This summer is shaping up to be big for Alice In Chains, starting with the release of their new album, The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here, on May 28. The 12-song collection is the band's first studio album since 2009's Black Gives Way To Blue, which earned the quartet — guitarist/vocalist Jerry Cantrell, drummer Sean Kinney, bassist Mike Inez, and vocalist/guitarist William DuVall — back-to-back GRAMMY nominations in 2009 and 2010 for "Check My Brain" and "A Looking In View," respectively.
With GRAMMY-winning producer Nick Raskulinecz (Deftones, Foo Fighters, Rush) once again onboard for The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here, the foursome dragged their trademark melodic hard rock sound deeper into the depths of sludge. The result is a powerful work that stands comfortably next to not only the gold-certified Black Gives Way To Blue, but classic Alice In Chains albums such as Facelift and Dirt.
With Alice In Chains in the midst of a global tour, GRAMMY.com spoke with Cantrell about the creative process for the new album, his recovery from shoulder surgery, his possible interest in composing music for films, and why he's certain the band will pull out some rarities out on the road.
One of the things I like about The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here is there's a real griminess and grittiness to it.
I keep hearing that from people, comparatively to the last record, and I think that last record was pretty hard too. So it's nice to hear that it's coming across. I think the songwriting is very strong on this record and I thought it was on the last record too. [I'm] really proud of the body of work and all that all four of us put into it.
Did the delay resulting from your shoulder surgery affect the album at all in terms of writing?
We don't start until we're ready, you can't really start unless you've got ideas to work on (laughs). Usually there's a period of accumulating riffs and ideas and generally a lot of the stuff happens in odd places and on the road, dressing rooms, soundchecks, [and] warming up before a show. There's always a camera or an iPhone and anytime something happens where you perk up or somebody perks up, then you put that down and what you're doing is depositing it in the account for later withdrawal. So by the time the tour was done there was a good 20 or 30 little riffs or ideas to go through and Black Gives Way To Blue was exactly the same way. It's fairly similar, it's just a couple years later. We couldn't have been prouder of how [Black Gives Way To Blue] played out, so we decided to do it again. I think we took a step up, maybe even two.
Was there a moment in the writing process where you felt like the album was taking a step up?
Yeah, before I had the surgery I think I demoed "Voices" really quick, that was a kind of quick song and came together within a couple of days of just me messing around here at the house. It was right after tour and it was a good, strong song and so I sent it around to everybody and everybody liked it and I thought, "F***, that's good." That was the first thing that came together on the record, so I knew there was a good song there. And then during the process of rehab, the riff for "Stone" [developed] — I still have the voice recording, it's hilarious. I didn't write that on guitar, I just started hearing something in my head. [I was] watching TV, and my arm's all f***ed up, so I grabbed the phone and started humming the riff into the phone and that's where that song came from. So once I was able to demo that and fill that one out, I knew that one was pretty strong too. We got into a couple of different studios and we just sat up and recorded jams, worked through the s*** we had, and Nick was involved in that process as well, even though he was working on the Rush record [Clockwork Angels] and a bunch of other stuff.
Were there songs that really morphed and became much stronger in the evolution from idea to reality?
Absolutely, and on the flip side of that coin there's also stuff that you think is great and later on down the road you're like, "Ah, it's not very good." Actually, "Voices" was the first song, [but] the first riff was "Hollow." I was warming up in the room in Vegas, our very last show of the tour, and I remember our manager, Beno, was in the room and they were sitting there talking and they were worried about me because I was pretty close to having pneumonia. I was so ill. I started playing that riff and I recorded that riff. I saw Nick bobbing his head. I dug it too, so I recorded it. That's actually the first riff that happened. So that song, "Stone," "Voices," the title track — that song is amazing — those [are] all cornerstone tracks on the album. And also you have stuff you think is good and get proven wrong, so it doesn't just end up in there. It's not just you, you're working in a band and there's a very healthy thing to have to pass all those filters, not just yours. It's gotta go through Sean, Mike and Will [too]. It's gotta survive all that and be something everybody can get behind. That's generally what you end up with on a record. It's pretty much no different than it's ever been in this band, whatever works is the idea.
As you get set to take the new material on the road are there ones you are particularly excited about playing live?
If a song is a good song it should sound like a good song [in] its simplest element, that's the way we've always approached things. And I think all of those songs will translate amazingly live. It'll be interesting to see, I can't wait to do that.
"Rooster" was featured in the film This Is 40 last year. Would you be interested in writing original music for a film?
We've done a little bit of that stuff. If the movie's right, and it's something that's interesting, of course. We've been involved in some things that are good, some things that are bad. We actually did a song for a movie I think Judd [Apatow] rewrote, which was The Cable Guy with Jim Carrey. Sean and I did a song for that. We've done a few things here and there, it'd be great to do some more.
What directors would you love to work with?
A director that is interesting. I like what Eddie [Vedder] did for Sean [Penn's] movie [Into The Wild]. It'd be cool to do something with Penn. I like his films and I like Sean, he's a good guy and a great actor. It'd be cool to do something with Cameron [Crowe] again and Quentin Tarantino's got kind of a musical sound that I don't know if we fit into, he's always got that cool surf music. He's got a great musical knowledge and style he puts into his movies, [but] I don't know if we would ever fit into that. All of those guys have great music in their f***ing movies, they're fans of music. I think that's great. I'm equally fascinated by when a film really works, what goes into it, how difficult that is, and creating something out of nothing and getting an emotional response out of it. Putting the two together I think is just natural.
Are there songs from the Alice In Chains repertoire you've developed a new appreciation for?
Yeah, sure, there are usually a handful of tunes on each tour that we kind of go through and start messing around with again. The great thing is we have a pretty healthy catalog of stuff that people know and dig hearing, so there's always somebody unsatisfied at every show. That's a good problem to have. We try to mix it up a little bit and mess around with some new stuff. We didn't play "Rotten Apple" [from 1994's Jar Of Flies] in years. We started playing that on the last tour [and it] went over really well. There are always a couple of tunes we pull out that we haven't played and I'm sure on this tour there will be another handful that we pull out.
(Steve Baltin has written about music for Rolling Stone, Los Angeles Times, MOJO, Chicago Tribune, AOL, LA Weekly, Philadelphia Weekly, The Hollywood Reporter, and dozens more publications.)