Jerry Cantrell of Alice in Chains Loves Horns and High Volumes, Twitter Not So Much
Alice in Chains' surviving mouthpiece has some things he'd like to clear up.
Think of it this way: if your lead singer died following years of media speculation about his addictions and debilitating health issues, you’d have more personal issues with broadcasting oneself to the outside world yourself. Alice in Chains were often mistaken for glamorizing heroin, with the death of Layne Staley as some kind of gotcha to some, sort of the way Amy Winehouse is discussed now. But whether you buy into that life or not, it was the reality for the mouthpiece of these artists, who spoke of what they know, and adding humor or irony to it was just as much of a coping mechanism as an exploitable resource. These days, Alice in Chains aren’t interested in ever being viewed again as exploiting anyone or anything—guitarist, vocalist and primary songwriter Jerry Cantrell’s dodgy answers about his point of view, and his utter disinterest in social media, prove that in spades.
The new album The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here, their second with singer William DuVall since Staley’s death, is somewhat of a crossroads for Cantrell, the surviving mouthpiece. The title references the creationist dogma that evolution is a trick to sort out nonbelievers, and Cantrell couldn’t be more unwilling to have that conversation with several million of his fans (and critics). Still, his reluctant outspoken side seeps out (and it should, proudly!) when racial attitudes toward his frontman come up (DuVall is black, which always brings an asshole or two out of the predominantly white hard rock audience) or about social media ruining the mystery of delayed gratification, not something rock is known for but a case worth making.
Either way, his band occupies a strangely underrated position in the Seattle story, held up as scapegoats for Godsmack and not as critically canonized as Nirvana, whose Unplugged album is comparably great. But Alice in Chains are amazing, a first favorite band for any reasonable guitarist, with at least one hard-to-stomach classic album (Dirt) and several singles like “No Excuses” and “Over Now” that belong in the classic rock pantheon for songwriting and layered execution besides the obvious riffage. Even the DuVall years are remarkably true to Layne’s brilliance—the bendy “Check My Brain” and psychedelic “Lab Monkey” carve out new vistas for “more of the same.” I spoke to one of my all-time favorite musicians about playing guitar like a saxophone and being one’s own god.
Noisey: Hey Jerry, nice to meet you.
Jerry Cantrell: What’s up dude?
Before I start asking you questions, I just wanted to let you know this story: when I was a kid I was in a CD store that had those stations where you could listen before you buy, and I picked up Dirt. I didn’t realize the player was on all the way at top volume…
So the first thing I ever heard from the band was like, “Them Bones” just being blasted—
“Them Bones” at stun volume. [laughs] That’s how it should be heard for the first time.
It was an ideal first time. I almost fell out of the chair.
That pretty much sealed Alice in Chains being one of my favorite bands. You have a unique playing style and—I’m probably going to ask some nerdy musical questions—
You have a unique playing style, and some of the stuff you’ve done like “Fear the Voices” and [Cantrell’s solo single] “Cut You In,” the guitar sounds like horns. It’s hard to tell if there’s actual horns on the song; I think there are, but even the guitar sounds like that.
Yeah, actually on those two songs you mentioned, I think there are horns on those songs. Had a lot of players on that solo album [Boggy Depot] Les Claypool plays on a couple tracks, Mike Inez. It’s cool that you mentioned that, and there are some horns in there. But a lot of the guitar lines I write I’ll hear, ‘that’s like a sax playing,’ or I’ll hear like a horn section or something like that. I’ve heard a lot of guitar players talk about guitar lines and melody lines in that way. It’s not something I do intentionally, but I definitely notice after the fact that it’s very conducive to a horn playing those lines.
Stuff like that really stands out to me about the band; people harp on how many bands copied the vocal style of Alice in Chains, but there are so many elements that no one’s even trying to copy about you guys.
Hahaha, yeah. there’s a whole lot left there to rip off.
By the way, why was “Fear the Voices” (circa-1992 unreleased track until the Music Bank box set) never released on an album?
OK, I know what song you’re talking about now, I was answering about “Cut You In” on my solo record, but “Voices” was an outtake. That particular song—there isn’t any horns on that by the way—was something I put together…it didn’t make the grade, that’s just what it was. So it was never really intended to make an album, but it ended up on the box set. Some interesting background material I guess. With the exception of the last two records that we made [with Layne Staley, “Get Born Again” and “Died”], most of the time there wasn’t any extra material.
So the new album (The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here), in a weird way, seems like the most positive, optimistic album you've ever made.
It’s funny, I’ve heard people take it both ways. There’s a camp that sees it as a very dark record, and there’s a camp that sees it as a very “up” record. I guess sonically it reaches a little further back to classic rock and there’s some pop elements, and metal as well. All those elements reach a little further back in time. Lyrically…[laughs] it’s as harsh as any record we’ve done. Lyrically it’s pretty dark. Sonically it could be taken to be a more “up” record. But I think that’s always been the trick with this band, even if the music is kind of soothing or sparse, the lyrics always bring things back to reality. I’ve said this a few times about our music, but it’s like saying something horrible in the most beautiful way.
I think that’s a lot of music! But also, most past Alice has been referred to as very “personal,” while songs like “Voices” and “The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here” seem like you're more overtly talking to an audience.
