Taking on the role of a singer in a band can be daunting at the best of times, but stepping into that position in the band ‘Alice in Chains’ made famous by the late Layne Staley is one that former ‘Madfly’ and ‘Comes with the Fall’ front man William DuVall has taken on.
Befriended by ‘Alice in Chains’ guitarist / vocalist Jerry Cantrell and through touring with him on his solo tours, eventually led to what many thought would never happen, ‘Alice in Chains’ reuniting with members Jerry Cantrell, Sean Kinney and Mike Inez in 2005 and to begin touring with new singer William DuVall. The results of that led to ‘Alice in Chains’ recording a new album of all new material, their first in over 10 years, ‘Black Gives Way To Blue’ an album named, and song written as a tribute to Layne Staley who passed away in 2002.
William DuVall took some time to talk to us at May The Rock Be With You about how his new position came about, the recording of the new album and about how he makes this role his own.
The new album ‘Black gives way to blue’ is awesome, and receiving rave reviews from all around the world, are you in some way relieved that the reception has been so warming to it and to you?
Of course, yes of course you know, the only thing that we can control is the work that we do you know, you can’t ever legislate public opinion so we’re obviously thrilled and couldn’t be more excited man you know, it’s an amazing thing.
How did you get involved with Jerry Cantrell and how did that eventually lead to you taking on the almost daunting position of replacing Layne Staley? Was there ever a time you thought that you wouldn’t do it?
Well, ha ha, I go back almost 10 years with Cantrell, my band ‘Comes with the Fall’ moved from Atlanta to Los Angeles back in early 2000 and he was one of the first people that I met. He’d gotten a hold of ‘Comes with the Fall’s’ first album through a mutual acquaintance of ours and he flipped on it really hard and started hanging out with us every minute, we thought he was joining our band, so that’s kind of what started our friendship. Obviously I really dug and respected his work with ‘Alice’ and we ended up touring with him for all of 2001 and 2002 around the United States and Canada and the UK when he put out his ‘Degradation Trip’ solo album. So we just did double duties, backing him up and his band and also as his support act, and so you know, that’s kind of what provides the back story to what we’re doing now in a lot of ways.
There was a time when I didn’t think id do it, I mean, I have to admit, I thought twice about when this was first brought up to me I did think twice about it because we know the kind of expectation and the potential baggage I would be stepping into. But you know initially when I was asked to join them on stage it was with a very limited, sort of finite goal of playing a few shows. So, that was part of what helped me say yes to it, was it wasn’t like we were trying to undertake some huge resurrection of this band. It was just to play a few shows and those few shows expanded into playing a 23 country tour that took up all of 2006 and then all of that touring through all of those countries and all of those nights together sort of forged something that I’m not sure any of us could’ve really expected. It led to new musical ideas cause you know you get 4 musicians together in close quarters for that amount of time with instruments, new stuff’s gonna happen. It also forged a kind of bond in the 4 of us, I already kinda had one with Cantrell but this really cemented something between all of us and we knew that we could rely on one another, certainly on stage every night and we knew that we were coming up with riffs and ideas and things that were really cool and so and I think it was only after that year of touring in 2006 that we really all knew that we were jumping into the water together to try to do something like a new album, you know what I mean? So initially, you know what I mean, when I said yes, it was yes to this whole huge gigantic thing, it was saying yes to something that was much smaller than that, that then organically led to this sort of bigger story.
What about the expectations and the pressure of being the new singer for Alice in Chains? Did you feel any of that at all?
Well sure, but, it doesn’t exceed the pressure that I put on myself, you know, that’s one thing about the 4 of us in this band we are really our own harshest critics, so if something passes muster with us then that’s really kinda where we draw the line of measuring success you know? But its like I said before, you can’t legislate what public reaction’s gonna be to anything you do, the only thing you can control is what you put into it and then you hope for the rest you know. So, my thing from the beginning was I’m not gonna try to be anything but myself. Obviously I don’t look anything like Layne. In actual fact I don’t even think our voices are that similar, there’s only the most passing resemblance there. I’m not someone that can do a Layne, a dead on Layne impersonation or any of that kind of thing like a lot of people I hear ha ha trying to do that. I’m not one of those guys so I went out and have just done it my way and that’s partly out of respect for Layne you know as well as the band and all of the bands supporters around the world. What a disservice that would be and also what a disservice to myself you know, like Layne was so great in part because he was unique, you know, so to come out and try and do anything but sing the songs from your own place of truth and write new songs from your own place of truth and go out and perform and coming out and accessing it from your own point of experience, that’s the only way to tackle it in my view. Yeah I felt the pressure, I was aware of the pressure from the outside obviously but I don’t think it could in any way compare to the kind of pressure that I would put on myself to do my best, like if I’m gonna say yes to something, I’m going all the way or I’m not gonna do it at all.
As a singer coming into a band with such powerful songs that obviously had special meaning to Layne, given he wrote a large bunch of the Alice in Chains songs, how have you connected with them given that you may interpret them differently? Did you make them your own?
Yeah, I think that’s the only way you can do it, you have to make them your own and sing them from your own place of truth, and just as all those listeners around the world are listening to the songs from their place of truth and experience. You know not everyone that listens to the ‘Dirt’ album was struggling with any sort of addiction, they were responding to the universal emotions in those songs. Even though they may come from specific experiences, the emotions behind them are quite universal, that’s why so many people responded to them in the first place. So as a singer that’s what I’m doing. I’m coming at it from my place of experience, and my life and that’s really the power of music, you know, it’s so transferable and so easily personalized, that’s the greatness of it.
