by Chris Gill
Guitar World; 09/99
In honor of Alice In Chains' new box set, Music Bank, Guitar World examines the life and times of Seattle's grungiest and most hard-headed band.
It's been five years since music journalists started predicting the demise of Alice in Chains, Seattle's most beloved hard rock/alternative band. But here it is 1999 and the band is still with us.
Or is it? When asked about the group's current status, guitarist Jerry Cantrell responds that the band is "on hiatus" and he's noncommittal when it comes to questions about upcoming tours or albums. Although all four band members seem to be getting along well - this last summer they all appeared on the syndicated radio program "Rockline" to promote the best-of collection Nothing Safe-- Alice In Chains haven't released a full studio album since 1995 or toured since early 1994.
To many observers, Alice In Chains' upcoming four-disc box set, Music Bank (Columbia, due Oct. 26), is the band's final farewell. After all, it's rather unusual to issue a box set for a band whose total output consists of only three studio albums, two EPs and a live Unplugged album-a total of about 50 original songs. But while much of the box will be familiar to fans who already own all the records, there are several surprises, including a CD-ROM game, four songs recorded by the band before they were signed to Columbia, two new songs recorded in 1998 exclusively for the box set and a variety of other previously unreleased songs, demo versions and remixes.
"The box set is a look back at 10 years of the band," says drummer Sean Kinney. "It's for the people who never gave up on us and still buy the records. There are a lot of things that people haven't seen or heard, a CD-ROM, a bunch of stupid pictures and some embarrassing moments. When the idea for the box set was first brought up to us we were totally not into it. Nobody wants to feel like they're that old. But it puts a perspective on everything. If it is the last thing we put out, this is the best way to end it."
Regardless of whether Alice In Chains is finished or not, the band is certainly deserving if a box set tribute if only for its tenacity. The group has outlasted most of its Seattle peers, including Soundgarden and Nirvana, and suopered several changing trends over the last decade. Coming from a city where substance abuse problems among musicians are so rampant that several airlines are rumored to have non-stop flights from Sea-Tac airport to the Betty Ford Clinic, Alice In Chains is unusual not simply because its members are still around but also because they are still alive. Singer Layne Staley's reputed battles with heroin addiction have led to countless rumors of his death, yet he's still here in body, if not in spirit. "When you talk about sex, drugs and rock and roll," says Kinney, "we tried all those things to the utmost. That's why our music became more real and personal."
If anyone has the right to destroy Alice in Chains it is Staley, who was also the band's creator. Born August 22, 1967, in Kirkland, Washington, Staley was playing in bands almost immediately after he started playing drums at 12. While in high school he decided to become a singer and swapped his drum set for a microphone and a delay. Around this time Staley formed a glam band that he called Alice N Chains.
"I first met Layne around 1985 when his band was playing at Alki Beach," says Kinney. Born May 27, 1966, Kinney started playing drums at three, and by the time he was nine he was playing professionally with his grandfather's band, the Cross Cats. He already had a well-developed ear for talent, and he immediately homed in on Staley. "I told Layne that I thought he was cool but his band sucked. I also told him he should get a different drummer-me."
Kinney must have made an impression on Staley, as Layne asked for the drummer's number. But despite Kinney's recommendation, Staley stuck it out with his band until 1987, when he met Jerry Cantrell at a party. Born March 16, 1966 in Tacoma, Washington, Cantrell had been playing guitar since the sixth grade, and when he met Staley, he had been playing in a variety of metal bands, including Diamond Lie, Raze and XLR8, which led to his relocation in Dallas. Returning from Dallas, Cantrell played in Gypsy Rose, but only for a week. Staley and Cantrell got along immediately, and Cantrell moved in with Staley at Music Bank, a Seattle rehearsal hall (hence the name of the box set), shortly after Jerry's mother died.
"Layne already had a band, but early on we realized we were like branches of the same tree," says Cantrell. "We decided pretty quickly that we should be working together."
"When Layne and Jerry hooked up, they were looking to out together a band," says Kinney. "Jerry knew [bassist] Mike Starr from playing with him in Gypsy Rose. Layne said that he knew this drummer, so he gave Jerry my number. He called me up, and I went to the rehearsal studio with my girlfriend to listen to some demos. I thought he was pretty cool, and then he told me that they were playing with Mike Starr. My girlfriend and I laughed, and Jerry asked why we were laughing. My girlfriend told him that she was Mike's sister, and I had been playing music with Mike since we were 12."
The four members of Alice in Chains got together the first time the next night at the Music Bank. None of them knew any songs together, but that didn't matter. As soon as Staley started singing, people in other rooms dropped in to check out the band. "They thought he sounded cool," says Kinney. "Then I knew we were no to something." A couple of weeks later some local promoters dropped by the hall looking for bands to book. They had a similar response to Alice in Chains, and booked group to play a 45-minute set opening for another band. From that moment on the gigs kept rolling in. The band recorded a demo tape that included the songs "I Can't Have You Blues," "Whatcha Gonna Do" and "Social Parasite," which have been released for the first time on Music Bank.
