It's encouraging to hear Alice in Chains' bassist Mike Inez in such a cheerful mood. While the veteran Seattle hard-rock band enjoyed massive artistic and commercial success early in its career, the band members have endured painful detours and personal losses along the way.
Speaking by phone last week from Tulsa, Okla., on the first date of Alice in Chains' current North American tour, Inez is genuinely upbeat, optimistic and eager to perform.
"We've been rehearsing and breaking in our stage set this month," he says. "We've been touring through Australia, Singapore, Japan and Europe, so it's really great to be back in the States to play and travel in our own tour bus. We're all doing great. It's still just four guys making a lot of racket, and we've got a fantastic crew helping us out. It's a blessing for us to be able to travel around the world and have people show up to hear us play."
Inez and his bandmates, vocalist/guitarist Jerry Cantrell, drummer Sean Kinney and new-guy vocalist/guitarist William DuVall, have been touring all year in support of their Grammy-nominated studio album "The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here." Additional dates in Europe with Metallica are on the horizon.
"No matter where we play, it's all the same for us, even if we do an acoustic leg of a tour. We've played with the heaviest bands and acoustic acts out there, and we just do our thing and live in the moment. Every show is different, but we always run into old friends and fans, so it's always a pleasure. We've been doing this for more than 25 years, and if we ever get to a point where we don't enjoy it, we'll just stop."
Band of brothers
A native of Southern California, Inez grew up in a large musical family that played everything from Filipino folk music and gospel to Top 40 hits of the '70s.
Playing guitar and bass, Inez gravitated toward the classic rock and power-pop of his generation before veering toward the heavier side of the Los Angeles rock scene.
"I loved everything that was out there," he says. "I still listen to country, old-school jazz, pop, funk - all sorts of music. I kind of hate that it's all so categorized."
Inez established himself as a solid and versatile player in the L.A. scene, but his first big break came when, on a whim, he auditioned for former Black Sabbath vocalist Ozzy Osbourne's band and got the job. Within a week, he was on a plane to Ireland to rehearse with Osbourne's band for a show at Wembley Stadium in London.
Over the years, Inez has played bass with a variety of rock and country bands, including Slash's Snakepit (featuring Slash from Guns N' Roses), Black Label Society (featuring guitarist Zakk Wylde) and Heart.
Since joining Alice in Chains during the band's initial heyday, the band has long been one of Inez's top rock 'n' roll priorities.
"Oh, we're brothers at this point. We treat the band like family. Our parents know each other, and everyone treats each other like great friends. We've all been through births and deaths and all sorts of life experiences."
Alice in Chains was already a huge success on alternative rock stations and the concert circuit when Inez became friends with them in the early 1990s. Cantrell and Kinney formed the band in Seattle in 1987 with Mike Starr on bass and Layne Staley on vocals. They signed with Columbia Records in 1989 and made a splash in 1990 with the massive guitar-driven debut album "Facelift," featuring the song "Man in the Box."
Inez officially joined the band in 1993, replacing Starr, who was battling addiction problems. That year, Alice in Chains was one of the big headliners of the third Lollapalooza tour.
Inez and the band recorded 1994's "Jar of Flies" EP before taking time away from the road. They performed on an episode of "MTV Unplugged" before shifting into an uneasy hiatus while Staley battled his own addiction issues; Staley lost his struggle with drugs in 2002 when he died from an overdose of heroin and cocaine.
Starting from scratch
After a rather glum hiatus during the early 2000s, Alice in Chains kicked back into action in 2005 when they performed a benefit concert for the victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster. The event brought Cantrell, Kinney and Inez back together on a Seattle stage.
They gradually picked up steam and booked a series of reunion tours in 2007 with DuVall (previously of alt-rock band Comes With the Fall) on lead vocals.
"We were really starting from scratch back in 2005," Inez recalls. "Those benefit shows for the tsunami victims went well with guests like Pat Lachman (Damageplan), Maynard James Keenan (Tool) and Ann Wilson of Heart. From there, we started out small, picking up William and booking small gigs. Within a year, we were opening for Tool in Portugal in front of 45,000 people."
In the fall of 2006, Sony Music issued a long-delayed 28-song Alice in Chains compilation titled "The Essential Alice in Chains." The release celebrated the highlights of the Staley-fronted material and marked the beginning of a new era.
In 2008, Alice in Chains entered the Foo Fighters' Studio 606 in L.A. to demo and record new material for the "Black Gives Way to Blue" album. It was a guitar-heavy affair, and the first to document the arrival of DuVall.
"We had a lot of support going into that record," Inez says. "We chose life, and said, 'Let's do it.' "
Ultimately, with its ode to the band's grunge/metal roots, "Black Gives Way to Blue" was a successful release that marked the official comeback of Alice in Chains. The album went gold in the U.S. and Canada and earned two Grammy nominations.
The group toured heavily in 2010 and '11 before making plans to write and record new tunes for "The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here."
"The big difference between 'Black Gives Way to Blue' and 'The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here' is that we played more than 250 gigs in 43 countries leading up to 'The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here.' We felt like more of a unit, and we had less anxiety about what we were doing. With 'Black Gives Way to Blue,' there was a question of 'Are we doing the right thing, playing without Layne? Is this going to work?' It was more natural and comfortable."
Some longtime fans have expressed concern and curiosity about the band pressing ahead with a new frontman.
"Layne was such an icon - such an American original with such a distinctive voice," Inez says. "The courage of William coming in like this is amazing. Layne was one of my favorite vocalists I've ever played with over the years. It was tough for William to try to step in at the beginning. I told him early on that the only way to win people over was one gig at a time, face-to-face. He puts his chin out to the audience and gives it his all every night. He's well prepared and works hard. We all just blast it out every night now, and it's great."