Jerry Cantrell Interview: Why Is This Man Smiling?

    By: HP Newquist (National Guitar Museum) – February 1996

Jerry Cantrell has a few things to say about Alice in Chains, His New Record, and Life under a Microscope

Jerry Cantrell Photo Credit: Rick Landers

It’s a nice day in Seattle. No rain, few clouds, a lot of sun, and temperatures in the mid-60s. Latte and espresso vendors clog the city’s street corners like legalized crack dealers. In the famous Pike Place Market, tourists videotape everything that moves, from guys making crab salad to street corner dulcimer players. Downtown, business people rush in and out of the high-priced coffee shops which are nestled nonchalantly between porn theaters and sporting goods stores. In nearby Pioneer Square, the turn-of-the-century “quaint” section of downtown Seattle, Jerry Cantrell sits in an anonymous second floor management office overlooking the street. Dozens and dozens of gold and platinum records, posters, awards, and promotional items featuring Alice In Chains and Soundgarden clutter the office. In the confines of this building, Alice in Chains is omnipresent.

Yet, Alice has been away from the public eye for a couple of years now, dropping out of several high-profile gigs [Woodstock, Lollapalooza] and fighting rumors of personal deterioration and band dissent. All the while, the band has been critically and popularly revered as alternative rock’s classic band, or maybe, as Cantrell laughs, “classic rock’s alternative band.” Their popularity has made them easy targets for entertainment-industry gossips and doomsayers, but Cantrell tries to take it all in stride. “The annoying thing is that all the interviewers and magazines want to know about is your personal life, stuff that’s nobody’s business, like who I’m sleeping with or whatever.” He lights up a Marlboro faster than the blink of any eye, aims a blast of smoke at the ceiling and laughs loudly, “The sad thing is that I’m not sleeping with anybody right now, so there’s not much to talk about.”

Cantrell is taller than one would expect, over six feet tall. At 29, he no longer has the cherub-with-a goatee look that graced the sleeves of Alice in Chains records and innumerable music magazine articles. The trademark colored goatee is gone and only a few days’ worth of whiskers cover his thin face. He is wearing an old baseball jacket and torn black jeans, and if you passed him on the street, you’d think he was just another member of Seattle’s post-grunge population.

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He is quick to laugh, but is dead serious about how important the future of Alice in Chains is to him personally and professionally. For instance, it seemed like he was the only one in the band not involved in some side project over the past years. Vocalist Layne Staley put in some well-publicized time with Mad Season this year [resulting in a successful disc, Above] while bassist Mike Inez has found time for projects that include Ozzy Osbourne and Slash’s Snakepit.

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“My heart’s always been with Alice in Chains,” Cantrell says, his eyes narrowing slightly. “I would definitely like to do some other things, but the time isn’t right for me. I don’t know when that will be or what the circumstances will be. Even after eight years, it’s still not the right time to look for anything else. I’m happy in Alice, and as a band we’ve gotten real lucky, we have a good track record.” He pauses and mulls that fact over. Alice in Chains is one of the few bands that sell a million albums every time they choose to put out a new one. “But it can also be a track record that’s hard to live up to. I personally think about topping what I put out the last time. The key to it is to give every record the time that it needs, and not have too many expectations. That’s why this record took as long as it did – five months, which is long for us but not long for most artists. We’ve put out stuff fast in the past – in seven days we wrote and recorded seven songs for Jar of Flies – and that’s why everybody was pressing us to do this one fast. But we said, “Stay away, chill out, we got to do this one the way we need to.’ We gave ourselves the time to jam. And we had the luxury of taking that time – even though I hate paying those studio bills, they add up – but we didn’t force a single cut. If it didn’t come, we moved on.”

This record, called simply, Alice in Chains, is substantially different from any of tis predecessors. It doesn’t have the metallic punch of Facelift or the lighter textures of Jar of Flies. Instead, it tends to be more sprawling and sparse than anything else the band has done. “I think it’s real jammy,” says Cantrell. “There’s only two songs that are under three minutes, the rest are all like, four, five, six, seven, eight minutes long. There’s 65 minutes of music on there. But it was just part of a natural progression. In the past, a lot of the songs were done before we even recorded them. With Dirt and Jar of Flies, for instance, we’d put stuff down with a bit of an idea about what Layne would do to them vocally later on. He’d call for two verses, chorus, verse, whatever, and we’d record them that way. This time, stuff was completely put together in the studio. Even though Layne was still heavily involved, we’d play songs for as long as it felt right to play them. Then we discussed the tunes with Layne and he put his stuff over the top of them pretty much as they were. It was just a lot more free-form musically and was far more loose in the way it went down.”

