Alice in Chains Poster
Alice in Chains poster by Darren Grealish© 2015
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Alice in Chains.
Formation and early years (1984–1989)
Before the formation of Alice in Chains, then-drummer Layne Staley landed his first gig as a vocalist when he auditioned to sing for a local glam metal band known as Sleze after receiving some encouragement from his stepbrother Ken Elmer. Other members of this group at that time were guitarists Johnny Bacolas and Zoli Semanate, drummer James Bergstrom, and bassist Byron Hansen. This band went through several lineup changes culminating with Nick Pollock as their sole guitarist and Bacolas switching to bass before discussions arose about changing their name to Alice in Chains. This was prompted by a conversation that Bacolas had with a singer from another band about backstage passes. Due to concerns over the reference to female bondage, the group ultimately chose to spell it differently as Alice N’ Chains to allay any parental concerns, though Staley’s mother Nancy McCallum has said she was still not happy with this name at first.
Staley met guitarist Jerry Cantrell while working with Alice N’ Chains at Music Bank rehearsal studios. The two struggling musicians became roommates, living in a rehearsal space they shared. Alice N’ Chains soon disbanded, and Staley joined a funk band that also required a guitarist at the time. Staley asked Cantrell to join as a sideman. Cantrell agreed on condition that Staley join Cantrell’s band, which at the time included drummer Sean Kinney and bassist Mike Starr. Eventually the funk project broke up, and in 1987 Staley joined Cantrell’s band on a full-time basis, playing in clubs around the Pacific Northwest, often stretching 15 minutes of material into a 45-minute set. The band played a couple of gigs, calling themselves different monikers, including Diamond Lie, the name of Cantrell’s previous band, before eventually adopting the name that Staley’s previous band had initially flirted with, Alice in Chains.
Local promoter Randy Hauser became aware of the band at a concert and offered to pay for demo recordings. However, one day before the band was due to record at the Music Bank studio in Washington, police shut down the studio during the biggest cannabis raid in the history of the state. The final demo, completed in 1988, was named The Treehouse Tapes and found its way to the music managers Kelly Curtis and Susan Silver, who also managed the Seattle-based band Soundgarden. Curtis and Silver passed the demo on to Columbia Records‘ A&R representative Nick Terzo, who set up an appointment with label president Don Ienner. Based on The Treehouse Tapes, Ienner signed Alice in Chains to Columbia in 1989. The band also recorded another untitled demo over a three-month period in 1989. This recording can be found on the bootleg release Sweet Alice.
Facelift and Sap (1990–1992)
Alice in Chains soon became a top priority of the label, which released the band’s first official recording in July 1990, a promotional EP called We Die Young. The EP’s lead single, “We Die Young“, became a hit on metal radio. After its success, the label rushed Alice in Chains’ debut album into production with producer Dave Jerden. Cantrell stated the album was intended to have a “moody aura” that was a “direct result of the brooding atmosphere and feel of Seattle”.
The resulting album, Facelift, was released on August 21, 1990, peaking at number 42 in the summer of 1991 on the Billboard 200 chart. Facelift was not an instant success, selling under 40,000 copies in the first six months of release, until MTV added “Man in the Box” to regular daytime rotation. The single hit number 18 on the Mainstream rock charts, with the album’s follow up single, “Sea of Sorrow“, reaching number 27, and in six weeks Facelift sold 400,000 copies in the US. The album was a critical success, with Steve Huey of AllMusic citing Facelift as “one of the most important records in establishing an audience for grunge and alternative rock among hard rock and heavy metal listeners.”
Facelift was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) by the end of 1990, while the band continued to hone its audience, opening for such artists as Iggy Pop, Van Halen, Poison,and Extreme. In early 1991, Alice in Chains landed the opening slot for the Clash of the Titans tour with Anthrax, Megadeth, and Slayer, exposing the band to a wide metal audience but receiving mainly poor reception. Alice in Chains was nominated for a Best Hard Rock Performance Grammy Award in 1992 for “Man in the Box” but lost to Van Halen for their 1991 album For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge.
