ANYONE FAMILIAR WITH HEAVY MUSIC OVER the past two decades knows the main reason there hasn’t been an Alice in Chains record for a while. After the death of vocalist Layne Staley in 2002, it seemed there wasn’t much the band could do without their friend and bandmate. While lead guitarist and vocalist Jerry Cantrell released two solo albums between 1998 and 2002, it was unclear what the future of AIC would be. Just like an oyster creates a pearl around a shard of sand to take the edge off, the best way for an artist to work out personal trials is through their chosen medium. So, a decision was made to regroup. While producing what would be their new fulllength release, Cantrell and the band appear to have purged, or at least transformed old wounds by refusing to let Alice roll over and die. “Anything I have to say is on this new record,” says Cantrell. “The things that are hard for us to put into words are there. I think people are getting that, and it’s allowing the fans to make the difficult transition with us. We’ve been out of the loop for so long, and lost somebody dear to us who was integral to the sound. Coming to terms with our reality, saying goodbye to Layne, and making the decision to add to the legacy of what we created took so much work.” While getting back into fighting shape, there was the issue of filling the shoes left by Staley. Cantrell found the band’s new co-vocalist in William DuVall, who had been playing around Los Angeles in his own band, Comes with the Fall. “The three of us had to step up and grow. Now that we’ve added William to the process, he’s become a valuable member of this transition. After all we’ve been through, I don’t think it could go much better than this.” Alice in Chains released their latest album, Black Gives Way To Blue [Virgin], in September 2009.
As in the past, there are some huge guitar tones on the new record. Does that require a lot of layering?
It varies from track to track, but I’ve always been a big fan of layering guitar sounds. The basic formula, especially for the heavier stuff, is the G&L Rampage with some sort of a Bogner amp configuration mixed in with other guitars. I also use Gibson Les Pauls quite a bit. I like to tinker around in the studio. Sometimes I just make up stuff as I go along. It’s not the most efficient way to make a record, but I never looked at it as a factory type process.
What’s involved with layering G&Ls and Les Pauls?
For recording in general, even if you’re layering the same guitar on itself, you have to stay on top of the intonation. You may even have to intonate the guitar “out” to make it in when you’re recording on certain parts of the neck. For instance, if you’re doing a lot of work up high and down low, those two chords are going to be intonated a little differently in the studio. My guitar tech was really awesome at that. It can be a struggle at times, but I always had him to help keep the guitars in tune. You have to make the setup right, but it can come down to your ability to match and play along with yourself.
Have you always been loyal to Bogner amps?
Reinhold Bogner and I have been together for a while, and I’ve used some version of an amp he’s made on every one of my records. I’ve used the Uberschall in the past, but not on a regular basis. My main amp is the Bogner Shiva, and the preamp I’ve been using the most throughout the years is the Bogner Fish. Right now I’m checking out some amps by Dave Friedman here in Los Angeles, especially the Marsha. It’s a killer, so I’ve been combining it with the Bogners. I haven’t settled on an exact setup, but I always have a Bogner somewhere in the chain. Live, I like running a couple of different amps. Some are better for metal sounds and others for cleaner, straight-up rock and roll. Being able to use two together, or being able to switch from one to the other gives you more options.
How did you get that swirling effect on the opening riff for “Check My Brain”? Listening to it on headphones gave me motion sickness.
[Laughs] Exactly right! It’s really funny to me how you kind of want to puke after you hear it. It’s a tough song to play, but the riff itself is pretty simple. Basically it’s two notes, starting on the first fret on the low E string. You start in to the bend, and then let down. Then you pull up quick once on the second fret with a bend, and then go back in to the bend on the first fret and let down again and just repeat. The track is doubled and then there’s an octave track on top of that, so it’s a wall of sound. Live, it’s a challenge without a doubt, because I have to be somewhere in the ballpark on the bend and sing on key on top of it. But, I can get away with it if it’s not completely perfect. Recording and doubling it was a different story, because I had to concentrate on that bit of tightness, but it’s still not completely precise. It lends itself to being a little out of control. The thing I enjoyed the most was when the song came out and all my friends were asking, “Wow, what the hell are you doing on that song?” These are guys who play guitar, and they couldn’t figure it out. It was cool to come up with something that was interesting to them.
On most songs you continuously weave between lead and rhythm parts. What’s the best string action for you?
