Why Alice In Chains returned to Seattle to confront their tragic past

Alice In Chains
(Image: © Justin Borucki)

Alice In Chains are survivors. Of grunge’s big hitters, only they and Pearl Jam remain from the heyday of the Seattle Sound that would dominate the 90s, inspiring countless artists for decades to come. In the years that have passed, the band have spread out across the United States (guitarist Jerry Cantrell and bassist Mike Inez live in southern California, vocalist William DuVall in Atlanta, drummer Sean Kinney still in Seattle), but last summer they all returned home to work on their sixth album, Rainier Fog.

But Seattle isn’t just home for Alice In Chains – it’s etched deep in the band’s history, and holds many memories… not all of them rose-tinted. In 1995, they recorded their self-titled album at Bad Animals studio (owned by Ann and Nancy Wilson from Heart) – an experience Jerry Cantrell describes today as “pretty fuckin’ wild, hairy and on the edge,” as he sits opposite us on a leather sofa. It would ultimately become original singer Layne Staley’s final record. Now named Studio X, the band entered that same space 22 years later, hoping no demons of the past would return.

“We were wondering if those ghosts would be there when we rolled in, but a lot of years have passed, we’re a totally different unit in a different space, and it never came up,” says Jerry. “Leave it at the door and go to work. It was much more of a good feeling being home, recording in our hometown and reconnecting with where we came from.”

Jerry admits it was an “intentional reconnection” with their hometown, and it even had an effect on the band’s sole Seattle remainer, Sean Kinney.

“We did the last two records in LA, and I got fucking sick of being in LA for long periods of time,” he tells us, grinning at fellow jester Mike Inez. “It was great going back into the studio; we all had our own thoughts about how that would feel, but it was a cleansing thing to be back there. It was more of a healing type of deal.”

The title comes from Mount Rainier in Seattle – the highest volcano on the west coast of America. For Mike, it’s also like a love letter to the region. “It’s geographical, but it’s more of a feeling,” he says, gleefully. “It’s a magical place for me. It does have that dour, foggy feel to it, most of the year, but when we were doing this record it was just fantastic weather every night in a great, thriving city.”

Today, we’re 3,000 miles across the country in New York City, where Alice In Chains are playing two sold-out nights at the Hammerstein Ballroom. But they haven’t forgotten their roots, their friendship and the graft it took to get them here. We join the band at the swanky Ludlow Hotel in the cool part of Manhattan. Outside, a fashion blogger poses for the camera, blissfully unaware that one of the biggest bands on the planet are watching them from a window on the first floor during breaks in their own photoshoot, reminiscing about those early days when Seattle was just another town.

“Before anybody knew about it, it was cool already, and we all knew it,” says Jerry. “Drinking beers with [Soundgarden guitarist] Kim Thayil and going to a Black Flag show, seeing Mudhoney at a fucking garage somewhere, us opening for Mother Love Bone at a fucking skating rink…”

As Seattle became a hotbed of creativity, it didn’t take long for the industry to swoop in. Nirvana, Soundgarden, Mother Love Bone and Alice In Chains were all signed to major labels, and suddenly this little town in Washington state became a worldwide phenomenon.

“That was incredible and terrifying at the same time, because you’re going from a local band with kickass status to being the thing of the world; you’re part of a movement,” says Jerry, unable to contain his disbelief even today. “It’s still a fairy tale thing; I get emotional about it because of how much time has passed, how many of us are not here any more, but also how potent that music was and it still lives – that was the whole goal.”

On May 18, 2017, the voice of Seattle died. Soundgarden vocalist Chris Cornell took his own life at the age of 52, sending shockwaves through the rock community. He was a visionary, an icon and one of the greatest singers our world has ever known. Speaking to Jerry a year on, it’s clear he’s still deeply affected. The pair were good friends – Jerry wrote Rooster at Chris’s house, when he was staying there after finding himself homeless. There was huge mutual respect between the two singers.

