Alice In Chains’ latest album, Rainier Fog, was released in August 2018. The band’s sixth LP in a career spanning more than 30 years debuted in the ARIA and US Billboard Top 20 and scored a Grammy nomination. But it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for the Seattle band, who are headed our way for this year’s Download Festival.
Debuting with Facelift in 1990, the hard rock four-piece quickly attracted global interest. The grunge movement, spearheaded by many of their Pacific Northwest contemporaries, was just hitting its stride. Capitalising on this momentum, Alice In Chains achieved a comprehensive breakthrough with 1992’s Dirt, which includes the enduring singles ‘Would?’ and ‘Rooster’.
1995’s Alice In Chains LP further boosted the band’s profile, reaching top spot on the Billboard album chart, but it was to be the last album featuring original lead vocalist, Layne Staley. Staley stopped performing in 1996 due to ongoing struggles with depression and substance abuse. These factors played a part in his untimely death in 2002, which put the band on indefinite hiatus.
It didn’t last long, however, with vocalist William DuVall soon joining guitarist/vocalist Jerry Cantrell, drummer Sean Kinney and bass player Mike Inez. Instead of emulating Staley’s distinct throaty vocal style, DuVall and Cantrell decided to share lead vocal duties on the 2009 comeback album, Black Gives Way to Blue.
Two more albums have followed, but the band members have never been inclined to churn out releases.
“When we were younger we signed a seven album deal and we didn’t even make it that long,” says Cantrell. “To have that sort of a yoke on you, I don’t know that we could work like that now. I think it’s better and more freer that we’re able to operate on, ‘What are we going to do next?’ I think it’s good to not look too far behind you and not look too far down the road. Just be happy where you are.”
Rainier Fog is closely tied to the band’s birthplace. The title refers to Washington State’s highest mountain, Mount Rainier, and Seattle’s famously foggy skies. The recording sessions took place in Studio X – the same place Alice In Chains was recorded.
Coinciding with its release, the band took over a Seattle Mariners baseball game (Cantrell threw the first pitch), sent fans on an AIC-themed scavenger hunt around the city, and hosted a secret gig and pop-up museum at Seattle venue The Crocodile.
“We were talking about where we wanted to record and it just built from there,” says Cantrell. “It wasn’t a big grand master plan; it never really is with us. We just figure it out step by step. The first choice was, ‘Let’s got home and record. Let’s go to Seattle.’ Sean was talking to me about Studio X. I believe the Nordstrom family owned it and he had heard that it may be being sold. And he was right, because a few months after we finished the record they shut their doors.”
Seattle had already been on Cantrell’s mind, though. The song ‘Rainier Fog’ pays homage to Seattle’s incredibly fruitful late-‘80s/early-‘90s music scene, which spawned the likes of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Screaming Trees.
The lyrics refer to the improbability of such a prosperous movement emerging from the Pacific Northwest: “You can find me writhing in the ghost of a song / Rising through the Rainier fog.”
“We had the song ‘Rainier Fog’ and that kind of encompasses our whole existence, where we come from, who we are as a band – also where we are now,” says Cantrell. “It’s taking into account 1987 to here.
“We’re very proud to be from the Northwest. It’s just a great place to live, to be from, to create in. So that was an important song and after we had recorded there, it made sense to call the record [Rainier Fog] too. It just all lined up.”
Cantrell has always been the band’s main songwriter and his role has grown since Staley’s passing. He now takes responsibility for most of the lyrics and his vocal presence has greatly expanded. He confirms, however, that he’s not the boss of Alice In Chains.
“A band is a band,” he says. “It is all of the members and it’s bigger than all of the members. So it takes all of us to make it happen. Everybody has specific and sometimes non-specific duties and gifts.
“For me, I’ve been fortunate enough to write a lot of stuff over the span of the life of this band and the guys like a lot of it. It’s gratifying when I can play something to the guys and see them light up. But everybody’s got something to add.
“We all bounce shit off each other. There’s a filter with four holes – four a-holes – and the music’s got to pour through that and generally what’s left when we’re done with the recording and writing session is what you get on the record.”
Rainier Fog contains plenty of similarities to the early Alice In Chains records. Songs like ‘Fly’ and ‘Maybe’ wouldn’t sound out of place on Dirt. But despite the Seattle links, Cantrell’s primary focus is here and now.
“The best thing you can do as an artist and if you’ve had some success is not to listen to your old fucking records anymore – unless you need to learn a song. When it comes time to writing and making a new record, don’t fucking listen to that shit.
“The cool thing about this band, and it’s a goal that we always had, we start from zero every time. It doesn’t matter what we did before, how much success we had before or which records had more impact than the others. None of that shit. You’ve got to start from fucking zero every time.
“The thing that carries over is us. We’ve been doing this a long time and William’s been with us quite a while now too. We know collectively and individually what this thing needs to be.”