Sean Kinney: From The Ashes
Alice In Chains was supposed to stay dead. They know this. Everyone knows this. This is a band whose members had long ago offered themselves up as willing sacrifices on the altar of superstardom. In exchange for a heap of riches – 17 million albums sold, 11 Top 10 singles, two out of three albums claiming #1 spots on the Billboard Top 200 – they had allowed themselves to be snuffed out by a cliché. “This business is built for it,” says Sean Kinney. “I mean, when you sign up as a kid you’re like, ’Sex, drugs, and rock and roll.’ That’s, like, our résumé. It’s not, Did you complete algebra? You know? It’s sex, drugs, rock and roll – it’s not an uncommon story. And I know how it ends.”
How it ends is Layne Staley. How it ends is April 19, 2002, when Seattle police busted down the door of a condo and discovered Alice In Chains’ lead singer slumped on a couch, a loaded syringe in hand, surrounded by the remnants of the kaleidoscopic drug binge that had killed him two weeks earlier.
That Staley simply got there first is the grim truth behind why it hadn’t ended that way for all of them. “He was the focal point, like singers are,” Kinney says. “So they’d single him out. But the truth was, it was pretty much everybody. I definitely had my hand firmly on the wheel going off the cliff. And the reason we pulled back – you know when you stop when you have two #1 records, it’s not really the greatest career move – but we did that because we love each other and we didn’t want to die in public. And I know for a fact in my heart that if we were to continue that I wouldn’t be on the phone right now talking to you. I wouldn’t have made it. I just wouldn’t have.”
And yet, here he is. Here they are. Fourteen years – fourteen years – after their last studio release, boldly wading back out into the hostile muck of an unfamiliar musical landscape brandishing a brave new offering, Black Gives Way To Blue, raised like a glimmering shield against the inevitable cries of disbelief. An album. Not some tired, gauzy attempt at reclaiming past glory, but a muscular, vital, snarling thing full of somber authenticity, hard-earned maturity, and a heaping dose of straight-up rock fire – at once reassuringly classic and bracingly original. And unquestionably Alice. How on Earth did this happen?
After one last flair-up backing guitarist Jerry Cantrell on his “solo” album, 1998’s Boggy Depot (basically Alice In Chains minus Staley), Kinney slowly retreated from the spotlight. “It was some pretty hard times for all of us and I didn’t know how much I wanted to be out publicly dealing with that stuff,” he says. “So I kind of stayed around and I kept busy. I just jammed with friends and stuff. Seattle’s a cool place for that.”
He’d occasionally surface in some side project. Here, playing as part of an impromptu backup band for Johnny Cash along with Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil and Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic, doing Willy Nelson covers. There, on an EP under the moniker Spys4Darwin with Alice bassist Mike Inez, Queensrÿche’s Chris DeGarmo, and Sponge’s Vinnie Dombroski. But mainly Kinney laid low, quietly coping with the fallout from a career defined by titanic levels of hedonistic excess.
What finally drew him out was a desire to give something back. On February 18, 2005, Kinney gathered the remaining Alice members together for the first time in six years to play the K-Rock Tsunami Benefit concert at Seattle’s Premier nightclub. “Luckily, Maynard [James Keenan] of Tool and all these friends showed up, and Ann Wilson [Heart] filled in, and it was for a good cause,” Kinney says. “Luckily, we didn’t think a lot about it. If I would have thought about it too much I probably wouldn’t have done it. But after we played, we were kind of like, ’Whoa, this is really bizarre without Layne. I don’t know about that.’”
But the Alice In Chains “reunion” naturally sparked buzz, and more offers to play led to another appearance in March of the following year at a VH1 Decades Rock Live concert, this time with Comes With The Fall singer/guitarist William DuVall filling the gaping hole left by Staley’s absence. But they were still just feeling their way along, never certain what was around the next corner.
“I never called Jerry; he never called me, and said, ’Hey, let’s get the band back together,’ you know? We had been taking every step extremely cautious and slow, and just doing whatever feels right: If it’s genuine and we’re doing it for genuine reasons and we’re all okay with it then we take a little step. None of us is broke. Nobody needs to be a rock dork, and you know, stroke their ego. I mean, we don’t really operate like that. So as long as it felt good and from the right place and it’s about making music and carrying on …”
After the VH1 concert, they did a few club dates around the U.S., Europe, and Japan, with DuVall’s place in the lineup becoming more concrete all the time. The stars seemed to be aligning in their favor, for the first time in a long time. But for Kinney, one unfinished piece of business remained. And until he could resolve it, it posed a fatal threat to whatever future this new incarnation might have.
Breaking The Chains
Staley’s death, says Kinney, was a “pinnacle moment,” forcing him to pull back on the reins of his own destructive impulses. But with each passing year the list continued to grow of friends whose lives had been claimed under similar circumstances (including, chillingly, one friend he’d just learned had hung himself the night before our interview). “I live everyday missing a lot of people and, you know, ten times a day with knots in my stomach missing somebody that was like a brother to me,” Kinney says. Still, none of it had been enough to scare him totally straight. Not yet.
