The Rocket Magazine
Alice's Maddening Season
By Charles R. Cross
On a rainy night near the Seattle Center, it's the yellow jackets versus the kids, in the never-ending battle between music fans and beefy security guards. Despite all the trappings of a concert (a thousand kids, barricades, security guards, big lights, music blasting away in the background), this really isn't a show: It's an in-store appearance that has drawn a mob to Tower Records. The crowd is your typical teenage hard rock concert attendees - 90 percent are smoking, half have been drinking, the preferred headwear is a stocking cap, and soul patches are de rigueur. I mistake at least three kids for Weiland, that dude from the Stone Temple Pilots. If you took away some of the Trans Ams from the parking lot and added a stage, you'd have all the ingredients needed for a rawk concert. Who says you need to have a band to rock n' roll?
Suddenly, there's a guy with a bullhorn (our friendly local Sony rep.) addressing the crowd. "ATTENTION, ALICE IN CHAINS FANS," he yells, quieting everyone down. "Because of the size of the crowd, everyone will have to wait outside and get a wristband. We'll start letting you in at 12:01 to buy the CD." Fans began lining up here in the rain at 7pm. During the course of the evening more than 1,500 fans will make the pilgrimage (about three times the crowd that was expected). If a soggy five hour wait sounds like a long time to persevere for a new record you can buy the next day (with no line), consider that Alice in Chains fans have been waiting for more than three years since the band's last full-length release. Despite turmoil of every sort imaginable (sickness, addiction, contract disputes, inter-group bickering, locusts, plague - all abetted by every rumor that you can imagine), Alice in Chains have done what many people thought was impossible: They managed to exist long enough to see their new album - simply titled "Alice in Chains" - beat the odds and be born. Though rumors of their demise are something the band tries to laugh off as nothing but speculation, earlier, Jerry Cantrell had suggested to me that the lyrics from "Grind" were his answer to the many death-knell warnings: "In the darkest hole/You'd be well advised/Not to plan my funeral before the body dies."
Cantrell is in New York on this rainy night, greeting a similar throng at a record store there. But Sean Kinney and bassist Mike Inez drop by the Seattle Tower store, it's almost too much for the crowd to believe. Kinney is wearing a blue raincoat and he carries a plate of cookies out to the waiting crowd. No one recognizes him. One kid, his mouth full of cookie, mumbles a question to Kinney, "Do you think the band's going to show up?" "Nah, not much chance of that," says Kinney, moving the plate on down the line.
A week earlier, during a private Halloween party at the Weathered Wall in Seattle, the entire band did show up, even, believe it or not, Layne Staley. Staley, who has turned being tardy into an art form, was indeed fashionably late, but he did show, dressed like a photographer and carrying a tripod. His outfit was an inside joke about the title of the new album, which originally was to be called "Tripod". As the band members tell me later, Kinney came up with the name, but it was ultimately rejected. Though Alice in Chains have one of the longest tenures of any of the current crop of Northwest bands (they began in 1987), their recorded output is still relatively small: This is only their third full-length album, in addition to three EPs. Their last CD was the "Jar of Flies" EP, which upon release in January of 1994 became the first EP ever to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard Charts. During 1994, the band canceled more shows than they played, pulling out of highly publicized gigs like a summer tour with Metallica and Woodstock. At the time an official statement from the group cited "health problems within the band."
Those "health problems" have led to more rumors within the Northwest music community that anyone could possibly keep track of. When Staley went off and formed a new band this year (with Mike McCready, Barrett Martin, and Baker Saunders), under the name Mad Season, some thought it was the last anyone had seen of Alice in Chains. When Staley missed most of Mad Season's record release party, many thought it was the last anyone had seen of Layne Staley.
"The rumors are insane," guitarist Jerry Cantrell said a few days after the Halloween party. "A reporter from England just called me up today and told me he'd heard that Layne was dead and we had released this album to cover up his death." Bass player Mike Inez chimes in, "There's a ton of bullshit that's said about us. You just can't believe what you hear."
