Photo credit: Rolling Stone
You can absolutely say that I am a fan of classic grunge music, and certainly, Alice in Chains. You may even recognize my name from a book I wrote a few years ago, Grunge is Dead: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music. Yes, that was me!
And in 2015, author David de Sola has written a new Alice in Chains book, Alice in Chains: The Untold Story (published by Thomas Dunne Books), and was kind enough to answer some questions for Alternative Nation, including his thoughts on where Alice In Chains would be today if Layne Staley had lived. Where do you think AIC would be today with Layne? Leave your thoughts in the comment section. Read on/rock on!
How did the idea come up to write a book about Alice in Chains?
In 2011 while I was simultaneously in summer school at Georgetown University and working at 60 Minutes, I put on the Dirt album for the first time in a long time. After it was finished, I went online looking for a Layne Staley or Alice in Chains biography, thinking somebody had must have already written something. When I didn’t find anything along the lines of what I was looking for, I decided to do it myself. I started working on it in August as soon as my school and work responsibilities were done.
What was your biggest challenge in writing the book?
Not having cooperation or access to the band meant that some people weren’t willing to talk. Others were skeptical because they were protective of the band and/or Layne or Mike Starr. I would try to convince them that they should talk to me, because I was capable of telling the band’s story in a credible and responsible manner. Sometimes I was successful, sometimes I wasn’t. Beyond that, there was the occasionally tricky question of how I would tackle the drug issue, in a way that was credible without sensationalizing or minimizing it.
Who were some of the top interviews you conducted for the book?
Several people agreed to speak on the record for the first time, which was a very gratifying and humbling experience for me. Jamie, Jim and Ken Elmer (Layne’s sister, step-father and step-brother) are definitely up there, as are Matt Muasau, Bobby Nesbitt and Scott Nutter – Jerry Cantrell’s band mates in the original Diamond Lie when he lived in the Tacoma area. Kathleen Austin (Demri’s mother) was an invaluable source. David Ballenger (Layne and Jerry’s former boss at the Music Bank) had some great stories, as well as documents from his time running the place. I’m also grateful that I was able to get Dirt engineer Bryan Carlstrom on the record a little more than a year before he passed away. I am profoundly grateful to all of my sources, because they are the ones who made this book what it is.
Did the band have any input in the book?
None. I made several unsuccessful attempts to contact them while I was working on it, and ultimately wrote the book without the authorization or cooperation of the band, their record label, or their management.
What is the most misunderstood thing about Layne Staley?
Layne’s substance abuse issues, as well as his death, have overshadowed a lot of other things about his life. Yes, he was a drug addict, but he was also a wickedly funny guy with an amazing voice. He was also very generous, even before he was rich and famous. Drugs shouldn’t define him. They are part of his story, but not the entire story.
Do you enjoy Alice in Chains’ music with William DuVall on vocals?
Yes. I think he was an inspired choice, not a derivative one. From everything I have seen, read, and heard about him, he doesn’t try to be Layne, even though that’s the standard he’s held to. He has his own musical background and upbringing different from his Alice in Chains bandmates – past and present. He’s confident being himself.
I always wondered what would have happened with the Layne era of the band if drugs didn’t play such a big part behind the scenes. What are your thoughts on this?
I think the subject material in a lot of Layne’s lyrics might have been different. Beyond that, the band probably would have been much more active touring. The last really intensive tour they did with Layne was in 1993 in support of the Dirt album – after that they became a studio band for the most part until they regrouped with William in 2006. There might have been a second Mad Season album in 1996-97. Jerry presumably wouldn’t have felt the need to do two solo albums – Boggy Depot and Degradation Trip might well have become Alice in Chains albums. Assuming that Layne was still alive and had managed to kick his drug addiction, I think it’s safe to say the band would have continued to make records and tour. Remember that of Seattle’s “big four”, the only band that has kept going continuously for the past 25 years is Pearl Jam.
I take it as a compliment that bits from my earlier book, Grunge is Dead: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music, are quoted in your book. Just wanted to say thanks!
One of the reasons I was able to do this book is because of books about the grunge scene like yours and several others that have been written over the years. They gave me background information, as well as names of people to look up and leads to try and verify or elaborate on in greater depth. Your book and others – Mark Yarm’s Everybody Loves Our Town, Pearl Jam’s Pearl Jam Twenty, Charles R. Cross’s Heavier Than Heaven, Jacob McMurray’s Taking Punk to the Masses – were a great road map for me, especially when I was starting out.