“Demonstrating and collecting ideas is like money in the bank,” says Alice in Chains guitarist Jerry Cantrell of songs from his new solo album, Enlighten, released October 29. “There are all kinds of great ideas that never get used or taken care of, or that don’t match the time or recording you’re working on. And the cool thing is they’re still there.
Cantrell has made every effort to Enlighten, his first solo album since 2002 Journey of degradation. He co-produced the LP with film score composer and former Marilyn Manson guitarist Tyler Bates, and he enlisted a cast of star musicians including Guns N ‘Roses bassist Duff McKagan, Paul McCartney drummer Abe Laboriel Jr. and Dillinger Escape Plan singer Greg Puciato.
The resulting nine-song project features the melancholy vocal harmonies and multi-layered guitars that have become the hallmark of Alice in Chains. Corn Enlighten also trades austere, muted alt metal for bucolic folk tunes and swaggering country-rock, dotted with steel pedal guitars and smoky Hammond organ flourishes. A nod to his classic rock roots, Cantrell closes the album with a haunting cover of Elton John’s “Goodbye”, which earned him the Rocket Man seal of approval.
Shortly after the release of Enlighten, Cantrell spoke to UCR about the songwriting process, his guitar playing philosophy, and opening up glam bands at the start of Alice in Chains.
It’s an album that really lends itself to repeated listening. It has so many instrumental and melodic layers.
I grew up with a lot of records like this, and I tried to make records like that. I think a lot of our music and the music I’ve been in, we’ve had songs and instant records, like “hell yeah”, hard-hitting songs and records, but they’re really built for. the long term . And I appreciate that. I like that you get 10+ plays and 20 plays and 30 plays. Like, “Holy shit, is he doing that over there?” What is he doing here? I like this depth. I love the layering. I like the story, you know? And it goes from the surface to the bottom.
You pioneered Seattle sound in the 90s, but when I listen to this record I have a much more Californian feel to it. There are country elements; he has a slide guitar; there are sunny and catchy melodies. Were you aware of this dynamic when you were making this album?
When you start a record, for me part of the fun is not knowing where you are going. You can have a handful of ideas that give you a little idea of what it might be like, just by demonstrating songs like “Okay, it’s gonna be a heavy record” or “It’s gonna be a little more heavy. ‘an atmospheric and lighter record. But you sort of come up with that in the process, and it’s a nice surprise. You just go where you feel the music naturally takes you. So it’s interesting because, in this demo process, I’m just doing a demo of what hits me and going through a writing process. And there were about nine or 10 tracks that were basically the body of this album, and then there was about five or six other songs that seemed like a different album, felt a little more up front, aggressive and cursed, and they didn’t seem to fit into that. And you kind of realize that process halfway there. demonstration and [say], “Okay, I guess that’s where we’re going.” You listen to where it takes you, and then you just try to guide it and let it be a natural thing, in the moment.
Watch the video for Jerry Cantrell’s “Atone”
I guess that’s a good problem: having too much good material to fit on one disc, rather than scrambling to find enough songs.
It’s a problem that luckily I haven’t had in my career, trying to find enough music to fill a record. And I’m grateful for that, and I attribute that to a lot of hard work, and also being part of a collective that drives that. We made recordings – Pot of flies being an example – where we didn’t have much when we walked in, and we kind of made it up, and it turned out to be a really good album. But for the most part, I like going there, and you like going there as a band or as a writer, knowing that you already have a lot of material that you feel good with.
You have an impressive cast of musicians on this album, including Duff McKagan on bass. Do you have a strong musical relationship because of your common roots in Seattle?
We do, and Duff has asked me repeatedly to join him on some of his efforts, some of his solo records. And we did a cool thing where we played a song for Jimmy Carter’s birthday. He joined us on tour, as we headed towards directing [Alice in Chains’] Black gives way to blue, went out on the road with us and played guitar with us. And we are good friends and longtime collaborators. I don’t think he intended to do the whole record, but he came to do a song or two, [and] I kept throwing tunes at him, and after a few days he had already done three quarters of the record. [Laughs.] He’s so talented. I just admire him as a musician and as a man.
