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MoPOP Oral History Interview: Alice In Chains on Reforming the Band Without Layne Staley

Alice In Chains on Reforming the Band Without Layne Staley

Ahead of the Museum of Pop Culture's Founders Award fundraiser honoring Seattle's own Alice In Chainswhich is set to premiere at 6 p.m. PST on Tuesday, December 1, 2020 and stream free on MoPOP's Facebook page, Amazon Music's Twitch channel, and the Amazon Music appwe're pulling excerpts from an oral history interview the band took part in at our nonprofit museum.

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 two of a four-part Founders Award 2020 blog series, we hear from Alice In Chains on how they reformed the band without Layne Staley, who passed away in 2002.

MoPOP: I'm sure this is something everybody's asking, but how does it work reforming the band knowing that you're singing a lot of Layne Staley's lyrics. For William DuVall, how do you incorporate your personality in the band while still sort of paying tribute to Layne? How does that all work? 

William DuVall: It just works by me being myself. That's the only thing you can do. Layne was Layne and he was badass and one of the reasons he was badass was because he was just being himself. So for me to come in and do anything other than that, it's unthinkable to me. It would do a disservice to the music and to everyone who supports the music. I kind of came in from day one like, 'Look, I'm going to sing the songs the way I think they should be sung, and I'm going to try to go out and be how I am on stage,' other than that, you can't really put too fine a point on it. It's either going to work or it's not, and chances are it's going to work because of the truth that's coming out through your intention. I come at those songs from my own place of experience. It's going to be very different, obviously, but the feelings behind all of those things, all those songs, are the same. That's why they resonated with people in the first place. So just going to be myself, sing it from my own place of honesty, and also, you have to remember too, that Layne was singing songs he didn't write. I mean, "Rooster" is not about him, but he sang the hell out of it and it was great.  

Jerry Cantrell: Killed it, yeah.

William DuVall: We all remember it. And Cantrell sings lyrics he didn't write. I mean, he's singing on a new song of ours called "Last of My Kind"that's not his lyric, but he owns that bit of that song. We're all gonna end up singing stuff that you didn't necessarily write but that you own in your own way. That's an interesting dynamic that this group's always had.

Jerry Cantrell: What it comes down to is nobody knows how big the challenge is more than us. It's huge. It's gigantic. It's something that we didn't know if we could answer or even wanted to answer. But somehow we've kind of all banded together to check some stuff out for ourselves, and we keep coming back. Keep taking another step. The reasons why we do this are absolutely no different than the reason we made music before. Our circumstance now obviously is. I mean, we've added William and we've said goodbye to Layne—physically, but not spiritually. He's a part of this band. William and I are operating as a vocal team and a tandem like Layne and I operated before, you know? And he gave me a lot of confidence to step that up and you can hear that in a lot of those records, and I attribute a lot of me, a lot of the things that I do, to support that he gave me. And I think we can all say that. We all kind of fed off each other and we all inspired each other and it's all really cool and the only way it's going to work is it's got to operate within the blueprint of how this band is. We can't just come out sounding like some sort of wack thing, you know? It's just not going to work. These are all questions we had to ask ourselves and get answers for. We weren't looking for or getting any sort of input or support from the outside, and that's totally rock 'n' roll, too, man, because this isn't like the gig your parents want you to do, you know what I mean? This is not the place they want you to end up, but we ended up being here and we've actually had a really cool run of it. It's a really cool story. It's a very human story. There's a lot of really cool growth and amazing highs and tremendous lows. It's about a group of lives here and we're continuing that. ... It's our music and this is our band and we make no excuses or apologies for whatever we do. As long as we're OK with it, then we're good. Whoever else wants to come aboard, that's great, and the cool thing is a lot of people have, and that's why we get to keep doing it.

Mike Inez: I just think it's such a statement that we're together still, even sitting on this couch together after all this time. We didn't have to do this. It's such a testament of our friendship and our belief in this fellowship of our music. It's very important to us to be together, you know, here in 2009 when we're conducting this interview. 

William DuVall: And the folks see that, too. 

Mike Inez: It's really important to us.

William DuVall: The people see that, too, I think. I think people are a lot smarter than they get credit for a lot of the time. They see the real life that's going on here. They see the story and they see the bonding. It's not so unlike how this band and how every band just about starts off from the beginning. You're friends first and then you come together to make music, and hopefully that music resonates with the public. That's what happened to them the first time around and it's, in its own way, kind of what happened again this time around. They lost a brother and they gained a brother, you know what I mean? Like, literally..  

Mike Inez: And we gained a brother! 

William DuVall: In my case, literally. 

[all laugh]

William DuVall: But people see and the more they learn about this thing, the deeper it sinks in. It's like, man, this is real life. It's my real life, you know what I mean? You suffer losses. You suffer defeats. You suffer tragedies. You can either lay down and wither away and die, or you can get up and keep walking. And if you keep walking, life rewards your effort. I think people consciously or subconsciously, they kind of see a metaphor for the possibilities within their own lives. Or at least maybe a mirror, a little bit, and that's a nice byproduct of what we're doing.


Stay tuned for part three of our oral history interview blog series with Alice In Chains on Wednesday, November 25, 2020, when we'll highlight the band's songwriting and musicianship process.

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The Museum of Pop Culture’s mission is to make creative expression a life-changing force by offering experiences that inspire and connect our communities.