Welcome to the latest edition of The Offramp! Each month, rock writer Corbin Reiff will highlight some of the most dynamic artists and projects going on in music today. Throw on the turn signal, crank up the stereo and enjoy the ride!
“I don’t ever sit down with the intent of writing about something,” Jerry Cantrell tells SPIN over the phone. “The music generally speaks to me and evokes an emotion. Or it lines up with something that I’m feeling or thinking or have experienced…and that can kind of sometimes lead you. To me, it’s like wildly swinging around in the fucking dark until you fucking latch onto something. And then you kind of build out from there.”
As the lead guitarist and chief songwriter in Alice in Chains, Cantrell has spent 30 years swinging through the darkness, pulling together different riffs, lyrics, and themes to create anthems that defined the entire sound and aesthetic of hard and alternative rock in the ‘90s and beyond. “Would?” is an epic example. So is “Rooster,” “Nutshell,” “Man in the Box,” “Them Bones,” and so many others.
From time to time, he’s also stepped out on his own. In 1998, he released his first solo album Boggy Depot. Four years after that he unveiled the massive, 25-song double record Degradation Trip Volumes 1 & 2. But then other obligations called for his attention. Alice in Chains reformed in 2005, and since then Cantrell has poured most of his time and energy into that band’s three subsequent post-reunion projects.
That all changed in 2020 after Alice wrapped up their tour behind the most recent record Rainier Fog. With the horizon looking pretty clear, Cantrell linked up with an array of different collaborators and began working on his first solo album in nearly 20 years. He just managed to get some of the basic tracks laid down when the entire world was upended by the pandemic. Since then, he’s kept plugging away, pulling together the likes of Guns N’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan, and Paul McCartney’s drummer Abe Laboriel Jr. to help complete his vision.
The result is a nine-track collection titled Brighten. It’s an eclectic record fueled by a mix of acoustic and electric instruments that Cantrell used to extrapolate on themes like doubt, resiliency, and moving on from the past. Needless to say, it’s easily the most upbeat-sounding album in his lengthy discography. That’s just fine by him.
“You start from a zero,” he said. “You start with a blank chalkboard every time. You can’t rely on anything that you’ve done in the past, because you’ve already done that. You made those records by doing it exactly the same way, by starting with a blank slate. Okay, what the fuck do I do now, you know?”
Recently, SPIN had the opportunity to talk to Cantrell about his latest release, his love for Elton John, as well as a long-lost collaboration with Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell.
SPIN: How was it that Brighten came to exist?
Jerry Cantrell: I put my mind to making a record after talking with a couple of good buddies of mine, Tyler Bates, Paul Figueroa and Joe Barresi, and some other people that I think are really creative folks…I got to work, writing and demoing, probably right into January or February of ’20. We went into the studio to cut drums for three or four days, and then moved over to Fig’s studio and did all of the guitars. That took us to right about the middle of the month, the third week of March, and that was right when everything shut down. We were really fortunate, actually, to be already well on our way, and had the majority of all the basic tracks cut.
Wow. That’s pretty intense timing.
The foundations were already poured, the frame of the house was already standing, and it was just unfinished enough to give me something to focus on while we were kind of shut down. We tried to figure it out like everybody else. We took the situation seriously and just tried to be careful amongst each other and keep our exposure small and work in small units or small groups or one-on-one, or just pass files back and forth. I was really bummed that I didn’t get to actually be in a room with [Paul McCartney’s drummer] Abe [Laboriel Jr.], but I’m really glad that he played on the record. He was locked down in New York, and I was locked down in L.A. But he did some amazing drum tracks on this record.
How did you combat the challenges of working over long distances while sending files back and forth?
I’d never really done the whole, send tracks to somebody and have them cut it, send them back, and then discuss and reattack. That was interesting. I’d never really done that, but it works. I think the thing about life in general, and definitely about making music, is you’ve got to remain teachable. You have to be flexible, and you’ve got to deal with shit on the fly. Like, “It’s got to be done now.” Okay, “How the fuck do we figure this out?” So that’s what we did.
You got a lot of fantastic musicians to appear on Brighten. You mentioned Paul McCartney’s drummer Abe Laboriel a minute ago for instance. What was it like to juggle so many disparate players as opposed to working within your typical, band dynamic?
