With Alice in Chains, Atlanta punk icon William DuVall finds his audience - 2/23/2010
Former Neon Christ frontman makes an epic leap toward commercial success
More than 25 years have passed since William DuVall's tirades as the guitarist and songwriter for Neon Christ kicked open the door for Atlanta's hardcore scene in the early '80s. Back then people called him Kip, and the same scene that he played a vital role in creating during the Reagan era still resonates on local stages. But like Atlanta's urban landscape, DuVall has changed dramatically since those days. Mention his name to the tight-jeans-wearing kids of the local punk scene now and Neon Christ hangs on their lips like the evocation of an ancient demigod. Mention his later, proto-grunge/art rock trio No Walls, or his more recent and decidedly commercial rock act Comes With the Fall to the same youthful zealots and they only offer blank stares. Truth be told, hardcore was only the beginning of a long legacy in which DuVall has labored to strike a balance between artistic integrity and commercial success.
When news spread in 2006 that DuVall had joined Alice in Chains to replace vocalist Layne Staley, who died of a heroin overdose in 2002, fans of Neon Christ scoffed at the new gig. In the early '90s, Alice in Chains was the watered-down cousin to the post-punk fuzz of Nirvana, Soundgarden and the rest of Seattle's Sub Pop grunge scene. Alice in Chains was a metal band first and foremost, and though the group's songs dwelt on the dark side, they were polished by comparison – and tailored to suit a much larger audience.
Reaching an audience of that size has been DuVall's M.O. almost from the beginning, and every phase of his career has inched him closer to that goal. Joining Alice in Chains – a band that has sold nearly 15 million records in the U.S., including two No. 1 albums and 21 Top 40 singles – is an epic leap that finds DuVall far removed from the hard-line aesthetics of his musical beginnings. And yet, even though he left hardcore's dogmatic ways to embrace commercial music a long time ago, he has never let go of his convictions.
Soon after Neon Christ broke up in 1986, DuVall left town. "Things got pretty heavy for Neon Christ and I bolted," he recalls. Although he didn't witness it firsthand, he was told that a group of racist skinheads had set up a gun range in a warehouse near DuVall's old punk haunt the Metroplex. For target practice they were using pictures of his face. The time was right for a change of scenery, so he moved to Santa Cruz, Calif., to join the SST Records band Bl'ast!
But his time there was short-lived. "I found it a bit limiting," he says. "They were just surfer guys trying to play rock music. I tried to turn them on to things like John Coltrane or MC5, but they didn't want to know about it. Playing with them was fun, but I was done."
Around that same time, bassist and vocalist Mike Dean of Raleigh's hardcore band Corrosion of Conformity was leaving his group. DuVall caught wind and gave him a call. "I said, 'Mike, oh man. I want to form the ultimate band for this kind of twisted punk-metal and it's gonna be called the Final Offering, because it's going to be the end for this kind of music.'"
Dean left COC and he and DuVall returned to Atlanta to convene with Greg Psomas – the drummer for Neon Christ contemporary DDT — whom DuVall canonizes as the Keith Moon of Atlanta. They were briefly joined by vocalist Randy Gue, but the Final Offering was short-lived. A few years after they broke up, Psomas died of a heroin overdose in '93.
In 1988, DuVall formed No Walls with jazz bassist Hank Schroy and drummer Matthew Cowley. The new project saw DuVall moving beyond punk's limited scope with a sound that encapsulated jazz, psychedelic rock and prog bursts of melodic, acoustic strumming. After giving a tape of No Walls' songs to Vernon Reid of Living Colour backstage after a show, Reid championed No Walls in the press, as did David Fricke of Rolling Stone, who described one CBGB show as "a brilliant collision of sinewy punk attack, angular-jazz maneuvers and catchy art-pop songwriting."
The demo, recorded at Jimi Hendrix's Electric Lady Studios in New York, generated a strong Atlanta buzz but was never properly released. Instead, the group's '92 self-titled CD, issued by Third Eye Records, met with disappointment. When the CD arrived, the punk edge had given way to a softer, overproduced pop sound, which was intentional.
