The grunge icons talk standing the test of time and fighting back against a “troubling” modern world
“The first record that I truly loved was ‘Band Of Gypsies’ by Hendrix,” says William DuVall, the singer and rhythm guitarist in Alice In Chains since 2006. “But the first record I bought? Wow…”
The 50-year-old Washingtonian looks off into space for what seems like an age. Last night his band played Shepherd’s Bush Empire. There was someone in the crowd dressed as a chicken. “That was cool” laughs William. Today he’s wearing shades. It’s 4pm on a Monday and we’re sat in a posh west London hotel dining room. William DuVall is one of about five rockstars on the planet who can pull off all the above.
“It would have been a 45. I could only afford 45’s as a kid. I’d ask for albums for Christmas…” Another pause. “Oh, I remember, it was Funkadelic, ‘Cosmic Slop’…
“I was lucky, man – I had a cousin who was ten-years-older, and he was the one who brought me to good music. He came and lived with me and my mother because he had a home life he was trying to escape, and he became my older brother really. We’d go out record shopping together in DC. That was how I fell in love with music really…”
William DuVall loves music like Phil Mitchell loves his mother. It’s everything to him. He knows its power – to pull you forward, to help you heal. And, like so many bands born in the shadow of Seattle’s Space Needle, when you think about the darkness Alice In Chains have walked through these last thirty-one years – losing original singer Layne Staley in 2002, founding bassist Mike Starr in 2011 – thank heavens for that.
May 18th saw Alice In Chains paying tribute to another of the Emerald City’s fallen sons. To mark the one-year anniversary of Chris Cornell’s passing, William and the band covered Soundgarden’s ‘Hunted Down’ and ‘Boot Camp’ at the Rock On The Range festival in Columbus, Ohio. “That was a very moving and poignant experience,” says William. “We didn’t say much about it beforehand, and we didn’t say much about it afterward, because we thought the music said enough. I wanted to do ‘Boot Camp’, because that was my favourite song on [Soundgarden’s 1996 album] ‘Down On The Upside’, so I went and learned it, but the thing with Chris is, he would tune the guitar to his voice, so it’s kinda complicated to learn from following YouTube!
“In the end, and in the spirit of Chris, I just made up my own version and we practiced it in a hotel room in Chicago. [Jerry] Cantrell wanted to do ‘Hunted Down’, because he already knew it and it’s a rad song. But what I really liked about it is it ended up being these really nice bookends to the first song on the first Soundgarden EP [1987’s Screaming Life], and the last song on the last record Soundgarden made during their first phase.”
That the music is at the forefront of this especially incongruous-looking band – were William to walk into a local branch of Costa the average person would definitely know he was a musician, but most likely not what band he played in – is largely why they survived any backlash surrounding the grunge titans’ decision to recruit William in the wake of Layne’s death. It would have been easy for Alice In Chains to take the big money and perform their 1992 classic album ‘Dirt’ every night in huge ballrooms around the globe. Easy, but crass, and not especially artistic.
“That’s the reason why this band survived,” says William. “We could have easily messed this up in 2006 when we came back if it hadn’t had been primarily about the desire to make music together. Because when you’re onstage in front of 30,000 people in Portugal, you don’t have time to think about anything other than, ‘How are we going to pull this off?’ It made us so close, because we were all each other had. There was this external conversation about whether we had the right to continue, but we just wanted and needed to get together to make music. And we enjoyed doing that and we enjoyed the ideas that came out of playing together. The art dictated our future, which I think is how it should be. That’s what led to the point we’re at now, which is twelve-years later.”
The new Alice In Chains album ‘Rainier Fog’ arrives on August 24. It’s the third to feature William, after 2009’s ‘Black Gives Way To Blue’ and 2013’s ‘The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here’, and will bring his total to the same number as the band’s former singer. The one song you will have heard from it already, the spiky, psychy ‘The One You Know’, maintains the quality they’ve demonstrated throughout their career. William is tight lipped about what to expect from the new album, but he will reveal that it won’t be oblivious to the horrors and injustice going on in the world right now. William was actually on the streets himself, protesting against neo-Nazis in downtown Seattle, earlier this year. “So much about the current climate is troubling and depressing,” he muses. “In terms of the creative process, not much changes – you write some riffs and melodies, you go into the studio, you record them. But that’s not all there is to songwriting, and consciously or unconsciously, whatever is going on in the world will infiltrate the art you’re making.”
William was once a fixture of the seminal Atlanta, Georgia hardcore group Neon Christ, and that political edge sticks with him today. “I have some experience in this, and I can see resistance happening all over the world,” he continues. “In graffiti, in film, in music. There’s a groundswell of creativity happening in response to what’s going on in the world.”
Again, though, it’s the music pulling William Duvall forward and helping he and Alice In Chains to find hope. “We’re so lucky,” says William, with a shift in urgency in his voice, “that every night onstage, wherever we are in the world, I get to see how – for all everyone’s differences, for everyone’s differing ideologies, language barriers… I get to see how connected we all are. And it’s the music that does that. The music unites people. The music makes a moment. The moment unites us. I think that’s the thing I love most about music.”