alice in chains
Sean Kinney on the making of Rainier Fog
Now into their fourth decade of existence, it’s been a long road for Alice in Chains. The trials and ultimate tragedy of losing vocalist Layne Staley to addiction in 2002 has been covered, and it’s been 12 years since vocalist William DuVall joined to usher in the second phase of the band. By the time you read this, AiC will have released
RanierFog, their third release featuring DuVall, and it could just be the best offering from this line-up so far. Awash with plenty of the trademark grinding riffs, weaving vocals and hooks, it sees the band sticking with a familiar sound, but without remaining stuck in the past.
One constant in the band is drummer Sean Kinney and his knack for enhancing the song first. At the same time, his grooves and embellishments have made him one of the most interesting players in alternative rock. We caught up with Sean the day after the band’s second UK date to find out more about the process of making RanierFog.
Congratulations on the new album! What’s the typical process for writing with the band now?
“We did almost all the music inSeattle. Jerry [Cantrell, guitar/vocals] splits his time between Seattle and LA, and I spend time in LA, but I spend most of my time in Seattle. We send ideas and scope them out like ‘I dig this!’ but technology has allowed that to move much faster. We can just Dropbox them to each other. We didn’t do as much pre-production on this one as maybe we have on some of the others. I feel like you can just keep demoing the demo over, and then when you go in to make the record something gets lost every once in a while. Like, now you’re trying to perfect something you shouldn’t, or recreate some awesome mistake. There were a lot of song ideas, so me and him went into the studio and jammed through everything. Then we did it again when Nick [Raskulinecz] came up. Then by the time we got into the studio to make the record we just started to pick all the top song ideas and started recording. Some of them were more thought-out, some developed more in the studio.”
Can you explain what your approach is to tracking in the studio?
“We still track things in long takes, not in little chunks. We still do things the way we always did, apart from sometimes I’ll use a click track or scratch guitar. Whereas those earlier records it was just me and Jerry or the band playing live, no click tracks and just getting one take all the way through. We try and do it as old-school as possible; we don’t rely on the technology to fix things. “We use it in the way that I think it should be used which is, if you need to edit things, it’s a lot easier than using tape. I’ll play these songs all the way through, all the way through, all the way through, and it’s like ‘Take 3 was all cool, but I like the end part from take 5, do they work together?’ If not, then I would punch-in and play it again, but basically, we’re still going old-school through the whole thing. Some of the tracks that weren’t fully-formed, I’d do my take and then go back as they got more fleshed out. I’ll kind of play to whatever catches my mind – a guitar riff or a vocal line or the bass. The things I latch on to inspire me to play whatever the hell I end up playing!”
When you started making RainierFog you weren’t connected to a label – was that liberating?
“No, we weren’t. When we first came back and thought we might make new music for BlackGives
WayToBlue after all we’d been through, we were fortunate that we were able financially to be able to make the records we wanted. If we ended up going through that process and felt like we didn’t want to deal with all that or it wasn’t what we hoped for – we could just shelve it and be fine with it. So we sort of went through that process again.
“We did a deal with Virgin/EMI/Capitol for the last two records. We funded BGWTB ourselves and
“I’ll play to whatever catches my mind – a guitar riff or the bass… The things I latch on to inspire me to play whatever the hell I end up playing!”
funded it before we decided who we wanted to partner up with to release it. So we did that and The
Devil Put Dinosaurs Here with them, then that deal was up. When we got around to making this one, we did the same thing again. We funded it ourselves and partnered with BMG and now we’re starting all that process again.
“It’s just a different time. We heard all the same s**t, even when there was a big record company machine and people bought stuff, we were told back then ‘They can’t play seven-minute songs on the radio!’. It’s like, ‘I don’t know, man, they played
Rooster and Down in a Hole quite a few times!’ So we told them that was bulls**t then, Stairway To Heaven was on the radio, and all this music we grew up listening to wasn’t 3:30 long. Luckily, we had good management and back then, in lieu of getting a big signing bonus, we held on to our rights: we can make the records we want, you can’t pick our singles, we do everything, you can’t even listen to our records until we make them and whatever we give you, you put out. But it kind of worked at the time, so by us doing that, they just had to begrudgingly give us respect! If it hadn’t worked… they told us Manina
Box was too slow and depressing, but it worked. We just kind of held on to our own beliefs and we still operate pretty much the same way now.”
You recorded part of the album at Studio X [formerly Bad Animals], the same building where Alice in Chains was recorded – how was that?
