Alice in Chains
Published May 30, 2013Throughout their long and storied career, Alice in Chains have consistently straddled the border between multiple genres, appealing to multiple disparate fan bases while never wholly settling within rigid musical boundaries. Their sound's deep, grooving heaviness appeals to fans of heavy metal, while their searing guitar tone is steeped in classic grunge. Plus, their ability to pull off emotionally authentic, wonderfully plaintive acoustic work keeps their aesthetic even more varied.
All of these techniques are on display on their fifth full-length record, and their second since returning to activity in 2005 following an extended hiatus, The Devil Put Dinosaur Here. Through long fallow years where Alice in Chains did not make music while band members battled with addictions (which would ultimately claim the lives of first singer Layne Staley in 2002 and original bassist Mike Starr in 2011), their vision and distinct style has remained intact: the harmonized vocals and bloody-raw guitars are immediately recognizable no matter how much time has passed. Though The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here reveals a more mature, socially conscious and politically aware incarnation of Alice in Chains from the myopic, internally focused and eternally suffering band of the past, their sound remains immediately recognizable and aggressively constant.
Exclaim! had the opportunity to talk with Alice in Chains drummer and founding member Sean Kinney about the band's new record and ongoing evolution.
I was wondering: would you consider yourself a heavy metal drummer?
Sean Kinney: Fuck no. Not at all. I'm a bad metal drummer. Metal drummers are like Lombardo and all those dudes. To me, that's metal. My band's not metal. We have metal influences and tones and things, but we do everything. We're deliberately hard to label. When we first started, we were called an alternative rock band, and then somebody invented grunge and they started calling us that, but we're just a rock band. There are definitely metal influences, but there's all kinds of stuff in what we do, including classic rock. Also, if you're talking extreme metal, and especially extreme meta drumming, I watch that and think, "How the fuck do you do that?" It's amazing. So I'm not a metal drummer by that standard at all. If somebody says we're a metal band, wow, they must hate heavy metal. I think it's dangerous to pigeonhole yourself too, if you call yourself just one thing, and I don't want to have a label on it. We write songs that we like, and we do what we like, and it seems that there are few people who have enjoyed that, and that's about as far as we go with that.
I've just found it fascinating how you have resisted labeling, and despite how long you have been around, how consistently hard it is to apply a single label to Alice In Chains. You seem determined to occupy a very nebulous space between several genres. Is that one of the strengths of the band?
I would also say this, after being in this band for a long time: the reason that it's one of our strengths is that you're only shiny and new once, and then people like to move on and find another new thing. But because we've always focussed on songwriting and melody, and we're a very vocal-based band. I mean, to me, the heaviest song we've ever written was "Nutshell," which is also our quietest song. It's the content of what we're saying and what we're doing that makes us heavy. One thing I will say about being somewhat metal is this: metal fans are the best. They fucking live and breathe it, and they're dedicated, and they support the fucking bands that they love. They're not trend-hopping hipsters, trying to find the new hot thing to follow to impress people, they are dedicated to what they love. And because there is a set of them who find something in our music that they dig, they stay with it and they support it. That never gets lost on us. Even when we were super hip in like 1990 or whatever, a lot of the bands around us don't exist anymore, but we do.
So you credit your particular fan base with the fact that you have been able to continue to find success.
Of course, I think a lot of bands would have a better chance of surviving and sticking it out a little longer if the music industry wasn't so screwed up. People don't value music the way they used to; they don't even buy it. So if it doesn't take up your energy and your time and doesn't mean more to you than filing up gigabytes on your phone, then it devalues the whole thing. There are all these bands now who don't have the chance to become a better band, to grow, because it's financially impossible to continue. You can't survive in this business. So, when Metallica and these bands who still play big stadium shows, real rock shows that aren't radio shows or have like 50 bands, when they can't do it anymore who is going to take their place? No one. Rock doesn't have a place like it did in the 80s and 90s. It's all going back underground. The rest of it is all Bieber all the time.
Would you say that you return the investment that your dedicated fans have in you by being equally dedicated to the music you produce? One of the things that has always defined Alice in Chains is that every single song you have ever put out has been deeply personal, something that you have emotionally and intellectually invested in.
