Interview with Jerry Cantrell: Alice In Chains, Too Long On The Outside

—by Patrick Slevin, September 28, 2009

The scene at the Fillmore At Irving Plaza for Alice In Chains’ show three weeks in advance of their new album, Black Gives Way To Blue was one of complete adoration. From jaded press to passionate fans who may have never seen the seminal ‘90s grunge act before, the New York crowd provided a warmth for Jerry Cantrell, Sean Kinney, Mike Inez and William DuVall to slip into and deliver song after song of chunky, off-time guitars, graceful melodies and mournful harmonies. Among their many hits, several songs from the album made their first appearance in New York City, particularly the single “Check My Brain,” the first peek “A Looking In View” and the album’s charming deep cut, “Acid Bubble.”
It took them a very long time to get there.
Ground to a halt after the death of their frontman Layne Staley in 2002, Alice In Chains have been undergoing a rebuilding process since a one-off charity event organized by Kinney in 2005, taking on Comes With The Fall vocalist DuVall to sing these cherished songs along with the band’s main songwriter Cantrell—a team that first emerged on Cantrell’s solo tour for 2002’s Degradation Trip—touring the U.S. two years ago, and eventually writing and recording what would be Black Gives Way To Blue.
About a week before the show, I phoned Cantrell to talk about the process that brought them to this point as well as the end result.
A few years ago when you first got back together and did the Decades Rock Live event, you were playing with a rotating cast of vocalists. You had William but weren’t sure if you’d stick with him. When did it solidify that William’s the guy?
It was kind of a process. I don’t think we even had any clear idea of what we were doing at the time—we just knew it felt pretty good to play the music, and we had done a couple of shows together with a bunch of our friends.
I think [it was] probably that show. We had spent some time before that, obviously. We didn’t just call the dude up and say, ‘Hey, we’re doing a TV show.’  (laughs). He’s been a friend of mine for about ten years. He’s another friend that at the very beginning jumped in with us to help us go through the process. And being a friend of mine that meant a lot to him too, to see us consider playing again. It was really great that he got to join us and be a part of that, and I think he earned that. He earned it through the time spent with us.
He’s a really talented guy and the way that we work together vocally, it’s a complete team. That’s the way things were with Layne and I. Obviously it’s a different situation and they’re two different people. But the blueprint is very similar, you know.
He did backup work with you when you were doing your solo shows live, right?
Yeah. We met each other in LA in about 2000. So I’ve known him for almost ten years now. We met through a mutual friend and hit it off right off the bat and became friends and ended up hanging out quite a bit and when it came time for me to go out and tour that record—I had gone through a couple of lineups of guys and was having a hard time keeping musicians together (laughs)—and I asked [DuVall’s band Comes With The Fall], ‘Would you guys be interested in being my band?’ and they said, ‘Yeah, totally. We’ll do it.’
So they came on board, and we toured for a year or two and so we have a lot of experience playing together. I’ve always admired his ability and how much he cares about music and how hard he works at it. And that reminded me a lot of me and a lot of the guys in my band. We cared about it that much, and we worked really hard to do that.
I know that vocal harmonies are such a big part of the Alice In Chains sound, but was there ever a feeling that you could simply do this yourself, strip the harmonies back and Alice In Chains would be a three-piece for all intents and purposes?
Absolutely not (laughs). No way. God, Layne was such a huge part, you know. And although I was a part of that too, he carried the lion’s share of that, and he was just amazing. I think the reason that it worked was we both created something together. We’re able to continue on because we sound the same as a band and we write a certain way as a band and a lot of the elements are still intact although Layne is gone. And that’s obviously something we miss a lot.
When you lose things in life or you get your ass kicked, at some point, you consider getting up (laughs). You know what I mean? And so the challenge we’ve taken on is a pretty immense one and what that requires is you digging really deep inside yourself and finding stuff that maybe you didn’t think you had.
I had to step up quite a bit more than I ever had. He always gave me a lot of confidence to do that, to sing more lead. And you can hear that as the albums progress, I kind of start growing into that role. I attribute a lot of that to the confidence that Layne gave me. Basically, him just saying, ‘Dude, you gotta fucking sing. These songs are your songs, you write all this fucking great material, and it’s not like I don’t like singing ‘em or whatever, but they’re personal to you, you should fucking sing ‘em.’ (laughs) ‘You can do it.’ I’m always forever grateful to him for that.
