Alice In Chains – Band History and Profile

Alice in Chains is a band from Seattle, Washington. Formed in 1987 by guitarist Jerry Cantrell and singer Layne Staley (RIP), this is one of the most acclaimed hard rock / metal bands of all time, beloved by fans everywhere, and considered part of the Big Four of legendary Seattle bands, alongside Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden.

Musical Style

The musical style of Alice In Chains includes dark and heavy rhythms, but, whereas your average metal band might involve more of what you might call yelling and/or screaming, AiC is actually very melodic and tonally rich and varied, with many different guitar effects being employed at one time or another. This variety in their overall sound makes the exact musical classification of the band, in terms of which genre they belong to, difficult. That said, the band is generally categorized by the media as “grunge” (and who trusts the media these days? right, no one), which is a designation the band generally don’t associate themselves with.  However, to be fair, and by their own admittance, AiC are generally more inspired by heavy metal from the 1970’s, containing elements from the heavy hammering riffs of Black Sabbath and the more melodic hard rock elements close to the musical style of Led Zeppelin, including intricate and hypnotic rhythms, intertwined with softer compositions over the course of an LP, and often enough they have been known to go straight up acoustic style (ie. their famous Unplugged album, Sap, Jar of Flies, etc.). Harmonized vocal lines are another distinct feature of the group, which puts them in line with several other categories of music, such as soul and pop rock bands from yesteryear.  The point is, you never know what you’re going to get.  You might get brutal riffs, you might get…strings.

The group gained international fame with their breakthrough album Dirt, and the first promotional single from the album, Would?, became one of the most popular staples of hard rock in the 1990’s.  The album, for those of us who know it well, is one classic after another, but it did include other “big” songs as well such as Rooster, Down in a Hole, Angry Chair and Them Bones, which get airplay depending on the station you listen to.

The group has more than 25 million albums sold worldwide, including 14 million in the United States.  After their breakthrough release with Dirt and their rise to glory around the world with mosh pits filling up quick, AiC’s albums such Jar of Flies and Alice in Chains (self titled album with the three-legged dog, aka Tripod) went on to reach the top chart rankings in the US and abroad. Jar of Flies is the first EP to reach top of the charts for this type of music, which is to say, a hard rock band treating their audience to a softer sound for the duration of an entire disc. The band also received several Grammy’s over the years for a variety of their hard rock performances. Grammy’s, while they mean practically nothing to hardcore fans, are a somewhat ironic touch to a band that touches on such perilous issues as they do.

The band never officially quit, but when the singer Layne Staley died in April 2002, they understandably suspended their touring and recording activities until 2005, when Staley was replaced by singer William DuVall.  It was a devastating time for the band, their families, and fans, but of course the public was glad to have them come back when they did.  Anyway, let’s delve into the band’s history and go from there.

Formation and Beginnings (1984-1989)

In 1984, Shorewood High School students Johnny Bacolas (guitar), Zoli Semanate (guitar), Byron Hansen (bass), and James Bergstrom (drums) formed a glam group named Sleze. The singer position was handed over to a Meadowdale High School student, Layne Staley (originally a drummer himself), who attended an audition for the vocalist position at the urging of his step-brother Ken Elmer.

Now…get a load of this!  It’s Sleze playing live in 1985 at Lakeside High School, and it’s posted on Johnny Bacolas’s own Youtube channel.  I say give the guy a sub, c’mon!  This is just gold.

After the formation of the group, the group began jamming in the garage of Bacolas. In 1986, guitarist Nick Pollock joins the group, and the band is renamed Alice N’ Chains due to concerns that calling the band Alice in Chains would conjure images of female bondage, which the band had reservations about being linked to at the time.

Bacolas has described the band’s early music as a mix of glam and thrash metal, which it clearly was. On stage, band members wore makeup and latex outfits, as was a common popular style at the time. The musical style of Alice N’ Chains was strongly inspired by the compositions of the group Poison, and similar glammy bands at the time. The band’s most famous song that came from this time period is the song Queen of the Rodeo (appearing later on Facelift), composed by Staley and Jett Silvera, which would be revitalized by Alice in Chains in its classic formation not long after. 

Here’s an actual video clip of Alice N’ Chains from 1986.  Wow.

The group went on to record two demos a year later, attempting to solidify their sound. The first of these demos is recorded in 1986 at the London Bridge Studio in Seattle, produced by Tim Branom.  The demo is recorded for 1600 dollars and limited to only 100 copies. The second album is recorded in 1987 in a home studio but self-produced by the group. During concerts, the band often performed covers of bands such as Armored Saint and Slayer. Later that year, the musical project was officially dissolved.  Guitarist Nick Pollock forms, with members of Mistrust, the group My Sister’s Machine in 1989. Staley, at this point, moves into a rehearsal space called Music Bank, we he lived for a time.

