Degredation Trip: An interview with Jerry Cantrell

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By Michael Christopher

Jerry Cantrell has had a rough year. Degradation Trip, his second solo record, was supposed to be a double CD set. New label Roadrunner Records had him whittle it down to one to test the airwaves, having little confidence that the guitarist was still bankable. Then in April, only four dates into a the first leg of the tour, word came from Seattle that Cantrell’s former Alice in Chain’s frontman Layne Staley had been found dead in his home from what unsurprisingly turned out to be a heroin overdose.

Giving himself no time to mourn, Cantrell jumped right back on the road for the summer in opening slots for both Nickelback and Creed, dealing with the latter basically ignoring him throughout the tour, despite the fact that the arena rockers owe a major part of their existence to the influence of Alice in Chains.

This month, things are beginning to look up. After the success of the first two singles “Anger Rising” and “Angel Eyes”, Degradation Trip is being released as originally planned, as a two-disc set, and Cantrell is in the midst of his own headlining tour with hard rock saviors Comes With the Fall pulling double duty as both his opening act and backing band.

PopMatters:

Tell me about the decision to re-release Degradation Trip as a two-disc set.

Jerry Cantrell:

It wasn’t like a changed decision, it’s the way I always intended it to come out. The reason it came out the way that it did the first time was Roadrunner’s call.

PM:

What do you make of the response to the record? So far, it’s getting a ton of airplay on the major rock stations.

JC:

It’s been good so far. It’s my stuff, so I’m always going to feel strongly about it, but you never know how the public is going to react to it. It’s been nice.

PM:

How did you go about approaching this record compared to Boggy Depot?

JC:

Every record that you do man, is sooo different in every way. It’s a completely different experience, and this one certainly took that theme over the top. A lot of things that I did during this record that I never had to do. All the hats I was wearing was definitely something that was taxing as well—but I’m glad I did it.

PM:

The rumors of you locking yourself away until you came up with a certain number of songs.

JC:

Yeah, generally when I write, I pretty much write. It’s not a whole real different thing either.

PM:

Real solitary?

JC:

I didn’t like, put myself in a prison cell (laughs). I was in a house in the Cascade Mountains with a pond with rainbow trout in the backyard and a couple of dogs and some cats so, it was no fucking prison cell.

PM:

It seems like the single disc set was much heavier and maybe even a bit darker than Boggy Depot. The two-disc set, is that gonna have more acoustic, along the lines of “Hurt a Long Time” from the last one?

JC:

Yeah, it’s 11 more songs—it’s a whole “nother fuckin” record. You get a variety, but overall the feeling’s the same; the vibe is way the fuck dark. It’s way black.

PM:

There’s been a lot of talk in the press about “The Return of the Rock” and “1991 Re-visited” in music today. You’ve got a lot of these new bands that are coming up, but all you early ‘90s guys are represented in some way too—not to make you sound old.

JC:

No, we’re getting there, we’ve been around awhile. It’s nice to have been around for awhile.

PM:

And that’s a testament to the music that you’ve put out. Bands like Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Chris Cornell, yourself; what’s different this time around with the music you’re releasing now?

JC:

Hopefully a lot of different experiences up to this point. Every record, you’ve got more experiences to draw on as a writer and a musician. I guess you’re trying to do something you haven’t done before, and I definitely feel I accomplished that with this record.

PM:

A lot of the guys that are representing the early ‘90s Seattle scene, or whatever you want to call it; you’ve got Dave Grohl, Chris Cornell, Mark Lanegan, they’re all onto other projects after the dissolution of their other ones. What do you think it was that made Seattle explode so quickly and then implode just as quickly and painfully?

JC:

Implode? Well I don’t know, all those guys are still making music. We’re all still growing and reaching and we’re still around—so I would choose another word.

PM:

As far as their respective bands imploding; Nirvana, Soundgarden.

JC:

Bands don’t last. Bands don’t last forever—it’s a rarity when they do. I don’t think it’s built to last, it was just built to make a mark and make a noise and we certainly did that. We did it in a way that hadn’t been done before and it’s not been duplicated yet, and that kind of fuckin’ explosion out of one city and the impact that that music had.

PM:

Do you ever see something like that happening again?

JC:

It happens—once in a great while, and I was very lucky to have been a part of that and to still be reaping the benefits of what we did. I think that’s probably why we did it in the first place—it was an honest thing, we were just pissed off and having fun and made some great music. That’s about as simple as you can put it.

PM:

By now, I’m sure most people realize that you wrote the majority of Alice in Chains music and lyrics. Why go solo? What was the decision to originally go solo?

