Interview: William DuVall of Alice In Chains on getting out of the box, moving forward, and respecting a legacy

[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hen Jerry Cantrell was touring for his 2002 solo record, Degradation Trip, it was just after Alice in Chains singer Layne Staley was found dead of an overdose. Atlanta hard rock trio Comes With the Fall were the openers on the tour, and also served as Cantrell’s backing band. Nobody blinked when he did the songs from his “former” band; they were thrown in as familiar favorites.

Cut to a few years later, in 2005, and the surviving members of Alice in Chains hit the road for a reunion tour, and Comes With the Fall frontman William DuVall was handling Staley’s vocal parts. There were rumblings, though hey, “Jerry wrote the majority of the songs,” many said. “It was his band, too,” others agreed.

And at the end of the day, it was kind of cool to hear all those songs again in a live setting since the group hadn’t performed since 1996. But when the band announced it was heading into the studio to record a new record in 2008 with DuVall on vocals, well holy shit – you would’ve thought they all decided to piss on Staley’s grave. It was downright blasphemous that an outfit would dare move forward following the death of its singer, wrote the often anonymous trolls on metal news sites and message boards – usually in ALL CAPS.

Ignoring the criticisms, hands down the darkest band to come out of early ’90s Seattle delivered its patented brand of sludge, riffs, and melancholy on 2009’s Black Gives Way to Blue. The comeback record was met with near unanimous praise from fans and critics, with only the most stubborn naysayers refusing to budge. As in previous years, the tour to support the album was handled with class and dignity as each night the fallen Staley would be celebrated in song.

This spring marked the release of the second album with DuVall, The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here (Capitol). It’s been getting mixed reviews, with opinions that it’s not heavy enough, not catchy enough – but there’s no doubt it still sounds like Alice. On the eve of kicking off its headlining slot on the Uproar Festival, which comes to the Comcast Center tomorrow (which also features Duff McKagan’s Walking Papers), Vanyaland caught up with DuVall to talk about those tough days in the beginning and how things have changed, the questionable title of the new record, and most importantly, the cardinal sin Jerry Cantrell recently made that has caused a furor in the music world.

Michael Christopher: Before we get into anything, was there a worry going into the recording of The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here that, like Samson, Jerry would be powerless without his long hair?

William DuVall: [Laughs] Oh wow… right away with the hair! You know what? No worries about that kind of stuff man; people gotta do whatever makes them feel better. That was his personal decision and we all respect it – we dig it.

At least you didn’t go the Metallica route and everyone get haircuts at the same time – you know how that backlash goes, people freak.

There’s a lot made about that kind of thing, it’s always interesting how much is made about hair length. I remember when Black Flag grew their hair long and everybody started trippin’.

It’s crazy. Okay, given the success of Black Gives Way to Blue, was there less pressure going in to record this one?

Yeah, in many ways there was, mainly because there was no hill to climb like the hill we had to climb making Black Gives Way to Blue. That presented a unique situation that you wouldn’t wish on any artist [laughs]. The force of will that it took – no pun intended – to face down all of those challenges from within and without, to shut out that noise, the court of public opinion that was raging in the outside world, to shut that out and kind of develop a cocoon like mentality to get that record done was pretty tremendous. That was a unique thing that will never happen again, thankfully, and just glad that it all worked out. Going into this one, it was much more about the music I’m happy to say.

And there’s already enough pressure that you guys put on yourselves when it comes to just the music.

We’re going to put ourselves through the wringer to do anything anyway – it’s who we are. We’re harder on ourselves than anyone on the outside can be on us. We are always trying to max out our capacity to dig down and come up with whatever is needed, to paint the most accurate picture of whatever is going on in our lives. It was nice to have it just be about the music, it’s not the outside world saying, “How dare they!” and “Do we even have the right to do this?” It’s not defending your very right to exist – that has become a settled question.

It must be so nice for that to be settled, for you especially, because the first couple years you were in the band, before the album was even recorded, you weren’t just “the new guy,” people would actually yell out to you after shows, “Hey, New Guy!” That was your name – you weren’t William, you were New Guy.

Yeah [laughs]

It must be nice to feel more accepted these days and it probably helps that people know your name.

Of course, it’s cool, all said it’s good.

On The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here, to me it sounds like it’s more mood driven than riff driven, other than the obvious example of “Phantom Limb.” Whereas with Black Gives Way to Blue, you had the immediacy of “Check My Brain.” Was this more about song structure and composition as opposed to just getting a riff out there?

I don’t know. I think everyone is going to have a different take on that stuff. “Stone” is a riffer… there’s always going to be a mixture of moods and a rise and fall dynamic on any record by a band like this.

Again, it’s whatever is going on in each individual’s life. For me, the biggest departure is the title; that’s kind of a new thing for this group.

The title probably threw people for a loop more than Jerry’s haircut.

That’s what I’m talking about. It was influenced by what’s happening in the world that we’re living through. There’s a lot going on in our country and in the world. We kept coming up against this kind of push back mentality; one might say willful ignorance even.