In 1987, Diamond Lie guitar player Jerry Cantrell saw Layne Staley’s band Alice N’ Chains play at Tacoma Little Theatre, and took note of Layne’s powerful voice.  Not long after, the two bump into each other at a party and hit it off, and a then-homeless Cantrell moved in with Staley at the Music Bank. 

It was at this tumultuous time that many things happened quickly.  At this time, Cantrell’s band Diamond Lie broke up, leaving Jerry to start looking to put together a new band.  Jerry looked to his new friend Layne as a potential member, but Layne suddenly decided to join a funk band and was trying to bring Jerry into that band, rather than start a new band with him.  At this same time, Jerry, through Layne, was introduced to Sean Kinney (drums) and Mike Starr (bass), two old friends who had been in bands since they were kids and had an excellent musical rapore.  After hearing Cantrell’s demos, Kinney and Starr joined up with Cantrell and started trying to find a singer.  Clearly, they had their eye on one Layne Staley, but Layne was busy trying to persuade Jerry to join the funk band, which he did, so long as Layne would sing in Jerry’s new band with Mike and Sean.  That arrangement of double duty didn’t last long, and, after Jerry brought in a male stripper to sing in his band, which Layne witnessed, he finally broke down and joined the others to form the classic lineup of what would soon be called… wait for it…

Alice In Chains

It wasn’t long before this new band started playing the club circuit throughout Washington State, stretching 15 minutes of original material that they had into an engaging 45 minute set. The group played a few concerts under different names, such as Lie Diamond, which was a variation on Cantrell’s previous band, before finally opting for the name the former group of Staley had flirted with – Alice in Chains, to the dismay of anti-bondage advocates everywhere.

At one of these early AiC concerts, a local promoter by the name of Randy Hauser discovered the band and offered to fund a demo for the band. In a strange turn of events, the day prior to when the group were to record at the Music Bank studio in Washington, the police closed the studio for what was then considered the largest seizure of cannabis in the history of the state of Washington.  The band was not to be deterred, and did a demo elsewhere, which was eventually dubbed “The Treehouse Tapes”. 

There was a second untitled demo, which took 3 months to make, but it only retains posterity on the bootleg Sweet Alice.  However, this first Alice demo (Treehouse Tapes), completed in 1988, was picked up by Kelly Curtis and Susan Silver, who also famously managed Soundgarden (one of the Big Four). Curtis and Silver presented the demo to Columbia Records representative Nick Terzo, who loved it and then immediately scheduled a meeting with the label’s president, Don Ienner, to get his opinion on what he considered to be a potential “next big thing” with Alice in Chains. Based on The Treehouse Tapes, Ienner signed Alice in Chains to Columbia in 1989. The band also recorded another demo, which was untitled, over a period of three months in 1989. This recording can be heard on the bootleg Sweet Alice.

Facelift and Sap (1990-1992)

In terms of emerging metal bands, Alice in Chains was talented and had enough cross-genre appeal to become the label’s new favourite act, and so it wasn’t long before their first EP, We Die Young, was issued in July of 1990. 

The single of the same name came out at this time as well, and was a hit among metal fans everywhere thanks to ample radio play.  The band was beginning to gain traction, and so the label pushed for the band to record their first LP with Dave Jerden in December of 1989 at London Bridge Studio in Seattle.  Having worked with a number of notable musicians and groups, including Herbie Hancock (Future Shock), Red Hot Chili Peppers (self titled), Brian Eno (My Life In The Bush of Ghosts), and Talking Heads (Remain In Light) to name a few, Jerden was more than ready to work his formidable studio magic with this hungry new band who came in with a ton of songs and ideas on how they wanted to sound.  Sean Kinney despite having a broken arm, recorded his drum parts and then dunked his arm in ice water between takes.  It’s worth noting that the Seattle scene had not yet “blown up”, and it was an album like Facelift that basically served to get everyone excited about what was going on in the Seattle scene, and the “sound” that was beginning to emerge.  It was a combination of talent, frustration, and, presumably, bad weather.

Here’s a little look at what was going on in studio for the Facelift sessions.

Facelift was unleashed onto the public on August 21, 1990, and climbed to position #42 on the Billboard charts. 

Despite its current legacy, the album did not immediately move millions of units.  In fact, it took six months to sell 40 000 copies.  That is, until “Man in the Box” was added to MTV and entered regular rotation during the day. 

