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Alice in Chains’ Jerry Cantrell talks new solo album and a day he’ll never forget in Spokane

Dec. 25, 2021 Updated Sat., Dec. 25, 2021 at 11:06 a.m.

Jerry Cantrell is the co-founder, lead guitarist, co-lead vocalist and main songwriter of Alice in Chains.  (Jonathan Weiner)
Jerry Cantrell is the co-founder, lead guitarist, co-lead vocalist and main songwriter of Alice in Chains. (Jonathan Weiner)

“Brighten,” Jerry Cantrell’s first solo album since 2002’s underrated “Degradation Trip,” is an old-school rock release that’s diverse, with primarily terse songs and a common thread that ties together each of its nine tracks.

The Alice in Chains’ co-founder called from his home, which is south of Seattle, to talk “Brighten,” the impact Spokane had on Alice in Chains and where the iconic band signed to a major label deal a generation ago. The chat evolves into a pair of guys who are the same age (55) and who love music. We reflect on what we experienced growing up on different sides of the country while coming of age during a rapidly evolving time in rock.

You’re more than a capable vocalist, but were you one of those reluctant vocalists, a la James Hetfield of Metallica, and did (the late Alice in Chains frontman) Layne Staley help you become the singer you are?

I was happy to play guitar and sing backup in Alice in Chains. When you have a guy like Layne Staley in the band, you don’t want to compete with him. But I give Layne credit for giving me the confidence to sing. I was amazed by him. I was the main writer with the band. Layne said, “No offense against these lyrics, but they’re very personal. I think you should sing them.” I was like, “You’re better than me.” He said, “You’ll be fine.” We gave each other confidence. Layne was a unique powerhouse who had a great deal of empathy.

Your singing throughout “Brighten” is emotive, and the songs get right to the heart of the matter.

I was raised by a couple of country and blues fans, and country and blues gets right to the point. There’s no extra anything needed. You have to tell a story in two or three minutes, and that’s it. I’ve been known to meander a bit during songs, but the only long one on this album is “Black Hearts and Evil Done.”

That song is the lone epic cut on “Brighten,” but that’s the most powerful of the new songs.

I’m getting a lot of good feedback on it. “Black Hearts” is just part of the record. There are songs on this album that are heavy and aggressive, and then there is stuff that I write that’s understated.

“Brighten” stands out since so many releases feature a single and four songs that sound like the featured track.

I don’t get that. I’ve never been about that. The albums I’ve been part of have always had songs that are different from one another. I can’t wait to play these songs in front of an audience.

You decided to tour in 2022. Why did you decide not to hit the road this year?

We’re all living through this once-in-a-lifetime, world-changing event. It’s a new disease that likes crowds, and what I do for a living is play to crowds. I know a lot of people are out on tour now, but I’m just being extra cautious.

Spokane isn’t part of your 2022 itinerary. Might that change?

Yes. Spokane isn’t on the itinerary, but neither is San Francisco. After the first leg, I hope to get back and play the cities we’ll miss like Spokane.

You have a long history with Spokane. Do you remember your first show in Spokane with Alice in Chains?

Yes. One of our very first shows was in Spokane. We opened up for the BulletBoys in a Spokane cafeteria. It was at a university. I remember the tables and chairs. During the early days, Alice would open for anybody. Susan (Silver) or Kelly (Curtis) would get calls, and we would go and play on a bill with any group.

What Spokane gig is most memorable?

No doubt it was when we played the Raceway (Raceway Park, July 2, 1989). We got signed that day (by Columbia). We opened for Great White and Tesla. The PA wasn’t even on. We played four or five songs for about 20 people. It was one of our worst gigs ever. … We had guys coming to check us out from the label. But the guys (from Columbia) told us they were going to sign us anyway (laughs). We’ll always remember that show.

It’s always cool seeing bands that make an impact early in their career. I caught My Bloody Valentine with about 75 people in 1989, and it was like listening to the future.

