Edited by Brett Buchanan
This Alice In Chains Sap piece was originally published on Alternative Nation in April 2012 as part of our Remembering Layne Staley series. We are republishing it now since Alice In Chains’ Sap recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. This article takes a look back at the making of the EP, how Alice Mudgarden formed for a single track featuring Chris Cornell, and why Kurt Cobain could not join the makeshift supergroup.
Layne Staley has been here before, but in the tiny voice booth that accommodates the London Bridge Studios, he is filled with frustration. Alice in Chains will be here for an entire week recording their second EP, Sap. Four songs are planned but the record will eventually end up with five.
Staley and the band know this studio well. It’s where Alice’s first demo and debut album Facelift were recorded. But on a late Friday afternoon Layne is struggling to hit the right notes on one of the most haunting tracks that the group would ever record. The house engineer, and now co-owner of the studio, Jonathan Plum recalls: “The first time I heard Layne sing was on the song Am I Inside. He was struggling with his pitch; in fact it took a lot of work for him to sing the song correctly.” With Ann Wilson of Heart fame having already laid down her vocals and the music being complete the pressure was on Staley to deliver. “Rick Parasher who was the studio owner and producer on the record kept asking Layne to sing certain parts over and over again, I was struck by how difficult it was for him,” says Plum. Parasher believed he knew where the problem lay. “When the band left, I later asked Rick about it, and he told me that for the screamy style Layne was much more comfortable and accurate with. He just ‘belts it out’. A few days later I heard Layne belting and Rick was right, he nailed that style in a take or two. By the time the band were recording Dirt he was simply a one take guy, spot on.”
On late Saturday afternoon Layne Staley arrives at the studio a bit tired, but in an upbeat mood. Early in the morning he had helped his father chop wood. Jerry, Sean and Mike are busy laying down their tracks and rehearsing, so Layne decides to hang out in the lounge. He grabs breakfast and switches on the television, hoping to catch his favorite cartoons. “Okay so there’s Layne just hanging out on the couch watching cartoons and eating kids breakfast cereal from the box,” recalls Plum. “He flips it over and notices there is an activity on the back of the box. Layne filled out the activity in a very sick way. I remember one of the questions was ‘Where to put something?’ His answer: Urethra. After he cut out the box and put his answers on the fridge.”
Plum says of Staley, “He was by far the most laid back guy in the band. He was very down to Earth with me and kind. For example one morning he asked me how long I had worked at the studios for, and if I liked my job. He was one of the very few musicians who took the time to ask about me and share some of his normal life. By contrast Jerry Cantrell never acknowledged my presence unless he needed something. At the same time I also understood that he was in a very intense creative mode when he was at the studio. He was not unkind, just focused on his work. Thinking back Jerry was the creative force in the band with a much more intense personality than Layne.”
The Sap sessions were an oddity in the fact that no one really knew if these recording sessions would ultimately bring a release. “Jerry would just keep on throwing down ideas,” says Plum. “The sessions were certainly off the cuff, a lot of fucking around and experimenting going on.” A few clues that the recordings would see the light of day were some of the chosen guest singers on the EP. Soungarden’s Chris Cornell and Mudhoney’s Mark Arm (Cantrell’s request) were brought in to sing on Right Turn, which created the shortest lived supergroup in history, ‘Alice Mudgarden’. The aforementioned Ann Wilson sang backing vocals on Brother and Am I Inside. There was talk of having Kurt Cobain come in, but Nirvana were in Europe and Nevermind had just exploded.
Plum recalls that having the band in the studio for a week could be quite the task, “It was a little nutty, I was the assistant engineer but I was also responsible for cleaning the studio and really anything else that was needed. I was the only employee back then and in those days the studio was not set up well for big major label projects. I remember even running to the store and grabbing Thai takeaway for the band.”
On the second to last day of recording, with music laid on tape and the studio shut off just past 8PM, the members of Alice in Chains decided to throw a party after a 9 hour session. It would not be the last one. “One night it was 3AM and I had to wait until the band wanted to go home. They had some friends over and threw a party. Though it was very interesting to watch the band party, I didn’t like having to simply hang out and wait. It wasn’t like I was invited to party with the band,” says Plum.
Sap wound up having five songs: Brother, Got Me Wrong, Right Turn, Am I Inside, and the unlisted track Love Song (Sean Kinney’s baby). Sap would be quite a departure from anything Alice had recorded in the past, but the EP was released the following February and went Gold despite a lack of promotion. Photographer Rocky Schenck took a telling picture for the EP’s back cover. Members of the band urinating on their own pictures, one from the Facelift sessions and the other a promo picture from the previous summer’s Clash of the Titans tour. The band had moved on, and were ready to begin a new chapter.