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"It's got to be louder!"
Jerry Cantrell has been laughing it up until now, hanging for the last hour with a quartet of friends and collaborators in a small recording studio in Burbank, California, ready to hear a playback of his first solo album in 19 years. But from the first ominous, twangy notes of a song called "Atone," things are already going sideways as the low volume is more appropriate for dinner music than an afternoon of bruising rock & roll.
The singer and guitar hero leaps from the couch. "You can't listen to music like that!" he says, smiling again as he leans over the mixing board, cranking it way up. "Atone" soon unfurls with a heavy growl and some Spaghetti Western echoes of Ennio Morricone, as Cantrell returns to the couch and the company of players and producers who helped make it happen.
They've reassembled here at Igloo Music to reminisce about the recent past and the making of Brighten, a nine-song album that is Cantrell's first attempt at a solo project since successfully reconvening Alice in Chains in 2006. The riff from "Atone" is something he's been dabbling with for years, and even now he's playing air guitar, dressed in camo-green pants and black motorcycle boots, straight blonde hair still down to his chest.
As the albums rolls on, Cantrell leans into the shoulder of singer Greg Puciato, best known as frontman to the now-dissolved Dillinger Escape Plan, a mathcore act both confrontational and noisy, with no pop hits ever. His voice is all over Brighten, mingling with Cantrell's, as just one part of an unusual gathering of talent on the record.
While Alice in Chains remains the core concern of Cantrell, Brighten has him stretching out in surprising ways, from the loud to the sublime. Aside from two former members of Dillinger Escape Plan, the cast of players includes Duff McKagan of Guns N' Roses. Musically, the album encompasses explosive electric guitar and pedal steel, hard rock and wounded ballads. And at least one song that made Elton John cry.
For many of the contributors, the collaboration began when Cantrell agreed to perform a pair of Los Angeles solo concerts in December 2019 billed as "An Evening With Jerry Cantrell," and he needed a band. On second guitar he already had movie composer and rock producer Tyler Bates. On drums was Gil Sharone, a veteran of Dillinger, Team Sleep and various film and TV show scores.
Cantrell knew one ingredient was still missing: a second singer. The blending of voices was an essential element in the sound of Alice in Chains, first with Layne Staley and again when the band returned to action with William DuVall. Sharone suggested recruiting Puciato.
"I said, 'Trust me, he's got pipes — he karaoke's to Jodeci,'" Sharone recalls, knowing firsthand the metal singer's range and interests. Then he called Puciato: "I was like, 'Yo, you want to come over here and blow these dudes away?'"
Puciato got invited to meet up with Cantrell at his house in L.A. the next day at 1 p.m. He wasn't prepared at all for this, and hadn't expected to be singing anytime soon. He was between projects with Killer Be Killed, the Black Queen and his own solo album. He hadn't been taking care of his voice, and says he was "going out a lot and talking loudly in bars ... Damn it, man!"
Now he was being asked to sing some Alice in Chains classics with the man who originally wrote and recorded them. A daunting task, considering that back when he was 16, Puciato drove a red '87 Ford Escort and had only two albums on cassette to play: Metallica's ...And Justice for All and Dirt by Alice in Chains.
"I get to his place and there was a couple of stools sitting there and I'm like, 'We're just going to do this right here, like, in the living room?'" Puciato recalls, leaning forward at Igloo. "Do I get a strobe light, fog and shit? No, I don't get anything. He starts playing 'Would?' on the acoustic and he's looking right at me. Holy shit, this is happening right now? There's no microphone. I was about to sing in this motherfucker's living room, just out into the open to an acoustic."
He got the job. The shows went well. And it wasn't long before Cantrell recruited him again, for Brighten.
The urge to record another solo album came to Cantrell in mid-2019, just as Alice in Chains were finishing up the three-year cycle of writing, recording and touring for Rainier Fog. The band decided to take a year off. During the last leg of that tour, the singer-guitarist began sketching out plans for a solo record.
