Alice In Chains’ Jerry Cantrell Revisits the Band’s Five Records
With a new record in the works, the founding guitarist/vocalist dug into the band’s back catalog.
In Rank Your Records, we talk to artists who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
Alice In Chains was a bit of an anomaly among the bands that sprang out of Seattle in the early 90s. While “grunge” was a more fitting term for scrappy punk-tinged bands like Nirvana and Mudhoney, Alice In Chains were bellowing out taut heavy metal riffs and bleak vocal harmonies from stringy maned guitarist Jerry Cantrell and a scrawny young dude named Layne Staley.
Actually, Alice In Chains—along with Soundgarden and Mother Love Bone—predated “grunge” as most people know it. The band—whose original lineup included drummer Sean Kinney and bassist Mike Starr (current bassist Mike Inez replaced Starr in 1993)—released their debut LP Facelift in the summer of 1990, almost an entire year before teen spirit became more than just cheap deodorant.
The band’s rise was as swift as their disappearing act, which came after the release of their 1995 self-titled album, their final with original vocalist Staley. But in those initially five years, Alice In Chains released three full-length albums, as well as Sap and Jar of Flies—two acoustic EPs that also stand rightfully on their own. “We recorded ‘Would?’ for Singles, which we later used for Dirt, but we got Sap out of that [session], too,” explains Cantrell by phone from his home in Los Angeles. “Just artistically to be able to widen the field that you’re able to operate in so early in our career was very important.”
Cantrell carried that creative freedom into a couple of solo records before Alice In Chains re-emerged after more than a decade in 2006 with new singer William DuVall. While some diehards found the thought of replacing Staley—who died of drug-related causes in 2002—hard to swallow, Alice In Chains continued on with 2009’s comeback LP Black Gives Way to Blue, a record that’s as powerful and dark as anything the band has done.
This summer Alice In Chains will release a new record, their third with DuVall. “We’re excited to see what everybody thinks of it—if they enjoy it, if they hate it—I don’t give a fuck, we made a great record," says Cantrell.
When asked to rank his previous records, Cantrell laughed, "I don't want to be difficult, but there's not one record that's any better to me. If you wanna lay them out I'd be totally happy to have you do that, and I give you my blessing." And so, with Cantrell’s blessing, here is (what seems like) his preferred order.
Noisey: In the beginning of “God Am” you can hear Layne Staley taking a bong rip and uttering the words, “Sure, God is all powerful, but does he have lips?” Do you remember what that was about?
Jerry Cantrell: I think it was Layne just being a goof. It does catch people off guard sometimes how big of a sense of humor we all have, not only about everything else, but especially ourselves.
This record feels different than anything else the band has done—it’s just a little weirder, and a little murkier.
There’s a sadness to that record—it’s the sound of a band falling apart. It was our last studio record [to that point]. It’s a beautiful record, but it’s sad, too. It’s a little more exploratory, a little bit more meandering. It’s not as crafted as the rest of our records were.
It’s definitely my favorite Alice In Chains record for those exact reasons. Did you know it was going to be the final record with that lineup?
I didn’t know that it would be the last one, but you could feel that if something didn’t change we wouldn’t be lasting too much longer. That’s just the honest truth of it. And it turned out to be right, unfortunately.
It’s a trippy record. There are kind of some parallels—in a weird way—to the self-titled. It’s a little more exploratory, too. It goes to some trippy places.
Lyrically, was your approach different at that point versus the early days?
I think it’s exactly the same. I’m a kind of a bury-myself-in-a-cabin-in-the-woods writer, where I prefer to go out there and have everybody leave me alone until I’m done. It’s a little bit of a trek into yourself. Which can be fucking scary, man—your head is not a neighborhood you should always travel in alone.
The title-track raised some eyebrows. Are you more political now?
It was definitely meant to be tongue-in-cheek. I think there are elements of that in our early work, too.
There was probably far less pressure making this one.
When you have a long career, the attention is not going to stay on you—and it shouldn’t. The trick is, after you’ve experienced that, is to continue to be a creative force through all that. Pressure from the outside doesn’t really mean shit. But yeah, by then we were more than OK with where we were headed.
Alice In Chains played a show in Seattle in 2005 for a benefit for victims of the tsunamis, which was your first in almost a decade. How did that come about?
Everybody was affected by the tsunami, even if you weren’t personally affected by it. Across the world people were holding benefit shows and raising money. After Layne had passed, we were, “That’s it. We’re done. We’re not gonna fucking do this again.” [Prior to that] we’d had a conversation here or there, there and I was like, “We didn’t leave it in a good place. Maybe we can invite our friends, do a limited run thing. And we bring Layne with us—we honor our bro, and also honor ourselves and the people that supported it.” And Sean wasn’t that into it. Then the tsunami happened. And Sean called me up and said, “Let’s do it for this thing.” And that’s what we did. We made some money for the cause. But for our purposes, that was a really heavy night to stand up there without Layne and play those tunes. It was fucking heartbreaking. But it was also very triumphant and cathartic.
