Alice In Chains’ ‘Dirt’ at 30: Jerry Cantrell & Sean Kinney Look Back on ‘Vibrant and Strange’ Era
When talking about Alice in Chains’ sophomore LP Dirt, which turns 30, it’s easy to get mired in the darkness and addiction punctuating its original release on Sept. 29, 1992. But focusing on the negative does a grave disservice to a fierce, creative recording from a band that was key in putting Seattle on the musical map in the early ‘90s. Especially when you consider how meaningful Dirt is to the original members of the band, guitarist Jerry Cantrell and drummer Sean Kinney, in the context of the band’s 30-plus-year history.
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“Two of us aren’t here,” Kinney states, referencing frontman Layne Staley, who passed away in 2002, and bassist Mike Starr, who died in 2011. “These 30-year things are really nice, but it’s bittersweet. That’s just our reality. It’s everybody’s reality. Everybody’s gonna lose people they love in life and people will miss you. It’s how things are, going back and trying to remember when we were young and everything was vibrant and strange.”
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“It’s 30 years (later) and we are still talking about a record that four guys from the Northwest made back in 1992, and that’s pretty cool,” says Cantrell. “As an artist, that’s what the ultimate goal is—to create something that lasts and gets handed down through generations of listeners. It’s not for everybody, but it has a way of finding its people.”
When one speaks of Dirt now, it’s in light of the incredible 13 songs crafted as the band were coming down from a herculean amount of touring in support of their 1990 debut, Facelift.
“By the time Facelift had come out, we were already working towards Dirt,” explains Kinney. “Things were being written, and we were touring on Facelift, playing different versions of some of these songs live and working them into what they ended up being. Some were written right before the record, but some of them were around back then because by the time Facelift came out, we got a record deal for a batch of other songs.”
“Things had really taken off,” adds Cantrell. “We’d had a really successful tour and campaign for Facelift, which was probably a good 18 months of touring. And during that time, I was always collecting ideas. Back then, it was a little handheld tape recorder or a little Tascam four-track you’d dump your ideas into. There were also jams during rehearsals and in dressing rooms and soundchecks. When we got done with that tour, I had a lot of good ideas and, collectively as a band, we had some interesting things going on.”
With a cache of concepts, Alice headed down to California to begin shaping Cantrell’s ideas into fully realized songs.
“We started out down in California and we still had to buff some of the material into shape,” Cantrell tells Billboard. “We needed to do a little bit more woodshedding. I remember we went out to some studio, which was like a converted barn, out in Malibu. It belonged to Mick Fleetwood, which we all thought was pretty cool, ‘cause we’re big Fleetwood Mac fans. We hung out there for about two weeks and fleshed out some ideas. One song in particular, ‘Rain When I Die,’ I remember we sewed that up in that room.”
In fact, to Cantrell’s memory, “Rain When I Die” serves as a testimony to his then-evolving partnership as a songwriter with Staley.
“We work in a really interesting way, especially lyrically and melodically,” he says of their creative kinship. “The way that Layne and I worked together, we had a pretty good partnership. We didn’t really talk about things too much, but we just filled the other half of what the other guy didn’t have. Like if I was stuck somewhere or I didn’t have an idea, Layne always had it, and if he was stuck somewhere, I always had it. It was a really cool thing we had. On that particular song, I had a really strong vocal idea and a cadence for the song, and so did he. He showed me his idea, and I showed him mine. And the weird part of it was where I had written lyrics and places to sing were the spaces and the breaths in the song for him. So I’m like, ‘Dude check it out. My line fits your gap and your line fits my gap. Let’s put ‘em together.’ We just combined them lyrically, and it was weird how well it worked. We totally did not communicate what we were writing about, but it worked together. That’s one of my favorite songs on the record.”
The one-two punch of “Hate to Feel” and “Angry Chair” are perhaps the songs that best signify Staley’s growth as a songwriter. In fact, the singer had initially written them for a potential solo project.
“Layne started playing guitar more and he had these riffs, and I don’t know if he really wanted to use them with the band,” Kinney tells Billboard. “I think he was thinking about some other sh-t. But I remember just us thinking of how cool they were and wanting to jam on them. So we wound up developing those up as songs and put them on the record.”
“Layne came into his own as a guitar player, and he wrote a couple of fantastic tunes on the guitar with ‘Hate to Feel’ and ‘Angry Chair,'” adds Cantrell. “I love those tunes, and I also love the fact that he got the bug to pick up the guitar. I remember he showed us those tunes and he was thinking about doing them for a record on his own. He was a big fan of Nine Inch Nails and Ministry and the whole industrial movement, and those were songs he pocketed for that. Then he played them for us and we were all like, ‘F–k, those are cool. We should do those.’ And he reluctantly agreed. And we cut them, and they turned out to be two amazing songs that very much fit the record, for sure.”
