Q & A With Jerry Cantrell
In the ’90s, Jerry Cantrell and his Alice in Chains mates were one of the biggest bands on the planet. The hardest-rocking act to emerge from the Seattle grunge scene, the quartet dominated the charts and airwaves with songs like “Would?” “Rooster,” “No Excuses,” and “Man in the Box.” However, the band disappeared from the music landscape in 1996 when lead singer Layne Staley succumbed to an addiction that eventually killed him in 2002. With Staley’s passing, most thought Alice was destined to live on only in catalogue and through the numerous acts that ripped off their sound.
But Alice is back. With new member William DuVall helping Cantrell with vocal duties, the grunge icons are returning after 14 years with their first new album, Black Gives Way to Blue. Largely influenced by the memory of their fallen band member and the arduous journey they’ve taken, the album is vintage Alice, mixing raw pain with the strength of moving on and the familiar sludge and kick-ass hard rock with some moments of great beauty—like the stunning title track, featuring piano from Cantrell’s musical hero, Elton John.
The day before heading overseas to take the album to Europe, Cantrell spoke candidly with INKED about his tattoos, the new music, and the pain of losing Staley and why it will never be all right.
INKED: When did you get your first tattoo?
JERRY CANTRELL: It’s been a while, but I wanna say in ’88. My mother had passed away right before I met Layne, and she’d left me a little bit of money to live on. We used that on gear and a couple of demo sessions that we did early on. I had a little bit of spending cash left over so Layne and I were talking about getting the brother tattoos. We went down to this place on Pike Street in Seattle, right above the market on the hill, and I got this screaming skull-type thing on my right shoulder, and he got a skull with an Elvis hairdo and some sunglasses on his left shoulder. They were both wall tattoos, my only wall tattoo—and, generally, the first one usually is. [Laughs.] But the cool thing about doing it was doing it with Layne; he had one on one shoulder and I had one on the other. They were kind of connected and obviously we were too. Did you guys get any other tattoos done together after that?
The first video we did, “Man in the Box,” we had a Jesus character in the video with his eyes sewn shut and Layne got that tattooed on his back. I always loved that tattoo. So he got those two and I’ve got one on either side. I’ve got the right arm—I pretty much augmented the skull I had a little bit—and then I have a full arm piece, and two separate pieces on my other arm, on my left shoulder. The majority of the tattoos I have were done in Louisiana, and it’s been so many years I can’t remember the name of the place. [Editor’s note: Electric Ladyland Tattoo Studio.] It was run by a really cool lady, and I met this kid named Henry Rhodes. I got some New Orleans-style [tattoos]; I got a weird teddy bear–type voodoo doll. It’s connected to another tattoo that I did first, which is kind of like a demon holding a couple of masks in front of his face. And then I have two thigh pieces I also did in New Orleans. The left forearm piece was done in Dallas. I think that was done by a guy named Chuck Jones.
Do you have any Alice-related tattoos?
Anything that’s got to do with a name, like girls’ names or a band name, I’ve always looked at that as an instant curse. [Laughs.] You’re gonna break up or something and then you’re stuck, so I’ve kind of always shied away from doing anything kind of personal. I do have a frog skeleton on my left thigh that is kind of inspired by a piece of art that Alice used by an artist named Jesse Hickman, out of Seattle. So I do have a piece of art related to Alice, but nothing completely direct or blatant. When was the last time you got tattooed?
The last tattoo I got was the frog skeleton, actually, so it’s been a long time since I [got] a tattoo. I’ve kind of been debating on whether to just live with what I have, which is pretty much what I’ve done. In the case of tattoos I would always give anybody the same advice: If you’re not absolutely sure then just don’t do it, ’cause you can always get it later. Part of it is trying to decide. I’ve often thought about sleeving both arms or at least sleeving one and maybe partially another, but I haven’t quite gotten to that yet. But I’ve been thinking about it—actually for a good couple of years. So maybe throughout the travels of the tour on this record we’ll see some more ink on Mr. Cantrell.
Are there any Alice tattoos you’ve seen that really stand out to you?
Plenty. I think the most popular one I’ve seen repeatedly is the artwork that Layne came up with, which is the Alice tribal sun. And that’s always cool to me because it’s something Layne designed and he was becoming a really great artist himself. He was great at self-portraits and he was a really creative guy. That’s kind of an iconic piece of the Alice history and it’s something he created. The other one, which I never really know how to feel about, is I’ve had people occasionally ask me to sign their arm so they can get it tattooed. I’m like, “Ah, don’t do that, dude. You don’t want my name on your arm.” I dig the support and I appreciate it and all that, but maybe get some sort of piece of art instead of an autograph. But it’s their body and it’s totally cool. I’ve done it a couple of times. Most of the time I actually decline. If they say they’re gonna get it tattooed I generally have a little talk with them and try to talk them out of doing that. But occasionally you’ll sign somebody and they’ll show back up at the next show and they’ve got a tattoo of it, so I’ve seen the autograph thing a couple of times too.
In the hypothetical realm, is there anybody you’re a big enough fan of to do that?
