This article was originally published in April 2013.
"How dare they?"
This was a question that Alice in Chains were certain their fans would be asking when they released their fourth album, Black Gives Way to Blue, in 2009. It was the group's first record in nearly 14 years and it was its first without Layne Staley, the iconic frontman whose acidic snarl defined early '90s Alice classics like "Would?" and "Man in the Box." The singer had died in 2002, and, even though vocalist-guitarist Jerry Cantrell, bassist Mike Inez, and drummer Sean Kinney had reunited a few years later to tour with vocalist-guitarist William DuVall singing some of Staley's parts, Alice in Chains were sure that many fans would perceive a new album of original material to be an audacious step.
So they talked about it. They considered the move from all conceivable angles, discussed how they would answer questions from the press and, more importantly, from their fans. "We were being much harder on ourselves than anybody on the outside could be," DuVall recalls. "And we tried as best as we could to shut out the noise of the outside world, but obviously stuff's going to get through the wall, and you're going to hear stuff, and yeah, 'How dare we?'"
As it turned out, Alice in Chains were rewarded for their daring. Upon its release, Black Gives Way to Blue debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard chart. It achieved gold-record status. And because of instant classics like "Check My Brain" and "Your Decision," which stayed true to and yet expanded upon the gloomy, gnashed-teeth epigrams of Alice tunes of yore, Revolver named it Album of the Year. Alice in Chains had started over, and it was a success.
Now the band, which launches a headlining tour in April, is releasing another full-length, The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here, in May. It is their fifth full-length, but after everything they heroically overcame to reestablish themselves the last time, Kinney, cheekily alludes to déjà vu. "You kind of think, Jeez, do we have to do this sophomore jinx move again?" says the naturally funny drummer, comparing the expectations surrounding the new album to those when Alice followed up their 1990 debut, Facelift, with 1992's Dirt. "That second record can stall a career. Luckily, I don't think people buy records, so it doesn't matter. The label can't get mad. That pressure's not there, so that's cool."
Joking aside, the band members said they did, in fact, feel some anxiety when they were making the new album. And the last record's success didn't make anything any easier. "You're only as good as your latest thing," DuVall says. "I think in the environment of oversharing where everyone has a blog and everyone is a pundit, there's not much room for resting on one's laurels. Plus, whatever scrutiny we get from the outside world, we are so much harder on ourselves. What we put ourselves through, by virtue of who we are, is pretty intense."
Whatever self-analysis Alice in Chains experienced when making The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here paid off, as it continues the through-line of dynamic, soul-grinding songs the band has been following since Facelift. Cantrell, the group's main songwriter, began working on the album shortly after the group finished its 2010 tour. The soaring, acoustic-driven "Voices" was the first to surface.
After that one song, though, Cantrell found himself sidelined for a few months after he went to his doctor, complaining of pain that "feels like an icepick in your joint." "It hurt like hell," he says. "It's a short stabbing pain I would feel just lifting my arm to reach for a soda." It turned out he was suffering from an injury he'd had before, in 2005—an injured glenoid labrum, the cartilage ring in his shoulder socket, worn thin from years of slinging a guitar—so he had to take time off to recover. "It's a pretty painful injury," he says. "I had a couple of good buddies of mine — [pro baseball players] Randy Johnson, Randy Wolf, Brian Wilson, pitcher guys — who pull their arms up a lot and have gone through the same surgery as me. Your cartilage is torn, so your joint is unstable and you get this bone-on-bone thing. That set me back."
While dealing with the injury and the recovery process, he demoed songs by playing riffs on a keyboard and regaling his voicemail with melodies. The bass-heavy, Sabbathian-riffed single "Stone" came about during this time. "I sang it to my phone, which is where it stayed for a good couple of months," he says with a laugh. "When we got to demoing, I found it in my voice messages." For Cantrell, writing the album was a welcome challenge. "You can't rely on what you did before," he says. "Obviously we've been through a lot of stuff, just like any band, but the goal remains the same: to make the best music we can make for us." Then he adds, "Of course you want it to be successful."
After years of music journalists jumping to conclusions about his band, it seems Cantrell has grown weary of explaining himself too much. Profiles of Alice in Chains in Spin and Rolling Stone from the early '90s, when journos were hounding the band for quotes on the five songs on Dirt about heroin use, all describe Cantrell as "guarded," and that remains true today. He remains a mysterious figure in rock, one more willing to talk about the magic of music rather than the spells behind it. When Revolver asks what inspired the heavy, deceptively uplifting-sounding Dinosaurs track "Low Ceiling" — which opens with the sarcastic missive, "Old Mr. Fun is back/Wonder where he's been hiding at"—he raises his famous shield.
