ALICE IN CHAINS
Ross Baker Talks to Sean Kinney
Alice In Chains drummer Sean Kinney is a charming man but also a soldier of rock who has seen more than his fair share of excess and personal tragedies along the road to redemption. Whilst Sean has an infectious laugh he answers questions in a slow deliberate tone often going off at a tangent. This can be somewhat challenging when limited to twenty minutes on a transatlantic phone call however the 46 year old is friendly and affable as they come. Alice In Chains’ career has been about overcoming adversity having withstood the tragic deaths of iconic former frontman Layne Staley and former bassist Mike Starr; their’s is an inspiring tale of three friends who visited the depths of addiction, took on personal demons and lived to tell the tale. “The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here” follows on from the band’s highly successful comeback “Black Gives Way To Blue” but recording an album for Alice In Chains is seldom simple as Sean would elaborate. “There was a delay in recording the album as Jerry had to have shoulder surgery. He had some bone spurs that needed removing which was an old injury he had from years back. The Original plan was we would move into the studio and live out of it for a year. We had to give up that plan when Jerry had the injury. I don’t think it affected the writing of the album too much but making records has always been something this band finds harder than most.”
While the tragic passing of Layne Staley is well documented, less so is the fate of former A.I.C. bassist Mike Starr who was found dead at his home in Salt Lake City on March 8th 2011 having apparently overdosed. Aside from the obvious effect this terrible event would have on Sean and his bandmates who attended a memorial for their fallen comrade, had Starr’s death impacted the new record at all? “These aren’t things that are easy to talk about. These things have not just a huge effect on your album but your life. We lost a family member, we loved him and it affected us deeply and continues to do so.”
Religion is a topic the new album addresses more directly with the title referencing creationism, a sub section of Christianity which holds the radical and frankly ridiculous belief that the world is only a few thousand years old and that Satan placed dinosaur bones on earth to “test our faith”. “My take on it is that a lot of people decide to not live by their own rules in that they pick and choose which parts (Of religion) they want to believe in. It’s a concept Jerry and I have spoken about for years which we decided to address. It’s not us poking fun at anyone’s beliefs but I don’t personally think there was this mythical cloven hoved beast running around the desert placing hundreds of thousand year old bones there. That’s a tough pill for me to swallow.” Religion has clearly had an impact on Alice in Chains in some fashion. As a student vocalist William Duvall did a degree in philosophy which specialised in religion and Guitarist/ Vocalist Jerry Cantrell performed acapella Gregorian chants dating from the 14th and 15th centuries which influenced the haunting vocal style that has become an Alice In Chains trademark. “We don’t all share the same beliefs.” Kinney began. “Jerry and I have similar ideas but you can’t discard all the findings of science like some groups do. There are places in the U.S. where it snows in summer now and yet some people deny the existence of climate change! It’s like they’re stood there in the snow trying to pretend it’s hot and sunny! I think everyone needs something to believe in but you can’t deny proven facts.”
While Sean does not condemn religious doctrine, the lyrics on the title track certainly pull no punches. ““The devil put dinosaurs here/Jesus don’t like no queer/No problem with faith just fear”. It’s certainly critical of groups who defy logic as well as being anti-homophobic. “We are just commenting on how so many people do hateful things in the name of religion. There are many positive messages in religions, helping each other out, loving your brother, acceptance, tolerance and not killing or stealing but human beings still seem to screw those things up. Life is gonna get ya at some point. I just thing we should treat everybody equally and not judge them. Just don’t be a shitty human! That’s the code we live by but some people lose sight of that message especially when they get together on mass. Starting a conversation with the “I’m right and you’re wrong” argument isn’t a great conversation starter!”
“The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here” sees the group working with Rush/Foo Fighters producer Nick Rasculinecz. “We never feel that comfortable in the studio so we wanted to keep the team together. We were very happy with “Black Gives…” We kind of have a tradition of doing two albums with each producer as we did a couple with Dave Jerden and a couple with Toby Wright so it seemed the natural thing to do.”
