Jerry Cantrell is not exactly the most smiley guy in rock n’ roll, but after throwing what has been called a perfect pitch at the Mariners/Astros game in Seattle’s Safeco Field, his ear-to-ear grin beamed as brightly as that rainbow over Tiger Stadium in Detroit while the city paid tribute to the late Aretha Franklin.
Cantrell and the other members of Alice In Chains—singer/rhythm guitarist William DuVall, bassist Mike Inez and drummer Sean Kinney—were on hand for a night at the ballpark named in their honor. It was the beginning of a week long series of events that also included the creation of a special Alice/Mariners commemorative t-shirt, a pop-up shop and career retrospective at the famed Jet City haunt The Crocodile, and an acoustic performance on “The Loupe,” the revolving glass floor 500 feet in the air on the iconic Space Needle (which will be broadcast on SiriusXM’s Lithium channel at 5 p.m. on Aug. 31).
Such gestures of appreciation from the band’s hometown serves as a strong reminder of how much this band and their music have meant to people not just in Seattle but all over the world in the 31 years they’ve been an entity. Rainier Fog is the group’s third album with DuVall, with whom Cantrell met after DuVall’s old band Comes With The Fall opened for his 2002 solo tour in support of the most excellent Degradation Trip (more on that later). And much like those essential three LPs created with Layne Staley in Facelift, Dirt and Alice In Chains, Fog showcases the gradual progression of an established sound. Cantrell’s increased vocal presence and his tandem vocals with DuVall have made this “mark two” version of Alice such a vital force in the thinning field of hard rock acts on modern radio. And it’s the long game Cantrell and company are playing by making each new album slightly better than its predecessor, making Alice far more than a catalog artist or heritage act for ’90s nostalgia hounds.
Billboard spoke with the guitarist shortly before the Alice night at Safeco.
The video for “The One You Know” is so good. How’d the idea come about?
We had a meeting with the filmmaker early on, and he was interested in doing this film with a kind of sci-fi theme but also a societal deal, too. It sounded really cool to us, and he had pitched the idea of maybe doing a whole film and break it up with footage of the band. The two things are completely unrelated theme-wise, for sure. But the two ideas could fit together quite nicely, as they do with this first one. We’ll see how the rest of them go (laughs). But he was really cool. He came down and shot the live stuff in our rehearsal space and put ’em together.
It’s nice to see such a well-crafted video being made regardless of whether or not MTV is going to play it.
We’ve always done music videos. Those venues may have gone away, but these ideas that we’ve grown up with—that being making a complete work with an album and also creating cool visuals for the music—remain cool things to us and there’s still a space for it now that it lives out there on the Web.
It was also interesting that you chose a song off Rainier Fog for the first single that sees you leading off on vocals.
Well, Will and I are pretty much 50/50. We always have been as the band has gone on. We’re kind of interchangeable, ya know?
That seems to be one of the big appeals to this particular version of Alice in Chains is how much the vocal harmonizing is so accentuated. How important was that aspect in choosing William?
It was the only way the band could have continued on. We started as and continue to evolve more into a two-singer band. Layne was a classic frontman in his own right, but he gave me the confidence to start singing more myself. I wrote a lot of this shit; I did then and I still do now. So I carry that with me, the language that we came up with together. And I learned a lot from that. The band has a certain sound, so when we moved on we knew we weren’t going to change much. When I met William when he did some tours with me and my solo band, we did some Alice stuff together and he always did a great job of it. Then when it comes to Mike and Sean and I, that’s another reason why the band sounds so intact is the three of us are still here, too. Those guys are really important to it as well; it gets overlooked a lot. Everybody always wants to talk about William and me, but those guys are really fucking important, Sean Kinney and Mike Inez. Also, the identity of the sound, that’s carried over as well. But back to Will and I — it’s a pilot/co-pilot situation, and either one of us could be in either seat at any time.
Where did that vocal approach originally stem from for you? Did it come from groups like Simon & Garfunkel and the Everly Brothers?
With me and I think with Layne as well, we both independently liked bands that had multiple fucking voices and stuff. I grew up in a pretty musical house. My mom always played songs on the organ we had, and I would sing with her. Then I learned a lot in school being in choir and theater and shit like that, which was another major step. We did a lot of four-part quartet type stuff and would do a lot of school competitions and shit like that. I had a really great teacher who was cool and liked rock records. She would play us The Police and The Clash in school. Both my parents were country fans as well. I was born in the ’60s, so I grew up listening to all the classics, especially the outlaw stuff, and my grandmother would always watch like The Lawrence Welk Show and any sort of musical variety show. Anytime there was music on television, we were checking it out. My mom’s side of the family always had a great appreciation for music. Everyone played something as well, whether it was a clarinet or an accordion or a piano or whatever. Then you had AM radio that was always on with Jim Croce and Gordon Lightfoot and Elton John and Fleetwood Mac and all sorts of stuff like that. Then, of course, I discovered rock started listening to AC/DC and KISS, Van Halen, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath. Mix that recipe together and it will give you a little bit of a recipe behind what Alice in Chains is all about.
These three albums you have done with William DuVall complement each other all so well. Was that a conscious evolution?
You know, man, it’s always been a pretty simple formula from fuckin’ Facelift on, and the tradition remains the same. We’re just trying to make the best fucking record we can make. Usually a few years have passed between records, so it’s a different time and different subject matter, and people are in different spaces. But while a lot of things change, the method remains. We’re always trying to hit that fuckin’ bar. And we’re not trying to repeat ourselves, which is really tricky, but we also haven’t gone so far off into left field that the fans will lose you. We never have done that, even though every fucking record is completely different than every other one. You know, you can’t take two records and stand them up next to each other and say, this one sounds like that one. That’s pretty tough, you know, to pull that trick. Three records that we’ve done in our “mark two” incarnation, they don’t sound like each other either, you know, and so that’s cool. It keeps things fresh for us. It’s exciting, but the identity and the fingerprint of the band isn’t lost.
By the time this interview runs, you’ll have already thrown out the first pitch at the Mariners/Astros game at Safeco Field…
I think the record is going to come out the day we play Seattle, so that’s the way we just kind of lined it all up. I think Will and I were supposed to do the National Anthem, but I think they double booked. We were gonna play it on guitar, but I guess they booked somebody they couldn’t fucking move. So I get to put my glove on and see if I can still throw the baseball. The last time I did it was years ago with Randy Johnson, who’s a big music fan and we were big fans of the Mariners of that era. I got to throw the first pitch to Randy, and he’s like 6’6″. He’s so gigantic and he squats down behind the plate and I throw a pitch that was reasonably in the zone. I don’t know if it was a strike, but it was just off the plate if it wasn’t. Let’s see how I fare this year.
Lastly, though we’re talking about Alice in Chains, there are a lot of people out there who are big fans of your solo work. Especially 2002’s Degradation Trip, your super session with Mike Bordin on drums and Robert Trujillo on bass. What are your thoughts on that album now, over 15 years later?
I was just really fucked up back then to be honest with you, and you can totally hear it on that record. It was done right before I got sober, and it was also done right when I was dealing with the death of my band, and then the unhappy coincidence of Layne passing away right after I released that record. So it was not a good time in my life, and it totally comes across on that record. It does strike a chord with a lot of people. It’s a record I don’t listen to a lot anymore because of all those things I mentioned. And I sobered up a year after Layne passed. But it’s a record that’s important to me, and I’ll see Robert and Mike every once in a while and they’re like, “We should do some fucking shows, man. Some Degradation Trip shows.” (laughs) I tell him we’ll do it someday.