Jerry Cantrell: “I knew what being a rock star was from an early age, I knew it wasn’t a safe path, but I’ve always been a gambler”

Alice In Chains’ Jerry Cantrell on his childhood, meeting Dimebag, Layne Staley and more…

Jerry Cantrell: “I knew what being a rock star was from an early age, I knew it wasn’t a safe path, but I’ve always been a gambler”
James Hickie
Andy Ford
Originally published:

Jerry Cantrell doesn’t need a lot to keep him satisfied. He’s sat in the restaurant of an airy hotel, where multiple dishes, including a vast pizza and a colourful salad are fanned out on the table in front of him, to little interest from our diner. “I just need a little bit to keep me going,” Alice In Chains’ guitarist/singer says quietly, taking the occasional discreet bite, usually when he’s being asked questions during a lengthy chat peppered with his staccato, woodpecker-esque laughter.

The word ‘understated’ comes to mind when you meet the man born Jerry Fulton Cantrell Jr. Sat at a window table wearing a trucker cap and sunglasses, you could easily mistake him for a lunching tourist rather than one of the early pioneers of the nascent grunge scene and the co-author of some of the greatest albums in rock history. Admittedly the long hair, tied in a ponytail and escaping out the back of his hat, and the Cavalier-style goatee give him away. As does a totem-pole-straight posture that makes him appear slightly uncomfortable in his surroundings.

While apologetic for his slight lateness, which he blames on jetlag, he’s taken aback by the second-guessed lunch that’s been ordered on his behalf, and tries to offload as much of it as possible on Kerrang! at every opportunity. He’s as generous with his answers as he is his food during a life-spanning conversation that produces some fascinating revelations. It’s difficult to imagine it now, given his rock icon status, but Jerry got his first taste of being onstage starring in high school musicals, which he still looks back upon fondly. And while he’s undoubtedly somewhat grizzled, he remains delightfully unjaded about music, which may be surprising given the pain he’s experienced as a side effect of a career in it, particularly the death of original Alice In Chains singer Layne Staley in 2002. Music clearly still holds a deeply romantic and autobiographical significance for Jerry, with talk of it visibly galvanising him.

“I’ll just jump in,” he says sweetly but wearily as we begin. “I might be fumbling a little bit at first, but I’ll stay with you…”

What were you like as a child?
“I was like I am today. I’m a pretty quiet and internal person, and that drives a lot of people in my life crazy sometimes (laughs). I can get lost in thought, which can be a really good thing, but it can be a bad thing too. For instance, I remember being in first grade in Alaska because my dad was stationed there for military service. I got so engrossed in what I was reading that I literally didn’t hear the teacher call the rest of the class over to the other side of the room to do an activity. It freaked me out when I came to and everyone else was over there. They said, ‘Well, we didn’t want to bother you.’”

Did you grow up around music?
“My mother played the organ and we had a little Wurlitzer in the house. My grandmother played the accordion and this thing called a melodica, which is like a keyboard where you blow into it. They were Norwegian-Czechs and very musical. We would watch [American bandleader] Lawrence Welk and any musical show. My mum and dad were big country music fans. Anything musical was celebrated in our house.”

When did you hear a piece of music that felt like it was yours?
“Elton John and Fleetwood Mac hit me right off the bat when I was 10 or so. I remember getting the bug and thinking, ‘I want to do that.’ I got what writing a song was, and even though I probably didn’t understand what the hell they were, I felt emotions when I listened to music. I wanted to create stuff that I could send out into the world that would hit people and give them an experience. I thought that idea was magical, especially with someone like Elton John, who lived in a country across an ocean, but I felt like I knew something about him.”

