Back in 1995 Alice in Chains released their self-titled (and final) album. It was the first record of theirs that I would pick up and it immediately drew me in, leading me to pick up their back catalogue as quickly as was possible on the pocket money I had at the time. Looking back it’s easy to see why they appealed – I’d grown up listening first to Maiden and the like and then Nirvana took over and in those years post Kurt’s death I was looking for something that little bit heavier, but yet still tapped into that vein of honesty that had been the grunge scene’s stock-in-trade. AIC fulfilled all that with their harrowing tales of the dark-side, Jerry’s brutal riffing and the vocal harmonies that no band has ever quite managed to replicate.
Like many fans of the band I watched the band’s slow dissolution with quiet despair and the loss of Layne for anyone who loved the band was a heavy one. Jerry Cantrell’s fantastic solo albums offered some flickers of hope, but the news that AIC had reformed was as exciting as it was unexpected. The tour that followed was a massive, massive success and even if some carping critics moaned about the band replacing their fallen singer, the whole thing was clearly important to the young musicians who had had their band and their friend so tragically torn from them.
New album, ‘Black gives way to blue’ is an enormous success with fans and critics alike and it is with this in mind that we found ourselves talking with the band’s eloquent and friendly new member, William DuVall who took the time to answer every one of our questions with a quiet patience and sense of humour which helped allay the nerves that you get when interviewing a band you’ve listened to for well over ten years…
SA: One of the things I’d like to start with is, obviously Alice in Chains has a massive legacy and you’ve joined the band in a revitalised line-up. Could you tell us a little bit about how that came about?
WD: Well, you know, Cantrell and I have been friends for about ten years going back to when my band, Comes with the fall, moved back to Los Angeles from Atlanta in 2000 and that’s when we met and we developed a mutual admiration and actually ended up going on tour together for two years, for all of 2001 and 2002 around the United States and Canada and the UK in 02. My band was kinda doing double duty; we would open the shows and then we would go off-stage, towel off and come right back out and play his set with him – this was during the time that he was finishing up and then releasing the ‘degradation trip’ album and so that kinda forms the back story for what we’re doing now, you know it’s been a long standing friendship that’s gone through a lot and so in 2006 when I got the call to help out with Alice in chains (which was really just for, at that point, what we thought was just going to be a few show) for the VH1 decades Rock Live concert honouring Heart that they asked AIC to be a part of and there was a few shows in Europe so that’s what I was asked to do initially and I said “sure” you know,” helping out a friend, no problem” and then as we got into It, it sort of took on a life of its own and what started off as a few shows turned into a 23 country world tour and then more touring in 07, and out of that came this discovery of our unique chemistry together as this line up of the band and also a renewed kind of vitality from the audiences reaction to what we were doing every night in concert and I think we took that momentum with us into the studio to make ‘Black gives way to blue’ – it was essential that we did that two and a half years of touring before we even thought about going back into the studio, you know that’s where real bands come together and see what they’re made of – on the road; and my way of thinking, anyway, is that it’s a waste of time making a record unless you have something that first of all has something to say, which we have plenty of – there’s no shortage of things to be addressed in the new music but also unless you’re delivering the goods live.
SA: As a fan of AIC, it seemed to be a very organic process the way you came together, it seemed to be a very slow approach, so I take it that there was never any game plan?
WD: Well, yes as I said, once we got out on the road it did take on a life of its own and you know we sort of got swept up in that, as you move through the various stages of this thing there was always the question – do we want to take the next step, and we’d take that step and get a lot of positive reinforcement and reaction for it and say well, you know, you wanna take this next one? And we’d do that and so it went right through to finally deciding to go into the studio.
SA: One of the things that I think AIC are very famous for is extreme lyrical honesty, perhaps more so than many other bands. How do you feel about working with the older material as a singer and performer?
