Jerry Cantrell: 'If You Can't Play You Shouldn't Be Onstage'

artist: alice in chains date: 04/01/2013 category: interviews
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Jerry Cantrell: 'If You Can't  Play You Shouldn't Be Onstage'
When Alice In Chains released "Black Gives Way To Blue" back in 2009, it was the first time the grunge kings had released an album in 14 years. They'd suffered through the death of their singer, Layne Stayley, and when they returned to the charts five years ago there was no telling how their fans would receive them. That comeback record resonated with hardcore followers - it went gold - and since then everyone has been waiting for the follow-up. "The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here" is the band's fifth full-length album and like its predecessor, is produced by Nick Raskulinecz (Foo Fighters, Rush). Guitarist Jerry Cantrell suffered through shoulder surgery during the album's recording but that setback doesn't affect his playing in any way. He blazes through track after track with both electric and acoustic guitar and more than his share of vocals. He talks about being back in the studio again and back out on the road. Ultimate-Guitar: What did you learn from making the "Black Gives Way To Blue" record that you used in making "The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here"? Jerry Cantrell: All of the records are connected obviously but they're all very different. They're all separated by a period of time and the record ends up kinda being like a time capsule of that particular period of time in your life. You know, "This is where you're at. This is what you sound like now. This is what you've come up with this time." The band broke up from 1996 through 2005. What was it like when you got back together? We initially got back together just to play and have some fun and play some songs for people. To kinda celebrate the music and our history and have a good time doing that and reconnecting with what we'd done. Also in honor of our friend Layne.

"All of the records are connected obviously but they're all very different. They're all separated by a period of time and the record ends up kinda being like a time capsule of that particular period of time in your life."

And you decided to record what would become the "Black Gives Way To Blue" album? When we decided to do a record and went through that process, a good chunk of that record is dealing with that. Dealing with coming to terms with what we've come through and where do we go from here? If we decided to move ahead, we were gonna f--kin' do it right. You know what I mean? Did you have any sense of how well "Black Gives Way To Blue" would do? You can never expect and you can never really foresee that far how well things are gonna go. But it couldn't have gone any better on that record. I think that some of it's out of your hands but a good portion of it and that's what we put into it and why we did it and the level we tried to reach musically. And we did it - we hit the mark on that record and that was against high odds. "Black Gives Way To Blue" was the first album the band had done in 14 years and featured William DuVall on vocals who had replaced Layne Stayley. We were aware of that. So to have gone through that process, it gives you a lot of confidence. And also like, "OK, we're willing to do this again. Let's try to f--kin' make another great record together." What is the creative process? The processes were fairly much the same and they haven't really changed in how the bands works musically. We wait until we spend the time to work up some stuff and get a body of material together and then we start workin' on it. When we all feel excited about what we have, we decide to go in and make a record. It's been a little chunk of time but it takes what it takes. We're not on schedule and we're not churning sh-t out. We make new music when we feel like making it and we take the time it takes to make music of the quality we want to make.

"You have moments where you'll pick up a guitar and have an idea in your head and you'll just grab the first thing that you can."

Does that creative process include you collecting riffs and putting together demos? It happens how it happens. Sometimes we'll come up with songs when we're jammin' in a room and sometimes it's you alone at home kinda workin' on an idea. Then you send it around to the guys and see what they think of it. They might add something to it or might be good enough the way it is. As far as arrangement, anytime anybody plays on it, they're gonna put their thing to it anyway. It doesn't matter if I don't write a song, when I play on it I'm gonna put my thing to it just like Sean, Mike or William will. You know what I mean? Generally that's what it is. So inspiration can come from anywhere? You have moments where you'll pick up a guitar and have an idea in your head and you'll just grab the first thing that you can. Whether it's your computer, your phone or a tape recorder or whatever to get the idea down before it's gone. I've pretty much operated that way from the get go. The majority of those things are things worth remembering but some of them are not (laughs). After that tour (2009), I would say a good majority of what ended up being on and turning into songs on "Black Gives Way To Blue" is from dressing rooms and soundchecks. Time alone with your guitar and recording an idea or putting ideas down on your ProTools in your room. At some point you have a bunch of sh-t and then you start sending it around and seeing what people are reacting to. You start listening to what everybody else is sending around and you put that all together and you make a record out of it.

