Heavy Culture is a monthly column from journalist Liz Ramanand, focusing on people of color in heavy music as they offer their perspectives on race, society, and more as it intersects with and affects their music. The latest installment of this column features an interview with guitarist and vocalist William DuVall.
William DuVall’s music career dates back to his days in a few ’80s hardcore outfits, most notably the band Neon Christ. He formed the glam-rock group Madfly in the ’90s, which eventually morphed into the heavy rock band Comes With the Fall. For the past 13 years, he is best known as the singer of the legendary Alice in Chains.
DuVall’s latest project is his solo acoustic album titled One Alone, which arrived earlier this month. Heavy Consequence recently caught up with the singer-guitarist, and, along with his new solo album, he spoke about his childhood in Washington, D.C., and his musical history in Atlanta. DuVall also opened up about how musicians such as Jimi Hendrix and Prince were influential to him musically and culturally as they embraced their individuality.
He also discussed black culture as a foundation of rock ‘n’ roll, the obstacles he faced in replacing the late Layne Staley in Alice in Chains, and more. Read our interview with William Duvall below:
On his childhood growing up in Washington, D.C.
We’re from Washington D.C., my parents are Washingtonians, as well. I believe you’d have to go back to the generation before that, my grandparents’ generation, to get to the upward migration. On my father’s side, I think my grandmother was from South Carolina. On my mother’s side, it’s a little different, my grandmother is from Delaware and she has actually traced her side of the family through the Dutch and North African meeting that took place in Delaware. We could trace her string all the way back to the Moors in North Africa, so it’s interesting.
We consider ourselves Washingtonians. I grew up partially in Washington, but when I was 14 my mother re-married and my stepfather got a job in Atlanta. So a lot of my history is in Atlanta, in terms of music and things that are on the public record, so a lot of people think I’m from Atlanta. No, I’m a D.C. native and still, very much so, it still informs a lot of stuff to this day whether people know it or not.
There’s a certain flavor to the black person from D.C., I mean we have flavor everywhere. It’s something that’s hard to explain; you know it when you see it. I’m just saying, Duke Ellington, Bad Brains, Trouble Funk were all from Washington D.C. The list goes on, it’s just a certain thing.
On his family’s feelings toward him wanting to be a musician and his interest in heavy music
They were just more concerned about the prospect of music as a career and that’s a perfectly reasonable concern. Particularly knowing what I know now, I can completely understand more the level of concern. But it wasn’t so much an objection to my playing a particular instrument or anything. I know there probably wasn’t a great love for some of the music I was listening to, but that’s nothing new. It’s more usual to have disunity between generations about what music the kid is listening to versus the parent.
In my lifetime, I have seen that change a great deal. You’ve had generations of people raised on rock music. But in my time, my mother would like the pop music of her time and really my mom is pretty cool about some rock music, too, having to deal with me all those years. Then having the fact that the scene I was a part of ended up dominating a lot of rock-based culture — we were right and the world kind of caught up with us. Being proven right like that on a huge, global, mainstream level was eye-opening for her.
I was going to all of these weird little places and all of these weird little storefronts and these weird clubs in Atlanta in those days, the early 80s, where the drinking age was 19. So most of the gigs there was no hope of me getting into them and then in 1983, the drinking age was changed to 21 so it was even worse. If I wasn’t on the bill, I couldn’t get in, so my mother would have to bring me to some of these gigs and sit through Ramones or Public Image Limited. I was into a lot of avant-garde jazz, too, so she sat through some pure craziness.
One time, I got kicked out of the Dead Kennedys’ gig at 688 because I wasn’t on the bill and I managed to sneak in. Steve May, the manager caught me, took me out to the main hallway, made me call my mother on the payphone, watched while I did it. This was 1983 and I was 15. Mom had dropped me off already so she probably just got back to the house, we lived in Decatur. So she was coming back and in the meantime I’m in the back of the club, kicking the cans in the parking lot all mad and stuff.
Jello Biafra comes out and is like, “What seems to be the problem?” and I’m like “Dude, they kicked me out” and he’s like, “Well that’s like South African style apartheid.” So he assumes responsibility for me. My mother gets back to pick me up again and I lead her back by the dumpster and I’m like, “Mom this is Jello Biafra. Jello this is my mom. He said I could go to the gig!” and to her credit she let it slide.
