Layne Staley 50th Birthday Retrospective: Alice In Chains & Bandmates Pay Tribute

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Alice In Chains shared a video that Pearl Jam recently uploaded of Jerry Cantrell and other Seattle musicians discussing Layne Staley. AIC shared the video to mark their legendary singer’s 50th birthday. Staley died in 2002.

In the video, which was originally released a couple of weeks ago, Cantrell said, “Layne, to me, was fucking one of the greatest singers in rock and roll history,” says Cantrell. “I’ve never heard anything like him before and I will never hear anything like him since … Just to be able to get to be in a band with a guy that does that to you, there’s nobody better to me than him and he’s my friend.”

You can watch the video at the bottom of the article. You can also read a piece Layne’s early collaborator Tim Branom wrote for Alternative Nation with the help of Doug McCausland discussing Alice In Chains’ early days below:

The Origins of Alice In Chains: A Retrospective
By Tim Branom

Back in high school, my brother introduced me to a couple of his friends. A few years later, those same guys started a band. I was slowly getting known in the Seattle music scene and eventually they asked me to produce their first demo tape: they wanted to do it right, spend some money, and really take some time on it.

The band was originally called themselves “Sleze”. They had musical elements of Motley Crue, Duran Duran, and Poison. They were all very young and very talented and I could see that they were extremely ambitious; the look and style they took on was the current bad-boy approach, which was glam rock.

I started pre-production in early 1986 by recording 17-year-old James Bergstrom’s drums in a tiny room at a rehearsal studio in Seattle called the Music Bank. Their room was so small that the musicians could barely fit in there because the drums took up all the space. There were sixty rooms and most bands wouldn’t start showing up to rehearse until the nighttime, so during the day it was super quiet.

Sleze vocalist Layne Staley would arrive after he got off work at Burgermaster. He would come early to change into his regular clothes and then fix his hair because it had been underneath his hat all day and it was completely flat – definitely not something you let someone see in the “Big Hair 80’s”!

After we recorded the drums for two songs, I brought the other musicians back to my home to record their vocals, guitars and bass parts on a Tascam 244 Portastudio 4 Track Cassette Recorder.

This session was probably the first time 19 year old Layne Staley ever recorded his vocals. The two songs we started with were “Fat Girls” and “Over The Edge”. The guitarist, 18-year-old Nick Pollock, used my 1969 Gibson Flying V guitar and 1970’s Marshall amp with a Rat Distortion. Nick was happy with the sound of this guitar and amp combination, and would use these later for the studio recordings as well. I wanted to get Layne’s vocals in shape, so for a few months, he would come over and we would work on vocals together.

Vintage Alice ‘N Chains backstage pass, 1987.

I wanted to strengthen his voice so that the studio recordings would go fast and efficient. He couldn’t afford vocal lessons, but I showed him vocal exercises and how to scream and sing with dynamics. The bassist, 20-year-old Mike Mitchell, was a bit more experienced than the others. His girlfriend, “Leigh” Ahern, was responsible for doing everyone’s hair and makeup, giving them their distinct look. Leigh lent them her clothes, including laced Madonna-type gloves, spandex pants, jewelry, scarves and bracelets.

We soon went into London Bridge Studios utilizing two brothers/recording engineers named Rick and Raj Parashar to record those two songs.

For my 21st birthday, the band arranged a party to show their appreciation for my work on their recordings. Always the prankster, Layne ordered my birthday cake from the Erotic Bakery with a woman’s tits made out of orange frosting. Somebody out there has photos of that night!

A few months later, Mike Mitchell had left the band for some reason and 17-year old Johnny Bacolas was back in the band as the bass player. The band was now playing gigs and had a bigger rehearsal room. They wanted to add one more song to the demo tape before it was released called “Lip Lock Rock”. (Originally spelled “Lipp Lokk Rokk”.) It was sort of an odd cross of three bands: Duran Duran, Led Zeppelin, and INXS. I arranged to have keyboardist Ron Stokes come by and add a “fake” drum roll from his Sequential Circuits Prophet 10 keyboard.