Darkness and tragedy has always followed the band around/. People forget the sense of humour which helped the members get through the dark times. Long time fans will remember the 1995 mockumentary “The Nona Tapes” where Cantrell dressed in drag to assume the guise of Nona Weisbaum, news reporter, who interviews his bandmates with hilarious results. Kinney too appears dressed as a clown having taken a dead end job as a children’s entertainer whilst the band were inactive. Fans of the infamous movie can rejoice because there is a follow up. “We have this little documentary we filmed which was great fun.” Sean starts. “It has all of us in there poking fun at ourselves and some stupid interviews with some wacky characters. We also got Kim Thayil, Mike McCready and Rob Trujillo on there. I won’t tell you about the plot too much but you can pick it up on funnyordie.com.” Having seen said spoof film it is certainly a charming, sidesplitting side to a band too commonly thought of as Seattle’s Brothers Grimm. It’s this brotherhood that has helped A.I.C. carry on. What impact has William Duvall had on the new album now he has been in the band for eight years? “William has put his all into this band. He and Jerry spent a lot of time on the lyrics and working on songs for this album. There is a lot of filth on there guitar wise. William brings his own energy to the band. This band is a family and William is part of that. The album is weird and dark but it’s totally us.”
“Black Gives Way To Blue” was a very successful comeback record, their first for fourteen years,, selling over one million albums in the U.S. (no mean feat in today’s download happy climate) and featuring videos for hit singles “Check My Brain”, “Acid Bubble” and choose life anthem “Your Decision” not to mention the moving tribute to Layne Staley that is the title track where they coaxed pop superstar Elton John to provide piano to the heartfelt tribute to Layne. “We were amazed that happened. We played the song for a buddy of ours and they suggested we call Elton to which we were “Yeah right like that’d happen” Kinney laughed. “We had a think and Jerry emailed Elton telling him what the song was about and what it meant to us. Anyway we though nothing would come of it but we then got a call saying he wanted to play on the track. We flew out to Vegas where he was performing to meet him and we hung out for awhile. He’s an interesting guy and it was great we were able to honour Layne like that.” For many acts, following up such a well received release could be somewhat daunting. What had made Kinney and company get back on the treadmill that is the process of making albums? “It’s what we do. We still need to be creative. This band still has ambitions only they are somewhat bigger than when we started. I remember when we just wanted to be able to play a bar in Seattle! We never set out to get on the radio or achieve the success. Our goal was just to be creative and make music we loved. As long as we like what we are doing we will keep doing this.” Brave words from a true survivor but while the band’s storied past may still be a topic of discussion Sean is focused on the present too. “We never planned on doing the last record but then we wrote another. It just came naturally. That’s the way it has to be for us. We are just enjoying the ride.” Alice In Chains “The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here” is out on May 28th through Virgin/EMI.
Manchester Academy 2 – 24 November 2012
Having returned two years ago following a resurgence in fortunes with a new album and a new focus, Monster Magnet showed the world that they were still an active force to be reckoned with. While not about current glories, this evening was about taking a trip down memory lane to revisit the glorious “Spine Of God” opus. Prior to the sprawling psycadelic freak show rolling up we got a taste of German act My Sleeping Karma. Their otherworldly noise filled the hall, alternating between delicate ambience and driving Sabbathian riffage. The instrumental quartet are mesmerising, as is the light show, with images of Buddha amongst the intoxicating cosmic vibes that sweep you up and draw you to them. Their watertight percussion and shimmering keyboard passages should bring them a lot of attention in the future.
It was then time for the main fix with the acid fried strains of “Pill Shovel” kicking in to gear. Monster Magnet are in their element. Jim Baglino waved his Rickenbacker bass like a broadsword while guitarists Ed Mundell and Phil Caivano peel off hedonistic swathes of sonic excess with Bob Pantella keeping it tight at the back letting the rhythm do the talking. It was encouraging to see a few white haired audience members rubbing shoulders with young teens, proof positive of the intergenerational appeal of this enduring act who took up the iconic chorus of “Nod Scene” with gusto.
Dave Wyndorf loved every minute, thrusting himself against his guitar much to the enjoyment of female audience members as the band blended ‘Doors style 60s psyche with a leviathan dose of Hawkwind meets Stooges bluster. The intoxicating mood lighting helps make the acoustic tinged “Zodiac Lung” a truly engrossing trip but before you can become too lost in the mellow cosmic vibe the band kicked into the riff driving bad ass that is “Sin’s A Good Man’s Brother”. Ending the “Spine…” portion of the set with a song about “Having sex on LSD” “Ozium” shows a more subtle side The ‘Magnet before the encore saw “Powertrip” era hit “Tractor” make a welcome appearance. While “Space Lord” and more recent hits didn’t make the cut tonight, this was an evening of celebration of the double M’s lesser touted works which felt like more than just a retrospective but a regeneration of the band’s lusty and vital catalogue.
