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MoPOP Oral History Interview: Alice In Chains on the Songwriting Process

Alice In Chains on the Songwriting Process

Ahead of the Museum of Pop Culture's Founders Award fundraiser honoring Seattle's own Alice In Chainswhich is set to premiere at 6 p.m. PST on Tuesday, December 1, 2020 and stream free on MoPOP's Facebook page, Amazon Music's Twitch channel, and the Amazon Music appwe're pulling excerpts from an oral history interview the band took part in at our nonprofit museum.

On September 23, 2009, Alice In Chains vocalist and guitarist Jerry Cantrell, drummer Sean Kinney, bassist Mike Inez, and vocalist and guitarist William DuVall sat down with Jacob McMurray, MoPOP's Director of Curatorial, Collections & Exhibits, to talk about their musical influences, their songwriting process, how they evolved as a band after losing Layne Staley, and the explosion of the Seattle music scene.

At MoPOP, we use oral history interviews to help us preserve creators and creative movements from across popular culture. The very first oral history interview we did was with Jimi Hendrix's father, Al Hendrix, and that initial effort energized us toward the value of collecting stories on the lives, careers, and legacies in pop culture. To date, we have recorded more than 1,100 oral histories and counting!

In part three of a four-part Founders Award 2020 blog series, we hear from Alice In Chains on their musicianship process and approach to songwriting. Read on!

MoPOP: A lot of people that come to the museum enjoy music but aren't necessarily players, so we're trying to sort of demystify playing music to get people excited about playing music, that it isn't a scary thing, that anybody can do it. As far as your songwriting process, how does that happen? How do you write the songs? 

William DuVall: Well, it's scary sometimes because you're sometimes going to places mentally or spiritually that might be a bit uncomfortable, but that's what makes it potentially great, too. So in that respect, and in terms of the technical aspect of songwriting being intimidating to some people, I would say brush that aside. Do yourself a favor, because it's a mode of expression. There's no rules. That's another thing that I found out very early on, being involved in an organic underground culture that made itself, was that if somebody says 'this is the rules of guitar playing,' that's when it's time to throw the guitar against the wall and see what kind of sound it makes. Or, 'this is how you write a song,' there’s no rules for how to write a song or anything else. You do what you do and then if you want to get more formal with it, listen to Motown and figure out how they did it, then that's your own decision. But the only thing that's scary is sometimes the places it takes you psychologically depending on how deep you want to go, and that's totally up to the individual.

Mike Inez: Yeah, we're lucky we have a form of expression to get it out of our brains. There's so many people that don't have that in life and end up doing work placement. Artists of any form, I think, it's just all about getting it out of your brain. I meet so many musicians that aren't truly musicians and don't even like music, to be honest, and are just into it for the wrong reasons.

Jerry Cantrell: I'm one of those guys. 

Mike Inez: Yeah, like, Cantrell here. 

Jerry Cantrell: I don't give a shit. 

Mike Inez: He doesn't give a shit. Is this thing on? I don't fuckin' care.

[all laugh]

MoPOP: You all live in different places, do you keep individually coming up with song ideas that then you're bringing together?

Sean Kinney: I write some of the shittiest songs on the fuckin' planet.

Jerry Cantrell: And he writes a lot of them.

Mike Inez: But at least he's getting them out. 

Sean Kinney: But I write a lot of them. The key is, if you write a lot of them and you keep writing them, maybe one of them will be good or somebody else will like it or it'll get there.

MoPOP: Does it work? 

Sean Kinney: No, not yet, but you keep trying. But as far as this band goes, there is that question that gets asked a lot of 'what's the way you write songs?' It's different. A lot of the time Jerry will have pretty much a song that he's written where a lot of it comes from just sitting down and jamming and a riff comes out and then somebody adds another part. There isn't one formula. Maybe for some bands there is. This band's never really been like that. Jerry will write some songs that I think are great, but at the same time, this is Alice. We feed this one thing that's been created, and that's bigger than any individual or one thing, and he'll write some shit and I know it's good and he'll send it to me or I'll listen to it and I'll go, 'Yeah, but it's not this,' and then we get the whole, 'Yeah, fuck you,' kind of thing going. [Jerry laughs] But it's because of the care of this one deal. It's not that it's not good. It's this thing has gotten an identity of itself that's been created and you want to expand that, but you don't want to just throw it out the fuckin' window and start doing, like, techno music.