Adulthood was approaching quickly for the 24-year-old DuVall and he still wasn't making a living playing music. A&R reps were courting No Walls, but label interest hadn't materialized. "I thought No Walls was the ticket," he says. "It was all the music I ever loved thrown into one band, but all I had was people telling me I don't have 'a song.'"
A few years after the group broke up, DuVall saw Jeff Buckley play at the Point (now Clothing Warehouse in Little Five Points), and the similarities he noticed between Buckley's band and No Walls were uncanny to the point of frustration. "He had a drummer playing the same kind of jazzed-out drums in a rock club while he was crooning this otherworldly Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan shit over some Zeppelin-influenced rock, and he's getting pushed by Columbia," DuVall says. "He was fantastic, and he did it his own way, but we had a lot of mutual friends in New York and he moved there when we were getting started on our thing here."
It seemed to DuVall that No Walls had missed a great opportunity by remaining in Atlanta.
Meanwhile, the same A&R reps busy working on such pop filler as the next M.C. Hammer and Warrant albums were telling him that he lacked palatable songs. "I never saw what was so difficult about my music," he says. "I thought, 'I'm going to show these people!'"
DuVall immersed himself in the craft of songwriting, studying everything from Motown and the Beatles to Edie Brickell in an attempt to make his songwriting more viable while staying true to his personality. Before long it paid off. In '95 former Arrested Development singer Dionne Farris scored a No. 1 radio hit with "I Know," co-written by DuVall.
In '96 he formed the group Madfly, an over-the-top glam-pop group that took a complete 180 from his prior efforts. He dropped the guitar and became a full-fledged spectacle of a frontman, complete with flashy costumes and body paint. While DuVall describes it as a "tongue-in-cheek, pissed-off reaction" that stemmed from his frustration with No Walls' lack of commercial appeal, fans of Neon Christ and No Walls failed to see the irony inherent in the group's presentation and found themselves alienated by what seemed like a complete about-face at the time.
"We dressed in stupid clothes and I said, 'If I'm going to be a clown for you assholes, I'm going to have fun and write some cool music," he says. "I was just trying to move forward and explore. If my music wasn't commercial enough, what could I do to make it more commercial?"
Madfly later dropped the shtick and became Comes With the Fall. It was a return to the more stylized and sincere songwriting DuVall had fostered with No Walls. He was back on guitar, cranking out heavy but radio-friendly riffs and melodies. The lineup settled on Bevan Davies (drums), Adam Stanger (bass) and Nico Constantine (second guitar). But it wasn't long before DuVall found himself in the same situation he'd been in with No Walls — getting no attention.
Leaving Atlanta seemed inevitable, but DuVall was reluctant. He wanted to spark something new at home, the same as he'd done before with Neon Christ, but things were no longer as simple as they had been when he was 14. "There was no punk rock in Atlanta so we made it happen; I thought we could make something else happen here, but when the industry and art consciously interface with commerce, it gets weird," he says. "My family was coming down on me saying, 'What are you going to do with your life?' It was like that old Twisted Sister video — 'I want to rock!'"
In 2000, Comes With the Fall moved to Los Angeles. Within a week, DuVall met Alice in Chains guitarist Jerry Cantrell. A mutual acquaintance had given Cantrell Comes With the Fall's second album, The Year Is One (released on DuVall's DVL Recordings), and it caught his ear. "When I met Cantrell the first thing he said to me was, 'Cool hair!' The next thing he said was, 'I'm a fan.'"
That kind of validation was exactly what the group needed after leaving Atlanta. The disappointment over their stalled status had reached a breaking point, and they hit Hollywood "like a bomb," DuVall says. "Cantrell was one of the people who got hit." The two became friends, and soon Cantrell was learning CWTF songs and occasionally joining them onstage. The following year, Cantrell enlisted CWTF as his backing tour band to promote his solo album, Degradation Trip (Roadrunner).