At what point did the decision come to record “Black Gives Way To Blue”?
I would say that, as I said there was a pile of new ideas after the initial touring we did in 2006, and then we were going to take 2007 off from the road and just use that time to assess all the new ideas that we had and see if it was worth maybe taking it a step further. At that point Velvet Revolver asked us to do a North American tour with them in 2007 so we did that and at the end of that tour we were coming up in to the holidays in 2007 late November. Oh and we also accumulated another pile of new song ideas and riffs and things on that Velvet Revolver tour, so at that point we had this major pile of stuff, from that collective, you know from all of that touring we did over those few years. At the end of 2007 was when we said we should really take some time and maybe rent a space and see what we have here, really dig into this stuff and so that’s when. By early 2008 we were like ‘ok we should take this into a studio, we should meet with producers and see what they say’ and then we found Nick Raskulinecz and the rest is history.
How many songs were written for the album and how were they narrowed down to what we have seen as the final product?
I would say we recorded close to 20 things pretty much all the way through you know, we finished them and we whittled it down to the 11 on the album, just really kind of through I don’t know I mean there was just kind of a loose consensus on what fit together best for this particular record, for this particular step we were taking, so all the stuff is really good, and it may, some of that other stuff that didn’t make it onto this album may see the light of day at some point, but for this particular step, for this album, it was just kind of a consensus.
Now you talk about the pressure and being your own worst critic and what not, but what kind of pressure did you feel as a band recording “Black Gives Way To Blue” versus outside pressure regarding deadlines and maybe influences of what others may of wanted from this album?
Well that was part of the beauty of making this album, was that we weren’t on anyone else’s schedule and we weren’t contractually obligated to anyone. This was a completely self financed, self motivated undertaking, so we were liberated from label people coming down and deadlines and all of that stuff. We didn’t have any of that, we finished this album before we even started negotiating with anyone to partner with to put it out. So I think that was essential to the working process just as I think the 2 years of touring we did prior to entering the studio was essential to our entire, to this whole story. It wouldn’t have worked any other way, we had to bond together as a band through a lot of hard touring on the road and then we had to go into the studio free of any outside pressure from anyone else in order to see what we really had and to work at our own pace, to come up with something that either we believed in or that we said ‘hey that’s good but its just not, we don’t need to put this out’ and it could’ve gone either way but again, the fact that we weren’t pressured by anyone and that we didn’t have anyone lording over us was key to the whole thing and the way it came out.
I have to ask how cool it was to have Elton John perform on the title track ‘Black Gives Way To Blue’?
Oh very cool man, we had a demo for that song ‘Black Gives Way To Blue’ and the demo had piano on it that was played by a friend of ours who works for the band as one of our guitar techs. When it came time to consider the proper studio version of that song for the album, the question was, should it have piano like the demo? And if so, who should play it? Should we just get our friend back? Then another person who works for the band and who also worked for Elton John for a period said ‘why don’t you give Elton a call?’. We said ‘yeah right, sure we’ll get right on that and I’m sure he’ll be right over. Sir Elton John’! But then after a couple of days of thinking about it, what’s the worst that can happen, you don’t ask, you don’t get. So we floated a note to him and it turns out he totally got what the song was about and liked it and he said yes. So sometime just about after we’d completed just about all the tracks for the record, we found ourselves in a studio at the Palms Hotel in Vegas and Elton John walked in ha ha! It was a totally surreal experience for all of us because he means a lot to all of our childhood, his music has been an inspiration for all of us. Especially I think for Cantrell, Elton John kinda represents the start of his musical journey, even before the guitar based hard rock. It also turns out that Layne Staley’s first concert was Elton John, so there was a lot of really cool circle things there, stars lining up.
Elton was just a really gracious guy, with his time and with his energy and you know he’s a master musician so he didn’t come in there with any ‘This is what I’m going to play on your song’ you know. He was really open to trying it many different ways, he was open to our suggestions and like any true master of his craft, who is secure in his own being like Elton was cool like that. He was also very self deprecating in his humour, if he messed up in the middle of a take, he’d curse himself with the most funny curses, like one time he messed up and he was like ‘Damn it woman!’ ha ha. you know, that kind of thing and it was funny to hear him laugh at himself and obviously the song is really heavy and has all these somber emotions so it was great to undercut it with that kind of humour. Yeah man, we’re still peaking out over it frankly; we’re like ‘God! That actually happened you know’ cool guy, great musician, great experience for all of us.
You have just played a bunch of shows during September in the USA, mainly playing clubs as opposed to larger venues? How is the new material coming across live?
Man, its ripping, like its totally ripping and its so gratifying for us to see how well the new stuff sits seamlessly along side the older stuff. Its great to watch fans even before this stuff was out, it was great to see them reacting to it the way they were. It was a real gas for us and now that the records out, obviously we’re gonna see more and more of that, so that was a great thing.
Now, Europe is next and we got to see you perform in February this year at the Soundwave festival and were blown away. Were you nervous what the reception would be like? Can we expect to see you back in Australia any time soon?
Oh, that tour was a great deal of fun for us, I had never been to Australia before so it was really special to me to finally see your country and I thought it was beautiful. I though the audiences were amazing and met a lot of really wonderful people there. So yeah, I was very warmed by the reception we got and I cant wait to get back there, we cant wait to get back there. It seems like people are really responding to the album there so we will definitely be back for sure
Not another 15 years like it was before then?
Not another 15 years, no sir ha ha