THERE’S AN enduring tale that goes something like this: Seattle-based grunge rockers Alice in Chains only truly existed when led by former vocalist and co-songwriter Layne Staley, who overdosed in 2002 at the age of 35. Staley’s gifts as a singer and songwriter were so enormous, his talent so unique, that once he gave up the ghost, Alice in Chains had no choice but to follow. And for a couple years the remaining bandmembers did just that. After the fall of Alice in Chains, fellow founders Jerry Cantrell and Sean Kinney dead-ended off the musical map, escaping into parts unknown to recover, lick their wounds, and heal. But Cantrell bristles at the notion that Alice in Chains is anything less than a living, breathing entity.
|Alice in Chains (left to right)— Sean Kinney, Mike Inez, Jerry Cantrell, and William DuVall.
“It’s always funny when I hear the odd comment,” Cantrell says, “when someone says ‘It’s weird, man. They sound like Alice.’ Well, we are Alice, dick. What are we supposed to sound like? Are we supposed to sound like Kansas? We were all necessary to the [band] and nobody knows more of what we went through and what we lost. But we didn’t lose sight of what we are. And we aren’t any different. We carry all those experiences: the bad, the good, and the style, with us, and into the future. That’s how we’ve made the transition. It’s something that we’re very proud of because it was f**king difficult as hell to do. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life to decide to move forward and do that.”
The overwhelming success of Alice in Chains’ 2009 comeback, Black Gives Way to Blue, put the past to rest and opened the door to the future. Joined by vocalist William DuVall, Cantrell, Kinney, and bassist Mike Inez raised the Alice spirit for a new generation. And far from the gloomy, tortured souls their music might suggest, these guys are whip-ass hilarious as evidenced by the title of Alice in Chains’ latest album, The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here.
“Sarcasm is a prized commodity in this band,” Cantrell laughs. “There’s no big message, but it always amazes me that we as a people don’t grow with the knowledge we gain. ‘The devil put dinosaurs here to fool ya!’ It’s just like someone saying ‘Jesus don’t like no queers!’ If your belief system is teaching you to kill someone because they believe differently than you, if you discriminate on any level, from sexual preference to how someone gets their orgasm, then screw you! ‘The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here’ speaks to that kind of ignorance and hate and fear.”
Produced by Nick Raskulinecz, and engineered by Paul Figueroa (both on return duty from Black Gives Way to Blue), AiC’s latest opus was tracked at Henson Recording Studios’ (formerly A&M) Studio D and benefited from the studio’s extensive collection of plate reverbs, which are housed in a separate building and strategically isolated to cancel the noise pollution coming off nearby Hollywood Boulevard. Recording via Henson’s SSL SL 4072G+ console and bouncing to a Studer A800 MKIII for tape effects, Raskulinecz and Figueroa also brought their own outboard gear. Cantrell’s monster guitar sound was created from a collection of seven amps and five cabinets for a total of 15 guitar tracks (five left, five center, five right) per song! Raskulinecz and Figueroa paid special attention to capturing Kinney’s titanic thump and the Cantrell/DuVall harmonies, which eerily resemble and extend the classic AiC sound. The AiC vocal style is as much about Cantrell as it is about anyone else, living or dead.
“When Layne and I worked together vocally, we shared some influences but he had some that were unique to him,” Cantrell says. “As a kid I sang these brooding, Bartók pieces in school choir. It was creepy, and it stuck with me. When Layne and I got together, that kind of thing was there from him and me. That’s what was great about it.
“I didn’t have a lot of confidence as a singer then,” Cantrell continues. “But Layne pushed me to sing my own sh*t. I was unsure, especially standing next to a guy like Layne, who had an amazing voice, was super talented and so quick. He was a natural. I’m not. But with Layne pushing me, my confidence grew. William is real challenging, too—a natural like Layne was. The way we work together is very similar. The sound and style of the band is intact because of Sean, Mike, and myself, and what William brings to the band. That’s how we are able to continue and be ourselves.”
CHASING THE DEVIL DOWN
AiC began The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here sessions in July 2011 at Ocean Studios Burbank with three completed songs, looking for inspiration to strike.
