For some artists success comes quickly, others work their way from tiny band to megastars. It’s fair to say William DuVall, the softly spoken frontman of grunge legends Alice In Chains went the long way round. For seven years now he’s had the dream job/impossible task of filling the shoes (and flannel shirt) of the late Layne Stanley, fronting one of the bands at the centre of the Seattle grunge-quake of the early 90s. It’s been a successful reunion, both critically acclaimed and productive: the quartet have put out two albums, this years The Devil Put The Dinosaurs Here and 2009’s Black Gives Way To Blue as well as halling the hits around festivals and packed arenas across the world.
DuVall’s story is different though. He wasn’t a grunge megastar, or a tortured genius - his story goes back further than Alice, further than Nirvana and further than Soundgarden. As guitarist in Atlanta hardcore legends Neon Christ he’s watched alternative rock grow from a small scene “by the kids and for the kids” steeped in the ethics of punk rock, through to the defining sound of Generation X. He’s watched the music he grew up with conquer the world, nearly destroy itself and inspire bands that have become alt.rock elder statesmen. Then he joined one of them. As Alice In Chains prepare to tour the UK once more, we sat down with Duvall to discuss conflict, chaos, creation and punk rock.
You started in Hardcore bands in 1983, and that’s a completely different scene- where there’s an intense connection between band and audience, and the next band is part of the crowd that jumps on stage. That couldn’t be further from the shows you have now- how has that experience affected you?
"It’s crazy. Particularly because in the early days of the hardcore scene in America it was so small. I’d even extend that to the entire scene in the whole world- little pockets of people in Finland, then you’d find out about a little pocket of people in Japan, a little pocket in Italy, and you’d get these letters. My band, Neon Christ, put out a record in early ‘84, self produced, self released like most people. We called our thing ‘Social Crisis Records’ -I just made that up- but to be in your bedroom trying to come up with these songs, then to be in your friends bedroom shoving envelopes and getting orders from Russia, then you get these broken English letters… this was pre-internet, in the early eighties, and it was so small and so innocent, and so passionate. I look back on that time as really unique in history.
Obviously by the time you get to the early eighties music had been marketed to teenagers for some decades. Since the fifties they’d got wise to this youth market, where they could pick kids’ rebels and market them back to them, whether it’s Elvis or whoever. It was always adults talking to the kids. Chuck Berry’s a grown man, but he’s singing about “sweet little 16”, and although the songs are fantastic, the Hardcore thing is the first time the kids actually seized control of the means of production, in a meaningful way that was happening concurrently across the world, without you and your little scene knowing about anyone else. It’s a weird thing in the collective consciousness, where it just had to happen. Everything else had happened- now this needs to happen. The Hippy thing had happened, the 70s thing happened, the 70s Punk thing happened. That was still grown people making music for themselves and their intellectual crowd. This Hardcore thing was 15, 16, 14 year old kids figuring out how to make records and find pressing plants, pressing the records up, starting little fanzines - it was such a powerful thing and we felt very empowered by it. I couldn’t have dreamed up a better way of growing up, it was defining stuff on so many levels, and it taught you a lot of lessons that you can carry forward through all stages of your life, certainly in terms of persistence and doing things and not waiting on people to do them for you, not waiting to be discovered. It was “this music is important just because we say it’s important”, and then it turns out we were right! It transforms the whole culture, including leading up to what happened in Seattle.
In a sense I’ve come full circle to find myself in a band like Alice In Chains, because the scene that gave birth to them couldn’t have existed without the scenes that preceded it. All those bands were my friends- Black Flag, Husker-Du, the Bad Brains, later people like Sonic Youth, DRI, Crucifucks, Scream, all the bands Ian MacKaye was in- Minor Threat, Fugazi… Fugazi’s first show, we put that on in Atlanta- their very first tour. Those things helped to create the framework that ended up exploding out of Seattle. So it is all connected. It is interesting, and it is strange- the scale of it blows me away. But then I’ve been blown away by the scale of rock music for years. When the whole Seattle thing happened it just blew me away, Nirvana literally took the value set that my friends and I had and they made it mainstream. It was a validation. It was really strange, and it was also really sad when the contradictions kind of overpowered some of the people. Cobain never could get over the contradictions- you come out of this small, developed scene and you’re just glad to play someones basement party, and then at the same time you want to write songs that reach a lot of people, and you don’t want to turn down opportunities: like if a major label says they want to put out a record you don’t want to turn that down. Part of you wants to be famous too, and get your message out to the world and be validated that way, but then the inevitable invasions of privacy and the hangers on and all that stuff happens, and you’ve got to reconcile that with your punk rock values, so to speak. Hendrix and the Doors and those people didn’t have quite that- they had their struggles with integrity too, but it was a little different. The punk thing made it really extreme and it had the anti-rock star thing. It really was about the next band climbing out of the audience. There were no barricades, no security.
