Jerry Cantrell: Unshackling the Chains of Depression

Jerry Cantrell: Unshackling the Chains of Depression Brought to you by: guitar.com

In a way, you could blame the media for what happened. What started out as a couple of bad habits and a few publicized problems, ended with someone dying. It didn't take long for the vultures to start picking at the bones:

"Seattle, Washington, Drug Town, USA."
"One in four Seattle musicians are involved with heroin," insisted rock insiders. "In the Northwest, [drug use] is real prevelant; there's something very dark about that city," commented a visiting music scout. Rolling Stone went so far as to wryly proclaim that heroin was back on the charts, and that Seattle, along with New York and Hollywood, was a drug du jour hotspot.

Media hyperbole at it's finest. But while grunge enjoyed its fifteen minutes of newfound notoriety, it didn't come without a price. In its wake were high-profile drug casualties which painted a misleading, albeit gloomy picture of Seattle. Mother Love Bone's Andrew Wood. Seven Year Bitch guitarist, Stephanie Sargent. Hole's Kristen Pfaff. And Kurt Cobain. In the grimy middle of it all was Alice In Chains, viciously badgered by the press, which by then had smelled blood and zeroed in on singer Layne Staley's on again/off again/on again tribulations with heroin - and because he didn't die. "Alice In Chains videos are elegant little travelogues of junkie life," wrote Spin magazine in March of '95. "Heroin addicts and struggling former addicts hear something in Layne's grade-school junkie poetry -- a kind of siren."

Not surprisingly, Alice In Chains had enough. Fed up with persistent rumors of internal stress, members taking off to do solo albums, the ceaseless tabloid talk, and dead pool predictions - all of which were compounded by no-shows at Woodstock '94 and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame grand opening - the band issued a moratorium on the media. "We made a conscious move not to say anything," states Chains guitarist, Jerry Cantrell evenly. "We made one statement when we decided to break ties with the press and chill out. We were a fuckin' overloaded sponge and needed to be wrung out. We seriously needed the time to sit down and start fresh. That's what we did." He snubs out his cigarette. "We're definitely not perfect people, but at the same time I'm not apologizing for shit. I'm doing the best I can with what I got and that's all anybody in my band is doing."

Other than talk of the new record, the band's "cone-of-silence" policy still holds. Refusing to dredge up past or present problems, Cantrell instead is focusing on the task at hand, the band's self-titled new album. Evolving from the angry, misery-filled, self-hating brilliance of Dirt, which has been called "the Surrealistic Pillow of the '90s," Alice In Chains is the band's answer to all the press purgatory they've been through over the last five years. Adding a new shade to their already desolate work, Cantrell and Co. have created some of their most introspective material to date. From the magnificent black wall of guitar riffing ("Grind," "Sludge Factory") to the derisive lyrical irony ("God Am," "Headcreeps"), the lush, kaleidoscopic harmonies and choruses ("Heaven Beside You," "Frogs") and the peppering of acoustic, blues, metal, and industrial, Alice In Chains finds the band at the top of its game. As Cantrell enthusiastically remarks, it's a "fuckin' dangerous record."

Dangerous indeed. Maybe the press, in its infinite wisdom, will interpret the album - as it did with Dirt - as a sign that the band is on its last legs or that Layne Staley is close to becoming a rock and rock statistic. Alice In Chains don't really care. All they need for people to hear is in the grooves. Ironically, by not saying anything, Alice In Chains get the last word in.

Guitar.com: Your new record Alice In Chains is out, and it's a monster. Some people said it would never come out. Is it a relief to finally have it on the shelves?

Jerry Cantrell: We worked on this record for six months, so this is a big monkey to get off our backs. I don't mind saying that it feels real good to have it completed. You can only go so long with people saying shit about you and us saying, "Fuck you, you don't know what's up." But it hurts. We've taken some ragging. It's the "kids on the playground" thing. They're calling me names. What am I gonna do? Am I gonna cry? Am I gonna lower myself to their level and fight 'em or am I gonna say "Fuck you" and walk away? We walked away and did our own thing. That's what the record is. We learned to survive on the playground.

Guitar.com: There has been a lot of speculation about the band's future. It started with the band dropping off the Metallica tour...

Cantrell: Actually it started before that with the lyrics on Dirt. [laughs] That was the beginning of it all. That's a hard record.

Guitar.com: The new one is hard, too.

Cantrell: Right, this record is lyrically hard, as well. I can't say one record is better than the other, but this one is a lot more tongue-in-cheek. It has a lot more sarcastic humor.

Guitar.com: Sarcastic humor? The first line on the album is, "In your darkest hole, you'd be well advised not to plan my funeral before the body dies." That's not terribly funny, and it seems to set the tone for the rest of the disc.

Cantrell: [laughs] That line cracks me up. You're right; it pretty much says it all right there. People have been saying we we're over since Dirt. And people will say now that this is our last record and that we'll never tour again. Go ahead and think that. We're the kind of band that has always been able to do the opposite of what you'd expect. It's our ability to come back through all the controversy.

Guitar.com: How has your life and attitude changed over the last five years?