"If we're satisfied to a certain level then we win every time."

In 2011, you had shoulder surgery. How did that affect the recording of "The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here"? It's an annoyance and sh-t happens. I've been playing a lot of years and I had some cartilage damage in my shoulders. I had one repaired seven years ago or something like that and I had to do the other one. It takes a little time so yeah, maybe we might have got to recording the record sooner. It just took what it took. That's kind of been our motto - whatever it takes to f--kin' make a great record. That's the mentality you've always maintained? It doesn't matter what it costs or how long it's gonna be. We're not putting f--kin' something out that we feel is even remotely half-baked. We've always had a pretty healthy vision of what we want musically. While we don't spend a whole lot of time looking back and listening to old records, we're well aware of what those records are and the level we achieved. In our minds we're not gonna dip below that. If people don't like it, that's a whole other thing. But if we're satisfied to a certain level then we win every time. I've been proud of every record we've put out in that way including the last one and this one too. This one is a strong f--kin' record.

"When we all feel excited about what we have, we decide to go in and make a record."

You refer to what Alice In Chains have done in the past - since the band formed in 1987, there have only been five studio albums - excluding EPs - including the new one. That's not a lot of records in what has been a 26-year span. It's funny to me because you always hear all these numbers - it's five, it's seven, it's nine. I consider anything we put out a f--kin' record. I considered "Jar Of Flies" and "Sap" a f--kin' record and "Unplugged". I meant normal-length studio albums. No, I get it but a couple of those records have songs on 'em too that didn't exist before that record whether you consider it an EP or whatever. An EP ("Jar Of Flies") was our most successful record of all time (laughs). You know what I mean? I think it sold like three or four million copies so you tell me - that's a record, too. No, it's funny to me and I had to bring that up. But I mean the track record speaks for itself as far as we're concerned. The band has experienced extraordinary success over the course of their career. We're also really lucky and the thing you can never gauge is people's response to it. We've been through a lot as band and everybody f--kin' knows that. The cool thing about that is a f--kin' huge portion of people never left us. They connected with the music and they kept it alive. They kept playing it on the radio and rockin' it in their cars or turning their friends onto it. That's something you can't plan on and you've got to respect that at the same time. While we're concerned with reaching a level ourselves, people responded to that music because we tried to achieve that level. So we gotta keep doing that. We gotta keep hitting that mark for us and then secondarily for anybody who digs the band. Don't want to f--kin' let them down. If you're letting yourself down, it's probably a pretty good chance you're gonna let the rest of 'em down too. You're working once again with producer Nick Raskulinecz. What does he bring to your music? All he wants is the best he can get out of you. He wants the best song possible; he wants your best performance possible and not in a demanding way. He's like your f--kin' best friend. He's like the kid you smoked pot with and listened to Black Sabbath and Pink Floyd with for the first time. F--kin' playing Rush records and learning riffs and stuff - that's Nick. He's just like us and he loves music in that way. He gets so f--kin' into it and so excited about it that his energy is infectious.

"I've been proud of every record we've put out including the last one."

