When Alice in Chains’ (AIC) lead singer Layne Staley died back in 2002, it would have been easy for creative cohort Jerry Cantrell to put the band to rest. Having lost the most focal member of the group and drug addiction being a real problem with Cantrell’s other band mates, it would have been easy to have Alice in Chains go the way of Nirvana and Soundgarden. Instead, Cantrell reunited with bassist Mike Inez and drummer Sean Kinney to recruit William DuVall to round out the band in 2007. Fast forward a dozen years and the band is currently on tour with Korn in support of Rainier Fog, AIC’s sixth studio album and third since Staley’s death. In this day and age of music streaming, Cantrell admits his band’s decision to still hit the recording studio can seem a bit anachronistic.
“Records are hard to make. People don’t buy ’em anymore, so if you’re not lucky enough to make a successful record, you don’t get the money back that it costs you to make it,” he said with a laugh. “It really is truly a labor of love. And it’s unfortunate that it is that way, because in most any other industry, if your product that you spend a year or two making and you use your own investment to make it and you get zero return, it’s pretty hard to stay in business. But we’ve been really fortunate. We have really good fans that still care about the music as we do. And the only reason we keep making records is that we feel like we have something to say and it feels like it’s time to do that.”
With Cantrell front and center as AIC’s current lead singer, the band’s current batch of songs hit the same nuances AIC fans have come to expect. The grinding chords and atonal riffs of songs like “So Far Under” and the stark opener “The One You Know” are balanced out by more melodic fare like the harmony-soaked beauty of “Maybe” and ethereal closer “All I Am.” It fits in well with earlier material from the Staley era, making for in-concert set lists Cantrell is sure will please AIC’s legion of fans.
“The response has been great to the music and live is obviously where it all comes together. We’ve been really lucky. People know and react to a good three or four songs from each one of the last three records the same way that they do to the older Alice tunes,” he said. “We’re pretty much about 50-50 in our set list from the incarnation of the band before and the band that is now.”
Although Cantrell’s urge to pick up a guitar followed his seeing Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi on the Heaven & Hell Tour, Elton John was a major influence. So much so that the aspiring musician not only joined and became president of his high school choir, but was also attracted to darker, musical tones via the a capella Gregorian chants from the 14th and 15th centuries that they often practiced.
“My earliest musical memory was probably listening to Elton John. Greatest Hits was probably the first record I ever got. My dad gave it to me,” he said. “But I was into him before that. My neighbor had Caribou and he was all over the radio. Even before I ever thought about playing guitar, that’s where I made my first musical connection where I thought it was something I’d like to really do.”
With the current leg of the Rainier Fog tour wrapping up in the next few weeks, Cantrell expects AIC to take a break before hitting the studio again.
“It’s a year and a half process of writing and recording it and two years of touring that we do. So that’s about three and a half or four years of being together, so it’s good to take a little break from each other once in a while,” he said with a laugh. “The year 2020 will probably be chill for Alice.”