On September 23, 2009, Alice In Chains vocalist and guitarist Jerry Cantrell, drummer Sean Kinney, bassist Mike Inez, and vocalist and guitarist William DuVall sat down with Jacob McMurray, MoPOP's Director of Curatorial, Collections & Exhibits, to talk about their musical influences, their songwriting process, how they evolved as a band after losing Layne Staley, and the explosion of the Seattle music scene.
At MoPOP, we use oral history interviews to help us preserve creators and creative movements from across popular culture. The very first oral history interview we did was with Jimi Hendrix's father, Al Hendrix, and that initial effort energized us toward the value of collecting stories on the lives, careers, and legacies in pop culture. To date, we have recorded more than 1,100 oral histories and counting!
In part one of a four-part Founders Award 2020 blog series, we hear from Alice In Chains on some of their musical influences, one of which who also provided the inspiration for MoPOP's founding. Read on!
MoPOP: Looking back and listening to Alice in Chains music, there's a really diverse set of influences that I can see in the music. I'm wondering if we can talk about, individually, your own set of influences and what you're bringing to the group.
William DuVall: Well, certainly Hendrix would be a huge one for me. We're right in the middle of this building that's dedicated to him—this Hendrix temple—so I guess that's appropriate. He was a big one. I know for a fact we all have some similar influences and I'm guessing he'd probably be one of them. But I pretty much run the gambit, all over the map, really. Coltrane's an influence. Hank Williams is an influence. Music's music. Like Duke Ellington said: there's only two kinds—good and bad. And that's a real subjective statement in some respects, but I think at the same time it's hard to argue with the Duke and it's hard to argue with stuff like the Beatles, you know? Rock, jazz, country, blues, it's all there, man. It's all there. But Hendrix is probably what got me started.
Sean Kinney: I would have to agree with a lot of that. You know, you've got your Beatles and your, uh, Banana Splits.
William DuVall: Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp. I was way into that when I was a kid.
Sean Kinney: Yeah, see? Just from the music you hear as a little kid that gets you into it, all the way up to when you start through life, finding new music. That's the cool thing about music. You're always finding new stuff. It's always being created. So whatever floats your boat, you know?
William DuVall: Punk rock was a big one, too. The American hardcore scene that happened here in the early '80s. That was pretty transformative for me as well. I don't know if we share that one in common, but that certainly was a big one because it was a self-generated thing: kids doing it for themselves. So beyond just the music, there was the culture that surrounded it, that we kind of made for ourselves. It was very empowering. Making your own record, doing your own poster, finding places [to perform] because clubs won't let you play there—you have to find a place to play, find a basement, find a storefront—whatever you have to do. And you sometimes have to literally battle authority to do that. The cops—they don't like you, they don't like your music, they don't like what you represent. So you have experiences dealing with not just formulating your own culture, but defending it, too. Defending your right to exist, so that was a pretty powerful thing.
MoPOP: With that DIY aspect, what were you into in the early '80s? Were you in Seattle? Mike, you were in California? What were you listening to at that time? Were you into hardcore?
Mike Inez: For me, I come from a long line of musicians, so my earliest musical influences were actually my family: my uncle was in a Top 40 band in the San Fernando Valley with a couple guys from Earth, Wind & Fire, so they rehearsed at my grandmother's house where we all lived, and I literally came from the hospital—true story—into a rehearsal with the Earth, Wind & Fire guys.
Jerry Cantrell: Pick up a bass and he was just badass.
Mike Inez: Oh yeah, I was way better than them. But I mean growing up in the environment for me was like, my uncle would say, "don't touch the gear!" And as soon as they were out the door, I was turning every bass amp on, every guitar amp, playing drums, and it's just always been a DNA thing with me. I always knew I was going to be a musician. I didn't plan on it being at this level, certainly. I felt bad for kids in high school, "What are you gonna do for a living?" I just always knew I'd be doing this on some level. What really grabbed me early on was all English stuff: Elton John and the Beatles into Black Sabbath and Motorhead and Zeppelin and Thin Lizzy and Iron Maiden into Metallica. It wasn't until growing up in Pasadena, California in 1978, when the band Van Halen came out with their first record, and I was in high school bands with all their little brothers. My friend Dennis Sobeliski was Michael Anthony's little brother and I played rhythm guitar and he was a bass player and just growing up in that—that was America's first foray into throwing their hat into heavy rock. You know, it was America's. Of course, you had your Ted Nugents and stuff like that.
Jerry Cantrell: And Aerosmith, dude.
