Tacoma-born musician, Jerry Cantrell, is thought by many to be a guitar god. A co-founding member of the wildly popular grunge band, Alice In Chains, Cantrell’s prowess on the electric guitar along with his ability to write and sing devastating vocal harmonies, has carved out a place for him forever in rock ‘n’ roll history.
Alice In Chains — which has carried more than its fair share of grief over the years, losing members and friends of the band — is on the verge of releasing a new record titled Rainier Fog, out this Friday, August 24th via BMG. Yesterday saw "Alice in Chains Night" at a Seattle Mariners baseball game, and today, the band play an acoustic set on the newly-opened revolving glass floor of the Space Needle, which sits 500 feet above the ground. Then on Saturday, August 25th, they celebrate the release with a show at the White River Amphitheater. We wanted to catch up with Cantrell and find out about his roots in music, what he enjoyed from writing and recording the new album, and what he’s looking forward to on the horizon.
KEXP: When did you discover your aptitude for guitar?
Mid-teens, I guess. I was already well into the idea of playing music. I had a lot of musical things in my life. My mother played the organ at home and she’d play sheet music and sing songs and I’d sing with her. I had a lot of musical education. But it was in public school, not like some fucking fancy shit. I was always in band and choir and theater class. I was always drawn to music.
I guess when I first wanted to start playing guitar was when I started discovering hard rock: AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Aerosmith, Van Halen. I wanted an electric guitar just because those guys played it. But both my parents, who were divorced at the time, separately bought me an acoustic guitar for Christmas. When you’re a kid and you see a guitar case under the tree, you get excited. But it wasn’t actually what I wanted. I was an early teen — and how snotty can you be when you’re an early teen and you don’t get what you think you’re getting! We didn’t have a ton of money when I was a kid but both my parents told me, “If you learn acoustic, I’ll buy you an electric.”
Both those acoustic guitars, after messing around with them a little bit, ended up in the closet. I plinked around on them and messed around but they weren’t my thing. When I got my first electric, I got it from my cousin, Kyle. He’d gotten it from a swap meet. It was totally beaten up and broken. It only had a couple of tuning pegs, it only had two strings. But it came with a stereo system that had this 8-track deck and a record player on top along with two speakers. It was this crazy, one-stop-shop. I could listen to the radio, to records and use the guitar amp at the same time. My cousin bought it for like $5-10 and I talked him into giving it to me and I never gave it back! As soon as I had an electric guitar in my hand, it was over.
One day my mom walked in my room and said, “You’re really not going to stop playing that, are you?” I loved playing that fucking thing. So she said, “Okay, let’s go get it fixed.” Like I said, we didn’t have a whole lot of dough, so it was a big deal for her to do that. We drove down to the local music shop and she paid to fix it. We got it all set up, all six strings. And I never gave it back. We lived with our grandmother at the time, my mother, brother, sister and I. So cousins would come over to visit but not that often and I was able to keep that thing away from Kyle.
What inspired you to pursue heavier rock ‘n’ roll music?
Radio. The big thing for me in the northwest about discovering rock ‘n’ roll is that it’s always been played up here in the northwest. It’s a real haven for that. I grew up listening to KISW, that was the local rock ‘n’ roll station. KZOK played more classic stuff like Led Zeppelin and the older rock at the time. But I would listen to the radio with that fucking stereo system that my cousin bought.
I’d sit there and I’d go to swap meets on the weekends, that’s what we always did, to get knick-knacks and cheap stuff and look around. I’d buy a box of crappy 8-tracks of bands I’d never listen to like Sonny and Cher, Canned Heat, Boxcar Willie, whatever. Not because I wanted to listen, but I wanted the tape. I’d bust the tab out and record on those and make my own mixtapes. I’d listen to KISW and sit there with my finger on the button right when the DJ stopped talking to introduce the tune. It was always a gamble, I didn’t know what song would be next or if I’d recorded it already. So, I’d make my own tapes and that’s how I’d learn to play. I’d listen to stuff off the radio and jam with it.
