Interview: Jerry Cantrell Discusses Alice in Chain's 2009 Comeback, 'Black Gives Way to Blue'
What few fans knew in the first Alice era was that Cantrell wrote most of the songs, with Staley usually contributing lyrics. Given Staley’s public struggles, some also mistakenly attributed the band’s darkness solely to Layne’s demons, when in truth no one in the group was a choirboy. Cantrell sounds and acts arrow straight these days, though he’s quick to note that Black Gives Way to Blue is not a celebrity rehab album by any stretch. “If you’re going to write your rehab record, write it and throw it away and get that out of your system,” he says with a laugh. “We’ve never been about messages, and we’ve never been a political band. This is an album about personal experience. It’s a pretty natural progression, but there are some stains you just can’t wash off.”
If there are unifying themes on the album, they are survival, and, to a lesser extent, facing mortality. “Bands usually aren’t meant to last,” Cantrell says. “In this line of work, to keep everybody together through the mishaps, from death, to breakups, to ‘no success,’ while there’s shit going on, and there’s a lot of shit going against you, and to still be able to care about it and kick ass…well, that’s something. I’ve had plenty of fucking moments where you just want to give up, but you suck it up, and you take another step, and sometimes it comes down to remaining breathing.”
And breathing for Cantrell usually means breathing while playing guitar. Even during his darkest moments, when he wasn’t touring, playing has always kept his creativity going. “When I pick up a new guitar, or sometimes even when I pick up someone else’s guitar, it can trigger you to do something you weren’t thinking about.” And even if Cantrell continues to gush about how the music of Elton John and lyrics of Bernie Taupin affected him, almost all of Alice in Chains’ music began with a guitar riff. “It always starts with a riff, and a lot of times lyrics don’t come right away. The other guys have countless versions of me singing countless lyrics.”
While the new album will appeal to anyone who loves tasty Cantrell riffs—and virtually every track has an extended solo—it’s the lyrics about loss that make this effort stand out from their catalog. “It’s all pretty human shit,” Cantrell observes. “It’s not just related to a person who is a musician; everybody loses people, and everybody does shit that they know is wrong.
“All of that stuff, it’s all on that record. From the worst to the best, being okay with that, being okay with things you can’t change. We certainly wish Layne was here, and that’s never going to be right.”
The genesis of Alice in Chains began in the mid Eighties, in an era that now seems to the band members, and maybe to some of their fans, as if it were a century ago rather than just two decades past. It was back in a time when EPs came out on vinyl, the biggest metal groups used hairspray, and the most successful band from Seattle was Heart. Then on a sunny summer day in 1986, Layne Staley ran into a drummer named Sean Kinney on Alki Beach in West Seattle. They chatted about bands they liked, mostly metal and hard rock groups. Staley didn’t even hear Kinney play, but something about the way Kinney held himself stayed with Layne enough that he kept the drummer’s number on a piece on paper.
The first version of Alice in Chains began a year later, but even that part of the story started ass-backward. At the time Cantrell was working several part-time jobs to pay his rent while pursuing his dream of being a musician. “I was 20 at the time,” Cantrell recalls. “I was working throwing boxes of frozen fish in a warehouse.” When Cantrell wasn’t at his day job, he was playing guitar, learning off albums and jamming with any band he could find or form. A conversation he had that year with his mother cemented his choice of a career. “She was ill by then, and she told me, ‘You gotta have something to fall back on; you gotta go back to school.’ I told her, ‘I’m not falling back. This is what I’m going to do.’ And it was right after that she died, and I met Layne, who was a like-minded individual.”
Staley and Cantrell formed an immediate bond, sharing many musical influences, but they didn’t instantly start a band. Instead, Cantrell began putting together the embryonic Alice in Chains, while Layne played in a funk band that he thought offered more possibilities. Soon they were rooming together, however, in a room in the Music Bank rehearsal studio, having come up with the genius idea that they’d save funds by living in their practice space.