You brought in William to tour with Alice In Chains after meeting him on one of your solo tours. That must’ve been a little terrifying for you, but especially for him.
I commend him for sticking it out. He’s earned the right to be here. He was there for the right reasons, to make the best music we can. We toured for a year and a half, and then we were going to put it to bed. But you get creative guys together and shit’s gonna happen. So we started writing tunes. At the end of that period of time we had a lot of tunes, and it sounded good. It sounded like us. The first consideration was making sure that we were OK with it. So we just started working on it. It’s a really important record.
Obviously there were fans of Layne that took issue with continuing on with a new singer. Were you nervous to put out the record?
We weren’t nervous because we felt the same way we felt every time we put a record out. We knew it was good. We were continuing on. We were reinventing ourselves. Those are all elements of everybody’s life. We weren’t ready to fucking give up yet. And we were thankfully proved right, and the majority of our fans came along with us, minus, like, three trolls. [Laughs] You know, “No Layne, No Chains,” kinda bullshit. [Laughs]
We undertook it to prove it to ourselves. That record, and the title track, is a love letter to Layne. It’s a goodbye to him.
Facelift came out before “grunge” was even a word… that was a strange time, because hair metal was still huge with bands like Poison, Warrant, and Extreme putting out their biggest records.
What was happening in our hometown—it was already special to us and we could already feel the energy—and it was starting to kinda spill out across the country. You started to feel a buzz about it and it was like, “Shit, I think we might be doing the right thing here; this is kinda cool.” Then the record companies came around and started getting interested and then we all started signing deals and putting records out. It was a really quick succession.
What do you remember most about that record?
We came down to LA to meet a couple of producers, and met Dave Jerden at a club, and we hit it off with him—he knew song titles, and guitar parts, and chord changes—he was well into the nuts and bolts of the tunes. He loved it. He was like, “I don’t want to do anything to you guys; I just wanna fuckin’ put the mics on you, hit the button, and record.” And we’re like, “All right, you’re our guy!” [Laughs] We didn’t want to be monkeyed around with—we just sound how we sound. Some bands don’t gel until their second or third record, and we were pretty much in focus on that first record. There might’ve been a couple of vestiges of things we were outgrowing, but we felt like we were onto something and that we’d found our voice.
“Man In the Box,” of course, changed everything for you guys…
We were out touring that record for a good period of time. We opened for Extreme for a month and then we went out with Iggy Pop for a month on the Brick By Brick tour. Sometime after that we joined Clash of the Titans—we were opening that tour, which was a revolving headliner of Slayer, Anthrax, and Megadeth. Talk about not really fitting in. [Laughs] In the middle of that tour is when “Man In the Box” dropped and got into heavy rotation on MTV, and overnight we sold half a million records. To this day it’s one of our most recognizable songs. If we don’t play that in the set, a lot of people are going to be pissed. [Laughs]
We decided we were going to do it all down in LA. We worked out there for two or three weeks, got the songs together, finished writing some stuff, and then we moved into the studio. We started getting sounds, getting everything set up, everyone was jacked up and ready to get started… and we were watching the TV when the verdict for the Rodney King incident was announced, and the riots started that day. The first day of our record, LA tore itself apart protesting police brutality. We had to try to get out of the town without getting hurt. I think we took Tom Araya with us and went out to Joshua Tree for four or five days, and just kinda tripped out in the desert until things calmed down. And then we moved back into the studio and started recording—that’s how Dirt started.
It feels darker than Facelift. There are a lot of explicit references to addiction.
There’s a lot of personal stuff in there—not in any sort of celebratory way, but more as a testament, I guess. That record is super powerful.
Was there added pressure on you guys since grunge had become a huge phenomenon by then?
We were just excited, because we felt we’d grown as a band. We thought the material was stronger. That fucking record is just incredibly dense.
The vocal performances by both you and Layne really stand out on this record. At what point did you guys realize you had something unique? No one sounds like that… I mean, people have tried.
Layne was just an incomparable talent. He was like a fucking myna bird. Any accent or sound or voice, he could just immediately repeat it. He just had a gift. And I’d like to think that I have a bit of a gift myself. One of the funniest descriptions I’ve ever heard, and I don’t know that it’s true, but it just sounds fucking great, was we sound like “the satanic Everly Brothers.” Together we were kind of a two-headed monster. It added a lot of depth to the material the way we worked together; and that would be later continued with the addition of William.