And having some experience touring on my own and doing that, it’s kind of a natural progression to take on a larger role on this record and this incarnation of the band. The cool thing about that is I have William to work together with, and that’s a lot like the band worked together before. It was never about one guy, it never was about one guy. We were all extremely important and the perception might be that it’s more about one guy, but it’s not. It’s about the way that we all work together. It’s also about why we do it. We really care about it and we put a lot of time and a lot of effort into trying to create something for ourselves. It makes us happy, it’s something that we’re proud of. I think that that drive and that level of commitment is the reason that those albums sounded the way that they do and also the reason they’ve last as long as they have. And I think this new record is in step with that tradition. I think that we delivered big time on this record.
Why did you decide to go with such a long song, ‘A Looking In View’ for the first song released?
I think just because of what it was. It made it the right choice because it was such a big chunk. Just a heavy, dense and long chunk of music that was a lot to digest. The record company came into the picture way late—we were actually done with this record before we signed with Virgin. It takes a few months to get to know everybody and get up to speed and formulate a plan. And we knew the record wasn’t coming out anytime before September, and we were working really hard to make sure it wasn’t the next year, so we knew it was going to be a period of time before we released the first single, ‘Check My Brain.’ A lot of things have happened that are just cool little coincidences, and for the title of that song to be ‘A Looking In View,’ to just give you a little look at what we’re doing, it made sense. It was just really cool. It seemed to make sense. And we didn’t serve it as a single to radio, we didn’t sell it. We put it online for free through our site, and of course it was listed to buy.
There were a couple of cool things that happened organically. One, people downloaded it and started to respond to it. And then a lot of those people went and bought it after they had it for free already. That was really cool and restored some of my faith in the times we live in. That people still care and invest in something that means something to them, because it’s not free for us to do this (laughs). The attitude of you want everything for free, you want everything fast, you want all the access but you don’t want to pay for it, well you’re gonna get what you pay for. You’re not going to get really good stuff if you don’t support what you dig. So to see people come to the table like that and vote with their dollar when they didn’t have to was really cool. And then the flipside of that, we didn’t service it to radio—we just put it out there, and radio just picked it up and started playing it. That’s cool on its own that they responded to it, and then the listeners responded to it, and it’s a seven-minute fucking song (laughs). All that stuff’s really good. That’s good stuff, good signs. Not only for us, but for people out there that appreciate the story, follow it, and also appreciate the quality we try to bring. That’s a really difficult task to do especially in light of all the hurdles we’ve had to cross.
The single is all California though.
It wasn’t lost on me that it’s a California song, that’s the whole joke of the thing. It’s like the anti-California California song. And I’m not talking about bashing on the place. Everybody’s got the California radio song. There’s quite a bit of sarcastic humor in that and its intended, it’s totally intended. But if you read the lyrics, it’s quite a bit darker than it actually sounds. It’s me saying some pretty hard stuff and saying it in a kind of beautiful way, and I think Alice has always done that.
I think ‘Acid Bubble’ was probably the song that struck me the most. Where did that come from, particularly that break in the bridge?
That song was actually probably the last thing that we came up with and it was in the middle of one of the breaks that we did. We broke for Halloween for people to go home and be with their kids and all that, and we broke for Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year’s. We worked all in-between those. I think on one of those breaks, that one came out of the blue. My guitar tech at the time, Tim Dawson, who is just a really good friend of mine and helped me demo pretty much everything for four months between November ’07 and March ’08. I actually had an idea for one thing, he came over, and we kind of put that down and it just didn’t really go anywhere. And I just started goofing off, which I do quite often, and I stumbled onto something completely different and I wrote that song as I sat there.
All those musical bits I came up with in a half an hour and we just kind of sketched them together and said, ‘Wow man, that’s fucking cool as shit.’ Lyrically, it took me a while to get it together. I wrote the first verse and the chorus and all that pretty much immediately, that first night. For some reason, I was dragging my feet on trying to come up with a second verse and that came later. I did a demo of that and sent it out to everybody and everybody really reacted to that. This is after we pretty much had everything already laid out as far as what we were going to record and then we were gonna pick from that what became the record. So that was way late in the writing process and it was just one of those lucky little nuggets that kind of falls out of the sky and you grab. Everybody reacted to it so we recorded it and that’s what you got. (laughs) It took me another month or two to come up with that second verse and finally I did that. Nick [Raskulinecz, producer] was all up my ass because he was really into the tune and so he was just like, ‘Dude, write a fucking verse!’ and I was just, ‘Well, fuck man. It’s gotta be right. The rest of it is so good I can’t have that be fucking lame, I can’t just phone in that second verse. It’s gonna come when it comes.’ And it ended up coming really late. But it’s one of my favorite songs on the record, and it’s really unique.
