In Conversation: Alice In Chains’ Jerry Cantrell

Grunge survivor talks to Clash...

Alice In Chains: influential, intoxicating, and still with us, perhaps against the odds. Look over the Seattle-formed outfit’s history, which dates back to 1987, and it’s littered with both ups and downs – and the latter have taken two of its line-up with them.

Despite the deaths of founder members Mike Starr and frontman Layne Staley, Alice In Chains remain a powerful force in modern rock, their slickly realised, grooves-laced fare harking back to the giddy highs of ‘90s grunge – they were peers of Nirvana and Soundgarden, of course – and also tapping into the stadium aspirations of contemporary heavyweights. They are survivors and evolvers: a success story that’s built on overcoming obstacles and never repeating the same formula twice.

The band today comprises co-lead vocalist William DuVall, bassist Mike Inez (a member since ’93), founding drummer Sean Kinney and ever-present core songwriter, guitarist and singer Jerry Cantrell – the latter has also enjoyed a solo career, releasing a pair of acclaimed albums. Their 2009 comeback after 14 years between releases, ‘Black Gives Way To Blue’, was a critical and commercial hit, and earned a pair of Grammy Award nominations.

As Alice In Chains releases its fifth studio album, the already acclaimed ‘The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here’, Clash spoke to Cantrell about the new record, the band’s history, and its present status as a cross-generational attraction.

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Alice In Chains – ‘Stone’ (from ‘The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here’, 2013)

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Congratulations on the new album, which seems to already be attracting its share of acclaim. Do you see this set as one bringing new elements to the Alice In Chains sound, or is it more a consolidation of existing strengths?

Well, it’s a new record, 12 new songs, which is about the simplest and most direct way I can answer that! It’s a solid record – it’s the best record we could make. We dig it, so hopefully everybody else does too. The reception to it so far has been great – it’s a good start, early on.

We had the luxury of doing a lot of work for this record ahead of schedule, in front of its release, in terms of getting videos done, and other business-side things. On the last record, ‘Black Gives Way To Blue’, we were handling more of that stuff while we were on tour, after the record came out. So this time, I’ve got to give credit to our management team and record company for having a good plan for this record. It’s really satisfying to see people getting into it.

Was this new level of planning prompted by the slightly more ad-hoc nature of the last record’s promotional cycle, then?

Well, everything’s as planned as it can be, all of the time – there’s obviously a lot more to this than just putting out a record.

And with the band in its fourth decade, how are your bones holding up, with another record’s worth of touring ahead of you?

Did you say fourth decade? Wow, I guess you’re right. That makes us sound a lot older than we are! But I guess that’s factually correct. But none of this is just part of the job to us – if we didn’t enjoy doing it, I don’t think we would. We still enjoy making music and the whole process associated with it.

Our hands are on the wheel with everything to do with this band – we’re across every aspect, from the way a show is presented to the font on a t-shirt. It’s all us. We have a lot of people working with us, of course, and they help us to have the best opportunity to deliver the best that we can. And we’ve managed to have a pretty long career. I mean, we’ve got older, but I’ve not reached the point where I don’t want to do this anymore.

You mention the band’s longevity, and ‘Black Gives Way To Blue’ is a pivotal release in terms of sustaining the considerable audience you attract. As a band that’d been away for some time, could you have foreseen just how successful that album would be?

Well, you never know what’s going to happen, but you certainly hope that you’ll be successful – nobody puts out an album for it to tank, right? But I’d say that ‘Black Gives Way To Blue’ probably went beyond our expectations. We thought we had a good chance of doing well, due to all of the work we’d put into that album.

But at the point where you offer it up to everyone else, it stops becoming your baby. And that’s the moment where you are unsure about what will happen. But what we did, the way in which we went about making the music for that album, I think that the process – and that includes the touring, which was really solid – couldn’t have gone any better.

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Alice In Chains – ‘A Looking In View’ (from ‘Black Gives Way To Blue’, 2009)

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And did putting ‘Black Gives Way To Blue’ out stir up any parallels with when you put out your debut, ‘Facelift’, back in 1990? As the album represented a new start, I suppose…

I think that’s probably too big of a generalisation. I mean, that album isn’t ‘Facelift’. I know you don’t mean in terms of sound, and I appreciate that we did sort of restart. But if anything… Well, we have a history, we have a past, and it’s lasted a long time. And that includes a period where we weren’t really doing anything. But people still listened to the band, and we still heard our songs on radio. That’s something that you can’t control, and it’s quite special. You hope that your music will take on a life of its own, and I think ours has.

Knowing all of that, you can’t go setting bars for yourself – so a new album isn’t about competing with an old one, with previous success. It has to be about what you do, in the way you always did, in a manner that’s true to you.

We went about ‘Black Gives Way To Blue’ in the exact same way we had any other album – so from our position there was no way to fail, as we’d already won. We went through the process to find out if this was something we still wanted to do, and we answered that question. That record, and its tour, put a lot of stuff to rest for us. We’ve moved on, and now we’re somewhere else, on the eve of this new record.