Jerry Cantrell: Here's a ska record!

Sean Kinney: That's not interesting. If you want to do that, just go do that over here, but keep this a safe place to bring that stuff. And it also hasn't been that hard because we didn't know what the fuck we were doing when we started out and when we very first started out it was really stupid. It was just like, get together, an excuse to party and stuff, and it wasn't serious. I remember early on we hit upon some certain riffs and styles or some way that we started jelling and it sounded like a band. And from then it got more serious. I remember taking it more serious and all of us going, 'Wow, we're onto something here.'

Mike Inez: I think that's why the whole Seattle scene is so successful. These bands up here were off the beaten LA and New York track, and it gave all these bands—Soundgarden, Nirvana, Mudhoney, Mother Love Bone—all these bands were up here jamming for a period of time before they actually got a record deal and did some stuff.

Jerry Cantrell: The best shot you're ever going to have writing, ever, is just write something that is cool to you and write something that makes sense to you. Write from your own experience. You've heard that from I don't know how many interviews where you ask any writer or artists. You create from your own experience and try to simply go from there. By doing that, and especially doing it in a context of a band, using this band as an example, there's a lot of really creative people in this band. On a musical level and just in general, very creative people. So it's not even almost who physically writes the stuff because it's got to go through the filter of this thing. That distills it into something even better than it would be. There's a lot of songs that I've written that we've played and they're far better off for having gone through the process and having everybody's input and gone through the filter of this band than they would have been where they started out.

Mike Inez: It's a lot of digestive tract. It has to go through here. 

Jerry Cantrell: As a tip to somebody who's into doing it, it just takes time. We didn't start off writing good songs. We started off writing some pretty shitty ones.

Sean Kinney: Stellarly bad. 

Jerry Cantrell: And we still write some pretty shitty songs. You got to pick through all that stuff. I will say one thing, though, as a writer—and I'm sure the guys can relate to this, too—I don't ever think I got it licked. I don't ever think I got it cold. Every time that we go in to record a record, there's a certain amount of..

William DuVall: Of fear, yep.

Jerry Cantrell: There's a certain amount of fear that goes into it. Like, 'Holy shit, OK,' because by going through the process, you know what it takes to go through all of that stuff, to get to the end, to get something that everybody's into, and you don't even know quite what it's going to be, but you're going to go on faith because we've done it before. You bet on each other, and you're cool. The reason why you do it is because the good stuff outweighs any fear. But especially when you create something that's really good, to go into that process again, it's like, 'Ooo. OK, shit, man. Can we do this again? Can you do this again?' And it's an inspiring thing for me, and I have that fear and doubt in myself, and we all have it. We're all human. So you face up to that shit, you share it, everybody knows the same stuff. You know that you're doing it together, and that makes it OK to make that sort of an effort, and also having the benefit of having accepted that challenge time and time again and come up with some really cool albums and some good songs, it makes it OK to continue past that. I think where a lot of people get stopped and caught is they just stop at the fear. Like, 'Ahh, shit, I don't want to do the work,' or 'Ahh, I'm not going to, I don't want to commit to do that again.' So I guess the lesson is that—and you can apply it to anything in life—you've got to do the work to get whatever you want out of it. The more work you put into it and the more quality work you put into it, the more quality you're going to get out. 

Mike Inez: And if you can't work through all that, hire songwriters. Come on, everyone knows that. 

Jerry Cantrell: [laughs] If that doesn't work, hire some songwriters. Yeah.


Stay tuned for part four of our oral history interview blog series with Alice In Chains on Thursday, November 26, 2020, when we share the band's thoughts on coming up in the Seattle music scene.

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About the author

The Museum of Pop Culture’s mission is to make creative expression a life-changing force by offering experiences that inspire and connect our communities.