"We don't stuff our personal demons inside ourselves," explained Alice in Chains singer Layne Staley in a Rolling Stone interview. "We get them out. It's therapeutic." The Seattle group has made a career of musical exorcism; known for its heavy, brooding sound and angst-ridden lyrics, Alice broke through in 1992 with Dirt, an album preoccupied with addiction and other trials of the soul. "At its best, live or on record," declared Ann Powers in Spin, "Alice in Chains hits the vein of the rock tradition that fearlessly confronts the most threatening end of the emotional spectrum."
Guitarist Jerry Cantrell Tacoma, Washington, college dropout who picked up the guitar at age 17, influenced primarily by heavy metal innovator Eddie Van Halenet Staley in the late 1980s. The singer was working with other musicians at the time but maintained his association with Cantrell by allowing him to stay in his rehearsal space. "The place was open twenty-four hours," the guitarist recalled to Jeffrey Ressner of Rolling Stone, "and there were always bands playing, chicks going in and out, beer and drugs everywhere, some really wild times." Cantrell wanted Staley to join the hard-rock band he had put together with drummer Sean Kinney and bassist Mike Starr, but the vocalist was reluctant; he had plans for his own group, a funk-influenced act Cantrell agreed to join if Staley would reciprocate by singing in the guitarist's band.
Borrowed "Joke" Name
The name Alice in Chains originally belonged to "a side project of my old group," Staley informed Ressner. "We were going to have this band that dressed in drag and played heavy metal as a joke." But Staley's band fell apart, so Cantrell's project ended up in sole possession of the nameriginally Alice 'NT Chainss well as the singer's achingly soulful and sinister vocals. The band gigged on the Northwest music circuit "for about a year and a half, just playing, and then we finally started gelling, as far as what we wanted to do musically," Cantrell told Rip magazine. During Alice's maturation, the "Seattle Sound"ncompassing a wide range of styles but characterized by dense metallic guitars, post-punk attitude, and a certain expenmentalismook the record industry by storm. Bands like Mother Love Bone and Soundgarden turned their underground followings into lucrative record deals; Alice in Chains, too, signed with a major label, Columbia, in 1989. "They came to us at a time when we were hungry for music," Columbia president Don lenner declared to Rolling Stone, adding, "I flipped out the first time I heard their demo tape."
The label sacrificed early profits in the name of promotion when it sent retailers a free Alice EP, We Die Young, in June of 1990, two months before the band's album Facelift hit stores. Even so, the album took a while to move. Produced by rock veteran Dave Jerden, Facelift contains the hypnotic single "Man in the Box," the nightmarish video of which got the group noticed early in 1991. But it wasn't until Columbia hit on the inspired promotional tactic of a "combo pack" package that included an Alice concert video called Live Facelift along with the albumhat sales increased markedly. Critics, nonetheless, were not impressed by the album; L.A. Weekly's Mike Rubin dismissed it two years later as " full of thin, stringy guitar leads and glossy production," while Bruce Bitt of the Los Angeles Daily News found Facelift "promising" but "marred by sluggish songs and conceptual similarities" to Soundgarden.
Survived "Clash"; Cut Dream EP
Alice in Chains began touring with alternative-rock icon Iggy Pop late in 1990 and the following year were nominated for a best heavy metal Grammy and a favorite heavy metal artist American Music Award. Though Alice didn't win the awards, the nominations demonstrated the group's growing influence on the hard rock and metal scenes. They went on the road with nouveau metalheads Megadeth in February, later joining that band, Anthrax, and the notorious satanic speedmetal outfit Slayer for the "Clash of the Titans" tour. Slayer fans were impatient, to say the least, with Alice's deliberate, complex arrangements, hurling verbal abuse andn one instanceugs of Kool-Aid at the group. "That was one of our finest shows," Kinney said of the Kool-Aid incident in an interview with Request's Daina Darzin. The latter half of the year saw Alice in Chains touring with Van Halena cool way to meet a hero," Cantrell told Katherine Turman of Guitar World/and making their network TV debut on ABC's In Concert.
Late in 1991 Alice released a mostly acoustic EP called Sap. The release was inspired, Cantrell revealed to Turman, by a dream Kinney had. "He actually dreamed that we put these songs on an EP and called it Sap. He saw us talking about it at a press conference and saw it doing really well." The realization of the dream, Cantrell added, "came together so smoothly, it's almost scary." Sap features guest appearances by members of the venerable Seattle rock bands Heart, Soundgarden, and Mudhoney and one noisy cut called "Love Song" on which Alice's members switched instruments. In that same vein, Cantrell, who more than holds his own on back-up, sang lead on the song "Brother."
Year of Grunge
1991 will long be remembered as the year the Seattle Sound took the rock world by storm; Nirvana's multiplatinum album Nevermind and strong-selling efforts by Pearl Jamormed by surviving members of Mother Love Bone after singer Andy Wood died of a heroin overdoseoundgarden, and the one-off Pearl Jam/Soundgarden hybrid Temple of the Dog put the city on the pop-cultural map for good and introduced the word "grunge" to music parlance. This high-profile position was cemented by Cameron Crowe's 1992 film Singles, the soundtrack of which included tracks by many Seattle luminaries. Alice in Chains contributed the melodic, mid-tempo "Would?" and appeared in the film ashat else? club band. The characters portrayed onscreen by Campbell Scott and Kyra Sedgwick enact a feverish courtship ritual to the dirgey strains of the song. "Would?" received considerable airplay and nicely positioned Alice for the release of their next album, on which it also appears. As evidence of their new mainstream appeal, the group took the hosts of the popular television show Entertainment Tonight on a tour of Seattle.
