Alice in Chains is one of the most enduring hard rock bands of its generation. The gloomiest and heaviest of grunge’s Big Four, the Seattle quartet born under the Ballard Bridge helped set the stage for the era-defining rock movement’s national breakthrough by combining dark-cloud sludge riffs and rhythms, brooding ballads and the stirring two-part harmonies of late frontman Layne Staley and guitarist/vocalist Jerry Cantrell.
Its debut album “Facelift” — which recently got the 30th anniversary reissue treatment — became the first grunge record to go gold, setting the stage for a pop culture takeover by an unlikely brigade of Seattle misfits. The band weathered the losses of two founding members, recruiting others to help continue Alice’s legacy. In 1993, Mike Inez took over bass duties for Mike Starr, who died in 2011, and singer/guitarist William DuVall stepped in for late great frontman Layne Staley as the band returned from an extended hiatus in the mid-2000s.
On Dec. 1, MoPOP salutes the Seattle rock greats with its Founders Award — an honor that doubles as the big annual fundraiser for the museum, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. With COVID-19 thwarting its annual in-person, all-star jam, this year’s prerecorded virtual event is more accessible — and its lineup more stacked — than ever before. Performers include pals and peers Metallica, Billy Corgan, Korn, Slipknot’s Corey Taylor, Mastodon and fellow hometown heroes Ann Wilson, Duff McKagan, Krist Novoselić, Mark Lanegan, members of Soundgarden with Mike McCready and Tad Doyle, and many more. Plus: special appearances from Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and Jeff Ament, Tom Morello, Sammy Hagar and others. (Check out the full lineup here.)
Ahead of the virtual show — streaming free, with donations appreciated, at 6 p.m. Dec. 1 through MoPOP’s Facebook page and Amazon Music’s app and Twitch channel — The Seattle Times caught up with founding members Cantrell and drummer Sean Kinney, to discuss the trials and triumphs of a band that could never be put in a box.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Seattle Times: You guys are no strangers to accolades, but what does it mean for you to be acknowledged by a Seattle institution like MoPOP?
Cantrell: We were just thinking about starting this band in the Music Bank [rehearsal studios] under the Ballard Bridge in 1987. You kinda go through life and you deal with what’s in front of you. But every once in a while you take a look back and this affords the opportunity to do that.
It’s a pretty amazing thing. Lot of respect for Paul Allen and the love and care he had for music and artists. Also, being a part of a few of these Founders Awards for Jimmy Page, The Doors and John Fogerty — being a participant honoring an artist and now being the artist honored, it’s pretty humbling. So many of our compatriots, buddies in other bands and artists we admire contributed to this. I haven’t even seen all of them and I’m purposefully waiting to see it all in the show.
(Sean Kinney joins the call.)
Kinney: OK, the interview can really start now. Whatever that crap Cantrell was saying, throw it in the garbage, because the man’s here.
ST: Ha-ha. Hey, welcome Sean. Do these events [make] you reflect on the times particularly with Layne and Mike Starr?
Cantrell: Absolutely. When we were doing the performances [for the Founders Award], part of the thing where they wheeled out the awards and we had one for Mike and one for Layne to give to their families. They’re always with us.
Kinney: For me personally, half the drive to still even move forward and keep going is for what the four of us created that other people made their own and cared about. Early on, and I still do derive a lot of strength continuing that. Life gets very complicated and will knock you down. These situations aren’t unique to us. The only thing unique about it is it happens in public. It’s a catch-22, because you become a walking tombstone for your brothers. That’s a beautiful thing — people wanna pay respect. But you’re also a human and it’s hard. I personally wasn’t prepared — how could you be prepared? — to deal with these things. We each built our own set of armor over time.
ST: Jerry, you mentioned starting at the old Music Bank. You had just come back from Texas, your mother and grandmother had passed. What did it mean for you to have the band coalesce when it did?
Cantrell: It’s kinda funny, you know. I was never raised with too much religious dogma. But I do believe there is a balance in nature and there is a flow, and I’ve found oftentimes in those hardest times — those real kicks to the teeth that life will throw you — usually the universe provides. For what is taken away, a new thing is given. And I always felt that I was given the guys. I was given a new family to start again with. Then further down, when things happened the way they did with our family, we added to the family and kept going.
ST: “Facelift” was one of the foundational albums for the Seattle rock movement of that time. Thirty years later, how do you see that record?
Kinney: I don’t spend a lot of time looking back. We collectively don’t because we haven’t done what most people do — your 20-year anniversary and your 25th anniversary. This is the first time we’ve done anything like this and it took us 30 years.
