A Looking In View: Jerry Cantrell on Alice in Chains' legacy

Mainstay of the resurgent Alice in Chains, Jerry Cantrell meditates on resurrection, organised religion and the trouble with social media...

Feature by Dave Kerr | 13 Nov 2013
  • Jerry Cantrell

In the thick of a world tour, Jerry Cantrell has a pace on when The Skinny’s call connects to his hotel room in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Affable but guarded, over the course of a 20 minute conversation the line cuts off more than once as the phone repeatedly slides off a bedside table and follows him across the floor. It’s either nerves or he’s already shuffling towards the next city. “One of my least favourite things is talking about myself,” he reasons, evidently uncomfortable with the spotlight despite drifting under its glare at Alice in Chains' core for over two decades. “But I guess it’s part of the process.”

Described by latter-day foil William DuVall as a band with “an old school mentality being brought to a new school world,” you probably won’t catch Cantrell Instagramming his chips anytime soon. “Me and Sean [Kinney, longstanding AIC drummer] do not exist in that world and have no inclination to,” he admits. “I think William and Mike [Inez, bass] do; I get it, but I don’t want to be that connected to people. I think we’d all be a lot better off if we weren’t up each other's asses so much.”

Despite being lumbered in with the grunge crowd by dint of a Seattle upbringing, a certain outsider status has remained one of Alice in Chains’ defining characteristics. Combining the heartfelt melodic finesse of mid-period acoustic releases like Jar of Flies with an updated take on the bluesy riff-oriented attack of ‘92 breakthrough Dirt, 2009’s Black Gives Way to Blue paid homage to late singer Layne Staley’s legacy as much as it stoked the fire for a brighter future. “The cool thing is that so many people are still interested and that we made an impact in the past – a connection,” Cantrell told us at the time. “We’ve never really been a band that’s had a milk toast response, it’s either been a ‘Fuck yes!’ or ‘Hell no!’ It’s one way or the other. It’s good to elicit such a strong response. We’ve done it before and it seems like we’ve done it again.” 

Now firmly re-established in the 21st century, Twitter accounts or nay, fifth album The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here finds Alice clutching to a newfound momentum. Unsurprisingly, we’re forewarned by management that questions relating to Staley and founder bassist Mike Starr (who, after leaving the band in '93, also succumbed to drug addiction nearly ten years after their fallen frontman) are unwelcome, but it’s perhaps more irresistible to salute the sheer scale of the band's achievements and the genuine grace of their Back in Black return. 


"Darkness was always part of the band, but it wasn’t all about that" – Jerry Cantrell


On the Seattle explosion…

I’m really proud of the musical history of where I’m from, I think the reason so much of the music from Seattle is as cool and as individual as it was is because Seattle is, geographically speaking, outside the business. It’s way the hell out there and was able to develop on its own and nurture itself without any real outside help or goals like getting signed to a major label and shit like that. That was really hard to do because nobody gave a fuck unless you were from New York or LA. The business didn’t make Seattle, Seattle made the business. That afforded us opportunities to take it to the next level and we took advantage of that, but first and foremost it was about making great music.

On Dirt, drugs and depression

That darkness was always part of the band, but it wasn’t all about that. There was always an optimism, even in the darkest shit we wrote. With Dirt, it’s not like we were saying ‘Oh yeah, this is a good thing.’ It was more of a warning than anything else, rather than ‘Hey, come and check this out, it’s great!’ We were talking about what was going on at the time, but within that there was always a survivor element – a kind of triumph over the darker elements of being a human being. I still think we have all of that intact, but maybe the percentage has shifted.  

On getting by with a little help from his friends…

Alice feels like more than a band, it’s to be part of a family, and part of a wider thing too. This band takes on a life of its own and speaks to a lot of people that we’ll never personally meet, but they’re our extended family. It’s just cool to be a part of it. As a fan of music, I want to see people I admire fight through adversity and pull themselves off the floor when life kicks their ass, like it inevitably will. We leant on the people that cared about us, like James [Hetfield], Duff [McKagan], Slash, Phil [Anselmo], Ann and Nancy from Heart – there’ve been so many people who have supported us through this. There’s a wider family of fans, who’ve supported the music and us for years. We all go through the same shit. A big part of life is learning how to deal with loss. We have a limited amount of time here; you should spend your life doing what you want to do because you only get a certain amount of it and you never know when that’s going to stop. Life takes work, and you don’t do that on your own. I’ve got that with my band, family and friends. 

On Alice in Chains’ second coming…

It’s been good; I think our people get it. Those folks who are the more peripheral rock people, I still don’t know if they get this band. And that’s actually OK. We have a way of going about doing things and it’s really fairly simple, we’re trying to make music that we would dig if we weren’t playing it and trying to create something that maybe makes other people feel and maybe think a little bit too. It’s a pretty simple formula, I guess. It’s worked and it continues to work. We just do what feels right and just by definition of us putting out a record; we’ve put our stamp of approval on it. That’s the best work we felt we could do at the time and we wanted to put that body of work out to represent the band. I think we did a really good job again. I think the last two records are very strong. 