I just thought all the songs were about chicks and cars. You make us sound a lot cooler and smarter. As far as I'm concerned everything was about partying and chicks and cars and money and like, rims on cars. 22-inch rims. Wait, what is 22 inches in centimetres? You're going to have to change that if you're in Canada.
I'll run it through a converter.
Yeah, convert that to metric for me. That would be cool.
But this record, at least, is not all about chicks and cars. There's material here about religion and the way it makes people act, the way that it does evil. In the past it seems that the songs were more intimate, about what individual members were suffering through, and now it's a lot more external.
Yeah, there are some things that are more external, but a lot of those things are intimate and internal too. The dinosaur title as well, that was something Jerry [Cantrell] and I had talked about forever, and we're not taking any sides. Even the song "The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here" goes back and forth. We don't really have a stance on anything beyond [asking], "What's up with that?" I have a hard time personally believing that some evil little guy ran around thousands of years ago and hid hundreds of million-year-old bones all over the globe to fool you into something. That's a bit far-fetched for me but some people believe that. Cool, believe whatever you want, everybody believes in something. It's just when you get into that, what I conceive of as "I'm right, you're wrong." No, you're not. Everybody has the right to believe in whatever they want. We're not really picking too much at it, it's more like a conversation that we were having for a long time, and then we wrote a song, and we dug the tune, and then we named the album that. And if that gets some conversations started with people, cool. If not, it's not really this great political statement. Basically it is a question: "What's with that?" I also look at it this way: if we were alive a few thousand years ago, you and I would be certain, everyone was certain that the world was flat. If you said the earth was round, and they heard us saying it, then they'd hang us, burn us, stone us. The fact that the earth was flat was a fact. You could sail right off the edge of it. Now, because of science, we know that the earth is round. I'm pretty sure there are no more "flat-earthers" out there. What is fact does change if you are open to change. As long as people are open to change and hearing other people's ideas, then beliefs and science can work together and as a culture we'll move forward. If you just go to your room, shut the door and deny reality, and don't want to know more, then you can do that too, but you can't go blaming everybody else for trying to change the way that it is.
So you're essentially saying your perspective is anyone can believe anything they want as long as they aren't hurting anybody else.
Right! Life's hard for everybody, and we're all going to end up going through a lot of the same things. You're going to end up losing everybody you love or they're going to lose you; that is a fact, and you're going to have to learn to deal with these things. Random shit will happen to you no matter what, and it's how you deal with that that defines you. Call upon whatever beliefs you need to help you get through it. It's when people abuse those beliefs, and try to use them for power and fear, that isn't something I am interested in. And it causes a lot of problems and a lot of wars. I am interested in living a lot more simply. Basically: don't be a dick, don't take shit that's not yours, don't be a burden on society if you're capable of taking care of yourself, don't kill anyone ― it's pretty simple. Other than that, treat people how you would want to be treated, with respect. Everybody is equal.
Is this commitment to equality something that Alice In Chains has always done?
We've never done anything supposedly the way you're supposed to. We had a female manager back when we first started, when we got signed in the late 80s, when the industry was all these old, crusty guys at record companies. And they treated her like shit, but we all fought through it. Through that and all these other events that we've lived through, we don't get hung up on things like race and gender and whatever that a lot of other people get hung up on. Everybody bleeds red, everybody has the same core things they have to fight through in life, and it would be a lot easier if we just fucking acknowledged it instead of saying that we're better. Nobody is better than anybody else. We don't have that approach either to being fucking rock stars or whatever. It's not "we're up here and the audience is down there." I feel humbled by the whole fact. The woman at the grocery store who has three kids and two jobs, never complains and goes to the grave being a good mom is a far better human than me, who flies around in fucking jets and gets driven around in his bed to play concerts where people scream at us and tell us we're neat-o. I'm not better because of that; I'm lucky. I get to do what I like to do, I'm fortunate to do it, and that never gets lost on us. People have it a lot harder than we do. Which doesn't mean I won't bitch, of course. I'll find a reason to complain about anything. "Oh, my platinum countertop has a scratch on it, I'm not getting out of my hyper-chamber today." But anyway, we just try to be real about it. Life is hard out there man, and there is no point in trying to make it harder for anybody else.
