Although Alice in Chains singer Layne Staley died nearly three months ago, Jerry Cantrell still finds it difficult to come to grips with the loss.
"It's something I'm still dealing with, and I still think like he's here," Cantrell whispered, his eyes lowered. "I miss him tremendously. I love him and have to move on. I'll remember him and respect the memories of what we did together and just enjoy life ... and that's all I'll say about it."
Most memories the former bandmates and songwriting collaborators shared date back much further than that April evening when Staley was found dead of an overdose in his home (see "Layne Staley, Alice In Chains Singer, Dead At 34"). As with most of the late singer's friends and acquaintances, as well as those prolific among the closely knit Seattle music scene, it had been a while since the two were as close as they had been when they were recording benchmarks such as Dirt and Jar of Flies during the grunge heyday.
"It's been a long time," Cantrell quipped when asked about the last time the two hung out. He looked annoyed at the question outright, as if somehow Staley's untimely demise could have been averted if only Cantrell had asked him out for coffee the week before.
Though Cantrell's latest album, Degradation Trip, released June 18, was completed long before Staley's death, several songs seem eerily prophetic in retrospect as if Staley had already vacated Cantrell's life long ago, just as he did the lives of many of his other former friends. "Locked On" includes the lines "Faded rock star, push and needle ... / You do your thing, I'll live my life," while "Gone" conjures images of separation. "I caught a flash of your smile, though the fog of a dream ... / I can't be by your side, I'll see you when I sleep/ Now you're gone," Cantrell sings, backed by a backwoods waltz.
Like the disturbed confessionals that were Cantrell's contributions to Alice in Chains and his solo debut, 1998's Boggy Depot, the underlying premise of most songs stems from personal experience. Degradation Trip is a journey into a disturbed psyche, making stops at self-depreciation ("Solitude"), drug dependency ("Spiderbite," "Mother's Spinning in Her Grave [Glass Di-- Jones]"), and abandonment ("Gone"), among other stations of the crossed. Fans of Alice In Chains can appreciate the tortured pacing of Cantrell's plodding laments, while his steely guitar riffs repeatedly stab at the melodies. The album opens with melancholy moaner "Psychotic Break," an apt forecaster with the chorus "I feel like a psychotic break comin' on," and the LP's first single, "Anger Rising," is a dysfunctional family portrait with a violent hue that revisits themes found in the Alice in Chains hit "Rooster."
"I've always been drawn to music that tells the sadder tale and tells the deeper, truer tale, which at times can be very dark," Cantrell explained. "I've always been a fan of that type of material, before I even became a writer. When I'm happy and feeling good, I go out and ride [roller] coasters and jet bikes and stuff. I go out and have fun. When I've got an issue or something is bugging me, I generally write a song about it. ... I draw from what I see and what I experience, and I only really know how to do it one way."
On the heels of a tour with labelmates Nickelback, which concludes Sunday in Omaha, Nebraska (see "Jerry Cantrell Delivers Bittersweet, AIC-Heavy Set At Seattle Nickelback Gig"), Cantrell will have a week to himself before resuming the road work with Creed (see "Creed's Scott Stapp Given Go-Ahead To Tour, New Dates Announced"). While he agrees that it's somewhat ironic for him to be opening for bands that Alice in Chains undoubtedly influenced, set time ain't nothing but a number for Cantrell and his backing band, bassist Robert Trujillo and drummer Mike Bordin.
"I'm just really glad I'm out playing," he explained. "In Alice in Chains, we always said we'd play with pretty much anybody. I'm proud of what we do, and it's a strong act, so whoever we play with, I ain't scared of anybody."