“But it was too much pressure,” Raskulinecz says. “So we pulled out, and built a home studio for Jerry in his bedroom. We had to get him back to basics. He’d get up in the morning and have his cereal and write songs. Sean came over and played drums, and we set up FXpansion BFD to program drums. We gave Jerry all the tools he needed. It was very productive. Then we moved to Dave’s Room in North Hollywood to flesh out and refine songs with the band before going into Henson. We finished in September.”
Though AiC used the SSL at Henson, Raskulinecz and Figueroa added outboard gear including Neve, API, and Shadow Hills Industries Quad Gama mic pre’s (guitars and vocals), a Hairball Audio 1176 Rev A Compressor (mono room mic for drums), and Raskulinecz’s secret weapon, a Martech MSS-10 mic preamp.
“I’ve used the Martech on every lead vocal on every record I’ve ever done,” Raskulinecz says. “And a [Telefunken ELAM] 251. The Martech is fast and punchy and clear, and it’s got a ton of headroom. You can have a singer as loud and heavy as Corey Taylor or someone as soft and delicate as Geddy Lee, and it handles both extremes and everything in the middle brilliantly. The tube mic in conjunction with a solid-state pre like the Martech is totally badass. It’s the deciding factor in my vocal chain, followed with a dbx 160XT: a crusty old compressor.”
The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here is a reverb lover’s dream. Every song rocks, sways and convulses in grand AiC style, but with gossamer reverb trails that intensify the sense of darkness and otherworldliness. Mixer Randy Staub (Metallica, Bon Jovi, Bryan Adams, U2) performed his special magic after final tracking; Raskulinecz used SoundToys to create effects while recording.
“The SoundToys and Eventide plug-ins are my favorites,” Raskulinecz says. “After we’d sing the chorus and double harmonies, I would create vocal delays and reverbs, and try out all kinds of stuff to create space and ambience and make it sound cool. On the title track, for instance, check out the first verse—the reverb on the voice and filtered vocals that are panned and phased—it’s really stony!”
Raskulinecz, Figueroa, and AiC also exploited Henson’s collection of classic plate reverbs for guitars, vocals, and drums.
“Henson’s plate room is isolated from the studio on its own concrete foundation,” Raskulinecz reports. “It’s a bunch of little chambers and different-sized little rooms with rounded corners and different angles and depths, with a speaker on one end and a mic on the other. The building is on rubber or springs so it doesn’t pick up the traffic rumble. It’s three stories of plates, four per floor—Western, EMT. Some of the plates are regular old, self-contained EMT 140s, but they all sounded good.”
“We had the EMT 140 plate and the EMT 250 running while tracking everything,” Figueroa recalls. “Nick and the band love something big, lush, epic, and moody. Nick also used the Fractal Audio Systems Axe-FX for reverb.”
“And we used a lot of tape on this record,” Raskulinecz continues. “Every instrument was hit with tape at one point. We’d record drums in Pro Tools then bounce them to tape, then Varispeed them down, then back to Pro Tools. These days I use tape as an effect, not the main medium. We striped five reels with timecode and had it ready to go. We do it all while the band is there. If the tape machine works and it’s synced, I use it all the time.”
Cantrell modestly describes his vocal and guitar style as “meat and potatoes”; AiC’s recording method is fairly basic as well. After a scratch track was established, Kinney laid down drum parts, followed by Cantrell’s guitar stacks, Inez’s bass, and finally, Cantrell and DuVall’s vocals.
DRUMS OF DOOM
With his large frame and what Figueroa calls a desire to “kill his snare and knock the cymbals off the stands” Kinney produces a massive drum sound. On these tracks, he was also aided by an odd collection of ancient hieroglyphs carved in the ceiling of Studio D’s live room.
“At the top of the ceiling is a four-foot band of concrete,” Figueroa says. “It has these grooves all the way round the top like someone wiped their fingers through the concrete. When we put the room mics up and Sean started playing, that room became so massive sounding—a really ambient room. The grooves in the concrete diffused the overall sound.”