As always, the ideas came to Cantrell during his downtime backstage, in the dressing room, at the hotel watching TV, or at his house, eventually collected as bits and pieces recorded onto his phone. He worked through that mountain of ideas with engineer-producer collaborator Paul Fig, who calls the process with Cantrell "riff mining."
Fig was involved from the album's earliest stages, just as he's been on the last three Alice in Chains records. "I give Fig a lot of credit," says Cantrell. "That dude is with me on every bad day, every good day: 'J.C., whaddya got?' 'I got nothing, man.' He's there with me all the way, and it's not always easy."
By the time Cantrell got into a studio at Igloo Music, joined by Fig and Bates, he had most of the songs ready to be recorded. After basic tracks, Cantrell bounced across the San Fernando Valley to Fig's studio for acoustic and electric guitars, and completed a first draft of much of the album just as the coronavirus hit in March 2020. Virtually the entire music world shut down, with much work left to be done.
"Every record's got its challenges, and life's just like that. You've got to roll with what fucking comes at you," Cantrell says. "I have to admit that all the extra time and the starting and stopping made it a better record."
The next step in recording was at Cantrell's house, in a small bedroom converted into a studio. They were accompanied there by Cantrell's two Cornish Rex cats, which were free to roam the sessions, jumping around the computer keyboard, up and down the guitar neck or sitting on his shoulder. "If you lock them out, they make more noise than if you keep them in the room," Cantrell says, "so we've learned how to work around them."
Most vocal tracks were completed at the house. While many businesses were closed, and the freeways were empty, Cantrell and Puciato were at work, noon to midnight, voices blending in surprising ways.
"The harmonies were all so tight, it was hard to tell us apart at times," Puciato says now.
It was during these bedroom sessions that McKagan arrived to add some bass lines to the recording. Before Guns N' Roses, McKagan had come out of the Seattle punk scene, and was a longtime friend to Alice in Chains. He ended up staying a few days, long enough to record bass tracks to most of the songs. "He intended to only play a song or two, but once I got him in the chair, I'm like, 'Check this one out!'" recalls Cantrell. "He and I were sitting facing each other, and we were just handing the bass back and forth."
Cantrell's last solo album, Degradation Trip, was made during a dark period for him and Alice in Chains, arriving just two months after the overdose death of Staley in 2002. Friends were dying, and the band he loved seemed to be over. Cantrell was himself still a year away from getting sober.
Brighten comes from a different place and time, with Alice in Chains now resurrected as a fully functioning, successful hard-rock act. Its nine solo songs have a recognizable edge, but it's joined at times with a notable feeling of optimism. When Cantrell first shared an early demo of the song "Brighten" with Bates, the producer immediately saw it as the title and heart of the record.
The track begins with a heavy guitar riff that expands into something shimmery and psychedelic, soaring even with lyrics that ride the line between light and dark. Amid layers of guitar, Cantrell growls: "All your love has not gone to waste/Shine like starlight, leading home from the edge of space."
"I've always thought that there was much more light than people saw in a lot of my writing, breaking through the clouds," says Cantrell. "The pursuit of my life is playing with both things — the major and the minor, the dark and the light, finding the balance and then turning the table over every once in a while. Like, 'Whoa, what the fuck was that?' I love that downshift, or the unexpected rollercoaster turn."
Recording the album opener "Atone," Bates earned the nickname "Tyler in Chains" after the producer added a sound effect by dropping actual chains into a bucket, looking to capture a bit of Aerosmith's "Back in the Saddle" flavor. But it was through the lyrics sung by Cantrell ("Don't much care to be the other me/One that plays the role of enemy") that Bates says resonated as a message to "anybody who's aspiring to be a better person — and come to grips with all of the things we now recognize were not our best selves in the past."
"It was a powerful testament," Bates explains, "to what this record could be about."