It’s lower than most I guess, but not too slinky and spagettified. It also depends on song parts. Some call for a higher action, especially if you’re doing some work up top, and that needs to be adjusted on the fly. That’s where a good guitar tech is helpful. I’m using Dunlop strings gauged .010-.046, which works for both the Rampage and the Les Pauls. We’d been having trouble with strings slipping and going out of tune, and they’ve been working out really well for us.
To create your signature model G&L Rampage guitar, the product managers had to dissect some of your old ones because they didn’t have the template anymore. Did pulling your guitars apart make you nervous?
No, I wasn’t worried about it. I’ve taken those things apart and put them back together again many a time. It’s not a fancy guitar, and I’ve always liked that about the Rampage. It’s been a while since they made that particular model, so they kind of forgot how. I had to send them one of mine so they could start from scratch, look at the wood, the paint, right down to the body contour and how the neck sat in the guitar. We’re trying to represent where the Rampage began, but I made some modifications to the original model. The original locking nut wasn’t my favorite. There were a lot of problems with the Allen screws stripping, and the plates they used to lock the strings down always snapped in half. So, I went with a recessmounted Kahler 2320 X-Trem brass tremolo. Since the locking nut is by Floyd Rose, it’s actually a hybrid. It’s pretty hard to knock that loose. I also wanted the Seymour Duncan JB pickups. The body is soft maple, the neck is hard rock maple, and we had to jump through some hoops to get the ebony for the fretboard, because it’s hard to get, but it was worth it. It’s a very sturdy, meat-and-potatoes guitar that can really take a beating.
You’ve got a signature model Dunlop Crybaby wah coming out. What features did you want to make it particular to you?
It’s based on the original Jimi Hendrix Wah, which was the Cry Baby I’d used since my early days, with a few of my own specs. There’s a side knob that controls the toedown frequency, so it’s not so trebly sounding.
Has the band’s tuning changed much over the years?
I like to tune down a half-step just to get that that extra little weight to it. It was how I played when we started Alice. The first time I ever discovered the dropped-D tuning was hearing Eddie Van Halen on “Unchained.” I thought it was really cool, and we incorporated that tuning from our first record out. So it’s a mix of those two, a regular A-440 tuning dropped a half-step, and then A-440 dropped a half step, with E string dropped down to D, which ends up being C# . I’ve used a couple of open tunings as well here and there. The song “Over Now” is a good example of that.
There’s often an acoustic guitar presence in your work, but I don’t hear much about your acoustic gear.
I guess there’s not a lot to say about it. I don’t have a lot of acoustic equipment. I have a Martin, and I’ve played Taylors, Gibsons, and Yamahas—whatever is lying around. I’ll use whatever works.
Will we see more solo work from you someday?
Oh, no. Everything I’ve got goes to Alice. There’s nothing left over. I had the opportunity to do some material on my own, and always had really great musicians playing on those records. But this has always been my band, my love, my whole life, and what I’m committed to. There’s no need to be making solo records anymore. We worked our asses off and dumped out everything that we had on this record. I’m really proud of not only the music that we made, but also all of the growth that each of us had to go through to make this happen. It wasn’t what you’d call a slam-dunk idea. It took a lot of thought and effort. Making this record was over a year and a half of intense writing, rehearsing, and pre-production, plus the actual recording itself. I’m done writing for a while.
Does it ever stop being weird hearing people criticize and interpret your music?
There’s a point where you have to detach yourself. The good thing is people care enough to talk about it. Even if they’re critical of our material, it means something to them. There’s never been a real milquetoast kind of reaction to Alice, people either really like it or hate it. We’ve always been a pretty polarizing band. But it’s better to get a strong reaction either way over an “eh, whatever.” You have to make something that excites you, find people that are of a like mind, and stick with it. First and foremost it should be fun. Everybody starts from somewhere. I started learning to play power chords on a guitar with two stringsthe E and the A strings, I think it was, and three tuning pegs, jamming along to Black Sabbath and AC/DC. After my mom realized I wasn’t going to quit, she got it fixed so I could play properly. You emulate others you admire, and I’m no different. At some point you hopefully find your own voice, and end up with your unique sound. The key for me has always been not to worry about what everybody else thinks, or trying to write a hit single. It’s not a good way to go. What’s always really turned me on is the process of creating something out of nothing, then having it live on after bands are done or people move on. That’s pretty cool.