What's the Matter?
by Gibson Keddie
Alice In Chains, Ozzy, Slash - Mike Inez explains why one top band ain't enough. Gibson Keddie tries to keep track.
If you checked out last month's Rock It column where Andy Frost discussed Alice In Chains' music (though with reference to first bassist Mike Starr), then you already know that AIC are fond of mixing up their particular musical recipe with unusual arrangements, and - stranger still amongst the conventional 4/4 thud of rock music - unusual meter. Though vocalist Layne Staley's stacked, brooding harmonies provide the band with an instantly recognisable calling card, Jerry Cantrell's imaginative guitar lines weave fluid patterns across mesmeric rhythms, supplemented by a suitable sympathetic rhythm section.
A Seattle band ("We never made ourselves out as a part of that hype - the backlash had to happen after all that shit") which formed as long ago as 1987, it took three years before reaction to their debut album Facelift took them several steps up the success ladder, launching them into the arena of major players in new rock.
Bassist Mike Inez is a man in an invidious position; already a member of a hip 'n' happenin' band, he also moonlights with some of the biggest names around in music, AND he's so infuriatingly bloody down-to-earth about it all. His top-flight career followed a spontaneous decision a few years back to join a queue of hopefuls waiting to try out for the Ozzy bass gig in LA...
"Ozzy was doing open audition at a place called Joe's Garage, Frank Zappa's place in Los Angeles," remembers Mike, "I couldn't even find the place at first, tucked away in the valley there. When I found it, there must've been 50 bass players there, all in leathers and with the boots and stuff. I was in Levis and an old hockey jersey. I could hear the band through the wall and all these guys around were really nervous. I wasn't because I didn't think I'd get the gig. I jammed in front of Ozzy and (wife and manager) Sharon and with Zakk (Wylde) and Randy (Castillo), and as I was walking out Ozzy and Sharon asked if I could stick around, being one of the top five guys. So THEN I started to get nervous."
However, Mike was not immediately put out of his misery. The final process of elimination took some three weeks before he was informed of the result. 'Quit your job, you're going to Ireland and then playing London's Wembley Arena in a few weeks! Learn 20 songs and here's your flight information.' "That was the first time I'd ever left the country..."
Mike's first gigs with Ozzy and AIC were both in London, strangely enough. The Ozzy one in particular at Wembley, before 20,000 fans...
"I wasn't too nervous because there was an American football game on backstage before the gig, and me and Zakk Wylde were saying 'no, no wait just five minutes, wait 'til the end of the quarter', because it was a playoff game. I didn't start to get nervous until we got on stage and saw all those people! I got to know Ozzy pretty well, he's a great guy, he's like a father figure. I look at the four or five year spent with Ozzy as my college scholarship where I got to learn from one of the best in the business. When I first joined the band he was still drinking and we'd have great times. I got to be in his band during the tail-end of his party cycle! Randy (Castillo) was 45, Ozzy 47, so me and Zakk were the two crazy young guys and Randy and Ozzy were the two crazy old guys!"
"I'm not a good rock star, but I'm a good bass player and team player and I like to keep in touch not only in a business sense. Slash, who I made the Snakepit record with, 'It's 5 A.M. Somewhere', and me, we're best friends now and hang out every day. Zakk Wylde, Randy Castillo and the Alice In Chains guys are like my brothers, too. I've got a good group of guys around me and I've been in the right place at the right time. There's no strategy involved, it just happens and the phone keeps ringing for some reason!
"Everyone I've worked with seems to be intense, but can have a laugh, too. All that hell that Slash and Guns n' Roses are going through; it's weird when you see people in this business not having a good time in it, because that's the whole dream when you're growing up of 'having a good time'. I don't look at it business-wise and maybe that's why people gravitate towards me, I bring the spirit of having a good time back into it."
AIC's new Unplugged album sounds very effective; was there any worry about transferring often extensive electric moodsets into an acoustic setting?
"No, not really. Jerry (Cantrell, guitar) and I write stuff usually on an acoustic guitar before I go to my house, link up the studio and put it all down electrically. It's strange; we do a heavy album and then an acoustic and then a heavy. Jar Of Flies was our first Number One, and that's an acoustic album. The next album is an electric one and that goes to Number One, so this really is a unique band. No one sounds like us, and whether we do an electric or acoustic album it still sounds like Alice In Chains. It's just chemistry."
It sounds as though you're really enjoying the bass gig on the Unplugged album, swooping around.
