Alice in Chains
Alice in Chains
Alice in Chains
“We don’t stuff our personal demons inside ourselves,” explained Alice in Chains singer Layne Staley in a Rolling Stone interview. “We get them out. It’s therapeutic.” The Seattle group has made a career of musical exorcism; known for its heavy, brooding sound and angst-ridden lyrics, Alice broke through in 1992 with Dirt, an album preoccupied with addiction and other trials of the soul. “At its best, live or on record,” declared Ann Powers in Spin, “Alice in Chains hits the vein of the rock tradition that fearlessly confronts the most threatening end of the emotional spectrum.”
Guitarist Jerry Cantrell—a Tacoma, Washington, college dropout who picked up the guitar at age 17, influenced primarily by heavy metal innovator Eddie Van Halen—met Staley in the late 1980s. The singer was working with other musicians at the time but maintained his association with Cantrell by allowing him to stay in his rehearsal space. “The place was open twenty-four hours,” the guitarist recalled to Jeffrey Ressner of Rolling Stone, “and there were always bands
Members include Jerry Cantrell (bom March 18, 1966), guitar; Mike Inez (replaced Mike Starr [bom April 4, 1966], 1993), drums; Sean Kinney (bom May 27, 1966), bass; and Layne Staley (bom August 22, 1967), vocals.
Group formed in Seattle, WA, 1987; signed with Columbia Records, 1989; released debut EP, We Die Young, 1990; released first full-length album, Facelift, 1990; appeared in film Singles, 1992; performed on Lollapalooza tour, 1993.
Awards: Gold record, 1991, and platinum record, 1993, for Facelift ; voted best new band by Rip and Guitar for the Practicing Musician readers polls, 1991; platinum record, 1993, for Dirt ; MTV Award for best video from a film, 1993, for “Would.”
Addresses: Record company —Columbia Records, 2100 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, CA 90404.
playing, chicks going in and out, beer and drugs everywhere, some really wild times.” Cantrell wanted Staley to join the hard-rock band he had put together with drummer Sean Kinney and bassist Mike Starr, but the vocalist was reluctant; he had plans for his own group, a funk-influenced act Cantrell agreed to join if Staley would reciprocate by singing in the guitarist’s band.
The name Alice in Chains originally belonged to “a side project of my old group,” Staley informed Ressner. “We were going to have this band that dressed in drag and played heavy metal as a joke.” But Staley’s band fell apart, so Cantrell’s project ended up in sole possession of the name—originally Alice ’N’ Chains—as well as the singer’s achingly soulful and sinister vocals. The band gigged on the Northwest music circuit “for about a year and a half, just playing, and then we finally started gelling, as far as what we wanted to do musically,” Cantrell told Rip magazine. During Alice’s maturation, the “Seattle Sound”—encompassing a wide range of styles but characterized by dense metallic guitars, post-punk attitude, and a certain experimentalism—took the record industry by storm. Bands like Mother Love Bone and Soundgarden turned their underground followings into lucrative record deals; Alice in Chains, too, signed with a major label, Columbia, in 1989. “They came to us at a time when we were hungry for music,” Columbia president Don lenner declared to Rolling Stone, adding, “I flipped out the first time I heard their demo tape.”
The label sacrificed early profits in the name of promotion when it sent retailers a free Alice EP, We Die Young, in June of 1990, two months before the band’s album Facelift hit stores. Even so, the album took a while to move. Produced by rock veteran Dave Jerden, Facelift contains the hypnotic single “Man in the Box,” the nightmarish video of which got the group noticed early in 1991. But it wasn’t until Columbia hit on the inspired promotional tactic of a “combo pack”—a package that included an Alice concert video called Live Facelift along with the album—that sales increased markedly. Critics, nonetheless, were not impressed by the album; L.A. Weekly’s Mike Rubin dismissed it two years later as “full of thin, stringy guitar leads and glossy production,” while Bruce Bitt of the Los Angeles Daily News found Facelift “promising” but “marred by sluggish songs and conceptual similarities” to Soundgarden.
Alice in Chains began touring with alternative-rock icon Iggy Pop late in 1990 and the following year were nominated for a best heavy metal Grammy and a favorite heavy metal artist American Music Award. Though Alice didn’t win the awards, the nominations demonstrated the group’s growing influence on the hard rock and metal scenes. They went on the road with nouveau metalheads Megadeth in February, later joining that band, Anthrax, and the notorious satanic speedmetal outfit Slayer for the “Clash of the Titans” tour. Slayer fans were impatient, to say the least, with Alice’s deliberate, complex arrangements, hurling verbal abuse and—in one instance—jugs of Kool-Aid at the group. “That was one of our finest shows,” Kinney said of the Kool-Aid incident in an interview with Request’s Daina Darzin. The latter half of the year saw Alice in Chains touring with Van Halen—“a cool way to meet a hero,” Cantrell told Katherine Turman of Guitar World —and making their network TV debut on ABC’s In Concert.
