Jerry Cantrell: Time of Decision
by Sam Owens
One might think that being Jerry Cantrell would be just about the ultimate in rock and roll star trips. After all, here's a guy who has continually tasted the sweet nectar of victory as a prime ingredient in the award-winning, trend-setting, chart-topping Alice In Chains. He's toured the world, sold millions of records and been featured in countless magazine articles. Life should be very sweet indeed for this long, lanky, blond-haired Seattle rocker. Unfortunately, these days instead of his life being a non-stop thrill ride, Cantrell's everyday existence has become a blend of frustration, anticipation and exhilaration. The multi-talented guitarist has almost grown used to waking up each morning and facing a never-ending series of questions and challenges concerning not only the future of his band, but his own musical future as well.
With the health of vocalist Layne Staley still delaying any future recording and touring plans the Chains may have, Cantrell has resolved himself to his group's uncertain future and taken the first tentative steps towards moving on. He's not moving away from AIC, mind you, just in a new direction that will allow him to once again spread his musical wings. After more than two years of planning and execution, Cantrell's first solo project 'Boggy Depot' is finally upon us, and contained within its varied, hard-hitting and eminently listenable tunes (many of which feature Alice In Chains drummer Sean Kinney) may just be a few of the clues we've all been seeking concerning the past, present and perhaps even future status of the Chains. But for now, however, Cantrell would prefer to avoid talking directly about his band and have the conversation focus squarely on his own new venture.
"It is hard at times to explain what's happening with the band," he said. "So I've basically tried to stop talking about it. There's really no point in saying the same thing over again, especially when it's basically no different than what people knew a year ago. I'm sorry about that. What'll happen with Alice In Chains is what will happen - I realized a long time ago that I can't really control the matter."
While it is true that the eventual fate of Alice In Chains is squarely out of Cantrell's direct control, there's no question that the support that he and bandmates Inez and Kinney have provided to Staley during his time-of-need have served to greatly benefit the troubled vocalist. Avoiding the kind of confrontational pressure that apparently tore asunder the Stone Temple Pilots under very similar circumstances, the members of AIC have chosen to temper their immediate needs with an eye focused squarely on longterm goals. Cantrell is well aware that Staley is still in no condition to stand up to the rigors of the road - or even the extended strain of the recording studio - at this time. But instead of casting their friend to the winds, or creating undo internal tension, the Chain gang have gone about their business, doing whatever they need to do prior to (hopefully) reforming at some point in the near future.
Along those lines, in addition to working with Cantrell, the band's other members have done their best to remain active. Kinney has begun exploring a number of alternative career options, including a few production gigs. But it is upon Cantrell that the eyes of the rock world have clearly focused. As principle songwriter for AIC, as well as lead guitarist and occasional vocalist, Cantrell would seem to be the most obvious band member to go off and enjoy solo success. And while his new project is clearly a solo effort, he stresses it in no way indicates his separation from Alice In Chains.
"This is a side of my music that I wanted to explore," he said. "These are songs I've had, and that I've liked for a while. Some of them just didn't really fit into what the band was doing at the time, others have been written over the last few months when I really started to focus on this project. Some people may think that some of them sound like they could be part of Alice In Chains, and that makes sense. But this isn't a band album, it's my album."
Cantrell is also certainly aware that any acclaim he's enjoyed as an integral part of the 15 million albums that the Chains have sold in the '90's does not necessarily guarantee the success of his first solo disc. He has been continually reminded that such varied certified-platinum performers as Keith Richards, Richie Sambora and Vince Neil have never come close on their own to attaining the stellar heights they enjoyed with their various bands. So would Cantrell be disappointed if his effort failed to go platinum, or even gold? Would his artistic ego be crushed if he discovered that his future was 'chained' to the health whims of AIC - whether he liked it or not? The answer to these questions appears to be a definite NO!
"If it doesn't sell a million copies, I'll live," he joked. "I'm not gonna go running to check the sales figures everyday. I know I'm happy with the music on this album or it never would have come out. It was a very positive experience for me to work with other musicians and to take full responsibility for what came out."
Throughout his debut solo effort, Cantrell has managed to create a sound that is simultaneously familiar yet stirringly fresh. While elements of classic AIC riffology sneak through on many of the disc's songs, on others Cantrell has explored musical turf strikingly different from anything ever presented by the Chains. From strident hard rock to plaintive acoustic tenderness, the disc presents Cantrell in full command of a wide swath of rock and roll styles. No, it may not be 'Dirt' or 'Facelift', but then Cantrell never said it was supposed to be. What this effort represents is Jerry Cantrell stepping out on his own, treating his fans to a taste of great rock and roll, while he - along with the rest of us - waits to see exactly what the future may have in hold for that band known far-and-wide as Alice In Chains.
"I hope the fans enjoy this album," Cantrell said. "I know a lot of them would prefer it to be an Alice In Chains record, and I understand that. All I can ask them is to be patient. I hope this helps their wait a little easier - I know that's what it did for me."