You know, we were aware we were gonna have this conversation a lot by calling the record that, but it certainly wasn’t our intention to start a dialogue about it. It’s just comments…we just wanted to go in about a subject that no one’s really written about before. I always write from a very personal point of view. Layne always did that too, but being an individual you’re a part of society. Maybe you’re writing from your viewpoint or somebody else’s viewpoint, but it’s a personal thing. But that song to me is more of a reflection, a mirror reflecting back what I see in that arena. We didn’t call our album that to have some big political, anti-religion manifesto. It’s just a take on a subject, reflecting it back, you know, some of the uglier elements of both of those arenas. When people say to me that we’ve started making social commentary, well, every song is a commentary. [laughs] There’s nothing different…our first big hit “Man in the Box” dealt with issues…
And got picketed for that “Jesus Christ, deny your maker” line. There’s also a song called “God Am” on the dog record, which deals with the subject matter too. “Voices,” in terms of songwriting, is very internal, it’s not external. It comes from a very personal place, but of course it can be applied to anything, from any place in society.
I figured you just picked “Devil” as the title tune so you could go “Yeah! We can put some dinosaurs on the cover now!”
It’s just a what-the-fuck title. It’s unique. I did some research on it, nobody had called an album that. There’s a couple other titles that were under consideration, but they’d already been used in various forms. But some of the reviews just said the record is flat-out “anti-politics,” “religion this.” It’s just one song! It’s not anti-anything. The only thing “anti-” it is is I guess anti-stupidity. Anti-bigotry. Anti-forcing ideologies on each other. These are subjects we’ve been battling and killing each other and fighting wars over with each other for fucking five thousand years now. And we haven’t figured it out yet, that it’s okay to believe what you want to believe, but everybody else has the right to believe what they want to believe too. And because someone else doesn’t subscribe to what you want to believe, doesn’t make them wrong, doesn’t make you any more right. It doesn’t give them the right to enforce a belief on somebody, legislate against them, legislate what someone can do what their own body. Like women, or women’s role in the church. That it’s okay to enforce ignorance and bigotry on somebody.
If I can jump out on a limb with it, I wanted to know if it was partly inspired by this lineup of the band, if anyone has made any racist comments or anything like that, which is a totally new thing that the band would be experiencing.
It didn’t specifically address it; it’s not specifically about that, no. But we’ve had a handful of people, a handful of unfortunate individuals who are friends of the band, who’ve made comments in that area. But we’re a multiracial band, you know? [Mike] Inez is Filipino-American, William is African-American, Sean and I are like American mutts. We’re not exempt from the world we live in, and those are some things that William and Mike have probably dealt with more than Sean and I.
Getting back to preaching, how do you feel about so many bands expressing themselves on Twitter and social media, which isn't your style at all?
Yeah, I don’t give a fuck. [laughs] I don’t want any part of it. I think we all do a lot better to know there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle so I’ll just stay out of it. I don’t have a Facebook account, I don’t Tweet.
There’s something to be said for a band that solely wants to express themselves through the songs, because it’s just rarer and rarer for people to do that now.
It doesn’t work for me. I’m not gonna say it doesn’t work for someone else…obviously a lot of people on the planet are fucking involved with it so that’s just my particular take on it. But I think we’d be a lot better if there was a little bit of mystery and magic left in it. Everything’s so instant, you don’t have to pay for it, you don’t have to wait for it or invest anything in having it…it’s not the way I go about things I guess so it’s just something I stay out of. Every time you make a comment about it you end up looking like a prick though.
No, no, I know where you’re coming from. Do you think you'll ever do another EP like Sap or Jar of Flies again that’s a departure from the harder-rocking albums?
It’s something that we’ve done in the past, and of course, who knows what we’re gonna do in the future? Over the last couple years I think we’ve all come to the conclusion that the best recipe is in the moment and to deal with what you’re dealing with now. I’d never say we’d never do one but I think the last two records we’ve put out have elements of both those EPs, with acoustic guitar kind of blended in with the heavier elements. Maybe this one more than the last one, but there’s some really nice moments on Black Gives Way to Blue…”When the Sun Rose Again,” “Your Decision,” on the last record. This record has maybe a couple more songs geared toward that vibe of the band. This one’s pretty much an equal mix toward that side of the band, the EPs and the Unplugged, but also the heavier stuff.
What aspect of the band do you think doesn’t get enough credit?
I don’t know! As time goes by, the story seems to kind of change a little bit. We’ve been around for a long time, and we were part of a very significant moment in music, not just in our hometown, but around the world in the late 80s and 90s when music took a turn. And it meant a lot to us even just to do it. As for where we didn’t get credit, I mean, we get a lot of credit. Some camps like to rewrite our history as if we didn’t exist, or that we didn’t come from the town that we came from somehow. I’ve seen a few things happen that way, that somehow we get bumped out of the story. At the end of the day, we’re not doing this for someone else’s interpretation of what our life was. I know how it went, I’m still living it, I’m still doing it, and I’m still adding to it. I’ll think about that shit when I’m sitting on the porch unable to do anything else. Maybe I’ll have had a little time to look back at it then But like I was saying earlier, it’s good to stay in the moment, think about the next few steps in front of you. I’ve been doing it more or less with my friends for the last 26 years and we’re still on the journey, still in the process.