And you’ve been touring it in the States already, right?

Yeah we’re on tour now. We’ve been on the road for a month, playing to really great crowds. We’re taking a break, and then we’re coming to the UK.

The bands you’re sharing bills with today are, naturally, very different from those you’d tour with in the 1990s. Do you think that the same spirit exists in bands today as it did when you started? Or do some new, breakthrough bands seem more about the numbers game, about shifting units, than tapping into the spirit of what they’re doing?

Aw, man, I can’t and won’t put anyone down. Musicians, in general, are quite tight, so you’ve got to support each other. The fact of the matter is that if you’re making music that you dig, and people pay to see you play it live, then you’re doing alright. I think you’ve every right to be doing that. And that’s always been a motivation for me, and I think that’s true of any band, so far as I know. There’s a whole new generation of kids doing it now, which is great.

When I was younger, all I wanted to do is make music and play it in front of an audience, and make a career out of that. There’s still plenty of people doing it. Obviously the music industry landscape has changed, but the music itself remains the most important thing. I’m not going to be that angry old guy, y’know! I’ll be honest, in that I don’t listen to a whole lot of new bands – I kind of stick to the old classics that I have always listened to.

Do you recall the moment when it registered with you that this music you made was good enough to build a career on?

When did I realise that this was a job? Being in a band, to me, was always the thing you did to not have a job. There’s plenty of twists on that. Your parents want you to be doing something, because they don’t want you to be a bum. They want you to be able to support yourself. I’ve been lucky that the thing I did to not have a job became a career – and that’s part effort, and part luck.

Do you think that Alice In Chains – bearing in mind that ‘Facelift’ was huge, and preceded the release of ‘Nevermind’ – get all the credit they deserve amongst critics today, for pioneering that grunge sound into the mainstream?

Well, you’re always going to have critics, all along. I can play in front of people, thousands of people, every night, and right now that is all I give a f*ck about. I have enough positive motivation to keep on doing what I do. And even at the beginning, people would tell me that I couldn’t do something. But I’m the kind of guy who said back to them, ‘F*ck you, I can’. So that, that’s a very minor annoyance, at best.

Any criticism is an outside concern at best. We’ve been able to do this for a long time, through a lot of changes, and we’ve lived a lot of life, and it still needs a lot to do it. This continues to mean a lot to a lot of people, and it’s a multi-generational thing now.

And does that feel good, now you’re playing to, say, fathers and sons at the same show?

It feels good, man. It feels good to stick around! Life is well worth living. A lesson my mother taught me early on was that no matter how bad things get, y’know, if you can get through another day, you never know what is around the next corner. You’re definitely not going to find out if you give up.

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Alice In Chains – ‘Them Bones’ (from ‘Dirt’, 1992)

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Alice In Chains has a history of performing acoustically, too – you recorded an MTV Unplugged session in 1996, and the ‘Sap’ EP of 1992 was acoustic, too. As a songwriter, do you pen material that can work both in both an amplified space and a more intimate setting?

I think so, yeah. You know, the ‘Sap’ EP is really important in the history of this band. It was a thing that we did after we’d been touring ‘Facelift’ for a good long while. We picked up some really good tours on that record, including the Clash Of The Titans (with Anthrax, Slayer and Megadeth), and that was a really big break for us. But we were known exclusively for that record, for ‘Facelift’, so the EP was essentially us demoing some stuff, and it opened us up to be able to operate in a few different areas. It didn’t tie us down to having just one sound, one way; and we managed that move early on, and in retrospect that was very wise. It widened the spectrum we could operate in.

And another cool thing about that EP was that it was something we didn’t even advertise doing. We were working on it on the break between ‘Facelift’ and (1992 album) ‘Dirt’. We thought about putting it into stores with no advertising at all, for fans to find. It was specifically for people at the record stores, to find and go, ‘What is this?’. So it was a real surprise for the fans, and it was also us taking a gamble, artistically, very early in our career. It was when we were known for one thing, one record, but doing ‘Sap’ proved to be really great, and I think you can see the reflection of it in all of the records we have done since then.

I think this new record, especially, features a very wide range of influences from across our catalogue. There’s some really introspective acoustic elements, and then there’s also the very heaviest elements of this band too.

So let’s say a newcomer to the band picks up ‘The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here’ tomorrow, loves it, and wants to know what record to pick up next. What does Jerry Cantrell recommend?

Well, the cool thing about making these records is that they’re always there, and that’s a blessing and a curse – because if you put out a turd, a lot of people are going to hear it! But I think we’ve done some pretty good work, and I’m actually proud of all of our records. The cool thing about each record is that they are all different – I don’t think you can say that one of our albums is like any of the others. And that’s a real trick that’s hard to pull off, to keep your sound intact but grow and do something new every time.

So this record stands up to any of the others, to be honest. I wouldn’t know where to suggest a new comer looks next, as this album has elements from lots of the records we’ve done. So maybe check out any one of them.

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Alice In Chains – ‘Man In The Box’ (from ‘Facelift’, 1990)

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‘The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here’ is released on May 27th. Find the band online here

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