Alice in Chains


Guitar legend Jerry Cantrell sheds light on Alice’s first record in 14 years, Black Gives Way to Blue, the choices and responsibilities life often throws your way, and how the band came together to face its greatest challenge yet.

So I caught you guys at Epicenter a few days ago. That was a pretty sweet set.

Oh nice, man.

Was that pretty fun to play?

Oh, yeah. It was a good show, man.

You guys haven’t really played in L.A. for a while, right?

Yeah. Well, we haven’t really played anywhere in a while. We’ve been working on this record for about a year and a half, so we’re just finally playing some shows here the last couple months. We did a couple weeks in Europe, and then one in Detroit.

You’re first album in 14 years is coming out in about a month. Does it feel in any way similar to when you released your debut, Facelift?

Yeah, I guess. We’re really excited about it. For all intensive purposes, it is kind of a new start. It’s an odd dynamic of being an established band, having a long career and having an impact, and taking on the challenge we have and continuing forward. So, we are kind of like a new band with a new record. It’s kind of exciting that way, I guess.

How did this whole reunion thing get started and then how did Will get involved?

Someone put together a benefit after the tsunami happened. We felt really strongly about trying to give back and trying to help out. There was just an amazing outpouring of support from all over the world when that happened, and we wanted to be a part of that.

Anyway, we called up some friends and we wanted to get all of us together and play our music and stuff. Mike and I were a part of that. I had a bunch of friends come up, and they sang some Alice songs with us and we did a bunch of their songs. We ended up doing a really cool thing that really didn’t have anything to do with us. It was just something we were a part of. I think that’s why it made it OK to do that. It was a really meaningful experience to stand up there and play those songs, and also to deal with the reality that Layne is gone and to play those songs in our hometown for our fans.

So it was a meaningful thing, and that led to us considering strictly hanging together and spending more time musically just to jam because we had a good time playing. We hadn’t played together in so long. The body of work we had created is pretty large for the brief time we were around, and we just kind of built from there.

We were jamming, and hunted William down. I had met him about two years ago in Los Angeles here. We became friends pretty quickly and ended up jamming together a lot. He and his band went out on the road with me during the Degradation Trip record. We ended up playing together quite a bit on the tour, so we ended up having that experience.

We were asked by Heart to partake in a show for VH1 to honor their career. They, of course, were a part of that first show that we put together, so we said, “Sure.” We invited a couple of friends, Will being one of them, and did that show. That experience again was another step. We considered doing some shows and that turned into, “Well, let’s take this around one more time and go around and play music to everybody. Celebrate the music, celebrate our friend who’s not here, and also ourselves at the same time.”

During the process of that we, of course being musicians, started writing material [laughs]. I think that’s just one of the normal things that happens. The quality of the material we came up with, and the work ethic that that sparked to create some cool stuff, seemed to answer that question for ourselves whether that was even something we wanted to do.

I think it was something at that particular point in going through whether this was sporadic. I think it was probably the next inevitable step, but before it became an inevitable step we had to find out for ourselves. I think that we did. That’s why that record sounds the way it is, and that’s also why we decided to continue on as this band as an evolved band, but we’re still the same band.

When you were first starting to write, did it feel like you were picking up where you left off, or did it feel like something new was happening?

I don’t know that I’ve ever really thought about writing like that, period, like we have to pick up where we left off. I’m really proud of all the music that we’ve created throughout the years, so I think you have to start fresh. You really just have to start fresh with no real expectations, other than having the benefit of the knowledge of what you can do and what you have done.

You want to create something new that is recognizable and connected to the past, but you want to try and progress. You want to write better material, and you want to write new material. I think that this band has always been very successful at doing that, and this particular record goes right in step with that.

On this record you also picked up more of the singing duties than in the past, and I was really impressed with how your voices blended together. Was that something that kind of fell together naturally?

Yeah. I think we were figuring that out as we went along, kind of like we always did before [laughs]. I always had the benefit of being a partner with Layne. I got a lot of confidence from him. He was an amazing fucking singer, and an artist, but he was my friend. He was a really good buddy, and he always really cared not only about me but everybody. He really cared about people in general.

He wasn’t really threatened. He was the one who suggested that I start singing more and taking on a little bit more responsibility when it came to singing and stuff, instead of just writing stuff and singing backups here and there. As the records progressed before with Layne, you can kind of hear that growth. I directly attribute that to him and to his support.

So when it came time to do this record, I had of course a couple of records of touring where I stepped up to that kind of a role a little bit more and got a little bit more experience there. It was probably a natural progression for me to step up even more and reach deeper than I’ve ever dug before and see what I’m capable of. I had the support of the guys to do that, and I also had the benefit of working with somebody as talented as William to work together as a team.

That’s what this band has always been. Although maybe some of us get a little more recognition than others, it’s really a band. It’s never been about particularly one individual. It’s a combination and a blend of all of us together and what we all bring. A lot of the roles we play in the band sometimes shift. Sometimes one guy takes a little bit more of a lead. Sometimes another guy takes a little bit more.

That’s true in other areas of the band as well. That’s the way things run. We all rely on each other quite heavily. I’m really proud to be a part of the band, and really excited to be having the opportunity to take on this sort of challenge that we have and to have come through with what we have. I think it’s a great record, and I’m even more proud of all of the growth that we’ve gone through. I think there’s an evolvement and a maturity to this record that hopefully reflects the maturity that we’ve all taken together.

As far as lyrically speaking, would you say there’s any themes as to what the record’s about? How much do you think Layne factored into that?

One of the things I’ve always really dug about the band is that we’ve always had a really direct, honest and no punches pulled attitude and language. This record is reflected in personal experience and where you are at the time.

