Jerry Cantrell never stopped playing air guitar. It happens anytime a riff comes along that grabs his attention, sending the Grammy-nominated, multi-platinum guitarist for Alice in Chains into spasms of hard-rock ecstasy, as his fingers mime the sounds hammering his eardrums.
Right now, he’s listening to something of his own from the new Alice in Chains album, Rainier Fog, set for an August 24th release, and it’s got Cantrell clawing and riffing in the air like any other adolescent rock obsessive. Except that Cantrell isn’t riffing some imaginary notes. He’s actually playing his parts.
“I get excited when I hear that shit,” says Cantrell, in thick blond beard and sunglasses, a ponytail down his back. “That’s a real test. If music makes you want to dance, makes you want to headbang, makes you want to air guitar, then the emotion is being conveyed. That’s what music is all about: that transfer of energy and a shared experience.”
Cantrell is behind the wheel of a black SUV rolling through West Hollywood, giving an early listen to Alice’s new 10-song album. He glides past the Troubadour and a luxury-car lot where a psychedelic-looking Rolls is parked and he heads towards the canyons. The plan is drive out to the San Fernando Valley to grab a burger, cranking his car stereo all the way. He likes it loud.
“I’m done listening to it at this point,” he says cheerfully of Rainier Fog, no longer looking to make further changes. Now he’s ready to share the music he created with drummer Sean Kinney, bassist Mike Inez and singer-guitarist William DuVall last year. “It’s as good as we can make it.”
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The new album (currently available for preorder) opens with the tense, grinding riff from “The One You Know,” already released as its first single. “It was around the time that Bowie died, and he must have been in my head a little bit,” Cantrell says of writing the music, connecting it to the late rocker’s 1975 funk-fueled hit “Fame.” “It doesn’t sound anything like the riff to ‘Fame,’ but that kind of strut crept in there a little bit – the metal version of that feel.”
The song is followed on the album by the snarling title track, created as a tribute to the Seattle scene that launched the first wave of grunge bands by the end of the Eighties, including Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Mother Love Bone, Mudhoney, Screaming Trees and Nirvana.
“This song is a little homage to all of that: where we come from, who we are, all of the triumphs, all of the tragedies, lives lived,” says Cantrell, who took the title from Mount Rainier, which overlooks the region.
That group of musicians went through an intense experience together, and there were losses along the way, from Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994 to the 2002 overdose of Alice singer Layne Staley. On May 18th, Alice in Chains marked the grim anniversary of Chris Cornell’s death onstage at the Rock the Range festival in Columbus, Ohio, by closing the night with two Soundgarden songs, “Hunted Down” and “Boot Camp.”
“It’s a small town and we all knew each other. It means the world to me that I was able to spend time with the guy to create what we all created in the same town.” Cantrell adds of Cornell. “It gets really difficult to be the guy that has to talk about your dead friends all the time. … After 15 years of talking about my friends dying, you just really want to focus on life and moving forward because that’s really all I can control. I miss the hell out of all of them.”
The original demo for “Rainier Fog” was recorded at Cantrell’s house in Los Angeles, with the help of Guns N’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan, who also came from Seattle. “He played bass,” Cantrell says, “and he loved that riff: ‘That’s your first single, man!’ I didn’t even have lyrics for it yet.”
Today, Alice releases the album’s second single, “So Far Under,” a song written by DuVall, who also plays the wicked solo. The band will tour the U.S. through October, and hit the road again next year. “Apparently there’s still an audience for it. They allow you to do it,” says Kinney, on the phone from the road. “It quit being ours a long time ago. For me, it’s been really humbling.”
For Cantrell, the riff tends to come first in the songwriting process. He collects musical ideas over time, recorded to an iPhone, on the home computer or during soundchecks on the road. Lyrics are more difficult.
