Alice In Chains' Layne Staley grants a rare interview - and shows why they're so rare
by Moira McCormick;
Circus Magazine '92?
On an icy Sunday night in December, Chicago's luridly ornate Riviera Theatre is packed with sweaty, flannelclad bodies awaiting the entrance of Alice in Chains. Fellow Seattleites Gruntruck and Screaming Trees have done a yeoman's job working up the crowd, and now the entire main floor is a seething mass of heads and limbs, whose frenzy increases as the silhouetted figures of Alice in Chains become visible behind a flimsy curtain.
The place erupts as the curtain falls and the band smashes into "Dam That River" from their powerful new album Dirt. Singer Layne Stale airs out his potent vocal cords, while guitarist Jerry Cantrell and bassist Mike Starr stride the stage like conquering warlords, and glowering drummer Sean Kinney beats the bejesus out of his kit. Alice in Chains is, in a word, enthralling.
Flashback one day earlier, Circus is lucky enough to snag a rare interview with Staley. But, as you'll see, the stage is where the singer clearly prefers to communicate.
"Would?," from Alice's Dirt and the Singles soundtrack,
was written in honor of Andrew Wood,
late singer of Mother Love Bone.
You've been doing the press route this afternoon?
No. Avoiding the press route this afternoon.
How's the tour with Screaming Trees going?
People from your neck of the woods are sick of talking about the Seattle scene. Does touring with another Seattle band put the emphasis right back?
Actually, nobody's brought it up yet. I figured people would make a big deal out of it, and knock us down because of it, but nobody's mentioned it yet.
Maybe everybody's just afraid to ask at this point.
Probably. I would rip a vein out of their neck.
Dirt is certainly one of the darkest albums to come out of the grunge scene. There's that cycle of songs, for instance, which deals with heroin addiction. As you've been touring, have you encountered anyone who's said, "I was shooting dope, and when I heard this record, I stopped"?
Yeah,. A kid came up to me last night, told me he had a month and three weeks off of it, after he bought our album.
So what does that feel like?
It feels great. That's why I'm doing this - that's why I did that.
Have you heard from the other side? People who just don't get it, don't get that you're not glorifying drug addiction?
Yeah. A few narrow-minded illiterate fools. People who can read a little bit, but don't read the whole thing, don't listen to the whole thing.
Do they come up after the show?
No, just critics and people who I do interviews with, that think it's a definite pro-heroin album, which is a bunch of crap.
How could anyone interpret it that way?
Well, they're fools.
When you first started writing songs, was it just for fun, or out of a sense of need?
Well, in the beginning it was for fun, a new experience of what I could do. Shortly after that, I saw that I could do more with it.
Would you describe yourself as a happy person these days?
The tone of the band's songs indicates you're trying to work some stuff out, or maybe already have. How well does making music work as therapy?
It works well. Amazingly.
Any way you could elaborate on that?
Yeah. Patching up lost or...hurt relationships.
You wrote the title track for someone you'd been in a relationship with that, shall we say, didn't work out?
Yeah, we could say that.
It seems there's a lot of letting out going on with Dirt, a lot of spewing. Does it leave you a saner, more well-balanced person to work things out that way?
This is your first headlining tour. Is there anything different about headlining?
You get to play longer.
Is there any night that's gone particularly well?
I couldn't think of one in particular. Most of 'em are going really well.
You just finished a tour supporting Ozzy Osbourne. Do you think you pinned a few years back?
Yeah. His crowd responded really well for us.
Ozzy's always seemed something of a cartoon character; the whole Satanic thing has always been a goof for him. Yet when you listen to Alice in Chains, there's certainly no sense that this is a band playing at darkness and despair. It sounds like the real thing. How does that go over with an audience primed to party?
When you tour, do you get a chance to see the places you're in?
When the time allows?
Yeah. Sometimes you just drive into town, shower and go.
Any countries you've been in that you particularly like?
(Long pause.) Florida (chuckle).
It's probably the polar opposite, climate-wise to where you're from.
Seattle is said to have the highest suicide rate in the country, attributed to the fact that there's very little sunshine. Do you think Seattle's atmospheric conditions influence the kind of music that comes out of there?
Maybe. I'm not sure.
It would seem to make sense.
Are you Seattle born and bred?
And rest of the band?
Do you have any plans to record the next album in the near future?
Mmm, no. Couple years, maybe.
Is it at all unnerving for the band to be doing as well as it is? Is there ever a sense of "We're an underground band, we shouldn't be so popular"?
No, I think that's a bunch of crap. Why wouldn't you want to have as many people hear as possible?
There's a number of bands who think it disillusions their longtime fans to achieve mass popularity. If this were a couple of years ago, bands such as yours probably wouldn't be doing as well. There's been a big shift - what used to be considered underground and alternative has been achieving more and more mass acceptance. The record companies would like to think it's shrewd marketing, but it's just that more people are getting a chance to hear great music, so more people are getting into it. Is that the way it strikes you as well?
How has the band's live show changed since you appeared in Singles?
We're better. There's not much difference. We play better.
Sounds like you're having fun, anyway.
Anything else you want to add?