Jerry Cantrell interview: Get Born Again

When Layne Staley died seven years ago, Alice in Chains died with him. With Black Gives Way to Blue, the band rises from its ashes. Jerry Cantrell reflects on AiC's past glories and their new lease on life.

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 highwater 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.

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.

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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