Few active musicians sound as balanced over the phone as longtime Alice In Chains singer/guitarist Jerry Cantrell does. When you've been through as much as he has—two eras of Alice In Chains, one with now-deceased original lead singer Layne Staley, the next with current singer William DuVall; a brief solo career; and countless collaborations with rock/metal royalty like Danzig, Ozzy Osbourne, Duff McKagan, just to name a few—you either come out the other side in one of two conditions: a mess, or really, really wise.
Cantrell, fortunately, embodies the latter.
Now more than three decades into his career, Cantrell has earned nine GRAMMY nominations for his work with Alice In Chains, starting in the early '90s with the gritty alt-metal wail "Man In A Box" leading up to now, with a Best Rock Album nod for the band's sixth studio album, Rainier Fog. The band's lack of actual awards doesn't bug Cantrell, though. He's just happy to be here.
If anything, he finds his always-the-bridesmaid status funny; the last time AIC attended the GRAMMYs, nine years ago, Cantrell says the band wore Susan Lucci buttons as a joke, in reference to the longtime soap actress who famously earned 19 Emmy nominations before finally winning in 1999. "We were like, 'If we lose we're going to put on our Susan Lucci buttons," he laughs. "And we did; we lost and we put on our buttons as we walked out."
Golden gramophone or no, Cantrell says he's never been in a better place. He's been on the road with Alice In Chains and basking in abundant appreciation from fans—just enjoying life. Below, the iconic guitarist continues to laugh about his GRAMMY (or lackthereof) status and opens up about his rock 'n' roll elder status, living a sober lifestyle and what's next for Alice In Chains.
Congrats on the GRAMMY nomination! Though, of course, I know this isn’t your first.
Oh, thank you.
Going back to the first year Alice In Chains was nominated, in ‘90 for “Man In The Box,” what stands out to you about that time?
Oh god. It's so long ago, I couldn't really give you any clear recollection. I mean everything was moving so fast. Most of us, the [Mother] Love Bone guys that turned into Pearl Jam, and used to be, some of them used to be Green River, and Soundgarden. Those guys have been around for a number of years. But I think Nirvana, and us, we were a little younger.
But it happened really quickly for all of us. And every step every one of us took helped the other. It was really cool to be a part of all that. The thing that means the most probably, is the music. Because the music is still being played. It still means something to people. You turn on any rock radio station and hear any of it at any time.
OK, here’s something I always wanted to know: Is it bizarre to you that that entire cross-section of bands is now referred to as "classic rock"? And spun on Classic Rock radio?
It's great. I mean, it's a big long-term goal that you set for yourself: to be one of those bands that stands the test of time. And even maybe even the music can live on past the individuals in the band. And if it makes enough of an impact with people, and speaks to them in a way where they make it their own.
All we can do is satisfy ourselves personally, as friends, musicians and artists. To try to keep making the best music that we can. And from '91 til right now, every time we put a record out we've been very fortunate to be considered with our peers and get some attention for the effort laid down on the tracks. And we've been really lucky that way.
We haven't been so lucky to win [a GRAMMY], but we've been nominated a bunch. I think this is our ninth nomination.
We've got a couple of technical ones for our work, and production. As for the music, this is our ninth one. Yep. 0 in 9, baby. [Laughs.]
I mean, Willem Dafoe is still waiting for his Oscar.
Well, of course. There's always those folks. We're like the Buffalo Bills, who go to the Super Bowl four years in a row, but just can't quite get it over the edge.
It's the old cliché, it's just an honor to be nominated, and to have people in the community, and the fans care about your music. You can take a little validation from that. That you're still operating at the peak of your powers. We still feel like we're at the top of our game, musically. And our fans are still with us. We're still making rock ‘n’ roll that matters to us. And turns out it matters to other people too. It's fking great.
Yeah, absolutely. As someone who has rode out the ebbs and flows of rock’s popularity—or lack thereof—what do you make of where rock as a genre stands today?
Things are always changing, right? That is just the essence of existence, and life. There's always change happening. Nothing is fking static. It's going somewhere. Where it's going to go, who the fk knows. But as far as I've been alive, there's always been rock. And it's always spoke to me in a way that was really powerful, and visceral. And not just rock, just music in general. Being a recording artist, whatever your genre.
I think any generation can turn into the old man yelling at the kids to get off your lawn. "They don't understand anymore." And I remember my parents didn't like my music too much either, so it's totally normal for that to be the case. I'm just lucky I still have something to focus on that I dig doing. And that I've got my friends around me to make that music with.
