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Interview: Alice in Chains

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Reforming, everyone’s at it! Plug in the hype machine, play some high-profile shows, perhaps churn out some mediocre legacy-killing albums, and rake in some pennies for the retirement fund.

Alice in ChainsAlice in Chains is not one of those bands. Their 2006 comeback was unlikely, unexpected and played out with the subtle air of a band just wanting to get back to doing what they do best.

Despite undoubtedly their classic albums in the early 90s, AiC have never quite fit – they never fit the ‘grunge’ tag and were the heaviest band on the scene. The death of original drug-addled front-man Layne Staley in 2002 put the chance of the band working together again in serious doubt. It was always the exquisite vocal interplay between singer Layne Staley and guitarist Jerry Cantrell always set them apart.

But with a new singer in tow, the band came back with a bang with 2009’s comeback album Black Gives Way To Blue, a statement of intent and one that has seen the band take up where they left off as an extremely relevant musical force.

 They returned earlier this year with their second release with William Duvall on vocals The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here, their ‘heaviest to date’ according to drummer Sean Kinney who joins me on the phone on tour in Buenos Aires.

These latest recordings have him excited.

 “We feel really strong about (the new songs). Of course you don’t know if people will enjoy them and, you know, that’s just so out of your control, what can you do? It’s so subjective; one person’s favourite song is another person’s filler!  Like, who would do this for a living, and ever set out to write filler? It takes a hell of a lot of work and money and time and energy and care to put into this... utter shit that you think is crud? (Laughs) You don’t get that. Everybody has their opinions, what works for them, what doesn’t. This works for us.”

Never ones to falter in the face of causing a little controversy, the new album’s title has caused some uproar with its apparent pot-shots at religious belief.  The line, “The devil put dinosaurs here / Jesus don't like a queer / No problem with faith / Just fear”, for example, takes a clear swipe at Christian fundamentalism. Have they experience any backlash?

 “No, not really” says Kinney.

“It’s not some kind of a gimmicky, controversial thing... It’s a pretty neat title, so that was cool. We’re coming up with a lot of good imagery for it and... You know, we haven’t really cut too much crap for it. I mean, I haven’t felt it. It’s not like us telling it how it is or taking a stance on what others should do, it’s like a reflection of what’s going on, especially here in the states. They’re playing politics with a lot of this shit, it’s disturbing. As far as beliefs go, people are free to think whatever they want... just not at the expense of others. The “I’m right and you’re wrong” kind of scenario doesn’t seem to make much sense.”

Listening to the new record, there’s a clear continuity in terms of sound coming on from the previous one, with all the familiar aspects of the band’s classic sound firmly in place.

The initial sessions for the new album started in 2011, but delays were caused by Jerry Cantrell’s need for surgery in his shoulder. A ‘necessary interruption’, says Kinney..

 “He was just in too much pain; he had to get his shoulder dealt with. Now, once you go through the process of making a record there’s the live part, the performing thing and that’s a pretty physical thing. And you get it day in and day out with all the travel and everything, and that’s a lot of pain. It hampers what you’re doing.”

The band’s initial decision to reform with a new singer was not one they took lightly. “We were very cautious about it,” explains Kinney..

“If it fits right, works right and the chemistry is right and the people are right then we can get to creating things which are interesting and people feel passionate about. Like, you can replace someone... it’s a band! You need someone with ‘X’ amount of talent to perform and do these things.”

But what exactly was the catalyst for the reformation in the first place?

 “Well, we always were very good friends, we were extremely close, and that’s the first thing. And after the tsunami (the one that struck South-East Asia on Boxing Day 2004), I had a thing at a club in Seattle, and I just wanted to raise some money. So I called Jerry and Mike and they were just like “sure”, and then Maynard from Tool and people like that to see if they wanted to come and help and... We ended up playing some of our songs for the first time in a long time, and it was extremely emotional and bizarre.”