This TV hype pushed the song up to a respectable 18 on modern rock radio, which was then followed up by Sea of Sorrow, to slightly less acclaim, although no less a good song.  No matter, Facelift had redefined what hard rock could be, and thousands of units were selling everywhere in the US.  It was right around this time that grunge-mania was beginning to take hold, with AiC leading the charge along with Soundgarden, followed by Nirvana and Pearl Jam a year later.  While all of this was happening, Alice in Chains was beginning to make the rounds and get known, playing shows with some of the biggest bands and artists in rock at the time, such as Van Halen, and Poison (their once heroes), not to mention Extreme, and even shirtless wildman Iggy Pop.  This served to grow the AiC audience, and the band was then added in 1991 to a tour that included Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax (Clash of the Titans), and, although they gained some new fans, they were broadly rejected by metal purists who probably were looking for a more of a speed metal thing.

Here’s an MTV feature showing all the bands talking about these gigs.  At least they didn’t get boo’ed off, right?

Once Alice came off that tour, they decided to strike while the iron was hot and go into the studio to record demos for their upcoming full length.  But, as it happened, they ended up recording Sap, which was based on an actual dream of drummer Sean Kinney who literally dreamed up the EP.  It ended up being an acoustic affair, and this lead to Sap being the bands second EP, coming out in March of 1992.  When Sap came out, Nevermind by Nirvana was kicking ass and taking names on Billboard, which then lead to an increased exposure of Alice in Chains, who had managed to first stir the boiling cauldron of angst only a year before.  As Seattle-based bands all began to see more sales, Sap was certified gold in just a couple of weeks.  The EP featured a few special guests, including Chris Cornell of Soundgarden, Mudhoney’s Mark Arm, and even Ann Wilson of the band Heart came in to do some singing.

At the peak of grunge, Cameron Crowe released the movie Singles in 1992, in which AiC appeared as the house band at a bar.  On the soundtrack for the film, the song Would? was provided by the band to the soundtrack, which then received an MTV Video Award in 1993 for Best Video in a Film. Would? is one of the band’s staple songs, as fans know.

Here’s the band performing It Ain’t Like That in the film Singles as the good old “bar band”.

Dirt (1992–1993)

At the beginning of 1992, the band once again hit the studio to record their next official LP.  Fresh off the road, the band was clearly dealing with some major issues involving addiction, which informed many of the songs on the forthcoming album.  It would seem that the only way the band could exercise their demons was through performance, and many of these new songs came through this way.

Once September of 1992 rolled around, it was then that Alice released their second full album, which was called Dirt.  This was, and is, hands down the band’s best received album, a culmination of everything the band was working towards at this time, and it was well received by both fans and critics alike, being acknowledged as a front to back masterpiece of darkness and emotional turmoil, not to mention blistering performances by each band member.  Dirt hung around on the charts for years, and is widely played on radio stations to this day.  It was at this time that Layne broke his leg ATV’ing and had to be put on crutches for when they were added to Ozzy’s No Mour Tours tour.

Here’s Alice in Chains playing at the Hollywood Palladium in LA, December 15th, 1992.

At the outset of 1993, Mike Starr departed Alice in Chains to supposedly return to family life, although drugs were apparently a factor in his departure and there has been talk of a “firing” that occurred.  It was then that Mike Inez entered the fold, formerly of Ozzy Osbourne’s band.  With the addition of Inez, two songs were recorded for 1993’s Last Action Hero film soundtrack, which were “A Little Bitter”, and “What The Hell Have I”.  It was at this time that the band took their last major tour with Staley, including stops on the Lollapalooza festival.

Jar of Flies (1993-1994)

With Inez on board, Alice in Chains embarked on a huge world tour, solidifying their reputation as a world class hard rock band.  After they got off touring, their plan was just to hit the studio again as they are wont to do with some acoustic guitars and see how things develop.  The result of their jams in this new scenario actually went quite well – so well, in fact, that once the record company heard the results, they were floored by this new direction the band had taken, combining their earlier acoustic work with the grandoise song structures of Dirt to create something entirely different, that no one could have predicted.

January 25, 1994 saw the release of Jar of Flies, which amazingly was put together in just one week, and came in on Billboard charts at numero uno.  True to form, AiC broke a few more rules by having their EP be the first EP ever to top the Billboard charts, and it was also their first release that dominated the ranks so quickly.  Columbia Records, was, no doubt, quite pleased.

Moving 2 million units in the first year of it’s release, Jar of Flies was not only a fan favourite, but a critical smash, causing various media outlets to gush over the dark and brooding, and yet wonderfully put together batch of songs that included future radio staples, I Stay Away, No Excuses, Nutshell, and Don’t Follow. 