Somehow, after 32 years, there's still millions of fans. That we get to stand in front of, and travel around the world, and play our music to. And new stuff is just as important as anything that we've putting out before. We've always been an in-the-moment, now-thinking band. We don't look too far back, and we don't look too far forward. We're always trying to forget about what we've done before.
We don't need to worry about sounding like ourselves, because that's just how we sound. It's an established thing. So really it just comes down to pleasing yourself. I believe that this record is as strong as any record we've ever put out.
"As a creative person, if you're lucky enough to have a creative catalog that we have, which may not be gigantic but it's potent as fk."
Speaking of Rainier Fog, I read an interview you did with KEXP where you said that you were grateful to see that you “could still do it.” Was there was ever a time when you were seriously questioning that about yourself?
I think everybody has questions. You have to question yourself occasionally. That's just part of life. That's what moves you forward from being in a place of fear, or of doubt. And if you've had some success like we’ve have, those thoughts can be kind of daunting, too. Oh sht, we've got to top that. Sht, there's another record. As a creative person, if you're lucky enough to have a creative catalog that we have, which may not be gigantic but it's potent as fk. And it's really good work.
It's also in two different eras of the existence of this band. It was four guys before, and it's four guys now. This era of the band is, we've done some amazing things. I think the band's playing better than we ever have. The work ethic of everybody is really evolved. And we're still making music that we care about, and other people do too. As long as that's the case, we will continue to continue our journey, and see where it goes.
As someone who repeatedly pushes themselves to live in the current moment and, as you said, not look back, what is your relationship to AIC’s earliest hits? Are you amenable to playing them at most, if not all, of your shows?
Well, they're still fun to play. And they're still really good songs. You see people light up when you play them. There's a reason why people connected to them. And one is not greater than the other.
The fact that we did it, or the fact that people care about it, or the fact that it's so many years on... For whatever reason those songs, those songs are what they are. I think there would be a lot of pissed off people if we did a show, and we didn't play “Rooster,” or play “Man In The Box,” or play “Would?,” or “No Excuses.”
But it's a challenge too because we only play a certain amount every night. So we're trying to do a mix of things that are new, or trying to whip out some old stuff we haven't played before. Basically every tour we try to grab a couple of tunes that insert, and replace. But there's a good chunk of stuff that you know that you're going to play. And at this particular point of the band, with this being our third record, it's pretty much half and half.
And everybody knows the new stuff as well as the old stuff. So it's cool. They care about it the same way. We made three full-length records before. We made three full-length records now.
At some point I think you have to kind of take into account that there are just special things. I remember the Metallica guys, we've been really good friends with those guys for a long time. I remember they were going to do a, like an all-request tour, right? And they got all the input from their fans, and it ended up being pretty much what they play anyway. [Laughs.]
Makes total sense. Switching gears for a moment, GQ recently spoke to musicians about thriving creatively while staying sober. As an artist who has spoken publicly about the friends you’ve lost to substance abuse—and staying sober yourself—how would you say that you mine your creativity in sobriety?
Getting fked up is fun, and that's why people do it. Especially when you're young. It's a part of life. It's a part of a lot of people's experience. But it comes with a price. It generally doesn't end good.
I've been super-creative fked up. I've been super-creative not fked up. It's been so many years for me that I just don't really think about that anymore. I think, at some point it becomes an impediment. It works until it doesn't. Let's put it that way.
It worked for a while. And I think that's the case probably for most people. Maybe takes you and puts you in a different mind space, and kind of maybe opens your perception to some stuff, but the costs are so fking high. You know what I mean?
And hopefully, being on the other side of that. I don't miss it at all. But I'm also not ashamed of it. Nobody's perfect, and I certainly am not. You just kind of figure it out as you go. Life's pretty good right now. And has been for some time.
Any idea what’s next for you and Alice In Chains?
Still just trying to figure out what I want to do next, and what the band wants to do next. Right now we're kind of at halftime of this campaign. We toured from spring of last year, til November. And then we've taken a couple of months off. We're going to start up again in March, and go all the way until fall again. And then that'll be the end of the campaign. And we'll probably take some time to step away from the band for a little bit. And then figure out where we go from here. That's what we do. That's what we've been doing for the last three records. And that's been 12, 13 years now. And it seems to work pretty good.
Well on a lighter note, is there anything in particular you really enjoy about going to the GRAMMYs?
I haven't been in a while, so it'll be a trip for me. I think the last time we went was probably on Black Gives Way To Blue, I guess.
I'm sure it'll be a good show. I'm just happy to be nominated and just to have people react to the record that we're really proud of, that we worked our asses off on. And see where we go from here.