Figueroa used Sennheiser MD421IIs on the toms, “so we didn’t pick up so much cymbals; Sean has big cymbals.” A Sennheiser e602 miked the inner bass drum, with a Neumann U47 FET on the outside, and a Yamaha NS10 for sub-bass farther out front, with a blanket over it. A Shure SM57 handled snare top, with a Sennheiser MD441 catching the strainer.
Telefunken ELAM 251s worked as overheads, placed six feet above Kinney’s head, in a “V” shape. “He’s a big guy, so when he swings his arms we don’t want him hitting $60,000 worth of mics!” Figueroa says. “Then we’d spot-mike each cymbal with an AKG 451 with a 10dB pad, aiming the mic between the bell and the outer cymbal edge about a foot up; that way, we had control over the cymbals. The 451 has a rich sound and it helps the snare.”
Room mics included a pair of RCA 44s: one in front of the drums, one behind. “The rear one was amazing on the snare, placed three feet behind Sean,” Figueroa says. “It added pop to the entire kit. The one out front was aimed diagonally across but pointed at the kick drum and low, at head height. Then [we had] a pair of Coles 4038s in the middle of the room, and a pair of Neumann U87s up high at the rear of the room. Those are all pretty much my go-to mics for those positions. Nick and I came up at Sound City, and these are the things we learned from being in that drum room.”
A MULTILAYERED MONSTER
Cantrell’s epic guitar crunch was mainly produced by his two favorite models, a G&L Rampage and various Gibson Les Pauls, including one that’s covered in cigarette burns. His guitar arsenal on The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here was augmented with a Gibson SG, Raskulinecz’s Flying V, a Rickenbacker, Fender, and various acoustics.
Amps and cabinet combinations were equally diverse, comprising Cantrell’s longsuffering Bogner Fish, Dave Friedman Marsha, HiWatt, and a 1968 Laney Clip. Vintage Marshall, Bogner Uberschall, and EVH (Eddie Van Halen) cabinets projected Cantrell’s nasty notes. With his amps placed in Studio D’s two iso booths, Cantrell used the same four-amp/ cab combo for left and right, with a different assortment for the center; guitars were used in different configurations for each track.
“It sounds like one big hand playing guitar through the whole album,” Figueroa laughs. “You’re hearing ten cabinets per track, at least. You make sure your phase is tight, then listen back and decide to maybe push that amp up to put more teeth on it, or clean it up and push it for more punch. The phase issue is huge. If that’s wrong, it will screw up everything. Which leads to the toughest thing about recording this record: staying on top of the guitar tuning. Say you have three guitar passes that are loud in the mix and we’re stacking more guitars on top of that. If you’re off just a little bit it creates a giant mess later. Some of Jerry’s guitars are vintage and the saddles don’t move, so tuning was the most challenging thing.
“After choosing an amp and cab combination, we’d pick certain mics for each one,” Figueroa continues. “Either a Neumann U47 FET, Shure SM7 or SM57, through Neve 1073s and 1081s. Then we’d blend it all on the return—one mic per cab, sometimes two, making sure the phase was tight. We’d flip the phase on one, then bring up the fader until the other one disappeared, then un-phase it and the guitar sound would be just massive. I’d have guitar tones up, then Nick and I might clean things up and roll off some low end, or gain up an amp more. And if the guys didn’t like something, they would tell us; they’re not shy.
DuVall and Cantrell both played guitar with the latter taking the lion’s share of the space or “laminates” on each track. “Stacks of guitar, that’s me!” bellows Cantrell. “You have one chance to make it f**king legendary and larger than life, and stacking is what works for me. The trick is not doing it so much where the sound gets mushy. You have to be able to double yourself well. If you get too many tracks going you lose the edge. I think of it like tones, or like layering a wood laminate. You put down one layer of one kind of wood and another layer of a different kind of wood, put a few of them together and blend everything, and it makes it stronger than any one [layer] would be individually. It’s something I’ve always done.
“And I don’t always go for first takes,” Cantrell adds. “What’s important is knowing what makes the song work and what the song needs, and also what the song does not need. The simplest stuff is usually the best stuff. The song doesn’t need an extra part, or 32- bar solos. You just have to listen to what the particular thing is you’re doing.”