Ross Baker talks to Vocalist Denis “Snake” Belanger
Having proudly influenced three decades worth of maverick acts while remaining on the cutting edge of the musical landscape Canadian legends Voivod count the likes of modern trailblazers Neurosis and Baroness as well as full blown modern legends like Dave Grohl amongst their diverse fanbase. From a background that took influence from both complex, artsy and technical prog rock to its arch enemy of greasy nasty anarcho-punk rock and threw them headlong into a steaming melting pot of discordant melodies and otherworldly time signatures long before they became the norm. On The phone from his home in a remote part of Montreal in the French province of Quebec Vocalist Denis “Snake” Belanger muses about the effect his group have add upon changing the face of metal and hard rock.
“I prefer to look forward and not back but it’ gives us great satisfaction when we here all these compliments from some great musicians. It was great to have Dave say so much about us. He is a big fan and great guy and fantastic musician. I remember when we worked on the Probot project together which was an inspiring experience. He’s a demon in the studio, a real creative. I can even hear a bit of Piggy’s work when I listen to the Foo Fighters which makes me smile. Even some of the more pop sounding Foo fighters stuff has some dissonant chords sequences which I instantly recognise! It’s great to hear!” While they have never been media darlings Voivod’s tireless work rate and experimental stance of creating music has never waved since their inception in 1982. Snake attributes this steadfast approach to the acts longevity. “We have toured with all kinds of bands from Nashville Pussy to Arch Enemy. We never really fit in anywhere! In the early days we were to punk for the metalheads and too punk for the prog fans! It is only these days that there is so much crossover in genres and I like to think we helped encourage that.”
Hearing Belanger’s thick and exotic French Canadian accent unblemished by constant years of international touring you can’t help but smile. His trademark vocal captivated Grohl not to mention the countless teens who bought into the unique vibe which Voivod brought to the party during the thrash boom of 1986. “Being French Canadian meant we had to work harder than anyone else.” Snake began. “We come from a remote area in Montreal where there wasn’t much of a music scene locally. We didn’t have many venues and had to travel further to get gigs in the early days but the perseverance paid off! It was tough but it definitely made us stronger! We have fought of everything we ever achieved and are fiercely proud of that!”
Snake’s pride is indeed justified when it comes to the band’s legacy. Pioneering is a term which is given away all too freely yet the devotion which Voivod exhibit in their craft can be clearly seen. Indeed when you hear the likes of Grohl eulogising about this seminal act considering the contributions he himself has made to guitar based music at large it is a reason to sit up and take notice. Following the revitalisation of the band with fellow Voivod fan in ex Metallica man Jason Newstead joining the band for 2003’s self titled album before the prodigal return of Blacky and their trademark “Blower” bass sound. “New opus “Target Earth” is the band’s first album with no involvement from deceased axeman and valued friend Denis “Piggy” D’Amour. Snake spoke about the recording debut of guitarist Daniel “Chewy” Mongrain as well as working on the band’s first record without the man Belanger lovingly calls his “mentor”.
“It was really strange at first. We had been touring a lot in tribute to Piggy as we wanted to commemorate our friend and celebrate his music. “Chewy” grew up on Voivod. We were the first band he came to see in concert when he was just thirteen. He is a lifelong fan and a student of Piggy’s work. Once he heard our music he thought himself to play and to replicate the techniques which Piggy’s made famous. We could not have asked for a better man to step into Piggy’s shoes. He was constantly coming up with ideas and encouraging us to work harder pushing us towards a more technical and progressive direction.” Belanger mused. “It was a long process which took almost a year to write and record. We wanted to come out with something that we all could stand behind and that Piggy would be proud of. There were no distractions for this album. We went out to an isolated area and recorded in middle of the woods! It was difficult you had to take four by four jeep to get there! Recording this album was a great experience. We allowed ourselves total freedom and we bonded like a family.”
