Metal Hammer (UK) - - News - WORDS: STEPHEN HILL


The first time Dave Jer­den heard Alice In Chains, he thought they were a mess. It was 1988, and Dave, who had just pro­duced Jane’s Ad­dic­tion’s ground­break­ing Noth­ing’s Shock­ing al­bum had been given the band’s demo tape by an A&R friend at Sony. De­spite the grow­ing buzz sur­round­ing their home­town of Seat­tle, the band’s mu­sic was all over the place, and no pro­ducer wanted to touch them. But there was one song in which he heard the sound of the fu­ture.

“I for­get which song it was, but it was the clos­est to the Alice In Chains we know now, with the drop-D tun­ing,” says Dave to­day. “I met with the band and told them what I thought, that their songs were a mess. But I also said to Jerry Cantrell that I liked what he was do­ing. It was like if Me­tal­lica had sped Tony Iommi’s riffs up, then brought them back down again.”

Dave’s fore­sight was bang on the money. Within 18 months, Alice In Chains had leapfrogge­d the likes of Soundgar­den and Nir­vana to be­come grunge’s first su­per­stars. With their de­but al­bum, Facelift, they be­came the first band from the Seat­tle scene to sell half a mil­lion records, open­ing the door for ev­ery­one to fol­low. And in Layne Sta­ley, they had a truly iconic singer: tor­tured, charis­matic, ul­ti­mately doomed.

“Facelift was where Alice In Chains found their style,” says Dave Jer­den. “And Man In The Box was the first song that in­tro­duced the world to the grunge sound. It was never a case of luck. That record was meant to be.”

When Jerry met Layne, grunge was barely a twin­kle in Kurt Cobain’s eye. It was 1987, and the top dogs of the Seat­tle scene were prog-metal pioneers Queen­srÿche and B-list thrash­ers Metal Church.

Layne and Jerry had che­quered mu­si­cal pasts – the for­mer as the singer of glam metal band Sleze, the lat­ter as gui­tarist with bouf­fan­thaired rock­ers Di­a­mond Lie. But they had plenty in com­mon. Both had trou­bled back­grounds. Jerry’s mother had died of can­cer when he was young, and he wasn’t close to his fa­ther. Layne had been kicked out of his house by his mom. They bonded over fam­ily, drugs and mu­sic.

“We met at a party,” Jerry told au­thor Mark Yarm in the book Ev­ery­body Loves This Town.

“I didn’t have a place to live so he in­vited me to this place where he lived called Mu­sic Bank. He was just such a cool fucking guy and his voice was amaz­ing. I knew I wanted to be in a band with him right off the bat.”

The pair stum­bled through var­i­ous com­bi­na­tions of band names be­fore set­tling on

Alice In Chains, bor­rowed from a name Layne’s old band had briefly used. The line-up was com­pleted by bassist Mike Starr and drum­mer Sean Kin­ney.

Their demo, The Tree­house Tapes, ended up in the hands of Nick Terzo, an A&R man with Columbia Records, who signed the band. Nick passed it on to Dave Jer­den, who told the band they should go in and record an­other demo. A few months later, Dave re­ceived a new six­track tape. One of the songs was Man In The Box, des­tined to be­come AIC’s break­through hit.

“When I got that six-track demo, and it had Man In The Box and all the great songs from that first al­bum, that’s when I re­ally thought we could be on to some­thing.”

Dave trav­elled up to Seat­tle to start work­ing on Alice In Chains’ de­but al­bum. The band took him out to the lo­cal clubs, where he saw grunge pioneers such as Soundgar­den and Mother Love Bone. “You could tell that some­thing was in the air,” he says. “I had kind of been aware of this ‘Seat­tle sound’ that peo­ple were talk­ing about, but to be there felt very ex­cit­ing.”

Not that Alice were en­tirely ac­cepted by their grunge peers. Soundgar­den gui­tarist Kim

Thayil re­called their early demos “owed a lit­tle bit more to Poi­son”. He claimed that the band changed their ap­proach when they heard Soundgar­den. “Jerry asked me how to play songs like Be­yond The Wheel [from Soundgar­den’s 1988 de­but, Ul­tramega OK],” he re­mem­bered. “I said, ‘There’s this thing called drop-D tun­ing. A short time later they recorded a demo of the songs you hear on Facelift and they had that drop-D tun­ing on them.”

Work be­gan on Facelift at Lon­don Bridge Stu­dios, out in the woods a long drive from the cen­tre of Seat­tle. De­spite Layne’s es­ca­lat­ing drug use, the prob­lems were phys­i­cal rather than phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal.

“Sean Kin­ney had bro­ken his arm and couldn’t play,” re­calls Dave. “We got the


drum­mer from Pearl Jam to cover him but he couldn’t do it, so Sean played on that record with a bro­ken arm.”

The dark­ness that would de­scend on Alice In Chains was still a way off. Dave re­mem­bers there be­ing a real ca­ma­raderie be­tween the band­mem­bers. “Those guys came from the same sort of crazy back­grounds, and they banded to­gether like a fam­ily,” says the pro­ducer.

“We’re all out­casts,” Jerry later told Spin mag­a­zine. “We just want to be able to look each other in the eye and go, ‘This is pretty cool.’ That’s all you need – ev­ery­body groov­ing on the same thing.”

