BY JOE BOSSO | FROM THE WINTER 2018 ISSUE OF DRUM!
“I was here when things were still fairly cool, before they invented ‘the grunge,’ as I call it,” says Alice In Chains drummer Sean Kinney, a lifelong Seattle resident. “I really liked what everybody was playing before it all exploded, so I was happy that we got busy and were on tour all the time. I could get away from everything.”
In August, Alice In Chains released Rainier Fog, its first album in five years. Most of the work was done in town at a facility called Studio X, in the same room the band tracked its 1995 self-titled album, back when the studio was known as Bad Animals and owned by Anne and Nancy Wilson of Heart. Kinney isn’t given to bouts of sentimentality, but he does admit that a certain air of nostalgia crept in while the band worked. “We’ve spent a lot of time in that room, a lot of stuff went down there,” he notes. “We did our last record with Layne [Staley] there.”
This is the band’s third album with lead singer and rhythm guitarist William DuVall, who joined three years after Staley’s death in 2002. What’s remarkable about the rejuvenated band’s new music is how much it recalls their trademark sound — it’s got the same eerie, dissonant electric-and-acoustic riffs and chord voicings; the same lush and alluring vocal harmonies; and it’s driven by the same tumultuous, doomsday rhythms — yet still feels astonishingly fresh and vital.
“We found our identity early on, and it’s ours alone,” Kinney says. “Things changed because we lost one of our best friends and bandmates, but new people came into the fold. The framework of the band never went away, and I guess that’s why our sound is intact.”
Kinney has been playing with guitarist and singer Jerry Cantrell for 31 years now, and in his view, not much has changed about how they work together. “We sit down to make music to please ourselves, and we do it on a per song basis,” he says. “Jerry will whip out a riff, or I’ll hear him warming up, and I’ll be like, That’s cool. So then I’ll start jamming with him, and before you know it, we’ve got something. We have two singers and a lot of melodies, so the trick for me is to play something interesting that suits the song.”
The light shuffle beat he plays on the blues-tinged “Drone,” for example, was born out of a jam with Cantrell. “I just played as little as I could to drive the song but not get in the way of the riff. If I would have thought about it more, or if we had demoed it to death, I would have lost the vibe. Sometimes you just nail it the first time around.”
Cantrell’s immense guitar sound could make mincemeat of most drum tracks, but Kinney’s instinctive approach, even in the most nuanced of ways, penetrates the mix. On Rainier Fog’s churning bruisers “Red Giant” and “So Far Under,” he adds depth and ambience with his crafty use of the ride bell.
“A lot of drummers just consider their cymbals as one more thing to keep time with,” he says. “I like to think of them as a tool for me to color with. With loud guitars, you have to pick your moments and make them count. The cymbals become something you not only hear but feel. You sit back and listen to the overall picture, and you go, Yeah. That’s cool. I get it.”