So if there is a message here is seems that it is so be kinder to each other, because we all struggle and we're all suffering.
Yeah, exactly. And it takes a long time and a lot of people to change certain things. A lot of it is just so skewed, everything is tightening up.
And it does seem that this record is a response to that, to judgment and conservatism, and maybe not necessarily picking a side, but acknowledging that things in the world are happening.
Yeah. I like to believe that the younger people in the world, when they have their chance, they'll make it better and more equal. The people in power right now seem to be trying to shape things back to the way it was in, like, the 50s. So you really have to get involved now. The last time I felt that pressure to get involved, with my band, was way back in like 1990 or so, when there was a big cultural shift with the music, and it seemed like there was a global shift. Now it seems like we all fucking fell asleep again, and it's kind of like, come on you guys. Get in there. And now we're seeing signs of life again.
Is that part of the reason, that pull to become active again, that brought Alice In Chains back to activity in 2005 after such a long fallow period? Did you make a record again when you had something to say again to your audience?
Well, that wasn't really the plan. We did the best business move ever: we had two #1 records, then we never talked and we went dark. What we did, we were living, all of us, very chemically dependent, and we had been the whole time, and it had quit working for most all of us, in different ways. In lieu of money and fame and all that, we all, as friends who care about each other, stopped in order to try and give each other the opportunities to try to survive our lifestyles. We stopped, and we never said anything about it, and we hoped that it wouldn't end the way that it did, that it wouldn't play out the way that it played out. It did what it did, and that's something that we live with. We tried to do that, and just through a series of events that weren't planned, we started to re-explore stuff a little bit. We were very cautious, just taking baby steps, and trying things out. We've always done things for the same reason: if it feels right, if it means the same things to us, then we move forward. Nobody was more surprised that we would make another album than us. Jerry and I funded the record [Black Gives Way To Blue], we didn't have a record label, and we played this one show, a benefit for the Tsunami, and we got together with some other singers. After that, people were all over us, asking us to play, and we said no for a long time. It was so weird, and a lot to deal with. So we started to take it cautiously, and then before you know it, you're in fucking Portugal and there's 40,000 people there. I was having a hard time with it; I was not prepared for all that right then. But, I [saw what was] going on [there], and we tried to pull it back at first. We try to take everything slowly, and as it comes, for real reasons. We're not guided by anybody else telling us what to do. As long as we felt good about what we were doing and it meant something to us. First and foremost we're friends, and we're family. We operate that way, and the rest of it is what it is. Nobody's more shocked than us about what's happened and where it's gone. We do what we have to do to keep making something because it is our lives. It's what's important to us, we've dedicated our lives to it. And we're trying not to go broke while doing it.
I'm glad you mentioned the tentativeness that Alice In Chains has displayed in moving forward since you became active again. It seems that the message from you has always been, "we'll see." It seems that you have always been weighing what felt right and what was healthy for you.
Yes, we've always been in control of what we wanted to do. We've been fortunate in that, when we started, we took a lot less money in order to retain our rights, which at the time was hard because we were homeless and broke, and we could have bought some used Camaros with that money. But at this point, we can bank on ourselves. We've made every decision, including every song, every t-shirt, every album cover; that all comes from the band. It takes a lot of work, but it's all part of the creative process and this is also all we do. It's our thing that we created, and though all the ups and downs, it means so much to us and it always has. So, we pay attention to detail, and we also have the control to say, "let's see." If we feel like making a record and we feel it is up to our own standards, we make it. We don't listen to critics; if we did, we'd have been thrown off the reservation long ago. We do what we feel is right, and we take it as it comes, and if we feel that there is something there, then we'll do it. That's the only way it works for us. We stopped at the height of everything. You can't buy your health and your loved ones and your sanity.
So you prioritize staying healthy to keep doing what you love.
Yeah. Plus it doesn't do anyone any good if I'm up there being a fucking mess. We know that. We can't do that without our fans showing up. There's a lot more than just us.