In 1988, Alice in Chains played a number if shows with Mother Love Bone, who were attracting attention from several major labels. "We were fortunate to have good timing," says Kinney. "Soundgarden had been signed, Seattle was starting to happen, 7.htall these record label guys were up there sniffing around for Mother Love Bone. And we were doing well. Wherever we played we would pack people in."
When Alice in Chains packed out the Central Tavern two nights in a row, that's when I was completely satisfied," Staley told MTV. "That's when my dreams came true. In Seattle, I was a rock star. Record companies started coming around, but I had never even thought about that. It was enough for me to be a star in Seattle."
By April 1989, Alice in Chains signed a recording contract with Columbia. "They gave us an offer right away," says Kinney. "It happened really quickly. We weren't prepared, and we didn't realize that it was a business, not just playing music. Luckily we had really good management and lawyers that cared about the music and liked what we were doing."
The band went into the studio with producer Dave Jerden, who had previously worked with Jane's Addiction. By June 1990, Columbia released the promotional We Die Young EP, which was sent out to radio stations. Response to the band was good, particularly from KNAC, a Los Angeles-area heavy metal station. Alice in Chains released their debut album, Facelfift, that August.
With its ominous, brooding sound, Facelift was a marked contrast to the poppy hard rock and power ballads churned out by hair-bands and Guns N'Roses wannabes that dominated the charts at that time. Alice in Chains had more in common with metal bands like Metallica and Black Sabbath. But while they were more polished than their punk-influenced Seattle brethren, their straightforward, streetwise image gave them credibility in alternative circles as well. Cantrell's pummeling riffs and expansive guitar textures were offset by Staley's snarl-to-a-scream vocals. Distinctive touches, like background vocals influenced by such disparate sources as Beatles harmonies and Gregorian chants, assured that the band was in a league all its own. There had been no band like Alice in Chains before, though there have been plenty since - particularly in this day and age where bands even steal their names from AIC song titles. (Godsmack, anyone?)
Alice in Chains first tour began with a show at the Marquee Club in Westminster. California. Only 20 people showed up.
"We opened for Extreme on our first tour ever," says Kinney. "Their audience dug us, but there was a lot of friction between us and Extreme. Because we never had been anywhere before, we were going 24-7 and were trashing things and breaking things on stage. Gary Cherone didn't wear shoes on stage, and he's get mad because he'd slip while doing his aerobic dance moves. They kicked us off the tour, and we were fine with that. No matter where we were, we made sure we had a good time. We went out with Iggy Pop after that. Talk about day and night. He was up there whipping his cock out and doing windmills with it. We played to a lot of different audiences in the beginning."
It took about six months before things started to heat up for the band. The record had sold only 40,000 copies, but then Columbia released the single "Man in the Box" and MTV placed the song's video in heavy rotation. "We don't write songs with the intention of making them hits," says Cantrell, "but when I first heard 'Man in the Box,' I knew people would dig it." After that Facelift sole 400,000 copies in just six weeks and was certified Gold shortly afterwards. In early 1991, the single was nominated for a Grammy for Best Heavy metal Performance. "Things changed really quickly," says Kinney. "When we'd get off the bus there would be a bunch of little fat girls waiting for us. That freaks you out when you're only 24."
Alice in Chains was the opening act on the Clash of the Titans tour with Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax when the record started to take off. Response to the band was not always welcoming, but it strengthened the band. "We survived a Slayer crow every night for about 50 days, " said Staley in an early interview. "We thought we could do anything after that."
"Slayer fans were brutal to us," says Cantrell. "When we played at Red Rocks, they were throwing so much shit at us that we could hardly see the crowd. Someone threw a huge water jug that knocked over Sean's cymbals, and spit was flying everywhere. Layne just shouted "Fuck you!" and spit back at them. But we won a lot of them over by doing that. After the show a bunch of Slayer fans said they thought it was cool that we didn't wimp out."
Coming off of the Clash of the Titans tour, Alice in Chains entered the studio to work on some demos. But instead if recording the brand of hard-hitting rock they had become known for, they laid down several acoustic-oriented tracks. One night Kinney had a dream that the band had released those tracks on an EP called Sap. "I could see what songs were on it and what it looked like," he says. "It seemed real. When I woke up the next day I called the band and told them about my dream. They took that as a sign, and we put it out."