“Well, I live in Seattle most of the time, and I’ve been down there and been in there. But it’s like most things – big studios are going away. There’s fewer and fewer, and we just felt this kind of thing that it was important to go back there and make a record there, and everybody was down with it. The truth is, I think that studio is being removed now, I think we might have been the last thing to happen there. So I think life kind of pushes you in all these directions, and maybe that was part of the draw that led us back there. That’s the cool mystic story, but the other one is I got f**king tired of sleeping in my bed in LA! I was like ‘Hey, I made two records down here, you jerks have to come up here!’ [laughs].
“So it was a mix of all that, but also home drives you home, and for Jerry and I that’s our home. For me, unless I’m on the road or need to be in Los Angeles, I don’t really spend most of my time there. It was important to do, and I’m glad we did it. We left Seattle with the bulk of all the music and a litle bit of singing, so we felt like we got what we needed. Then we took a little break and went out to Nick’s studio which is just outside of Nashville where we did most of the vocals. Then at the very end, after we’d lived with it for a while, all roads lead back to Henson in LA. It’s a great place, like a home away from home that we’ve done a lot of work in.
“We kind of cleaned it up there, then this guy Joe Barresi mixed the record. We’ve always wanted to work with him, a lot of our friends have worked with him, but it’s never really come together before. He’s in Pasadena, so we’d go down there and sit with Joe and mix the record. He’s cool, he’s like us, sort of super old-school with all the tracks spread out on this huge desk. He’s not really mixing in the box on a computer, he’s using real gear. It was really great! I’m really glad about how we went about doing
this record. After TheDevilPutDinosaursHere was just such a huge sounding record – guitars upon guitars – I think we consciously pulled it back a little bit. The album is a lot more raw; pretty stripped back to some degree.”
The drums sound very ‘live’, between you, Nick and Joe. How does the drum sound develop?
“I pretty much leave it up to Nick, because he’s just such a f***ing sonic guy. He’s old-school too, does it real, no bulls**t, no sampling, no fix-it-laters. He’s a real big-on-every-instrument nerd. This is the third record we’ve done together and some other little things we’ve done. If he can deal with Neil Peart and everybody like that, I just shut up and let him put whatever snare he thinks there, you know?
“One thing I was thinking about on this record was ‘I’m going to just play a four-piece kit’, and for a lot of it, it is, but then he’d be like ‘We need to add another floor tom!’ and he was right, because for certain songs you needed a different tone. We’d change to a 15" rack tom or an 18" floor tom. We used the same kick drum throughout the whole thing, a bunch of different snares and some cymbals. But for the most part it was kind of a four-piece drum kit. Most of it was DW , my stuff and a mix of his things. Nick has a DW kit that he likes using a lot, so we used that a lot. He has this 24"x16" or 14" kick drum that’s beat to s**t but sounds amazing. It’s bashed up but it sounds killer. That’s the consistent thing on the whole record, everything else would move around a little bit.
“I leave the sound up to them and play, it’s not really my expertise. I might have opinions on things and how I’d like them to sound, so I’ll voice that. But really getting it down, that’s the real deal, there’s thousands of dollars’ worth of microphones just on the drums, through the whole room. They’re all over the place! Nick gets great sounds, and he really knows the band.
“But the thing with being in the studio is that you’re subjected to every squeaky noise, and your breathing. For me it’s really tough because there’s all this stuff that you never really have to deal with. It can be pretty nerve-wracking; it’s not my favourite thing to do. Usually it takes a couple of days for me to relax, but when you f**k up you’re like ‘It’s forever!’ You don’t do that at gigs or any other part of playing music, but in the studio you’re screaming and smashing s**t! It’s a whole other beast, and I really admire people that do that for a living.”
Are you hands on with tuning drums?
“When I tune my snare, I’ll always tune it up too high! When you’re making a record, it’s totally different. Nick spends a lot of time on the snare and the tuning of the drum to fit in with some frequency or note with the track. Sometimes it can be kind of a struggle because the head is really loose and it sounds really thuddy and dead. But then when you hear it in context with the guitars and everything in the control room you go ‘Oh wow!’ But when you’re out there playing it, it’s like ‘This thing sounds like s**t!’. But like I said, the studio is totally different.
“When I get out on tour, I kind of keep it in the middle. Over the last 10-15 years I’ve really tried to train myself to not just sit there cranking the snare. By the end of the night it sounds like a f**king timbale, like ‘What’s going on here?’”
AiCUnplugged is a good example of you tuning it cranked…
“Ha ha! You know how trends are! I think there’s probably a piccolo snare on a few things. People were using those and we were going, ‘These are cool! Piccolo snares are the new thing, so we’ve got to try that out!’ So I’m sure there’s probably something like that on a tune or two back then.