I was talking to [James] Hetfield recently, he and Lars [Ulrich]. We gave them advance copies because they interviewed us, they actually were kind enough to do a little radio thing that’s supposed to drop on the release of the record, and we did an hour or hour and a half interview with those guys and that was the one song he was like, ‘Thank you dude. (laughs) Thank you for that fucking song man.’ I’m like, ‘Right on man.’ If fucking Hetfield says it’s okay, I’m fucking happy.
The first record you bought was an Elton John record.
(laughs) It is. And I’m looking at it right now. I got my mini kind of trophy case where I’ve got my Pittsburgh Steelers helmet signed by the Steel Curtain. And it’s sitting right above that. Elton John’s Greatest Hits. I actually didn’t buy it, my dad gave it to me.
Was including him a weird thing for you? That he’s on the first record you’ve done in over a dozen years.
Sure. And it’s the title track, and it’s for Layne, there are so many things. Here’s another little tidbit of information, Elton was actually Layne’s first concert too. I knew that, and had forgotten that, but since this has been getting the press that it has that Elton’s played on the record and on that particular song, Layne’s stepdad, Jim Elmer, let us know, he said, ‘You guys realize that was his first fucking concert.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, I forgot about that.’ All these things keep lining up. To have somebody that means so much to you as an artist, the artist that he is, of course to be able to collaborate with him on something of such importance on this record, it’s indescribable to have that go down. Just one of those lucky things that happen, something completely unexpected. You ask somebody something—I sent him an email and kind of explained what the thing was, sent him a demo, and I wrote ‘If you have time, listen to it and if you feel anything for it, we’d be of course honored to have you play on this and do anything that you want.’ And he did it. It’s just really cool for a lot of reasons man. (laughs) One of the coolest things that has ever happened to me in my life is walking into the studio and seeing his piano in the room—he came in a couple of minutes late, his football team was playing a game or something that ran late—so we were in the studio with the engineer and his piano in there. We walk in and the piano and he’s got the lyrics and the chart for a song that I wrote and a song that I had written for Layne. It was just a super heavy moment. Like, wow. Just fucking crazy man (laughs).
I get the impression that you and the band have been spearheading the business of the band and it seems that everybody involved with the band at this point in time has been really vetted. Do you feel more in control of Alice In Chains’ destiny than you ever have?
Well, I think that we probably are because we are a little bit different people than we used to be (laughs). We were a lot younger and way the fuck more out of hand before. But I have to say at the same time, we were deeply involved in everything back then. Our work, our videos, the way things looked on stage, everything. We’ve always had a super firm grip on that wheel. Of course, just by the going through changes and growing up as men and going through the things that we have and maybe not quite living the way we used to live, of course that’s going to make things that much more focused.
With these gradual things, ‘A Looking In View’ getting the responses it did for example, was there ever a feeling of pressure around the new record that’s starting to build up or maybe go away as the record comes closer and the tours are starting?
It’s just really exciting, you know. It’s exciting as it ever was. And it means just as much as it ever did. I still haven’t heard ‘Check My Brain’ on the radio yet. I heard ‘A Looking In View’ the day that we released it, and that’s where you wanna hear your music, driving around in your car with that kick-ass radio compression. I still haven’t heard ‘Check My Brain,’ I actually even looked for it here and there, but I just have been kind of busy doing other things and haven’t got to driving around in my car by myself and the song comes on yet. But I remember when ‘A Looking In View’ came on and I caught it that first day. I was driving over the Ralph’s to get some cat food or something (laughs) and it came on just as I was pulling down below the parking structure and right as the satellite kicked off. I think I was listening to Octane or whatever, XM radio, so I heard it come on and then the signal cut and I turned back around and went back up so I could listen to the rest of the song.
It’s just as cool to hear your tune on the radio as it ever was (laughs). It’s fun. I think we worked really hard and we faced a lot and I think the reason we’re doing it is extremely genuine and I’m just really proud of all of us for taking on that sort of a challenge and coming through it the way that we have and the only way to do that is to really depend on each other and communicate and to make sure that it’s right with everybody as far as to keep taking that next step. It’s something that started with a real humble beginning—we got together for a charity show Sean put together and one thing led to another. Through that experience, we did a couple other shows and were asked to be a part of a show for our friends Ann and Nancy [Wilson] for VH1 and that turned into a couple more shows and that turned into a tour. Things just kept building without a plan. So to be here today is just as much a surprise for us as anybody else, and it’s all good.