What would 10-year-old Jerry have said had he known you’d one day collaborate with Elton John, as you did on 2009 album Black Gives Way To Blue’s title-track?
“Well, that was a high watermark for me personally, and also for the band. We’d been friendly before, because we actually share some people in terms of folks who had worked closely around each of us. He’s a really fucking sharp cat and keeps up on everything. When it came to do that record, it was a new start for us, so it was a huge gamble. It was something we felt we wanted to do for ourselves, so we made it, and that record is a powerful fucking statement. The song in particular is a direct reference to what we went through with the loss of our friend [Layne Staley] and how black that time was. I explained that in an email to Elton, and he said that he’d love to play on it. We flew out to Las Vegas, and he was a little bit late because he was watching soccer (laughs), but walking into that studio and seeing his piano with my music on it was a real, ‘Oh my God’ moment.”

Is it true that you first declared that you wanted to be a rock star in a copy of Dr. Seuss’ My Book About Me?
“It is true. I knew what being a rock star was from an early age. I knew it meant making music, having people like it, and travelling all over the world. It seemed fucking badass. I wanted to be The Beatles, the Stones, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, David Bowie, AC/DC, KISS… I could go on and on. I also knew it wasn’t a safe path to be on and that it’d be a gamble, but I’ve always been a bit of a gambler.”

What’s the most important lesson you learned from your parents?
“My mum’s probably my heart and my dad’s probably my drive. They got divorced when I was pretty young, and I was the oldest of three. I got the love of music from my mum, for sure, and being a musician was her secret dream too, which my uncle told me when she passed. It was a really tough time, and he gave me the confidence to give it a shot. My dad is a really tenacious individual. He’s got fucking drive but he’s also stubborn as fuck, so nothing will knock him off his path. He does what he feels is right and that’s it, and I got that from him.”

It was your dad who bought you your first guitar, right?
“Both my parents did, kind of. I got my first guitar from my mum, which was around the time of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours [1977], which is still one of my favourite records of all time. She was dating a guy who’d play guitar while she played organ. He showed me a few chords, and I played a song within the first 10 minutes so he said, ‘You should get him a guitar.’ So she got me a little Spanish guitar; I messed around with it but it ended up in the closet. I wanted an electric guitar like my heroes. I cut out a picture of a Les Paul and put it on my Christmas list, and was really disappointed to open the guitar-shaped present to find it was another acoustic guitar. I was a totally shitty kid when I opened it, and my dad said, ‘If you learn to play that I’ll get you a Les Paul.’ I only really got the bug when I got an electric guitar.”

When you’d caught the bug, what came next?
“My cousin Kyle was about a year younger than me, and he’d gone to this swap meet and got this stereo called a Soundesign, which was a radio receiver with an 8-track cassette tape in the front, a turntable on top, two speakers, and on the back it had a guitar jack. There was a guitar that came with it too, which only had two tuning pegs and two strings. He only spent about $5 on it, but he was mad at me for about a year because I didn’t give it back. We’d laugh about it later. He’d say, ‘If I knew that was what you’d end up doing, I’d have just given it to you!’”

You’ve been self-deprecating about your voice in the past, but you were president of your high school choir, weren’t you?
“I was. I think my voice is okay. Some people have superlative voices. I’m not like a Lamborghini or a Ferrari, I’m more like a Chevy truck. It’s not a bad thing to be a Chevy truck: it’s steady and it gets the job done (laughs). I went to a school called Spanaway Lake High School, which is in a little suburb of Tacoma, Washington, where I was born. I did all the class plays and musicals, like South Pacific and Annie Get Your Gun, which was my first stage experience, and I had a lot of fun. I remember there was a guy I went to school with, who was the toughest guy but he wasn’t a dick. We were friends and he was in choir. I’d initially turned down joining the choir, but then he told me, ‘It’s full of chicks,’ so that’s why I joined and ultimately became president.”

Did you enjoy being a leader?
“I did. When you’re a kid, you start a new year at school feeling like a fucking idiot, but at the end of the year you felt like you’ve figured a lot of important stuff out, and then you go up another level. It’s a good lesson for life. By the time I was a senior, I think I’d become the kind of kid that some people looked up to. It still cracks me up to this day, but do you know when they do that ‘Most likely to…’ stuff in high school? Mine was ‘Most likely to have his name up in lights.’”