We recorded this keyboard part at Robert Lang Studios (then called Star Trak Studios). We then went back to London Bridge Studio to record the rest of this song and also brought horn players from Shorewood High school to play on the song to give it a fun feel. Drummer James Bergstrom wanted my voice to be used on the sampler to “rap” the title of the song, but I declined and the voice we used was Bergstrom’s. I did, however, sing all the background parts along with the band on all the songs. Layne did his best version of Robert Plant, although I never heard him sing with a Led Zeppelin influence again.

When it came time to mix the three songs, I chose to go to another studio only because Triad Studios had a little bit more outboard gear (reverb and effects). Effects were big in the 80’s and we were going for a big sound with lots of ear candy. Engineer Peter Barnes was a drummer and specialized in drums. I was impressed with his work, so I brought him in to mix the songs to make sure that we had a very good drum track.

But I somehow found myself with nowhere to live, so the band let me stay in their rehearsal room at the Music Bank. They weren’t coming there as often anymore and if they did want to rehearse, I would just put my stuff in the corner while they practiced. About a month later, Layne moved in as well. He took the couch and I slept on the floor with a sleeping bag. We both started working at the Music Bank; we were the guys that held the keys to let everybody into their rehearsal rooms. I think we were paid either four dollars an hour cash or credit towards a room! We usually chose the credit because we could get food and showers from girls. We were always playing jokes on each other, and nothing was really off-limits, although we wouldn’t do anything to physically harm each other. It seemed like every day (if somebody was in the front office), either myself or Layne would try to pick each other up in the air like a little baby… it looked so ridiculous to have a grown man up in the air, held by another guy! I think both of us only weighed about 120 pounds so it was pretty easy to pick each other up.

One time I went a little too far with the jokes… Layne brought this girl in the rehearsal room to have sex with her on the couch and told me not to open the door. But I was working that night and I had the keys for all the rooms. A group of about 12 people stood outside the door, and I waited until the exact moment to open it up. Of course the two “animals on the couch’ were shocked and a certain “thing” went flying across the room. We all laughed hysterically like little kids. Layne never brought it up again but I’m sure he retaliated in some prankster way.

Sleze’s drummer, James Bergstrom, came to me one day and asked me what I thought of the new name they were considering, which was Alice N’ Chains. I assumed the apostrophe came from a Guns N’ Roses influence. They went with the new name and I made some cassettes of the three songs before they were officially finished and gave them to Jeff Gilbert, a DJ at KCRW.  I had known Jeff for a few years and knew he could get some airplay for them if he liked them. A month later in January 1987, the band officially made 100 copies of the tapes, which they gave out to friends and fans.

The three song demo I recorded for Alice ‘N Chains. “Lip Lock Rock” was added last, despite being first on the tracklist.

In June of 1987, they changed their name to Alice In Chains, yet some booking agents were still booking them as Sleze or Alice ‘N Chains for months afterwards. The band was getting very popular and as those things happen, they were going to a lot of parties and kind of taking a break from working so hard. Towards the end of 1987, Alice In Chains broke up. The band had run its course and everyone pursed other styles of music.

For a period of a few months, nothing musically was really happening in Seattle and it was kind of a dead. But, that made a lot of people start bands and come up with new sounds. I wanted to try to put together a band of really good players around my own age that were serious about the same type of music which at the time was sort of a mix of Whitesnake, Motley Crue, and other bands of that nature. I know today a lot of kids like to throw them all into one category, but to us they were all extremely different.

I had a team called Headhunter Consultants that believed in me and one of them, Samantha Johnson, came up with the band name Gypsy Rose. I had one of the big rooms at the Music Bank to rehearse in with keyboardist Ron Stokes. We found a great drummer named Mike Gersema and started trying out guitar players: Doug Stokely from Sato, Rich Henry from Broken Toys, Brock Graue from Lipstick, and Andy Beach from Wildcard.