Late in 1991 Alice released a mostly acoustic EP called Sap. The release was inspired, Cantrell revealed to Turman, by a dream Kinney had. “He actually dreamed that we put these songs on an EP and called it Sap. He saw us talking about it at a press conference and saw it doing really well.” The realization of the dream, Cantrell added, “came together so smoothly, it’s almost scary.” Sap features guest appearances by members of the venerable Seattle rock bands Heart, Soundgarden, and Mudhoney and one noisy cut called “Love Song” on which Alice’s members switched instruments. In that same vein, Cantrell, who more than holds his own on back-up, sang lead on the song “Brother.”
1991 will long be remembered as the year the Seattle Sound took the rock world by storm; Nirvana’s multiplatinum album Nevermind and strong-selling efforts by Pearl Jam—formed by surviving members of Mother Love Bone after singer Andy Wood died of a heroin overdose—Soundgarden, and the one-off Pearl Jam/Soundgarden hybrid Temple of the Dog put the city on the pop-cultural map for good and introduced the word “grunge” to music parlance. This high-profile position was cemented by Cameron Crowe’s 1992 film Singles, the soundtrack of which included tracks by many Seattle luminaries. Alice in Chains contributed the melodic, mid-tempo “Would?” and appeared in the film as—what else?—a club band. The characters portrayed onscreen by Campbell Scott and Kyra Sedg-wick enact a feverish courtship ritual to the dirgey strains of the song. “Would?” received considerable airplay and nicely positioned Alice for the release of their next album, on which it also appears. As evidence of their new mainstream appeal, the group took the hosts of the popular television show Entertainment Tonight on a tour of Seattle.
Despite their burgeoning prominence, difficult circumstances plagued the recording of Alice’s next album. The band was laying down tracks in Los Angeles in April of 1992 when the city erupted in violence following the acquittal of the white police officers who had been videotaped beating black motorist Rodney King. Cantrell described the group’s subsequent apprehension to Richard Rosenthal of Screamer, remembering, “I was caught in traffic a couple of times and I saw people ripping other people out of cars and looking at me... it was a trip. So we said, ‘F— it, let’s not record. Let’s not go out. Let’s just leave town.”’ They split up and visited various locations before reuniting to begin the recording process again. The result was an uncompromising album called Dirt, full of introspection about matters ranging from substance abuse—Staley’s recovery from heroin addiction became a preoccupation of journalists—and abusive relationships.
“We always write from a personal perspective,” Cantrell revealed to Rosenthal. “From our perspective, we see that there’s a lot of dark things going on.” Even so, he insisted, “We’re not a big message band. We pretty much write for ourselves. But [if there’s] something that we’re scared about or we’re feeling bad about, we put it in our music. Letting it out gives you a little peace. You’ve dealt with it and it’s outside of you now. That’s pretty much how it works out.” In Rip the guitarist noted, “Taking something that’s ugly and making it beautiful is something that’s of interest to me.” Several of Dirt’s compositions deal explicitly with drugs, and some—like “Junkhead,” with its brazen query “What’s my drug of choice?/ Well, what have you got?”—seemed positively blasphemous in a decade of “positive message” entertainment. “Dirt doesn’t offer simple, self righteous, ‘just say no’ sloganeering,” commented Jon Pareles of the New York Times. “While songs portray the miseries of craving and withdrawal, they also understand the temptations of drug-induced numbness.”
Reviews of the album were largely enthusiastic. The New York Daily News called the band’s progress since Facelift “one of the most remarkable jobs of bootstrapping ever in the history of pop” and labeled Dirt “a masterwork filled with locomotive grooves, soaring harmonies, and monstrous guitar flourishes.” Pulse! deemed it “gloriously bummed and brilliant stuff.” Entertainment Weekly’s Janiss Garza heaped praise for the album atop an “A” grade, stating, “Dirt is somber psychedelia, a brooding chronicle of the hell of drug addiction set to slow, Black Sabbath-like rhythms. The pain and insight that went into these 12 songs make Alice in Chains shine above and beyond most of its Seattle neighbors.” Cantrell himself exemplified the group’s optimism about Dirt when he told Musician, “This new album’s lethal. It’ll sneak up behind you like a mako shark and take a bite out of your butt.”
In support of the album, the band launched a tour with metal legend and former Black Sabbath frontman Ozzy Osbourne. But Staley broke his leg in an accident involving an off-road vehicle. While many pop stars would have cancelled a few performances, Staley continued his duties in a wheelchair, rolling around menacingly; bassist Starr told Rolling Stone’s Ressner, “It somehow makes Layne look more ... evil.” Dirt climbed up the charts, powered by the propulsive single “Them Bones.” Staley avoided discussing his heroin addiction with interviewers, though his comment to Ressner was fairly definitive: “I took a f—ing long, hard walk through hell. I decided to stop because I was miserable doing it. The drug didn’t work for me anymore.”
