Q&A: Jerry Cantrell of Alice in Chains
The guitarist/songwriter on Layne Staley's legacy, Dave Grohl's support, and recruiting Elton John for the band's new album.
Alice in Chains recently announced that a very special guest would appear on their first album in 14 years, out September 29 — and that person is Elton John, who plays piano on the record’s title track “Black Gives Way to Blue,” an emotional tribute to late frontman Layne Staley. It’s a surprising collaboration, but one that guitarist/songwriter Jerry Cantrell tells SPIN.com was like an act of fate.
“Elton John was Layne’s first concert,” says Cantrell, 43, sitting in a dim New York hotel bar, clutching an iced tea with a hand that has no less than three skull-and-cross-bones rings on it. “There’s a lot of really weird things lining up here. And things like that have been happening all along during our reunion process. You get little sign posts pointing the right way.”
One of those sign posts directed the band to William DuVall, former frontman of Atlanta rockers Comes with the Fall, who fills in for Staley on vocals and plays rhythm guitar. “Part of the healing process is sharing with other people who care,” Cantrell says of DuVall, referring to Staley’s 2002 death from a heroin and cocaine overdose.
Below, read SPIN’s conversation with Cantrell, from the band’s decision to reunite will DuVall to their relationship with Dave Grohl, who played a role in recording their new album.
How did the collaboration with Elton come together? It’s a little surprising.
It makes a lot of sense to us. But the fact that it happened in the first place is something we didn’t expect. We were in the studio and were getting near the end. “Black Gives Way to Blue” was one of the last songs we cut. We were trying to figure out if we wanted a piano track on it. Our friend Todd who was in the room suggested calling Elton just out of the blue and we all looked at him like he was crazy. Of course we would love for that to happen, but we were like, ‘Nah that’s not going to happen, that dude’s busy. He’s got his own thing going on.’ But Todd was like, ‘Hey man, you never know unless you ask. I think he might do it!’ So we put that idea to the test.
How did you get him into the studio?
I wrote him an email and explained that the song was for Layne, and we heard that he was interested in doing it. Later, as we continued working on the record, it turned out that Elton was doing a session in the same studio as us in Los Angeles. [Drummer] Sean [Kinney] and I went out to lunch and we got a call from the studio manager saying, ‘Hey, Elton wants to talk to you.’ We’re like, ‘We’ll be back after lunch,’ and he said, ‘No, he’s taking off here in a few minutes so you guys need to get back here right now.’ So we canned the lunch and tore ass back to the studio and walked into the room that Elton was tracking in. He got up and gave us both a hug and said, ‘I just wanted to tell you that it’s a great tune and I want to play a track on it.’ We were totally blown away.
Was Layne a fan of Elton?
Yep. And, coincidentally, about a week ago Layne’s mom reminded me that Elton John was Layne’s first concert and she said he was blown away. Layne told me that once, but I had totally forgotten about it. It brought back some really cool memories. There’s a lot of really weird things lining up here. Number one: the significance of Elton to Alice in Chains. Number two: it was Layne’s first concert. And to have Elton play on a song for Layne, whew, it means so much to us.
When and where did you record with Elton?
Elton was ending his run in Vegas, so we wanted to do it there. We saw his show and then went down the studio. He came a couple minutes late because his football team was playing, and while I was waiting I walked into the room where his piano was and saw the lyrics to our song sitting on his piano. Just taking that in for a minute was pretty heavy. I was like, ‘Wow, this is really going down.’ We spent a couple hours with him and he gave us a bunch of different takes. It’s was really cool experience.
Any plans to collaborate with him live?
No plans, but anything is possible. I’d love to do some more stuff with him at some point.Even play on some of his stuff.That’s always been a dream for me, to be able to collaborate and make music with the people that inspired you to make music. Of course I’d love to do something with him again if that opportunity ever arose again. Live or in the studio, I’d be there in a heartbeat.
Moving onto working with new singer William DuVall…. Is the dynamic different than it was with Layne?
There are a lot of things that are similar, but the band dynamic is different. Not having Layne to rely on is a challenge — and it’s a challenge to bring a new member into the band. On the last couple Alice records I was singing more and more. That was pretty much out of confidence that Layne gave me. He kicked me out of the nest. Layne was like, ‘Dude, these songs are really personal to you. You can fucking sing, why don’t you just sing ‘em?’ I was like, ‘Fuck, I can’t sing that good,’ and he was like, ‘Then fucking get better at it and do it.’ He gave me a lot of confidence to do that, so over the span of our career you can see me growing in that way and he helped me do that.