Didn’t the extent of the band members’ side projects concern him? “Not really, I mean, I was hoping they’d come back [Laughs]. After all, I’d already written all this music. I had some riffs together, and I’d make a mental decision in my head that this music should be for Alice in Chains. I had jammed with a bunch of other drummers, including Josh [Snider], a buddy of mine that plays for Tad, and another guy [Norman Scott] who plays for Gruntruck. It was still all just work in progress, and then I called Mike and [drummer] Sean Kinney, so It ended up actually being Alice in Chains. We worked from January almost to April together. Then in March and April I went into a studio to record some song ideas on my own, just for my own benefit, and to get something going, to ignite a spark. After I had those tracks, we booked three months of time at Bad Animals [Heart’s studio] and began working on this album.”

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But, for all the additional time it took to record, Alice in Chains sounds less heavily layered or effected than they have been on past efforts. “We used a lot of different stuff on this album, but it’s still just me and my guitar. The marriage between us is an arrangement I’ve been very happy with,” he laughs. There were some conscious attempts at trimming down, though. “We used a lot of vintage stuff, some old Fender amps, old Marshalls, Soldanos. I’m an intense person, and when I get into something, I go full into it, but for some reason I never really got into collecting guitars or gear, so I always have to borrow stuff [Laughs]. I used some cool guitars from Nancy Wilson, she’s always loaning me shit. She’s got a ton of great stuff. I recorded with one of her Les Paul juniors and some of her acoustics. Then we got a box of old effects from [Heart guitarist] Howard Leese, who sent a bunch of stuff down. There’s also these guys from Tacoma that have a place called Guitarmaniacs, that has a lot of stuff. They had a ’52 Les Paul and an old early ‘60s Strat that I’ve used before on a couple of records, but they would never sell them to me. They were like, “These are our personal guitars,” and I kept going, “Come on, man, sell them to me. Please!’ They finally broke down after all these years and sold me both of them.”

Even though he was outfitted with plenty of Heart’s gear and ensconced in Heart’s recording studio, Cantrell had no difficulties in making a suitably snakelike sludgy Alice in Chains album. “I generally cut the main track with my G&L guitar and a Bogner, and then cut another track hard left or hard right with a different guitar and different amp, which doubled the main track. Then we’d blend them together. Sometimes it was three or four tracks, whereas on Dirt we might have cut as many as six or eight guitars tracks, although we wouldn’t use them all. I think having fewer tracks might have opened this record up to that jam vibe more.”

Billy Morrison and Jerry Cantrell Photo Credit: Rick Landers

The five months of studio experimentation extended beyond musical jams and borrowing guitars. “I used a Peavey 5150 head on “Sludge Factory” with a Les Paul, and it was nasty as fuck. I had asked Eddie Van Halen if I could buy a head and an EVH guitar off of him at the end of the tour with them, and when I got home there were three full stacks and two guitars waiting for me. He just gave them to me. It was weird for me to use the 5150 on this record, because I hadn’t spent too much time with it. I’m so married to what I do that everything I use I’ve already put through all the paces – you know, blown the doors off the stuff. And I played with the 5150, taken it out for a few spins, but had never really seen whatever I could do. So it kind of sat around. During this record my guitar tech, Darrell Peterson, came over and was tweaking it and playing it a little bit. When I heard it, it was incredible. I asked him, ‘What the hell is that?’ and he goes, “It’s your 5150. You know, the one that’s been sitting in your fucking closet for two years.’ It’s a great head, it has a lot of beef to it.

“Also, with all those old borrowed pedals around, I probably used less Crybaby on this album, but I am a Crybaby-head, man. I mostly use Dunlop Rotovibe on this record, and I also got an old Maestro Phaser, which is a big monstrous thing. When I was a kid I used to have one, and in my neighborhood band we used it to play “Unchained” and it was perfect, even though I’m pretty sure Van Halen used a Phase 90. Anyway, we basically stockpiled our stuff and we had an arsenal of effects, so that we could do whatever we were thinking of at the time. Like we’d say, “Let’s take the Strat and run it through the Soldano with a Phase 90 or take the G&L, through a Bogner with something else.’ I didn’t think about actual tone or effects when we were recording. I would just say to Darrell, ‘I need a sound like that obscure song by whoever and he would get it.”

Of course, such experimentation didn’t come cheap. “When you don’t own the stuff, like I said, the bill goes up [Laughs], but no matter what, we were to spend what it took to make this record right.” He tugs on a wayward thread in a hole in his jeans. “Usually I only think about my money when I’m giving half of it to the government,” he laughs.

