Long nights in the studio can drive even the most experienced musician a little nuts, especially when one endless evening blurs into the next and your record seems no closer to completion. In such a situation, a little careless horseplay to ease the tension is par for the course. Late last year between takes for his second solo record, Degradation Trip, Alice in Chains guitarist Jerry Cantrell was haphazardly running across the spacious A&M Studio room in his bare feet when a large sliver from the old wooden floor sliced through his foot.
“It was four inches long and a quarter-inch wide and it went from the ball of my foot all the way through,” Cantrell recalled, wincing at the memory. “It probably penetrated two inches deep. I remember sitting on the floor and the tech had to get needlenose pliers to pull this thing out.”
The incident is an apt metaphor for the creation of Degradation Trip, which comes out June 25. For more than two years Cantrell has been plugging away on the project, and every step was paved with pain, frustration and emotional turmoil, from record label complications and scheduling conflicts to production woes and track sequencing heartache. So when Cantrell and his bandmates — bassist Robert Trujillo (Ozzy Osbourne, Black Label Society) and drummer Mike Bordin (Ozzy Osbourne, Faith No More) — were in the recording studio, they found themselves putting every ounce of their energy into the music, sometimes to their physical detriment.
“Mike Bordin says he knows a track is special when he cuts himself open and bleeds on his drums, and he did that on multiple occasions,” Cantrell said.
As they say, no pain, no gain. Degradation Trip is Cantrell’s best and most personal outing since Alice in Chains’ last stand, and in many ways the disc takes over where that band left off. Bleak, dark and confessional, the album is rich with a balance of titanic crunch, seismic rumble, festering gloom, soaring harmonies and folksy jangle, mining the sonic terrain of metal, grunge, alternative and classic rock. “Anger Rising,” the disc’s first single, starts with acoustic strumming and buzzing distended guitar atop choir-like vocal harmonies, then erupts into a tumultuous rocker with a memorable chorus. The tune, which goes to radio in April, addresses domestic abuse and features the lines “Terrified scorpion crawling the wall/ By the way, father could you please beat me some more.”
Almost all of the writing for Degradation Trip was done in the months after Cantrell returned from the road to support his first solo venture, 1998’s Boggy Depot. As he laid pen to paper, thoughts and images about the collapse of Alice in Chains, the descent from mainstream popularity, the hazards of a hedonistic lifestyle and the turmoil of damaged and terminated relationships began to pour like blood from an open wound.
“I got into a writing session which lasted for three or four months where I just continued to spew and pour all of this sh– out of the depths of myself from every level and aspect of my life,” he said. “I dealt with a lot of issues that aren’t easy for me to verbally get across. I think it’s easier for me to do it in a musical venue. But it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I’m glad I did it and I’m glad I went through the experience, but it’s certainly something I don’t ever want to do again.”
The difficulties didn’t end after the songwriting. Even hooking up with a producer proved to be a major task. Originally, Cantrell booked studio time with Dave Jerden, who produced Alice in Chains’ first two records as well as albums by Offspring and Red Hot Chili Peppers. But that relationship didn’t last.
“It was just not working out personally,” Cantrell said. Mike and Robert had hooked up with me and we had been through rehearsals, and we got into the studio with Dave and it all blew up on us on the second day. It took us months to get regrouped again.”
Unable to find a replacement for Jerden, Cantrell decided to self-produce the record with his friend Jeff Tomei, who has engineered for Smashing Pumpkins, Matchbox Twenty and others. But by the time he and Tomei were ready to rock, they had to wait another three months before Trujillo and Bordin were available. Then, shortly after they began, Columbia Records dropped Cantrell, leaving the artist orphaned with studio bills piling up.
“It was very strange for me, because my experience in this business has been with one band and one label,” Cantrell said. “So the last couple years I was not only on my own making a record of the magnitude that I committed myself to, but I was having to deal with being like a brand new artist going around to all these different labels and meeting with them and hearing the same things over and over: ’Yeah, we love it. We love you,’ and then have nothing happen. It was a little disheartening after a while.”
Eventually, Roadrunner Records decided to pick up the album, but instead of releasing it as a double CD as Cantrell originally wanted, they asked him to pare 25 completed tracks down to 14. A publicist at the label said the remaining songs will likely be released later in the year.
“It was totally hard to decide which songs to use,” Cantrell said. “But there are some songs that are more immediate than others. And the thing that made it a lot easier is knowing that all the songs are eventually going to come out the way that I intended them.”
Last week, Cantrell played a packed show at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, and this spring he’ll hit the road with labelmates Nickelback. While on the tour, Cantrell plans to combine his new tunes with some vintage Alice in Chains songs.
“I’m definitely in a place I’ve never been in my life, but that’s obviously where I’m supposed to be, I think.” Cantrell said. “I’m learning some new things and facing different challenges. So while it may be uncomfortable at times and maybe unusual, I know that there’s something that I’m getting out of this by sticking with what I intended to do.”
As for Alice, Cantrell refuses to put the final nail in the coffin, but he concedes that he probably won’t play with his Seattle bandmates for quite a while.
“I never say die, man. It’s not even anywhere near that. I’ve been working on my own thing for quite some time and I plan on continuing for many years. At the same time, who knows what will happen? We’re all still around, so it’s possible we could all do something someday, and I fully hope someday we will. It’s just not gonna happen soon.”