For the first time in a long time, Jerry Cantrell is back in the studio with Alice In Chains. He is there mixing a handful of tracks that the band performed on a Heart-based VH1 show called Decades Live. Vocalist Layne Stahley od'd back on April 5, 2002, and has here been replaced by a pair of singer/friends. The guitarist has just left the studio when we begin our Ultimate-Guitar conversation. He sounds as if he's in good spirits and of a sound mind and why not? His bandmates surround him - Mike Inez and Sean Kinney - and in just a couple days the band is off to Europe for a month-and-a-half of dates. Ten years after the group ceased touring, they're now back and according to Cantrell haven't missed a step.
Ultimate-Guitar: Obviously the reformation of Alice In Chains is the main reason we're talking but first tell us a little bit about this Heart show at which Alice performed?
Jerry Cantrell: Yeah, we (Cantrell; Mike Inez; Sean Kinney; and Duff McKagan on second guitar) did this show honoring Heart on Decades Live on VH1 (held on March 10 at the Taj Mahal hotel in New Jersey). And we're mixing our portion of the show today; it's supposed to air May 5th or something like that. So we have Phil Anselmo (Pantera; Down; Superjoint Ritual) and William Duvall (Comes With the Fall) down here, two guys who sang for us (Duvall has also accompanied Cantrell on his solo tours) and we did like five songs (Angry Chair, Man In the Box, Them Bones, Would? and Rooster) and we think they're gonna air like two of 'em.
You were cronies with Heart back in the Seattle days?
Yeah, well, we've known those girls for a long time. They're f--kin,' they're family to us. And also the first show that we did live was a Tsunami Relief Benefit that we did in Seattle; we got together and we played in Seattle with a bunch of friends and Ann and Nancy were a part of that. We had Maynard (Tool) came up and sang some songs and Pat Lachman from Damageplan and Ann and Nancy came out, of course, like I said before. And we had a good handful of buddies and that's how the whole thing started. So it was just kinda like a return the favor deal, you know? They were like, 'Look, we're doin' this show, we want you to be part of it,' and we were like, 'f--k, yeah.' So they asked us to be a part of it and we were like, 'Of course, we're there.' And pretty much our first public performance is gonna be on TV.
|"It's pretty amazing what Layne did and time and again I hear people try to do what he did and it's a very difficult task."|
Well, you know, the thing is, we're good friends. We always have been and it's a family type vibe. It took a long period of time to kind of deal with the hand we were dealt with losing Layne and the band pretty much coming to an end. And dealing with the reality of that and moving on and living a life, you know? And we talked individually between us about the possibility of doing something or doing something new. Just chattin' about the idea of it. And then Sean got the idea, after the tsunami thing went down, he was like, 'Man, let's do a f--kin' show.' So he gave us all a call and we had a really good time while we raised some money and the vibe was really cool. So that's where the seed of it started. We actually played live in front of a hometown crowd and had a great time doing it and raised some money to help out some folks that needed it. And it felt good. That's where it started from and then we started talkin' more seriously about it and actually started renting some f--kin' time and getting in rehearsal rooms and spending some time together. And we went through a process of just kind of feeling it out as we go along, you know what I mean? So, not really unusual from how we did things in the past. It was just kinda make it up as you go along.
Certainly the notion of finding a singer to front the band must have brought a lot of emotions to the surface.
There was two ways that we looked at doing it - it's a tricky thing. Number one, it's a tricky thing because Layne was so f--kin' amazing. He had such an individual and unique sound and the way that we wrote and worked together, he and I vocally as well, it was a really identifiable sound. I was fortunate enough to have him as a writing partner. His vocal style was totally unique, it was a really great blend of both of us as well. We kind of found both of our voices together. You've got to be really careful, we didn't want to come out and f--kin' be some goddamn cover version of the band. So there were a couple things to consider: You don't want to get somebody that's a complete knockoff clone. Somebody's gotta be individual enough to bring it but there's a certain technical kind of requirement. Somebody that has got the firepower that can operate in the areas that Layne operated in which are pretty f--kin' tough, you know? It's pretty amazing what he did and time and again I hear people try to do what he did and it's a very difficult task.
So, we've worked with a bunch of guys and we're currently gonna do a string of shows in Europe with a buddy of ours, William Duvall, that we've been playin' with and I played with in my solo band and stuff. Everything's feelin' pretty good right now and without saying that he's the guy, this is the guy, we really don't know where this is going. For right now, we're having a really great time with William and he can deliver and still be himself which I think is really important so that's where we're at today.
Does the Alice In Chains catalog as performed by William still move you? Do the songs translate all these years later?
