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Interview: Jerry Cantrell - Playing Dumb

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Photo by Chris Kies

When original Alice in Chains singer Layne Staley died of a heroin-and-cocaine overdose in 2002, it dashed any remaining hopes that Seattle’s most storied alt-metal outfit would emerge from the protracted hiatus that Staley’s drug problem had imposed since 1996. Seven years later, however, fans of the band’s brooding sound rejoiced when the remaining bandmates—guitarist Jerry Cantrell, bassist Mike Inez, and drummer Sean Kinney—recruited singer/rhythm guitarist William DuVall and released Black Gives Way to Blue, an album powered by Cantrell’s familiar down-tuned dissonance and the band’s trademark angular vocal harmonies. Riding high on its momentum, Alice in Chains set off on a world tour that went so well the band hit the studio again in 2011 to record The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here, which was released on May 28.

We recently spoke to Cantrell about Dinosaurs’ stomping riffs and melancholy leads, his approach to songwriting, and why he likes to keep himself “kind of stupid.”

How much of the material for The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here did you guys write beforehand and how much was crafted in the studio?
I don’t know, I guess the process was pretty similar to the last record and probably the ones before it. There’s a period of demoing, mostly on ideas you have throughout the year while touring. Once you’re out on tour, there really isn’t a whole lot of time to write for me. I guess people do it, but not me. A lot of ideas will come when you’re warming up for a show or during a soundcheck, so what you do is you try to document and record those ideas before you forget them. By the end of a year and a half of touring, you come home with 30, 40, or 50 ideas. So when I got to a spot where I started writing again, I went through those ideas and put stuff together. There’s a good portion of stuff on this record that was demoed on the road and was pretty close to what it became, and then there were a handful of tunes that kind of just happened spontaneously by getting together and playing.

Having already done an album and tour with William DuVall on vocals, did you feel less pressure this time around?
Having done that last record, we had the confidence that William could do the job and become a part of the band. We made that decision and moved ahead, and to have that record be the kind of record that it was and the way that people responded to it … I don’t think it could have gone any better. And it wasn’t some fluke—it’s because we worked hard and people cared about what we had gone through and the decision we made to continue. Music—like everything else in life—is like, “Okay, you did that, now what have you done for me lately?” [Laughs.] Each time is a challenge, and that record was challenging for reasons that this record wasn’t: We were coming back, we had a new member in the band. And then there was the question of how much does what I do and what Sean [Kinney, drums] and Mike [Inez, bass] do weigh in—and will people even give a [expletive] about it? This record, of course, had none of that, but it was still challenging—you have to keep up the standard. But we’ve always been pretty fortunate to have a pretty strong bullshit meter when it comes to music—as well as personally. We’ve always tried to make the strongest record that we can and write the best music that we can. At the end of the day, we have to be happy with that. By the time it gets to you and everybody else, we’re already satisfied with it.

You’re widely known for your riff-writing ability—you’ve even received awards for it.
Riff Lord! [Laughs.]

Can you describe your approach to riffs—how do you decide which are good and which are bad?
I guess it’s just what catches your ear and what you see when it catches someone else’s ear. When I think something is good and I’m playing it and see someone turn their head, I’m like, “Okay, that’s good!” For me, when I really know is when I demo it, go to bed, and then wake up and check what I did the night before to see if it still stands up. For instance, I came up with the riff for [The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here’s lead track] “Hollow” at our very last show for the Black Gives Way to Blue tour. I was in Vegas and I wasn’t feeling very well at all, and I remember warming up and stumbling onto that riff. I grabbed my phone and recorded it. [Dinosaurs producer] Nick Raskulinecz and our manager were worried about me because I didn’t know if I was going to be able to make the show. I played that riff and saw them both react, so I knew that that was a good one.

Your solo on “Stone” is incredibly tight and fits the framework of the song so well. How much do you work out solos beforehand?”
I’ve never been that great of an improvisational guitar player. I guess if I had more knowledge I probably would be, but I keep myself kind of stupid on purpose [laughs]—I like to stay at a certain level of dumb so that I have to fight through it and find it. It’s counterintuitive to do it that way, but it’s just the way I’ve always done it. I’ve always written my solos, and I guess if I were more knowledgeable and had more technique I could do ripping four- or five-minute solos, but I don’t. It’s more about the song to me. I mean, I am a guitar player and I am creating a moment for myself of course, but really the way I look at it is that it’s a musical break within the song. It has to speak and have a voice like the rest of the song has. I look at it more like a part change and a different vocal line. On this record, including the solo on “Stone,” I’m really proud of the solo work that I did.

Fronted by new vocalist/rhythm guitarist William DuVall, Alice plays the new tune “Stone” in this April 2013 performance on Jimmy Kimmel Live.

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