When you were in Dallas, Texas in the mid-’80s, you crossed paths with the Abbott brothers when Pantera were just starting out. What were they like back then?
“They were exactly the same as they were the day they both died – so much fun. In Dallas, I’d hang out in clubs and watch shows, and I caught Pantera playing in this little bar. It was when they still had Terry Glaze singing with them and they were so fucking cool. I remember watching Dime [‘bag Darrell] play, and he was something else. We were the same age, but he was light years ahead of where I was. After the show, I spoke to him and we had an instant connection. This was two years before I’d even met my own band. It was cool too that Alice In Chains and Pantera hit it big at about the same time.”

Your life changed drastically when you were 21, with the loss of your mother and grandmother in a short space of time. That was also when you met Layne Staley. Did that add to the significance of your meeting?
“It did. Those losses really tilted my horizon. My whole fucking life was basically taken away from me within the period of a year, and I felt like I was on my own. I don’t know everything, and I don’t necessarily subscribe to the idea of an all-knowing God sitting up on a cloud. I get more answers from a scientific view; nothing is really destroyed, it’s just transformed, and there’s a balance to nature; a darkness and a light. When something is taken away, something is given. My grandmother and mother were such huge losses, but I got Layne, the guys, and I got this.”

You were quite sneaky about how you got Layne to join the band, weren’t you?
“The first time I saw Layne perform was in my hometown, Tacoma. His band, they were called Alice N’ Chains at the time, played, and as soon as he opened his mouth I thought, ‘Oh my God, that guy is fucking next level – I have to be in a band with him!’ We met and we hit it off immediately, and he invited me to move into the rehearsal place he was living in and he got me a job there. Layne would be fucking around jamming with us, but I needed to get him to commit to it properly, because he was in about three different bands then. So Mike [Starr, former Alice In Chains bassist] and I pulled a bit of a stunt on him: we put ads out and started purposely auditioning the worst people we could find, including a male stripper. We did it at the rehearsal so he’d see, and acted like we really liked them in order to piss Layne off and get him to join instead. It worked and he eventually did commit to us. We told him all about what we’d done afterwards (laughs).”

You wrote the songs Rooster and Brother for your father and brother, respectively. Is songwriting about building bridges for you?
“Songwriting to me is an emotional and experiential process. We as human beings are fucking funny monkeys, man, but we share a lot of the same stuff. Songwriting is very simply about taking anything that’s internal to you, expressing it, and if you’re lucky that translates for someone else. And if you’re really lucky, it translates for lots of people.”

You recorded your solo albums, 1998’s Boggy Depot and 2002’s Degradation Trip, while Alice In Chains were inactive. Does it have to be one or the other for you?
“I wouldn’t want to compete against myself. There’s a lot of stuff I write that is not [right for] this band, and I’ve had some opportunities to do stuff outside of that, including solo records. There’s stuff that lives outside the realm of what this is, but this is first and foremost. While I’m able to do this, it wouldn’t be good business to do a solo record. I’m sure at some point I’ll do more of that. I like to write songs.”

But you have to answer questions too, and over the years you’ve fielded many about Layne’s addiction when he was alive, and about the impact of his death. Did it ever put you off being interviewed?
“I’m a professional musician, and I’ve been doing this a lot of years, and talking to someone about sensitive subjects is part of the fucking deal. Having to talk about losses over and over and over again with people I don’t know means I can’t turn my own emotions off, which can be difficult. I understand why people ask, but sometimes it gets really fucking tiring.”

Given what you’ve overcome, how does it feel to be where you are now?
“Wow – that’s a big question! One of the really cool things about doing what we do is that we’re playing places for the first time, and selling them out, which is cool as shit. That doesn’t get lost on us, and actually becomes dearer to us as we get older. I consider myself very lucky. We [in the band] found each other and created shit together, and we’re still creating shit together, having found William [DuVall, Alice In Chains singer and guitarist since 2006]. Plus there’s a fucking audience that it speaks to who have been with us through thick and thin.”

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