alice in chains

Sean Kin­ney on the mak­ing of Rainier Fog

Rhythm - - FRONT PAGE - Words: STUART WIL­LIAMS photos: Tina Korho­nen

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

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