There’s a lot of things that have happened in the last 14 years since we made a record, and of course a lot of those are probably going to be addressed because that’s what this record is. It’s a personal snapshot of where we are now, what we’ve come through, what we’ve lost and also what we’ve gained. Layne is always going to be an indelible mark. You can’t hide it, and we’re not trying to. We’re more celebrating it, and also celebrating the fact that there’s a lot of life left to live.

Sometimes in life there’s things you don’t have any control over, but you still have a choice. You still have a choice, and you do have a responsibility. A lot of times in life, it’s not your fault necessarily what happens to you. Some of the worst things in life that happen to you are not your fault, but what is your responsibility is how you deal with it. You have a responsibility to deal with that, and it’s not an easy thing to do.

It’s a lot easier to lay down and take it, and be like, “OK, whatever. It’s over.” It takes a lot of effort, personally, to take on the challenges of life and to own all the aspects of what your life has been, the bad parts and the good parts. That’s what makes a life.

The cool thing about being in this band is I’ve been able to do all of that stuff and go through all of that stuff with my friends. We’ve done this band for half my life, over half my life, and I’m still with my buddies. We’re still a group of crazy fucking kids [laughs], like when we were all from little outlying areas of Seattle and we came together. It’s still that same vibe. I can’t think of anybody else on the planet that I’d rather be spending time with than the guys in the band.

Not only are we a really unique band, and everybody’s really talented musicians on their own, we’re a real tight group as far as a family. It’s something I’ve really relied on through the years. We still rely on that and are proud of that today because of all we’ve been through.

I like how you were able to incorporate the slower, acoustic songs rather than just have the record be full-on hard rock, which you’ve always been able to do in the past. Is that fun for you to be able to work on both sides of the spectrum like that?

Sure. I mean, that’s something we established early on. I think that was a really good thing, a really good move on our part, to be able to explore some other aspects and not just be completely typecast into one sound or that’s what people expect you to do. We did a couple of unexpected things early on, and we actually had some success doing that.

We’ve always had a pretty open field musically, so to speak, to run around in. There’s a lot of dirt out there to claim. I think that this record represents a lot of the broad spectrum of different fields and expressions of music that we’ve always done, although of course there’s different music in it and it’s unique in its own way as well.

The first single off the record is “Check My Brain,” and I’m sure for a lot of people out there it’s going to be the first new song they’ll hear from you guys. What was it like picking that to be representative of the first taste people will get?

We’ve been working on that record for about a year and a half, so there’s definitely a couple songs that we felt after living with them for a while maybe have the impact or whatever that felt right. That song particularly was one everybody reacted to immediately, not only within the band but any time we had anybody in town to give them a little taste of what was going on. That song always got a real strong reaction.

Was it one of the first ones you wrote together, or did it come later on?

I think that was probably one of the earlier ones, sure. Yeah, that was probably one of the earlier ones we put together. Maybe that one and “Black Gives Way to Blue.” I think “Lesson Learned” might have been one of our earlier ones, too.

How many songs did you record during this whole process?

This record’s really unique in a lot of ways. I can’t really think of an extra song that we had. There might have been one or two here or there, and the reason I think they weren’t on a record is because they didn’t live up to our standard. I think we ended up putting a couple of those on the box set or whatever, like an extra song that probably shouldn’t have been released, but it was [laughs].

So every record you got in the past that Alice ever did, that’s what we had. We didn’t have a lot of extra stuff. We came up with 12 tunes, and that was the 12 that made the record. Obviously, things have evolved, and we had a lot to go through and a lot to really examine about who we are right now and if this feels right. We all had to take on a little extra responsibility, including William, to figure out how we operate and how it feels right to operate.

Normally the only way to do that is to spend time together, and we did that. By doing that, we probably went into the studio with about 30 good ideas, or 30 ideas that we thought were good. That got pared down to maybe 19 or 18 that we actually recorded, and then that got pared down to the 11 that are on the record that we felt represented the band the best and we felt was the best record we could make.

Have you noticed any similarities or differences with the rock music scene from when you were first starting out versus what it is today?

Yeah, it’s completely different now, but we also went through and were part of a pretty significant musical change back then. I guess one thing that remains the same is everything fucking changes [laughs]. I think the only thing you can rely on is what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. You know what I mean? You just got to roll with the changes and figure it out as you go along. There’s no rulebook, as far as I’ve ever found, and if there is one I wish I would have got one. You kind of just make it up as you go along.

Certainly, the landscape is markedly different from when we were with Columbia in the early years. Record companies were doing their thing. I think that the record industry fell asleep at the wheel, and didn’t embrace technology and didn’t take care of their artists, which is what they make their money off of. I think also there’s a portion of fans even who maybe took advantage of the new technology, and that certainly has affected a lot of artists. That reduces significantly album sales and income that goes to funding more records and funding tours, to make more music for people and go and play it for them. There’s been a little bit of an attitude shift there, too.

I’m not completely pessimistic about it. It is unfortunate and it is a fact, but I think that hopefully things will get ironed out. You need to figure out what you can do to musically operate in this environment, and again I think it goes back to what I earlier said. You really only have control over what you do and how you go about doing things. We’ve always had a standard that way for ourselves, personally, and I think we still operative within that standard. That’s really what means the most to us.

After we create a record and put it out there, that’s pretty much the end of our control right there. We go out and work it. We can get out and play it for you and take it around, and hopefully it does well so we can afford to bring you the type of show that we want to bring you. Hopefully, we’re able to go out, play it, and have a good time and travel around the world, and see a lot of our old friends and new friends. That’s basically the end of your control of that.

Originally appeared on Mammoth Press