AN INTERVIEW WITH ALICE IN CHAINS’ WILLIAM DuVALL

Going through my portfolio recently, I discovered several articles I’ve written over the years that are no longer available online. Saddened that some of my favourite pieces are no longer accessible, I’ve decided to re-post them on my website.

The first of these is an interview with Alice In Chains frontman William DuVall that I conducted for Maddog Magazine back in 2009. Enjoy!

“It’s a rebirth of the band, and it’s a different kind of band.”
An interview with Alice In Chains’ William DuVall

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When Layne Staley died of a heroin overdose in 2002, the world assumed that Alice In Chains died with him. Yet, three years since the band reformed with new vocalist William DuVall, they are very much alive and kicking. This year’s (2009) comeback album Black Gives Way To Blue has only been out for a few months, but is already a contender for album of the year. With a UK tour imminent, Alec Plowman sat down to talk with DuVall about the cathartic new record, the current state of the music industry and filling the shoes of one of rock’s most enigmatic frontmen…

Black Gives Way To Blue is the first Alice In Chains record in almost fifteen years. How did you find the recording process and what can we expect from the record?

Well, the recording process was really enhanced by the fact that we were on the road for three years before even thinking of entering the studio. All that time on the road, the bonding and the group energy… when we set out in 2006, we had no master plan about getting the group back together to record a new album or anything like that. There was nothing on the agenda beyond playing some shows. Once we got out there, we found that the vibe amongst ourselves and the vibe we had with the audience was so powerful that it was worth pursuing going in and making a proper record, working out what we wanted to say in this day and age with this lineup of the band. Black Gives Way To Blue is sort of a sonic snap shot of Alice in Chains in the present day. It’s about what it took to get here, a bit about mourning both to Layne and to the past, and it’s about looking forward to the future. The record wasn’t really factored by outside pressures, we funded it ourselves, we weren’t recording it for a label, we did it on our own terms. You can hear that in the album, it’s got a kind of vigor. It was a new way of doing things that perhaps points forward to the future.

Tonally Black Give Way To Blue reflects the style of classic Alice In Chains, but there are also moments of defiance, resistance and even hope. Would you call the album an evolution?

I think its all part in parcel of what we were going through at the time. The idea of mourning, and this regression to the past… I mean the other guys in the band, they lost their friend and that’s kind of… that’s the loss that seems most prominent for obvious reasons. We all go through personal tragedy and I think that universal idea resonates. It’s about how you control your perceptions of loss and how you can reprogram your mind and take positive steps forward after a tragedy. The choice is yours, you can get knocked down and just lay there or you can absorb the blow and get up. If you get up you start walking and if you start walking, eventually life rewards the effort of your decision to walk and all kinds of great new things can come your way. You have to open yourself up to that possibility. That is kind of what this album is…

I mean, I lost a close friend of mine during the making of the album, a musician friend, a blues guitar player from Atlanta called Sean Costello. It’s like one day you’re on the phone joking around… he played a gig in L.A and I couldn’t make it ‘cause he played so early. I was in the studio working on the album. We joked around about a lot of things… I was going to produce an album for him. He’s such a great blues player and I wanted to do a really raw, old school, Magic Sam, early Buddy Guy… just a raunchy album that set him loose. It was going to be brilliant. Then a couple of weeks later I get this message that he’s dead, that he killed himself one day before his 29th birthday. The world has to keep turning though. You’ve got to keep getting up. I think the album is that and much more. When you think that three years ago we wouldn’t even have considered being here talking to you about this album, one can only imagine what the next two or three years will bring. It’s a rebirth of the band, and it’s a different kind of band. For one thing, we’re a two-guitar band now. Now this band can jam in a way it never did before and that opens up all kinds of sonic possibilities for us. It’s just a great exciting time for us right now.

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Are you looking forward to debuting new material when you hit the road in November?

When we were in Europe a few months ago, we were playing three new songs off of the album, and we did the same thing on a tour we just wrapped up in the States. Now that the album’s out and people have had the chance to absorb it, I can’t wait to play not only those three songs that we’ve been playing but to delve into the album some more. We’re going to crack open several more tunes from the new album, get those in the set and have a revolving set of different old songs, different new songs. The new songs have already been going down really well alongside the older material.

So the sets are going to be quite fluid? You’re not playing the same songs for the whole tour?

That’s what I hope. Sometimes when you get out there on the road… it just depends on so many factors. You don’t have as much time as you’d like to work in those other songs that you hoped to be able to play. It’s definitely the goal though. It keeps it exciting, and if you can do it, it’s great.

You became the frontman of Alice in Chains in 2006, replacing the late Layne Staley. Do you feel a responsibility to Layne when performing? Do you try to reflect him when you’re on stage?

Part of what made him so great was the fact that he was such an individual, he was just himself. So partly out of respect for what he did and out of respect for myself and then fans of the band, I’m only going to be myself. From day one, I knew that was the only way I could do it. You have to go out and sing the older songs from your own experience and from your own perspective. The songs themselves are universal even if the experiences are personal. So I’m going to go out and do it my way. In doing that though, I guess I do reflect Layne. I’m trying to tell my truth in the way that he was telling his truth. I guess a byproduct of that it keeps his artistic contribution alive and that’s definitely something I take very seriously and feel a great responsibility towards.

Does Alice In Chains’ status ever daunt you? Do you feel a responsibility to the people that you influence?