It's a couple of days after the Halloween party, a couple of days before the mob scene at Tower Records, and Cantrell and Inez are hanging out in Seattle's Belltown neighborhood after taking up my challenge of a game of pool. When my friend, Mike Jones of KISW shows up, the competition gets serious as both he and Cantrell are sharks (Inez and I are amateurs by comparison). Cantrell complains that he doesn't have his own cue stick, which leaves him at a disadvantage, but against my shooting he needn't worry.
Though Cantrell is serious about pool, he's surprisingly low key about his band, while Inez is low key about everything. Both of them complain about how late they stayed up jamming at Cantrell's ranch, playing with a friend of Inez's, they had kept the amps cranking until four in the morning. Inez's evening had also included stops at a Tad show, a visit to Ann Wilson's house, plus a couple of phone interviews plugging the new album. So even though it's six in the evening, Inez says he just got up and hadn't had time to shower. Cantrell spent the day doing press, fielding the same questions from the same interviewers. All ask about Staley (the band doesn't want to talk about Layne except to say "he's OK"), and want to know if the band is still together. So the idea of shooting a few games of pool, even if they've got to answer a few questions in the process, at least seems different. Much of the reason for the rumors, according to both Cantrell and Inez, came simply because the band didn't feel they needed to make any explanations for taking time off.
Inez: When we decided to take a break, we didn't really talk to anyone about it. We just did it and we didn't offer any explanation.
Cantrell: But we haven't been gone that long. We put out five records in five years. We're doing pretty good for a band that supposedly doesn't exist.
Inez: We are the only band that's recorded from beyond the grave.
Cantrell (sarcastically): Mike, weren't you saying you heard the band broke up so you didn't go to rehearsal?
Inez: That's really what it was. We read in a magazine our band broke up so we all figured it was over and we decided not to go to rehearsal. About a year later, I ran into Jerry and discovered that we hadn't broken up.
Cantrell: One interviewer I talked to yesterday said that he heard we had replacement players for me and Layne. What's next, "What about the rumor that you had robots play the album?"
Interviewing Inez and Cantrell is like tag team wrestling. At times there are two conversations going on. Both players are upbeat about their band, even buoyant when they discuss the new record. "When I listen to this record," says Cantrell, "I'm blown away again. That's why I do this. We surprise ourselves all the time. Every time we go in the studio and knock this out, we surprise ourselves."
"We know the meaning of brotherhood, camaraderie, and faith," adds Inez.
"Getting the four guys in the same room to jam," says Cantrell, "that's the hard thing, but once you get the four of us in there, we're blessed because we have a good chemistry. We're very fortunate that we have each other and we all realize that."
Inez is the relative newcomer to Alice in Chains, joining up with the band in 1993 after a previous stint with Ozzy Osbourne's group. "I'm the only person to ever quit that band," Inez says, "and the only one to leave on good terms." Original bass player Mike Starr had been booted from Alice in Chains in the middle of a tour. Starr was later arrested and convicted of stealing luggage at an airport in Houston, Texas.
Cantrell is the old-timer in Alice and apart from Staley, he provides the signature Alice sound. He takes a larger rile on the new album, singing on three songs including the single "Grind." The album is willed with catch guitar riffs, crunch jams, and a driving beat. That's what you expect from Alice in Chains, but behind it all is a patented curtain of darkness that dominates their sound. Staley's voice has been distorted on many of the tunes, which, when combined with the bleak lyrics, produce and effect not unlike that of reading a Franz Kafka novel.
"The lyrics are harsh," Cantrell admits.
"It's all the real shit," says Inez. "It's an exorcism. What doesn't kill you is going to make you stronger. That's definitely true for Alice in Chains."
"It's been a cold year for the past year and a half," adds Cantrell. "Now that is finally is getting cold outside, things are warming up."
