Alice In Chains Address The Ghosts Of Their Past And Plot A Glorious Future
You might imagine Mike Inez had seen it all. He is, after all, the man who beat stiff competition to join Ozzy Osbourne’s band while still in his early 20s, not to mention the only bassist other than Lemmy to play on a Motörhead record. That’s not the case, however, according to the youthful-looking 52-year-old, who’s currently telling K! about Alice In Chains’ recent trip to the Swedish capital of Stockholm and the revealing bit of magic they witnessed there.
“We were in this bar with these groovy, beautiful people,” he explains through a rictus grin. “And this big tattooed guy in a kilt suddenly says to us, ‘I’m going to show you the greatest card trick you ever saw.’ Long story short, he offered me the deck of cards and I picked out the six of spades.”
“At that point, it was the same card trick you’ve seen a million times,” deadpans guitarist Jerry Cantrell, sat beside him and soberly playing the straight man in this double act.
“So I put the card back in the deck and the guy says, ‘lift up my kilt’,” continues Mike, now stood with one foot up on our chair, recreating the man’s stance. “I said, ‘Get the fuck out of here,’ so he lifts the kilt himself and there was the six of spades, tattooed on the end of his dick!”
Setting aside the hysteria the story causes – Mike unleashes a hearty chuckle, Jerry a machine gun-like rat-a-tat of a laugh – it’s heartening that Alice In Chains are still experiencing firsts more than 30 years into a career, however hair (and kilt)-raising some of them can be. On this same jaunt, for example, they had the unusual experience of visiting a karaoke bar and walking in on a young fan belting out one of their songs (Them Bones), highlighting the universal currency the music of the most successful artists has. It’s for this reason they’re about to experience a more momentous first: making their live debut in Israel for the two final shows of a touring run that also included triumphant UK performances in Leeds and London.
Alice In Chains, Never Fade
Today, a month later and some 3,000 miles away, we’re in the restaurant of Tel Aviv’s Sheraton Hotel, which offers a panoramic view of white sand and shimmering ocean as far as the eye can see. Look right and there’s the spot the band took a dip in the bath-warm waters of the Mediterranean yesterday afternoon, and where Jerry’s younger sibling David – the man who inspired the AIC classic Brother, who’s along for the ride – was bitten on the leg by a fish, drawing blood. Look left along the coast and jutting out in the distance is Jaffa, the old town, where later they shopped for trinkets and bootleg records in the flea market before going for dinner together, something they admit they’re not able to do very often.
Admittedly, this idyllic vista is occasionally interrupted by the appearance of military helicopters flying in pairs parallel with the coastline; a stark reminder of the country’s ongoing tensions. These are caused by Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. As a result, groups like the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement), which views the situation as apartheid, has put pressure on artists to boycott Israel. Many, most notably Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, have done just that. If Alice In Chains have any reservations about being here, they don’t share them, focusing instead on the element that gets them playing anywhere – the people.
“We play where our fans are,” says Jerry. “I think if we played Greenland we’d still get a few folks out,” adds drummer Sean Kinney, a man whose jawline and powerful physique give him the look of an ageing action star.
“We love to play and they love to listen,” continues Jerry. “It’s part of the adventure to tick off the places on the list that we’ve never played, like Russia, countries in Africa, China… It keep things interesting for us.”
Though we’re not quite touching the topic of politics, K! wonders whether forthcoming sixth album Rainier Fog is at all political. It’s a reasonable question: Jerry concedes it has fewer lyrical footholds for the listener than usual. It’s also the follow-up to an album (2013’s The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here) that had a title-track commenting on evangelism and the religious right, an element Donald Trump continues to appeal to. And this album has a song called Drone.
Alice In Chains, So Far Under
“No,” says Jerry, not once but twice. “It’s the old chestnut: an artist is supposed to reflect the world back at itself. There’s some of that in there, but this isn’t a political record. Yes, the last record had a song that was about religious intolerance and the horrible things done in the name of that, but the whole record wasn’t about that.”
While Jerry is in clarification mode, he says he’s somewhat mystified by the emphasis people have put on Rainier Fog being the band’s first album in five years.
“I don’t know why everyone’s got hung up on it,” he says, pulling up the brim of his trucker cap as if he’s about to delve under the bonnet of a car. “Two of those years were spent touring the last record, right? Then it takes about a year, year and a half, to write it, get together, record it, get a deal, get the artwork. So that’s three and a half years, plus we’ve got to have a little time off somewhere!”