That moment finally came in July 2007, a couple of weeks before they were set to go out on a high-profile tour with Velvet Revolver. “I just couldn’t feel right about what was going on because of what I was still doing and I didn’t have a way out and I damn-near OD’ed again and just about died, which wasn’t the first time. And it just kind of hit me, it’s like, ’You can’t do this. How important is this?’ It’s so important to me to pass on our legacy to have Layne’s music and this music remembered, and to honor the fact of what we had done. And like anything, when s--tty things happen, you’re going to get knocked down. But you’ve got to get up at some point.
“And that’s what this whole record is basically about, it’s like, s--t happens, and how do you deal with it? Once again, music is the only thing that saved my life. This is the one thing that I never quit or got fired from that I’ve done my entire adult life, since 20. It’s all I’ve ever done and it’s meant the world to me. It was more important to me to do this with my friends and move on and address what’s happened to us and be men and pick up and do what we love and not be f--ked up.”
And so, ignoring the common wisdom that the road is no place for a recovering addict, Kinney set off on tour, only to find himself surrounded by a natural support group. “Slash, Duff, all these people had been sober for years,” he says. “Jerry was cleaned up, my drum tech and tour manager were cleaned up. So I just hung with them and it was really easy. And I started noticing, like, I can definitely do this.” He pauses for a second and then adds dryly, “You know, so far so good. Talk to me next week – maybe I’ll come crashing through a window somewhere.”
Reigniting The Flame
With Kinney sober for the first time in 30 years and the tour going amazingly well, something remarkable began to happen – they started writing new material. “Usually we have kind of a jam scene backstage,” Kinney says, “with drums and guitars and all that stuff. So anytime we’re together, it’s kind of like it’s always been: Jerry and I – and then Mike and Will – come in and out, but we just kind of jam. We just kind of show up and ideas come. And so then that was naturally happening, and we recorded those on tour.”
And if the creative process hadn’t changed much, neither had the fundamentals of their sound. Comparisons between DuVall and Staley were always inevitable, and the reality is that the two bear an eerie similarity in both tone and style. Cantrell had even begun to split guitar and vocals duties with DuVall in the same way that he had with Staley back in the ’90s. “Layne had really coaxed Jerry into singing more of his own stuff,” Kinney says. “And you’d hear that more with [Cantrell] up front. They always sang together on every song – it’s just kind of our thing, a harmony deal. So that’s intact because that’s just how everything is structured and the way that we hear things and the way that now it’s an Alice kind of deal. So Layne was getting more into playing guitar; Will plays the guitar.”
But Kinney makes it clear DuVall was never meant as a “replacement” for Staley. “With a loss like that you’re thinking, ’Oh my God, you can’t fill those shoes.’ We’re not trying to. We never tried to. You can’t. We know that more than anybody. That was never the idea. We found a guy that’s really badass that gets it, that’s a talented guy.” In any case, the chemistry in the new lineup was yielding results, and as soon as the band came home from tour, Cantrell seemed eager to slip on his old songwriter shoes. “Jerry got all fired up like he does and started fleshing out some ideas and some songs and sending them to us on a series of tubes,” Kinney says, using his preferred tongue-in-cheek reference to the Internet. “And with all the maturity that’s happening and all these years and the wealth of stuff to draw from, I think he’s written probably some of the best songs that he’s ever written. That’s a tall order because it’s not a simple subject. And I’m his biggest critic and his biggest champion. And I think he came in with some stuff that was great and we just added to it and massaged stuff and wrote some things together.” Riding a wave of inspiration, they all rented a house together in Los Feliz, California – actually the former residence of 1940’s samba songstress and fruited-headgear pioneer, Carmen Miranda, which a production company had bought and converted into a series of studios, including a guest house out back that became the perfect laboratory for what was now, officially, a new album in the works.
Grohl’s Drum Room
By October the band had enough material together to take Dave Grohl up on his repeated suggestions to record at Foo Fighters’ Studio 606 in Northridge, California. Grohl and company co-own the studio with famed rock producer Nick Raskulinecz, whose old-school recording preferences and rock-centric résumé made him the perfect choice to produce Black Gives Way To Blue. “He’d just done Rush [Snakes & Arrows] – so he’s a super drum guy,” Kinney says. “But he’s kind of a super everything dude. His energy is so huge, man. He gets in there and stands there and like, air drums in front of you and he’ll sing into a drum stick and, you know, he’s like a big kid, just losing his s--t. And at first I was kind of like, ’What’s with dude?’ But then after a while it’s infectious, you know?”
For Kinney, getting to record in Grohl’s drum room “didn’t suck,” as he puts it. “Dave was in a little band, like this little obscure band. You might be able to find a 7-inch – I think it was, like, Nirvanus – something like that,” he cracks. “But so, when they built the place, you know, they built a kick-ass drum room, of course.”