It was clear by this point that not only could AiC write an epic rock song, but they could write a classic campfire tune that would have guitar geeks retuning their guitars and perking up their ears in the same way that Led Zeppelin elicited with their mysterious and exotic tracks years before.  The other Seattle Big Four bands were obviously taking notes, with Nirvana releasing their classic MTV Unplugged album in November of that same year.  No one band could lay claim to recording acoustic tracks, as that’s rather ridiculous, but there was definitely something in the air around this time that saw various hard rock bands stripping down and issuing their more sensitive side to the public.

As you might expect, too much of a good thing always has its downside, and Alice in Chains actually broke up briefly around this time, as the band wasn’t communicating very well.  Their rigorous schedule was getting to them, and it was causing some problems.  Fortunately, this wasn’t a permanent condition.

Mad Season and Self-Titled Album (1995–1996)

In 1995, the group Mad Season was formed with Mike McCready of Pearl Jam, Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin, The Walkabouts’ John Baker Saunders on bass, and vocals by Layne Staley.  They were called a “grunge supergroup”, and they recorded and released only one album called Above, featuring album art by Layne Staley.  This album got some radio play, with their single “River of Deceit”, a slower paced, melancholy, but still catchy and highly emotive song.

Bad Animals Studio located in Seattle was and is a studio ripe with cool bands going in and out, particularly around this time period of the early to mid 1990’s, and landmark albums including Soundgarden’s Superunknown and Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy were recorded there. 

Visit Bad Animals website here

Come April 1995, Alice in Chains visited the studio and worked with Toby Wright, a producer known to work with such heavyweights as Slayer and Corrosion of Conformity.  The eponymous release by AiC came out November 7, 1995, and landed squarely at number 1 on Billboard, spawning several singles, three of four featuring Jerry Cantrell on lead vocal duties.  These included Again (Staley singing), Grind, Heaven Beside You, and Over Now.  The album sleeve featured a three-legged dog on the cover, symbolizing Layne being consumed by drugs and effectively absent from the band’s creative process.  Once again, critics praised the album, as it was dark and harrowing, but brilliant in the same way that Dirt was, only a different chapter.

Although they appeared on Letterman with Layne to perform the song Again, the touring days of Alice in Chains in their current formation was basically ending, as they were no longer able to do their previous worldwide tours as they used to.  Layne was in the grips of addiction, and it was feared that he would become yet another casualty of drug abuse, which was turned out to be what happened years later.  Meanwhile, Got Me Wrong from Sap made its appearance on rock charts, as it was featured in the Kevin Smith indie classic film Clerks, and giving another shot of life into a band that was slowly (or quickly depending on how you view it) dying. 

Here’s the scene from Clerks that has Got Me Wrong in it.  It’s towards the end.

In April of 1996, despite rumours of rampant drug use, the band managed to muster a classic acoustic set of songs through the MTV Unplugged format, leading to a new album and media focus on the band.  Featuring all of their hits from different eras of the band’s existence, they played newer songs like Heaven Beside You, as well as Got Me Wrong from Sap, and several cuts off of Jar of Flies and Dirt.  It also went up to number 3 on Billboard, and a home video came out as well of the full performance.  The band was sounding particularly good that night, and so fans became optimistic that the band might see a full tour or more creative output in the near future. 

The band did briefly tour with Kiss, who were reuniting at the time in their original configuration, but in July, Layne overdosed on heroin, and, although he was able to recover, it was a close call.

Here’s a performance of Alice in Chains playing live in mid-1996, in Kansas City.

Silence (1996-2002)

There was no announcement that Alice in Chains had called it quits, but the relationships between the members were become tenuous all the same, with Layne becoming severely depressed after the surprising death of the woman he loved, Demri Parrott, due to infective endocarditis. 

Layne, as everyone knew, loved Demri, as she was beautiful and artistic spirit, and the two almost got married at one point.  She even was said to have introduced Layne to heroin, years ago, which of course was the “catch” of their relationship.  All good?  Not entirely.  When she died suddenly, Layne was despondent, and became a hermit.  His drug abuse increased, and the band went silent for a while.  Layne described the time as “walking through hell”.  Meanwhile, Jerry, the creative dynamo of the band, went on to release his first solo effort called Boggy Depot, featuring the other two members of the band, Mike Inez and Sean Kinney.  Fans were wondering, where was Alice?