WD: You know I sing that stuff from my own life experience and my own place of truth – that’s all I can do and all I’d ever want to do. Certainly some of the lyrics are very personal to whoever wrote them, be it Cantrell or Layne, but you know Layne sang Cantrell’s songs, Cantrell sang on songs Layne wrote and moreover that music resonated with a large number of people and not all of them were going through the exact experiences that are depicted in the song you know – so I think that it speaks to the power of music so when I sing the stuff, I just bring my own experience to it in the same way the listener does and deliver it in my own way. Layne was just being himself and I’m just going to be myself – ‘Rooster’s’ not about Layne, not about anything he went through – it’s about Cantrell’s dad but Layne sang the hell out of it, didn’t he? so it’s just coming from that same point of view I guess, it’s like you go in, you give it your all… And of course now, there’s a whole new set of songs that I had a part in creating so once again Cantrell sings lyrics I wrote on this record and certainly vice-versa. I think that’s just part and parcel of the way the band’s always worked before – It’s in keeping with that tradition.
SA: One of the things I’ve found with the new album is it’s still very much AIC but it has a different edge to it and there are new sonic elements, particularly on songs like ‘last of my kind’ which has a really heavy vocal part from you and I was wondering how much you feel you bring to the table in this new version of AIC?
WD: Well ‘last of my kind’ is my song, That’s one that Cantrell had the music for on this disc that I was carrying around and listening to around my apartment or whatever and this one day he happened to ring me up after I’d held on to this disc for a couple of days and said “wanna come over to write or whatever?” and I said “yeah, I’ll come over, but I don’t have anything yet” and I got in the car and drove over the hill to his house and the whole time I was just looking at the sky and praying, you know “come on give me something!” and I had this little slip of paper that was on the dash of my car and it had these words written on it ‘so young, so brazen and so unholy’ and I’d written it maybe some weeks before or whatever, and it was just one of those scribbles that you do, you know, I scribble on everything when I get an idea and so I looked at that on the dash of the car and thought, “oh, that’s not bad,” so I got to his house and locked myself in this little spare room that he has there and he went to go play video games and I wrote ‘last of my kind’ in about half an hour – I just took that line that I had in the car with me and just rode in on that music and that thing just spilled out and an hour later it was completely demoed – all the background parts and everything. So that one came really quickly and I guess that’s an example of my contribution to the band thus far.
SA: Musically, in interviews in the past I’ve heard a lot about where AIC have come from but what inspired you to start as a musician?
WD: Man, gosh! Yeah well Hendrix was the first thing – I’m a guitar player first, singing came much later for me, originally all I wanted to be was a guitar player, so Hendrix was what got it going and from there Bands like Weather report and Coltrane. I was a big free jazz fan and then, to the other side I discovered punk rock which had this real do it yourself ethic, you know, if you wanted to play in a band then play in a band, if no one would book your shows, book your own shows, if a club wouldn’t let you play then go somewhere else, you know… It was much later on that I discovered more conventional rock bands and learned to love them for what they are, like Zepplin and Sabbath and all that – that came a bit later for me so it was Hendrix and then Free Jazz and punk rock, that was the stuff that really go me going at first.
SA: Alice in chains have a really acoustic side as well as the really dark electric side, something we saw on the EPs, will there be more like that?
WD: I think it’s all represented on the new album – there’s a song like ‘when the sun rose again’ there’s a song like ‘your decision’ that has elements of the acoustic thing that you hear on Jar of flies. There’s obviously ‘black gives way to blue’ that lends itself to acoustic presentation and I think that what you have on this album is a kind of panorama of the styles that this band is known for in one album as opposed to split up between albums and in EPS, but having said that, sure, you know, the future’s wide open. We’re liable to do anything because we can and it’s a really fortunate place to be in.
SA: As a band, you personally, and from what I’ve read with other members of the band, you come across as having a really good sense of humour – that seems to go back to the old days and now as well. Is that an accurate depiction of you or is it more of a defence against prying journalists?
WD: [laughs] A bit of both – I mean especially when you get us together there can be a bit of Marx brothers going on for sure, but you know having said that, yeah, it can be used in any number of ways including [laughs] as a bit of a defence. I mean all this stuff is so…it is funny when you think about it, the whole thing – the absurdity of being in a rock band, the absurdity of talking about yourself all day. I haven’t left this hotel room today, since I opened my eyes, I’ve not left this hotel room, I’ve been on the phone talking about myself, you know? That’s a really, really hilarious thing, so sure we have to see the humour in this stuff and if you start taking it too seriously then no matter how serious some of your music might be, you start taking this stuff too seriously that’s when you really get screwed.
SA: Just a little bit about the band’s image: from the beginning (and) including your new music video AIC have put together some immense videos – far more than the usual performance videos that you see with a lot of bands. Is that something that the band get involved in?
