Few rock singers have had a more difficult challenge than William DuVall. And if you're drawing a blank on the name, therein lies part of the challenge. In 2006, DuVall became the new frontman for Alice in Chains, a band that effectively disbanded when original singer Layne Staley died of a heroin overdose on April 19, 2002.
DuVall isn't the first singer -- nor will he be the last -- to replace a fallen legend, but he's one of the rare few who's done so many years after the original died and, moreover, without turning the once-heralded group into a laughingstock.
In fact, Alice in Chains has enjoyed one of the most amazing second acts in recent rock history on the strength of 2009's superb "Black Gives Way to Blue" and last year's also stellar "The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here." Nowadays you're almost as likely to hear the Grammy-nominated "Check My Brain" (from "Black Gives Way to Blue") on the radio as you are the AIC classic "Man in the Box."
In anticipation of Alice's headlining gig May 6 at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center, Lowcountry Current talked to DuVall about the grind of touring, Spinal Tap and why Alice never plays covers.
Question. When you're playing certain cities, can you really decipher one from the other or do they all just blend together?
DuVall. On the one hand, everything does kind of blend together. You are in a routine and staying locked in that routine is what allows you to survive. Sometimes venues will look similar, especially if we're playing arenas. There's some aspects of backstage, the way they look that's all the same. But, having said that, obviously if you're playing in Rome, that's going to be different than playing in Istanbul, and that's going to be different than playing Tulsa and that's going to be different than playing in New York. That's the one thing that's bizarre about it. On the one hand there's this mind-numbing routine about it, but on the other there's this enormous sensory overload.
Q. Are you ever on stage and forget where you are?
DuVall. You usually try to know where you are by the time you hit the stage. There are times when you wake up in the middle of the night or you're on a tour bus and don't know where you are. Especially in a hotel room. That is a very disorienting experience that probably a lot of people who travel can relate to.
Having said that, by the time you hit the stage, you have to get through your mind where you are. With all the comedic cliches, yelling out the wrong city -- "Hello Cleveland!" -- We also have the city written on our set lists, but that's mostly for record-keeping. I've never forgotten where I am when I'm on stage.
Q. You just referenced Spinal Tap and this year marks the 30th anniversary of "This Is Spinal Tap." What are your memories of the film?
DuVall. It's a game-changer of a movie all the way around. There was nothing like it before and there has been nothing like it since. I think one of the best testaments to its power is it offended so many rock stars.
To this day there are moments when I'll be watching a favorite band on stage or on television playing live and I'll see some little thing and I'll think, "Oh, I bet (director) Rob Reiner and the guys from Spinal Tap got that from that band." It's hard to come up with a favorite part but I always go back to when Nigel (Tufnel) is showing (Reiner's character) his guitar collection and he gets to the one where he's like, "Don't even look at it." (laughs)
Q. The first time I saw Alice was opening for KISS on the first show of KISS's reunion tour in Detroit in 1996.
DuVall. That's funny. I saw that same show at Freedom Hall in Louisville.
Q. Was that your first one?
DuVall. It actually was. I don't know how that happened because I'd seen Soundgarden a few times. I saw Pearl Jam and I saw Nirvana. I saw Nirvana right before they broke big. Somehow Alice had escaped me. I mean, they hadn't toured quite as much as some other bands, for one thing.
Q. How much say do you have in the set lists?
DuVall. Quite a bit. A lot of times I'm writing the set list. There are times when one of us will take it upon himself to write the set list, and there might be some disagreements from some of the others. If we're on a tour, especially if it's our own tour, and we're getting to play 80 to 90 minutes a night, then everything any of us will want to play will get played at some time. There's a couple things that got brought out that hardly ever got played. I was the one who pushed for playing "Rotten Apple." Especially since I'm guitar playing, we're able to open up things. We broke out "A Little Bitter" in Australia and Japan. That hadn't been played since '96.
Q. One anomaly about Alice is that you never play cover songs. Why is that?
DuVall. Well, we'll butcher a song at a soundcheck with the best of them. We were playing "Down in a Hole" and, because the chords are so similar, I started into the beginning of "Black Diamond" by KISS. That, of course, meant we had to go about butchering that song for a little bit. (Guitarist Jerry) Cantrell asked me how to play "Parasite" (by KISS), and we proceeded to just butcher that one. We do it. We just don't it in public very much.