As the millennium came to a close, Alice in Chains did manage to record two brand new songs with Layne – Died, and Get Born Again.  These were included on Music Bank, the AiC box set, which was chock full of never before heard tracks.  Around this time, Nothing Safe emerged as well, which was subtitled Best of the Box and gave people a sampling of what was on the box set. 

A live album, fittingly called Live, came out in December 2000, the band’s first full live album.  All of this made it seem like Alice in Chains was still in the game, when they were, in fact, not.  At least, not in the form they were before.  Relationships were strained, and drugs were still messing with them collectively – not just Staley, as the media mainly focused on him as the singer.  Still, Jerry held on to hope that the band could make a comeback someday, and said as much in public, as he finished his second solo disc, Degradation Trip.

Death

Layne was found dead in his condo on April 19th of 2002, but he had apparently been dead for two weeks, having died on April 5, which was eerily the same day as Kurt Cobain.  Reports said that he died of a speedball, which is a potent mixture of cocaine and heroin.  Mike Starr stated when he was on Celebrity Rehab that he was with Layne shortly before his death, and was convinced by him not to call 911, and, high on benzos, eventually left him that night when he died not long afterwards.

Here’s Chris Cornell talking about a bunch of stuff – death, dreams, and Layne.

Comeback (2005-2008)

You can’t keep a good band down, apparently.  In 2004, a tsunami disaster in southern Asia prompted Sean Kinney to organize a benefit concert for its victims, and he made calls to his former bandmates.  In addition, he reached out to friends in the music community, and as a result, Alice in Chains featuring Jerry Cantrell, Sean Kinney, Mike Inez, and guest singer, Damageplan’s Pat Lachman played for the first time in 10 years in Seattle at the Tsunami Continued Care Relief Concert.  Maynard from Tool was there, and Ann Wilson from Heart also was there.  This event sparked a rekindling of the old fire between the bandmates and Alice in Chains, after making a few calls to management, was back!

Here’s an audio clip of Alice in Chains playing Them Bones with Maynard on vocals.  Awesome!

While Jerry Cantrell was touring Degradation Trip, he met William DuVall, singer for Comes The Fall, who opened for Jerry, but William also served to sing Layne’s parts for AiC songs Jerry performed on tour.  It’s easy to realize what Jerry saw in William, who was and is a powerful vocalist in his own rite.

Here is one of Comes The Fall’s original songs with William singing, called Beautiful Destroyer.

Obviously, making a full comeback was not an easy thing for Alice in Chains to do.  They were unsure how to proceed, and they’ve stated many times that they were not doing it for the money, but for the love of the music.  Since there were still three of the four members of Alice in Chains left after Layne’s death, it seemed only fitting to continue, and Duvall was an able vocalist who could do the job, although no one was interested in making him the next Layne. 

Here is William performing Rooster with the band in 2006 at Rock Am Ring.

As Jerry has explained before, they could just call it quits as certain bands they look up to have done (ie. Zeppelin), where a member dies and the band dies with it.  In AiC’s case, the desire to rock out was just too strong, and the songs still needed a voice and were relevant to the fans.  In any case, differences were put aside and Alice in Chains was once again ready to rock.

Recent Albums

In 2009, a new album called Black Gives Way To Blue came out in September of that year.  The album was a tentative step towards integrating William into the band, with Jerry and William co-singing many of the albums tracks together.  Elton John, who was in the studio at the time, stopped by and played piano on the album’s title track.  The album featured new singles that were immediately embraced by rock radio and fans including Check My Brain and A Looking In View.  Grammy nominations for both songs came their way.  Your Decision and Lesson Learned followed as album singles.

Here’s the video for Your Decision.

There were mixed reactions, as one might have expected, to the band’s return.  Many opinions were tossed around as to the  motivations behind the band’s return, with fans taking everything very personally, as they often do.  Replacing a one-of-a-kind singer?  Impossible.  That said, the band was very open about how they arrived at this point in their career, and explained over and over that they are musicians and that Layne probably would have encouraged them to continue, and, who knows, he might even have enjoyed having Elton John appear on the album.  God only knows what Layne would have really thought, but, as the band’s new momentum grew and grew, the fans can only imagine that he would have approved and is still somehow part of the music that they continued to make.

In 2013, AiC released The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here, which contained the singles Stone, Hollow, and Voices.  In true Alice in Chains style, the album was released and immediately charted high on Billboard once again.  The band was really back this time.  Last time was no fluke.  Fans dug the album overall, as did critics, and the band resumed their previous touring schedule that took them around the world in 2013 / 2014.  It was a resounding success.

Here’s the video for Voices.

Now, in 2017, a new album is brewing and fans can only wait and see what the band comes up with next.

Visit Alice in Chains’ website here

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