WD: It’s very much something that the band’s involved in. I think that whenever you see… I would venture to say that whenever you see any video, look or especially when there’s a body of work…a visual body of work representing a band – if it in any way smacks of something exciting or unusual or whatever it’s usually because the band is involved and certainly that’s the case with us.
We’re working on editing the video for our next single ‘your decision’ and, believe me, the emails have been flying fast and furious right now while we’re in London and the production team is working in LA and it’s just a lot of emails flying back and forth and I assume it’s always been that way with this band and it’s certainly that way now, you know for ‘looking in view’ there was a lot of input from the band and work and a lot of concentration on how we get these stories to hold their own as individual stories and also to hang together- there was a lot of footage shot and actually we ended up having to do a reshoot because there was stuff in there and I was just like “there’s not enough story here” and there wasn’t… “we need to see this and we need to see that and we need to see this” and it was like – “well we haven’t shot that” and we were like “well please, in the name of God, we have to get it back up and do this because we don’t have anything! we’ve got seven minutes of interesting visuals with no story!” so yeah there’s a lot of input from the band for sure in all this stuff, I mean everybody’s got a lot of great ideas.
SA: The album itself – you open on a song which talks about hope and a new beginning – which sounds like a really clear statement of intent – was it intentionally sequenced that way?
WD: Yes – definitely that was conscious.
SA: AIC have never really collaborated that much (apart from on the EP – SAP) and then on this LP you have the title track which is a collaboration with Elton John – how did that come about?
WD: Well Elton’s music meant a lot to all of us form our childhood up to now and he was actually Cantrell’s first really big artist that made him consider getting into music, as I was saying Hendrix was mine and Elton was his and before any guitar based rock or anything came into his life it was Elton… Aand Elton John was actually Layne Staley’s first concert as well. My mother was a huge Elton John fan, I mean all of us, we all have a connection to him and his music and so when it became time to do the album version – the song ‘Black gives way to blue’ a friend of ours who’s worked with the band for some time now and has also worked with Elton for a period said why don’t you give Elton a call and [laughs] we were trying to figure out if the album version should have piano like the demo did – the demo had piano on it and it was played by a friend of ours who was one of our guitar techs – we were trying to figure out a)if the album version should have piano and b) if so, who should play it, and when this “why don’t you give Elton a call” came up we were like “yeah, sure, we’ll get right on that, I’m sure he’ll be right over!!!” then after some consideration it was like, well you don’t ask you don’t get so what’s the worst that can happen – he could say he’s busy or whatever and so the email was fired off to him and he said yes and it was really cool, it was a great session – it took place some time later, after we’d finished recording – we’d virtually finished recording everything for the album – we were in mixing mode but then we did this – took some time, flew to Vegas and he was finishing up his Red Piano run of concerts in Vegas and we went to a little studio in the Palms hotel and we were sitting there and Elton John walks in and it was an utterly surreal but really, really cool experience. He was wonderful to work with and he didn’t come in with any [English accent] “I’m sir Elton John and this is what I shall be playing on your song!” – he was very much there to serve the music and serve the session and was really open to all of our suggestions which was just crazy in and of itself – you know – [geeky voice]“Elton, maybe you could try it this way?” and he was just great about it, man, you know a master musician is just secure enough to just serve the music so that’s what Elton is, he was fantastic.
SA: Last one! You’re obviously caught up in the whirlwind of it all but have you looked to the future at all?
WD: You know we’re concentrating on just getting through all this stuff ‘cause it is quite a whirlwind but, you know, when you do take a moment to consider the big picture and the long haul it’s fair to say that we generally see this album as the opening round of a new chapter of the book – however you want to put it. We definitely see more output from the band in the future – everyone’s pretty jazzed about this whole thing and the way it’s been received so we hope to keep doing it!
Alice In Chains UK Tour:
12th Glasgow – Barrowland
13th Birmingham – Academy
14th Manchester – Academy
16th London – The Forum
17th London – The Forum
6th Nottingham – Rock City
7th London – Brixton Academy
‘Black gives way to blue’ is out now through Parlophone Records
Many thanks to William DuVall for taking the trouble to answer questions that he’d probably already answered a few hundred times that day in the most charming fashion imaginable and to Stuart who arranged it for us.