If anyone in Alice in Chains knows about exorcisms, it's Layne Staley. Staley isn't doing any press for this record, and apart from his brief showing at the Halloween record release, he's not been present at any of the band's appearances. The last time he spoke with a reporter was when he told a correspondent for Pandemonium in April: "My bed isn't made. I'm tired. I haven't slept well for two weeks. I haven't been laid in a month. I don't have a girlfriend. And I have a warrant for my arrest. Being me is no different that being most anyone else, I guess."
Staley does appear in the new video for "Grind" and also in the band's video for the Electronic Press Kit (EPK). In both, he looks fragile, delicate, child-like. The lyrics he contributes to the new album are some of the best he's ever written, even if they are darker than Dicken's "Bleak House." His struggle with addiction has been a large enough part of his lyrical inspiration that local scenesters have joked about the band as "Layne's Addiction." But to those who know Staley personally - and to his friends in the band - his problems are no joke: "Layne can be brilliant," says one of his friends. "He's a tremendous writer. When he's on, he may be the most dynamic frontperson of any band in the Northwest. But he is very troubled. Everyone has tried to help him but he doesn't want help."
Since the closest I've gotten to Staley is a videotape of the EPK, I had a friend send me a couple of bootleg videos of early Alice in Chains' shows. The first contained a show by Diamond Lie, a precursor to Alice, playing some Lacey, Washington youth center July 4, 1987. Complete with shiny metallic outfits, poofed hair, and a heavy metal sound, I can make out Cantrell with his hair (it looks exactly like Barbie) but the lead singer is a bouncy Sammy Hagar wanna-be. They drive the teenage girls in the audience crazy but it's really only metal lite. Next up is a September 22, 1989 show from the Central Tavern with Staley fronting Alice. He's wearing an open-vested hippie jacket during this show, but eventually both he and Cantrell strip down to their bare chests. They look young, powerful and immortal. Though it's only two years after the Diamond Lie era, the sound is sophisticated and moody. The band pounds through a number of originals and even does a rocking version of Bowie's "Suffragette City." It is tremendous.
"I hope that more than a handful of you would like to buy me a beer afterwards," Staley jokes with the crowd at one point. It's early enough in the band's career that they even joke about their name: "Who the fuck is Alice?" Staley shouts at the audience as the band leaves the stage.
After such a long break, many were worried that radio programmers and fans would ask that same question. But if the early success of the new single and the in-store attendance is any indication, Alice may have another hit on their hands, which will only raise expectations yet again. "That's the whole setting-you-up-to-take-the-fall routine that they've done," says Cantrell. "That attitude permeates the business. For all musicians, if you don't keep cranking them out, they think you've dropped off the face of the planet. That's what happened in this disposable society."
To answer some of these questions, the members of Alice decided to interview themselves in the video portion of their EPK. Cantrell plays both interviewer (dressed in drag, doing a hilarious character called "Nona Ricebalm" (sic), and subject in this clever video. The fake investigative team goes out to unearth what the various members of Alice in Chains have been up to during their time off. They find Cantrell literally shoveling shit at a farm in Renton; Sean Kinney is getting prepared for his job as a circus clown; Inez admits to having ran his own hot dog stand (Rock Dogs); and Staley, well no explanation is given of his disappearance (there might not be much comedy in this subject). In his brief interview segment in the video, Staley is shown talking, but the words don't match up to his lip movement, with the effect being an intentionally created bad Japanese movie. But Layne does address what the songs are about in this brief sound bite: "The songs are about what things we were thinking when we wrote them down."
Now that this has been answered, the biggest question fans still have is when the band might tour again. And the group's answer is standard to all comers, both in their press kit and in person: "We won't even be talking about touring until after the first of the year," Inez says.
Cantrell has the same answer, though he can't help but put a little more optimism in with it. "People didn't expect this record to come out either, so I wouldn't count anything out. We're relearning again."
