Sean Kinney: Off The Chain

sean kinney

Kinney’s playing has never been fussy but became even more solid on Black and is simplified on Dinosaur to the point where it’s almost transparent, and the reason is obvious. With Duvall now doing the rhythm guitar as well as vocals there is less space to play in. “Will is a great guitar player, so he helps fill it out,” he explains. “Like Jerry would go do a lead on ’Them Bones’ [from 1994’s Dirt] and it was just bass, drums, and guitar. But now there’s a little flavor line on the guitar that he wouldn’t have been able to do [before] because he’d have to anchor down the song. Now Will can hold down the meat and potatoes of the song and we can add that other little squiddly-doo on the guitar there.”

A perfect example of the enriched sound would be Cantrell’s ascending jangles, a kind of trilling motif, on the title track, which creates a sweet counterpoint to Duvall and bassist Mike Inez’ down-tuned ooze. “It’s easier to re-create the bigger parts of the songs that way,” he adds. “It was heading that way with Layne. Layne was starting to play guitar and stuff.”

Beating The Way Past

Despite Kinney’s claims that Alice In Chains is not metal, the beats on iconic tunes can be pretty darned hard, up-tempo and, well, metallic (“Them Bones”), or embellished and enhanced with studio filters (check out the reverbed snare drum single strokes on the verses of “Angry Chair”). When Devil does do that sumpin’-sumpin’, it’s more organic: “Low Ceiling” and “Lab Monkey” sport funk feels in the kick drum, something any drummer will tell you does not lend itself to super-slow tempos. “[’Lab Monkey’] is like five mini songs in one,” he says. “It’s got some strange turnarounds.”

Upon closer inspection, other details emerge. The ghost notes in “Hung On A Hook,” “Phantom Limb,” and final track “Choke” – the closest thing to a ballad since “Heaven Beside You” – fill up the yawning chasm between the 2 and 4. “We tried it both ways, but [without the ghost notes] it didn’t have the right feel. You want this kind of prrrrddt thing – they’re part of the song. You can space it out a little bit more [rather than] just have it one big solid shwack going on in there. I think it would be kind of like a machine if it didn’t have that feel in there. But the average listener won’t ever notice that.”

Two acoustic-guitar—driven songs on The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here [“Voices,” “Choke”] recall the unplugged vibe the band cultivated on Jar Of Flies, the anticlimactic follow-up to Dirt. “That’s always fun,” he says. “We have the wherewithal to be able to do that and it’s just something we enjoy doing, so we’ll do tours that are just acoustic, and we’ve made EPs and records and put out songs that way, so it’s something we like doing. It’s refreshing after you get up there playing with all the loud noise and all the stuff.”

The only downside to the low-volume situations is that it puts a spotlight on mistakes, at least those rare moments when Kinney actually makes them. “You’re really out there, boy,” he says. “There’s no distortion; there’s nothing hiding it: clam. ’It wasn’t me!’”

After years of heavy bashing in arenas, Kinney likes the idea of playing at softer volumes for another reason. The story of how he broke his hand making the first record is well documented and he’s broken it several times since then. And while he doesn’t specify exactly how it’s negatively affected his playing, suffice it to say he has adapted to it. “It’s just that it’s different because that finger sits back a little further,” he says, adding that he doesn’t notice it much anymore. “It’s really affected my stick twirls, dude, which is the sad part of it all,” he cracks, unable to help himself. “My showmanship is really suffering for it.”

There is no denying that Devil’s undulating riffs – as though Cantrell is having way too much fun with the whammy bar – are meant to be hallucinatory, and with no small irony, druggy. The characterization rubs the substance-free Kinney the wrong way. “That’s crazy because we’re sober!” [laughs] The group’s struggle with addiction, which ultimately claimed ex-singer Layne Staley in 2003, is ancient history, but Kinney does offer one insight on his own deliverance: “I just couldn’t be toxic while doing the one thing people have supported us for all these years, or while championing my friends who are no longer here.” he says. “I felt like a fraud.”

Confronting The Studio

The metronome isn’t the only concession Kinney makes to modern recording. Working again with Nick Raskulinecz (Rush, Foo Fighters) is enough to make any drummer respect the art of sculpting drum sound. The producer’s level of technical skill was intimidating during the recording of Black Gives Way To Blue, but for Dinosaur Kinney learned to enjoy the luxury of an ace producer. “Drum-wise I don’t worry about [Raskulinecz],” he says. “He’s super-drum guy, super-everything guy. Look, If Neil Peart trusts him, I’m not going to say s__t.”

Compared to the Black sessions, the few weeks at Henson Studios in Los Angeles working on Dinosaur was like a hang with old friends. “We laughed a lot,” he says. “We sort of designed everything to keep it as light as possible because it does get intense. There’s millions of dollars of equipment glaringly showing you how much you sucked and it can be a real ego-buster.”

He also learned when it was time to let go of a track. “You’ve got to have the fine line of, like, knowing when it’s enough, and that’s a tough one because you can sit there and put glitter on it for the rest of your life.”

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