It's just great. The whole thing about it beyond just spending the time together like we used to, going through the process of what it takes to do this professionally and it takes a lot of work to do it right, is we wrote a lot of great f--kin' material. So it's pretty much pickin' up where we left off. Revisiting the material and having everybody in the same room bringin' it. It's kind of like we never left and it's really nice. It's a thing to really be grateful for is that type of magic with a band and I've never really experienced outside. I've done a lot of great things that I'm proud of, I've played with some great musicians, made some good records and played with a lot of other guys that are very much ribbon players. But there's magic with this band that I've never experienced that is still here and it's great.
There's another cool thing about it is that we were able to create somethin' that people dug and you still put those records on today and it doesn't sound dated. The shit is still fresh and it's impactful and it's as huge as it ever was.
|"The only thing we need to do is get in front of some people and f--kin' let it rip."|
We haven't done any writing yet together. The process that we started here, we're in the middle basically so we're dialing in what we're doin' and a lot of attention is being spent with that. But with any type of situation after you get the show together and you get out and start playing, you know the songs, you've been playing 'em for years. So shit usually happens out of boredom. At soundchecks, in the bus, whatever. We haven't done any of that stuff yet but I wouldn't put it past us to come up with some stuff.
It just f--kin' feels good, dude, I mean that's all I can tell ya. And we're doin' this from a place in our heart where we're comin' out to play the material because we love the material and we haven't really had an opportunity to do that in quite a long time. I had never even considered the fact that maybe we might do it until recently. So, we want to come out and play and have a good time, we want the shit to be represented right to honor what we did together and honor our bro, and continue on with life. That's really what it's about. (And) people that never got to see us which is another kind of cool thing. Although we toured a lot early on in our career - we were like on the road pretty much from 1987 to '94 and in the studio - and after that we pretty much didn't do a whole lot of anything except for put a couple records out (Jar Of Flies; Alice In Chains; Unplugged). So there's a lot of people that didn't get the opportunity to see us, there's a lot of people that maybe found us later after we stopped touring, so there's a lot of real exciting things about it. It could be a really cool thing. And we're also gonna take it to a lot of places we never got to go to.
This tour you're describing is in Europe.
Yeah, we've already confirmed about a month-and-a-half of touring in Europe. We did a few European tours (with the original band) and we toured hard over there but that was like early on. I think we did a tour on Facelift and Dirt and that was it.
Some of these dates include major festivals (Donnington) in front of a lot of people - what will that feel like?
Again, that's stuff that we never did, we never played festivals in Europe. It's gonna be really fun and it's really exciting. This whole thing with what it is right now is like we're havin' a good time and the shit sounds mean as f--k and it's being brought where it needs to be brought to. The only thing we need to do is get in front of some people and f--kin' let it rip. And we're really looking forward to fulfilling some of the opportunities that maybe we didn't get to capitalize on before.
|"I hope to spend some more time increasing my knowledge; I've got more of a hunger for that these days."|
I don't know, man. I can't really be anybody but me. I think the way that I attack things and the way that I approach even newer stuff that I did outside of Alice is just the way I go about it, you know? So pluggin' back in and doin' the old stuff, it f--kin' sounds like it's supposed to sound. I think I'm still the same guitar player. There's always room for improvement with everybody. I hope to spend some more time increasing my knowledge; I've got more of a hunger for that these days. But I can still f--kin' do it.
You say you're still the same guitar player but has your gear changed at all? What type of rig will you be taking out on the road?
On every record that we ever did, it was a combination of quite a few maybe not a whole of stuff but it was always a blend of Marshalls and Bogners that was the basic blueprint of my sound. It's always been a hotrodded Marshall and a Bogner and a Bogner basically is a hotrodded Marshall. You know what I mean? That's the tone. I've got 25-watt greenbacks (Celestions) in my cabs, always have. We're in the process of working out a thing with Bogner that we can put out a Cantrell model. And I'm also doing to Dean Zelinsky from Dean guitars and we're very close to creating a Cantrell (guitar) which is blueprinted kind of off a Les Paul. But I usually play my G&Ls (Rampages with Kahler tremolos, G&L ASAT and Classic), I have Gibson Les Pauls; those are the guitars I usually play but I've been working some Deans in and I've been pretty happy with that. And like I said we're working very hard at putting out a line of guitars as well. So you may see that happening. Celestion is backin' us so we got speakers with those guys. That's pretty much it. I've always used Dunlop pedals (including a Crybaby and Rotovibe) and picks (Extra Heavy) and Dean Markley strings. These are cats that I've pretty much always worked with the exception of Dean, they're the new guys on the block in my scene anyways. I'm really likin' with Dean and he's totally willin' to do whatever it takes to make me happy so you can't really ask for more than that. I've tried to do a deal with G&L and Gibson in the past for many years and just have never really reached a satisfying agreement. Those were guitars I always played anyway but nobody ever really came to the table so, 'Alright, f--k it, let's go with f--kin' Dean, you know?' That deal is not finalized but we're really close.