We had trouble finding a guitarist who would stick around.

We ended up working with Brock because he had dark-yet-simple songs and we just felt like he was one of us. He had also worked with Gersema in a band called Phaze. He suggested that we call Mike Starr (formerly of Sato) to play bass for us because he knew he was available and lived nearby. A local promoter named Bret Hartman (who would later be the MCA Records A&R guy) wanted to do a show with us at The Backstage. He thought we were a super-group of known local musicians and wanted to put our names on the flyer, which we thought was really cool.

Thanks to Bret Hartman for supporting us early on.

I knew Jerry Cantrell from a band called Diamond Lie and he had a roommate named Brian Herrman who was a keyboard player that was available. So we borrowed him for that show. We had worked with two other keyboard players including John Fryer and Ron Stokes. The details are a little fuzzy, but soon after the show, Brock Graue was out of the band, which was a shame because obviously the guitar player is a big part of the sound.

I then moved in with Mike Starr and we became good friends and spent the summer of 1987 doing all the things you could do in your early 20’s. Starr would lift weights, tan and look to his future. He had a lot going on in his head but wouldn’t usually reveal the details of his thoughts to just anybody. Without a guitarist, we recorded about 20 songs on my four-track recorder in the basement where we rehearsed in Des Moines, WA. I played the guitar parts, keyboards and sang, with Starr on bass and Gersema on drums. The band at this time sounded like Cinderella, Whitesnake – bands of that time.

Myself alongside Mike Starr and Mike Gersema in 1987.

We went to lots of parties, but practice always came first. One night, drummer Mike Gersema and I went to a party at the home of Vinnie Chas (later of Pretty Boy Floyd). Jerry Cantrell was living with him at the time. Jerry pulled me aside and played me a lot of songs on his 4-track. I was shocked at all his guitar harmonies and how far he had come musically in such a short time. A lot of the songs were in major keys and kind of sounded like the band Boston from the late 70s with lots of guitar harmonies. Jerry’s band, Diamond Lie, had just broken up, so he moved in with us in the basement for about a month.

Jerry was very organized and we ended up doing most of his songs instead of the previous direction, which was mostly all my songs. But something wasn’t a perfect fit, and Jerry soon left. But now that I look back, that meant he also had nowhere to live. I’ve seen some interviews with Jerry talking about this, but he is mistaken that he thinks I am the one that “kicked him out” of the band. If you would like to hear 4 songs from this time period, you can hear them here:

At another attempt for a guitarist, we asked Gersema’s friend Tony Avalon (son of Frankie Avalon) to fly up from California for a few weeks while we all decided if it was a good fit or not. I think we both decided it was a clash of styles, but it was fun putting a bluesy spin on our metal songs. But before Avalon left, he went out with Starr and Gersema to the Riviera Steakhouse to see some bands play. I woke up the next morning with a call that Starr and Gersema fought over a girl and Starr was out of the band! It was upsetting, but we found another guitarist and bassist and kept playing shows.

We were really shocked to learn that Starr, Cantrell and Staley were in a band together called Diamond Lie. I had also met Sean Kinney previously. It seemed very bizarre that they all found a common music force. They changed their name to Alice In Chains and both of our bands played one show together, where promoter advertised them as “Diamond Lie”. Playing with them was an awkward feeling – almost like running into your ex with your new girlfriend. Here, Gypsy Rose was clearly stuck in the 80’s, and Alice In Chains was dressing different and doing something new.

AiC were advertised as “Diamond Lie” at some early shows.

The rest is history, I suppose!

  • dakotablue

    Thanks for this story. I’ve read most of this before but not in such detail. Young JC definitely had the licks and looks! Also Layne and Johnny remained close and even lived together for a while until Layne’s family decided Johnny was enabling Layne’s bad habit by taking care of the place. Then Layne was alone until he died.

  • nomad

    I really enjoy these stories about the early days of these bands. It’s interesting how they started and how far they took it.