Exclusive interview with Michael Stipe from R.E.M.

aol music r.e.m.
By valuing equally the Velvet Underground and the Monkees, the jangling Georgians of R.E.M. proved there could be common ground between the stylistic integrity of the indie world and the commercial appeal of the mainstream. Blockbuster songs such as 'Losing My Religion' and 'Everybody Hurts' made the band the world's biggest for a time in the early 1990s, and their continued insistence on creative adventure has been a model for many of their successors to the pop throne. Singer Michael Stipe talked to Spinner about R.E.M.'s newest label: Hall of Famers.

How did you find out about your Hall of Fame induction?

Myself and [bassist] Mike Mills and Bertis Downs, our manager, had flown to London. [Guitarist] Peter Buck was on tour with Robyn Hitchcock, and we flew over to have an R.E.M. meeting. It was at dinner the Sunday night before the actual announcement was made. We had an idea, but the call came in, and it was kind of exciting.

How did you celebrate?

Well, we went off and saw Robyn perform [laughs]. We raised a few pints after the show.

Patti Smith probably should have been inducted a few years ago, but in hindsight it will look like perfect planning, to have her go in with you guys.

We certainly are very good friends. The influence she's had on my band -- actually, it was a mutual love of her work that brought myself and Peter together. Then he gave me the first Suicide record, and I was like, "Wow, I've never heard anything like this." But it was really Patti's work that got the conversation rolling.

Any thoughts on your other Hall of Fame classmates?

I've never met Grandmaster Flash or Ronnie Spector. At this point, I've met pretty much everyone in the world [laughs], but I've never met those two. Grandmaster Flash obviously set off his own revolution within music. I'm really happy for Van Halen as well. They created one of the soundtracks to the 1980s, although they're a very different band from R.E.M.

It wouldn't be a Hall of Fame career if you didn't have some serious ups and downs over the years, would it?

