“When it comes down to Jerry [Cantrell] and I, everything operates friends-first, just like the band always did,” says Alice in Chains drummer Sean Kinney. “You gotta like what you’re doing and enjoy each other. There’s no reason to be out there riding around with someone you don’t like.”
That’s no small feat, especially as Alice in Chains has been a band for longer than some of their fans have been alive—going on 26 years. Nor is it mere lip service. “There are a lot of bands who don’t speak. They don’t like each other,” he observes. “Also, after all we’ve been through, it’s even more. . . . It’s a glaring everyday thing we live with, where you really miss people that you loved. They were your favorite people on the planet and when you live with that, it even means more.”
It’s a rare serious moment for the irrepressible drummer, who is, of course, referring to the death of vocalist/Alice in Chains founder Layne Staley in 2002 as a result of his decade-long battle with drug addiction, as well as the 2011 death of former bassist Mike Starr, who also succumbed to his demons.
Staley’s health issues essentially forced a band hiatus that began in 1996. Though, thanks to radio hits like “Man in the Box,” “Rooster,” and “Would?,” the band remained in the public consciousness. It wasn’t until 2005 that they reunited for a benefit show utilizing various vocalists, the surviving members tuning out the “No Layne, No Chains” outcry from some corners.
Those naysayers have since been silenced, and AIC themselves are both surprised and honored that fans embraced their second record with singer William DuVall, 2013’s The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here. DuVall’s powerful voice and commanding but not overshadowing presence were key components of AIC’s resurgence. Cantrell was rabid fan of DuVall’s Atlanta-bred band Comes with the Fall, using the group as both openers and his backing band for his 2001 and 2002 solo tours. By 2006, it appeared inevitable that DuVall would be the only choice if AIC was to carry on.
“When we were first touring in 2006, we were booking more shows piecemeal as we were on the road,” remembers DuVall. That turned into a year of touring, with one common thread: “It was all over the world, all these different scenes, languages, and weather systems, but playing for a whole wall of folded-arm-skeptic kind of people. Promoters were kind of reluctant to book the thing back then.”
That tour galvanized Alice in Chains (bassist Mike Inez has been with the group since 1993), forging a “gang mentality” that kept them strong. Cantrell, Kinney, and Inez, DuVall acknowledges, “were risking the reputation they had spent years building. My stake in it was proving, ‘No, I belong here, this is my house, fuck you motherfuckers!'”
With The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here they’ve got nothing to prove, following up their 2009 “comeback” album, Black Gives Way to Blue (which was only the band’s fourth studio record since 1990’s Facelift). Kinney, with his usual pointed, sarcastic humor and mocking tone, notes his band’s place in the critical and commercial pantheon: “Truth is, all our records are meaty two-stars when they come out. In hindsight, everybody’s [he shouts] ‘IT’S A FUCKING MASTERPIECE!’ Go back and read the reviews. It was mainly shit, and this band has always had that.”
But they’ve also always boasted a business sense as solid as their friendships. Alice are the rare band who didn’t go for immediate gratification in the heady days of big record company advances and mega publishing deals. “We were fortunate from the get-go,” Kinney says. “Instead of money, we choose to keep our rights. There was no A&R guy saying, ‘You need to rewrite this.’ Very early on, maybe they attempted that, but we’d be, ‘Um, refer to page 29 of the contract. Fuck you! I know you’re not used to this, but, hey, guy that sits in an office, who can barely play “Stairway to Heaven” on your guitar, maybe you should go back to doing that, because if you were so kick-ass at what you fucking do, maybe you’d be doing what we’re doing. And then I’d be sitting in your office telling you, “I’m not hearing it, man,”‘” Kinney laughs.
From Facelift to The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here, AIC have made “records we like, for us. It’s a pretty selfish thing.” Kinney recalls the band’s early days, being told by the powers-that-be: “‘Man in the Box’ is a career-killer. Your record is stalled at 40,000.’ We said, ‘Nope.’ We put it out, and that was the turning point. Then they fly out on a Sony jet and the thing goes gold, and they hand you a spray-painted Mott the Hoople album, and put your sticker on it, and they take a picture of you for the trade magazine.”
As the members and band enter midlife, they’ve lost none of their weird humor (“buffoons” is how DuVall refers to himself and the band) nor their often dirgeful yet catchy musicality. And with perspective comes gratitude. “If Alice in Chains started now, we wouldn’t exist. We’d have 3,000 Facebook friends and a MySpace page we were still trying to work. We’d have ‘unfinished’ music on the Internet. It’s tough out there,” says Kinney.
His advice to the many bands who ask him for it? “It’s your life. Do the best you can, and take your lumps. You learn from fucking up, not from doing things up. Don’t be a victim. Don’t do it on the backs of others. If you’re OK with yourself, for the most part, you’ll be OK with life.”
As Alice in Chains co-headline the Uproar Tour with Jane’s Addiction, they’re on the road with lot of old friends. “We made our own opportunities,” reflects Kinney of the band’s early days of touring. “We’d play with Poison and with Iggy Pop. Our whole deal was, ‘Are people there? Cool, ’cause we’re pulling about 12.’ That’s what helped the band. We’re out with Van Halen, with Slayer, with Extreme. We pushed our way into the mainstream because we went anywhere we could. We didn’t completely fit in. But we do: We’re a rock band. We play rock songs.”
Ultimately, Kinney and Cantrell remain the pre-grunge Seattle boys who were in the KISS Army, and possessed of none-too-lofty ambitions, as Kinney reminisces. “We’re still the same; then, our goal was to sell out a bar when we got old enough in Seattle. When we did that, we thought, ‘Oh, we made it.’ We kind of still operate the same way. We’re not overly jaded. We never lost sight of the fact that we’re fortunate to do this.”