After original singer Layne Staley died in 2002, it wasn't certain that grunge icons Alice in Chains would continue. But in 2005, the band regrouped for a benefit concert for the victims of the tsunami that struck South Asia. Guest vocalists such as Tool/A Perfect Circle's Maynard James Keenan and Heart's Nancy Wilson sang Staley's parts. One of the guest singers who contributed was Comes the Fall's William DuVall, who would eventually join the band on a permanent basis.
"He's great. He comes from such a punk background," says bassist Mike Inez. "He's a ninja guerilla guitar player. In his other bands, he sings and plays guitar. It was an adjustment for him. It's not an easy job to replace someone as iconic as a Layne Staley. From where I'm standing, I look up and I see him at the edge of the stage. He puts his chin out there and gives it his all every night. He prepares more than any singer I ever jammed with."
After that benefit show, the guys embarked on a short club tour, and it wasn't long before they were playing to huge festival crowds. As a result, they caught a serious second wind and ventured into the studio in 2005 hoping to make an album. But according to Inez, who replaced original bassist Mike Starr in 1993 when the band toured in support of his chart-topping album Dirt, there was a good deal of uncertainty about whether or not those initial recording sessions would be productive. They would eventually get it together for the resulting album, Black Gives Way to Blue, the band's first studio effort in 14 years. But it wasn't an easy album to record.
"We went to the studio and it was like, 'Where's Layne?'" says Inez. "We felt like we couldn't make a record without him. We thought, 'If it works, it works. If it doesn't, it doesn't.' We found a great producer, and we holed up at Dave Grohl's studio. Elton John played on the record with us. It was great. Everybody was pulling for us. We needed to go through this stuff. It was our goodbye to Layne too. The only way it could work was if we faced our pain and our past and accepted an unknowing future. It's quite the journey. Knowing what it took to get to this point and looking back on it and knowing what we know now, I don't know if we would have signed up for it, but I'm happy we did."
Last year, the group went back to the studio again. This time, it was confident that it could produce something special. The resulting album, The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here, doesn't deviate much from previous outings. It has that Alice in Chains' "filth," the word founding guitarist Jerry Cantrell has used to describe their signature sound. Album opener "Hollow" features those distinctively snarling vocals and sludge-y guitars.
"He's great," says Inez when asked about Cantrell. "He's the real deal. There's nothing contrived about him. He's just Jerry and he plays. He handles it really well. He still likes playing guitar after all these years. He's one of the best friends I've ever had. We've been through so many adventures together. He's supportive of me and I'm supportive of him. Good things happen when we get in the studio and make a racket together. You gotta have faith in that after awhile. It's not an easy process. You don't see the sun for months. The studio is an unnatural place to spend your life. It's turned into a safe place for us. We like to start jamming after all the offices have closed and people stop bugging us."
Inez, who toured with Motorhead and then Ozzy Osbourne before joining Alice in Chains, says he connects with the Seattle scene that spawned Alice in Chains even though he isn't originally from there.
"Spiritually, it's one of my centers," he says of Seattle. "There's something in the water there. There's nothing to do up there when it's raining but go to each other's houses and jam. Soundgarden was a band for 10 years before they got a major label deal. They were tucked away up there where bands got to percolate and marinate and define their sound before they went public. That was such a big thing. It wasn't this cookie cutter L.A. thing where bands were getting signed. If you notice, those bands all sound different from each other. Whether it's Nirvana or Soundgarden or Alice or Pearl Jam — even Queensryche or Jimi Hendrix or Heart. It's a different crosscut of the wood."
Despite the deaths (original bassist Starr passed away in 2011) and drama, Alice in Chains has carried on now for more than 25 years, no small feat in the rock world. Inez recognizes it's a real accomplishment.
"We're very blessed and lucky to have such a long career," says Inez. "Not just with our band. We're like family and brothers. The bands that have any sort of longevity get along well internally. We try to keep things very simple for ourselves, whether that's a small rehearsal space or dealing with playing stadiums with Metallica in Europe, which we'll do after this tour. We really rely on each other. We're just four dudes in a room making a racket. No matter what size of venue it is. That's our default position. We can handle anything. That's the biggest thing that I'm proud of. At the end of the day, we're all family. That is the key to having a long legacy. And I think that if we like the music, other people tend to like it too."
That sense of commitment is hard to come by in today's single-driven market that doesn't encourage artist development and career-oriented musicians. Inez says the rock world is lacking the kind of creative personalities that existed back when Alice in Chains came together.
"My biggest fear is that the next Kurt Cobain is out there somewhere but he won't get into music because there's no money in it," says Inez. "They're pulling arts funding. I grew up playing in marching band at school and to see that go away is really sad. I'm more concerned with the next generation. Where's the good music going to come from? Especially when us old guys go away, who is going to play the big venues?"
Alice in Chains with Monster Truck
7:30 p.m. Monday, May 19. Jacobs Pavilion at Nautica, 2014 Sycamore St., 216-861-4080. Tickets: $35-$69.50, livenation.com.