Archive: Jerry Cantrell on His First Solo Album and the State of Alice In Chains

Here's a classic Guitar World interview from 1998:

"Shit, that's cool, man!"

Jerry Cantrell is sitting in the breakfast room of New York City's Rhiga Royal Hotel, inspecting the cover art for the vinyl version of his album, Boggy Depot, and he clearly likes what he sees.

The mock-up is striking-a neo-Gothic tableau depicts a naked Cantrell waist-deep in, well, a boggy depot, and rubbing mud all over his body while a craggy tree hovers menacingly overhead. Cantrell's coolly diffident facade fades away, and his eyes and voice become filled with the giddy enthusiasm of a heavy metal stoner kid who used to spend hours examining Black Sabbath album covers for cryptic messages.

"I grew up listening to vinyl, and I miss the cover art," says Cantrell. "How can you do cool designs on a puny little CD? This is killer, man!"

Cantrell's amped up, and with good reason. After six years as the guitarist, primary songwriter and occasional vocalist for Alice in Chains, he's about to come out as a solo artist. For all his excitement, Cantrell cannot view the development as the culmination of a well-planned career strategy. The truth is, he really had no other choice.

Three years have passed since the release of Alice's last studio album, Alice in Chains, during which time there has been endless speculation about the band and especially Layne Staley, the tortured frontman who has been less accessible of late than Jimmy Hoffa. During a rare public appearance for the taping of the band's 1996 performance on MTV Unplugged, Staley acquitted himself well -- give or take a few flubbed cues-but looked like a leather-clad cadaver. Other than that, nothing, aside from talk that the hermetic Staley was succumbing to a brutal heroin habit.

Soon, the band members' pat reassurances about Staley's well-being began to ring hollow, and when they didn't tour behind Alice in Chains or the Unplugged album, there was talk of an imminent split. This from a band whose last studio album had entered Billboard's Top 200 Albums chart at Number One. 1992's Dirt, their previous full-length effort, had sold over three million copies and been hailed as a metal masterpiece. Alice (which also features bassist Mike Inez and drummer Sean Kinney) was at the peak of its game-and yet it looked like it was throwing in the towel.

While Staley was waging a losing battle with his demons, Cantrell was enduring a private hell of his own. Not only was Alice's inactivity frustrating him, but he was also in the throes of a nasty break-up with his longtime girlfriend. Making matters worse was the advent of electronica; suddenly, it seemed, Seattle was known more for its silicon chips than its guitar bands. Feeling unmoored both professionally and emotionally, Cantrell decided to stop moping and start writing.

The end result, Boggy Depot (Columbia), is at once a rallying cry for beleaguered fist-pumpers and a wrenching exercise in public soul-baring. Free from Alice's chains, Cantrell roams from one genre to the next with impunity, his guitar grinding and boring its way through it all like a drill bit. "Cut You In," the album's first single, is a twisted samba, while "Jesus Hands" is just plain spooky; there's even a country-fried tune called "Between."

Is this the start of a new phase in his career, or merely a temporary detour? As the following interview indicates, it seems that not even Cantrell knows for sure.

GUITAR WORLD: The status of Alice in Chains has been uncertain for a while. How long have you been wanting to do your own record?

It's something I never really wanted to do, but the way things have played out, it's like, why not? To be honest, I'd just be happy being the lead guitarist and singer for Alice in Chains. It's always been my first love, and always will be, but with the situation being what it is…we've been together for a long time, and right now it's kinda played out. It's time to let it be. Now I've got to step up to the plate and take a few swings.

Has the band broken up?

We haven't gone public and said that we've broken up, because how do you call something like that over? You never want to shut that door. I love those guys, and hopefully we'll be able to do something again, but it won't be for a while.

It's admirable that you've stuck together despite all the drug and personal problems that have beset the band.

We're buds first and foremost, and all that stuff is nobody's business but ours. There are things that need to be addressed, but we don't want to talk about the drug issue anymore, and we don't want to talk about Layne anymore. As his friend, it's not my right to do that. It's been really tough, and we've been hammered a lot because we kept our word to each other. It's easy to get fucked when the shit's going down, but you've got to stick tight.

You've got some interesting players on the record-Norwood Fisher and Angelo from Fishbone and Rex from Pantera, among others.

Actually, it was pretty much the same guys from the 1993 Lollapalooza tour. I really wanted this record to have its own vibe. I didn't want Alice to carry over to these tunes. These are guys I've always admired, and it worked out great-they wound up choosing the songs we wanted them to play on. I've known Rex and the Pantera guys since I was 19. I like the range of players we have. There are four different bass players, but the record doesn't stray at all, from a stylistic standpoint.

There are some really interesting departures for you on this record. "Cut You In," for example, is almost like a samba, but it has that bizarre, inverted riff.

I was pretty hammered when I wrote that tune-I just started humming this thing I had in my head, and I grabbed this guitar I made in high school-it's a white Strat that I call Embo, which stands for Eat My Butt Out. Anyway, I grabbed the guitar and wrote it out in about 20 to 30 minutes.

The song features one of your trademarks-several odd time signatures-as do other songs on the album.

I really don't know where that comes from; it just comes naturally to me. I could sit down and figure it out, but what's the use? Off-time stuff is just more exciting-it takes people by surprise when you shift gears like that before they even know what the hell hit 'em. It's also effective when you slow something down and then slam 'em into the dash. A lot of Alice stuff is written that way-"Them Bones" is a great off-time song.

You're obviously still into slow tempos.

That's just a natural thing-it's more dramatic, and it carries more impact. I guess that's just how I am. I'd rather draw something out then rush it and get it over with. It's good when you can drag someone though it, and slowly turn the spit that way.

You experiment a little with country music on the record. "Between" has a distinctly county feel to it, and you even sing with a little twang in your voice.

That's very easy for me to slip back into. I'm half Yankee and half redneck, and I love country music; I was raised on it. My mom and dad played it all the time - Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, George Jones. Country is simple, heartfelt and very sad; that's probably why I like it so much.

On Boggy Depot, you demonstrate yet again your proclivity for exploring the dark side in your music.

I don't know why I'm drawn to that. I can relate to that vibe because I know it. My parents divorced when I was seven, and my mom died in 1987 when she was only 43. It was really hard; I miss her all the time. She's still with me, though-I fully believe she's watching out for my ass.

Tell me about the gear you used to record the album.

A lot of it was the same stuff I used with Alice. I used the Peavey 5150 head that Eddie Van Halen gave to me, a lot of Marshalls, some Fenders, Soldanos-a bunch of different amps. We just switched it up based on what the song called for. We used a lot of old Rat pedals, and an Electro-Harmonix distortion on "Jesus Hands." We also used some vintage crappy mikes on a bunch of stuff. [Producer] Toby Wright used this mic he bought for $20 at a pawn shop on "Keep the Light On."

How about guitars?

Pretty much the same guitars I used on the Alice records: the G&L; Rampage, the '52 Goldtop Les Paul, some old Strats and Teles. I bought Nancy Wilson's Les Paul Jr. and used that a lot on the record. I've got a new Fifties-era Les Paul that Gibson sent me that I really like a lot. On certain songs, I mixed up the guitars. Like on "Dickeye," I had the Goldtop on the left channel, and the white Les Paul reissue on the right.

So what's next for you?

I'm gonna get a band together and go on tour. I want to get a band together that has its own identity, tour, and then go right back into the studio and make another record. Basically, the main thing is to take as much time putting together the band as I did putting together the album. Then we'll see what happens after that.

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