JC:

Alice was pretty much done, and it either do nothing or do something, and I’ve always been somebody that steps up to challenges and tries something different in life. Now with my second record, going back is an impossibility. That’s really not what I would’ve chosen, but that’s the way it happened so, here I am.

PM:

How frustrating was it not to be able to tour in support of the third Alice in Chains record?

JC:

Very frustrating, but, we stuck it out. We rode the good times together and we stuck together through the hard times. We never stabbed each other in the back and spilled our guts and do that kind of bullshit that you see happen a lot. It’s something I’m proud of, and like I said, we did it from an honest standpoint. No matter what it was about, we were a true band and a bunch of fucking great friends and that’s what I try to keep my head around anytime anything else comes up.

PM:

Some of the last songs you did with Alice in Chains, like “Died” and “Get Born Again” (from the 1999 Music Bank box set), is that indicative of where you wanted to head with your solo stuff too?

JC:

Both of those songs were actually songs I had planned for this record. I was heading in the direction of making another record and the guys liked those tunes and we ended up with the music and Layne started writing some lyrics.

PM:

Looking back, when you came out with Facelift, you were categorized as metal, and then Dirt came out and blew everybody’s fucking mind. It’s almost unclassifiable.

JC:

That’s a brutal fuckin’ record.

PM:

Something like “Down in a Hole” (Dirt) is just as dark lyrically as maybe “Sunshine” (Facelift) or more recently like “Solitude” (Degradation Trip), how do you get that sound to become so dark?

JC:

I don’t know how or why, that’s the type of material I’ve always been drawn to, something a little more human I guess. It’s real stuff you know?

PM:

It’s been a little over a half a year since Layne’s passing, how difficult is it for you to deal with and talk about now?

JC:

I don’t really have a whole lot to say about it. I really miss him a lot, and I really hoped that he would come out of that, but he didn’t end up making it and I really don’t know what else to say. I miss my friend. It’s fuckin’ difficult carrying on, but I’m doin’ it.

PM:

At the time, you’re right in the beginning stages of touring and releasing Degradation Trip.

JC:

We were the first couple of gigs into this tour. I’ve been on tour since that happened. It’s been a tremendously difficult experience, probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. Maybe somewhere down the road, I’m sure it’ll be something I’ll be proud of for fighting through it, but I sure certainly wouldn’t wish it on anybody.

PM:

Is it therapy getting up there every night and the reaction you’ve been receiving to some of the older stuff?

JC:

Of course. It’s great to know that what we did had that much impact on people. It’s an amazing experience, but at times it’s difficult to play that shit as well.

PM:

From a critical standpoint, one week after Layne’s death you have Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes dying in a car wreck. MTV and VH1 immediately alter their programming, after little mention of Layne. What does that say about the respect given to real artists opposed to thrown together packages sold on image?

JC:

The way he was treated before his death in the press has pretty much been continued along. I think it’s a shame that so little was made of his passing, and I don’t think that he got the respect that he deserved. It’s just kind of sickening to me.

PM:

In the future, and there’s been an inundation of some of the compilations in the last couple years, is there going to be any more Alice In Chains released? Rare tracks, demos, live?

JC:

No. That chapter closed when Layne died. It’s done.

PM:

What were the tours like with Nickelback and Creed?

JC:

Creed was a weird tour. I mean it’s kind of strange touring with both of them from a personal standpoint of where I come from and what I’ve accomplished in my life. It’s something I can’t control; two bands that are doing pretty well for themselves and they requested us, and it was OK to do but it wasn’t my first choice. I would’ve probably rather done something on my own, but it was with a new label and new management so it was an opportunity, and we took advantage of it—for better and worse.

Personally speaking, I had a great time with the Nickelback guys who are actually real guys and a young fuckin’ hot band, the whole vibe of being around that’s exciting. The Creed thing was a little more stale. I just didn’t find them very personable guys. I was on tour with them for fuckin’ ever and I still hadn’t even met em’. When you spend two months together, you generally find some time to fuckin’ say hello or whatever. It was really kinda weird in that respect. I’d never been on a tour that was that fuckin’ stale on a personal level.

PM:

Is this leg of the tour the one you’re most excited about?

JC:

It’s a lot better. Playing for someone else’s crowd is always difficult for any band. Being in an opening slot, the kids you want to play to are all fuckin’ miles away on the lawn. It’s a weird thing.

PM:

How did you tap Comes With the Fall to be your backing band on the tour?

JC:

I met those guys when I was recording the record in L.A. and I really liked what they did and really dug their band and we just became friends. When Rob and Mike (bassist Trujillo and drummer Bordin who played on Degradation Trip) couldn’t make the tour, they were just kind of the logical choice for me.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/cantrell-jerry-021226/