You would think that Jerry Cantrell might have no dreams left to realize. With his band, Alice In Chains, the guitarist played a huge role in defining the 'grunge' sound of the early '90s, selling over 17 million albums in the process.
But when the reunited band recorded their new album, Black Gives Way To Blue, Cantrell got to live out a boyhood fantasy when his idol, Elton John, agreed to play on the title track.
"Mind-blowing," is how Cantrell, 43, summarizes the experience. The group was recording in Las Vegas, and as it turned out, Sir Elton was working in the same studio. Figuring he had nothing to lose, Cantrell contacted John and sent him the track, asking if he might consider playing on it. A week went by with no response, and Cantrell all but gave up hope.
And then John contacted Cantrell and said that he loved the song. A fan of the band, he was especially moved that the number was an elegy for Alice's late singer, Layne Staley, who succumbed to a heroin overdose in 2002. Sure, he said, he'd be honored to play on the cut.
Cantrell describes the feeling of hearing Elton John perform one of his songs as "one of those really cool things that you never expect to happen." Belying his reputation as a diva, John's gracious attitude and musical contribution made a huge impression on Cantrell: "Not only did he lend his voice and made the song jump up a level by his input, he didn't take it over either. He became part of the band."
Of course, in 2010, many are surprised - and no doubt delighted - that there even is an Alice In Chains. After Staley's death, it seemed almost unthinkable that they could go on, and for a time, they didn't. But a tsunami benefit concert in 2005 led the group (which also includes drummer Sean Kinney and bassist Mike Inez), with Cantrell's new friend singer William DuVall, to slowly rebuild.
DuVall and Cantrell make a strange kind of magic together, echoing the vocal harmonies of the Alice In Chains of old. Cantrell admits that he doesn't hear the similarity ("the writing style and the players are the reasons it sounds the way it sounds"), but he's thrilled to be carving out a new chapter with the group he and Kinney founded 23 years ago.
Cantrell sat down with MusicRadar recently to discuss Alice In Chains' reformation, his thoughts on Layne Staley, his approach to practicing the guitar (he doesn't!) and the undiminished coolness of Elton John.
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The new record is stunning. This is Alice In Chains' first album in, what, 15 years or so?
"It's been a long time…for obvious reasons. But we've been doing shows for a couple of years, and during that time we were coming up with ideas. It's really cool that we were able to come together with something that's fitting of the legacy that we left before…and a good starting point to begin again."
From what I understand, the band came back together in 2005 for a tsunami benefit concert. Sean called everybody up and kind of got the ball rolling…
"That was something that affected a lot of people and we were really inspired by the outpouring of people who wanted to help, and we wanted to be a part of that. Sean put together the show; he called Mike and I, and we were all about it. That's where it all started.
"We didn't have a plan to get the band back together. We did that show, and that turned into rehearsals and hanging out more. And then a few shows happened over the period of a year, and that turned into some tours [laughs]…and now we're where we are today. It's kind of cool."
Even so, that first show you did, was there this weight of expectation, or did you go into it like, "We're just gonna play a gig"?
"It wasn't intended to be an Alice In Chains reunion. We were just part of a show of great musicians playing our music to raise money to donate to the relief effort. It was really fun, and really great to be able to call so many of our friends and put them together in such a short period of time and to be a part of that."
Now, you had already been working with William DuVall at that point, correct?
"Yeah. I've known William since around 2000."
Because he was in your solo band…
"Yeah. I met him in LA in 2000, and he and his band basically came aboard and went on the road with me for a while. I invited William down to rehearsals once [Alice] stated messin' around a little bit. We had a really good time together - and everything we'd done up to that point had been pretty good."
Was there any kind of "Oh my God!" period where you went from playing with him to "We're gonna reform the band - and you're gonna be in it!"?
"No. There was no 'Oh my God!' moment. Life has very few of those, actually. You just do what feels right, and you build. You head in a direction that maybe you don't even know you're heading in. A lot of little things get put together and then, after a while, you realize that you've moved forward, whether you intended to or not.
"And then, of course, you have ask yourself if that's some place you want to go, and for all of us, obviously the answer to that question was 'yes'; that we would continue to grow as a band and to move forward from a very difficult thing. But that's the cool thing about life: as long as you're still walking around, there's plenty of opportunities to choose a new path, you know? Or choose an old one, for that matter."
You and William have this uncanny ability to match the vocal harmonies that you and Layne established. Was this apparent to you early on - and did you think, Isn't that weird?
"Well, the style is the same, and that goes to how I write and how the band sounds. The three of us…you know, Sean and I started this band 23 years ago, so we know how to sound like ourselves. Layne was, of course, a big part of that - and that's obviously the challenge.
"We're not gonna start sounding like someone else. William's a different individual than Layne, and having a talented guy like him who's willing to take the comparisons that you or anybody else will throw at him…he's willing to be himself, and that's the only way that would work.
"William doesn't sound like Layne to me; he sounds like William. I know what Layne sounds like. The writing style and the players are the reasons it sounds the way it sounds, and although we lost a big part of the band, there's a big part of the band that's still around."
You're pretty much the co-vocalist in the band. You sing a lot of songs -
"I always have."
And Layne encouraged that. He pushed you to sing - very much in a Beatles kind of way. You guys always struck me as a Lennon and McCartney, in that there was no lead singer per se.