To have Gil Sharone playing half of it and Abe playing half, I think that they both brought some really unique feels. And I think that the record just got a little bit more nuanced and varied because both of those guys playing on songs that I think fit their strengths. And they both have unique styles. It’s always fun making a record because everybody is so necessary, and everybody injects themselves into the material and the songs and the performances. The whole thing gets elevated far above where you maybe thought it could go. And that’s really the goal. It’s like the “one plus one equals three” scenario. In the case of Abe, we weren’t in the room together, but he’s a pro.
I don’t know a better word to describe the sound of some of these songs, besides “upbeat.” There’s a lot of acoustic sounds and major chords, and some really positive messages. Where were you at, thematically as you were working on these songs?
I never really sit down and plan out or state, hey, “I’m going to make this kind of record,” or “I’m going to make that kind of record.” It’s just not part of my process. It’s a fun part of the process, and a surprising one, where you start and where you end up. You have no idea where you’re going. That’s one thing that appeals to me about music and about art in general. It’s the intent to make something happen. To reach for something that you don’t know if you can attain or get to the level of reaching, but goddamn it, you’re going to try. I think a lot of my music is thematically the struggle between light and dark, and the necessity of both, you know? You have to have both sides of the coin. You’ve got to have positive and negative. The yin and yang. Although something may feel one way, it may be mean something completely different. Those are fun themes to play with, too.
The song “Dismembered,” has an especially poignant line: “Let it out / Don’t let it pass you by / Let it out / All the shit inside / Make it matter / Don’t look back.” Is that hard-earned advice you’ve learned through life? Where did that kind of sentiment come from?
Writing is a really weird thing. It’s very personal, obviously. I do have little nuggets of things that I’m trying to say and maybe that are drawn from personal experience. But also, it’s kind of a mosaic and a collage, if you will. I like things that are not so clear, not so spelled out, you know what I mean? Not so black and white, so that you can make up your own story or narrative. There are some songs that are pretty linear and easy to explain. But the majority of my stuff is not just really about one subject. You could have five different people listen to it, and they all might have some things in common, but they might take it a different way. And I love that, too. I love leaving some ambiguity in there.
Do you remain conscious of that? The ways people might interpret you?
Not really in a sort of planned-out, analytical way. But definitely on an instinctual kind of level, for sure. I’m aware of it.
I wanted to ask you about the song “Atone.” Is it true that that song has been kicking around in your head for 20 years?
I wish I’d never said that because it’s kind of wrong. I had the idea kicking around. The idea is much different than the song. That song came into existence in the form that it is in just a little under two years ago. But the idea, like the guitar riff and the melody — a melody line of the chorus or whatever — those were the two things that I had. I liken it to, say, a painter. If you go into their studio, there’s probably all sorts of works in different stages of development. Some things might be a quarter finished or just an idea or a sketch, but it’s not really painted or fleshed out yet because they haven’t realized what it needs to be yet. They’ve probably moved on to some other paintings and shit like that in the meantime. But it’s still there, and you still think it’s good. I finally got to finish the painting, I guess.
Is that typical for your process? Do songs kick around in your head for a while before you actually put them onto tape?
Anything that you hear that gets released by Alice or me has been churned around and the idea has been kicked around for years by the time it actually hits your ear hole. At least a year or more. There are tunes on every record we’ve ever released, and every record I’ve ever released, that are from earlier records’ writing sessions of an idea that just gets kind of filed away or whatever. On occasion, that happens; you’ll finally crack the code. “That chorus I had sucked,” or “I had shitty lyrics to this one,” but the riff is good. The riff is cool. That is songwriting. It’s not in its complete form right off the bat. No song is that, ever.
If only, right?
It is very rare where those happen. They do, but it’s so rare when you can knock out a tune in a day or two or a couple of hours. I’ve heard tell of them happening, and I’ve done them myself, but they are super rare.
You got Duff McKagan to play bass on this record. How long have you actually known Duff? Did you ever run into him around Seattle back in the ‘80s when he was playing with The Fartz?