You're pulling the wool over your own eyes and looking like an idiot to the public if you refuse to acknowledge that there are peaks and valleys to any career that goes on as long as ours has. I think you learn with age and wisdom to ride those, and hopefully learn from them.

Fans have heard stories about the difficulties of making 'Up' in San Francisco or 'Fables of the Reconstruction' in England. How much did the sites you chose impact the records?

Truth be told, the making of 'Up' was a much more difficult journey for us, both personally and as a band, than anything prior or since, simply because [drummer] Bill Berry had chosen to retire from music. And the three of us were putting on a very brave face, kind of soldiering on. What we really should have done was taken six months off to gather our thoughts. I actually like the record, but we created for ourselves an insurmountably difficult period of time trying to finish it. And that had its ripple effects for the next several years.

Which turning points other than Bill's retirement stand out in your mind as crucial to the band's development, for better or worse?

I think the decision at the end of the '80s to stop touring, because we had spent 10 years really . . .

Hammering it?

Yeah [laughs], hammering it. That put us in a unique position, as a fairly young band that was exhausted beyond comprehension. I think that decision to then release our next two albums, which, weirdly enough, became our best-selling records to date -- that decision [not to tour] was a pretty important one. The obvious stuff -- signing our first record label deal with IRS and finding this really dedicated group of people who believed in what we did, and then signing with Warner Bros. and having the luck to work with people like Lenny Waronker and Mo Ostin. We were always very stubborn in terms of what we would not do. The law of negation served us pretty well over the years. The Rule of No -- I think that's what we call it in R.E.M. world.

Your friend Eddie Vedder will be inducting you.

I couldn't be more honored. I'm a great fan, and we're great friends.

If you were speaking on behalf of your own band, how would you induct yourselves?

I've always been pretty bad at what our band might be within the context of pop music. I guess we took a page from Patti in considering this to be our life's work, and allowing other people to figure out what it means beyond that.

Clearly, though, any number of musicians have looked to you as an example.

Well, it feels like a continuum. The people who inspired us, we've met most of them and played shows with or collaborated with most of them. And the people who are in bands -- Radiohead, Coldplay -- who haven't been around quite as long as we have, have gone on to inspire us. That to me is like a great parlor of creative people, swapping ideas.

Instead of sitting after 25 years in your lofty perch.

I don't even know what that means [laughs]. I would be bored if R.E.M. tried to release an album's worth of 'Everybody Hurts' or 'Man on the Moon' or 'What's the Frequency, Kenneth?' We'd much sooner reach a little further than our talents probably allow and fall on our face attempting to do something that's a little bit progressive or forward. The timing [of the induction] could not be more perfect for us, going into the next album and really pushing ourselves, and at the same time being offered this incredible gesture which recognizes the work we've done in the past.

Will the band be on the same page in picking a few songs to play at the ceremony?

Probably. We'll just pick the ones that are easiest.