"Some songs are easy to explain. 'Rooster,' yeah, I can explain that," he says. "That is what I imagine my father's experience in Vietnam was like, from a first-person experience. That's pretty easy. But a lot of times it's not so easy to decipher what you're writing. And there's a lot of ideas in 'Low Ceiling.' It definitely has a message, as well. A very good chunk of your material, I think it's best to leave that for somebody else's interpretation."
Overall, the band seems determined to have its fans "decipher," to use Cantrell's word, its meanings and messages. Before officially announcing the record's title, it posted a nonsensical string of letters, "H V L E N T P S U S D A H I E E O E D T I U R R," asking fans to descramble The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here. But even now that the public has translated the meaning, Alice in Chains expects people to debate the significance behind the title and the theme of the song.
Beginning with a sinewy, shimmery guitar line that sounds like a Darwinic descendent of Facelift's creepy "Love, Hate, Love," the song unfolds into a commentary on the way religions use irrational beliefs, rather than science, to justify their otherwise inexplicable theories. Chief among them is the extremist Christian idea that the devil has faked carbon-dating results to fool people into thinking the earth is older than 6,000 years, but the group also questions religion's treatment of gays and other groups outside any given faith's trope of believers. Its chorus goes, "The devil put dinosaurs here/Jesus don't like a queer… No problem with faith, just fear." For a band that has written one introspectively themed song after another, the song is a rare turn at facing the viewfinder outward, and the musicians realized both it and the album title would open them up to scrutiny.
"We had to think a bit and discuss what the potential fallout might be," DuVall says. "There's a fine line between provoking and gratuitous offending. And there's also a fine line between provoking and preaching."
"What's the old joke?" Cantrell asks. "There are two things you never want to get into a conversation or argument about: politics and religion. But fuck, I guess we're going to be talking about this for a while." He laughs.
"Betcha nobody named their album that," Kinney says lightheartedly. "Isn't rock supposed to shake things up? When did rock get politically fucking correct? I missed that memo."
When we ask if there was a specific catalyst for the song, we get a wry reply. "Read a fucking paper," Cantrell says. "What I've seen is the most basic message to most faith systems is in contradiction with how it gets applied. The human element seems to fuck it up. It seems to fuck up the basic truths of acceptance, loving your brother, helping each other out, not trying to kill each other or steal each other's shit. Those are all pretty good ideas. And most of your major religions have those things as basic tenets of the belief system. It always amazes me that some of the most hateful and hurtful things are done in the name of some sort of belief system."
As Cantrell pointed out to us earlier, the rest of the album's songs are open to interpretation. It's a strong record that doesn't stray too far from proven Alice formulas, but that isn't a bad thing. For a band proving itself again for a second time — a group who has faced its own mortality in different ways since forming nearly 30 years ago — it provides a confessional and emotional outlet for some guys who treasure their privacy but at the same time aren't afraid to put it out there. And even if they won't talk about their motivations explicitly, it's clear they're still experiencing some catharsis. The lead single, "Hollow," is a glacially paced doom rocker, heightened by Cantrell's signature anxious harmonies, that seems to be about feeling empty inside. The LP's other songs range from bottom-heavy dirges ("Lab Monkey," "Hung on a Hook") to mid-paced doom rockers ("Pretty Done," "Breath on a Window," "Choke"), and are offset by the driving declaration of discomfort that is "Phantom Limb." The song contains a riff that slowly jackhammers its way to a beautifully bleak and viscous chorus, "I'll just haunt you like a phantom limb." They're words that seem to linger as they exit DuVall's lips, and that's partially because, in this case, he wrote them.
For him, the song is a reminder of his early days in Alice in Chains. It's a depiction of both the doubt and the drive he felt, as he mulled the question, "How dare we?"
"I think the song has a tinge of self-determination about it, as I think a lot of my favorite Alice in Chains songs have," he says. "A lot of people dwell on the death-and-decay element in the group's lyrics, and that's fine because that is a part of life, but I've always dug the survivor lyrical thread that runs through the group's entire catalog. The mentality of that tune is that you're going to keep digging 'til your last breath. And if you die, then even your spirit is going to have some things to say."