Jerry Cantrell helped define the sound of rock music in the ‘90s but his ear for melody, the riff and for the speculative business of songwriting goes back to the ‘70s. You can hear that across Alice In Chains’ discography, a sense of golden-hued classicism applying light and shade. But it’s writ large across Brighten.
Cantrell’s first solo album since 2002’s sprawling double long-player Degradation Trip, Brighten is a 21st century album that in some respects belongs to another era. The process, as Cantrell describes it, was guided by the spirit of discovery; an old-school project requiring masses of audio hardware, guitar amps and instruments, plugging in to them all until a tone presented itself.
But it also belongs to another era in the sense that Cantrell had been living with some of the song ideas for many years. Atone, for instance, can be dated to the mid-‘90s. A few tweaks to the music, some new lyrics and in 2021 it made sense. As Cantrell joins us from his home in LA, his cat protesting the interruption with a squawk, he explains that it’s not necessarily that he has to sit on a song and wait decades before it can hatch. What’s more important it that whenever the idea visits you, you’ve got to get it to tape.
“If you get an idea, then you want to get it down,” he says. “You want to record it, at least so that the idea doesn’t dissipate into the fucking void, y’know? I would say that, to any aspiring writer, fucking write shit down! Record everything.”
Cantrell’s reasoning is that, if you are so motivated to record an idea in the first place, some way down the line, your instincts will be proved correct – “You’d be right more times than you’d be wrong” – and his have done all right by him so far.
Brighten sees Cantrell joined by a cast of top players. He has Duff McKagan on bass, Dillinger Escape Plan alumni Greg Puciato on guest vocals and Gil Sharone on drums. Abe Laboriel Jr drums on the record, too, with Jordan Lewis playing piano, Michael Rozon on pedal steel, Lola Bates on background vocals and Matias Ambrogi-Torres on strings. But it sounds like no one else.
So infused with Cantrell’s songwriting DNA, it’s sometimes hard to see where his solo material ends and Alice In Chains begins.
Once more, those layered textures that Cantrell specialises in, seem to conspire in an omnipresent drone that sets the emotional register for the rest of the arrangement. All this is captured with a rich production from Tyler Bates and in a typically three-dimensional mix from Joe Barresi, but it’s typical of Cantrell that these songs have it both ways, playing on the ambiguity between the downbeat and the uplifting. This, he explains, is what keeps him interested. This is what makes the songs human.
You’re sound has got this Mona Lisa quality to it. Listening to Atone, it’s got that light and shade, darkness and positivity. Is that something you get off on, that ambiguity?
“Sure. Yeah, it’s like the fucking drama sign, man, with the fucking smiling mask and the fucking crying mask, y’know what I mean? Drama is drama, and it is all emotions in-between, from one end to the other. If I am trying to create, I would revisit that theme. That is what’s interesting to me.
“Man, I love a good comedy! I love going to see some stand-up. But even within that there’s edge, and there’s reality, and there’s impact. And then, taking it to the other side of the scale, you can extract something positive out of something that is really fucking bleak and dire, and heavy. That can have a lot of light in it, too, because there is a point of light that someone is trying to struggle to, that they’re trying to get out of.
“I like things that are multi-levelled. I like things that are multi-faceted. People are flawed. Nobody is fucking perfect, and so a song should have all of those elements in it. The cool thing about art and music is that, maybe every once in a while, you take that humanity, all of that ‘stuff’, and maybe somehow, just the chemistry of you all together, and what you put into it and your experiences, you hit on something that elevates it, and maybe reaches a level that you couldn’t do on your own.
“There is some ethereal shit there. There’s some magic to it. I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of a body of work, and records, and be part of a band that I think has gotten close to touching that a few times.”
And where does the layering come into it? Because a lot of these songs can be boiled down to a simple melody or idea, but then it’s nested within all these different textures.
“Well it’s a process, man. Once you put a couple of parts together and you have got the basic feel, the bones of the song or an idea, you can maybe have a clearer picture of where you are going. I think mostly it is just one foot in front of the other. ‘Okay, cool, I’ve got this fucking great riff here. Okay, we’ve got a good bridge. We’ve got a good chorus…’ And you start warbling… [Laughs] Warbling some nonsense lyrics to sing a melody line with it! And it is just a process. You try things out and, for me, it is always music first. Not always, but pretty close to 100 per cent of the time, it is the musical idea first, and then of course the lyrics are probably the last part of the puzzle, like, ‘What do you want to say?’
“A lot of that is just happenstance on where you are in life, what is impacting you at a moment, what you are going through, what you extract or reflect back to and from the world, and also what the music makes you feel like. Sometimes the music sets the tone. Using Atone as an example, the music definitely influenced the direction of the lyric, for sure.”