--James Sullivan

Interview with Michael Stipe (REM lead vocals)
Budapest, Hotel Bar
August 1999
If you like REM, you like a band that goes in different directions.
Are we Out of Time? (M) whispers more, rather than talks. Very respectful, he would concentrated on the person he was speaking to. He answered all questions put to him, thought about the appropriate answers and gave careful, relaxed responses.
CZB: Is it safe to say that you’re a shy person?
M: Yeah, essentially but it would also be safe to say, as a musician and as a media figure that during my adult life, I have, in some way, overcome my shyness. I’m representing shy people in the world around perhaps!
CZB: I read on the internet that you give lectures at a college in Athens.
M: I never taught at a college.
CZB: You have stated that the internet is like a High School Yearbook.
M: What does that mean to you, High School Yearbook?
CZB: It’s a collection of pictures with few words – and you interpret the pictures as you choose.
M: Actually what I said is that it’s like a slam book. Do you know what a slam book is?
It’s a blank notebook that you pass around a school and you write the name of somebody on the top of each page and everybody, anonymously writes what they think of that person and after it has gone all the way around school, everyone reads about what everyone else thinks of everybody and its’ often very brutal. That was the comparison that I made.
CZB: What’s your stand on religion?
M: What’s my stand on it? I’m OK with it. (laughs, which is seldom for him!). That’s a very general question, I mean, how am I supposed to answer that? What’s your stand on religion?
CZB: I believe in God but I don’t go to church, for example.
M: Which God, there are several religions.
CZB: I believe that there’s only one God and I think that all this separation of religions is due to a difference of cultures and places where people are born.
M: I would agree with that. We have something in common.
CZB: Why have you supported the Tibetan Freedom concerts?
M: Adam Yauch called me. I’m not a Buddhist, but I can admire and respect a religion for the most part it represents something that’s not really represented that well in this day and time. There are parts of it that I really like, that are really inspiring, particularly along the same lines as the teachings of Ghandi and Martin Luther King, of non-violence and I find that to be really inspiring, particularly in the case of the Tibetans, where they’ve been faced with such carnage and repression … Tibetans have maintained a non-violent stature towards the Chinese. I find that really respectable.
CZB: What do you think about marriage? You’re 40 and haven’t even proposed to anyone.
M: I have friends who are happily married, I have friends who are happily single. For some people it works, for some people it doesn’t. For some people it’s culturally expected – and I think that’s kind of repressive. But it’s like anything. It can be like apples and oranges – some people like vanilla, some people like chocolate.
CZB: The press commented on your radical sound and image changes. How did you take this personally?
M: A large part of the press, outside of the music press, doesn’t even listen to the music, they’re just promoting the cult of celebrity. That’s something that we come around to that has nothing to do with why you’re a celebrity, which is the music, a great writer or photographer or whatever – and more to do with you personally. That’s just a reflection of the 20th Century cult of celebrity and the explosion of technology, leading to the explosion of the media, leading to way too many musicians, way too many magazines and way too many outlets for information: people have to talk about something. In the 1960’s there were maybe 6 national magazines; there were no national daily newspapers. Now, there are 500 magazines, 20,000 TV stations and they have to talk about something.
CZB: What do you read?
M: I’m a magazine reader, I don’t really read that much. I don’t like to watch that much television.
CZB: How do you manage to keep up with the modern flow of things, keeping in mind that you still make music the traditional way?
M: I think it’s more of the spirit of rock’n’roll, which has little or nothing to do with the sound of it, or what kind of instruments you’re using. For example, I would say that the Aphex Twin records are extremely rock’n’roll in terms of the spirit of it and are extremely punk rock in terms of the spirit of it … I don’t think there’s a guitar within 3 miles of those records or a drum kit; it doesn’t really matter in the means of expression, what does matter is the expression of sound. That’s something that will carry through… we’ve already reached ground zero – everything that has come before has already been crushed and collapsed – what we’re in right now, 1999 – coincidentally, it’s the end of the century, but where we really are at right now is that people are trying to figure out different ways to combine different influences and create something that’s very personal, new and like the best music, very cathartic, revolutionary.
CZB: And your influences are not only musical?
M: No, of course not. In my capacity as a photographer and as a video director I used the inspiration of the paintings of Francis Ack to use them as a starting point for what the video would look like – that’s a really simple example of the bringing together of a group of musicians where someone is extremely visually oriented (and that comes from a photographic background, inspired by someone who is a painter – who’s now dead, but whose paintings live on). There’s a lot of interesting stuff happening musically right now and there’s a lot of mutations going on right now. I predict that in the next 5 years or so, there will be a dominant paradigm in music and everything else will just slow down and then people will get bored and then the patterns will change again.
CZB: How would that apply to the Up album?
M: The main difference between this record and the others before is more in how/what was turned off and turned down and turned up and made prominent in the mixes. In regards with not having a drummer, using drum machines, which we’ve done since our first album, musically is about the same in the spirit of terms.
Musically, some of the most inspiring stuff that’s coming out right now is guitar based, like Kirsten Hersch or the last Bob Dylan record, which is a brilliant record – and that just happens to be made with a guitar instead of just main reverbs.
CZB: You own a movie company, you’ve personally directed REM videos and you’ve published an artistic photography book – when did this interest for imagery start?
M: It all kind of started when I was 15, I started taking photographs and then I decided I was going to be in a band … everything you see now is… the drum of what was 1975; that’s when I became inspired by photography.
CZB: And you’re going to get a new artistic photography out in the fall, called Fear of the Empty?
M: Yeah. It’s actually going to be more like the New Year, because I’m only about the third of the way done with it. It’s less like the last photo book and it’s more of my favorite images from the last 10 years – it’s just pictures of things, landscapes and still lifes and portraits – lots of airports.
CZB: You talked about rock attitudes and punk spirit. What is your feeling on Patti Smith’s influence on the music scene?
M: Patti Smith is someone who inspired myself and Peter Buck a great deal when we were younger. She has continued as an artist and as a writer to make great music and to write good songs. I find her spirit to be younger than a lot of the bands that I see and hear on the radio and on television. I’ve already listened to a couple of things off her new record. It’s really pushing the boundaries of what you would consider to be popular music. I really appreciate that in her.
Hollywood is not such a nice place. Most people doing movies do not know what they are doing.
Byte. When we spoke, REM was working on a movie soundtrack for Milos Forman’s Man On The Moon, which was released in the Fall (1999).
Man on the Moon was released as the second single from the 1992 album Automatic for the People. The song gave its name to a 1999 film based on Lithuanian actor Andy Kaufman’s life, Man on the Moon, and was used in the movie soundtrack.
REM Michael StipeREM Michael StipeREM Michael Stipe