In the meantime, Alice in Chains was slowing to a crawl. When Layne Staley died in '02, the group came to a halt until the surviving members reconvened in 2006 to play a tsunami benefit with various singers. Later that year, they played a second time at a tribute concert for Heart. Again, several singers, including Phil Anselmo (Pantera) and Duff McKagan (Guns N' Roses, Velvet Revolver) sang with the group during the benefit. DuVall was invited to sing "Rooster" with Heart's Ann Wilson.
"There was never a moment when I was sitting at a table with the band and they asked, 'Would you like to be the new singer for Alice in Chains?'" DuVall says. "It was more like, 'We're playing this tribute' or 'We have some European dates booked, would you like to sing?'"
Before he knew it, DuVall had played 23 countries as Alice in Chains' frontman. At first, the pairing was a tribute to the music that the group had recorded with Staley, but it was apparent that the new lineup had its own synergy. New riffs and new ideas were forming. They became a new band on the road and documented as many of their impromptu song ideas as possible. Between tours, scraps of audio and video turned into songs.
In September '09, Alice in Chains released Black Gives Way to Blue (Virgin), a new album that finds DuVall and Cantrell in twin roles singing and playing guitar. Fourteen years had passed since the group's self-titled album was released in '95, but when placed side-by-side, the albums sound as though they could have been recorded at the same time. DuVall's voice blends smoothly with Cantrell's low guitar and vocal harmonies. The warped-record riff of "Check My Brain" laid over the acoustic remorse of "Your Decision" bares the mark of classic Alice in Chains. And the slow, bottom-heavy punk dirge on the DuVall-penned "Last of My Kind" hits hard — yet still falls seamlessly within an emotional range that culminates with the album's title track, featuring Sir Elton John's wilting voice and piano.
The group's lineup is filled out by original drummer Sean Kinney and bassist Mike Inez. Cantrell writes much of the material, but DuVall plays a significant and growing role in the songwriting as well. "Alice in Chains is nothing without all four people; that's how it was with Layne and that's the case now," DuVall says. "The difference now is that I'm a guitar player first. I'm able to approach the songwriting process from different angles. Cantrell can play me some weird, idiosyncratic piece of Cantrell-ness, and I can play it right back and say, 'What about this?'"
Replacing a frontman with such a distinct style as Staley's is daunting, but DuVall has eased into the new role. "If there had been that one formal discussion saying, 'Would you like to help us resurrect Alice in Chains?' I would have thought twice," he admits. "But we were just playing for the fans who care about it and hadn't seen it in a long time. For all we knew it was going to be one more victory lap and goodbye."
The reaction to DuVall has been equally divided between supporters and naysayers, ranging from Staley disciples to old-school punk purists who question DuVall's motives. "It was surprising when he joined Alice in Chains but it wasn't shocking because he'd already had some commercial success with the Dionne Farris song," says Atlantan G.G. King, who used to sing lead for Carbonas and played drums for Neon Christ reunion shows in the past. "Even though he left hardcore behind him a long time ago, he's still a great musician and I respect the hell out of him."
An anonymous Alice in Chains fan attempted to diss DuVall's vocals, commenting on the blog Musing for Amusement that "William Duvall's singing compared to Layne's is like comparing Bob Dylan to Pavorotti sic. Dylan CAN'T sing, he knows that. William doesn't yet."
But one thing is certain: The charts have responded kindly. Last week, "Your Decision" sat in the No. 2 spot on Billboard's rock songs chart. In Atlanta, the group had to book a second Tabernacle show to meet the ticketing demand. "As you're out there and growing up in public and going through all of these things, there's bound to be a lot of discussion from both sides," DuVall says. "We're aware of that, but at the same time there's a gig to play every night. There's no time to dwell on the things that would make you second-guess yourself."
DuVall's evolution from Atlanta's underground to Alice in Chains' frontman finds him performing for the biggest audiences he's ever seen, which is exactly where he wants to be. Second-guessing his music, however, is a burden he left behind a long time ago.