You know, I play what I like. I'm not a guy that's ever really endorsed a whole lotta stuff. The gear that people were offering me to endorse, I just didn't like and I can't do that. I'm not gonna put my name on somethin' and sell it to some kid if it's something that I don't dig. That's never really been part of the thing for me. But this go 'round is really cool and a lot of guys with gear that I've played for years are comin' around and we're workin' to make the sound even that much better and come up with some stuff that the kids can get if they want it.
|"I'm not gonna put my name on somethin' and sell it to some kid if it's something that I don't dig."|
I've heard some of the stuff; we're doing some shows with Stone Sour and it's pretty interesting stuff that they're doing. I like some of the stuff that I've heard.
Does it affect you style-wise or sound-wise as a musician and songwriter?
Not really. The whole goal for any guy or girl for that matter, anybody who has the desire to do this, is you start off turned on by other people. And I'm still turned on by other people and that's the way it goes if you're a music fan, you get your ass kicked all the time. And you wait for those times to happen, to f--kin' spark ya, and unfortunately in the last half a decade or so, the music business has really gotten turned on its f--kin' head. And what they concentrate on putting out isn't necessarily stuff that's unique; it's stuff that sounds like everything else. It's a cookie cutter like thing and I don't think record companies stick with bands long enough and allow them to develop like we had a chance to. Again, going back to where I started with that, the first thing you want to do is f--kin' make a mark and make a sound. You learn from guys that you're turned on to and your heroes and shit like that and you take that as far as it gets ya and it teaches ya how to f--kin' play and maybe how it needs to be done. Then if you're lucky you group up with a bunch of guys and you go out and make your own sound. Then it's exploring where you can go with that sound. We were really fortunate to be able to do that. All that interests me is taking that voice and taking it as far as it can go. Instead of like coppin' whatever some other f--kin' guy is doing. It's okay to get inspired by other people and there's plenty of stuff out there to be inspired by. Shit that's decades old and stuff that's coming out now. But there's a lot more shit to weed through these days, I think (laughs). It doesn't mean that it's not out there.
You touched on it earlier but did your solo career really feed that creative hunger? It's been some time since you released a solo album - will there be another one?
I don't know, man. I've got a healthy batch of material that I've worked on over the last couple of years before this started to become a reality and of course anything is going to take a backseat to Alice and it always really had. I've got a ton of shit that I think is really good material; I really haven't had the chance to bring it to whoever it needs to be to put out a third record. But I assume at some point I will. Why not? It's a challenge doing stuff like that outside of what you're normally used to doing. The stage that Alice operates on is a different one than you feel as a solo artist no matter who you are. You find a lot of cats who are much bigger with your band than you are on your own no matter how badass you are. But it's not necessarily about that, it's about exploring different areas and maybe things that you haven't done and trying to feel out what you're capable of doing. It's something I'm interested in and we'll see where it goes from there. But for right now this is on and that's plenty for me.
|"Whatever works for the band is what everybody likes."|
Well, I don't know. I was really lucky in the situation that we with Alice because a lot of stuff that I wrote the guys liked and we played and it worked. Whatever works for the band is what everybody likes. If everybody gets behind somethin' and we play it then it's an Alice tune. Songwriting is one thing and it's one of the most important things - it's f--kin' crafting a f--kin' kickass song. But the other part of that is having kickass people to play it, to take that song further than you probably would have on your own. And that was the great thing about Alice, even if somebody didn't directly write the song or anything, just by them playing on it and their interpretation of what's going on or variations off the basic idea, that's what makes it a tune. And that's what makes a good song a great song. And that's also a band which is equally as important.
And what about writing for the Cardboard Vampyres?
It was just a f--kin' little cover band. The Vampyres was just something fun that Billy (Duffy) and I did. It was great being able to play with Billy. None of us were bankin' our careers on that one. It was just something to do for fun once in a while. Get in a van or get on a plane and go do a couple of shows here and there. It's not like we were going to put a record out; I don't know why people got that confused with a sort of new band or something. We were just having a good time playing some old tunes that we dug.
For you, then, here in 2006, there's still a fire in your belly? You feel the pull of audiences and the call to resurrect Alice?
I can't wait to see what's gonna happen, man. I still love it the way I always did. I'm still with my f--kin' bros that I've always made music with and kicked ass with most of my life. Life is good. It took a long time to f--kin' figure out a lot of things after Layne died and that was a crushing thing. Probably one of the hardest things I've ever had to experience and go through in my entire life. One of those really key losses in your life. But the fact is is that death is a part of life and we all do it and we all experience it so it's not anything that's unique to us. There's a lot of shit to sort out and we took whatever time we needed to do that and today is a different day and I love everything that we did and are of the mind that we love this and respect the hell out of Layne and what we did with him. And that's a big part of what this is all about.
Steven Rosen 2006