What do you enjoy about layering and harmonizing sounds?
I don’t know; it’s something I just do. It’s something that’s an effect of — I like creating layers and depth. I like depth. I think Led Zeppelin had that and Pink Floyd had that, even Sabbath. Multiple guitar tracks, two solos at once even though they only had one guitar player. I always liked that and it’s something I played around with from the get-go when I first started to write songs on the little 4-tracks and 8-tracks. That was really cool to me. Different things on different tracks and constructing a piece of music with multi-tracks and blending it all together. Bounce things down and create more space, put more shit on there! Experimenting is a cool part of the creative process, tinkering around with stuff. It’s also something that takes time and there’s something to be said for just setting up in a fucking room with drums, a bass player, guitar and singer and just letting it rip. Something to be said for that for sure. That’s something that’s always been big for this band. And after the basic tracking, it’s like, let’s see what kind of fucking roof to put on this thing. Is it cedar shake or tile, brick or stone? What do you want to do? Fucking post-modern or Victorian? Writing is sometimes like touring a fucking house and trying shit out. But you also don’t write just by sitting down with the intention to write a song that’s a certain style. Often, you go where it takes you.
What did you learn about yourself creatively while making Rainier Fog?
That I can still do it. That I’m still part of a band that I really like being in with my friends and the teamwork that it takes to do that. I don’t know if I learned anything new. But we got a whole bunch of new tunes, that’s for sure. It’s more than about just learning something new; it’s a reaffirmation of what you do and the choices that you make when you come up. When you’re able to put out a record that’s got the depth and density and to hit the high water mark of inspiration and creativity that we always shoot for. To hit it again, that’s always satisfying.
"It never ceases to amaze me that people give a shit about it as much as we do."
Do you have a favorite moment from the writing or recording sessions?
Oh, I don’t know. There’s a lot of them. A lot of great moments. I think spending the summer in Seattle and starting the recording there was great. Especially with what we ended up calling it. It all made sense, it was us going home. We made the journey back to Seattle and camped out for the summer and laid down the tracks to this record. We also did some traveling, we recorded a good portion of the overdubs and vocals in Nashville in our producer’s studio. I’d never recorded in Nashville, so that was a first for the band. It was cool to pick up some of that flavor of just living there for a while. Living out in the woods in a fancy cabin. Then we recorded in three different places in L.A. I ended up recording a bunch in my house for my own personal stuff like vocals and solos. In all, we recorded parts of the record in five different locations.
How did you land on the title, Rainier Fog?
It’s the name of one of the cornerstone songs on the record. Naming a record can always be difficult. Maybe everyone has their own different ideas. There were two basic frontrunners and we settled on Rainier Fog. It seemed to make sense to the majority of us. Also, it’s a nod to where we started and just the history of the band and also where we’re going. And the song on the record is fucking killer.
How much of the band’s musical history or character do you try to incorporate when making a new Alice In Chains record?
We don’t really have to worry about incorporating anything because it’s us. All we have to worry about is writing a new batch of tunes and go through the process and hopefully hit that mark that we have to before we let the record get out. If we ever went through the process — and we’ve talked about this — if we go through the process — and thankfully we never have — if we went through the process and it didn’t live up to our expectations, no one would ever hear it. It takes us a while to make a record and that’s just the pace that this band works at. But I think part of that time is an investment in quality in the record that we make.
What do you find yourself looking forward to now?
I guess I just look forward to it not being our baby anymore. And it’s just about to be that. We’ve given out some tunes, people have heard “The One You Know” and “So Far Under” and there’s another eight tracks. We’re going to release another one here coming up shortly. I’m looking forward to that, for it all to be out in the world and get in people’s hands and their ears and heads and see if people enjoy it. That’s who it’s for, all of the folks who’ve supported us throughout the years. We’ve really been lucky to have a solid and loyal fan base. It never ceases to amaze me that people give a shit about it as much as we do.
Rainier Fog is out Friday, August 24th via BMG. Alice in Chains play Saturday, August 25th at the White River Amphitheater.