Jerry Cantrell interview: Get Born Again
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.
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.
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