Is recording an album an intense process? Making a record is a difficult thing, man. It's funny because every time I do it, it's usually years removed from the last time you did it so you kind of forget (laughs). It's like, "Was the last record this f--kin' hard?" I remember Nick saying a couple of times, "Yep, it was." I go, "Really?" He's like, "Yep, it totally was." I forget every time that it's such a marathon from the ideas to writing to pre-pro to jammin' to everybody's input on all the stuff. Then you're recording it and sh-t's changing there. It's a long trek and you're constantly coming up against the wall of your own f--kin' ineptitude and your own suckage (laughs). People may not realize how hard it is recording a great record. Trying to get past that and to get some place where it's like, "Wow, that's f--kin' good." 'Cause it takes work to do that and that doesn't just happen. It's a lot of dejection, missed marks, bad notes, and sh-tty arrangements and failed experiments. It's all of that sh-t and Nick is right there with you and he's willing to go through all of that. Another one of his really great qualities is remaining really mostly even through all of that to keep you there. To pick you up when you're feelin' down to not letting you get too high when you're getting cocky and all of that. It's a good and healthy mix to have him flying co-pilot on the plane. "Hollow" was released to fans only and has become number one on Mainstream Rock Tracks. We didn't intend for it to do what it's done and that's all the more the better. It's just like, "F--k that's cool." It's like a six-minute kind of sludgy metal song and it ended up being a number one f--kin' single. We didn't intend on it being a single. We put that song out for our fans as a taste and get them involved in helping us make a lyric video for it. We put it out on our own and we didn't really serve it to radio until radio started to call us and then we started sending it to 'em. It just kinda got a head of steam and started rolling so it was way cool. Very cool and very proud of that and completely organic.

"That's kind of been our motto - whatever it takes to f--kin' make a great record."

What is the first single? Yeah, "Stone" is coming next. I'm not sure if we're making that public just yet but yeah, that's gonna be it. I'm pretty sure it's gonna be "Stone". Are you singing backup vocals on "Stone"? I guess I would technically be the lead singer on that. We operate together. I'm singing more of the song and I guess my vocal would be a little bit more of a lead on that but basically singing a co-lead. Is the riff for "Stone" something that came out fully-formed? Or did you have to beat it up to get it into the final version? My arm was f--ked up and I couldn't play guitar so I just hummed that riff into a phone and that's how that song came to be. When I could play a little bit and we were going through riffs, I remember doing some riffs with Paul Figueroa, our engineer. I'm like, "Wait a minute, I got a good one, man. Check this out." I started f--kin' playing it to him and it was me singing into the f--kin' phone. I'm like, "Dude, this riff is killer. Give me a guitar and I'll f--kin' work it out." So that song I actually came up with just off a voice message on a phone. I didn't even have a guitar; I just f--kin' hummed it into the phone. Where did the album title come from? It's a song; we came up with the song first and we started thinking about what to call the record. It was just an oddball, cool title. I can guarantee you nobody else has ever called a record this.

"We don't got any f--kin' AutoTune or tracks or sh-t - it's us. It's live so it gets weird once in a while and it's always interesting to see how you get it back."

What does it mean to you? If you've read the lyrics, I think you can pretty much can understand what I'm trying to there. There's a lot of fear, a lot of hate, a lot of ignorance and prejudice, there's a lot of sh-t that goes on in the name of a belief. If your belief is teaching you it's OK to kill somebody else because they believe something different than you or to discriminate because somebody is different than you or has a different belief system or being that f--kin' righteous that you've got the right idea and 80% of the other f--kin' people on the planet who believe something else are wrong. It's a take on that. It's just kinda that sh-t drives me crazy and just how bad we are to each other in the name of a belief. There's room for everybody and I'm not necessarily putting down faith in that particular song. The main line of the chorus is, "No problem with faith just fear." I've got a problem with f--kin' violence or fear or control or prejudice. That's the sh-t I have a problem with. I have no problem anybody believing what you want to believe. You should be able to believe whatever you want to believe. You shouldn't have to pay a f--kin' consequence because of your belief or enforce it on somebody else either. You pulled out a bunch of different guitars for the record. Was it simply trying to experiment with different sounds? Yeah, it's just grabbing the right tool for the job and a lot of it is trial and error. I have my basic guitars I generally work with, which are the G&L Rampages and Gibson Les Pauls and those are my two main guitars. I always pepper a bunch of different sh-t in there and what's more important is what the song needs. What kind of tone? What kind of guitar/amp combo? What kind of guitar/amp combo effects? It's really about what the song needs and we f--k around until we find that. You need certain amps and certain pieces of equipment have very specific sounds. You can monkey with those within those parameters.

"You start acquiring sh-t or you kinda grow, I guess you just grow. Other things are available to ya and you're more open to trying things out and so that grows as well."

