Interview: Jerry Cantrell Discusses Alice in Chain's 2009 Comeback, 'Black Gives Way to Blue'
With a new Alice in Chains record on the way, we take a look back at the band's 2009 return.
Staley gave Cantrell his old scrap of paper that had Kinney’s number on it, and the drummer and guitarist formed the first piece of Alice. Next in was Mike Starr on bass, and the three-piece began rehearsing singers. Staley watched most of those early rehearsals, providing Simon Cowell–like commentary and reporting that none of the singers were good enough for the band. Sick of his criticism after several months, the other members suggested he put up or shut up. “Layne was actually the last one to join,” Kinney notes. Early on the band was more interested in a glam-rock aesthetic than on forging a new genre. “Somewhere in there, we did a couple of tunes where it seemed to be happening,” Kinney says. Two weeks after their formation they were playing a gig at the University of Washington, trying to fill out a 40-minute set with a couple of originals “and Hanoi Rocks and David Bowie covers,” Cantrell recalls.
The band performed in many of the same dive bars as Nirvana, Mudhoney and Pearl Jam but didn’t find much success until its demo struck a chord at Columbia Records. Yet even at that nascent stage, the band exacted an “us-against-the-world” attitude when the label suggested they switch drummers. “[Columbia Records chairman] Donnie Ienner put pressure on us to get a new drummer, and we were like, ‘Fuck you, man, Sean is our drummer,’ ” Cantrell recalls. As it was, Kinney almost missed the sessions for Facelift when he broke his hand.
One of Alice’s early breaks came when they got a slot as the opening band on a Van Halen tour. At the end of the tour Cantrell asked Eddie if he could buy one his signature guitars, and Eddie said no problem. Cantrell was still struggling to make ends meet and was living in an extra room at the house of Pearl Jam’s manager Kelly Curtis at the time.
When Cantrell arrived back in Seattle, the first words from Curtis were, “Finally, now you can get your shit out of my garage.” When Cantrell looked, he discovered that Eddie had sent him dozens of boxes of gear…for free. “There were two guitars, and three stacks of amps,” he recalls. “It was one of the coolest things anybody ever did for me.”
Facelift sold 400,000 copies the summer before Nirvana’s Nevermind came out, and eventually the album went Platinum. The hits followed from there, though it was the acoustic 1994 EP Jar of Flies that was their first chart-topper. By then Mike Inez had joined on bass, coming from Ozzy Osbourne’s band.
Inez observes, “We were always the metal stepchildren of the Seattle scene. We were the heavier ones, but we put out an acoustic record, and it went to Number 1. We could get away with that kind of stuff because we were the underdog.”
As the band’s fame grew, so did Staley’s drug addiction, which caused the other members the dual heartbreak of losing their best friend and their musical vehicle. A series of rehabs ensued, but Staley died in 2002 after injecting himself with a mixture of heroin and cocaine. Kinney says that until the day Layne died Kinney still hoped the singer would recover, and the band would gig again. “But when Layne passed away, on that day, a big part of me went away,” Kinney says. “The wounds of those things, and the pain of that, kept me from barely wanting to do anything.”
For the band members, one of the saddest aspects of Staley’s legacy is to hear him remembered primarily for his excesses rather than the other aspects of his personality, which were present even on his worst days. Kinney says, “It was insulting the way people talked about him. People think he chose that fate, those drugs, but it’s not a chosen thing. Layne was the sweetest guy, the nicest guy, and the most talented guy you would ever want to meet. He was funny. He was one of the most least-judgmental people I ever met.”
Cantrell says it was Staley who gave him the self-assurance to sing. “Layne was really responsible for giving me the confidence to become more of a singer. He’d say, ‘You wrote this song, this means something to you, sing it.’ He kicked my ass out of the nest. Over the years I continued to grow, and Layne started to play guitar, and we inspired each other.”
When Alice went on hiatus after 1995, Cantrell eventually started a solo career, and he’d put out two albums by the time Staley died. Yet that loss was enough to derail all the members for some time from doing much of anything. It wasn’t until a 2005 Seattle benefit for tsunami relief that the three surviving members of Alice played together again. For that show, they used a handful of singers, including Heart’s Ann Wilson. The night went well, and the chemistry between the three was strong enough that labels expressed interest in a new album. They weren’t ready yet, and another year would pass before they played together again.
By then Cantrell had moved from Seattle to Los Angeles, seeking warmth for what he calls his “old lizard brain.” He jokes that his move to L.A. came right as he cleaned up, and that now he’s “a reformed bad guy living in the belly of the beast. It’s like the ex-gambler who decided to live in Las Vegas.” The new setting proved fruitful to his work, and his new zip code inspired “Check My Brain,” the first single off the new album. The tongue-in-cheek song pairs a poppy chorus against what Cantrell calls his “droney seasick” guitar.
It was in L.A. that Cantrell met and befriended William DuVall, of Comes with the Fall. Eventually, Cantrell, Inez and Kinney invited DuVall to join Cantrell on vocals. Inez says, “When he first started, I explained to William that he was going to have the hardest job. He’s not trying to replace Layne at all, but I still can’t think of a harder job for a singer, singing ‘Man in the Box’ in front of 125,000 people.”
So far DuVall has succeeded because he and Cantrell harmonize well together and because he’s been conscious of not trying to ape Staley. “Approaching it any other way would do a disservice to our band, to our fans and to Layne,” DuVall says. He sings like a guitar player, which he is, which separates him from Staley’s flamboyant history. DuVall says that, early on in his friendship with Cantrell, his greatest joy was teaching Cantrell a Comes with the Fall riff and waiting for the payback. “Then I’d ask him to show me ‘Sick Man,’ and he would,” DuVall says. “We’d go back and forth.” That same synergy extended into the recording of the new album and gave the group renewed optimism.
With a new album and a new tour, no one in Alice version 2.0 is willing to say what this current chapter means about the future. “This is a hard business,” Inez says. “It isn’t all limousines, cocaine and blowjobs. We did this all in dog years.”
And it’s not lost on any member of Alice that even as they move forward, it’s impossible to escape their past. Kinney says, “Sometimes people ask us, ‘Wouldn’t Layne have been pissed off that we did this?’ And I tell them it would have been the opposite: he would have been pissed off that it took us so long to do this. We’re not doing this for money; there is no money in the music business anymore. Jerry and I funded the whole album, and we spent lots of our own money, because we believe in this. And one of the reasons I’m doing this is so more light is turned on to something where the light was turned off.”
As for Cantrell, he’s back to working on his Bogner and tinkering with his tone. He pauses for a second, as if he’s looking for something in the distance that only he can see. “Life is pretty good today in spite of all the stuff we’ve gone through,” he says, the dark laugh now absent. “It hasn’t all been bad. We’ve toured around the world, we’ve lost some friends, we buried a dear friend, and somebody that you just can’t fucking replace, and then we’ve chosen by circumstance to get together again. That turned into ‘maybe we can fucking do this.’ And that turned into this.”
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