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Sean Kinney: Off The Chain

sean kinney

There’s something about established rockers that follows type. Take Alice In Chains drummer Sean Kinney for instance. The outdoorsy 46-year-old, who seems to have been born in work boots and faded jeans, couldn’t live anywhere but the Pacific Northwest. The area’s damp forest is perfect for running his two German shepherds, Wotan and Xena, with whom he spends an inordinate amount of time. “Quiet!” he hollers from somewhere inside his house, fighting to be heard over the barks. “I’m a shepherd guy. Had them all my life. They’re really good watch dogs.” Not that people stalk him or anything.

But other things about Kinney don’t fit the stereotype at all. The chiseled fit-looking guy, studiously jaded in band photos, is quite the goofball with a healthy sense of the absurd. He jokes about wearing some douche-y outfit with puce-colored velvet pants at the Soundgarden show tonight. (If Kinney wore a feather boa he’d be within his rights to do so.)

This jocular side was nurtured by a recent vacation in Kaui, where he takes refuge whenever he can. Simple pleasures – hanging with buds in Soundgarden, kicking it with his dad in Hawaii, solitary hikes with the dogs – that’s what Kinney is about these days. “I started doing, like, a puzzle,” he says as if in disbelief. “When’s the last time you sat down and worked on some big jigsaw puzzle?”

The leisurely approach to life also applies to making music on The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here, which feels bluesier and more off the cuff than anything Alice In Chains has done since, well, ever. Yet a certain pop exuberance sprinkled throughout belies a lifetime’s worth of struggle and tragedy. “Somebody said that we make beautiful music that you want to die

to,” he chuckles. “When they told me I was like, ’Oh, sounds like something I’d say.’ And it makes sense, you know? It’s not really the happiest content because it’s real-life kind of stuff.”

Giving Way To Blues

Alice In Chains never planned a reunion, but it seemed the gods of rock had other ideas. When an impromptu gig leads to recruiting a new lead singer, followed by a full-length album that goes on to sell 1 million copies, you don’t second-guess it. “I think we were just surprised to be in a situation where we were even talking about actually making a record,” Kinney says of that uncertain period leading up to 2009’s Black Gives Way To Blue. “That one actually had a lot of personal stuff, so it seemed like it kind of had a beginning and an end for us. But this one here seems to me to be more of a collection of songs. It doesn’t have a common thread other than it sounds like my band.”

If that’s true, it’s the most playful collection the band has ever written. The basic band DNA is there but there’s a surprising amount of humor and lightness in this evergreen noir. The title track, “The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here,” is not a potshot at creationists but a critique of fear – fear in general and human reactions to it. “It’s not even poking fun, it’s a question,” Kinney says. “It’s like, ’Dude, if I go dig a hole in my yard and take a rock from four feet down and have it scientifically tested, the thing is three million years old. Explain that.’

“Believe in whatever you want,” he continues. “Have faith in whatever you want. Whatever makes you happy. Whatever makes you be a better person. But trying to get one up over on other people, and control them with fear, using any tactic, that’s just a non-starter for me. I don’t know how that song will be taken, but that’s where we’re at on it.”

If Black recaptured the Northwest gothic Alice In Chains patented two decades ago, Dinosaur digs past the broad strokes of grunge in a search of hard rock as haunted and shadow-filled as the pines ringing Puget Sound. It’s a sound indebted to the same rain-swept isolation that forged Black Sabbath on another continent, yet feels authentically American. “We’re always fairly slow, mid-tempo,” he says. “We’re not really a metal band. We don’t really deal with a lot of up-tempo subjects either. We’ve got a country flair in there [see the lapsteel effect on “Scalpel”], and then I think when we started out there was always kind of a bluesy deal. But that’s basically where rock started anyway, right?”

The pitch-bent guitar tones and twin-harmonizing of William Duvall and Jerry Cantrell – wraiths doomed to forever repeat the same mistakes – is blues in the literal sense of the word: despairing. “I think that the heaviness of the band comes from the space,” he says. “It’s not crammed up and moving at 210 beats per minute. That space gives it weight. But we’re also more vocal oriented as opposed to just sheer volume and speed and power.”

The band’s historically highest-charting songs – “Rooster,” “Angry Chair,” “Man In A Box” – have a watery, dream-like aura. The sonic signature was picked up without missing a low-bpm beat on Black Gives Way To Blue, but The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here slows the proceedings even more. It’s a wonder Kinney can even keep time to it, but that’s his job. He finally surrendered to recording to a click on Black and, unsurprisingly, does so again on Devil. “But sometimes I would turn it off,” he says, not liking where the conversation is headed. And just so we’re extra clear he’s not using it live – not ever. “How rebellious is it to be tied down to a freaking machine? Guitar solos could go longer on some songs. You can’t improvise if you wanted to. And s__t happens: Somebody’s guitar cuts out and you gotta vamp along, or somebody throws a shoe and hits somebody, or the singer starts telling a childhood story on stage or something. Those are the interesting things about live performances.”

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