Of all the archetypal grunge bands that came out in the early ’90s, I feel like Alice in Chains had the biggest soft spot for’ 80s hard rock from Los Angeles. You’ve been able to inject those big riffs and showmanship into your sound.
Yeah I mean [there] a lot of good music has been made during this decade. And being a big band and being able to command a stage and have a big audience and put on a show are just as crucial as writing good songs and being a good musician. At first, maybe a lot of our brothers didn’t openly admit it, but we all listened to the same thing and were inspired by everything from the most underground punk to the biggest and most commercial rock and everything in between. But we just wanted to get on stage, and we wanted to be a successful band, and we wanted to be a great band. There was [Mother] Love Bone, then later Pearl Jam and Soundgarden and Us and the [Screaming] Trees and Mudhoney and Nirvana. Four of them were all in the same office, weren’t they? So every once in a while someone would come into town, like Poison or Helix or whatever. I think our first gig, we were opening act for Great White and Tesla. They would call and ask if any of the groups would be interested in opening for these groups, and everyone refused except us. We’re like, “Is this a scene? Is it in our state or in our city? We’re there. We’ll play with anyone.” And they were important representatives, going on big stages, no matter if you didn’t mix very well musically with the band you were playing with. We did concerts or toured with everyone. We shot with Extreme. We toured with Slayer. We toured with Iggy Pop. We toured with Van Halen. Diversity is a good thing. We’ve always embraced that, and it’s more fun I think when you get a variety of things that [when] it’s just a pure hard metal show.
I imagine when you fight for your life to conquer an audience that is not yours, it makes you appreciate the audience that is only there for you even more.
When you start to be able to open up for bands of this size, playing in arenas and bigger venues like festival crowds and stuff like that, it’s a big leap. It’s a big leap from a crappy little club you’re used to playing. But you also have the experience of going through that and seeing the change when your music starts to catch on and people start to pay attention to you. So that’s what happened for us in the middle of Clash of the Titans, as we opened for Anthrax, Megadeth and Slayer on a headlining tour. For the first half of that, it was like running the glove. You were constantly dodging the shit thrown at you. People would spit, curse at you, swing at you, jump on stage and start fighting with you. And we kind of enjoyed that. It was a bit like us against the world. But about halfway through, “Man in the Box” aired on radio and began airing on MTV. And it was weird because you could almost immediately feel this change.
Listen to “Black Hearts and Evil Done” by Jerry Cantrell
Gibson recently unveiled your signature “Wino” Les Paul. When you were developing your talents as a guitarist and songwriter, what was your philosophy and approach to the guitar?
It’s a lot of listening, a lot of time spent playing. One thing I did a lot was when I was going out alone, away from home or whatever, around 18, 19, it was live shows. And I’ve imbibed a lot of that, and it kind of comes back to what we were talking about. It’s about a lot of different skill levels, rather than just being a great musician. And I think you are going through a process of discovering yourself. I’ve always been in bands that had riffs, and I’ve always dug bands that had really strong writers, and I guess I naturally turned to that and found myself somewhere along that path. Riffs, songs, melody, harmony. These are the four keys right there.
Some guitarists just treat a song as a vehicle to access the solo so they can show off. I don’t think you’ve ever had this inclination.
Well I’m not very good at where I can just improvise for a 15 minute solo so I have to lean on other strengths. My stuff has always been really song-specific, even some of the previous stuff where there’s always space for the guitar solo. And I love it, believe me, but even these solos, I still think about it [as] it must add something to the song, and I always think of it as another section. And it must speak. He must sing like a line of voice or horn. Something unique and uplifts the song, but it’s still something memorable and melodic. And particularly [outside of the] In the United States, like in South America or a lot of European countries, it’s a journey not only for people to sing your song lyrics, but they’ll sing your solos to you as well. It chills your back.
You have tour dates in 2022. Do you know who will be playing in the band at the moment?
I think there are some of the guys I made the album with who are going to travel with me. A lot of them have their own stuff going on, their own big bands and their own plans to do, but that’s a little far from saying who will actually be there. But I’ll go with the flow. I was really lucky to be able to put together a cool new group of musicians and go out and tour every time I did, so I don’t worry about that this time around.
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