Through the good and the bad, Alice in Chains unbroken
This post has been updated. Please see below for details.
Even at the worst of times, one facet of the Alice in Chains saga was never in doubt: the longtime friendship of founding members Jerry Cantrell and Sean Kinney. The guitarist and drummer met when the hard-rock band formed in 1987 and have grown only closer through the years of success and tragedy.
“He’s my absolute best friend,” says Cantrell, 47, the band’s guitarist and co-vocalist. “I’ve never been committed to anything for this long through the good and the bad. And we’re still doing this, which says a lot. It’s meaningful.”
This week’s release of “The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here,” the second album from the resurrected band, is another sign that Alice in Chains lives on.
With bassist Mike Inez (who joined in 1993) and singer-guitarist William DuVall, the band’s unexpected second act follows an excruciating decade of inactivity and the 2002 overdose death of singer Layne Staley. After the release of 2009’s “Black Gives Way to Blue,” which reached No. 5 on the Billboard album chart, those days seem far away now. The new album is currently No. 1 on iTunes’ rock album chart.
“It’s friends first and then all the rest,” says Kinney, 47, on the phone from a tour stop in Fort Wayne, Ind. “It’s not really worth doing unless you enjoy the people you’re doing it with. None of us are fame seekers. We’re not out working our own brands independently, putting out hot sauce and [stuff]. We’re lucky that anyone ever cared. We know that.”
Alice in Chains is headlining the Uproar Festival tour, which lands at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater on Sept. 15. It’s one stop on a year of touring still ahead of the quartet.
From the first moments of the new album’s opening track, “Hollow,” guitars grind a familiar sound of heavy riffs that straddle metal and alternative rock, echoing the Seattle act’s time amid the ‘90s grunge movement. Haunted voices harmonize a cryptic lyric: “All of the faces life can show / Withered and ugly the one you know.”
Work on “The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here” began before the band’s last tour ended in 2011. On the road, Cantrell and Kinney typically spent at least 30 minutes warming up on instruments before stepping onstage, and song ideas would frequently emerge from those informal sessions. The basic riff for “Hollow” came to Cantrell while in Las Vegas for that tour’s final date.
“It’s like walking on the beach and picking up cool stones,” Cantrell says of the gathering of ideas. “At the end of a year or two, you look in your sack and see what you’ve collected. Maybe some of the things you thought were good don’t work for you anymore, but a lot of them are good to start building with.”
The recording was delayed when Cantrell required surgery in his right shoulder for a repetitive motion injury to his cartilage. While recuperating at home in a sling, Cantrell heard a riff in his head and sang it into his iPhone. The riff later became the song “Stone,” the first official single off “The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here.”
“I think we needed some time anyway. My body created a kind of vacation for me, rather than jump back in right away,” Cantrell said. “It’s good to step away once in a while. You don’t have to hit it so hard. You’ll break.”
Band members recorded song demos at home, and began fleshing out their ideas during sessions in rehearsal spaces in the San Fernando Valley before going into Henson Studios with producer Nick Raskulinecz, their collaborator on “Black Gives Way to Blue.”
For Alice in Chains, and especially new singer DuVall, that last album was a crucial test for both the band as a creative entity and its audience. The singer now describes the process as “asserting our right to exist. We were doing that with a great deal of static and noise.”
Few major rock acts had successfully replaced a lead vocalist, particularly one as well known as Staley. But the gradual, careful rolling out of the new Alice in Chains lineup through international touring beginning in 2006 was embraced enough by fans to give the reunited band a gold album with “Black Gives Way to Blue.”
“We said saying goodbye to Layne with that [title] song, and those onion skins that you have to shed to get through stuff,” says bassist Inez. “That for me started to solidify, ‘I think we can go on and be OK.’ It’s really a testament to our friendship that we made those decisions to choose life together and to go forward as a team shoulder to shoulder.”
The success of that album was freeing to DuVall, who could now imagine expanding the definition of what an Alice in Chains album could be. He points to the title song on “The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here,” a rare excursion into social commentary for a hard-rock act mostly obsessed with internal struggles.
Co-written by Cantrell, Inez and Kinney, the song rages against religion and intolerance.
For DuVall, it is a sign of the disturbing political and social divisions Americans now live with. “You’re seeing elected officials saying things in the national media that you simply cannot believe, and it’s happening almost on a daily basis,” says DuVall, who splits his time between Los Angeles and Atlanta. “Who has equal protection under the law? Who has the right to get married?
“To that, we felt it was time to comment. Beyond that, it’s not like the album turned into a dissertation on the times we live in or the political landscape. We’re still dealing very much with what goes on inside.”
More along those lines is the brooding “Stone,” a song of heavy tension sung by Cantrell: “What makes you want to carve your initials in me? . . . Find me distant, outwardly rough obscene.”
“It seems to be about confronting outside misperceptions,” says DuVall. “You think you know me? You don’t.”
Update, Wednesday, 11:03 a.m.: An earlier version of this story indicated that Alice in Chains was co-headlining the Uproar Festival with Jane’s Addiction. The band is the festival’s headliner.
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