Looking back I’m grateful and amazed nobody got hurt, a lot of the gigs I remember were in these little store fronts you’d make up yourself, a lot of times it was completely illegitimate from start to finish- no permits, no nothing. Certainly no security- you couldn’t hire security because who were you going to hire? The cops? They hated you. The whole thing was “wrong”, and if anyone found out about the gig it was gonna get stamped out. It was kids policing themselves. A couple of times an adult might lease you a space, but that would be the extent of their involvement. I’m amazed nobody got really hurt. I’m amazed there weren’t more casualties. Then to see how it is now- security guards who are on the big festival gigs probably grew up on that music, or music that was inspired by that scene.
It’s a whole different climate now, and ultimately I think we’re all the better for it. I find it in myself, sometimes, still, after all these years that there is a struggle in reconciling all of the contradictions. There is: We just got an ‘Icon’ award from Metal Hammer magazine, and all the interviews they’d say “SO you just got the ‘Icon’ award” and I’d just start laughing. It wasn’t disrespect for the award, or for Metal Hammer or anything, it was just… Icon? Really? That’s the kind of thing that my 16 year old self would have thrown every kind of dart and spear and arrow and knife-blade at. Because I know the truth; that we’re just four jerks trying to get through the day. And I know they’re honouring the bands history, and it’s all wrapped up in that too and I’m coming in halfway through the picture, so on that level I get it. But I don’t look to my right and see an icon when I see Sean Kinney or Jerry Cantrell. I know what we really are- and I don’t feel any more of an icon than the taxis driver that drove me here, or the person that’s going to clean up this room after we leave. Yet, having said all of that it gets even deeper, because nobody is that, nobody that I admired was that. Hendrix wasn’t that. Mohammed Ali wasn’t that. Yet I needed them to be... So I recognise the need for Metal Hammer or whoever to give us that kind of award and to see this band, and the individuals in the band that way, just as I need to see other people that way. When you really start trying to wrap your mind about it, it can turn you into a pretzel. That’s kind of what Cobain and some of the other people who matriculated through the Seattle scene were having such a problem with. Those Seattle bands, Alice in Chains included and Pearl Jam certainly were trying to change the nature of fame, change not only what it looked like but how it acted."
A lot of those bands hardcore reacted against in the 80s were still around for the grunge boom...
"Yer, and they were all “Give more! Give more more! Give me all of it!” There is a difference in the worldview. There was and there is. You can’t shake that, and I guess it just depends on how you came up. You can’t shake where you came from. I don’t want to."
Do you think there’s still some element of that scene that’s still in your ethics and in your approach?
"Absolutely, like I said you can’t shake who you are. There’s tons of ways, it’s hard to even pinpoint and pick out examples because it’s going to run through everything that you do. It’s going to run through how you deal with somebody if they come up to you on the street and say “can I have a picture? can I have this, can I have that?” You’re going to be a little quicker to check yourself if you find yourself getting aggravated or annoyed.
Here’s the thing- no matter what value system you bring to fame, the assault on you is something that is indescribable, and it hits everybody the same way- the demands that are made on your personal space, that hits everybody whether you asked for it like the Reality TV kind of people, or whether you’re Eddie Vedder. I think if you came up through the scene that I did, and you’re wrestling with all the added baggage of the contradictions you put on yourself, or the values checks you put on yourself, your luggage might be a little heavier to carry but you’re going to handle some situations differently. I’ve never been able to straight up throw someone off me, I’ve seen people do it, and I understand why they do it- I’m not saying everybody’s wrong and I’m right- but there are things that I have not been able to bring myself to do that I’ve seen others do when it comes to dealing with invasions of their personal space. I’m more likely to try and handle it in a way that’s a little more subtle. I try and be quick to remember that this is that persons only chance- they can’t believe that they wound up in the grocery store and I happened to be in the grocery store too, and they can’t believe their luck. They want a second, so you try to give it to them. In the social media culture there’s more of the picture taking thing, and that’s tough because anybody, if you just walked up to them and asked to take a picture, half the people would say “no”, and if that’s happening to you in some cases multiple times a day, or if you’re on tour and you’re pulling into town, anywhere you go it’s likely to happen dozens of times, cos they know you’re in town and in a small city it might THE event in town that night. If you don’t want to deal with that, just don’t leave your hotel room."
