Interview with Alice In Chains: The Return

Alice In ChainsThe prospect of an Alice In Chains reunion might have sounded questionable, given vocalist/frontman Layne Staley’s accidental death from a drug overdose four years ago, but last Feb., when AIC took the stage with a rotating host of singers (including but not limited to Maynard James Keenan of Tool, Ann Wilson of Heart, and Pat Lachtman of Damageplan) for an Indonesian tsunami benefit put together by drummer Sean Kinney, something special happened. They had fun.

From there, the offers came in. Tours. Albums. The world wanted more from the band. With singles like “Man In The Box,” “Rooster” and “Would?” still receiving regular radio airplay, it’s no surprise. Their story never had the chance to finish.

After the release of their last, self-titled LP in 1996, the band played a sporadic few shows before taking part in MTV’s Unplugged series, which would prove to be their last major appearance in their full lineup aside from a handful of gigs opening for the then-newly reformed Kiss. Years passed, but the appeal never faded, and while others from the early ’90s Seattle scene went on to either sell and fizzle out (Stone Temple Pilots) or prosper in obscurity (Pearl Jam), the question of whether or not Alice In Chains were truly done was never really answered.

Well now we know. No, they’re not.

On March 10, the band will come together, along with Rufus Wainwright, Carrie Underwood, Dave Navarro and others, to honor their heroes and longtime compatriots Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart, in whose band bassist Mike Inez has had a tenure for the past several years. The show is part of VH1 Classics’ Decades Rock Live series, which has in the past done tributes to Cyndi Lauper, Bonnie Raitt, and The Doors, and is set to take place in the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City.

“Can’t Turn The Girls Down”

“Ann and Nancy are the most talented musicians and beautiful women I’ve ever met,” lauds Sean Kinney. “They’re just so cool and genuine and not weird diva-ed out shitheads. The talent they have is overwhelming, and the music they’ve made over the years is flawless. Any opportunity to play with them, you jump at that.”

Jerry Cantrell confers, “I’m from Seattle, man. We didn’t have too many heroes coming out of our town. We had Hendrix and Heart, Queensryche and that was pretty much it.

“We didn’t have a lot of nationally respected acts, and those were the people we had and they were real fucking quality bands. Quality music and quality people as well. I’ve known the girls for many years now. Seattle’s not that big a town, so everybody pretty much knows everybody and we’ve spent many years hanging.”

The influence Heart had on AIC in their formative years is widely known and readily apparent in the anthemic qualities of songs from Facelift like “Sea Of Sorrow” and “Sunshine,” and so great are the artists’ respect for each other that all surviving members of Alice have played with Heart in the past, and Ann Wilson can be heard doing vocals on “Am I Inside” from the Sap EP.

“They’re really good friends, and we’re from the same town,” adds Kinney. “I grew up holding their foldout albums in one hand, holed up in my room at night… Nah I’m just kidding. They just became really good friends and they’re such talented women with such amazing tunes.

“My sister turned me onto them when I was just a little kid, and I’ve been a fan ever since then. It’s been really weird to be able to become friends with them and have opportunities to play with them, and they got this gig for this Classics thing, and they just asked if we wanted to come and play.

“They came and played at that tsunami thing last year when we got together and played, and they came and helped my gig out there, so they asked us to be there, and we’re like, ‘Sure, we’ll go, sounds great.’ They’ve got to be the best female rock stars of all time in my book.”

“The most powerful voice I’ve ever heard is Ann Wilson,” Cantrell adds. “Hands down. And the guitar work and the singing that Nancy does is incredible too. It’s an amazing thing. They’re legends in my mind.”

“It’s not like when Cher shows up and does ‘do you beLEEEVE’ with a vocoder,” laughs Kinney. “Ann’ll just blow your brains out when she sings. I’ve been lucky enough to play with her and other singers are powerful, but if they don’t change the mix in your monitor, she gets up and it knocks you off your drum throne. It’s like, ‘Wow, that’s the shit right there.’”

“We’re like the appetizer,” he continues. “We’ll do a couple songs, then they’re going to do their thing, and I guess there’s going to be some other people coming out and jamming with them. It’ll be a great show. I’ve never played a casino. I’m starting my casino circuit. It’s just a fact. You get to a certain age, you start doing the casinos.”

“It’s just an honor to jam with them,” comments Mike Inez, “and beyond that, they’re an example to every young musician these days of how to swim through the seaweed with your head above water. They’re very classy people and that’s one thing I can take away from the experience of jamming with them. The class. They ooze it and they live it. They’re the real deal.”

“Can’t turn the girls down, you know,” Kinney laughs.

“A Fun Party”

“I think it’s going to be a fun party, especially the Alice In Chains guys there reuniting, because we go back so far,” echoes Ann Wilson. “That’s going to be really fun-and to get to share the stage with Rufus. That’s what I’m looking forward to. I guess it hasn’t really hit me yet that it’s a tribute to us. To me it just feels like a party with all these other artists.”

While some rockers are uncomfortable with the thought of having a legacy, Wilson is level-headed and cool about the influence she and her elder sister have had on a generation of musicians. “Sometimes when I watch American Idol, which I’ve done a time or two, and I see all those people sing those big huge bombastic ballads, I go, ‘Oh god, I hope I didn’t have anything to do with getting this started,” she chuckles.

But Carrie Underwood’s okay.

“I think it was a shrewd business move among the business types that are putting the show together that brought her to us. I hear she’s a young person who’s possessed with not a small amount of talent. I guess we’ll see.”

The show is set to follow a similarly loose format to the ones that preceded it (if it ain’t broke…), and that is a laid back structure, still with definite times for artists, but with plenty of cross-generational jamming and guest appearances. Underwood, Rufus Wainwright and Gretchen Wilson will perform one or two songs a piece and then do guest appearances during the Heart set closing out the night.

Cantrell, Inez and Kinney are no strangers either to sharing the stage with non-band members. During their stint on Lollapalooza ’93, which ran the summer following the release of 1992’s classic Dirt, the community vibe of the touring festival led to numerous special appearances with and from members of the other bands on the bill.

“We’ve always had an open-door policy,” explains Inez, “and we come from a family place and a positive place, so I can’t see that changing at this point. We’re too old and stubborn to change our ways now. We’re too entrenched, so that’s the way it’s going to roll.

“When we did Lollapalooza, every day it was like a different person jamming with us, whether it was Les Claypool or Maynard from Tool coming out and singing, Larry LeLonde from Primus and Jerry would go jam with Fishbone, and the Fishbone guys would come jam on “Rooster” and stuff like that.”

“It’s really nice going back and revisiting that stuff, and taking a look back at what you’ve done and actually playing that shit again and realizing the power of that,” Cantrell relates. “It’s a pretty amazing thing. I’m really lucky to have been a part of that with all these guys and we’re down to try together, so here we go.”