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Even though Jerry considers himself to be nothing more than a part of Alice in Chains [I’m just one-fourth of a good band,” he says], he has taken the first tentative steps towards exploring what he is able to do on his own.” I guess the first thing I did on my own, and I did it last year, was this cover of a Willie Nelson song, “I’ve Seen All This World I Care To see,” for the new Twisted Willie tribute record. It was just me and my guitar in my guest bathroom. The bathroom was all tiled, with tile floors, and it sounded real ambient. I just put a mic in there, hung a sheet up, and recorded. I laid some more guitar tracks over it, and Sean played a little drums to it. It turned out pretty good.” But he does harbor a few ideas about what it might be like to stretch out beyond Alice in Chains. “God, there’s so many good players I’d like to work with. I’d like to work with Chris Whitley, and we’ve talked about doing some stuff. He’s really fucking awesome. I’d like to do something with James Hetfield, actually. We’ve jammed together a couple of times in various drunken states. One night it was like all of Metallica and me and we took over Kirk’s jam room at his place. We started totally cranking, which woke Kirk’s girlfriend up in the middle of the night. I’m pretty sure she was really pissed [Laughs]. And of course, there’s Eddie Van Halen. I love him, man. He is one cool guy and one of the all time very best.”

Someday I want to do a song with Elton John. Actually, I’d like to do a song with him, Nigel Olsson and Davey Johnstone. Same thing with Lindsay Buckingham; Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours is still right up there as one of my favorite albums. Of course, I still have to meet these guys. I’m not sure how I’ll do it, but I don’t want to have it arranged by my manager or anything, because then I’d feel like a dick. What am I going to say? “Oh man, you are great I used to listen to you all the time!’ It will have to happen under natural circumstances and not be some corporate thing. But you watch. Someday I’ll do that.”

Jerry opens another pack of cigarettes, taking a moment to pick up a magazine with The Beatles on the cover [okay, so it was Guitar Magazine]. The conversation switches to the new Beatles anthology and the legacy of The Beatles, which is older than Cantrell is. He shakes his head. “You can’t top The Beatles, they are still the kings. You can’t get much better than that as a songwriter – it’s the stuff that you strive for. It’s just great music. You hope to be around even a fraction of the time that they were, because their music’s going to be around forever. That’s the hope, man., maybe you get a piece of immortality.”

He opens the magazine and looks in awe at the Fab Four. “You know, nobody will ever understand what their lives were like. I’ve had little, slight glimpses of what it might’ve been like, maybe in South America where we had people mob the cars and had a police escort. But I can go into a bar pretty much anywhere and not have to worry about anything, but these guys couldn’t go anywhere. You think, ‘Jesus Christ, could I live like that?’ It’s one of the prices you pay for being in the business. For all the benefits of getting to play music, there are a lot of downsides. It’s harder to develop emotionally, I think, because your own identity gets overshadowed by all of this stuff. It’s hard to keep you shit together when you’re dealing with the whole music business thing. And it has been tough for me. Craziness finds me wherever I am; insanity is part of the job description. It’s not fucking easy to deal with, but it’s still the only thing I would do with my life. I can’t think of doing anything else. It would be unnatural. I could only equate it to the feeling I had in my body the first time I ever jumped out of a plane. I thought, ‘This is very wrong. What am I doing jumping out of a perfectly good airplane?”

“Playing the guitar and making music, along with everything that goes with it – the good and the bad – is far better than anything else I’ve ever experienced. Fuck, I make a living doing this, and that’s the icing on the cake. The real meat is just the personal satisfaction of completing something and reaching other people and having them dig it. You can’t ask for anything more than that. I count my blessings on that one.”


About HP Newquist: HP Newquist is the founder of The National Guitar Museum, the first museum dedicated to the evolution and cultural impact of the guitar. He has authored books that have explored a wide range of subjects and include: Legends of Rock Guitar (with Peter Prown); The Way They Play series (including Blues Masters, Hard Rock Masters, Metal Masters, Acoustic Masters), with Rich Maloof and the award winning The Great Brain Book: An Inside Look At The Inside Of Your Head. Newquist is the past Editor-in-Chief of Guitar Magazine. He wrote Going Home, a Disney Channel documentary featuring Robbie Robertson, as well as directed the film documentary, John Denver – A Portrait.

Note: This interview is reprinted from an article by HP Newquist, originally published in GUITAR Magazine (February 1996). It appears here courtesy of Newquist and The National GUITAR Museum.


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