“He’s one of the greatest artists and songwriters of all time, not only in my small town, but worldwide, and that always made me really proud,” says Jerry. “He set an example of how to do shit and set an example of what not to do, and I respected that, too. Chris had a part in steering a direction there; you don’t need this shit, you don’t need miscellaneous bullshit – you need the music. He was a very deep and emotional writer, and I feel like I have an affinity with writers like Chris. He didn’t pull any fucking punches at all and that’s never been my style, either.”

Jerry tells us Rainier Fog is a tribute to the world Alice In Chains came from and the friends no longer with us. Those feelings of grief tie the album’s 10 tracks together, exploring loss in all its forms. In recent years, it seems like our childhood is dying before our very eyes. Chris Cornell, David Bowie, Lemmy, Chester Bennington, Prince… the list goes on and on. For the first time, we’re seeing the passing of these icons we considered timeless. No longer are they inter-dimensional über-talented beings that can live forever – they have the same weaknesses as us.

“A lot’s happened, a lot of losses for sure,” muses frontman William DuVall, sipping fruit tea with honey to protect his voice ahead of the show tonight. “It almost seems surreal, like it’s too much. I guess life is all about how you process loss and what you do with it. We’ve been kind of operating on that theme for a lot of years now, but it does feel like you’re getting beaten over the head a little bit!”

While they were writing the album, William’s grandmother passed away at the age of 105. Describing her as a pillar in his life, William never thought she would leave. Thinking about his grandmother and Chris Cornell among others, he wrote the track Never Fade, recording alone in Studio X until 3am. It features the powerful lyric, ‘All my friends are leaving’. As Alice In Chains enter their 50s, it’s something they’re having to face.

“I don’t know if it gets easier, you just develop more coping mechanisms,” says William, slowly and carefully. “In some ways, it gets harder, because you’re confronting your own mortality as well. When you’re young and somebody passes, it’s such an abstract thing, but when you get older you think, ‘Wow, OK, I didn’t think that person would ever leave,’ or, ‘I thought that person had everything going on – if it can happen to them it can happen to everyone.’ It becomes much more of a direct confrontation.”

Jerry is more blasé about death, knowingly saying he’s way past halfway through his journey. “It’s just a natural part of life, we’re all going to kick it at some point – that’s a 100% guarantee,” he says bluntly. “It wouldn’t matter if we were a bunch of accountants; by the time we hit 50, some of us wouldn’t be here, that’s just part of it.”

“It’s all too obvious that this is all temporal – this is dust in a second and we don’t even know why we’re here,” adds William. “We don’t know what’s going on at all. I’m just gonna love who I love that much more, because next week the person that I’m laughing with might not be here or I might not. That part’s crazy, but it is what it is.”

But loss doesn’t necessarily mean death. Maybe is the story of a romantic relationship gone sour, and while Jerry won’t go into specifics, he knows it’s a relatable topic. And All I Am delves into something more introspective – a fear of losing yourself.

“I had this image of an old boxer that’s past his prime – he’s had a lot of battles, a lot of damage – but he’s still fuckin’ doing it,” says Jerry. “I’ve been on a path for so long, I wouldn’t know what else to do if I couldn’t do this. Is this is all I am? Is this all I am? That’s the human frailty aspect of that statement, but it’s also a realisation that I’m a lot more than this. He’s been in a lot of battles, but he’s not questioning why he did it, or his commitment to doing it – you’re not fighting for the title, but you still care about doing it. There’s an honour in not giving up.”

And Jerry won’t give up. Starting in 1987 with Mike Starr and Layne Stayley, both of whom are no longer with us, Alice In Chains haven’t had the easiest of rides. But it’s one without an end in sight.

“I don’t know what it was that made me want to do this, but I knew I was willing to do whatever the fuck it took to make that happen,” he says. “And I still am. It’s an admirable thing, an admirable profession, an admirable journey and I’m doing it with my friends. I’m doing it for the exactly the same reason I wanted to when I was playing air guitar on a tennis racket listening to Elton John. I wanna do that and I still am doing it.” 

Alice In Chains' new album Rainier Fog is out now and available from Amazon.