Mike Inez: Aerosmith, right, but I mean Van Halen one as just probably the album for me that really solidified, like, 'OK, that is what I'm gonna do.' That and Ozzy Osbourne’s first record. There was this picture on the back of the record with the band and the way it looked to me was an incredible thing. It's like, that is what I want to do for a living. And then years later, being blessed enough to be in the Ozzy Osbourne band. We did a live record and open up the middle of the record and there's that same picture, but it's me and Zakk Wylde and Randy Castillo, and it's just this really full-circle moment. Like, 'Oh my god, not only did I do that, but I did that!' At a very early age for me—in my early 20s—that was just really cool. So it just kind of set the table to meet my band and in late '92 and join the band in '93 and it cleared a lot of space away. It's like, 'OK, I've set out to do a lot of these goals early on and I achieved a lot of those goals,' and then now it was a question of, 'where do you go from here?' And it was really some kind of brush clearing for me, you know? And so when I was lucky enough to join Alice In Chains, it was just a really free-spirited time and heady time for all of us. For me personally, just very special. That early '90s was just being shot out of a cannon with all the rest of the Seattle bands and it's just unexplainable. I think we all still have this certain bond, you know, that we went through all that together. Those friendships still last to this day—within the band and with other bands, too—and that's the most special part for the music, for me, is this fellowship that brought us all together, and still continues. All is well.
Jerry Cantrell: The first stuff I started listening to was country music because my parents both were country fans, so I grew up listening to Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn—you name it. Oak Ridge Boys. It was that until I got into rock and roll and that was through my buddies and stuff, and they were listening to whatever pop-type rock-type stuff was happening. We didn't have a whole lot of dough around, so there wasn't a whole lot of record-buying in our family, but we always dug the music a lot and I remember I went over to my buddy's house and he had an Elton John record—I think it was Caribou—and I really connected with that record. I kind of dug a lot of stuff during that period that was kind of like—I mean, I grew up in a lot of army bases, so I was listening to Commodores, Ohio Players, like..
Mike Inez: Bee Gees.
William DuVall: I was gonna say that, too.
Jerry Cantrell: Bee Gees. Loved the Bee Gees. Yeah, yeah. Elton John, all sorts of stuff like that and then it really kind of turned for me once I found ACDC and KISS. Then I got into guitar stuff and like William said, we pretty much have a lot of things in common, and what Mike said is pretty much my story: I really fell in love with English hard rock and metal and stuff. A big part of my thing was also this town, actually. Being from Tacoma—Seattle's so far out of the mainstream of "making music" or whatever, that you only had a few heroes, so bands like Queensrÿcheand..
Sean Kinney: TKO.
Jerry Cantrell: Of course, yeah, TKO, totally. I was way into TKO. And Heart, and Jimi Hendrix of course. Having those local heroes—it was tangible. They walked the streets that you're walking, you know what I mean? So it was kind of cool. I lived in Tacoma and I knew I had to get to Seattle, because Tacoma is Tacoma: it stinks and there's not a whole lot going on there, you know? I did about all I could do there, and then I ended up moving up here through some unfortunate circumstances of some deaths in my family and ended up meeting these guys, and then it all kind of kicked off. But yeah, pretty wide mix of stuff. What I've always really liked is songs. Songs and of course, being a guitar player, riffs.
William DuVall: Riffs, yeah. And I have to give a shoutout to the soul music and also that specific niche that happened around the '70s, the mid-'70s, early- to mid-'70s, of funk rock. You mentioned the Ohio Players. The Isely Brothers, Ernie Isley. A band like Slave out of Ohio—that was another big one. Rufus. All these bands had a lot of funk in their stuff and there was also a lot of riffs in the stuff, and that was a big thing for me because before I was in Atlanta, I was in Washington D.C.—you know, chocolate city—and it was a big thing. You had a lot of guys who were basement jammer guys who had little basement bands, and the stuff they were playing was so eclectic that ran the gambit from Zeppelin to the Commodores and that sort of thing, and The Bar-Kays, and it was just a really great, well-rounded environment to come up in. Having a cousin that was 10 years older than me who moved in with my mom and me to get away from a bad home life and he brings his record collection and he had Hendrix's Band of Gypsys, but he also had Weather Report and Roy Ayers. The soul thing is big, whether you're talking about Motown or whether you're talking about someone like Chaka Khan and Rufus because that to me sets a standard of singing that's hard to beat. And a guy like Layne [Staley] obviously had that. It's one of the things that I responded to immediately with Alice In Chains' music was that Layne sounded like a brother to me. He sounded like what I grew up on. He really did. I mean, they were playing more hard rock and metal and all that stuff, but he was bringing something else to the table in addition to that, and that cannot be overstated. I think that's a big thing, and it's something that a lot of people who have come along since then who've tried to cop a little bit of his thing, a little bit of this Alice thing, they miss that. They totally miss that. ... Immediately when I got to know Cantrell, almost 10 years ago now, I remember I was telling him about this, like, "man, [Layne] always kind of sounded like a brother to me." [laughs]
Jerry Cantrell: He always sounded like he had a hell of a lot more weight than he physically had, too. I mean, he sounded a lot bigger than he was.
William DuVall: Yeah. Yeah.
Sean Kinney: He would have loved that.
Stay tuned for part two of our oral history interview blog series with Alice In Chains on Tuesday, November 24, 2020, when we'll explore how the band reformed without Layne Staley.