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A Quietus Interview

Alice In Chains Interview: Jerry Cantrell On Fighting Back To The Top
Mark Eglinton , November 16th, 2009 09:37

The Alice In Chains mainstay talks to Mark Eglinton about Black Gives Way To Blue, the death of Layne and working with Elton John

The early 1990s were a watershed period for rock music worldwide. Metallica had just released their mega-selling eponymous behemoth aka The Black Album, giving thrash metal a more acceptable edge as far as the mainstream radio listening audience was concerned. Around the same time Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax were touring under the banner of the Clash of the Titans megatour, to arena sized audiences in the states.

An unfortunate bus crash involving Bay area band Death Angel meant that their place on the bill was up for grabs and that slot was taken by Seattle’s Alice in Chains, whose alternative rock status stuck out like a sore thumb on such a metal orientated line-up. It’s a well known fact that throughout that tour, Alice in Chains endured all kinds of abuse from metal fans who were just not having them at all but the band battled on and delivered honest sets night after night despite being pelted by all kinds of unpleasant missiles. It paid off handsomely too because in the years to follow the last laugh would be theirs; as the Seattle movement steamrollered metal with bands like Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and of course Nirvana leading the way.

A period of commercial success followed but it was always plagued by the continued drug use of iconic singer Layne Staley, whose presence and unique vocals combined with the guitar work of Jerry Cantrell, went a long way to defining the band’s sound.

His death in 2002 after a long period of self-imposed isolation unofficially ended the band until various one-off performances from 2005 onwards suggested that maybe there was a future without Layne. The hiring of new vocalist William Du Vall was the key and the band went back into the studio in 2008 to record new material, aware of the huge risk involved given the intrinsic importance of their late front-man Staley.

The response to the new record _ Black gives way to Blue_ erased all the doubts. Updating their sound but retaining many of their old qualities at the same time it’s one of rock’s great comeback records with the personality of Staley etched into every bar. To do it was a huge risk but it was according to Jerry Cantrell the omens were good all the way.

Jerry, you’ve always been careful over the years to avoid pigeon-holing the band. Was that because you thought grunge wouldn’t last?

Jerry Cantrell: Well we were what we were before that word was even invented so... and I’d say that probably all the other bands from Seattle were doing what they were doing before that word was invented too. So I don’t know if anyone really feels comfortable with that title, that was the catchphrase which encompassed us at all, but as far as I look at it we’re all rock & roll bands to various degrees, drawing from all sorts of different influences. From pop to punk, to metal to rock, you name it. It’s kind of a mix of all of that stuff. So you’re correct on that. You just do what you do.

So the grunge tag was retrospective?

JC: Yes totally. I mean when we first came out we were metal. Then we started being called alternative metal. Then grunge came out and then we were hard rock. And now, since we’ve started doing this again I’ve seen us listed as: hard rock, alternative, alternative metal and just straight metal. I walked into an HMV the other day to check out the placement and see what’s going on and they’ve got as relegated back to the metal section. Right back where we started! [ laughs]

No bad place to be...

JC: No, we’re right next to Black Sabbath. I’m good.[laughs]

There were a few similarities between grunge and punk in that they were quick to set in, and burnout, with a few high profile drug deaths along the way. Why were drugs part of that scene?

JC : Well, I don’t really think that drug use is particular to rock & roll. I think it’s pretty pervasive throughout all society. To young rebellious kids who are free to do whatever they want and kind of breaking out of whatever template society wants them to fit into, it’s a natural thing to turn to but it’s not particular to rock & roll. My father drinks, a lot of my family drinks, tokes or whatever and I just think it’s a larger picture.

So nothing to do with availability as a result of making a bit of money?

JC: Well, I was doing drugs when I didn’t have money. It probably doesn’t hurt having money if that’s what you’re into, and I guess at the time we were to a certain degree. But, it’s a shocking thing to say but it’s a natural phase for young people to go through and some people don’t make it out unfortunately.

In retrospect, was there more you could have done to help Layne (Staley)?

