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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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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If improving the final product is easier than ever today, Kinney is not entirely comfortable with the idea of post-production. “I’m still coming to grips with it,” he says. “I’ll play the whole song and then if there’s one or two little screw-ups or weird things or something, then I’m learning to be okay with [fixing it], but we don’t go in there, ’Hey, we’re going to do it in tiny pieces and play the verse four different ways and have the producer slap it together’ … We don’t do that at all. We go for performance takes. We play the whole thing and maybe there’s some punch-ins here and there or we might fly something from one other full take or take the outro out because it’s better on that one.

“We use the technology but we don’t rely on it, and so it takes us longer to make records,” he continues. “We’re from the school of you had to play your song right [in the studio] since you are going to have to play it eventually somewhere, right? But at the same time, we’re not going for ’70s Tom Petty style, where he’s trying to get the perfect live take by doing the song 150 times if necessary.

“We want to be able to play the song even if everything isn’t mapped out. I don’t always come in and have every fill mapped out. For me it’s more interesting to not do that.”

It’s the things that Kinney doesn’t do that stand out. When he does need to accent, like the unexpected strike on the 19" AA in “Beneath A Window,” it practically detonates. “I think that comes with maturity and having been doing it for a while. That one crash that puts a shiver down your arms and you don’t know why, but then a big huge drum fill just pulls you out of the whole vibe of the song.”

sean kinney

Kinney’s Setup

Drums DW Collector's Series ("Psychedelic Liberace" custom finish)
1 23" x 18" Bass Drum
2 14" x 7" Edge Snare
3 13" x 9" Tom
4 16" x 14" Floor Tom
5 18" x 16" Floor Tom
6 15" x 13" Floor Tom
7 8" x 7" Tom

Cymbals
A 15" Sizzle HH Hit-Hat
B 19" AA Rock Crash
C 7" Vault Radia Bell
D 20" AA Rock Crash
E 9" Vault Radia Bell
F 24" Vault Liquid Ride
G 21" Medium Crash/Ride
H 19" Paragon China
I 22" AA Medium Crash

Sean Kinney also uses DW hardware, Vater Nude Series Universal sticks, and Remo heads (Coarted Emperor, tom batter; Coated Controlled Sound snare batter, and Clar Power stroke3 bass batter).

Social Games

Whether we’re calling it alt-metal, sludge, grunge or something else, Alice In Chains is about great songs that transcend marketing categories. “[Devil] sounds like we sound when we do the thing we do,” he says sounding slightly Zen. “We’ve been through a lot. We’ve lost a lot. And for us to be able to continue that and still be who we are, and honor the past and try to move forward, is really the challenge that keeps us going – especially in a day and age where it’s almost pointless. If you’re getting into this game to be rich and be on Cribs, good luck with that. It ain’t going to happen.”

Dated MTV references aside, the only time Kinney shows his age is when he rails against the way music consumer behavior has changed, echoing the infamous Lars Ulrich campaign against Napster. But the drummer reserves his deepest ire for labels seeking instant mega-sellers instead of nurturing an artist over the long term. “How can people expect to get good music when it’s not supported?”

In another echo of the past, Alice filmed a visually stunning video for first single “Hollow” (evocative of sci-fi films such as Silent Running or Solaris). Besides the disturbing storyline – as opposed to all the cutesy irony of today’s videos – it’s a ballsy move that recalls the days of big budgets and other excesses. Kinney doesn’t see it that way: “I don’t know if there’s a real way to quantify if it really helps the presence of your band or not,” he says. “I’m sure it does on some levels, but does it justify the cost? Probably not. But it’s about the creative process and the art of the whole thing.”

How long can Alice In Chains, to paraphrase Kinney, ’do the thing they do?’ When we ask, he proceeds to paint a picture of himself playing “Man In A Box” when he’s 79 before audibly shuddering. But it’s not the kind of thing that keeps him up at night. Even during the band’s uncertain post—Jar Of Flies years, the drummer continued to ply his trade, most notably in Cantrell’s solo project, Boggy Depot, which showcases more sophisticated pop licks and drum flare than most anything in Alice In Chains. “That’s cool if Jerry wants to do [Boggy Depot] again, but this is what were doing now.”

As the sun goes down it’s clear Kinney wants to get off the phone. He’s got errands to run before he showers and picks out a non-douche-y outfit for the Soundgarden show. “Their new record’s good. I’m not saying that because they’re my friends.”

Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, Nirvana, Soundgarden – the Seattle stars all came up together. Kinney recalls that period as a mutually nurturing scene rather than a competitive one between the bands and their respective drummers. Drumming influences tend to be guys he would hang out with even if they weren’t noted players. “A lot of them are peers and people I know as friends. Brann [Dailor] is one of the newer ones. I love the way Abe Cunningham plays – he’s a great guy. Josh Freese is just amazing. He always seems to play the right thing. You know, just good friends like Matt Cameron, Matt Chamberlin. Interesting, cools guys that march to their own thing.

“I’m not a fame-chasing kind of guy,” he adds. “I don’t have my ego running my world for me. I appreciate the simpler stuff. Phil Rudd is probably one of the greatest rock drummers ever. And I don’t feel like I need to compete with anybody – I just don’t. I’m the best drummer in my band. And that’s because nobody else can play drums in my band. I got that down.”