It’s been quite a while since anyone has heard from Alice in Chains, but fans will get an earful in coming weeks.
“Alice in Chains” - the Seattle rock band’s first release since last winter’s EP, “Jar of Flies,” and first full-length album since 1992’s “Dirt” - is now in stores.
“It’s like having a new kid,” guitarist Jerry Cantrell said with a laugh. “It’s totally different, but it resembles its father. You love it, but you’ve got to settle in with it and let it be its own thing.”
Recorded at Bad Animals/Seattle, “Alice in Chains” is reminiscent of the group’s earlier recordings. The guitars are hard and heavy, especially on such songs as “Shame in You” and “God Am.” Alice in Chains fans who were confused by the quirkiness of “Jar of Flies” will perhaps find more to like in the new album.
“It’s got the vibe of the earlier stuff, ‘Dirt’ and ‘Facelift,”’ Cantrell said. “Then again, it’s kind of got its own sense of life.”
Lyrics are typically oblique and extremely gloomy. “Grind,” written by Cantrell, contains the line, “You’d be well-advised/ Not to plan my funeral/ Before the body dies.”
A limited-edition vinyl version of the album came out earlier this month, and the single “Grind” made its debut on radio in early October. (The video of “Grind” should air this week.)
Sony Music wasted no time launching the new record, which was completed less than two months ago, on its Columbia Records label.
Cantrell has been so immersed in finishing the album that he doesn’t have much perspective on how it compares to the group’s previous releases.
“The last five or six months have been solely dedicated to this record,” he said. “It’s really wild, because most of the stuff that you record, it’s months and months before it comes out. And this thing was finished like a month and a half or two months ago.
“Everything happened so fast that I haven’t really gotten my head out of the album. I’ve had no time to like sit down and get away from it.”
Besides Cantrell, Alice in Chains consists of singer and guitarist Layne Staley, bassist Mike Inez and drummer Sean Kinney. The group, which formed in 1987, rode the same Seattle wave that brought Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and other rock bands international fame and established the city’s music scene as one of the country’s most vibrant.
But in the past year, the band has been surprisingly mum.
In July 1994, when Alice in Chains canceled a July Seattle concert with Metallica, as well as its appearance at Woodstock ‘94, rumors of a breakup were rampant. The group’s Seattle management office sent out a cryptic statement that the decision to withdraw from the Metallica tour and Woodstock ‘94 was “due to health problems within the band.”
Cantrell declined to discuss those problems, except to say, “Layne is OK.”
Cantrell, who was upbeat on most topics, was clearly disdainful of the many rumors that have circulated about Staley’s alleged drug problem, the band’s possible breakup and whether or not “Alice in Chains” will be the group’s last record.
What little real news has come out of the Alice in Chains camp concerned Staley and his collaboration with Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready on rock band Mad Season, which took a ride on the record charts with such songs as “River of Deceit,” “Lifeless Death” and “I Don’t Know Anything.”
Named for the time of year when psychedelic mushrooms sprout in England, Mad Season was conceived by McCready during a stay at a Minnesota drug and alcohol rehab facility.
The Mad Season project overlapped somewhat with the recording of Alice in Chain’s new album, which may have caused some friction between Staley and others in the band.
But all four members were in good spirits at a private release party on Halloween night at the Weathered Wall club in Seattle, where guests mingled with the fetishists and costumed ghouls and goblins who served as human props.
Cantrell came dressed as “Nona,” his alter ego in the group’s “electronic press kit,” or EPK, a video distributed to the media. Dressed as Nona, Cantrell looked like a cross between Tabitha Soren and the prissy Church Lady of “Saturday Night Live” fame.
Cantrell said the idea for Nona came from the need for someone to interview band members for the EPK. He thought it would be more entertaining if band members - dressed in costume - interviewed each other.
“I thought I’d dress in drag,” Cantrell said. “It was all impromptu.”
Impromptu might also describe the group’s approach to recording.
“It was really unforced,” Cantrell said. “We spent some time - and we spent a load of money. But I’m really glad we did, because we left ourselves open to spontaneous things that probably wouldn’t have happened.
“The key was waiting until we were ready to cut and not making ourselves do something that was uptight or a little forced. That always translates through to your music. That’s something we’ve always had the highest respect for, the music we make together.”
Cantrell used a variety of electric and acoustic guitars, even a few borrowed from Eddie Van Halen and members of Heart.
“They’ve all got great gear, sweet guitars,” he said of Heart. “I’ve been borrowing guitars from Nancy (Wilson) since the first records we did. And there’s this Les Paul Jr. I always borrow from her, too, that’s got this thick tone. It’s real meaty.”
In the studio, Cantrell had time to experiment.
“I like to record with a guitar and an amp setup and then record the same thing maybe with a different setup, so you’ve got different tones left and right even though you’ve got the same thing going on.”
Cantrell also did more singing.
“I guess what I’ve leaned toward is stepping up to sing the songs I’ve written,” he said. “I’ve luckily had Layne there to back me up in the past. But you’ve got to grow and get better.”
Producer Toby Wright, who met the band while working with them several years ago on the soundtrack for “Last Action Hero,” also experimented with microphones, including one he bought at a Seattle pawn shop.
“We used different microphones and effects, depending on the song,” Wright said. “In ‘Grind,’ Jerry’s vocals were pretty straight. But with Layne we put the mike through a distortion pedal and recorded that sound. We got the mix just right - between the regular sound, the clear mike sound - and what comes out of the distortion pedal at full volume.”
Compared to “Jar of Flies,” which Wright and the band recorded and mixed in two weeks, “Alice in Chains” was a marathon project. Recording began in April and continued through the summer.
“Typically, Alice won’t follow anything,” Wright said. “They just do what they feel. What you hear on the record is basically the music as they feel it and record it. No one ever said, ‘We need to sound like this.”’
For inspiration, Cantrell looks to such groups as Pantera and musicians Chris Whitley and ex-Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl, who plays guitar on the new Foo Fighters album.
“There’s so much energy on that record,” Cantrell said of the Foo Fighters’ debut album. “I’m totally impressed. As far as live bands, they’re probably one of the most dangerous I’ve seen in my life. Their adrenalin level is way over the top.”
Last March, Cantrell was in Austin, Texas, to record a Willie Nelson song, “I’ve Seen All of This World I Care to See” for a Nelson tribute album due this winter.
“I believe that’s the title of the song. I’m still not sure. I’ve never seen a printed version of the song. I’ve only got a tape of the song.”
While Staley was working with Mad Season, Cantrell recorded “demo” tapes of his own material.
“It just ended up sounding like Alice,” Cantrell said. “It wasn’t like my heart wasn’t into doing it, it’s just that it was totally Alice material. I’ve got a few songs cataloged back at the house, but most of the stuff ended up on the new record.”
Among the band’s many fans is Mariners’ star pitcher Randy Johnson, who acted as catcher when Cantrell threw out the first pitch during a Milwaukee Brewers game this summer at the Kingdome.
Cantrell’s pitch was determined a strike.
“(Randy) didn’t even move his glove. It was pretty good for a guy who hasn’t throw a hard ball for a while. I was wearing flip-flops and shades, too.”
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