Interview with Michael Stipe  (from
Have you played with the DVD-As yet?
“No, I don’t have all the speakers. Do you have to have a bunch of speakers? I’m pretty simple in terms of how I listen to stuff; i-Pod and my computer, basically.”

Has it given you an opportunity to look back on 16 years of music?
“Yeah, in a way it’s an extension of the greatest hits package. There’s all this extra content, all these little films that maybe people haven’t seen. I think if people like that stuff, there’s a lot there.”

Do you play the old records much?
“No, I don’t really. Sometimes before we make a record I go back and listen to a few. It’s equally humbling and uplifting. But just today there were a couple of songs that we wanted to try out live and we had to go listen to the CDs, songs we haven’t played in some cases for the better part of two decades: “Seven Chinese Brothers” we’ve played twice in the past six days, and we haven’t played that song in 18 years. And today we were trying to dust off “Turn You Inside Out”, just to see what it sounded like.”

'Green' sounds like the record where the two distinct sides of the band were most separated; the acoustic side and the heavier, anthemic side.
“Yeah, also on “Turn You Inside Out” we brought in a fellow who did beats and it seems to me a moment where we might have gone more in the direction of Blur, in terms of how they utilise technology. But instead we went the other way.
“We’ve utilised technology like that since our first album, but we’ve always had it as an underpinning, not as a featured instrument. It felt to me like a period of time where everything could have radically changed, and didn’t.”

You were describing it as a very uplifting and anthemic record at the time. . .
“Oh, I always say that. You can’t quote me on just about anything that I say about our records.”

You say every LP is the best one you’ve ever made.
“Well, you know what, that’s always honest. That’s not a line. If I didn’t feel that, believe me, the record would never be released. We have to feel so strongly about the thing, because once it’s pressed, it’s there. There’s no going back.”

It’s ironic that the songs on 'Green' people thought were uncommercial – like “The Wrong Child” – proved to be a template for the most successful material.
“We toured that record for a year, which turned out to be the culmination of ten years of being constantly on the road. We were sick to death of touring. Peter was sick of being a pop star, the guitar god, and so he decided to teach himself other instruments. Among the instruments that he picked up was the mandolin, which gave us “Losing My Religion”. It was really a reaction to what we had done for the better part of a decade that led to 'Out Of Time' and 'Automatic For The People'.”