“But I’ve kind of left most of the drum stuff, recording-wise, to the people who we’ve entrusted to capture what we’re doing. Because none of us are studio wizards, and we sort of want to focus on the playing and the performance and leave it to them. We all know how to work the gear a little bit, but none of us are studio nerds. A lot of bands have that, and it’s cool to have a guy in your band to do that, especially if you’re making your own stuff. But I’ve seen that go in the wrong direction a lot too. The band has a sound; we just try to work with people who can understand that and find the best of us.”
Did it take a while to adjust to using a click?
“Well usually Jerry will come up with things slower, and we’ll play them together and I’ll play them faster! Then we’ll work to find the best tempo, and it’s usually a couple of clicks above where he’s at. Sometimes it’s where he was at, but we have to work that out. Everything is usually a little slower to begin with. But with the click, it kind of helps to keep me from racing ahead a little bit. If you listen to all those early albums, there was no click and they’re all one take, so it speeds up and slows down, but all the music I grew up listening to does that. I just come from that world – rock’n’roll isn’t supposed to be perfect, my parents didn’t want me to listen to it, and that’s why I like it! But when [rock] started becoming clinical, I don’t really identify or connect with that style of rock music. But drummers are the timekeeper: you’d better have a good metre, but at the same time it does fluctuate a bit. Almost none of our songs are one tempo all the way through. If you could see [the grid], the intro is one tempo, then the verse is 2bpm faster, then the chorus is 4bpm slower. It’s actually like that, and trying to map that stuff out is a little bit of a chore, but the engineers do that and throw it on the click. Honestly, I should jam with a click more, it’s good for you, but I don’t enough. It kind of frustrates me when I get in the studio and it adds to that stress that’s there already, so that’s something I’m going to work on. I’ve noticed that everybody now over the last 15-20 years, everybody just grew up with it. We’re from an old time, long ago, before there was electricity!”
There’s quite a lot of odd time signatures in AiC – where does that influence come from?
“I like old drummers, because everybody is different and does something that you wouldn’t do. So anybody who has a unique style like Stewart Copeland or Neil Peart, and there’s a lot of contemporaries too. Matt Cameron, he’s a badass. He’s the best at making it feel like 4/4 but he’s playing in 7/8 or something. But I think he plays the same as I do in some ways where it’s not just drums and bass locked up. Some bands it’s like bass and drums: always locked, guitar over here. I go with the guitar more than anything, so everything sort of holds its own space, then you hope at the end of it, it doesn’t sound like a big mess.”
As well as being inventive, you’re always considerate of what’s needed for the song…
“I grew up playing with my grandfather’s band when I was really young, I used to travel with them. They’d play old swing songs and square dances and country tunes and all sorts of s**t, and you just kind of learn when not to play. Like ‘one crash instead of a big huge fill actually works with that song better’. A lot of the time, less is more. You shouldn’t try to shoehorn too many ‘check me out’ moments in there. And in this band it’s not about that, it’s about the song. It’s really a vocal band, and a guitar band, it’s not a prog-rock band. So I just take each song as its own little entity and try to do it justice, whether you’re playing on parts or not or whatever. There’s no ego or any desire to stand out or be part of something. I’m just trying to be part of this thing that we started, and after all we’ve been through and all we’ve won and lost, to still be great friends, and have people we can play to pretty much anywhere in the world, that’s about as good as it gets.”
The finish on your kit is unique – what is it?
“I call it the Liberace Kit because it’s fancy! I had two kits made in that finish, one is over here. I had a kit before this that had these hologram type things on it. But after that I was kind of transfixed with these things that shouldn’t look like drums and can change colour. So my tech and I were online and hunted down this stuff. It’s not supposed to be a drum wrap, it’s just some shiny holographic, prism-type material that they would use for dancefloors and stuff like that! I found it and I was talking to my guys at DW and I was like ‘Hey! I want you to make my drums like this!’ Luckily they’ll do that, and so they made one kit, and there was just enough stuff to make another. They’ve been so great to me for a long time. I would just play the same drums all the time, why do you need 72 kits? You just don’t. You’ve got to store them and they’re in a warehouse and you can’t play them all. So I end up with all these drum kits, and they’re always like ‘Hey! You need a new drum kit, we can build you some new drums!’ and I think, ‘I’ve got plenty of drums!’ you know what I’m saying? Usually when I have the drums made, they’ll make me different sizes, so there’s a 24" kick drum, a 22" and a 20" kick drum. I’ll have a little acoustic kit for each one, that’s out here, I use that in the dressing room and for acoustic sets. These work just fine, they sound great, I like them. This one can look any way you want, whatever colour light you put on it changes the colour, so I like it.”
“If you listen to those early albums, there was no click, so it speeds up and slows down, but all the music I grew up listening to does that”
Times – and technology – have developed AiC’s sound, but the band still stick to their roots in old-school rock’n’roll
Sean has had two custom DW kits made in his current favourite holographic finish