Sap came out around the time that Nirvana's Nevermind was topping the charts, and suddenly the media's attention turned to Seattle. The band was also given a boost by appearing as a bar band in Cameron Crowe's 1992 movie Singles, a love story centered around Seattle's emerging grunge scene. The song "Would?" was the lead single on the soundtrack, which also featured songs by Seattle compatriots Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Mudhoney. Although Alice in Chains had previously been marketed as a metal band, they didn't go they way of Poison, Winger and Cinderella thanks to their dark, somber music and honest, streetwise image, as well as their hometown affiliation. "Our music is like taking something ugly and making it beautiful," says Cantrell. "I'm really into duality. You have to have positives and negatives."
As Nirvana dominated the charts, Alice in Chains entered the studio to record the sublimely dark and brutally honest Dirt. Once again, Dave Jerden produced the album, but this time around he concocted a sonic landscape that was huge and foreboding, yet eerie and intimate. Unlike Facelift, Dirt was an instant hit, producing the hit singles "Down in a Hole" and "Rooster," which was inspired by Cantrell's father's experiences in the Vietnam War. The album's depressing tone and Staley's painfully personal lyrics about drug abuse, particularly on songs like "Junkhead," "Angry Chair," and "Godsmack," along with his reluctance to do interviews to promote the album, led journalists to speculate that Staley was addicted to heroin. The band members' answers to questions about the matter, while not exactly forthcoming, added fuel to the fire. "If you want to learn about Layne, just listen to his lyrics," Cantrell told Hit Parader. "He almost is too honest. It's all there for everyone to hear, but sometimes people have taken his words and made too much out of them."
Despite the negative press, the band moved ahead and went out on tour, opening for Ozzy Osbourne. Prior to going out on the road with Osbourne, Staley had an accident while playing around on his four-wheel ATV and broke his foot. For most of the tour he appeared on stage in crutches or a wheelchair, and what was intended as a joke further fueled rumors about his decline due to drugs.
In January 1993, Alice in Chains suffered its first casualty when bassist Mike Starr announced to the band that he was leaving because he was tired of touring. Starr was replaced by Mike Inez, who was Ozzy Osbourne's bass player at the time. "Inez was the perfect replacement," says Kinney. "His first name was Mike, he had curly hair and he was about the same height. It was like Dick York and Dick Sargent - that Darren and Dagwood thing from [the mid-Sixties TV show] Bewitched. We didn't think anybody would notice. Actually that was just a coincidence. Mike was the first guy we thought about, and I just called him. We didn't try out anybody or call anyone else."
Inez joined in time for the band's first headlining tour of Europe. Later, he had his first studio experience with the band when they recorded the songs "What the Hell Have I?" and "A Little Bitter" for the soundtrack to the 1993 Arnold Schwarzenegger film The Last Action Hero. That summer the band co-headlined the Lollapalooza Festival, sharing the main stage with Primus, Fishbone, Dinosaur Jr. and Rage Against the Machine. "Lollapalooza was the most fun thing we ever did," says Kinney. "There were so many cool bands, and we made a lot of friends. There wasn't that much pressure on us." By the end of the tour Dirt had sold more than three million copies, making it the band's most successful album to date.
At the end of 1993 the band entered London Bridge Studio in Seattle to record yet another acoustic-oriented EP, Jar of Flies. "It became a pattern for us," explains Kinney. "After playing loud music for a year, we'd come home and the last thing we wanted to do was crank up the amps right away. That stuff was written on buses and whenever we had downtime. We did Jar of Flies to see how it was to record with Mike Inez. We just went into the studio with no songs written, to check out the chemistry. It all fell into place. The sounds and the tones were really good. We thought it would be a waste to put that material out."
Released in January 1994, Jar of Flies debuted at the No. 1 position on the Billboard album chart, the first EP to debut at this position. "We couldn't believe that it did so well," recalls Cantrell. "That was when I knew we had really accomplished something. We'd been nominated for several Grammys and some other big awards, but we'd never won anything. The success of Jar of Flies showed us that we could do what we liked and that other people would like it too."
Unfortunately, this high point was followed by a period that many consider to be the band's lowest. That summer, the day before Alice in Chains was to go on the road with Metallica, the band pulled out of the tour. Many reasons have been cited for this decision, but Cantrell insists that the band was simply burned out from working too hard. "We'd been going full force, just running at top speed with our eyes closed," he told Rolling Stone. "We had been way too close for too long, and we were suffocating. We were like four plants trying to grow in the same pot."
When Staley started appearing onstage around Seattle with the band Second Coming, rumors started to fly about his departure from the band. Then, in late 1994, the singer recorded the album Above with Mad Season, a group consisting of Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready, Screaming Trees drummer Barett Martin and bassist John Baker Saunders, formerly of the Lamont Cranston Band, who McCready had met in rehab. Meanwhile, Inez had become a member of Slash's Snakepit, recording the album It's Five O'Clock Somewhere and touring with him. Kinney entered the studio with Nivana's Krist Novoselic, Soundgarden's Kim Thayil and Johnny Cash to record a cover of Willie Nelson's "Time of the Preacher" for the Nelson tribute album, Twisted Willie. Cantrell recorded Nelson's "I've Seen All This World I Care to See" from the album as well.