"The other guys were nervous because they hadn't played for a long time, and we'd only had three or four rehearsals to get the cobwebs off. Actually, right before that, Geezer Butler quit Ozzy's band and Ozzy called me to dep on his tour in Japan and 15 to 20 arena gigs in the States. This was on the Tuesday, I flew out on the Friday to one rehearsal on Saturday and then right into an arena gig in Rochester, Buffalo! New York on Sunday, etc., and that lasted for six weeks, the whole of the States then Japan. I'd played them all before with Ozzy, anyway. So by the time of our Unplugged I was really comfortable with being on stage again and it was good to play our own music."
Does it piss you off regarding the drugs/break-ups controversy that Alice In Chains always seems to have hanging around them?
"In our band I've never seen four guys so north, south, east and west of each other, but we're so alike; we're all from divorced families and we're all intense people. When we get together the chemistry appears. The controversy thing is weird, but you get used to it, there's no game plan with this band. Whatever happens on any given day happens, y'know? I've learned in the past year to go with the flow more and not get myself too upset about the stuff that goes on or the things said about the band, that's because I love Layne, Jerry and Sean so much. I can call Sean or Jerry an arsehole and they'll call me an arsehole, but if anyone else calls us one, we'll all turn on them. There is a song on the new album called 'Frogs' and the first line is 'What does "friend" mean to you/A word so wrongfully abused.' That pretty much sums it up.
"We've put our guard up in recent years and our friendships with each other have never really wavered. We had to step aside from the band at one point so each guy could discover who he was again, before coming back together collectively. We'll either blow up tomorrow or last for twenty years! If you look back at The Who, they were always on the verge of killing each other. It's really a good thing!"
"The other day, we just went out and did the Tigers stadium with Kiss in front of 65,000 people. The money is so much bigger, it's a lot easy to splinter, guys earning $2-3 million a year and ending up with more money than they thought they'd ever have. We're not into it for the money, we love playing. Like I got a call yesterday from Rob Halford, he wants me to do a couple a tracks for him. I love making new friends and I'll jam with anybody, name or no-name, for a sack of beer and a cigarette! I'd rather go and play somewhere than sit at my house watching CNN and getting depressed. I don't know if my whole identity is playing, but that's what I love to do. I think I'm in it for the right reasons."
"At Catalina Island off the coast of California where I've got a boat, I came off the Kiss tour and flew right to Kansas City, then took a helicopter out to the Island. My whole family was there, mother, father, step-mother, cousins and a lot of good friends. We spend 4th of July weekend out there and I stayed on for about a week scuba-diving and put my back out!"
It's A Call
"I always grab my two Warwicks, both old ones. One Ozzy bought me as a gift and the other I just broke on the Kiss tour: I threw it to my bass tech and he missed it and it smashed! I'm getting that one fixed. I've been playing a bass that Stuart Spector made me too, but for recording I'll always use my two Warwicks. I used an Alvarez acoustic on the Unplugged album. That's also good for recording, it's a really full, deep sounding bass and that's used with a $10 chorus pedal! I use an old '71/'72 Fender fretless as well. I pretty much stay with three or four basses."
"It changes all the time. With the Ozzy tour you have to fit it about because of all the TV screen - two 8x10"s, two 4x10"s and a single 15" in the middle. There was a time just before the tour with Metallica when I had six 18"s, 12x15"s and 24x10"s! That was because I'm an Ampeg endorsee, but I love being a little, skinny 140lb guy up there with all that power. I have to wear my scuba-diving belt to stop being blown away! I always run everything loud in the wedges, and have two up front and one by the drums so that if I go back to my amp I can hear the guitars and not just my shitty bass playing."
On the Alice gigs you and drummer Sean (Kinney) always seem to know what each other is up to instinctively.
"Oh yeah! It's because we're both funksters, when I come in to rehearsal we'll just play funk music until the other guys show up. Sean plays like a heavy Stewart Copeland, a real finesse player but who hits the drums hard. He's my favourite drummer in the world to play with, and I've done records with Matt Sorum and Randy Castillo, but me and Sean just seem to click. He uses a lot of cymbal accents and some great ride with some really heavy funky beats. When I joined the band, Sean realized that he didn't have to worry so much about holding the beat down and keeping everything together, now he can go off a little more and know that I will hold it down.
"When I joined, we started to play a lot more rather than just holding down a rock beat, 'cause Sean gets really bored with the basic rock beat going over and over again. A good drummer will make a mediocre band sound great, but a bad drummer will make a phenomenal band sound like shit. I don't really think drummers get the recognition they deserve, people don't realize what an important part of the band they are.
"But bass players are the most important..."
"I just got off vacation and have been doing major press for the Unplugged record. I'm sure I've got a big agenda to make me nervous at the office, but I don't know, really... I try to not plan, every time you plan something out, it never happens the way you planned it anyway. I've been lucky - if I try to work it out, maybe I'll freak and fuck it up - best not to think about it!"