Figueroa describes Inez’s Warwick Moonbird as the band’s secret weapon. “It’s got this great low-end growl and note definition.” The Warwick ran to a Little Labs PCP [Instrument Distribution Box], split off to a Martech/Jensen DI, into a SansAmp through a Neve, into a ’70s Ampeg SVT head to two SVT 8x10 cabs. Figueroa used either a Neumann U47 FET or an AKG D112 three inches from the cone and dead center. A Neve 2254 for compression, Teletronix LA2A, and dbx 160X completed Inez’s signal chain.
HIGH-SPEED DRAGSTERS, CHEVY TRUCKS, AND LAYNE STALEY
The vocal sound that appears consistently on every Alice in Chains record is Cantrell— spooky, ghostly, and bizarre.
“Jerry sang on a ton of those old records, ‘Rooster,’ ‘Down in A Hole,’ ‘Man in the Box,’” Raskulinecz says. “[On] all those hits, his voice is right there next to Layne’s. And when Jerry and William sing now, it’s reminiscent of Jerry and Layne. William is the polar opposite of Layne, his voice is bright and powerful, and he has such an amazing range. And the harmonies didn’t die; it’s still Jerry.”
DuVall and Cantrell sang until Raskulinecz was happy, laying down “tons of vocal tracks,” Cantrell says. “We even sang the same track multiple times to have a slight wash across the background, to get the performances tight to create a larger vocal. You’d think that would remove the edge, but we did it so many times we were locked in. That gave us a unique vocal sound on the record.
“William is a high-speed dragster; he’s nitro,” Cantrell adds. “I’m more like a Chevy truck. I kind of just plod along. But my good old Chevy truck will last a long time. William gets up there, and gets gas behind it. I don’t have that sort of range, I am a medium to low plodder. That’s how we differ in styles. Layne and William are similar. Layne had gas and he could hit that nitro button and go to the next level with some teeth on it.”
“With Jerry, he sings it until I tell him he’s got it,” Raskulinecz says. “Then we comp. I’m listening to his tone and pitch, how throaty it is, and the spit and the pronunciation. All these little things that comprise a great vocal take. He wants to hear a final comp; then he might change little things. He might re-sing something small as well. We want performance, not perfection. The more you do it, the more the chances of getting an amazing take. There’s no tuning on this album, not a word.”
Cantrell tracked vocals through a Soundelux 251 into the Martech, followed by dbx 160X compression. “With the 251, the Martech is really wide open and clean,” Figueroa says. “The image in the speaker is right in your face. We’re not using EQ when tracking, just mic, mic pre, and compressor. So it’s wide open and as honest as it can be. William had a couple mics, between a Neumann U47 and a Shure SM7 through a 1081 or 1073 into a similar dbx 160X. Then I brought the Shadow Hills in. It’s so silky—a great pre to have in the chain.”
BOY, YOU’RE GONNA CARRY THAT WEIGHT
Cantrell has a reputation. He’s cagey, he’s sensitive. Journalists who have misQUOTEd him, or asked the wrong question with the wrong attitude, have been denied access forevermore. But consider Alice in Chains’ history. “He not busy being born is busy dying,” Dylan said, and that applies to anyone trying to move on from tragedy with some degree of grace and their mind/soul/body intact. Cantrell carries that weight, and after one listen to The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here, you would have to say he does it admirably.
“Jerry has tried to carry this thing on and move it forward, and he’s put a lot of pressure on himself,” Raskulinecz says. “Sean and Jerry both put pressure on themselves to make sure what they’re doing is great and the right thing for Alice in Chains. Layne and Jerry were really tight. They were friends before they were even in a band together. It was a deep thing. They did it all together. And when Layne died, it broke Jerry’s heart. Not many bands could recover from that. It’s a big legacy to carry.”
Ken Micallef has covered music for all the usual suspects, including DownBeat, the Grammys, and Rolling Stone. His first book, Classic Rock Drummers (Hal Leonard), is currently in reprint status while he manages his family’s cotton farm down south and ponders the future/past of the vinyl LP and tube amplification.