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With Alice in Chains, William DuVall finds his audience


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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 he played a vital role in creating during the Reagan era still resonates on local stages. But DuVall has changed dramatically since those days. Mention his name to the tight-jeans-wearing kids of the 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. 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 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 Atlanta. "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 drummer Greg Psomas and vocalist Randy Gue, but the Final Offering was short-lived.

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 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 and DuVall 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.'"

DuVall immersed himself in the craft of songwriting, studying everything from Motown and the Beatles to Edie Brickell in an attempt to make his songs 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 front man, complete with flashy costumes and body paint. "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. It wasn't long before DuVall found himself in the same situation he'd been in with No Walls -- getting no attention.

In 2000, Comes With the Fall moved to L.A. 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, 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. 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.

In the meantime, Alice in Chains was slowing to a crawl. When Layne Staley died, 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. 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' front man. At first, the pairing was a tribute to the music the group had recorded with Staley, but it was apparent the new lineup had its own synergy. 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, 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 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."

Replacing a front man 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."

Alice in Chains will perform at the Uptown Amphitheatre on April 20 with Shooter Jennings and Hierophant. Tickets are $40.

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