It seems another legendary Seattle band had their share of responsibility: “Our friends in Heart were getting honoured on television in the states for their career and they asked us to take part in that so we could kind of do the same thing, and Will kind of came into that and played with us, and it sort of grew into a thing. Then we got to the point where people kept asking and we were like, let’s keep it manageable, not too intense, let’s go play some songs one more time. Let’s do this! You’ve just gotta take everything step by step.”

They are all to aware of the accusations that come with old bands reforming to get their mitts on some filthy lucre.

 “You get the old “Oh, it’s a cash-grab!” and all that bullshit, but this industry doesn’t have cash to grab! The days of being paid for your music are gone; you’re not seeing money for what you create. But that’s the way it is, I don’t wanna sound like an old guy bitching, it’s just how it is. You’ve got to accept reality. There’s always money going out. Like touring, it costs a lot to do that. We spend most of the money we make just to be out and doing stuff; it’s not free to bring 25 people around the globe with you. But we’re fortunate to do it, that we’re able to do it, and we enjoy doing it!”

The reforming band has a quandary with new material, do you depart from the classic sound and alienate the fans, or peddle the same and risk becoming stagnant. AiC have found a balance between the two. The latest couple of albums sit comfortably alongside their 90s work and are still recognisably them, but that’s not to say there hasn’t been any kind of progress or slight shifts in direction.

“It’s a strange thing. You get some people... Whenever you first showed up and people took notice, some people just want you to stay forever young and be what you were then and stay that way forever. But that’s completely unrealistic, it’s not possible! And then there are people who, if you did keep doing the same thing would go “you didn’t experiment, you didn’t try!” You’ve really just gotta stick with what’s right for you in your situation, with the people you work with and put the care and passion into that.”

In recent years nostalgia for the ‘grunge’ years has gone into overdrive, with other alternative heavyweights such as Soundgarden and Stone Temple Pilots also making a comeback in recent years. Though AiC share the same Seattle origins as the rest of these bands, they’re a little unsure of exactly where the ‘grunge’ tag seems to have come from, and they don’t care for any pigeonholing genre labels.

 “To me we’re a rock band and these are the songs we create. I mean, before we first came out there was no ‘grunge’, they hadn’t invented that word. And then we go overseas, like to Europe, start playing to this small set of people and they’d go “oh, it’s the Seattle sound” but at that time nobody really knew how to classify anything because bands controlled everything. Before they invented the word ‘grunge’ we were ‘alternative rock’ and ‘alternative metal’ and ‘metal’ and ‘rock’, and we didn’t give a shit whatever, we were a rock and roll band! Then they invented the word ‘grunge’ and we were pulled into that. It’s funny to me because it predates that shit, you know? I think they were lost somehow because of the magnitude of it, and how Nirvana and Pearl Jam took off. We’d been out before them and had success; we’d sold a million albums in the states, we were on MTV and stuff like that.”

Nevertheless, there seems to be a sense of local pride and camaraderie between the Seattle bands: “I remember I was in the UK actually, and I had the Nevermind record and Pearl Jam’s new album before they’d come out, and I was like, these tunes are great. I knew people liked them but I had no idea it’d turn into what it did.”

The band has proven beyond doubt that they still have plenty to offer the world in 2013, as a band not simply revisiting the past but forging a future.

“The first album could have been the last as far as we’re concerned, and the second album could have been the last. So long as it feels good and you enjoy each other’s company and you feel inspired by what you’re doing. We’ll do this as long as we choose to and as long as there are people who allow us to do this. As far as I know, tonight could be the last show we ever play! We have to like what we’re doing and have the passion to do it, and we know first-hand how precious life and things are. The same things that everybody else on this planet, if they already haven’t, will live through; the loss of people that mean the most to you, and how do you deal with it and what do you do with your life? How do you move on with these things and on with yourself? We live with it, man. We’re people, we’re no different, you know? Nobody’s any different, any better than anyone else. I have more respect for the mother of three who works three jobs who barely gets by in life and is a good person. That’s more noble than me, you know? I work hard for this but I know we’re fortunate to be able to do this and that people want us to do this."

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