Some of my favorite concert moments were seeing bands before they got big. I remember seeing Pantera in Houston early on in their career and Faith No More when (vocalist) Chuck (Mosely) was still in the band. I remember seeing Jane’s Addiction at the Moore Theater (in Seattle) early on during their career.

I saw Jane’s at the same time. I was reviewing for a zine, B-Side, and the editor who hated the band for no good reason also reviewed and called them Jane’s a nonprintable word.

Oh my God! I can’t tell you how much I hate that! The same thing happened with us. Our hometown rag, the Rocket, had a stick up their … about us, and they tried to stick it to us every chance they could. One of the most satisfying things in my career was (Rocket editor) Charles Cross admitting that he did everything to kill us, but we just wouldn’t die.

To take an active part to try to wreck somebody’s career says a lot about you. A band might not be your favorite thing, but to write Jane’s (an unprintable word) is ridiculous (laughs). I love that band. They’ve been so influential.

I remember reading an article back in the day connecting your band with Jane’s since you both had female monikers.

The reason we took a meeting with (producer) Dave Jerden is because he produced Jane’s Addiction, and we both had girl names!

What was it like being in a band that was part of a tangible shift in rock and pop culture?

It felt like the good guys won for once. We were part of this deep tapestry of creativity. It reminds me of how when people say rock is dead.

They’ve been saying it since the moment after rock ’n’ roll was invented. It’s not dead. It’s all cyclical. But that time (1991) was amazing.

People always talk about 1991, but the seeds were planted in 1987, 1988. Consider the endless game-changing albums that were released in 1988. Sonic Youth’s “Daydream Nation,” Public Enemy’s “It Takes a Nation to Hold Us Back,” Ministry’s “Stigmata,” the Sugarcubes’ “Life’s Too Good” and Jane’s Addiction’s “Nothing’s Shocking,” just to name a few. 1988 is one of the greatest years in music since so much was rising from the underground, and some of it somehow slipped into the mainstream.

That’s really astute and a good point. It’s always in motion. There was a lot of great music in the ’80s and so many great live bands.

The greatest live band of that era were your pals Fishbone. I hung out with those guys quite a bit during the late ’80s and early ’90s. I remember when I asked former Fishbone guitarist Kendall Jones what the next Fishbone album was going to sound like, he picked up his guitar and said, “Alice in Chains, baby, Alice in Chains.”

Those guys mean a lot to us. We spent a lot of time on the road with Fishbone. I learned a lot from those guys. Kendall called me last night. What they did (covering) with “Them Bones” was sick. Fishbone is such a great live band. Only a handful of bands on the planet can hold their own on a stage with Fishbone. You don’t want to follow them.

That’s just what LL Cool J once said to me. He said the worst mistake of his career was performing after Fishbone.

I was at that gig! They booed him off the stage after two songs! LL is cool, but that was a bad choice.

What was the first show you experienced?

Black Sabbath. The Heaven and Hell tour with Ronnie James Dio (in 1980.) What was yours?

KISS with AC/DC with Bon Scott as the opener in 1977. But the show that had perhaps the biggest impact on me was Van Halen in 1981. After catching that show, you were compelled to form a band. Can you imagine if Van Halen was around today?

It would be pretty sick.

Alice in Chains reminds me in a way of Van Halen with the harmonies. Van Halen bassist Michael Anthony never received enough credit for his backing vocals.

Anthony was sick, but Ed (guitarist Eddie Van Halen) was great, too.

What’s next for Alice in Chains?

We’ve been talking about doing some shows next year, but my focus is on this record, touring behind this album once I get out. But I’ll get back with Alice in Chains.

What are you listening to these days?

Not a lot. I like it when it’s quiet. I make enough racket, and when I see bands, I get enough racket. But I do like rock.

And Gene Simmons, who says rock is dead, is wrong, correct?

Rock isn’t dead. It’s all cyclical. I can’t wait for Godzilla to rise from the swamp once again and shake things up. It’s going to happen.

For more about Jerry Cantrell, go to jerrycantrell.com.

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