"My two favorite singers are Freddie Mercury and Layne Staley," Alice in Chains bassist Mike Inez says. "Everyone tried to duplicate them, but nobody could."
Inez got the rare opportunity to work with one of his all-time favorite vocalists when he left Ozzy Osbourne's band in 1993 to join Alice in Chains. "I think we had three rehearsals and then played something like 28 gigs in 32 days," he says with a laugh. "We just never looked back." During his time in the band, which followed the departure of founding bassist Mike Starr, Inez spent the next nine years laying the sludgy foundation for Staley's mordant howls and harrowing harmonies on the group's Jar of Flies EP and self-titled and MTV Unplugged albums. They worked out songs like "I Stay Away" and "God Am" together, as well as performing Alice classic like "Man in the Box" and "Rooster" at concerts, give or take some time Staley worked with his side band Mad Season. It was a happy time for the bassist.
In April 2002, Staley passed away following years of drug addiction at the age of 34. But Inez says that the way his bandmate has been portrayed negatively in the press following his death has been grossly inaccurate. "I've noticed when people die, it seems like the general public kind of romanticizes it," he explains. "They look for a lot of extra stuff when just the 'real' was good enough. Layne was just a fantastic human."
While Alice in Chains were still touring in support of their 2009 album, Black Gives Way to Blue, which was their first without Staley as their frontman, Revolver caught up with Inez to remember one of his favorite singers. As we talked about what the vocalist was like and Inez's favorite memories of him, the bassist commented, "Layne would be giggling right now if he knew we were doing this."
WHAT WAS LAYNE STALEY LIKE AS A PERSON?
MIKE INEZ He was such a bright light. He had just the bluest eyes. He lived for humor. The main thing for me was just his laugh. You could hear it all the way across the room, and there was just, like, realness to it. He was just such a real human being, and such a good human, too. He never had an ulterior motive. He'd never do any racist jokes. I never heard him talk shit about anybody. He was always very supportive of other bands. He wasn't the kind of guy to want to be the center of attention. He was really kind of a low-key guy. He just had an amazing vibe.
I remember one time going to the Grammys with him. We'd go to these Grammy parties with people like Robert De Niro, Michael Bolton, and Nicollette Sheridan—all these crazy celebrities—and then you've got these wacky grunge guys walking in. But no matter who was in the room, everybody would always look at Layne. He just had this compelling energy about him. It's hard to put your finger on.
WHAT WAS LAYNE LIKE TO WORK WITH ON SONGWRITING?
He was great. The first song I co-wrote with him was "A Little Bitter," for the Last Action Hero soundtrack, and then the two songs I brought in for Jar of Flies were "I Stay Away" and "Rotten Apple." Layne wrote the melodies for all of those songs.
Looking back, we had just a special, magical chemistry. It was really nice to watch Layne approach a vocal line. He was so different. He would do it almost backwards—he would do all the harmonies first, and a lot of the harmonies sounded out of key or something, like, it didn't quite work. And he'd go, "No, just hold on." So we'd let him go. And he would bring in the main vocal, and it would tie all these radical harmonies together. He just had a really good sense of the song as a whole. I always thought he was experimental. He didn't always know exactly what he was going for. He just went in there and would just dig. We trusted him.
DID HE LABOR LONG ON THINGS LIKE HARMONIES?
No. We wrote, recorded, and mixed Jar of Flies in 10 days, between two tours. When it debuted at No. 1, we were laughing to ourselves like, "Maybe we should've spent 12 days on it, or two weeks, or a month." But that was the cool thing about that scene at the time.
I always thought that being sequestered in the Pacific Northwest, there was time for bands like Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Nirvana to marinate as bands and discover their sound before they were put on a world stage. And every one of those singers, too, sounds different from the other guy. Layne was my favorite. He was just such an original American voice.
YOU MENTIONED HOW HE WOULD BUILD SONGS FROM VOCAL HARMONIES. WHAT DO YOU MEAN?
