It’s gonna be a big week for Seattle rock.
With Bumbershoot still on hiatus plotting a 2023 comeback, KISW’s long-running Pain in the Grass is the top Seattle-area festival this Labor Day weekend.
After two years on the pandemic sidelines, Pain in the Grass returns to Auburn’s White River Amphitheatre Sept. 2-4. Hometown heavyweights Alice in Chains lead the three-day rock fest’s Seattle-centric Saturday lineup, which features breakout shredder Ayron Jones, Walking Papers and local favorites Thunderpussy, who join Alice and tourmates Breaking Benjamin and Bush on a dozen late-summer dates.
Between Pain in the Grass — with ’80s metal staples Queensrÿche playing Sunday — and Ann Wilson opening the Washington State Fair’s grandstand series Friday, Labor Day weekend brings an unofficial showcase of four generations of Seattle rock greats.
Ahead of Pain in the Grass, we caught up with Alice in Chains’ Jerry Cantrell and Sean Kinney separately to discuss the 30th anniversary of the grunge lords’ seminal “Dirt,” plus hometown pride and “liberating” golf carts.
These conversations have been edited and organized for length and clarity.
What is it like for you doing the trip down memory lane as you’re putting together the “Dirt” reissue?
Kinney: It’s bittersweet. I can only take so much of it, you know. Two of us aren’t here. It’s not a victorious story. It’s a story of a time that we no longer can all celebrate. So, it’s complicated.
Thirty years, that is insane to me. I’m walking around in a dressing room at a venue that we played 32 years ago. My memory here, as I’m driving in, Layne [Staley] and I had “liberated” a golf cart — because we weren’t allowed to use them, bigger, cooler bands could use them. I had liberated one here and he got in [laughs] and there’s a little lake out front. Me and him are driving around, I was like, “I’m gonna drive this thing right into that lake, man!” He thought I was kidding. [Expletive] you do when you’re 23.
What do you remember most about your time making “Dirt”?
Cantrell: We spent a good chunk of time in California. Day 1 or 2 in the studio, the verdict came down in the Rodney King trial and the whole city erupted. We had to make a crosstown journey to gather up a few items to be able to get the [expletive] out of Dodge till it cooled down a little bit. It was pretty hairy. We were hanging with [Slayer’s] Tom Araya quite a bit back then, we’d made friends on the Clash of the Titans tour. We all loaded up our cars and went out to Joshua Tree for about a week — just hung around the campfire in some little hotel out in the desert, came back and got to work.
“Dirt” feels to me like your darkest and heaviest record, both sonically and thematically. But how do you assess the album with 30 years of hindsight?
Cantrell: I wouldn’t say that record is better than anything we’ve put out, but I would say that I think it is the most focused. If you’re going to listen to one record that really spoke to that era of this band and was as near perfect as it could be, it’s probably “Dirt.”
Was the record in any way emotionally taxing to make, either due to the heaviness of the themes or things you were dealing with at the time in your lives?
Cantrell: We were young guys having a good time and enjoying some success, and all of the good things that come with that and the bad. Without ever having a discussion about it, we stumbled onto a way of speaking and putting some really hard-hitting emotion and topics into our music. And we didn’t govern anything or hold anything back — warts and all. I think that’s the power and musical fingerprint of this band. That also comes with a lot of scrutiny from people wanting to ask you about [expletive]. [Laughs.]
The songs that deal with addiction got a lot of attention. Did you ever feel like the focus on that overshadowed other aspects or themes on the album?
Cantrell: Yeah, I think a bit. Sometimes it’s easier to go for the tasty tidbit and I can’t deny that that’s an element in it, because it is. Everybody knows Layne’s story and our story of living through that time. But that record is not all that. Probably about 25% of it is focused on that, and it’s in a very personal way of Layne writing and speaking about the struggles that he was going through. It’s very human issues, you know.
The song “Rooster” you wrote for your father who served in Vietnam. How did that song impact your relationship?
Cantrell: My dad and I had a bit of an estranged relationship from the time I was a younger kid until I started to become a man. I wrote that song in a nonjudgmental head space trying to understand some of the emotions and his experience. I wrote that song at Susan Silver and Chris Cornell’s house. I was staying with them for a couple of days and I stayed up all night and wrote that song looking out at the Sound. I remember showing it to my father later on and having him read the lyrics, and I asked him if I got close to his experience. He said, “You got too close.” That was kinda cool. I was reaching out to understand him a little better and I think it was an impetus of a restart of our relationship and we’ve continued, over the years, to strengthen that. He and I have a ranch in Oklahoma together, where he lives, and he’s my pal.
Sean, there’s a story that one night recording that song, you showed up late to the studio as everyone was getting ready to pack up — maybe you had been out late the night before — and nailed “Rooster” in the first take.
Kinney: That’d be a great story if I could verify it. It makes me sound really cool.
Another Seattle band is coming out on tour with you …
Cantrell: Thunderpussy, dude! They came up in a conversation of bands we were considering and we’re always gonna vote for the local yokels.
Also playing Pain in the Grass the same day, Ayron Jones. Do you know Ayron?
Cantrell: Oh yeah, Ayron’s killer.
I know the Seattle lineage, from Jimi Hendrix to you and your peers, is important to him. How does it feel to see the next generations of artists coming out of Seattle, knowing your music is part of their DNA?
Cantrell: We’ve been part of a pretty rich history of great music and art coming out of our little nook of the Northwest up there, and it makes you feel pretty proud to be part of that story. The kid that grew up in Spanaway, Washington, listening to KISW, listening to Hendrix and Heart and Queensrÿche — it was really inspiring to know that, [expletive], man, that’s happening here.
Days before your show, that stadium tour with Def Leppard, Mötley Crüe and Poison [hits T-Mobile Park, along with Joan Jett & The Blackhearts]. There was the narrative of the rift between the hair metal guys and the grunge bands, but you actually opened for Poison once, right?
Cantrell: Yeah. Their opener somehow fell out and they called down to the office of Kelly Curtis and Susan Silver [laughs] and asked if any of the bands would like to come play [Portland’s Memorial] Coliseum. I think everybody else passed, but we were like, “[Expletive] yeah, we’ll go play the Coliseum!” We were always a band that would take any opportunity to get on a bigger stage. We didn’t give a [expletive] who we were playing with. It was more interesting for us to be able to play with anyone.
Kinney: That whole deal where it’s like the hair guys didn’t like the grunge guys, I didn’t care. I never really listened to a lot of that kind of music. I didn’t listen to a lot of metal music, either. Rock ‘n’ roll was a big deal and our town seemed to have turned the trajectory from what was going on from LA. That’s all that happened.
Sean, how are you liking the new Crocodile setup? [Note: Kinney is an investor in the club.]
Kinney: It’s great. It reminds me of going to places in New York and Europe when we were coming up, where you’d go to these multifaceted clubs and artist compound-y things and you’d see different artists and things under one roof.
Thanks for your time, look forward to seeing you in Auburn soon.
Kinney: When is that?
Labor Day weekend.
Kinney: Wow, OK, that is soon. I better be able to nail “Rooster” in one take by the time I get to Seattle, so I don’t make an ass of myself.