During lunch at a favorite local sandwich shop near the studio, Cantrell has a pastrami as two older dudes sit beside him and get deep into a conversation, laughing and talking loudly. One of them asks the other, "You think it was foul play? Did he get shot, killed?" The second responds, "Or lead poisoning, I don't know."
Cantrell pays no attention: He has other business on his mind. The release of Brighten is still weeks away, and he feels good about it, as he usually does when a project is done. But he also sounds philosophical and almost fatalistic as he contemplates the years behind and what remains ahead.
"I'm 55. I don't know how much time I got left. Hope I've got another 20 years, 30 years, who fucking knows?" he says cheerfully, then contemplates the losses over the decades. "I've been through finality in my life multiple times — before I even started [Alice in Chains], in this band and just in life. I don't take anything for granted."
Based in Los Angeles for many years, Cantrell is dividing his time again with Seattle, spending his summers there, and returning frequently for salmon fishing and more. The town remains too central to his identity to ever leave completely. Alice's last album, Rainier Fog, was about the life and world that rose up for him in Seattle in the shadow of Mount Rainier.
He grew up largely in the Tacoma area, less than 40 minutes south of Seattle. His mother played organ and guitar at home, and music was always on the TV: The Lawrence Welk Show, American Bandstand, the usual awards shows. "Everybody on my mom's side of the family plays some instrument or another," Cantrell explains. "Clarinet, drums, keys, melodica, squeezebox, whatever."
Cantrell played air guitar, picking up a tennis racket or a poker from the fireplace, and was drawn to the pop music of the moment: Elton John, Fleetwood Mac, KISS. One day a guy his mother was dating brought over his acoustic and noticed 10-year-old Jerry pretending to play along. He showed the boy some chords, and was impressed, telling his mom: "You should get him a guitar. He just picked that up in two minutes and he's playing it back to me."
Soon, Cantrell had his first nylon-string acoustic, and began teaching himself to play. His first concert experience came when he was 14: Black Sabbath with Ronnie James Dio behind the mic, touring behind their Heaven and Hell album. By then, he knew what he wanted to do.
Years later, Cantrell quit college and moved to Dallas for a year, where he jammed with some guys (and befriended Pantera's Dimebag Darrell and Vinnie Paul). He then ricocheted between Tacoma/Seattle and L.A., where he tried out for a band called Sibling Rivalry. He didn't stay long, turned off by promoters on the Sunset Strip forcing broke young rockers to buy and sell their own tickets to get a club gig — essentially a system of pay-to-play.
"At least in Seattle, you got free beer and a part of the door," Cantrell says now with a laugh. "It was a fucking scam. And then there was also the derivativeness of everybody — that was something that we didn't have."
He met Staley at a Seattle house party, and Alice in Chains was formed in the winter of 1987 with bassist Mike Starr and drummer Sean Kinney. Their humble goal was to play the Central Tavern, a setting for many of the acts destined to fuel the coming grunge explosion: Soundgarden, Mother Love Bone, Nirvana, Screaming Trees. It was a generation of young hard rockers and metalheads who grew up on classic rock and were ignited by the punk revolution.
"If any one of those bands were playing, you were going to those shows — and vice versa, to keep an eye on what was going on, kicking each other in the ass," recalls Cantrell, who remembers one night hearing a new song from Soundgarden. "'Holy shit, did you hear 'Hunted Down,' dude? That's sick!' Or [Nirvana's] Bleach or Mother Love Bone's record? It was really inspiring."
When the mighty Guns N' Roses played the Seattle Center Arena in 1988, Cantrell also had to be there. As much as he loved other bands from the Eighties metal scene, GN'R stood out. "Let's put it this way: It was nastier and fucking stinkier," Cantrell says. "And that appealed to me. That's the way to go. That's got balls."
At that arena show, Cantrell got himself backstage, in a story he first told publicly during a speech honoring Slash at the Sunset Strip Music Festival in 2010. He was back there when Axl Rose came out after the show. Cantrell handed him a cassette tape of early Alice in Chains demo recordings.