There is something cinematic about the writing on this album. Was that something that you were explicitly looking for in these songs?
“I am a huge fan of cinema so that is something that is definitely that I am into, and I really like the marriage of images and music as part of different layers of storytelling. But sometimes, y’know, music is really visual to me, period. Without any reference to that or even trying to get there; it is a trip. And that is what I was saying in my reference to Atone, and with coming up with the lyrics, it sounds like a fucking movie, y’know? It sounds like a visual landscape. It gives you imagery.
“When you hear that first fucking downbeat, it sounds like a pack of fucking dudes on fucking horses in the middle of the desert of something! Like, fleeing some sort of pursuit, or pursuing something in a hostile environment. These are all elements of what it makes me feel, and so when I hear that, that gives me a lot of direction of where I can go lyrically with it.”
Well, maybe when they finally adapt Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian for the screen it might get picked up. Speaking of things being picked up, there’s been a lot of excitement about Gibson prototypes and what might be coming down the line. Did you use any of these on the album?
“Yeah, well, I’ve always liked a healthy dose of the G&L Rampage and Gibson Les Pauls. That’s been the meat in the meatloaf of my sound. [Laughs] From early on. It has been really fun working with Gibson over the past couple of years and making the switch to the other guitar that I have been relying on over the years.
“They have been really great. They have sent me a bunch of cool instruments for making the record, and of course we had been in the process of recreating one of the guitars that I play, and which I’ve always dug, and that’s my ‘Wino’ Les Paul, and the guys at the Custom Shop did a really great job replicating that, with a couple of little tweaks that me and my guitar tech, Brian Herb, made to it.”
That is an incredible guitar – and with a piezo, too.
“Well I was thinking that my band does a lot of stuff where we do loud gigs, and we can do quieter moody gigs with Sap and Jar Of Flies. We can operate in a lot of different venues, so I thought it would be really cool to be able to design a guitar where you could do both easily, and get in an acoustic or a clean sound, but also have the playability of an electric, and to be able to go back and forth. That was the plan, and the execution of it was Brian Herb putting it together, and it turned out to be a pretty useful little tool.”
What acoustics did you play on the record?
“Uhh, it’s been a minute and I am not a great one for remembering which paintbrush we used on which painting but we used a ton of the Gibson Songwriters. I have a couple of Guilds that we used. I have a Martin, which I think we played, and there might have been a couple of other guitars, but that was the bulk of it.”
You have been using your signature Friedman heads but do you still go round the houses and use other guitar amps in the studio?
“Oh yeah, y’know, I’ve always been a guy who likes to use a lot of different tools. Whatever tool is necessary for the job gets used. It has nothing to do with endorsements or anything like that. You need variety. You need different tools. Different brushes. Different tints. Different colours. All of that – anything goes.
I love experimenting when we move into a recording environment. I will try to bring everything that I have in, a lot of varied heads, a lot of different cabs, effects pedals – every guitar I have – and then… We’ll get more! [Laughs] But we’ll hook up, I dunno, eight or nine, 10 different heads, and a bunch of different cabinets, we’ll mic them all up so it’s really easy to mix and match and plug and play. That's a system we’ve developed over the years.
"Dave Jerden was really great at working like that. Nick Raskulinecz, Toby Wright, Paul Figueroa, we really perfected it, making it so that everything is available, so it’s not muss and fuss to be able to just say, ‘Okay, well that head doesn’t work but the cab’s cool. Let’s plug it into that head. Different guitar…’ Just to be able to be agile, to be agile and just try things out.”
Sure. Because even sometimes the room will react to one amp better than another, or a tube amp might be blazing one day and less so the next.
“That’s true. Music, writing songs, it’s real trial-and-error stuff. It is like running it up the flagpole and seeing who salutes it. Throwing the spaghetti on the wall and seeing if it fucking sticks. [Laughs] Pick your analogy! You go through the process and that is part of the fun.
"You are making it up out of fucking nothing. There aren’t any rules. There is no playbook. You can do whatever you want. I think, if there is any rule, it is: what does the song need? What is the song asking you for? And, sometimes, what does the song not need? Removing the clutter to let the thing be what it wants to be. But, as my good friend Joe Barresi says, how do you know you have gone too far unless you have already been there? [Laughs] You know!? You fuck around.
“Luckily I have been surrounded by a bunch of really talented, cool people, and I have been doing this for a while, and we are all in pursuit of the same thing, trying to make the best fuckin’ tune. And, in the bigger picture, trying to make the best record that we can. For that moment in time, you never want to walk away with a regret. ‘I coulda done that better I coulda done this.’ I’m glad I have never been in a situation where I have felt that, because I wouldn’t have put it out.