What about William’s contributions — are all the lyrics his?
I wrote quite a bit of the record, lyrically as well. It’s an element I’ve always been happy to contribute. I’m very fortunate to come up with shit that the guys like. If we don’t like it as a band, it isn’t going anywhere. Sean [Kinney, the drummer] has no qualms about telling me something sucks. It’s possible to lose your perspective, but I always have him to rely on. William and I operated in a similar way in both our bands. We wanted to take our time and let it grow naturally and see what worked. If we’re going to call the band Alice in Chains, it better damn well sound like Alice in Chains. It’s nice to have him in the band and it allows us to evolve and become something that Alice wasn’t before while staying true and original enough to be called Alice in Chains.READ MORE OF THE INTERVIEW WITH JERRY CANTRELL ON PAGE 3.
When Layne died did you guys ever think you’d be doing this again?
Personally, I really didn’t have any thought of continuing at all. This whole thing pretty much started with something that didn’t have anything to do with us as a band. We didn’t just ring each other up like, ‘Let’s get the band back together!’ or get a message from God, Blues Brothers-style. It started with a benefit gig that we did for the tsunami victims that Sean organized in Seattle. He called up a bunch of friends and he called us and said, ‘Hey, do you want to do this? I think we should do this to try to help.’ So that was the first time that we played together. And it was a really cathartic experience. We were surrounded by our friends and played our songs. We had Maynard [Tool] come down and Ann and Nancy [Heart] came in and William was there. It was a cool experience.
How did it grow from there?
That show turned into us spending more time together and wanting to get a rehearsal room. Then we brought a couple of friends in and brought Will down and were just having fun. That turned into a couple of shows and that turned into a tour and that turned into us saying, ‘Let’s really do this right, let’s play all this stuff and go out open-heartedly and just celebrate the music and remember Layne and do this with all our fans in public.’ Part of the healing process is sharing with other people who care. It wasn’t some big master plan. There wasn’t anybody that paid us to do this; we did this on our own — self-funded, home-grown.
Did you speak with Layne’s family, or ask for their blessing to record new music?
I didn’t ask for their blessing, but I talked to Layne’s mom. Layne’s family is, of course, our family. They’re important to us and we support them just like they support us. I don’t really think it was ever us asking, “May we continue thing?” This is our band; Nancy [Layne’s mom] was never in the band. We love her to death, but… [shrugs]
At what point you did you guys decide to record new music?
On our last tour. The fans were really supportive. It felt good. So we decided to take the next step because you put us together for any period of time we’re naturally going to come up with new songs. We spent time jamming together and everywhere we go we have a room with a drum set and a couple of amps. Every day I’m in there playing with Sean. Sometimes Mike [Inez/bassist] and Will too, but a lot of times it’s just Sean and me fucking around on something new. If you’re in the middle of a tour, you already know the songs. You don’t want to be playing that shit, so you just fuck around and jam and that’s where pretty much everything comes from. At the end of that tour, I had a whole computer full of shit. So we decided to take the next step in that process, which was getting in a room and playing it for real.
How did you end up recording in Los Angeles?
We headed down there last summer and met the producer, Nick Raskulinecz, through Dave Grohl. Dave offered up his studio. So we went in there and spent about three months in Hollywood and finished the record around March. Nick was recommended by Dave, and Dave’s a real close friend of ours and someone we respect and admire a lot — someone who’s always really supported us, especially through this process. He’s calls and says, ‘I got this great studio, I’ll give you the bro deal, just make the record in my studio.’ We were like, ‘That sounds killer.’Dave said, ‘You’ve got to talk to this guy Nick, he’s a fucking great guy.’Nick is partners with Dave in that studio. They’ve made records together before so he was a good fit. That totally came on Dave’s recommendation and he was fucking awesome.
What do you think Alice fans will find on this record that they haven’t seen from you guys before?
11 new songs. It sounds like this band. It also sounds like this band that’s gone through a change. We don’t really sound like anybody else, we have a unique style. One thing that you hope for when you want to be a musician is that you have that recognizable sound. A Zeppelin song starts and you know two notes in that it’s Led Zeppelin. Or Black Sabbath, or AC/DC — you know it instantly. It’s a sonic fingerprint and we have that. We’ve moved on, but our fingerprint is still there. Shit fucking happens and things are not going to work out the way you want them to all the time in life. You get knocked on your ass, like you inevitably will, and it’s really about how you go about picking yourself back up. This is our process, this is what we’re doing.