Following the tour, Alice in Chains entered the studio to record demos for its next album, but ended up recording five acoustic songs instead. While in the studio, drummer Sean Kinney had a dream about “making an EP called Sap“. The band decided “not to mess with fate”, and on March 21, 1992, Alice in Chains released their second EP, Sap. The EP was released while Nirvana‘s Nevermind was at the top of the Billboard200 charts, resulting in a rising popularity of Seattle-based bands, and of the term “grunge music“. Sap was certified gold within two weeks. The EP features guest vocals by Ann Wilson from the band Heart, who joined Staley and Cantrell for the choruses of “Brother”, “Am I Inside”, and “Love Song”. The EP also features Mark Arm of Mudhoney and Chris Cornell of Soundgarden, who appeared together on the song “Right Turn”, credited to “Alice Mudgarden” in the liner notes. In 1992, Alice in Chains appeared in the Cameron Crowe film Singles, performing as a “bar band”. The band also contributed the song “Would?” to the film’s soundtrack, whose video received an award for Best Video from a Film at the 1993 MTV Video Music Awards.
In March 1992, the band returned to the studio. With new songs written primarily on the road, the material has an overall darker feel than Facelift, with six of the album’s thirteen songs dealing with the subject of addiction. “We did a lot of soul searching on this album. There’s a lot of intense feelings.” Cantrell said, “We deal with our daily demons through music. All of the poison that builds up during the day we cleanse when we play”.
On September 29, 1992, Alice in Chains released its second album, Dirt. The album peaked at number six on the Billboard 200 and since its release has been certified quadruple platinum by the RIAA, making Dirt the band’s highest selling album to date. The album was a critical success, with Steve Huey of Allmusic praising the album as a “major artistic statement, and the closest they ever came to recording a flat-out masterpiece”. Chris Gill of Guitar World called Dirt “huge and foreboding, yet eerie and intimate”, and “sublimely dark and brutally honest”. Dirt spawned five top 30 singles, “Would?“, “Rooster”, “Them Bones“, “Angry Chair“, and “Down in a Hole“, and remained on the charts for nearly two years. Alice in Chains was added as openers to Ozzy Osbourne‘s No More Tearstour. Days before the tour began, Layne Staley broke his foot in an ATV accident, forcing him to use crutches on stage. Starr left the band shortly after the Rock in Rio concert in January 1993 and was replaced by former Ozzy Osbourne bassist Mike Inez. In 1993, the band recorded two songs with Inez, “What the Hell Have I” and “A Little Bitter”, for the Last Action Hero soundtrack. During the summer of 1993, Alice in Chains toured with the alternative music festival Lollapalooza, their last major tour with Staley.
Jar of Flies (1993–1994)
Following Alice in Chains’ extensive 1993 world tour, Staley said the band “just wanted to go into the studio for a few days with our acoustic guitars and see what happened”. “We never really planned on the music we made at that time to be released. But the record label heard it and they really liked it. For us, it was just the experience of four guys getting together in the studio and making some music.”
Columbia Records released Alice in Chains’ second acoustic-based EP, Jar of Flies, on January 25, 1994. Written and recorded in one week, Jar of Flies debuted at number one on the Billboard 200, becoming the first ever EP—and first Alice in Chains release—to top the charts. Paul Evans of Rolling Stone called the EP “darkly gorgeous”, and Steve Huey stated “Jar of Flies is a low-key stunner, achingly gorgeous and harrowingly sorrowful all at once”. Jar of Flies features Alice in Chains’ first number-one single on the Mainstream Rock charts, “No Excuses“. The second single, “I Stay Away“, reached number ten on the Mainstream rock charts, while the final single “Don’t Follow“, reached number 25. After the release of Jar of Flies, Staley entered rehab for heroin addiction. The band was scheduled to tour during the summer of 1994 with Metallica, Suicidal Tendencies, Danzig, and Fight, as well as a slot during Woodstock ’94, but while in rehearsal for the tour, Staley began using heroin again. Staley’s condition prompted the other band members to cancel all scheduled dates one day before the start of the tour, putting the band on hiatus. Alice in Chains was replaced by Candlebox on the tour.