On tackling religious dogma in song…

The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here is just a song, but that’s not belittling the weight of it either. If you can make people feel something and maybe think and react, then you’ve done your job. That’s all I think songwriting and art in general is. You’re expressing an idea, an opinion – it may not even necessarily be yours. It’s just things that are around you – things you see or feel, or see other people experience. You put that into a piece of work and you throw it out there to see how people react to it. That song definitely comes from that place; everyone has grabbed it for their own purpose, whether they’re creationists or simply hate organised religion. That’s good, it started a conversation. Although the song’s within the framework of organised religion, it’s not necessarily attacking it. It’s pointing out where the shortcomings are – these horrible things that we’ve done to each other for thousands of years in the name of religion. We have an inability to accept each other, accept other people that are different, think differently, live differently – that’s basically all this song is addressing.

On finding himself in the sun…

I moved to LA about ten years ago. I’m still there. I just recently bought a home back in Seattle. That’s where I was born and raised so it feels important to have that. Equally, Los Angeles has been a really important place for me to be too. It’s a place where I started a new chapter in my life and part of that is where we’ve gone with the band. I’ve done that with my friends. We’ve all gone in a different direction and it’s been a healthy and positive one. But yeah, it’s not the first place you’d think about living, I never intended to live in Los Angeles, that’s the narrative of the whole Check My Brain lyric. But it’s cool. I dig it. I fit there. It’s good to have a place in Seattle, and I also have a place in Oklahoma with my father, we have a cattle ranch that we run together.

On touring with The Rooster… 

I’ve been doing a lot of hanging with the Rooster lately. I had the opportunity on the last two runs in the States to bring him along. We always travel together as a band, but on those occasions I got a bus for my father and I to hang out, spend some time and have an adventure on a couple of tours. He loves coming out on the road, and all the guys and crew love him too.

On the Seattle revival…

I’m always proud to see anybody from my hometown continue to do well. I think, as individuals, and as parts of other bands, or bands playing together again, like Alice and Soundgarden, those are all creative people, they’re very active in doing this and what the fuck else are we gonna do? I don’t mean that to sound like ‘Well, I may as well do this,’ I’m talking about dedication – being committed to something all the way. I think all of those individuals are and so are we. That makes me proud, makes me very grateful to still have the opportunity and drive to do this, despite all the things we’ve gone through personally. Pushing ahead has been a very positive thing for me. And I think it’s been a positive thing for a lot of other people too, they’ll maybe regard us as a little part of their life. 

On legacy…

When things came to a stop, the music lived on. When we decided to start playing shows again, which lead to the band coming back together, being a working unit and forging ahead, the music had been living elsewhere on radio, in people’s cars and homes. Most of those people were there for us. Then there’s the next generation; a lot of younger kids are getting turned onto the band by listening to what we did before as well as what we’re doing now – so it’s a mix of six years old to sixty. One of the things I’m most proud of – at risk of sounding self-important – is that I think this has been an important band. We’re a link in the chain. Its mattered to us and its mattered to a lot of other people too. Case in point, I’m sitting here in Porto Alegre, I’ve never been here before but tonight I’m gonna go play to a packed house of people we’ve never seen, but they know our music. That’s a pretty special thing. Also, I think we’ve kind of defied any categorisation. There’s not a word that describes us. We’re not alternative, metal or grunge – we’re not any of that. We’re just what we are.

On Glasgow Barrowlands…

I’ve always loved the Barrowlands – gonna have to dust off my kilt for this tour, man. Coming back has always been a great thing. I remember the first time we played, having no idea the floor actually bounced – I mean you could feel the whole building move. If you’re getting that sort of a reaction from the crowd, that’s what you live for. There’s the 22-23 other hours of the day doing other things to allow you to be able to get on that stage. I could do without most of that stuff, but that particular point where you get in front of an audience, playing the new stuff and getting a reaction out of them. You start feeding off each other and giving each other energy back. That’s the best thing. It still is, and that particular place in the Barrowlands, when the floor starts bouncing and the room starts shaking, it’s a pretty great feeling.

On becoming the new Classic Rock…

Hopefully we’re making good music and we’re a pretty good band. I think we are. I guess that’s really what it comes down to. I mean, if we were shit I don’t think we would have made it this far. We must be doin’ something right. We are old school, just by the fact of being old! We’re all creepin’ up on 50 here in a few years. We’ve lived a pretty interesting life – wouldn’t change a thing, even the bad stuff. We’re continuing to do what we committed ourselves to. I have this saying: the thing that you did as a kid to not have a job has now become your life’s work. That’s pretty cool.

Alice in Chains play Glasgow O2 Academy on 14 Nov http://www.aliceinchains.com