"Hope, a new beginning. It's time to start living like just before we died." Few lyrics on a heavy rock album carry with them the poignancy of the opening lines of Alice in Chains' 'Black Gives Way to Blue'.
Having become one of the biggest bands of the 1990s throughout their harrowing 1992 album 'Dirt', its 1995 self-titled follow-up and 1996's masterful 'Unplugged' album, the band then went on an indefinite hiatus as frontman Layne Staley's drug abuse consumed him and the band's creativity. In 2002 Staley was found dead from an overdose. He was 34.
That Alice in Chains have decided to come back with a new singer, William DuVall, is remarkable; that they've made such a fine album, 14 years after their last, deserves even greater respect. 'Black Gives Way to Blue' is both a fitting tribute to Staley and a reason to be excited about the band's future - not a feeling fans are accustomed to. Here DuVall and drummer Sean Kinney talk to Harry Guerin about life, loss and looking to the future.
Harry Guerin: When I first found out that Alice in Chains were getting back together with a new singer I thought, 'This is one of the bravest or silliest things I've ever heard of and this guy is either one of the luckiest or unluckiest people in music'. Having listened to your album, you made the right decision. But did others voice doubts to you?
Sean Kinney: We don't really pay attention to other people's opinions of what we do. We just kind of run at things - what we believe in and how we feel about it - and that's always how we've operated. You can't really live your life being guided around by other people, telling you what to do and how to do it - that's not really life.
William DuVall: You can't really legislate for other people's reactions, that's for sure. All we can do is give what feels right to us. All I can do is be myself and, y'know, let the chips falls where they may.
HG: From the time you first got together to tour in 2006 up until you started to record 'Black Gives Way to Blue' did you have any doubts yourselves about what you were doing?
SK: No, we took our time. We wouldn't have done it if we had doubts. I think us doing this is showing that bad things happen and you can move on from them and you can still honour all you've done. That's been the driving force through all of this for me. It has not been an easy thing to do, but at the other end of it my life is so much better for [doing] it. I could've stayed at home the rest of my life and been fine, but something was still missing. Taking these little steps and being afraid and being freaked out and walking into these situations together has just personally made my life so much better. And that's what it's really about, that's why you got into it [music] in the first place.
WD: The thing was it ['Back Gives Way to Blue'] was a self-funded album. We weren't contractually obligated to anybody and that kind of liberated us from the baggage of deadlines and other people's agendas, whatever they might be. It allowed us to do what we felt was right. At any point we could've shut down the whole thing and you never would've heard the record and that would've been that.
Everything that took place was very insular and the album is a very self-motivated and self-directed thing. I don't know if the process would've worked any other way. I don't think we could've done it any other way. That's how it was done. And the fact that you're hearing it and the fact that we're talking to you is how we feel about it.
HG: A lot of bands get back together and it sounds very after the after the fact. With you, it sounds like unfinished business.
SK: We never had a problem making music. We had a problem managing our lives. We had a problem [due to] living really hard. Music was so easy for us. And what's so great for us is that it's the same kind of vibe nowadays. We're all in the same headspace and do this for the same reasons and that's still intact.
We just lived really hard and did some things personally that started to get into the way of doing the one thing that we really loved, so we just stopped showing up. It's been 14 years, that's 5,076 days, since we put out a record. A lot of time has passed and I'm excited and it's great to have something to be excited about [and] that you care so much about.
HG: It must be very draining, though, in interviews for people to focus on the past.
SK: Yeah, that's part of it though, y'know? That's part of the game. I don't come in here with some idea that that's not... And the easy way to remedy that is to be in a band that makes albums about 'chicks and cars and partying'. But that's just not how we operate. Everything is pretty much real life kind of topics.
The thing that gets old is that so much [focus] gets put on the drugs. And I can understand that, but that's not a unique story, that's a very common story. All of our songs are not about drugs - maybe about 15% of our music was about that. It's easy to put a label on something and that's what people do.
Hopefully the label they put on this album is about moving on. This is a more universal theme to me. This is about loss that we have all experienced in our lives or will experience and getting out of that place and moving forward into a better way. That's all you can ask for, that's all you can do.
HG: There will always be fans who love the old records that you're not going to reach.
WD: And that's ok. This is an invitation and you don't have to take it. But it's an invitation that's coming from a really, really truthful and very, very profound place. I think the people that take it and the people that show up to the party are going to really be rewarded. And they have been rewarded, and they're digging it.
SK: Seeing Will just give his all every night and going at it and turning people around who have a closed mind [as to] why we're doing this is amazing. I understand [fans have] a little bit of fear and that people connected to the records we've done so strongly and I honour that completely. But it's a little rude for people who listen to those records and bond with them to try to pass judgement on us and say we don't have the right to do something.
The truth is that all of these things that they care about so much didn't happen to them: it actually happened to us. It was actually our real life. My friend's dead and I live with that every day. We've all lost people and everybody will in life. And just because you loved our record so much doesn't mean you can't move on. If we can find a way to move on and they can't then I just kind of feel sorry for people at that point. This happened to us and we can move on with our heads up and are doing it in the most honourable and genuine fashion. And you can't because you just listened to a record? That's a little sad.
HG: One thing I've always been struck by during the years you were away is the amount of goodwill rock fans have towards Alice in Chains.
SK: That's been one of the amazing things. The music lived on. We didn't serve it. We weren't out there trying to sell it, work it or anything. The music on its own merit and what we had done when we started this thing took on a life of its own and you can't make that happen. A record company can't make that happen. They can put their whole machine behind a song that you may not like that gets it on the radio and they play it all day long. But will that song still be played 10 or 20 years down the road on its own?
I think it's the greatest reward that the music has taken on a life of its own and been passed onto another generation. So now when we do these shows a lot of these people weren't even born when our first record came out and it means something to them.
HG: That's very special.
SK: There was no reason why we had to do this. It was for real, genuine belief and caring. For me part of the reason [in making the album] is showing that horrible stuff happens everybody in their life and that you need to get up and you need to move on. And how do you do that respectfully and truthfully?
And another thing is to take what Jerry [Cantrell, guitarist] Layne, Mike Starr [former bassist] and I created when we were teenagers and bring that thing that has taken on a life of its own - and we're not all here to be part of it - to these people. That's important to me. They connected with it and the whole thing gets to move forward. It's not like we shut the door on that part of our life. That's forever a huge part of our life. That door always remains open.
WD: And new friendships come into play and new bonding takes place. That comes out of the same honest place that all their previous music came out of. It's no different. Cantrell and I go back 10 years. We were friends first and that friendship evolved finally to a point where it's led to us sitting here talking about a new Alice in Chains record - because of that three years of touring that we did starting in '06. That's where Mike Inez [bassist], Sean, myself and Cantrell all fused together as a unit and became a hell of band in our own right. That journey is what you're hearing as well on this album. It's as much about the present and the future as it is about honouring the past. And it is about people's memories as regards to music: it becomes the soundtrack to people's lives. That's stuff you can't plan that becomes an incredible reward.
HG: The first lines of 'Black Gives Way to Blue', "Hope, a new beginning. It's time to start living like just before we died" are the perfect way to open the album.
SK: And then we tell you the fact that we know, that you think you know, "there's no going back to the place we started from". We're not trying to. We've already been there. It's pointless. We're trying to move on.
It feels really good to be doing this. We mean what we're doing. We have given everything we have to doing this and I feel we've won - it's already a triumph. So as long as you believe in what you're doing, and we collectively do, that's all that matters.
'Black Gives Way to Blue' is out now on Capitol.