It’s what you represent isn’t it? you’re a little bit of rock n’roll that’s wandered into their town
"Right- it’s bigger than all of us, bigger than any individual. That’s something that I don’t think you can ever fully get your head around- you just try to do the best you can. You make it about the work- make it about every gig. Make it about the moment, make it about the record or the interview or whatever."
You have a unique place, because you went the long way round- you skipped the bit where you’d have the existential struggle, you entered the big world-beating band when it was okay to be that…
"It’s interesting you say that, because I think that whether I consciously knew it or not there were a lot of self-sabotaging things that happened in the period where I might have had to face that existential dread straight on. If something had happened for me in the 90s it would have been really tough to handle that- I watched some of the guys I liked, I liked the music that came out of Seattle and I liked what they were trying to say, not only musically but to the culture through interviews. I watched them take it right on the chin, right on the nose, I watched what happened to them as a result. All of those bands suffered some sort of head on collision and all of the fallout from that. In the most extreme cases there were people that did not survive it, and even the people that survived, mortally speaking, they paid a heavy price. Pearl Jam had to straight up pull back, Vedder had to go “I don’t even want it, I don’t care what it does to our ‘career’, either we put the breaks on or I gotta go”. You’re literally talking about life and death, you’re talking about your life creatively speaking and spiritually and literally. I think if something had happened to me, if I didn’t take the long way round, who knows how it would have turned out? It probably wouldn’t have turned out as well. I can’t help but think that if destiny has a part to play in any of this stuff, if there are angels and spirits looking out for us, maybe I was one of the lucky ones? I had an interesting journey and it didn’t involve what you said. Sometimes I felt I missed the boat, or whatever, but it worked out the way it had to, because I’m here, I’m together, I have all of that experience and I can bring it to this table, I can bring it to whatever else I do from here on. This adds to that experience. Overall I’m really cool with it."
And suddenly you’re in one of those huge bands. Did you ever expect that to happen?
"Well the first gig I did was a VH1 show, I think it was called Decades Rock Live. It was in an arena in New Jersey, and it was filmed for television- that was the first gig I did with Alice In Chains. Originally Phil Anselmo was going to sing ‘Would?’ and I’d dd ‘Man In A Box’. It probably would have ended up that I wouldn’t have been in the programme, because to the producers you’ve got a choice between Anselmo whose got this long, public history with the band, singing one of Alice In Chains’ best known songs, and then you’ve got me, a complete unknown doing ‘Man In A Box’. What happened was Anne Wilson of Heart was supposed to sing ‘Rooster,’ but earlier that day for the purposes of camera blocking or whatever, I sang it because I was there and Anne hadn’t made it downstairs yet, she came in about midway through and when she saw me do ‘Rooster’ she said “okay, you’re going to have to do that song”. It was supposed to be Anne’s big moment with Alice, on her gig. It was Heart’s gig, they just asked Alice to be part of it as part of announcing that there’d be public activity for Alice In Chains now- this was Alice’s coming out party, and Heart -the Seattle home girls- are going to host this thing. Her moment was supposed to be ‘Rooster’, they’d been talking about it in all the papers and everything, “wait til you hear Anne sing ‘Rooster’”, and then she gave the song to me! It blew the whole thing out of the water. It was great because her doing that guaranteed me a spot in the show when it was broadcast, which gave birth to this proper resurrection of the band. It was broadcast as we were starting to tour in 2006 so the timing was really fortuitous. It was really kind on her part, because that doesn’t happen in show business very often."
Can you remember your first Alice headline show?