Take the way "We Die Young" begins, where he would just make a really weird and cool humming sound. If anyone else came in and started singing that, we would have laughed it out of the room, but now it's just part of the history of that song.
He was definitely not afraid to take any chances. He didn't let popular trends affect how he wrote. He was kind of introspective.
WHAT SONG MAKES YOU THINK OF LAYNE MOST?
I think the No. 1 for me is "Nutshell." Layne was very honest with his songwriting. And in "Nutshell," he really put everything in a nutshell for everybody. That song still gets me choked up whenever I play it. I get a little teary-eyed, and sometimes when we're doing the arena runs especially, they'll have some video footage of Layne. And I look and see me and Jerry [Cantrell, vocals and guitar] and Sean [Kinney, drums] looking the wrong way. We're not looking at the audience, we're looking back at Layne, and it's pretty cool that there's still that song for us. Yeah, it's just a sad thing. This Black Gives Way to Blue album was kind of a healing album for us, saying goodbye to Layne on some level. I thought it was a very special and important record for us. But as my friend Lemmy would say, "We all gotta die." It's just a drag when it's about 50 years too early.
YOU MENTIONED BEFORE THAT LAYNE SUPPORTED OTHER BANDS. WHAT DO YOU REMEMBER ABOUT DOING LOLLAPALOOZA '93 WHEN YOU TOURED WITH SO MANY BANDS?
We had Tool, Rage Against the Machine, Fishbone, Dinosaur Jr., Primus, and Arrested Development. By the end of that six-week tour, we were all jamming with each other. Dudes would come down with us, and we'd go jam with them.
But there was this crazy industrial German band called Front 242, and they didn't speak good English. They were always doing their own thing. Turns out they were great guys; it was just hard to relate to them because they were so foreign and everything was just a traveling circus.
By the end of the tour, for some reason, Layne just loved that band. He would go up and jam with them, it was really cool. Out of the all the rocks stars—Rage Against the Machine and Tool and all the rock star bands—he wanted to jam with the opener and play some crazy industrial music.
HOW DID HE HANDLE TIME OFF ON THE ROAD?
I remember one time when we had a few days off in Japan. And after a few days we couldn't find Layne anywhere. Me and Jerry and Sean we're just, like, traveling the streets of Tokyo, looking in all the bars for him. After a while, me and Jerry were like, "Ah, fuck it. Let's just got to this bar we heard of where models hang out."
So we're walking to the bar, and we look behind the bar and, true story, there's Layne blowing fire behind the bar and being a bartender. So we went up there and were like, "What the fuck are you doing?" And he was like, "I just wanted to feel normalcy." So he got a job at a bar for a couple of nights, just to tend bar and didn't even really tell people who he was. He just wanted to do something different. He was just that kind of guy.
DID HE OFTEN GET JOBS ON DAYS OFF?
No, just that one, and it was wild, too. At that point, he just had bright green hair.
HAD HE BLOWN FIRE BEFORE?
Never. We walked in the bar, me and Jerry, and we just see this big flame and we turn around and it's our singer we've been looking for just having a great time. And he had developed friendships with about 20 people there, a bunch of hot American models. Like, shit, I'm hanging out with the wrong guy! He was just really funny.
IT SOUNDS LIKE HE WAS A FUN GUY.
I would always be amazed by all the negative stuff written about Layne, because he had such a capacity for fun. He'd laugh his way around the world. He's still not only my favorite rock voice but probably my favorite laugh in the world. I think that was my one biggest memory of Layne, just his laughter. He was just a lot of fun to hang out with.
I remember this one time near the end of 1993, we were ending a world tour in Melbourne, Australia, I think, and we had a couple days off before we decided to chill out. I get a call from Layne, and we go down and have some Bloody Marys right on the beach. I sat there for, like, four hours with him. That guy had me laughing for four hours straight. That's my one thing: Whenever I go back to Australia or anywhere, we always take Layne with us wherever we go. His name and our band are always going be linked. And we wouldn't have it any other way. We just loved him so much. He was just one of our brothers.