Lyrically, you seem to be waging a constant battle between privacy and stardom, like on “Losing My Religion”.
“That’s not about me. I rarely ever write about myself and when I do, I’m really honest about it. Not only with the band, if anyone else is involved with the song I tell them about it. None of the people have ever had to guess, ‘Is that horribly tragic figure me?’ They would know before the record came out.
“I’m just not that fascinating a person to have had all those lives that I’ve written about.”

But people have only believed that you sing in character since 'Monster'. You had to portray yourself as a bastard for people to understand that.
“That might have been closer to me than any of the prior songs [laughs].”

You were pretty reclusive in the early ‘90s, compared with how you’re so press-friendly these days.
“I went through a period where I was really tired of seeing and reading about myself. If I’m tired of me, I’m sure the public is as well. For years I would do press for one record, then not do press for the next record. I hopscotched like that for four or five records. I just felt like I’d run out of things to say – in a way I feel like that right now. We’ve been doing promo for the better part of five years and I’m not sure that I have anything really new to say.”

But when you backed off, you reached a commercial highpoint.
“Well, I think the success of that song [“Losing My Religion”] and everything that came from that was way beyond anything that we could calculate. It was going to happen and that was that. I’m really glad it did. That was a really awesome fun time.”

Do you think, looking back, that you’ve had a logical career?
“That would not be the operative term.”

With the possible exception of 'Around The Sun', your haven’t done the most expected thing very often.
“Was 'Around The Sun' expected? I got the exact opposite impression from some of the stuff that I read. Because I had said that it was a political and angry record, people expected it to be 'London Calling'. And they got this instead, which is somewhat introspective and much more of a whisper in terms of protest.”

Sure, but tonally it resembles 'Automatic For The People', in its gravitas – in a way that 'Monster', say, didn’t.
“OK. I sure like the writing on that record. I have to say, I’m still very proud of it.”

It’s interesting that the set’s bookends – 'Green' and 'Around The Sun' – are both political records.
“Well 'Green' was made to be political, because it was released on Election Day – that was the day Warners decided to release it. That was not a calculation on our part.
“In terms of logic, I would say absolutely not. There’s consistency, that some might find tedious. But I think the one thing that I can say about us is that we’re very consistent about certain things and part of that is our desire to do the very best work that we can and not rest on our laurels, or not allow formula to come into what we do. That’s something that’s always pulled us: sometimes in good directions, sometimes not.”

But no matter how much you change instrumentation, you’ve an instantly recognisable way of constructing a song.
“Right. Our limitations are a curse and a blessing.”

How’s the tour going?
”Awesome. This is our sixth show in seven days – I can’t believe we decided to kick off with a week like this. It feels really good to be on the road again. Obviously there’s a different set because it’s a different tour. We’ve got a giant screen, we’re playing with that a lot and having fun with that. We’re trying to change the set around but, again – a curse and a blessing – there are so many songs that everyone loves to hear every night. We’re down to six or seven slots where we can have a revolving door setlist.”

Are you reconciled to the prospect of being on the road for so long?
”Yeah, we made the schedule, we mapped it out, and we signed it off.”

There’s no reticence in the wake of those epic tours which damaged the band?
“The publicity that came out of the 'Monster' tour was that it was just a disaster for us. And in fact, only one bad thing happened, and that is that Bill almost died. Outside of that it was just a really successful tour.”

But you had a hernia as well.
“Yeah, but that was minor surgery. My mistake was to agree that I could sing three weeks after on Percodan. I couldn’t walk up a flight of stairs, but I’m up there singing 24 songs a night. That was a little bit stupid.”

Interview By John Mulvey

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