“You want to walk away knowing that you did the best that you could do for that particular period of time, and that you made something you were proud of. And if it was the last record you ever made, you could be good with that. I can say that about every record I have recorded. If this is the last one? It was fucking killer. It was great.”
It’s reassuring to hear that you are still fishing around for tones every time. It’s nice to know the pros are still chasing the horizon, too. But this whole thing is the business of seeking, isn’t it?
“Yeah! Well, it’s really challenging, it’s fun, it’s a helluva journey, and it can be a grind sometimes. There are some patches where you are crossing the desert where you feel like, ‘Fuck, man! [Laughs] We've got a ways to go before we see some water again.’ But you know by experience that you are going to get through any rough patches, that you can.
“Mostly, it’s an exciting and exhilarating process because you don’t know what’s going to happen. You make your little plan and you go in with your handful of ideas, maybe a couple of songs that are completed, and you know where it starts, you don’t quite know where it ends.
“But I am glad I followed my gut years ago, and this was something that always spoke to me. I have been lucky enough to have a career doing it, writing songs and feeling like I did what I was supposed to do with my life. And I am still at it. I am still operating at a level that makes me satisfied and I feel like I am still making good music, and I feel like I made another great record.”
We have to talk about Sir Elton. Where do you start? In some ways, perhaps because of the guitar player POV getting in the way, he can be a bit overlooked in rock circles. Do we overlook his genius because the piano is the lead instrument?
“Yeah, well, it’s just the writing style of he and Bernie [Taupin], Bernie’s words and Elton’s music, and of course Elton’s performance of said lyrics and music. His band is amazing. Nigel Olsson and [ the late] Dee Murray and Davey Johnstone – that core band was fucking sick. And there is so much great guitar work.
“Of course, Elton is the lead instrument – as he should be – but fuck, there is a lot of cool guitar shit on the early records and Davey has been a big influence of mine.”
Davey Johnstone is one of the best guitar players whom we never talk about as being one of the best guitar players ever.
“Absolutely. He is so versatile. And for all intents and purposes, he is the band leader. He is the man who keeps the band together. There is a lot of guitar to Elton’s music and I think that does get overlooked.”
It does seem nuts to talk about a man who played Madison Square Garden to celebrate his birthday is in any way under appreciated, but there is so much to learn from him. And those ‘70s records are of a piece with New Hollywood, in terms of doing something new and bold with an art form.
“Yeah, that era of music, the way that music was recorded, and just the warmth, and the volume of creativity of all sorts of styles and artists, there are just too many to count. It’s really hard not to get too fucking romantic about that era, and those influences that I gained, or those connections that I made during that decade, that was a really impactful decade of music for me.
“The ‘70s was something that would just naturally come through in the way I go about making songs, the type of emotions. Each era has its tools for how you can make make music and elements that are worth keeping; the [‘70s had] warmth, the ‘make it up as you go along’ attitude, new instruments, new ways of recording. The changes in music are a constantly changing river. It is changing but it continues to flow in the same direction in the present and on into the future.”
Nostalgia can be a little too persuasive and is sometimes best resisted, but there is something about the ‘70s that seemed to be a magic period for art in general, for cinema, for music. What made the conditions right for that?
“Well you have to remember that the 20-year period from the ‘60s to the ‘70s, that was when it was all being made up and done for the first time. I think that’s part of it, part of the impact. There are so many artists and sounds, and changes of music that have never happened before. But you can extrapolate that to today, and any era really. There is always change, there is always something that has never existed before, and there are only a handful of notes, man, and we all use ‘em!
“The thing is, it’s the individual, and the individual as part of a greater unit, like a band. That is still happening today. I don’t look at it like it’s nostalgic to celebrate that because it is a process that is still continuing today. I am part of a generation that is a continuation of something that was started before me, that I was inspired by, and there are many artists who have come after me, and many who will come after them. It’s fucking great.”
This record definitely has a ‘70s feel.
“I think you are right on point there. I think that, without me intending to do it, you can hear that. Maybe the roots are a little exposed, they are a bit more exposed than on other records, and that’s cool. I love that. It’s interesting, you could probably talk to a lot of artists and they’ll tell you their influences, and some are easier to pickup than others, where they emulate it out and you can hear where that artist came from, what era or style of music. But a lot of times you can’t because it is obscured by the identity of the artist, by the sound.
“I could go back through all of my music and, to me, it’s pretty clear where it is all coming from, what group of artists who might have made their way through and inspired me to write something. Maybe not while I am making it but after the fact. Maybe this record offers a clearer look of those influences.”
Brighten is out on 29 October via Warner Music. Preorder here.