantrell’s guitar stylings can be heard in everyone from Tool to System of a Down to Daughtry, the latter being enough of a fan that he played a benefit for the Layne Staley Fund. Sometimes Cantrell’s influence is so great that younger players border on imitation, but Cantrell says he couldn’t care less. “That doesn’t bother me,” he says. “Gear accounts for, say, 25 percent, and you can cop some sounds, but the 75 percent that you can’t cop, it’s me. It’s my fingers, and my flesh on the wood. It would be hard to emulate our sound because nobody has us. But I don’t spend a lot of time looking back.”
This is the only thing Cantrell says over the course of two days that seems disingenuous, as ghosts certainly run through Black Gives Way to Blue. Even the song titles—“All Secrets Known,” “Lesson Learned,” “Private Hell”—hearken back to Alice themes from earlier albums.