“Maybe it’s a little hard because you have already said so much. I can’t write ‘Them Bones’ again, I can’t write about my dad again. I can’t write about my brother again. I can’t write about that ex-girlfriend again,” he says. “But it’s easy to be pissed off about something. Stuff still makes me emotional. Stuff still makes me love. I experience things. I see people going through things. Shit happens to you. There’s still stuff to grab, but it’s challenging to me. It’s always the part where I feel I’m stumbling around in the fucking dark.”
As Cantrell says this, he’s been slowly creeping up a canyon road through afternoon traffic. That burger place seems far away. “This sucks,” he says, then makes a sudden U-turn and heads back the way he came. He’ll get a smoothie instead while the music blasts around him.
For the new album, Alice in Chains wanted to return to Seattle, and the bulk of the basic tracks were recorded there at Studio X last summer. While there, former Queensrÿche guitarist Chris DeGarmo played acoustic guitar on “Drone,” which Cantrell was struggling to get just right in the studio. “I wrote this spider-chord, weird plucking thing,” he recalls. “I was fumbling around on it, and he was down there, so I’m like, ‘Fuck, dude, you try it.'”
The band then spent two months in Nashville, where producer Nick Raskulinecz has a studio, and where Cantrell and Duvall focused on vocals and guitar solos. They might have finished there, but Cantrell took a weeklong break in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, to celebrate rocker Sammy Hagar’s birthday. He ate something bad, then was prescribed antibiotics that his body violently rejected, sidelining the guitarist for six weeks to recover back in L.A.
Cantrell ended up finishing most of his vocals and soloing in his living room, before the final sessions to complete the album at Henson Studios in Hollywood.
Rainier Fog is the third Alice in Chains album recorded with DuVall, a singer-guitarist who helped the band experience an unexpected new chapter following the death of Staley. After a 2006 world tour together, ideas for new music began to emerge.
“You get guys like us together and shit’s just going to start happening,” says Cantrell, who first worked with DuVall when he toured as part of the guitarist’s Degradation Trip solo tour. “I started coming up with ideas, and we started working on tunes. It felt right and the music sounded good. Obviously we had gone through a change, but we hadn’t lost our identity.”
Black Gives Way to Blue was their first album together in 2009, followed by The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here in 2013, and some of the newer songs (including “Check My Brain”) have found a permanent place in the set list beside “Rooster” and “Man in the Box.” The new album comes after a wait of five years, partly from working out a new record deal with BMG.
“I’m excited every time we put a record out. You never know when you’re not going to get to make another record again, or another show. Life happens,” says Cantrell. “We’ve been through a few instances of stoppage – of OK, that’s it. We know what that’s about. That makes you really cherish the time that you have and the opportunities you get when you get them. That makes it mean a little bit more.
“Life is impermanent, and bands are even more so,” he adds with a laugh.
The album closes with a seven-minute epic, “All I Am,” a swirling hard-rock tune that takes a long look backward, with sweeping guitar and echoes of Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin. “I was thinking about the imagery of an old boxer or old soldier that’s been though a ton of battles, and all of the scars you obtain through life, all the triumphs, all of the falls,” Cantrell explains. “Multiple times in your life, you come to points where you question your faith or just assess. It’s a character questioning, ‘Is this all I am?’
On July 1st, Cantrell will be 15 years sober. There have been many casualties over the decades, some famous, others more obscure. Cantrell wasn’t one of them.
“I don’t get fucked up anymore, and that’s a huge difference in your life. I miss those days sometimes because it was so fun and carefree and innocent in the beginning – all the weird adventures you get into. It was fuckin’ fun, until it wasn’t. And by the time it’s not fun anymore, you’re already fucked.”
Those chaotic days are behind him, but the music goes on in ways even he didn’t expect.
“It’s weird to be 52 years old and have been in a band for 30 years and still doing it at a high level,” he goes on. “In life, a lot of time is about finding your family, and it’s not blood family. I found my family. We’re still going through this thing.”