I didn’t know him then, but I saw him on the cover of [a local zine] The Rocket when he was in the Fartz. I met him in L.A. when he was in Guns. Back in the Seattle days, I didn’t really have a whole lot of connection to him, but I was definitely aware of who he was. And the band that he started with the other guys, Guns N’ Roses, was a hugely influential band on us. I love Mr. McKagan. He’s about as rock and roll as it gets, and just a great human being. Working with him on this record was really fun. He’s just so natural, and he’s so quick. You can’t stump the dude, you know what I mean? You just can’t. He and I just sat in a room together with Paul Figueroa, and we just kind of passed the bass back and forth. When I do demos, I play the bass, and then I’ll get a real bass player because I’m a guitar player. I’m very well aware of my limitations on bass. It’s a specific skill, and you want the best and a pro at that skill. I’ve been very fortunate to have some of the very best in that department, and Duff is one. He even produced me on a song or two.
Really, which one?
“Siren Song.” I was going to have him do that song, but he was like, “The bassline you have on there is fucking killer. I wouldn’t fuck with it.” I’m like, “Okay, well, then produce me and show me how to not play it like a guitar player.” He’s like, “Okay, I’ll do that. But don’t change it because it’s really good.”
You decided to end the record with a cover of “Goodbye” off Elton John’s album Madman Across the Water. Is it true your first record was Elton’s greatest hits album?
Yeah, that was the first album I had in my hands. My dad had come back from being stationed in Korea, and he had a gigantic cardboard box full of LPs. Mostly all country stuff. He definitely didn’t listen to Elton. But he was like, “Here, you want this?” And I’m like, “Fuck yeah, I’ll take that.” I was well aware of who Elton John was. So, yeah, the first record I got was from him. He got it from some record trade somewhere, where he gave something up and got an Elton John record in return that he really didn’t care about. But he gave it to me, and I did care about it. It meant a lot to me.
You’ve worked with Elton before with Alice in Chains on “Black Gives Way To Blue,” but what did it mean for you to include the song, “Goodbye,” at the end of this record?
I just appreciate the hell out of him, and I love his music. His band is amazing. And the writing of Bernie Taupin is something that always meant a lot to me. It’s an influence in my writing, amongst many others. But it is important. And it’s a song I always dug, “Goodbye.” It’s the last song on Madman Across the Water, that’s coincidentally a nine-song record like Brighten is. It’s in the same spot that it should be, because it’s a great closer, “Goodbye.”
Did you ever get any feedback from him about it?
When I recorded it, I really dug it, but I just wanted to make sure he was cool with it. I sent him the demo. And he dug it, and he was like, “Absolutely. You should put it on the record, for sure. You’ve got my permission to use it.”
Maybe for the next Alice record, you can try out “Razor Face?”
“Razor Face.” Love “Razor Face.” Yeah. I think Elton was [Alice in Chains singer] Layne [Staley’s] first gig. I think his folks took him to Elton.
No way! What was your first gig?
Black Sabbath was my first proper concert.
This is kind of random, but I was talking to Michael Beinhorn a while back, the producer who worked on Superunknown with Soundgarden. He mentioned to me once, that Chris Cornell sent him a demo tape during that time that had an early version of “Black Hole Sun” and “Tighter and Tighter” along with a song you played on called “Anxious.” I’m curious if you remember working on that one at all?
I don’t remember the tune. I’d like to hear that myself. I do remember hanging out with Chris quite a bit. We all did. We’d go on late-night hikes out in the park with the dogs and stuff. Me and [Alice in Chains drummer] Sean [Kinney] and him and a case of beer. Just kind of hanging out. Or over at his house. He had a great jam room built in the garage. I wrote “Rooster” in he and [Alice in Chains/Soundgarden manager] Susan [Silver’s] house in West Seattle. It was a tight-knit community. I always really admired Chris and looked up to him. I thought he was an amazing talent. I remember messing around with him on a few things here and there, like on ideas and stuff. If I heard it, I would probably know what you were talking about. I don’t specifically remember something that we recorded that he intended to work on, but I’m sure there’s a few of those.
With Brighten about to drop, what’s the next year is looking like for you?
Prepping to hit the road next year in support of Brighten. We’ve already got tickets on sale and dates booked from March to May of 2022. And we’re looking at some European stuff, hopefully through the end of summer. Then there may be some stuff next year with Alice. I’m not sure. It’s a little further down the road. I definitely want to take this music around the ball as far as I can safely do it. Gather folks to hear it and play stuff not only from this record but my other two [solo] records, and songs from my career as a songwriter in Alice in Chains, as well.
Before I let you go, I have to ask. How are you feeling about your Seahawks this year given Russell Wilson’s injured finger?
It’s actually his middle finger, and that’s exactly how I feel about it.