The rush of success in the wake of Dirt’s undeniable power clearly motivated the band. Variety described Alice in Chains onstage as “exciting the sellout crowd ... into a frenzy.” Asked by Rip’s Turman to define success, Cantrell replied, “That so many people are really into the music, and that when we play, people will come out to see us.” Later in the interview he called the band a “family,” adding, “It blows my mind what Sean, Layne, and Mike do every time we play. It’s just a reaffirmation that these are a great bunch of guys to play with, and that I’m really lucky to be in this band. They’re my brothers.” This fraternal vigor notwithstanding, Alice drummer Mike Starr was replaced by former Ozzy Osbourne sideman Mike Inez in February of 1993.
On Columbia Records
We Die Young (EP), 1990.
Facelift (includes “Man in the Box”), 1990.
Sap (EP; includes “Brother” and “Love Song”), 1991.
Dirt (includes “Would?” “Junkhead,” and “Them Bones”), 1992.
(Contributors) “Would?,” Singles (soundtrack), Epic, 1992.
(Contributors) Last Action Hero (soundtrack), Columbia, 1993.
Billboard, October 24, 1992.
Daily Variety, October 5, 1992; December 23, 1992.
Entertainment Weekly, October 19, 1992.
Guitar Player, February 1993.
Guitar World, April 1992.
Los Angeles Daily News, October 2, 1992; October 16, 1992.
L.A. Weekly, December 11, 1992.
Music Express, January 1993.
Musician, February 1993.
New York Times, October 25, 1992.
Pulse!, December 1992.
Reflex, December 15, 1992.
Request, November 1992.
Rip, February 1993.
Rolling Stone, November 26, 1992.
Screamer, November 1992.
Spin, November 1992; March 1993.
Additional information for this profile was provided by Columbia Records publicity material, 1992.
Alice in Chains
ALICE IN CHAINS
Formed: 1987, Seattle, Washington
Members: Jerry Cantrell, guitar (born Tacoma, Washington, 18 March 1966); Mike Inez, bass (born California, 14 May 1966); Sean Kinney, drums (born Seattle, Washington, 27 March 1966); Layne Staley, vocals (born Kirkland, Washington, 22 August 1967; died Seattle, Washington, 5 April 2002). Former member: Mike Starr, bass (born Honolulu, Hawaii, 4 April 1966).
Best-selling album since 1990: Dirt (1992)
Hit songs since 1990: "Man in the Box," "Would?"
Renowned nearly as much for their inactivity as their musical style, Seattle's Alice in Chains was one of the premier heavy metal bands of the early 1990s. Though hobbled by singer Layne Staley's fatal drug addiction, the group created a body of dark, brooding hard rock and intense visual imagery that set the standard for a new generation of heavy metal bands.
The enigmatic, rail-thin Staley formed the group while still in high school in Seattle in the mid-1980s, dubbing it Alice N Chains. Like several other pioneering Seattle bands of the time, Alice N Chains melded the primping, gender-bending posturing of glam rock with catchy, noisy heavy metal. When Staley met Diamond Lie guitarist Jerry Cantrell in 1987, the pair began rehearsing at a warehouse called the Music Bank along with a pair of mutual acquaintances, bassist Mike Starr and drummer Sean Kinney. Though they considered several names at first, including Mothra, they settled on Alice in Chains, a slightly different version of the name of Staley's previous band. Staley said the name evoked an image of a speed metal band that dressed in women's clothing.
A Major-Label Deal
Honing their mix of heavy crunching guitar chords and thick, psychedelic blues, the group set itself apart from many of its Seattle peers by relying almost exclusively on a bleak, menacing sound that owed more to heavy metal than the punk-derived sound of such grunge rock peers as Nirvana. Unlike some of their fellow grunge bands, the group spent no time on an independent label proving themselves; instead they quickly inked a recording deal with a major label, Columbia Records, in 1989 on the strength of recordings they made in 1987 and 1988. We Die Young, a three-song promotional album, was released in July 1990, followed by the group's full-length debut, Facelift, two months later.
The metallic, colorized cover of Facelift, featuring all four members' faces superimposed onto one face, set a precedent for the group's pervasively dark imagery. The album is a tour de force of bleak, forceful hard rock. Mixing the over-the-top guitar excess of the 1980s with thick, grinding tempos, tracks such as "Love, Hate, Love" and "I Can't Remember" marked the emergence of a confident if morbid new voice in rock. Staley's vocals are low and rumbling, ominously expressing sentiments such as the following, from the song "Confusion": "Love, sex, pain, confusion, suffering / You're there crying / I feel not a thing/ Drilling my way deeper in your head / Sinking, draining, drowning, bleeding, dead."