"He came out to meet a bunch of fans and I was out there. I was actually more interested in this chick that was hanging out," Cantrell says, laughing. Rose took the cassette and handed it to a bodyguard, and as they walked away, Cantrell saw his cassette tossed into the trash. He didn't take it personally: "People give me their shit all the time. I totally understand it."
Cantrell forged on, and he found that things were different when he returned to L.A. with Alice in Chains in the final years of the Sunset Strip metal scene, looking to be discovered. "We came down and we did a couple of those clubs. But music was definitely changing," he says, recognizing that the scene in Seattle was offering something different and more vibrant than the tired glam that MTV was still feeding viewers. "I loved that we all played rock and that we were all individual."
By the recording of Alice in Chains' debut, 1990's Facelift, the band was already "about 96 percent in focus," Cantrell reflects. "That's a short development. There's a lot of gigs, a lot of rehearsals, a lot of time spent playing, a lot of time in a van, sleeping on couches and on sticky carpets."
Two years later the band upped the ante with Dirt, the sophomore LP that presented the fully realized Alice in Chains. The album will turn 30 in 2022, but the group remarkably remain not only relevant but also active, one of the very few bands still standing from that Nineties wave of grunge.
"You hope that your music has that sort of staying power, but you have no idea," says Cantrell. "You're starting from fucking thin air every time. I'm always surprised and amazed that it even gets done in the first place, because it's an effort. It's never been easy for me."
The final addition to Brighten was a cover of Elton John's "Goodbye." The original from 1971 (co-written by John and lyricist Bernie Taupin) is under two minutes and closes his Madman Across the Water album with a regretful farewell, haunted and potent.
Cantrell had performed it to close his 2019 solo shows in Los Angeles, keeping true to the original's emotion, adding enough grit to make it something of his own. Elton was the first artist Cantrell felt a connection with as a child, discovering the British singer when he was a worldwide sensation at his 1970s peak, with multiple pop hits and flamboyant costumes. Cantrell eventually got to know him.
When Alice in Chains released 2009's Black Gives Way to Blue, Elton played piano on the title song, written as Cantrell's farewell to Staley. It was also a statement of survival and a claim on a future. "For Elton to be a part of that was like the universe telling you you're doing the right thing," Cantrell says now.
When he recorded his rendition of "Goodbye," Cantrell says he wanted Elton's permission and sent him the track.
The Alice in Chains guitarist was in bed when the phone rang at 3 a.m. It was David Furnish, Elton's husband, who told him: "Elton is sitting at the breakfast table right now, weeping at how beautiful a job you did on his song." Minutes later, John himself called, telling Cantrell, "You made it your own. Absolutely, you have my permission to put it on the record."
After they hung up, Puciato got a call from Cantrell. "We're both night owls, so he knows if he calls me 3:30 in the morning it's no big deal," Puciato says with a laugh. "And he's like, 'Dude, Elton John just called me!' He was excited. It was such a cool moment because it was like a 15-year-old thing: Yeah, your buddy's excited."
The listening session at Igloo is over. The guys are standing up to leave when Cantrell pulls out a handful of dice and $5 bills for a quick game of Ponies. It happens a lot when Cantrell is in the studio.
"This is an old tradition," says Cantrell, as the guys toss the dice and bills to the floor, cheering or moaning as the numbers come up. "It's a tension breaker. Get everybody on the floor, laughing and shit."
Cantrell expects more gambling ahead. He's set to tour the U.S. in 2022 with a band that will include Puciato, Bates and Sharone, sharing new music with the world three decades into a career that could have ended prematurely many times over.
"If this was the last album I made, would I be happy with it being my last record? This is good enough to be my last record," he reflects. "I love the challenge of it. It's exasperating and completely daunting, but really fucking satisfying, like anything that's worthwhile in life."