I wouldn’t put somebody’s name on my body. Maybe if I had a kid or something, maybe somebody that was that dear to me and that part of me. I guess maybe that might be a consideration. But I would probably do some piece of art that represented them. If you wanna talk about some really cool and fucking beautiful artwork that’s done in a kind of homage thing, I’ve seen some great portrait art. That’s cool because that’s a piece of art, and I really admire any artist who can bring a face to life. I’ve seen a couple of Layne that were really cool and seen some really great ones of Dime [Dimebag Darrell] and a couple of Ace Frehley that were fucking killer—and of course family members and stuff like that.
What was the first album that blew you away?
It was Elton John. The first record I ever had my dad gave me, and I’m looking at it right now; it’s in my kind-of trophy case. It’s Elton John’s Greatest Hits. My dad was stationed in Korea; he was a career army guy and a total country-western fan, no room for rock ‘n’ roll. But he came back from Korea—I hadn’t seen him in a long time—and he had this box of records he had acquired over there. He was kind of thumbing through some stuff and he said, “Here, a buddy of mine gave me this, I’m not really into it. You want it?”
Let’s fast-forward to today. Sir Elton makes an appearance on your new album. Given your history, what did it mean to walk into a room and see Elton playing your music?
[Laughs.] That’s just an unbelievable thing. I’d met him in Vegas, saw his show, and he was a fucking cool dude. And to walk in and see the lyrics and the chart that I wrote, what it represents to this band—being the title track and dedicated to Layne—and representing all we’ve gone through and the decision and the courage to take on the challenge of what we have and to come out of it with the type of record that we have. All of those things and to have Elton playing on that song—it’s incredible. It’s one of those really cool moments in life that you always will treasure. How did it come about?
A guy that’s been with us from the beginning had worked for Elton for a period of time and he’s like, “Why don’t you call Elton up?” And we’re like, Yeah, okay, right. Sure, I’m sure Elton’s gonna play on the fucking tune—not thinking that would ever happen. And he’s like, “Fuck, dude, you never know, give him a fucking call.” So I called a friend of our mutual friend who works for Elton, got his e-mail, wrote him a little note, and just explained kind of what I said to you: how we’re huge fans, this song is the title to our record, it’s a beautiful song—a deep, kind of raw, open-hearted song to Layne—and just all that. I said, “Hey, I know you’re a busy guy, but you never know unless you ask. Here’s the demo and if you get a chance to listen to it and if you feel anything for it at all we’d be completely honored to of course have you be a part of it.” And he fucking did it. It was awesome.
Before your solo album, Boggy Depot, you talked about the song “Hurt a Long Time” being a painful one to sing. Are there any on this album that stir up the same feelings?
“Hurt a Long Time” was for my cousin Kevin, who had just committed suicide. I think of anything off this record, obviously “Black Gives Way to Blue” is the most difficult song, without a doubt. Even cutting that song, you can hear it in my voice. You can’t really hide that. I don’t even know how I got through the recording of that, but I just kept fucking slugging away. It was producer Nick Raskulinecz, our drummer Sean [Kinney], and me in a room, and all of us are crying our fucking eyes out. Sean’s having fucking anxiety attacks and I’m fucking just holding onto the mic stands, [trying to] get through the fucking thing. And it was very difficult, even on the writing of that song. There was a huge chunk of grief there I’d been holding on to for a long time—I think we all have. And by writing that song, it kind of puked it out. So that probably triggered a big part of a mourning process that probably didn’t happen right at the time Layne passed away. And I think a big part of that, for me, was that I dropped a record right when he died and I had to go on the road, so I probably was carrying a shitload of stuff around. And probably still will. Like I said, it’s never gonna be right.
What does new vocalist-guitarist William DuVall bring to the band?
He’s a dear friend of mine and somebody I’ve known for almost a decade. I’ve always admired how dedicated he is to what he does. There is nothing else in life that is more important for him than music, except for maybe now his son, of course. But I relate to that because that’s how I am too. I’m dedicated to this and it’s the only thing I’ve never quit or been fired from. And also to have the set of balls that he has to take on a challenge like this and under intense fire—and to do it gracefully and respectfully, not only to this band and the memory of Layne but also to himself—it’s an admirable thing. … We operate as a team, although it’s a completely different relationship than Layne and I had, and I don’t think you ever get to be buddies like you do when you start as kids together and go through a career. It’s a different thing, but it’s a similar dynamic. The band was always a two-headed monster and we kind of worked as a team vocally—creating the sound, writing it, and representing it live. That’s what we do here, and William and I are kind of a team. You get two lead singers for the price of one here.
Talk about the humor in “Check My Brain,” your riff on L.A. life.
I think the cool thing about that song in particular is that it singles out my experience up to now and where I am living now, which is someplace I never expected to call my home. [Laughs.] Let alone be okay here without kind of living the way I used to live, which was pretty fucking hard. This town was a particular favorite to haunt, and things aren’t like that today anymore—and it’s totally cool. It’s just the irony of that, of kind of living in the belly of the beast, and being okay with it and living a different way than I used to live. It’s kind of like the fucking bad ex-gambler who decides to live in Vegas and actually has no problem not gambling anymore. It’s just kind of funny. I’m from Seattle, there’s no fucking way I ever thought of myself living in L.A.—and I’m totally cool with it. I don’t mind slow-rolling it out of bed every morning and going out and laying out in the sun on a lounge, having a coffee and a smoke. And then after I sit there for a while, make a few calls and jump in the pool. That’s not a shitty way to start the day. [Laughs.]