A year later, in April 1995, the band went into Seattle's Bad Animals studio with producer Toby Wright, who had engineered Jar of Flies, to record their third album, Alice in Chains. Fans and radio had not given up on the band, and Columbia was forced to release the single "Grind" early after it had been leaked to radio and received constant airplay. When Alice in Chains was released in November, it debuted at No. 1 and went Platinum without the assistance of a tour. But even with a new album on the racks, rumors about Staley still persisted. A few critics claimed that the three-legged dog on the album's cover was a metaphor for the singer's "absence'" even though he sang on the album. They claimed the band was trying to say that they were still standing, even if one of their important limbs was missing.
Then, in April 1996, a huge surprise came that no one was expecting. The band appeared, complete with Staley, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Majestic Theater to tape a live Unplugged performance for MTV, which was released as an album that summer. The band's performance was powerful and lively, if a little ragged in spots, but there was no visible evidence of any inner-band tension or turmoil. What was all-too visible, even under the immaculate studio lighting, was the evidence of Staley's physical ravages. Even though he tried to hide behind a huge pair of bug-eye glasses and covered his hands with black leather gloves, Staley was as gaunt as a skeleton and looked like the living dead.
Cantrell, too, was suffering from ill health during the Unplugged taping - but his was a result of food poisoning. "I was sick that whole week," he recalls. "I had eaten a hot dog from a New York City street vendor - bad move. I was puking right up until the gig and immediately afterward, but once I got up there and started playing, I felt fine."
Despite Cantrell's culinary catastrophe and Staley's obviously frail physical condition, speculation about a tour supporting the Alice in Chains album began to circulate. Rumors heated up considerably when in June the band played the first four shows of the highly anticipated Kiss reunion tour. But unfortunately the rumors proved to be false, and the band has not performed live since then.
During all the downtime, Cantrell began to write songs for a new Alice in Chains album, but when it came time to get a commitment from Staley, the singer was elusive, remaining penned up in his house for weeks at a time. Cantrell decided to forge ahead without him, rounding up Kinney, Inez and a bunch of friends, including Primus' Les Claypool, Pantera's Rex Brown, and Norwood Fisher and Angelo Moore from Fishbone, to record his first solo album, Boggy Depot.
"It's something I never really wanted to do," Cantrell told Guitar World at the time, "but the way things have played out, it's like, why not? To be honest, I'd just be happy being the lead guitarist and singer for Alice in Chains. It's always been my first love, and always will be. But it's time to let it be. Now I've got to step up to the plate and take a few swings."
By 1998, Staley was becoming more and more reclusive. McCready approached him about recording a second Mad Season album, but Staley declined. But once again to everyone's surprise, Layne came out of hiding in October last year to record two songs with his Alice in Chains bandmates: both of which, "Get Born Again" and "Died" appear on Music Bank. After that, Staley got together with Tom Morello, Stephen Perkins, Martin Lenoble and Matt Serletic to record a cover of Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2" for the soundtrack to The Faculty.
But since then, it has been silent once again. Cantrell is currently working on an ambitious, two-volume solo album with drummer Mike Bordin and bassist Robert Trujillo that promises to be even heavier than Alice's most brutal moments, while Chains members Kinney and Inez are hanging around on standby. What fans, and even the band members, really want to see is another studio album and a tour, but that doesn't seem likely at the moment.
"Layne doesn't want to tour," Kinney states frankly. "It's a sore subject with everybody, and it has caused a lot of strife. I'd like to tour, but for obvious reasons Layne fell out of being in the public eye. Everybody knows what those reasons are. We could go on tour, but we're not into making someone do something that they don't want to. It's not fair if one of us doesn't fully want to be there. We have a lot of respect for each other. We couldn't care less about the money. I'd love to be out there playing with the band, but it's been so long now that I don't know if that will ever happen again. I can't say that there will never be another record, because every time I say something isn't going to happen in this band, the total opposite happens.
"We've been dealing with the internal things that we do to ourselves much longer than a lot of people know. But that is our private lives. We've all got our trip. Somehow we've always managed to stay above it. There have been moments where we hated each other. But that stuff doesn't last. That was a tough spot, but then we went back and made Alice in Chains, which did really well. But Jerry and I don't want to make another record and not tour. We're not a studio band. We're not fuckin' Steely Dan. I don't aspire to spend my life walking my dog on the beach in front of my house. We'll keep moving on. Hopefully there's something left. I don't think that we've completed all that we could. Right now we're keeping our options open."
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