Despite their burgeoning prominence, difficult circumstances plagued the recording of Alice's next album. The band was laying down tracks in Los Angeles in April of 1992 when the city erupted in violence following the acquittal of the white police officers who had been videotaped beating black motorist Rodney King. Cantrell described the group's subsequent apprehension to Richard Rosenthal of Screamer, remembering, "I was caught in traffic a couple of times and I saw people ripping other people out of cars and looking at me... it was a trip. So we said, 'F---it, let's not record. Let's not go out. Let's just leave town.'" They split up and visited various locations before reuniting to begin the recording process again. The result was an uncompromising album called Dirt, full of introspection about matters ranging from substance abusetaley's recovery from heroin addiction became a preoccupation of journalistsnd abusive relationships.
"We always write from a personal perspective," Cantrell revealed to Rosenthal. "From our perspective, we see that there's a lot of dark things going on." Even so, he insisted, "We're not a big message band. We pretty much write for ourselves. But [if there's] something that we're scared about or we're feeling bad about, we put it in our music. Letting it out gives you a little peace. You've dealt with it and it's outside of you now. That's pretty much how it works out." In Rip the guitarist noted, "Taking something that's ugly and making it beautiful is something that's of interest to me." Several of Dirt's compositions deal explicitly with drugs, and someike "Junkhead," with its brazen query "What's my drug of choice?/ Well, what have you got?"eemed positively blasphemous in a decade of "positive message" entertainment. "Dirt doesn't offer simple, self-righteous, 'just say no' sloganeering," commented Jon Páreles of the New York Times. "While songs portray the miseries of craving and withdrawal, they also understand the temptations of drug-induced numbness."
Reviews of the album were largely enthusiastic. The New York Daily News called the band's progress since Facelift "one of the most remarkable jobs of bootstrapping ever in the history of pop" and labeled Dirt "a masterwork filled with locomotive grooves, soaring harmonies, and monstrous guitar flourishes." Pulse! deemed it "gloriously bummed and brilliant stuff." Entertainment Weekly's Janiss Garza heaped praise for the album atop an "A" grade, stating, "Dirt is somber psychedelia, a brooding chronicle of the hell of drug addiction set to slow, Black Sabbath-like rhythms. The pain and insight that went into these 12 songs make Alice in Chains shine above and beyond most of its Seattle neighbors." Cantrell himself exemplified the group's optimism about Dirtwhen he told Musician, "This new album's lethal. It'll sneak up behind you like a mako shark and take a bite out of your butt."
In support of the album, the band launched a tour with metal legend and former Black Sabbath frontman Ozzy Osbourne. But Staley broke his leg in an accident involving an off-road vehicle. While many pop stars would have cancelled a few performances, Staley continued his duties in a wheelchair, rolling around menacingly; bassist Starr told Rolling Stone's Ressner, "It somehow makes Layne look more... evil." Dirt climbed up the charts, powered by the propulsive single "Them Bones." Staley avoided discussing his heroin addiction with interviewers, though his comment to Ressner was fairly definitive: "I took a fng long, hard walk through hell. I decided to stop because I was miserable doing it. The drug didn't work for me anymore."
The rush of success in the wake of Dirt's undeniable power clearly motivated the band. Variety described Alice in Chains onstage as "exciting the sellout crowd .. . into a frenzy." Asked by Rip's Turman to define success, Cantrell replied, "That so many people are really into the music, and that when we play, people will come out to see us." Later in the interview he called the band a "family," adding, "It blows my mind what Sean, Layne, and Mike do every time we play. It's just a reaffirmation that these are a great bunch of guys to play with, and that I'm really lucky to be in this band. They're my brothers." This fraternal vigor notwithstanding, Alice drummer Mike Starr was replaced by former Ozzy Osbourne sideman Mike Inez in February of 1993.
On Columbia Records
We Die Young (EP), 1990.
Facelift (includes "Man in the Box"), 1990.
Sap (EP; includes "Brother" and "Love Song"), 1991.
Dirt (includes "Would?" "Junkhead," and "Them Bones"), 1992.
(Contributors) "Would?," Singles (soundtrack), Epic, 1992.
(Contributors) Last Action Hero (soundtrack), Columbia, 1993.
Billboard. October 24, 1992.
Daily Variety, October 5, 1992; December 23, 1992.
Entertainment Weekly, October 19, 1992.
Guitar Player, February 1993.
Guitar World, April 1992.
Los Angeles Daily News, October 2, 1992; October 16, 1992.
L.A. Weekly, December 11, 1992.
Music Express, January 1993.
Musician, February 1993.
New York Times, October 25, 1992.
Pulse!, December 1992.
Reflex, December 15, 1992.
Request, November 1992.
Rip, February 1993.
Rolling Stone, November 26, 1992.
Screamer, November 1992.
Spin, November 1992; March 1993.
Additional information for this profile was provided by Columbia Records publicity material, 1992.
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