"That stuff is a blur- the first thing was the VH1 thing, the second was at the Moore Theatre in Seattle so you’re diving into such deep crazy water that you can’t even think about it, incase you just shut down. There’s the whole history of the whole thing- you’re back stage and there’s Layne’s Mom, there’s his Dad, there’s Kim Thayil, there’s all these people from their past, some of whom you know from seeing their faces on record covers you bought when they came out, some of whom you don’t know because they were just people in the scene, just like I had people in my scene in Atlanta. These people who’ve known you for years. It was so crazy- again it was just about focusing on the gig, focusing on the music, let the chips falls where they may, focus on yourself, go out and do your thing. I remember little bits and pieces, but a lot of it was just head-down and plough through. You’ve got Seattle, then you’ve got to go to San Francisco, the LA at the Roxy- a series of little warm up dates in clubs. Then we flew to Boston, then New York, then Europe- so my sixth gig was 40,000 people outside in Portugal. All of it was having your little surf board and then the tsunami comes- you ride or die. "
Did you always know you’d follow up the first record with Alice, Black Gives Way To Blue with another? There was a suggestion that was a one-time thing…
"We didn’t talk about it consciously, and whenever we were asked in interviews we’d give the standard line, “oh we’ll just see what happens”, because you want to be non-committal. As we said when we were asked that question, and as we know, making plans too far in advance is a fools game and life’s going to take you where it’s going to take you. You can have hopes and dreams, but plans? That’s another thing. I think we were smart to stay non-committal about whether there was going to be another record- that gives you the headroom to naturally evolve to that place. “Here’s a couple of demos” or whatever. You kind of allow it happen without having some sort of grand design hanging over you. Maybe that’s just a psychological trick to play on ourselves, but it seems to work. I think if one were going to be completely honest about that question, I think all of us would have thought it would be silly to stop there, or have there be ten years between albums. Whether we wanted to admit or not, there was a momentum that was created leading into Black Gives Way To Blue and that momentum increased touring that album. It’s only natural that, if people are going to call Black Gives Way To Blue our Back In Black you’ve got to follow it with our For Those About To Rock, you’ve just got to do it. If someone had tried to tell us that we’d have balked, that’s just how it is."
I suppose that’s the advantage to being the type of band you are, not at behest of a record company frees you from that sort of pressure…
"Again, about the luxury of taking your time in the studio and the luxury of being left to your own devices when making a record, it’s a very very rare position to be in, where once the record’s done there isn’t that same level of record company interference. There’s none of this “go and write some singles! I don’t hear any singles here!” We’re really lucky for that, and we don’t take it advantage at all. At the same time there’s a really tremendous force aligned to take whatever we do give and say “this could do really well”, but they’re taking what we give them- the song’s aren’t written with that in mind. That’s a really cool thing. Really cool. Take a song like ‘Hollow’, which was put out essentially as what we call a “street track”, and it got to number one at radio in America- that’s rarefied air. That’s really cool. "
How does the songwriting dynamic within the band work? Does someone come in with a finished song and say “learn it”? Or do you each contribute riffs and ideas?
"It’s all of the above. I think Cantrell had ‘Voices’ pretty much together, I probably put some harmonies or something, but that one came fully formed. Others, like ‘The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here’, that came more out of a jam kind of thing, I know ‘Phantom Limb’ was a musical demo that was sent to me, which I immediately reacted to, and within a day or so had written all the words for it. Within the first few minutes I had a couple of lines for it, and over the next day or so I refined it. All that stuff happened pretty quickly. Basically within 48 hours of them sending the musical demo I sent them back a fully formed vocal track, pretty much what you here on the record. The actual recording was reproducing what I did at home. It never had a solo, so at one point where we were at Hanson, deep into recording, Cantrell asked me “do you wanna play the solo on that, cos I don’t have anything.” Things can come together a lot of different ways."
That must be a really cool moment, to step up from ‘You’ve been asked to sing with the band’ to ‘you’ve been asked to record with the band’ to ‘hey, write the guitar solo’...
"It’s cool for me, because I’m a guitar player first and foremost. The singing thing happened through weird twists of fate, I still don’t understand how that all went down. It’s great to be able to do both, but a guitar player- that was all I wanted to be when I was a pretty small kid, about eight years old. To get to represent that in Alice In Chains is nice."
9 – Alexandra Palace, London
10 – Leeds, 02 Academy
11 – Manchester, Academy
13 – Birmingham, 02 Academy
14 – Glasgow, O2 Academy
16 – Newport, Centre
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