Perhaps the most harrowing aspect of Dirt’s creation transpired once the band took the new material to Los Angeles, where they reunited with Facelift producer Dave Jerden. It happened to be around the time the riots broke out after the Rodney King verdict on April 29, 1992.
“We did our woodshedding out in Malibu, and then we were gonna move over to One on One in the Valley,” Cantrell explains. “It was a cool studio that Jerden had us at. We loaded in, and usually when you start a record, you’re just hitting sounds and figuring out what works, what doesn’t. And it usually takes a couple of days to a week just to get settled in before you actually even start recording. We were going through that process and everybody was well aware that the trial was coming up for those officers. We were also aware of the sentiment that if these guys got off, the town would probably react to that. And rightfully so. I remember we had it on the TV when the verdict came down and they got off, we were like, ‘This town is gonna explode.’ And it did, almost immediately, like while we were watching the TV in real time. It was scary to see that, but we were in tune with the vibe of why it was happening. I remember driving through that, and seeing the city tear itself apart and people responding to the injustice that just happened.”
“Metallica had just finished the Black Album there,” adds Kinney in reference to One on One. “Nobody’s heard it, they were in that studio forever. So we went into that same studio where they moved out, and Dave has got all of our sh-t set up.
“We went in to track the first day and we were living in these condos in Marina Del Rey across town. They were not conveniently located to each other. But we were hanging out in the lounge of the studio waiting for things to get set up, and the verdict was about to come down about the Rodney King thing. And we heard it and we’re really angry about the verdict and thought to ourselves how this town is gonna be pissed. So we go back in trying to track again when Dave gets on the microphone in our headsets and is like, ‘We gotta get out of here, the whole city’s on fire!’ This was literally like 40 minutes later. So we had this one van we took to the studio from the beach, and we had to drive through all that to get back to our apartments. It was terrifying. None of us had ever been in anything like this, and people were throwing sh-t at the van and the highways were screwed up. People are shooting guns all over the place. It was complete chaos. So we finally got out to the beach and bugged out to the desert.”
No doubt the most famous cut off Dirt is “Rooster,” which Cantrell wrote for his Vietnam veteran father and displays the guitarist’s own growth as a songwriter – which would be further evidenced on such triumphant solo projects as 2002’s Degradation Trip and 2021’s brilliant Brighten.
“My folks got divorced when I was pretty young, and I was the oldest of three,” Cantrell tells Billboard about the roots of “Rooster,” which peaked at No. 7 on the Mainstream Rock Airplay chart in early 1993. “I didn’t spend a whole lot of time with my pop during the teen years. I grew up with my mother at my grandmother’s house, so we weren’t really that tight and he lived in another state, so I only saw him once in awhile. And the song was a way for me to come to terms with that and maybe not judge him. I was trying to put myself in his shoes and maybe not judge him so harshly and try to understand his experience, which I think had a huge effect on his life and our family in retrospect.”
“When we first met, Jerry’s mother and grandmother had both passed away early and in short succession of each other. He was raised by them and grew up around them,” Kinney remembers. “He was slightly estranged from his father, and so he was going through all this and somewhere along the line he started putting together this song where he’s trying to mend their relationship or reconnect. Being estranged from family members, Layne and I could understand that. If we would’ve been more self-serving, selfish and just wanted success, we could’ve just sh-tcanned that tune, ‘cause 23-year-old dudes aren’t so excited about a six-minute slow burner about Vietnam. But we were all super connected to the song, and it was important to Jerry. And in hindsight, you’d never know that the song would be what it is today.”
These days, the band, which includes longtime bassist Mike Inez and singer-guitarist William DuVall, is winding down a late summer tour of American outdoor venues, with a heavy portion of the set dedicated to Dirt. For Cantrell and Kinney, it’s been a wonder watching their fans continue to connect so deeply to these songs and making them their own.
“The band has always had our hands on the wheel, whether we were drunk driving and guided it into the ditch or onto the racetrack,” explains Kinney. “It was our lives. It’s what we care about. We didn’t sign up to have radio hits and we weren’t designed to do those things. And somehow we got through, and I think that’s one of the most prideful things. We just built our own world and we’re not for everybody. But surprisingly a lot of people connected to it and it gets more and more apparent now.”
“The musical fingerprint on Dirt is pretty bold, and you can tell from the first note that the record has a real ferocity to it,” adds Cantrell. “It’s really economical, there’s no fat at all on it. It’s all muscle and bones and teeth. There’s a vibe to that, and I’m just glad we got to capture it and the album still matters to people.”