We had great advice from [manager] Susan Silver and our lawyers to fight for the rights to be able to pick your songs and do these things. Hearing “Man in the Box” was too slow and depressing and will never work — well, we were like, that’s cool. We get it. But refer to Page 262 of the contract. We’re just gonna put it out. And it worked. We’ve always done what we wanted, when we wanted and it’s given us a lot of freedom.
ST: Around “Facelift,” you did a West Coast tour with the Pearl Jam guys when they were still Mookie Blaylock. Any memories that stand out from that tour?
Cantrell: The sense of community. It was just fun and it was all new. We all dug each other, we all got along. There wasn’t a whole lot of rock beefs or anything. Yet. [Laughs.] While everybody was focused on their particular little groups, you weren’t unaware of the fact that the whole had more power than the individual bands. You could feel this thing building.
You could never expect that you could actually do this, be an artist for real. The possibility of that really started to come into focus. That’s the thing I remember the most, the possibility. And also, there was a feeling that the good guys were [expletive] winning.
Kinney: It wasn’t overnight. I remember when it changed. We would be out with, like, Slayer and all this stuff. We’re the opening band, just people raining [expletive] at us. There was a lot of pushback and resistance and we really embraced it. You lived in this chaos. You created it sometimes when it wasn’t around so you could feel alive.
Then all of a sudden you could feel it. Where’s the hate? It was kind of a shock. So now everybody likes us? We’ve just been out here for a year keeping our heads on a swivel because people are throwing [expletive] at us and [we’re] telling ’em to [expletive] off over a PA, “[Expletive] you!” Now all of a sudden, it’s like, bang. Everybody likes you and there’s some guys on a jet flying out to take pictures with a platinum record or something.
ST: The 2005 tsunami relief show was a pivotal point for Alice, being the first time you played those songs after Layne’s death. What did it feel like playing those songs for the first time without him?
Kinney: It was for another cause that was bigger than us, and I personally focused on all that, and that there were other people singing. So it wasn’t really that, even though it was.
Cantrell: There was a real [philanthropic] outpouring across the globe. We weren’t even really thinking about starting [up the band], we were just thinking about the event. But the reality of when you’re standing on that stage and you haven’t played without [expletive] Layne and you invite a bunch of friends up — that’s when it settled in for me. It was tough. But it was also a really healing and important moment.
ST: With “Rainier Fog” [the 2018 album that marked the first time in more than 20 years that AIC recorded in Seattle], the title track was an homage to your early Seattle roots and the scene at that time. What were you thinking about and what prompted that reflection?
Cantrell: It starts from the tune. That’s where my mind and that vibe was when I started listening to that song. You go with vibe. I was just taking into account where we’ve come from, what we’ve been through and how amazing this journey is, how proud we are to be where we’re from. Having this conversation with the Founders Award, that’s all interconnected.
ST: Heart [embraced] you and a lot of your peers. When you were coming up, what was your relationship like with the Wilson sisters? And what was it like having someone from Seattle who had been to the mountaintop as you were on the way up?
Cantrell: That was really meaningful to all of us [for them] to be as human and welcoming and understanding, and to be able to ask them advice. You gotta get over like, “That’s [expletive] Ann Wilson! That’s Nancy Wilson, man.” But we got over that pretty quick because they were homies.
They’ve always been there for us, man. All of the next generation of bands. That was a pretty cool lesson and affirmation to have them be so welcoming and open with their time, and jamming and including us in stuff. I still get a little goofy around them, but I keep it on the inside.
Kinney: They just live and breathe music. You kinda get jealous of ’em. Every time you’re around ’em — “Grab a guitar, let’s do a hootenanny!” It’s like, Jesus Christ! And they’re just ripping out tunes — how do you know all this [expletive]? It’s so amazing and beautiful. You get these private concerts sometimes. It’s like, is this really happening?
ST: Sean, you were among the investment group that reopened The Crocodile in 2009. What does The Crocodile mean to you and why did you want to get involved with bringing it back to life? [Note: This interview occurred before The Seattle Times broke the news of The Crocodile’s relocation.]
Kinney: It’s a huge part of this town. It has a history and those sized venues are where all the next Led Zeppelins [are] gonna show up, and all the [expletive] that’s gonna keep making us spaz out about music. Those sized venues are where 99.9% of professional musicians can make a living playing. And they need to exist.
ST: How do you hope the band is remembered here in Seattle, whenever you decide to hang it up?
Cantrell: That’s for everybody else to say. We did what we felt was right. We created some music that we care about and other people seem to care about, too. We’re part of a community that has a really strong artistic community. I’m happy with that.
Kinney: I hope when people look at the old car of Seattle, they’ll recognize our dent in the fender. Like, “Ah, that dent still exists. That fender, I don’t know how it’s even on the car still. [Laughs.] Is this thing still drivable? That must have been Alice.”