Get Born Again: Alice in Chains resurface with Black Gives Way to Blue

17 years to the day that <i>Dirt</i> propelled <b>Alice in Chains</b> skywards, the Seattle survivors prepare to release their first studio album since the loss of frontman Layne Staley in 2002. Sean Kinney and William DuVall explain how they picked up the pieces.

Feature by Dave Kerr | 02 Sep 2009

Having earned their place in the great alternative rock pantheon as one of the big four alongside Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, Alice in Chains reached admirable heights with their harmonious and dynamic blend of blues and modern metal in the early 90s. “We had been around before that and had some success,” drummer Sean Kinney points out. “[Debut album] Facelift did well. It wasn’t like the Guns ‘n’ Roses thing where there was that one record and then there’s nowhere to go but down. We were just trying to make music and have a career. Our lives were manageable except what we chose to do to ourselves.”

The band’s late singer Layne Staley would infamously battle with heroin addiction until he died at the age of 34 in April 2002, by which point Alice in Chains had long since withdrawn from the public limelight. “They weren’t reviewing our record; they were reviewing our fucking personal life,” Kinney recalls of the popular music press’s agenda at the time of their last studio album [Rolling Stone would run a cover story which catalogued the band’s woes at a time it was trying to look up]. “We didn’t want anything to do with that. We’re well aware we put our personal lives on those records, but that’s all it became. So we refused to talk to anybody. I remember Eddie Vedder being on the cover of Time magazine and talking to him back then about how fucked up that was. He didn’t see that coming; you make one record and suddenly you’re the spokesperson for a generation? That’s a lot to put on some guy who’s just singing songs. It damn near tore that band apart, I saw that.”

Reconvening in 2005 for a Hurricane Katrina charity concert, then again at the behest of the sisters Wilson from 80s power balladeers Heart, the band recruited William DuVall – a touring associate of guitarist Jerry Cantrell – to handle vocal duties for a new incarnation of the band that would play one date at a time for as long as it felt right. Ultimately Alice in Chains toured a full year, encompassing a revolving cast of celebrated guest frontmen – as far reaching as Billy Corgan, James Hetfield, Maynard James Keenan, Scott Weiland and Phil Anselmo – who would pay tribute to Staley by singing his parts. “We got in a room and thought we’d jam on a bunch of new stuff with Will,” says Kinney. “We did that and we were digging it, then some offers came in – asking if we’d play here or there – we discussed that and went ‘OK, let’s go play a few shows’, but we didn’t look far forward, because then you’re standing onstage at Rock Am Ring in front of 100,000 people and you’re like ‘oh, wow, I didn’t really think this through.’ But it really gelled on the road. It was a very crucial, necessary step.”

By Kinney’s admission, the band had no preconceptions about what it might achieve or how long the reunion could last, but DuVall suggests new material became inevitable. “You put four musicians together for that long at such close quarters with instruments lying around and stuff kind of happens. It all took place very organically. So by the time we got off the road we had this pile of ideas, at that point it was a case of ‘well, what are we going to do with all this stuff? We’ve got something to say, so let’s just say it. The record was a self-funded, very self-directed thing, at any point we could’ve pulled the plug on the project. We could’ve shut it down. We weren’t contractually obligated to anyone and there was no deadline, there was nobody lording over us.”

The result, Black Gives Way to Blue is a testimony to the songwriting skill of Jerry Cantrell and the enduring appeal of Alice in Chains. Brutal and tender, the record avoids the pro-tooled trappings of much contemporary rock by going back to basics. “We used the technology, the technology didn't use us,” says DuVall. “Most of those amps and microphones we used are older than we are,” elaborates Kinney. “We didn’t do any of this shit of mixing and mastering it so it’ll sound good on a computer.” Resolutely old school, the production nevertheless feels like a step up, with Foo Fighters / Rush producer Nick Raskulinecz documenting the sessions. “Nick came in with a lot of enthusiasm, “ says DuVall. “He was gung ho from the first rehearsal, air-guitaring and getting in my face. The guy’s a ball of energy and he brought a lot of commitment, light and humour to what is in some ways a very emotionally fraught process.”

With touring plans imminent and dates being firmed up at time of going to press, Kinney looks forward to a long-awaited return to Scottish shores soon, having previously played dates in Glasgow in years gone by (as documented by the band’s Live release some years ago). “We played the Barrowlands a couple of times, where they strap the PA down because the floor’s on springs. That’s a crazy fucking joint; the people go off in there.” DuVall, too, has his own memories, having bonded with Cantrell whilst playing in his backing band during a tour that hit the Garage in 2002. “That was a good one, man. I remember after that gig, I had a bottle of beer but no opener for it and this cat just took it from me and opened it with his eye socket. You Scots don’t fuck around.”

Nor do Alice in Chains – although they might value their ocular cavities more – so when it came to enlisting a pianist to play on the ode to Staley which ends the album, they took it to the gods and tracked down Elton John. “A guy that’s been with us for 20 years or so, the Baldie, worked for Elton for awhile and we’ve had a few other people that used to work with Alice that worked in the Elton machine,” Kinney explains. “So Jerry wrote him an e-mail asking if he’d be interested in hearing it, he got back and said ‘yeah’, so we sent him the tune and he really got what the song’s about. So we all went up to Vegas and watched him record his tracks just to take part in that. It was a really amazing, surreal moment, because Elton’s singly the guy that turned Jerry into wanting to be a songwriter and it connected with him. And Layne’s first concert he ever went to was Elton John, plus I’m a huge fan, as I’m sure we all are. You never know what life’s going to hand you unless you try.”

Black Gives Way to Blue is releaszed via EMI on 28 Sep.

Playing Barrowlands, Glasgow on 12 Nov.