Songs such as Man In The Box, We Die Young and Bleed The Freak were shot through with dark im­agery, but the band sub­se­quently de­nied they were about drugs or the at­ten­dant life­style. Layne claimed that Man In The Box was in­spired by mass me­dia cen­sor­ship, while Jerry claimed We Die Young came about af­ter he spot­ted a gang of pre-teen drug deal­ers on the way to re­hearsals. “See­ing all these 9, 10, 11 year-old kids with beep­ers deal­ing drugs equalled ‘We died young’ to me,” he wrote in the liner notes to 1999’s Mu­sic Bank box set.

“I be­lieve that Layne was a sen­si­tive per­son at­tracted to dark­ness,” Dave shrugs, “but I never saw any ev­i­dence of drugs in the stu­dio. Not once. I be­lieve that on Facelift, Layne was por­tray­ing a dark world from the out­side look­ing in. It’s only later t hat they were right in­side it look­ing out.”

We Die Young was re­leased as a ra­dio sin­gle in July 1990, and Facelift fol­lowed a month later. It sounded like noth­ing else at the time. Black Sab­bath were seen as an over-the-hill joke by the turn of the 1990s, and few bands wore their in­flu­ences as openly as Alice In Chains. Even more unique were Layne and Jerry’s in­ter­twined har­monies, ei­ther heav­enly or hellish de­pend­ing on the song. But with grunge yet to take root in the broader public con­scious­ness, it was a tough sell, as the band found out first hand.

The Clash Of The Ti­tans was one of the land­mark heavy metal pack­age tours of the early 90s. The US leg kicked off in May 1991 and fea­tured Me­gadeth, Slayer and An­thrax. San Fran­cisco thrash­ers Death An­gel were due to open, but can­celled fol­low­ing a tour­bus crash. En­ter Alice In Chains – not only a rel­a­tively un­known name, but not even a thrash band.

“They were out there in front of 15,000 Slayer, An­thrax and Me­gadeth fans that were pelt­ing them ev­ery night with crap,” re­called An­thrax gui­tarist Scott Ian. “But they never let any of it get to them. And then of course, Man In The Box broke and all those peo­ple

that were throw­ing beer cups at them went out and bought their record. So Alice, they got their re­venge.”

Re­leased in spring 1991, Man In The Box was a slow starter. “At first, ra­dio wouldn’t touch it be­cause they said that Layne’s voice was wrong,” says Dave. “It was just a sta­tion in Texas that put it on syn­di­ca­tion and the reaction was wild, so ev­ery­one fol­lowed suit.”

MTV even­tu­ally picked up on the song, and Facelift started to rapidly gain trac­tion. Hav­ing sold just 40,000 copies in its first few months, it shifted more than 400,000 copies in six weeks on the back of Man In The Box. Be­fore Nir­vana, Pearl Jam or Soundgar­den, Alice In Chains had be­come the first of Seat­tle’s grunge bands to crack the main­stream.

There was still plenty of work to do. Shortly af­ter their Clash Of The Ti­tans stint, Alice be­gan a lengthy, 60+ date tour open­ing for hard rock leg­ends Van Halen. It was to­wards the end of that run that Dave Jer­den re­con­nected with his for­mer charges, only to find them in a very dif­fer­ent state of mind.

“I went to see them just be­fore we went in to do [Alice’s sec­ond al­bum] Dirt,” says the pro­ducer. “I asked them, ‘What’s it like to be fa­mous?’ and they all said, ‘We hate it.’ Es­pe­cially Layne. He said, ‘Peo­ple treat you like an ob­ject. They just want a piece of you.’”

The singer was deal­ing with his own demons. He was deep in a heroin habit that would last un­til the end of his life. It made the at­mos­phere in the stu­dio very dif­fer­ent to when Dave and the band be­gan work on Dirt.

“Some­thing had hap­pened to that fam­ily,” says Dave. “It was drugs, that was ob­vi­ous. Layne started record­ing a week af­ter get­ting out of rehab. They sud­denly seemed to be liv­ing the dark­ness that they were only ex­plor­ing on songs like We Die Young from the first record. That’s what they wanted, but you have to be care­ful what you wish for, I guess.”

Dirt was an al­to­gether darker record, and the true start­ing point for Alice In Chains’ – and es­pe­cially Layne’s – de­scent into hell. There were mo­ments where the dark­ness lifted – most no­tably the band’s stel­lar MTV Un­plugged show – but the lights went out com­pletely when the singer backed away from public life in 1996.

To­day, Alice In Chains stand as one of the great bands of the 90s. Dirt rightly stands as their mas­ter­piece, but Facelift is no less im­por­tant. With­out it, the 1990s could have been very dif­fer­ent.


Jerry Cantrell: his har­monies and drop-D tun­ing gave AIC the dis­tinc­tive sound they still have to­day

Layne and Jerry per­form­ing at the Lime­light in New York City, Oc­to­ber 27, 1990

AIC, 1990 (left to right): Layne Sta­ley, Mike Starr, Sean Kin­ney, Jerry Cantrell

Alice in Chains in Chicago in 1990, the year Facelift was un­leashed upon the world

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