Interview: William DuVall of Alice in Chains

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alice-in-chainsAlice in Chains, DuVall at right (Photo by James Minchin)
Forging ahead after losing a bandmate, as Alice in Chains guitarist Jerry Cantrell, bassist Mike Inez and drummer Sean Kinney were forced to do after vocalist Layne Staley died in 2002, is always an uncertain prospect. For William DuVall, an Atlanta singer and guitarist who previously led a series of punk and hard-rock groups, the risk was greater: A relative unknown when he joined in 2006, DuVall had to fill the role of an admired star. Following a series of well-received tours, the band's first new album since Staley's passing, Black Gives Way to Blue, went to number 5 on the Billboard 200. Proving its success was no fluke, Alice in Chains headlines Madison Square Garden on September 24 with two highly touted bands, Deftones and Mastodon, as support. TONY spoke with DuVall about the challenges of joining Alice in Chains, the group's future prospects and how it feels to go from sleeping on floors to headlining the Garden. Is it harder to create your own thing from scratch, or to join a well-established band and have to shoulder the expectations that come along with that? For me, it's been more of a challenge to join something. I'm not a joiner by nature! [ Laughs ] Whatever the struggles that accompany building something from scratch, they were my struggles. It's an entirely different set of challenges and obstacles that go with joining something at any level, but especially something that's as huge as Alice in Chains. Having said that, it's been a very fulfilling experience. I think that all of us have had to grow personally, just exponentially, to rise to this occasion. It's just a constant learning curve that I find very interesting. And of course, since we've been on the road for so long supporting Black Gives Way to Blue, we're kind of in a really well-oiled machine-state now. We're playing some of the best shows that we've ever played. So once you get into this groove, it just kind of takes over everything. It's an interesting thing to be inside of that process. From a personal or philosophical standpoint, is it a challenge to get yourself into songs associated with Layne? Do you have to make a special effort to get inside songs that had a life prior to you being there? You do have to make a special effort, because you want to do the material justice and you want to do yourself justice. You just want to do right by the circumstances. But in terms of getting inside the songs artistically, just as a singer, I just key into the very things that made those songs resonate with so many people who bought the records and who have made this music a part of their lives. Not every one of those people who bought a copy of Dirt or whatever was living that specific circumstance that's in some of those songs. But they identified with it, because essentially a song like "Junkhead" is a song about alienation. You get to the root of what these songs are about, and anybody can grasp that. So as a singer, that's where I'm going; I'm going to the heart of the matter, and then singing it from my own place of truth. A song like "Dirt," I understand what that means; I understand what it is to feel like that. I totally get it. So that's how I handle it. What's your own particular specific, individual contribution to Alice in Chains 2010? And would you like to see your role expand as the band rolls on—assuming that you plan to continue? Right, yeah, well, having climbed the hill that we've already climbed to get where we are now, I would think that's a pretty safe assumption. In terms of my specific contribution, we're still working all that out as we go. It's just been a constant process of us learning how to be together. What I bring to the group, without trying to at all minimize or sound slick or whatever, is myself. It's all the experience I've had prior to this, all the bands that I've formed, all the records I've produced, all the floors I've slept on...everything good and bad and in-between. And also just the fact that I'm a guitar player first; that's all I ever really wanted to do. Singing came much, much later in my musical life. I'm glad it did; it was a sort of fortunate circumstance. It came out of necessity. But being an instrumentalist in this band frees us up to do a lot of things that the band couldn't have done to such a degree before. Layne obviously played a bit of guitar, but this is a different thing I'm talking about: This band is a two-guitar band whenever we want to be now. You take a song like "Looking in View" off of Black Gives Way to Blue, and that song is a perfect example of Cantrell and I going head to head, riff for riff, as well as with vocal ideas or lyric ideas. That's part of the reason the song is so damn long—we were like, "What about this? Well, what about this?" and kept joining it all together. That's an example of what I mean, and obviously that translates into the way we do even some of the older songs live. I play on "Rooster," I play on "It Ain't Like That," whereas before those songs were presented as power trio with a singer out front. So this sort of allows us a kind of freedom, and it allows for sonic possibilities that just weren't there. It's not that long ago you guys played two sold-out shows at Terminal 5, and now you're headlining the Garden with two big bands opening for you. Why do you think Alice in Chains is on the rise again? The only thing that I can venture to say is that obviously we've worked really hard, but that doesn't necessary correlate into the kind of growth arc that you're talking about. Somehow, this thing's come along at the right time and under the right circumstances. And we've put a lot of thought into how to handle this situation, because we knew it was a tall order going in, and we also know our history, we know our rock history, we know the extremely low rate of success for other bands that have tried to do something similar. And of course all of those bands, whether successful doing this thing, resurrecting, or not, they had their own story, and we have our own story. We've done so much to try to make our particular story sit well with us as indivuduals, because that's where it all starts. It's just like with the music: If it feels right to you, then that's what you have to go with, because you can't legislate public opinion. The only things you can control are your actions, your work. So while I can't put too fine a point on why this is resonating with people, you can say, for instance—and we've heard this from fans, from people—that this is providing a model or an example for how one might overcome obstacles that seem to be insurmountable in one's own life. There seems to be some resonance there with some people. There's also the fact that, fortunately for Alice, rock radio has never left the band alone, so it's passed on to another generation of people. Couple all of that with the fact that the first time around, Alice was lucky enough to be a part of a kind of a social revolution, or at least a cultural revolution, that took place in rock music. If you're lucky enough to crest on a wave of that size, it's an amazing and rare thing. So you put all of those things together, and that provides at least part of the reason, perhaps. But, you know, at the end of the day I don't really try to think about that too much, because there's just the next immediate goal right ahead of you: the next show, the next video or whatever it is you're working on. What does the future hold with regard to another Alice in Chains record and further activity? At this point we're just about in the third quarter of the Black Gives Way to Blue touring cycle. There's still a lot of miles left to cover. But having said that, there's always riffs and things flying around; that's how Black Gives Way to Blue was largely conceived, little snippets of this or that happening from town to town, on long drives from here to there. The same thing is going on now. Of course, we know from life experience that to make too many plans is usually a slippery slope, so putting any kind of a time frame on when any of these snippets of ideas might coalesce into songs, when we might record those if we do...all of that is just too far away to speculate on right now. But we've obviously created a momentum here; we're very excited about it. The audience has come with us on this journey, and that's all that we could have wished for. In 2006, that was the kind of prize that was way out on the horizon as far as I was concerned. It was just walking out there every day on stage and just saying, I'm here, we're here, you're here, we're all here together...let's just see where it goes tonight. We just did that for 23 countries in 2006 alone, and that momentum carried us eventually into the studio to make this record. And I don't think there's any desire on the part of any of us to stop that momentum, but these things have to take place in their own time. The sort of catchall word that keeps coming up with us is organic, because these things have to grow in their own way and in their own time. But we're excited about it; it's just as exciting not to know where you're going as to know where you might be going. In many ways, it's more exciting. But it's going to lead us to the Garden, and that's almost unbelievable. To headline the Garden—forget about it, man. It really was not that long ago that I was sleeping on a floor next to a cat-litter box, you know? [ Laughs ] So the Garden, that comes out of my mouth and I have to laugh. It's hallowed ground, you know? That's going to be a milestone.

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