It was in that room that Kinney laid down all of his drum tracks over the course of about two weeks, using one simple rig and a typical assortment of snares. “I didn’t really change up a bunch of stuff because basically I wanted to have a cohesive sound throughout the whole record,” he says. “And then we just kind of changed things with tunings and mike placements and styles of playing.”
On a few songs (the impossibly slow and heavy “Acid Bubble,” for instance) they placed a 26" kick drum in front of Kinney’s odd-sized 23" for some added boom. But the emphasis was always on real acoustic signal. On “When The Sun Rose Again,” they brought in a tabla player to record some live samples. “I thought it would be, like, you know, some cool Indian guy,” he deadpans. “It was like a white guy, looked like a wrestling coach. It was really weird.”
But despite the lack of studio trickery, Kinney found himself intrigued by the limitless possibilities of the new digital environment. “I was kind of thinking it was cool. Nick was kind of against it. I was more into using that technology because we never had it before, you know?” After all, the last time they’d been in the studio together, 14 years earlier, the trend was still all about recording live to 2" tape. Pro Tools? What’s a Pro Tool? Hell, Kinney had never even played to a click before.
“Something that was really weird for me is that we didn’t play live,” he says. “We’d go in and jam through everything, get the tempo, and they’d build the click. And then the guys would put just like a really loose trash guitar – like the guide guitar. And then they’d put the vocals on there.”
The freedom from having to get their parts right at that point in the process, Kinney says, gave his bandmates ample time to try and mess him up while he worked to lay down his keeper track. “Which is all funny the first two times, but, you know, when you’re playing the song all the way through six times it’s like, f--k, man!”
And whether because of habit or stubbornness, Kinney still went for one-take run-throughs on each track, even if it did take him five or six tries. “I actually played songs more this time, some of them, than I had in the past because it was different. It was kind of weird playing without the guys and with the click.”
But in this case, a finished track meant a finished track, and whatever editing they did to his drum parts afterward, he says, “came to peeling stuff out just as much as putting stuff in. My theory is, as in most things in life, if it doesn’t need it or you’re questioning if it should be there, then don’t put it there.”
Kinney’s backbone beats have become as much a crucial element of Alice’s sound as the vocal harmonies. And the stray clam here and there is a nice reminder that there’s a human being playing that instrument. After all, this is a guy who came up learning to “play for the song” back when the alternative still meant wasted tape and probable unemployment.
“Just because you can do a bunch of stuff and you can fill up some spaces, I think there’s always been a maturity to the fact that one simple crash can be just as powerful, and more powerful in some places, than doing a big fill. I do what I feel is right for the song, not right for me to go, ’Check out my s--t.’ Because there’s always some guy who’s going play more. And when you’re younger I understand that. When I was younger it was like, play fast, play all the time, play everything. But it’s more challenging to work with space, to try to peel stuff back and put only what you feel is necessary to be there. And playing in time, that is a lot harder than people think.”
The Right Track
Just before New Years, they moved from 606 to Henson Studios in Hollywood. “Dave, like he’s major-owner guy, you know, Mr. Big Pants, comes in and says he wants to use his studio,” Kinney says (half-jokingly). “Like, what’s with that? You know, so we’re like, ’Whatever dude!’ and we went over to Henson, which used to be A&M, and moved in there and did some of the final vocals and guitars and all that. And we were going to mix it at Henson anyways, so we mixed it there.”
Around this time they also added a last-minute piano recording to the album’s title track – a tender homage to Staley – courtesy of none other than Elton John. “Jerry’s a massive Elton John fan,” Kinney says. “So it was kind of like a pipe dream.” Still, that Elton John agreed to play on an Alice In Chains album isn’t as strange as it might sound. “He knows more about music than almost anybody I know,” Kinney says. “I think every Tuesday he gets every new release and he actually listens to them. I mean he’ll tell you like, ’Track eight on the Rihanna record is pretty cool.’ And he’s like, ’You know, Sean, you’re from Seattle, and Queensrÿche just put out a new record called American Soldier, and it’s pretty good.’ I’m like, ’Is this Elton John telling me this?’”
But as far as Kinney is concerned, John’s contribution was just another sign among many that they were on the right track with this album. “Everybody that was involved with the record couldn’t be cooler,” he says. “And it was great – part of reaffirming what we’re doing is genuine and right, because they really loved it, they cared about it.” And his most sincere hope now is that listeners feel the same way. “I’m excited to see how people feel about this record because, you know, people are very passionate about the band. But by doing this and facing all this and going through it and doing it with my friends, it’s definitely helpful on a lot of levels. And it’s part of life, you know? You move on. And I think hopefully that’ll strike a chord with many people because it’s a universal story. People around you and things you love are going to go away. And how do you get up and move on and, and do it, do it genuine, and try to do the best that you can at that? We’ve been through a lot, you know? All the good and the crushing lows. And I’ve just felt very genuine about it, why we’re doing what we’re doing. We’re cool with it, and that’s all that matters.”