"Yes. That's a really great thing to use those two guys as an example - and of course, a band that's inspired so many musicians and continues to. I always admired that about them, and many other bands who not only had one great vocalist, but two.
"I was always amazed at the depth of bands that could do that. The cool thing is, you have two guys that can be individuals, but the combination of the two makes one. I always liked that about our band. Obviously, if we were going to continue, that's kind of interwoven in the blueprint. It's just the way it is. We would have to find somebody who could operate in the system, and yet bring what they bring to the table - and that person ended up being William."
Before we get more into the new record, let me ask you, what is your fondest memory of Layne?
"I don't really have a 'fondest memory.' There's…there's so many of them. I spent a good portion of my life with him. He was our best friend and a brother and collaborator.
"The whole thing was good, even the tough stuff. Life's not always good, but even the parts that aren't so good are an important part of a life. I feel very lucky to have known him, and to have known him as well as I did."
The lyrics on the new record are deeply personal. Do you keep a journal? [Cantrell laughs] I just can't imagine you sitting in the studio and coming up with these lyrics on the spot.
"Alice has always been a band that spoke from personal experiences. That's really what works best, your personal perspective, and not only trying to create something that means something to you but translates to somebody else.
"That's not necessarily so tough, because we're not very different as human beings. We all go through pretty similar events in life. I've never been a big 'journal-er.' But I go through pretty intense writing phases, and when I do, that's pretty much all I do."
Let's talk about your guitar playing. Your soloing on the new record is so fluid. Do you practice? Do you have a routine? Or do you just play to see what will happen?
[laughs] "I think, pretty much, you just make it up as you go along. I have learned a few things here and there, and I sought some things out early on. But most of it has been by trial-and-error and trying things out. Fortunately, we've been able to create a signature sound between us all that people recognize; it's our unique voice, our musical fingerprint, if you will.
"Playing guitar, for me, has always been about doing it. I don't really read music. I don't write music - I mean, as far as writing stuff out, notes and shit like that. It's just be ear."
So you're not one of those guys who says, "I will practice two hours a day on Mixolydian scales" and that kind of thing?
[laughs] "I never have been, and I kind of wish that I knew a little more about what I do. [laughs] Once in a while, I think, OK, I need to learn some new shit. But then that thought goes away.
"The key is, I play a lot. I play with the guys a lot. And of course, you warm up every day before the shows. And at home, you know, you get the bug and you're kind of bored and you hear a riff, so you throw it down, so playing is always a part of life.
"I don't have a regimen. I don't have like a 'OK, I'm gotta do two hours of scales today and then I'm gonna track some shit after dinner.' I don't have a schedule. That's also one of the appealing things about what I do for a living [laughs] - there isn't whole lot of structure to it."
But do you stockpile riffs?
"Oh, of course. Of course!"
Because the first song on the new record, All Secrets Known, is such a darn cool riff, very Black Sabbath-like. Did you come up with it and immediately know "that's a song!"?
"You know, sometimes you'll get a winner, where you'll get an idea and you'll complete it to the end. More often than not, for me, it is about stockpiling ideas. It's about working on a part, a riff, or a riff with a vocal idea and taking it as far as you can.
"At least when I think something is worth remembering, I'll put it down. And sometimes things aren't - like, you'll listen back to something and go, 'Oh, that's terrible. What was I thinking that day?'"
Are you still pinching yourself that Elton John - Sir Elton John - has played on your record?
"Yeah, that's one of those really cool things that you never expect to happen - to have somebody that we all admire so much and was such an early part of our inspiration for music, before we were even players. Everybody.
"I think Elton John was Layne's first concert. The first record I ever got was an Elton John record. Sean's the same…and William and Mike - he affected us all. He was a person who really struck us at an early age.
"To think about a part that you might want him to play on, and to have him do it, it's pretty mind-blowing. It's one of those really cool things that you can't plan for, but you never really know unless you ask. When the idea came up to give him a call about that song, we all had a laugh about it, 'cause we were like, 'I'm sure he's got better things to do than come play piano on a track of ours.' [laughs] But somebody piped up and said, 'Well, you never know unless you ask.' And I was like, 'You're absolutely right.'
"So I sent him an e-mail and explained the significance of the song - that it was going to be the title track, and that it was for Layne. That all appealed to him. He loved the song and said he wanted to play on it."
Now, when you're in the studio with Elton John, and he's playing piano on one of your songs, do you actually give him direction?
"Yeah, sure. I mean, it might not necessarily feel comfortable to do so. [laughs] It's like, what are you gonna tell that dude? But he was really cool. He was like, 'What do you want?' He said, 'I'll do one pass that's little more kind of note-y and another that's a little more chord-oriented.'
"You know, it's a song that we knew intimately 'cause we wrote it. And even though he'd heard it before, playing the song was new to him, so of course he would ask for a little direction here or there.
"As a fan, it's hard to separate. You know, you're both musicians…But when it's somebody who's of such importance to you [laughs], it's a little nerve-wracking to go, 'Here, try it like this; try it like that.' But he was way cool about it.
"The thing I was most impressed about is how excited he is about music still. Not just his own; he's just a fan. And you realize, you're the same. It gives you inspiration to continue your own journey."
It's a beautiful track -
And what's amazing is, it sounds like Alice In Chains, but yet, the piano sounds like Elton John.
"That's the impressive thing, that he obviously has a sound and a style that he's developed and is known for. But not only did he lend his voice and made the song jump up a level by his input, he didn't take it over either. He became part of the band."