Alice In Chains: Back In Black

Jerry Cantrell has a hard time doing anything small. When he and his Alice In Chains bandmates announced they would reunite to perform a five-song opening set at a Heart concert in Atlantic City last March, the news received the kind of media attention typically lavished upon the launch of a gaming system.

Likewise, when guitarist Cantrell, drummer Sean Kinney and bass player Mike Inez decided to extend that reunion for a short tour, using guest vocalists to fill the large shoes of deceased singer Layne Staley, the outing was quickly hailed as one of this summer’s most anticipated events.

Cantrell finds that even the little things in his life assume a grand scale, as they do today, when he needs a ride from his hotel to a physical therapy clinic. “I’m recovering from some shoulder problems,” he explains. “It’s from guitar playing, the result of repetitive motion, and too much headbanging.” He asks the hotel to arrange a vehicle for him, then steps outside to wait. Within a few minutes, a limousine pulls up in front of the lobby. Told that his ride has arrived, Cantrell shrugs. “You know, a cab or a van would have been just fine,” he says, chuckling.

For several years during the mid-90s, limos were frequent transportation for Cantrell, as Alice In Chains records such as Dirt and Jar Of Flies topped the charts and the group’s loud grunge sound took over the world. Staley’s retreat into drug addiction in the late-90s derailed the band, though. Cantrell began a solo career, while Sean Kinney and Mike Inez formed a band with ex-Queensrÿche guitarist Chris DeGarmo. Though Cantrell’s solo records got positive reviews, neither they nor his club tours replicated Alice In Chains’ success.

When Staley died of an overdose in April 2002, the surviving members’ hopes of a reunion appeared to have died with him. The possibility was never raised, until a Seattle benefit was organised for victims of the tsunami that ravaged Asia in late December 2004.

“That seemed like an important cause,” Cantrell recalls. “Mike and Sean and I finally had the conversation that we’d been putting off since Layne died.” At the first rehearsal for the benefit, Cantrell says he immediately felt a magic that had been missing in his life. “After the first day, we could feel how it used to feel,” he recalls. At that February 2005 appearance at a Seattle nightclub, vocals were handled by Heart’s Ann Wilson, Tool’s Maynard James Keenan and Puddle Of Mudd’s Wes Scantlin. It was the first live show, of any kind, that Alice In Chains had performed in nine years.

Cantrell says he was taken aback by how good it felt to play the group’s songs again, and that momentum led to the Atlantic City gig. “You could feel the power of that material,” he says, though he questioned why he’d never experienced it quite that way during the group’s heyday. “I was talking to Phil Anselmo, and he told me that when you’re doing it, you don’t have time to take a look at what you do or to reflect on what your band has done.”

Anselmo, who may be one of several guest singers on the upcoming Alice In Chains tour, performed with the group at the Atlantic City show, singing Them Bones and Would?. His participation was fitting: like the reunited group, his performance that night was one of his most visible since the death of a former bandmate, in his case, Pantera guitarist Dimebag Darrell Abbott, who was killed in December 2004.Staley’s death hangs over any Alice In Chains reunion, but Cantrell has no difficulty talking about the singer, something that was impossible for him in the first years after Staley’s death. “It just took us a long time to learn to come to grips with losing Layne,” he says. “Not only did we lose our partner but, more importantly, we lost our friend and our brother. It took a long time for that conversation to even be okay to have.”

He says that when the band first played together at the tsunami benefit, Layne was foremost in his thoughts. “It felt good to be up there, but it was tremendously sad that Layne wasn’t there as well. We had feelings of grief and loss. You feel the whole range of emotions, but that’s part of the process of losing something, and that’s not unique to us.”

Although the Atlantic City show featured Anselmo, Ann Wilson and Comes With The Fall singer William DuVall as vocalists, Cantrell says the band plans to rotate singers for the tour, with perhaps a different line-up in every city. “It could probably be done a hell of a lot more professionally and efficiently if we had a new band and new album, but we’re not in that space. The vibe we wanted was like The Last Waltz,” he says, referring to The Band’s 1978 guest star–studded concert, “with a lot of people who we respect coming in and participating. It’s logistically a nightmare, but it also keeps the focus off replacing Layne, and it makes it more in honour of him.” The Atlantic City gig also featured Velvet Revolver bassist Duff McKagan as part of the band, though his role in the upcoming tour remains unclear. “We’re figuring this out as we go along,” Cantrell explains. “It’s a tricky thing, because you don’t want every idiot under the sun coming up to sing Alice In Chains covers.”

As for the material the band will consider, Cantrell says anything in the Alice songbook is up for grabs. “We aren’t afraid to play anything,” he says. “A lot of this music is brutally honest. A lot of it is heavy and dark and beautiful. It’s some hard-hitting stuff, especially thematically, and especially with Layne being gone. It’s not filtered or watered down, and that’s why it has had the impact it’s had.”

Cantrell admits an occasional chuckle when he listens to the radio and hears the many Alice clones that have sprung up in the last decade. He says it feels like some small justice that the group, always considered by critics as lesser weights to Nirvana and Pearl Jam, are one of Seattle’s most influential. “Within our own community, there was always a little bit of nose snubbing,” he notes. “When we were coming up, it gave us more impetus. We were inspired by all of those bands, especially by Soundgarden, but we have our own voice. Seattle wasn’t like a lot of music communities I’ve seen where everybody is doing whatever’s hot. We were all rocking, and it was hot, but nobody was trying to cop someone else’s thing.

It was a respectful competition.” That said, Cantrell says he’s flattered by Alice’s imitators. “Nobody is able to sound exactly like us, though.”

While the first order of business is the upcoming tour, Cantrell says future new recordings aren’t out of the realms of possibility. “New songs can always happen,” he says. “I’m always writing. We’re a creative bunch of guys.”

First, though, is his physical therapy visit. Cantrell turned 40 this spring and jokes that he’s getting old. “We’re only a few years away from being termed ‘classic rock’,” he says with a laugh. Then he becomes serious. When he does, he no longer sounds like the flamboyant guitarist who arrived in the late 80s in what was then a glam band; for a moment he sounds like the Neil Young of grunge, a veteran warrior who has been through it all. “How you choose to deal with death and continue to live is a major choice,” he says. “Do you bury your head in the sand, or increase the damage, or take the experience and get yourself up off the floor and continue on? It’s all a learning process, and we only have the experience of a lifetime.”

The limo arrives at the clinic. As it pulls up, Cantrell remarks that the therapy has helped his shoulder. “I’m working through some pain,” he says. “It’s just pain, and I can deal with pain.” He’s referring to his shoulder, but you’d never know it. The words sound remarkably like lines from an Alice In Chains song.

This was published in Classic Rock issue 94

**Read a further insight into the new Alice In Chains **