It is indeed moving to hear Snake talk about his friend and band mate with a heartfelt reverence. As founder member of Voivod D’Amour managing to bridge the gap between prog rock musicianship and raw punk energy Snake fondly recalls the impact his friend had. “He was the maestro! He thought us how to play and write songs. We were just a bunch of punk kids playing noisy music and Piggy came along with his virtuoso style. He was into stuff like Gentle Giant and Yes and I was listening to Crass! It was really hard to sing on some of those songs because of the arrangements Piggy came out with! It was like music from another world! He brought professionalism to the band and we brought our passion and energy.” He stated with triumph.
While Science Fiction and apocalyptic prophecies inspired the Quebec act greatly “Target Earth” is an opus whose subject matter is routed in reality. “The record is of course a tribute to Piggy in many ways but also we are acknowledging the end of a cycle of human evolution. In Calgary, Alberta they are cutting down trees and destroying the natural beauty of this country and for what? Human beings need to work together and find out new ways to survive because if they don’t then we all have a big problem. Fossil fuels are not sustainable and we are running out of time where that is concerned. This is our emergency call to the world!”
Mankind would indeed do well to heed Snake’s words but while “Target Earth” is an attempt to shift mankind from the darkness it is hurtling towards it is also time for Voivod to rally and take to the road once again. Once the album arrives in January it will serve not only to commemorate the legacy of a deeply influential artist but to also write a new chapter in their epic history. “After the album drops we are touring non-stop!” Snake declared. “We have to take it easier than we used to and can’t drink and party every day but that doesn’t matter. It is about putting on a great show. People who have heard the new stuff have said how it recalls the “Nothingface” era in complexity but I think it also has freshness to it. We are playing a lot of new places we haven’t been to before like South America and we aim to do some festivals in the States and Europe. It is our thirtieth anniversary so we want to give the fans something from all of the albums. We will be playing material we haven’t played in a long time and mixing things up as much as possible.”
Surely such a flurry of activity from this journeyman act is down to their uncompromising nature to do things their way. Having been a maverick act throughout their career it is still somewhat surprising to hear that new ideas for future material are already coming to fruition. “We will also start the writing process for the next record next year too. We write a few ideas when we are on tour which we then take to the studio to work on. The fire of creativity burns brightly right now and we want to capitalize on that! It is so great to see bands I grew up with like D.R.I. and our friends in Destruction still going strong. Being older does not mean we have to give up creating. That is not our way! We have no intention of becoming a nostalgia act. It is about remaining relevant and always making something which excites us at the same time.”
Ruby Lounge Manchester – 5 December 2012
Seeing a sea of Down, Kylesa and Neurosis shirts suggests that this spectacle appeals to more than just floppy haired retro nerds. Opening acts Spiders are a slick clique combination of blues and sass that warm up the early crowd but never really ignites the pilot light. Singer Anne Sofie Hoyles has a strong stage presence but the rest of the band hid behind their frontwoman for most of the set. This was a shame because the raw blues of a young Fleetwood Mac, along with a healthy dose of Zeppelin, suggest bright things will come their way.
Swedish trad rockers Graveyard sauntered onto the stage politely enough with little fanfare. New record “Lights Out” has made an impression on fans of all ages with metal fans and older blokes who look like they’d be at home watching Credence Clearwater Revival.
While rooted in the past in terms of influence, Graveyard possesses an enduring appeal which resonates with a diverse audience.
Joakim Nilsson’s smooth yet gritty vocals grit carry earthy numbers like “Seven Seven” but a lack of variation in pace detracted from the bands impact at times. Furthermore great was the irritation provided by a couple of audience members stood at the front talking audibly during the quiet parts which detracted from the atmosphere. Disappointing fan behaviour aside, Graveyard are a workhorse who ploughed through regardless. The softly spoken Nilsson and company saw no need for much flamboyance just giving the fans a heads down set of sweet grooves and heady bootie shaking boogie rock. While their songs possess a broad appeal, they rarely reach out to grab you.
Having neither the Sabbath swagger of fellow Swedes Witchcraft nor the cocksure stomp of Rival Sons, Graveyard have some fine blues licks that improves more when they pick up the pace but that was largely absent tonight. Likewise the hefty dose of psyche allows for the tangent veering jams to give you time to get lost in the music but the band become far more intriguing when they break away from the crawl the majority of their material adopts.
The encore saw a great improvement with a rousing rendition of “The Siren” which hits at a more vigorous spirit within. Closing on lights outs second single “Evil Ways”, the Swedes turned up the heat towards the end but it proved too late for them to turn in much more than an above average performance.