JC: This is going to be a good one. Was there more I could have done to help Layne? I don’t think so. I think we all cared about each other a lot and dealt with each other pretty realistically but we were grown men at that time and you live your life the way you’re going to live it. So, I don’t think there was anything anybody could have done. He made a choice and stuck with it and it didn’t turn out very well, obviously. It’s not like nobody did anything or nobody cared, that would be a ridiculous statement.

So when you’re in that situation, you’ll do exactly what you want to do regardless of anyone else, is that what you are saying?

JC: First off, this seems to be a drug interview so that’s my last question about drugs. But, it’s just a tired subject. It’s old and I’m not there anymore, so I’m pretty much done talking about it.

Fine. At Sonisphere in July, almost every other band literally ran to see Alice In Chains play. That had to feel good?

JC: Sure, it’s been a really exciting time for us and a big part of being a musician is being a fan yourself. I remember being interviewed myself that day and trying to hear a little Mastodon myself.[laughs]. I was on the stage when Metallica played too so you get to be friends with people you are inspired by. We’ve been friends with those guys for a long time.

The new record was a risky proposition obviously?

JC: Sure, you can never really bet on that. All you can do is what makes you happy and what you believe is right for yourself. That’s what we did. We chose to take on those odds and they were very significant that it would not be a wise decision to continue. We kept feeling that it was right every step of the path that we’ve been on. All the arrows kept pointing in a positive direction so we continued to follow. We stand behind it and I think that are musical legacy is something we’re very proud of and this record is a part of that. And to have people react how they have is a great thing and that’s what you hope for. But you can never really control that. It’s the perfect storm of all things lining up.

Was it things like the Elton John connection that kept you going?

JC: That was one of the big ones. But there were a ton of them. And you mentioned earlier; our peers were very supportive of this journey and we had a lot of friends step up and say "Yeah, keep going." And asking Elton then having him respond, listen to the song and what it’s all about and also understand what the band has been going through. Then to have him be part of that is one of those markers that make you feel like you are doing the right thing.

What was he like to work with?

JC: He was great. He’s one of the cooler people I’ve ever met and very plugged in to what’s going on and not even directly around him. His reach is pretty far and his interests in music the same. He reaches out there and keeps up on what’s going on out there and that was very impressive to me. He still loves music and making music obviously and he’s still a fan of other styles of music.

Not an obvious collaboration however.

JC: It was for me, because I was always a big fan. He was one of the biggest influences on my decision to become a musician and he’s someone. His music and his career was always one that I admire a lot.

Speaking of collaborations; were you as horrified as everyone else with Chris Cornell’s working with Timbaland?

JC: [laughs] Yeah he’s gotten a lot of shit about that and it’s personally not one of my favourite things that he’s done either. But I respect Chris tremendously and I also have done a few solo records so I know what that’s about and what sort of a risk it is being judged against your own body of work. But what that means to me is that Chris is obviously trying to do something completely different and so I support his decision. He’s one of the guys I have always admired as a song-writer and as a person. His body of work speaks for itself and that maybe when you do some things that don’t pay off so well to the rest of the world, maybe you have your own reasons for doing them anyway. And that’s probably why he did it.

Any future film roles for Jerry Cantrell?

JC: I love film and I don’t have anything planned. I would certainly love to be part of anything I could contribute to. Film is such a conglomerate of effort and it takes so many people to get that happening. I know quite a few actors and it’s an interesting occupation and one that I admire. I’ve done a few cameos here and there but by no means would I consider myself an actor.

How much contact did you have with Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire?

JC: I think we shot four hours so I got to hang out with him for quite a while. Cameron ( Crowe) was really cool and I was shitting my pants nervous. It’s completely different. Put a guitar on me and put me on stage and that’s a different thing but this is outside of my realm of my experience. Cameron helped and Tom was actually really cool and said "Man, you’re doing great, so everything’s fine" and I was like "Fuck, this is weird" and he said "Dude, it’s cool. You’re fine." So we had a lot of fun. It’s such a brief little scene but even that particular scene took as about four hours of shooting it from eight different angles.

Catch AIC live next month


7 Nottingham Rock City
8 London O2 Academy Brixton