On September 23, 2009, Alice In Chains vocalist and guitarist Jerry Cantrell, drummer Sean Kinney, bassist Mike Inez, and vocalist and guitarist William DuVall sat down with Jacob McMurray, MoPOP's Director of Curatorial, Collections & Exhibits, to talk about their musical influences, their songwriting process, how they evolved as a band after losing Layne Staley, and the explosion of the Seattle music scene.
At MoPOP, we use oral history interviews to help us preserve creators and creative movements from across popular culture. The very first oral history interview we did was with Jimi Hendrix's father, Al Hendrix, and that initial effort energized us toward the value of collecting stories on the lives, careers, and legacies in pop culture. To date, we have recorded more than 1,100 oral histories and counting!
In the final entry of a four-part Founders Award 2020 blog series, we hear from Alice In Chains on their experience growing up in the Seattle music scene. Read on!
MoPOP: It seemed like in the Pacific Northwest, if you wanted to make it big, you went to LA or your went to New York. You moved out of Seattle. Did you have any idea that you were going to make it big?
Sean Kinney: We didn't. We were planning on making our own record and just doing the same thing.
Jerry Cantrell: Our big plan was to hub out and play Vancouver and Portland and Spokane. [laughs]
Sean Kinney: Yeah, and we were doing that. Our first goal was to be able to sell out the Central Tavern, which we did. When we started doing that, we were like, 'wow, we're really cool.'
Jerry Cantrell: [laughs] We broke the bar record.
Sean Kinney: We had little goals, and local goals. Then we started getting offers to play and we'd play with anybody. We could go to Spokane and play, and go to Vancouver and open up for some band up there that sabotages your gear before you play at some club and shit.
Jerry Cantrell: I remember that. [laughs]
Sean Kinney: Yeah, those were the goals. But you always have that goal you grow up with to be a rock dork and fuckin' have all that stuff, jet set lifestyle.
Jerry Cantrell: 'Poison needs an opening band in the arena. Nobody else'll do it, do you guys want to do it?' Sure!
Sean Kinney: Let's go.
Jerry Cantrell: We're in.
Sean Kinney: We had semi-realistic goals, but you always hold on to that, the myth of what it is until you actually get to see behind the curtain that it's not really like that. It is, those things are there for you to do if you have certain levels of success, but that passes pretty quickly for some people, the novelty wears off. So you kind of pull back and just really focus more on the music. We just kept operating the same way we always did, right here, and then hoping to move out. We would put out Facelift and there wasn't grunge, there wasn't any of that, and I remember going to Europe and stuff and there was this really small chunk of people that would be at shows because they were kind of on to the Sub Pop stuff more than they were in the states. They'd be like, 'the Seattle sound,' you know? There'd be these little pods of people and they would talk to you about people like the Mudhoney guys and all this shit and you're like, 'Oh cool, that's cool.' You get this little taste of home going on. Then as we were making Dirt, we'd all been into Nirvana and Mother Love Bone and then Pearl Jam. We knew it was really good and we were like, 'God, I hope this stuff's going to do well.' We had no idea it was going to do that, though. It just eclipsed anything that you would even imagine, and then you'd go back over and it was the grunge thing. We were pretty much unscathed by that. We actually kind of got pushed out because we were kind of a little before that, so it really, I think, took a much bigger toll on Pearl Jam and Nirvana and Soundgarden than it did on us.
Mike Inez: We're the metal stepchildren.
Sean Kinney: Yeah, we're like the redheaded stepchild of Seattle, man. You'd see Ed [Eddie Vedder] on the cover of Time and being able to see behind that and knowing these kind of people. I got to give those guys huge props. That single-handedly almost ended that band, and they regrouped, pulled back, and redesigned how they do business and how they're going to survive and they've survived ever since because they take care of themselves first and their fans and that's cool. ... But for us, just having the luxury of seeing before it and after it, it was pretty cool. And we were slugging it out with anybody. MTV used to matter, so when they finally picked up on one of songs, we'd been out for probably eight months on Facelift slugging out, and the album kind of stalled and then they picked up a song and radio picked up a tune and next thing you know you get all these record execs flying in to hand you a gold record and take a photo op with you. By Dirt, I don't think we really gave a shit, really. Honestly, we were much more unified in what we were doing and had a stronger belief in that because we'd moved through that. But watching that happen to those guys, I wasn't envious at all. I was like, 'thank god it's not us,' because of the way we were living, we had enough light on us that we didn't enjoy, and having that much fuckin' light on you? It's almost impossible to overcome that. People can't be the voice of a fucking generation. You can't.
William DuVall: I have to say, as an outsider watching that whole thing I actually have a lot of admiration for all of the Seattle bands that have been mentioned in this discourse. Soundgarden and Pearl Jam and Nirvana obviously, and Alice for the way all of the people in those bands handled this situation that no one can anticipate happening and it's overwhelming when it does. I think there's a lot about just even what we go through day to day now, doing what we have to do, as great as a lot of it is, there's an element that's rather humanizing too that's very difficult to understand unless you're in it. To imagine that multiplied times, like, a million, I have even more admiration now than I even did then, and it was quite high then, for the way that they handled this tidal wave of stuff with a lot of humanity. Whether you agree with lifestyle decisions that individuals made or not, I think that what really stood out for me besides the music was the humanity of these folks dealing with all this stuff in public, right or wrong. There's no rule book for any of this stuff. It just happens to you. I think it's pretty tremendous, he mentioned what Pearl Jam did—they just reconfigured their whole business. Some people got crushed, and it's really sad, but I think that stuff's always going to live on because of the truth in the music and the truth in the music came from the people. I've never seen or can't think of another movement in pop culture that got that big with that much open-faced humanity attached to it as part of the thing. Everyone else was trying to form a myth right out of the gate—the Beatles were trying to be cartoon characters practically, you know what I mean? Even Hendrix, there was this sort of comic book aspect to all this stuff—the outfits, the stage act and everything. Even punk was a little bit of a cartoon show, the English punk thing when those guys tried to be famous, the Sex Pistols were a bit comic book as well. This, Seattle, what happened here, I think that movement, that little underground, early-'80s hardcore thing changed the culture, certainly here in the United States, and out of that, because what happened in Seattle was a bit of an outgrowth of that. All these guys came into massive fame with all of this consciousness that I don't think previous musicians who were trying to get big had ever had before. Kurt [Cobain] had all this punk rock guilt. Eddie Vedder obviously did, too. I think it shaped the nature of fame. It changed the nature of fame. And it was a powerful thing to watch, for sure.