Jerry Cantrell interview: Get Born Again
“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.
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.
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