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Interview: Jerry Cantrell - Playing Dumb

Photo by Chris Kies

Cantrell talks about The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here's stomping riffs and melancholy leads, his approach to songwriting, and why he likes to keep himself “kind of stupid.”

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.

You’ve used acoustic guitars more than a lot of other heavy bands throughout your career, including on “Voices” and “Scalpel” from the new album. How important are acoustics to the Alice in Chains sound?
That has always been a really important thing for this band. We took a chance early on by putting out an acoustic EP [1992’s Sap] when we’d only had one record out and people only knew us from that. By taking that risk early on, it opened us up to be able to be more diverse and to get people okay with the idea that we weren’t going to be just a metal or hard-rock band—that we were going to go in a lot of different places musically. On the last two records, we’ve had elements of the acoustic sound so that you get both phases of the band. It really isn’t a separate thing—it’s all us.

Jerry Cantrell, the late Layne Staley, and the rest of Alice in Chains bring the heavy with nothing but acoustics in this hour-plus MTV Unplugged set from 1996.

How did you create the atmospheric sounds in the intro and outro to “Voices”?
I was using a Gibson EDS-1275 with 6-string and 12-string necks on it, and I stumbled upon that sound when we were demoing the song at my house. My guitar tech and friend Jim Dawson brought his doubleneck over, and I played it on the 6-string side but with the pickups on on the 12-string side. That chimey stuff was feeding across into the other neck’s pickups. When it came time to record it, Jim brought that guitar around and we did it the exact same way.

You’ve always favored your “Blue Dress” and “No War” G&L Rampages. How vital are those two guitars to your tone, and what do they mean to you from a personal standpoint?
[The Rampage] is the guitar that felt right to me first. I had a handful of shitty guitars before that, but when I got a G&L Rampage in my hands I was home—and I’ve never really left. I’m also a very big fan of Gibson guitars, and the Les Paul has been a big part of my tone, as well. Those are the two guitars that I play the most. I guess that happens for everybody—at some point you find your guitar and it’s what you become identified with. It’s not that you don’t play other things, it just becomes your thing. Jimi Hendrix played a Stratocaster, Angus Young plays an SG—you find your guitar and that’s just what it is. But anytime—anytime I pick up a guitar that I haven’t played or a different kind of guitar, it never fails that it gives me a new idea or I stumble upon something different. It’s been happening for 30 years, and it’s tried and true and totally tested. If I pick up something new, I’ll play something that I haven’t played before and it’s going to give me something.

Cantrell's famed "Blue Dress" G&L Rampage

Jerry Cantrell's Gear

1984 G&L “No War” Rampage, 1985 G&L “Blue Dress” Rampage, Gibson Les Paul Custom, Gibson Custom Shop Jerry Cantrell SG, G&L Jerry Cantrell signature Rampage prototype

Bogner Shiva, Bogner Fish preamp, two Friedman Amplification BE100 Brown Eye heads

Dunlop Jerry Cantrell signature Cry Baby wah, MXR EVH117 Flanger, MXR Bass Octave Deluxe, MXR Smart Gate, Xotic Effects AC Plus, Eventide TimeFactor, Boss CH-1 Super Chorus, Boss CE-3 Chorus, Ibanez TS808HW Tube Screamer

You probably use a wah more than any other effect. What’s your approach to it, and what makes your signature Dunlop model unique?
The Cry Baby wah-wah has been a go-to pedal for all guitar players from its inception. It’s just a way to make the guitar talk a little bit more—it makes it speak. It’s something I’ve always been a fan of and have used from the get-go. I started off playing the Jimi Hendrix version of the Dunlop Cry Baby, and a few years ago the guys at Dunlop decided to design one for me. My tone has a little bit more darkness to it, and I’ll play the Cry Baby not even rocking it back and forth in a full sweep. I use half or three-quarter sweeps. So Dunlop took all those elements and put them into that pedal. It has a darker, throatier tone to it that I’m really happy with—not only to have my own pedal and for it to be the one I use the most, but also for a handful of my other friends to use it and really dig it. Nick Raskulinecz—who’s produced a couple of Rush records, too—told me Alex [Lifeson] used one in the studio when they were recording their last record, which made me really proud.

What’s next for you and Alice in Chains?
Well, it’s a very compartmentalized existence in my experience: For about a year, it was all about the record, and now it’s about going out and playing. Recording and writing go out the window, and it’s about trying to do the best show you can and trying to stay as healthy as you can to be able to play at a high and consistent level for people who are paying to come see you—people who haven’t seen you in years or maybe ever. So you try to make that special.