It’s not like the moral majority in the ’80s, this now is something that’s influencing the laws in a way that I’ve never seen it before. It’s always been in the mix, but now it’s loud as hell. We’re seeing people on the national scene, people controlling or at least contributing to the national discourse, like when that guy [Rep. Todd Akin] came out with that statement about “legitimate rape,” and there were hundreds of statements like that, it seemed like there was another one every day. We’re looking at this and tripping out, going, “Wow.” It’s a snapshot of what’s going on in everyone’s life, “Well, the devil put dinosaurs here,” it was a semi-humorous take on what we were observing throughout that whole period leading up to now.

It’s crazy that there is a general public out there that is either too desensitized to those statements or too complacent to do anything about it – and these are things our leaders are saying. There should be riots in the streets.

Things have a way of sparking off. I never would count out any possibility for people’s potential to respond. I think the Occupy movement was certainly a spontaneous and interesting and lively and imaginative response to some of this stuff that we’re talking about. More of that stuff is liable to come down the pike in different forms. I think people are waking up to what’s happening, and it’s happening on local levels, like in North Carolina with reproductive rights. I’ll be interested to see what happens over the next couple of years – that’s for sure.

Back to the band, Alice surprised a lot of people recently by pulling out “Rotten Apple” [from the 1994 EP Jar of Flies] which the band hardly ever played – then or in recent years. The catalog is deep, and there are some songs that haven’t been played in years, like “Sunshine,” or have never been performed live – like “Head Creeps,” is there talk of digging deep for some more songs like that?

Yeah, that stuff comes up. I actually was the one that pushed for “Rotten Apple…”

It’s such an incredible song.

Yeah, I dig it. I was like, “We should play it.” The thing you run up against is the more records that you do, the more tunes you have to play. It’s sort of a luxury problem. How do you get a 70-minute set that’s going to please everybody? Especially when we have those six-, seven-minute numbers in our cannon. You want to represent the new record that you’re promoting at the time and you also want to at least try to represent some songs off of every record if you can. Then there’s the singles that people know, so getting in those really obscure album tracks gets tougher and tougher with each passing year. It’s just a fact of life with a group like this.

When we first started this, I remember we were doing really obscure things like “Frogs,” we were doing…

You were doing “Bleed the Freak” for one thing…

Yeah – we did do that! And, you know, there were a few tours where we were playing two hours plus a night. We’d come out and play electric, then come out and play acoustic for a bit then take a break and come back and finish it up electric – that was like some Springsteen stuff, you know? [laughs]

I don’t know what was going on; we were possessed. I wouldn’t say that we’d never do something like that again; it just gets harder to fit everything in is all. I mean, imagine being the Stones or Metallica or Springsteen – that’s why he has to do those three hours plus shows.

I keep coming back to this song because it’s by far my favorite on the new record, but I’m guessing that the reason “Phantom Limb” isn’t getting played much right now is because it treads into that seven-minute territory and you’re tethered to the 70 minutes on Uproar.

Right. Now, we’ve rehearsed it, and we did it last night at our production rehearsals. I think that tune’s going to get some airing on this run. I think it should, and I think it will.

Last month, Layne’s dad came out during a show to say hello to the audience. And I remember a few years ago you telling me the story about how one time you played in Seattle and Layne’s mom came up to you after the show and she was telling you how proud of you she was. Obviously those are events that are going to be emotional for the band, and I’m guessing that it’s got to have some resonance with you as well.

Well sure. It’s really heavy, personal stuff. This is somebody’s family. I just sort of try to ride that stuff out and be very sensitive to the whole situation, to the whole picture. It’s a lot of good feeling and good vibes all around because everyone is aware of the losses and of the sadness. Now, those situations become further examples of how you move through something like that and how you build on top of losses. Resonance? Of course; it has resonance for all of us and we all just tried to be sensitive towards it.

Shifting gears, what’s up with your film career these days? I thought Confidence was going to launch you into the stratosphere [DuVall had a non-speaking, uncredited role as a bar patron in the opening moments of the 2003 grifter flick starring Ed Burns and Rachel Weisz].

[laughs loudly] Yeah man… my compelling “blink and you missed it” moment in Confidence!

No, I know you’ve been doing some directing, what’s up with Ancient to Future: The Wisdom of Milford Graves? [Graves is the legendary avant-garde drummer who has made major advances in the work involving the healing powers of music and been dubbed the “Jazz Scientist”].

There’s a sense of urgency about getting that story out there sooner rather than later, because it’s a story about a living, breathing individual who is doing amazing work. Milford is one of those guys who typically has to pass on before his work is recognized. So there’s an urgency for me, as well as for him, to get this film out there so that people can understand what’s going on. This is a situation where what this guy is doing could change the whole world moving forward. People are starting to wake up to what’s going on. People want more holistic solutions that have traditionally, in our modern society, been treated with pills or really invasive procedures. I want him to get some light shone on him while he’s here to enjoy it and while he’s here to explain himself.

I hope to get that thing out next year.

ROCKSTAR ENERGY DRINK UPROAR FESTIVAL: ALICE IN CHAINS + JANE’S ADDICTION + WALKING PAPERS + COHEED & CAMBRIA + NEW POLITICS + MORE | Wednesday, August 14 @ the Comcast Center, 885 Main St., Mansfield | 2pm, all-ages, $32 to $103.55 | advance tickets

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