“If we just got off the road and went straight into the studio, you’d hear songs about catering and missed flights,” jokes Mike.
Despite his mild frustration, Jerry reveals the album was done a year ago and awaiting AIC’s deal with new label BMG to be finalised. “I think we’ve earned the right to move at our own fucking pace,” he asserts.
Of that there is no doubt.
William DuVall is pacing. The trim 50-year-old may look the picture of laid-back cool – sunglasses permanently on, his impressive hair turning the colour of cigarette ash in places – but he’s a man who always seems to be on a mission. We’re in the backstage area of the Caesarea Amphitheatre, a venue dating back some 2,000 years, about an hour’s drive from Tel Aviv. Although there’s still hours to go until the first of their two shows here, the singer and guitarist has fastidiously soundchecked – particularly important in a venue built for gladiatorial battles rather than the comparatively tame spectacle of rock shows – and practised the Hebrew words and phrases he’s had the local promoter teach him in order to address the audience later
The importance of the city is not lost on William; neither, similarly, is Seattle, where Alice In Chains returned to record Rainier Fog, the first time they’ve worked in their hometown since 1995. Then, as now, the band recorded at Studio X, the birthplace of classic albums by Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, as well as their own self-titled third album, their last with original singer Layne Staley, who died in 2002.
While Sean, the only member of the band still living in their spiritual hometown, is cool about the significance as he strolls past to help himself to the impressive catering laid on – “There is a weight to it if you freak out about it” – it certainly wasn’t wasted on William.
“It was big,” he confirms. “It was a pivotal decision [to record there], and I think it greatly benefited the album. For these three it’s going back and perhaps confronting some earlier events. For me, it was confronting that with them, but in addition to that, it was a golden opportunity to assess what my place in the band is.”
And there’s no better point at which to do so, because with the release of Rainier Fog, Alice in Chains have now made as many albums with William as they did with Layne, thereby putting what Jerry describes as “the two lives of the band” in perfect balance.
“I think there was some residue from the past lingering, but the ghosts were benevolent, they were there to help, not hinder,” the frontman recalls. “I wrote the lyrics to the song Never Fade right there in Studio X. I thought, ‘I’m not leaving this room until I chase this song down.’ I sang about the history, all the songs that had been written, all the arguments among bands and discussions about the future. I was thinking about my grandmother, who’d just died a few months earlier; thinking about Layne Staley, thinking about [Soundgarden’s] Chris Cornell, who’d just passed a month before – just letting it wash over, and at the end, I walked out into the dawn and felt I’d had a significant spiritual experience. It couldn’t have happened anywhere else.”
While the album’s title-track is similarly celebratory of the Seattle scene, and reflective upon the heroes it has lost, Jerry suggests it’s also about recognising what still is.
“It’s a nod to the commitment,” he says proudly, looking out over vast ruins that
once hosted chariot races. “That we’re still fucking here and we’re still at the top of our game. This is a fucking impactful record.
Alice In Chains, The One You Know
“Until we fucking hang this up, the road is open and we can go in any direction we want to go,” he continues.
What, then, would they have to feel, or not feel, in order for Alice In Chains to think about hanging it up, as he puts it?
“It’s something I don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about, because it’s just an inevitable thing that’s going to happen at some point. So we’re just enjoying every opportunity we have and that we’ve created together.”
“We just opened up for Ozzy in Copenhagen,” Mike says of his former boss and continuing source of inspiration. “It’s so great to see him at his age, still kicking ass.”
It’s fair to say that Alice In Chains are doing the same. They’re at peace with their past, in part thanks to making a record that’s the best of the three this iteration of AIC has made to date; an album that in songs like Maybe, a lush, Eagles-esque epic, has opened up new possibilities for their future. For now, however, it’s clear Alice in Chains’ focus is on one thing and one thing only.
“A wise person told me that when you’re looking forward too much, you’re anxious about what might happen,” explains Mike, limbering up. “But if you look back too much, you’re either sad those days are gone or regretful about things that did or didn’t happen. If you look at it that way, then the present is the only safe space. That’s how
I choose to live my life.”
“Yeah,” nods Jerry firmly, guitar in one hand, administering pre-show fist bumps with the other. “Now is a good place to be.”
Watching the four men’s silhouettes heading to the stage, a vast wall of devoted fans arching up ahead of them, it’s impossible to argue with him.
Alice In Chains’ new album Rainier Fog is out tomorrow on BMG.