Have you gotten better at matching up specific guitar sounds with what a track might be calling for sonically? If you're doing it for a while, you kind of know what you need. "You know what you need? You need a f--kin' Marshall with a f--kin' Flying V. That's what we need." And it's, "OK, let's get that and try it out. Yeah, that's right. No, wait that's not it. OK, let's try an Explorer with an Orange." It's fun doing that and it's something I've become more accustomed to doing over the last couple of records. We used a ton of sh-t on the last record as well and it seems like every record I do, your experience becomes a little more expansive and you become open to trying whatever the f--k it takes. When we first started out, you ain't got any money number one (laughs) and you barely got anything. You got your f--kin' couple of guitars and your f--kin' amp and that's all you got and maybe a couple of effects. So those first couple of records, I didn't use a whole lot of anything other than maybe a head or two and a couple of guitars. And it has that sound and it's kinda cool and unique for that. You start acquiring sh-t or you kinda grow, I guess you just grow. Other things are available to ya and you're more open to trying things out and so that grows as well. Because you used so many different guitars and sounds, did you ever think about how you'd transfer that to the stage? Uh, not really because when we play the song, we're playing it in its most basic form. You might add a couple different squiddly dos on the f--kin' cake that you might not whip out live. That's the great thing about making a record - sometimes you go a little bit beyond to make the thing be what it wants to be. But if you build on a strong foundation, playing a simplified version of the song is gonna work just fine. It's gonna be plenty powerful because it was powerful enough for you to record it in the first place. It's not just me because William plays guitar as well so he can cover stuff and I can cover stuff and we work together that way. We've got two vocalists in the band so you might not get that third harmony in the song but you're gonna get two and that's plenty. You might not get that third guitar line in the song but you're gonna get two and that's plenty. That's fine because the structure of the song is sound.

"We make new music when we feel like making it and we take the time it takes to make music of the quality we want to make."

You're going out on tour to perform these new songs. Is there a breaking-in period for new material? Sure, definitely. We haven't played in a while so we're gonna be getting together for rehearsals here within the next couple of weeks and it's gonna be interesting to actually learn what we did on the record and to relearn it. You know what? Honestly man, you've got to relearn your sh-t every time and even old stuff. It's like, "How the f--k did I do that?" Whatever it is we all have to relearn our parts. It's a lot of songs to keep together and when you separate for a year or two at a time or take time between records and tours, you get rusty (laughs). It's a lot of sh-t to remember but it's all stuff that'll come together and it's gonna be fun and we're gonna have a good time doing it. Really looking forward to seeing how the year plays out. So you still get fired up going out on tour? Absolutely. I hear guys say, "I don't get scared onstage" or "I'm totally at ease up there. It's totally cool and I'm dialed." I'm not. It's still exciting and terrifying and it's all of that sh-t and that's what makes it good. Like, "Ahhh," it's a killer and that's the exciting part of it is the potential train wreck that can blow up or fall apart at any moment. Some of the sh-t we play is difficult to pull of (laughs). You're playing one rhythm and singing against another thing and we got two guys doing that so we got multiple moving parts and they all have to mesh. It's tough and it's a tightrope walk for sure with no net. We don't got any f--kin' AutoTune or tracks or sh-t - it's us. It's live so it gets weird once in a while and it's always interesting to see how you get it back. Every once in a while you have a complete train wreck and most of the time you can reel it in (laughs). But it's supposed to be f--kin' live and it's not supposed to be perfect. Since when did it become OK where you actually expect people to pay so you can fake their sh-t to ya? "Well, I want it to sound good so I don't really mind payin' somebody to lip sync and dance around in front of me." That's bullsh-t. If you can't play your f--kin' sh-t you shouldn't be on a goddamned stage (laughs). Interview by Steven Rosen Ultimate-Guitar.Com 2013
More alice in chains interviews:
+ Alice In Chains: 'We All Have Very High Standards For Ourselves' Interviews 09/25/2009
+ Alice In Chains Guitarist: 'We Want To Come Out And Have A Good Time' Interviews 04/21/2006
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