The album also produced a bona fide hit with "Man in the Box," a song that bears the band's soon-to-be hallmark style. Inspired by a story Staley had overheard about how veal came from sheep penned in small spaces, the harrowing song combines Staley's haunted, menacing vocals with Cantrell's distorted, choppy guitar lines and the rhythm section's pounding backing. The inclusion of songs such as "Bleed the Freak," "Sea of Sorrow," and "We Die Young" set the template for what became Staley's signature creative voice, that of a morbidly disaffected, diseased pariah struggling to survive on the outskirts of mainstream society.
The group mounted its first U.S. tour in 1990 and followed it up with a multigroup summer 1991 tour—dubbed "Clash of the Titans"—with fellow heavy metal bands Anthrax, Slayer, and Megadeth. Having established themselves as a premier metal band, they returned in March 1992 with the largely acoustic four-song Sap release, which features guest stars Ann Wilson of Heart and Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell.
With the breakout success of Nirvana's smash grunge album Nevermind and the inclusion of their song "Would?" on the soundtrack to the popular mainstream film Singles in the summer of 1992, Alice in Chains was suddenly marketed as both a heavy metal and alternative rock act, broadening their fan base considerably. The group began work on their 1992 album, Dirt, in Los Angeles on the day the Los Angeles riots erupted; they waited out the violence for two weeks in nearby Venice, California. The bleak album is an unabashed look at the tortured lives of the now commercially successful, Grammy-nominated group, with Staley singing several songs about drug addiction and self-destruction ("Junkhead," "God Smack," "Sickman," and "Angry Chair") and Cantrell seeking to heal wounds with his father on the Vietnam-themed song, "Rooster."
While the songs are unabashedly catchy amid the dim themes, there is no hiding Staley's pain. "I want to taste dirty, a stinging pistol / In my mouth, on my tongue / I want you to scrape me from the walls / And go crazy like you've made me," he wails on the album's molasses-thick, sludgy title track. Following the album's release, Starr was replaced by former Ozzy Osbourne bassist Mike Inez. While rumors of Staley's drug addiction dogged the band, they successfully completed a headlining stint on the third multiact Lollapalooza summer tour in 1993, helping the album sell more than 3 million copies. Another short album of mostly acoustic songs, Jar of Flies (1994), features two of the band's most beloved songs, the string-laden power ballad "I Stay Away" and "No Excuses," both of which shone a dim light amidst the usual dark imagery.
Staley mounted a short tour with a Seattle supergroup, the Gacy Bunch, featuring Pearl Jam's Mike McCready, the Screaming Trees's Barrett Martin, and John Saunders. The band, named for the serial killer John Wayne Gacy, later changed their name to Mad Season and released their debut, Above, in 1995. The album is a somber hybrid of Staley's dark vocals and McCready's sometimes meandering guitar lines. Alice in Chains returned later that year with a self-titled album that debuted at number one on the charts. They did not tour to promote the album, again raising rumors of Staley's drug addiction that had surfaced after a similar failure to tour to promote Jar of Flies. A long period of inactivity followed.
For their first concert in three years, the group gave an intense performance on MTV's Unplugged show in 1996. An album of the event was released in July of that year. Though gaunt, Staley sounded fine; however, barring a few dates opening for their heroes in KISS that summer, it would be one of the band's final performances. Cantrell released his solo debut, Boggy Depot (1998), several years later, with contributions from Inez and Kinney, and Staley was replaced by Screaming Trees singer Mark Lanegan on Mad Season's second album.
A four-disc commemorative box set featuring rare and previously released material, Music Bank, was released in 1999, and a live album, Live, followed in 2000. Though rumors of his demise were rampant throughout the late 1990s, Staley's death at thirty-four from a lethal overdose of heroin and cocaine in April 2002 came as a shock to the band's longtime fans, providing confirmation that the band would never return to form.
Though their period of creativity was short-lived, Alice in Chains helped to change the face of heavy metal in the 1990s, bringing a poetic, nihilistic edge to a genre that had fallen into parody only a decade earlier. Along the way, they inspired a new generation of bands such as Creed, Puddle of Mudd, and Godsmack, the last taking its name from one of Alice in Chains's songs.
We Die Young (Columbia, 1990); Facelift (Columbia, 1990); Sap (Columbia, 1992); Dirt (Columbia, 1992); Jar of Flies (Columbia, 1994); Alice in Chains (Columbia, 1995); MTV Unplugged (Columbia, 1996); Music Bank (1999); Nothing Safe: Best of the Box (Columbia, 1999); Live (Columbia, 2000); Greatest Hits (Columbia, 2001).