Cantrell: I think I ended up right back to where I always was. Sometimes you gotta lose yourself completely to find yourself. There were times in the last year and a half where I don't mind saying, I didn't even want to play anymore. Or I thought I didn't want to play. All of the baggage and bullshit that comes along with it didn't seem, at that time, to add up to the music we created. I finally slapped some sense into my head because the work that we've done and the people we've been fortunate enough to play for, you can't ask for anything better.

Guitar.com: Has the fallout of success been positive or negative?

Cantrell: It's been positive to me, man. I own my own home, I can feed myself, I can enjoy it with my friends...

Guitar.com: Those are certainly the financial rewards, but what about artistically?

Cantrell: Artistically, I'm fine. It's a lot of luck, but it's also a lot of real hard work. The thing about success is you really can't gauge things by album sales. I wanna sell as many records as we can, but the argument is why you do it. You finish the record because you thought it was fuckin' good. I don't think you really can compare sales to success.

Guitar.com: One of the great things about a new Alice In Chains record is that you never know what it's going to sound like.

Cantrell: We've been really good with the element of surprise. We're a tight bunch of guys. Even now where we live apart and have our own places, that musical tightness never leaves. The most fun thing about this band is that I never know where the fuck we're gonna end up. None of the other guys do, either. [laughs] That's the beauty of it. We stand back and go, "Wow, how did we do that?"

Guitar.com: Would you consider Alice to be a metal band?

Cantrell: Yeah, but we're other things, too. I've always been interested in bands that try to make heavy shit without sounding overtly heavy. There's something about having strength and not just going out and showing it. It's not coming out and mauling your ass, but easing in. Before you know it you're in a death lock, but you didn't see it coming because it was so smooth and seductive you didn't know it until it had your face down on the canvas.

Guitar.com: Alice In Chains has become very good at that.

Cantrell: We've been real lucky in that sense, being able to do things like Jar Of Flies and Sap and "Would?" Getting more smokey. Being heavy to me has nothing to do with how many speakers you blow or how many decibals you play at.

Guitar.com: There's a lot of preconceived expectations about what Alice In Chains is supposed to be. For example, Jar Of Flies was all ballads.

Cantrell: Everything we do is so unplanned. I crack up about it sometimes. We've been able to slip in and out of stuff and by no plan or thought, just the vibe that comes out. We put out Dirt and toured behind that for a while, and subconsciously we went in going, "I'm tired of playing fucking heavy depressing riffs." It happens when we're jamming and we'll write that one song and it'll click. It's like, "Okay, we're going somewhere else with it." Then you have to play it out until it's complete.

Guitar.com: Does everybody write?

Cantrell: Yeah, everybody. We have shared tastes and shared dislikes as well. It's an unspoken language that we have. That's not to say that sometimes we don't split on stuff. There's been plenty of times where I'll think something is completely horrid and the other guys will make me check it out again. For weeks I'll be like, "God, that sucks!" Then one day it's like, "Oh, I get it. Okay. That's good!" [laughs]

Guitar.com: When did that happen to you recently?

Cantrell: The solo on "Hate To Feel." I thought it was a piece of shit. And the solo on "Grind" for that matter, which is lifted off my ADAT in my back room from the demo tape I did for the album. It works fine. That was the first take I did when I recorded the song. I didn't think it was that strong and never got around to fixing it. Toby [Wright, who produced Alice in Chains] kept trying to sell me on it. I kept telling him I wanted to do it better because it just didn't seem to work for me. And at the very end it's perfect for the record. It took me a long time to feel comfortable with it.

Guitar.com: You've developed your songwriting skills into a sturdy pop craft without sacrificing the heaviness. Was that an influence from touring with and becoming friends with Van Halen who have evolved similarily?

Cantrell: I wouldn't necessarily pick Van Halen. On this record I did something that started to scare me for a while. I started to really hear a lot of other influences that I listened to growing up. They really started to flow freely. I'd go, "Okay, that's sounds like Brian May to me," or "That sounds like Eddie there." There's a riff on the end of "Frogs" that reminds me of "Bridge of Sighs," with that roto-vibe. This record probably has the most clear flow of my influences of anything I've done before. I could point out fifty of them from Brian May to Lindsay Buckingham, Davey Johnstone to Hendrix, Iommi to Page; there's all kinds of shit on there. There's some riffs that are pretty obvious and I started to feel really weird when that started to happen.

Guitar.com: The guitar solos are shorter and more abstract. You can tell you're reaching for something other than the standard "been there, done that, bought a shirt" rock solo.

Cantrell: I've never been a big soloist. I put what needs to be there. I'm more of a rhythm player who plays lead - or tries to play lead. I'm not saying I do bad shit, but I do what fits the part. I'm more interested in what the whole picture is instead of a big vehicle for Cantrell to wank off all over on everybody.

Guitar.com: No two solos on your album even sound tonally alike.

Cantrell: We used a lot of different amps and guitars this time. The great thing is I don't think the album sounds like we were reaching for all those tones. They all fit. The basic classic set-up is my G&L and a Bogner, and a Les Paul with a Dual Rectifier or a Marshall. Nancy [Wilson, Heart] gave us some cool twelve-strings and acoustic guitars. We used Strats, Les Pauls, some Juniors. My secret weapon was a Jerry Jones six-string baritone guitar. Man, those things are bad-ass. They're great if you use them right, especially if you're the only guitar player because it fills a lot of space and has a lot of meat.

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