We feel a responsibility to satisfy ourselves. Once you get outside of that, you start trying to create by second-guessing what someone else’s expectations and opinions of you might be. The four of us are our own harshest critics. We figure is something can pass muster with the four of us then it’s probably ok. We’re just trying to stick with that. That’s all you can be sure about. For me coming into this thing from the underground… I come from a long line of playing in grass roots, independent, DIY bands and to go from that to this is an amazing thing. Having said that, we don’t dwell on that stuff. I don’t dwell on that stuff because if you do it, skews the whole thing in a way that doesn’t serve the music. It doesn’t serve yourself and it doesn’t serve the audience. You try to create from the same place that you always have: truth and honesty. With regard to this band, I think that truth is running through the band’s filter. If we trust that, then we put it out. It has to be whatever it’s going to be.

How do you feel about the current state of the music industry? Do you feel that reality TV culture has a negative impact on guitar music?

There are moments where I can get pretty worked up and get on the soapbox about… well all kinds of things. Among them is the state of contemporary music and beyond that, contemporary culture… and beyond that, the state of the world and how that dictates the culture that we get. These are very trying and very uncertain times economically and politically. This is a very serious period that we are moving into here… that we’ve been in actually. It’s certainly reflective in music. The bottom has dropped out of the music industry and that’s not just because of illegal downloading. That is a factor for sure. But I think in a larger sense, there is also something to be said for the track that we’ve been on for a long time, that it seems like we’re trying to get off of now. The track we were on for the last decade or so gave us the culture that we in many ways deserve. When people decide that they don’t want to settle for that any more, then they get something better.

If you look down through history at how the music of a particular time is reflective of what is going on in the larger world… it’s pretty amazing how it lines up. The enthusiasm of the Kennedy administration here in America and the hope that brought ties in with Beatlemania in the UK and the psychedelic movement. You get Hendrix, The Doors, Joplin, all this amazing rock music… As that hope in the larger word dissipates when you’ve got leaders getting assassinated… that gives way to the seventies where you end up with music that is more nihilistic like the Punk Movement, or this hyper-decedent soft rock or disco thing where it’s “either I don’t give a fuck or I’m gonna do some coke and accumulate as much wealth as I can”. Then you move to the eighties and all the contradictions there. On the one hand you’ve got the hardcore punk/D.I.Y movement that I matriculated in growing up. On the other, you’ve got the hair band rock. Today it’s still like that in some respects. You’ve got some really hardcore gutter punk or death/black metal versus American Idol. I think these extremes reflect the larger world. I try to hold out hope. I hope that we are moving into more of an enlightened period because we really need it man.

Our culture seems under attack. I see a lot that worries me, but I see a lot of stuff that encourages me too. Bands like Radiohead, Pearl Jam, The Black Crowes all putting out records on their own dime with an audience that can sustain them independently without the music industry. It’s a great thing for them and I think it’s a great thing for people like me who support them. For bands who are struggling, it’s really tough. It’s tough to get out there on the road. I come from that culture where bands book their own tours, sleep on people’s floors and get dinner bought by fans because they can’t afford any. You could at least survive. Now gas is at least four dollars a gallon, you know what I mean? Food ain’t getting any cheaper and no one really has any disposable income to go to an underground club or bar to hear music unless they already know the band. That whole thing of “I’m just going go out and take a chance on new music”, that’s disappearing because nobody has the time or the money when they’re too busy trying to just fucking survive. It’s harder than ever for a grass roots band and it’s harder than ever for a band like Alice in Chains. We have real overhead, we have people that we have to pay!

I hope people realize that the illegal downloading thing isn’t where it’s at. You’re not sticking it to the man, you’re sticking it to yourself. If you’re sticking it to the band that you supposedly like, you’re going to make it much harder for them to come to your town and rock your face off. You’re going to make it ten times harder for them to put out their next record and in the end, they might just have to give up. Use your dollar like it’s your fucking vote. We had half a million illegal downloads of our new album within hours of it being leaked. I was fucking staggered man. That’s not Alice in Chains being fat cat rich motherfuckers, that’s the money we use to come to your town and play. That’s dough that keeps the whole thing running. If that’s what it’s doing to a band at our level, imagine what it’s doing to underground bands. Those poor guys have got nothing man. I used to be able to sell 30,000 records on the underground to survive. Now those bands that were selling 30,000/50,000 records are lucky to sell 5-10,000. I hope people wake up to that and I hope we can change people’s perceptions of that. Vote with your dollar.

What are the plans for Alice in Chains once the tour is over?

Shit I’m sorry man, I just went off on a fucking rant!

Don’t worry about it, it was a good rant.

We just keep touring. We have this album to promote and we want to get around the world and see everybody, at least until next year.

You alluded to more material in the future. Do you think we’ll see another album at some point?

Absolutely! We look at this as the opening chapter for new Alice in Chains. Absolutely yes.

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About alecplowman

Alec Plowman is a music journalist with a passion for great quality writing. Currently producing news, reviews, features and interviews for the good folks at Ultimate-Guitar.com, his work has also appeared in publications such as Record Collector, Powerplay, The Eastern Daily Press, The Bucks Herald, Dotted Music, Rhythm Circus, OneFourSeven and Tight But Loose (the Led Zeppelin magazine). The proud father of twin girls, he’s grateful for suggestions on child-proofing his record collection.
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