Inez is quick to turn the answer in another direction: "If we even hint about a tour, they'll already have the thing booked."
This gets Cantrell off on the topic of the many shows the band canceled in the last few years. "We definitely missed some tours and gigging by our own hand, but there were a few other things that all we had done is express interest in, and the next thing you knew, there were commercials on TV," he says, "Just on rumor."
Even with that - and several other denials of any desire to tour - Inez and Cantrell betray their own leanings because they talk extensively about how much they love to play. The previous night's jam has only left them hungry for more, so after a bit of pool, Inez says he plans to go look up drummer Kinney and bring him out for a jam. When I ask them if they miss touring - something many bands get tired of - they talk about it like it was a long lost love. "The road is the payoff for all the work," Inez says. "I miss it big time. Even my dad, every time I call him, he says, 'Son, you coming on tour soon?'"
What goes unstated in our conversation, over a game of eight ball, is that it's damn hard to tour without all your members. Earlier, when we were discussing the many rumors about the band, Inez and Cantrell do give me their inside joke on the cover of the album. It's a picture of a dog with only three legs (the back cover is a picture of a man with three legs). Cantrell explains: "The album cover does have that missing member sort of deal. We didn't figure that out until after it was put together. Subconsciously, I guess we did. But it wasn't until after that we figured it out."We've made too much commotion in the pool hall and the pool mistress expresses her concern to Cantrell when he pauses to get a beer. "She gave us our last warning," Cantrell says. "They think we're making too much noise." It's the sort of situation Alice in Chains frequently get themselves into. "If you push the envelope like we do," says Inez, "it happens. But I'm glad we do because I don't want to be 80 years old and look back and say, 'I wish we would have gone 110 percent back then.'"
Earlier Cantrell had summed up both our conflict with the pool gods and the band's struggle with expectations by saying, "If you believe in them, they rule you."
Inez and I are fading fast on the pool so Jones and Cantrell have a go at a few games of nine ball and things quiet down some. Cantrell tells us that the request for quiet isn't personal and it's one he's been dealt before. "I had Eddie Van Halen in here one night. You know Ed - totally loud and laughing, having a good time, having some beers. He was cracking jokes but they were going to throw him out and they were going to clamp down on him big time. This was Eddie Van Fucking Halen!"
Two days later, I'm back in the Tower Records parking lot in the rain with about 1,000 people and it's the closet thing to an Alice in Chains concert you're likely to see this year. You don't run into collections of misfits like this unless you're in a high school detention class. KISW is blasting of vintage Alice from their logo-emblazoned van. I remember back to something Cantrell said as we were playing pool. "KISW helped make this band," he said. "No station ever played us as much. They were playing our fucking demo for Christ sakes."
Though the vinyl for the new album has been available for almost a week, a huge stack of Alice albums sit unwanted inside Tower. The crowd is here because they want the compact disc and they want the togetherness of waiting for it (the first 250 CDs to be sold have already been signed by the band). Alice in Chains does not draw the kind of crowd that has much use for a turntable.
Walking back to my car, I pass another Trans Am that empties a car load of teenagers. One of them has a video camera and starts the line as if this was a rock event itself. "ALICE IN CHAINS!" he yells. "AWESOME!" Two girls walk by holding cans of Budweiser and another guy yells at them, "Hey, you! ALICE IN CHAINS!" It's not an easy name to yell but he shouts it with aplomb and sticks his fist in the air. On a rainy Monday night in Seattle, this is the kind of moment that rock n' roll was made for: to take you away from the drab reality of your life. The girls can't yell back since they are walking quickly and vocalizing the name of this band takes some breath power, but one gives out a victory cry of "Whoooa!" right back in the guy's face. It was a moment that had to happen, a moment that fate couldn't stop.
For a printed copy of this article, with color pictures, etc., write to The Rocket, 2028 Fifth Avenue, Seattle, WA 98121.
This article can also be found at Addicted to Noise.