[On Alice in Chains’ recent tour, we had] a group opening called Ho99o9 and they’re these kids from Newark, New Jersey. These guys remind me a lot of myself a long time ago and they’re very cool and now they got the hip-hop thing which is something we didn’t have. These kids are mixing punk, hip-hop and it’s real cool. My mother watched them from the side-stage, she came to the show in Atlanta. I’m like, “Mom you got to see these kids Ho99o9!” [Laughs] And she’s bopping her head and she’s like, “They’re fun!” So we’ve come a [long] way.
[Overall, my music] was supported, but there were some battles too. I think what it was that they just saw that I was going to do this and there was no way you could stop me. [Music] was a lifeline for me. It was not a hobby, it was not an amusement. This was oxygen, if I didn’t have this, I was not going to exist on this planet. This was it.
On his early influences
I got into [Jimi] Hendrix — he was the heaviest cat, still is, to me, in the whole scene. When you see someone like that at 8 years old, there was nothing else. Why would you do anything else? He had it all and the noise was so heavy because he was like, “I’m going tame this sort-of electronic beast.” [Laughs] I heard [Hendrix] first, my cousin turned me on to the Band of Gypsies and I was like “He’s doing all of that with a guitar?”
I didn’t even know what he looked like at first, my cousin had lost the album covers, he was from the hood D.C. and he had a hard home life and his records would be scattered all over and stuff. When he moved in with my mother and I to escape that situation, a lot of his records didn’t have the covers so we were just listening to cracked, old, warped stuff on my Sears record player. I didn’t know what anyone looked like, including Hendrix.
One day he goes to the library and he photocopies old Rolling Stone [magazines] and he brings them home and I was like “What! Oh Wow!” so that was it. As fate would have it they were playing Monterey Pop on television and it was an event and we were waiting. Then Hendrix comes on finally. Oh lord, he had me at “Machine Gun” but now that I’ve seen him and how he moves, I was done.
On black culture and its influence on rock ‘n’ roll
I think there has always been a dynamic in black culture, there’s always been a heavy thing about respectability. A heavy thing of assimilating, wanting to fit in — when you get bombarded with all of these messages of you’re less than, you’re subhuman, you never contributed, you never built anything. It goes way further back and people will continue to uncover the truth but you’ve got thousands of years of that.
My mother and grandmother’s generation, you come to America, you want to fit in. Everybody’s got to go to college and straighten up, it’s an aspirational culture and some of it is real church-based too. So when you get certain kids who want to wild out especially if it’s music—we invented rock and roll – it gets co-opted. And then all of a sudden it’s somebody else’s now or we don’t even want to claim it anymore but no it’s our thing. This is our birthright. Guitar and string instruments is how people [in Africa] used to communicate. Then all of a sudden the guitar is invented in Spain, just saying.
On whether he has faced prejudice as a black singer of Alice in Chains
Of course! That train is never late. [Laughs] There was a lot of stuff where I didn’t even want to see. I get death threats; I get everything. They [racists] always show up. What are you going to do?
On diversity in heavy music genres
Since the 1950s, I think there has been this gradual coming together of these different strengths that go back before that. In the ’50s, it was rockabilly, and country and blues people coming together. Hank Williams learned how to play guitar off of a black person. There was always this change happening but then there were forces trying to stop it. That’s why they threw Elvis in the army and they locked Chuck Berry up. They were like this has to stop! [Laughs]
In the ‘60s there was advancement — Hendrix couldn’t get arrested here. Everyone was so intrigued by him; people loved and hated him. There’s a lot going on if you hear Eric Clapton talk about Hendrix. [Pete] Townsend, too, but he cops to it, he says he was intimidated.
Like I said, Ho99o9 have all of these genres going on in their music. Obviously, the white rock groups — you can’t get away from Hendrix, you can’t get away from blues music.
Alice in Chains, Layne Staley — [Jerry] Cantrell wanted to be in a band with that dude because he sounded like a black person. That’s what he says over and over again – [Layne Staley] sounded like a 300-pound black person. … [Staley] was singing soul music.
On advice he would give to a young person of color who wants to pursue a career in music
That’s tough because I think a lot of the stuff you can’t understand it until you’re dealing with it. I was fortunate in that I had some good role models that I could see from afar. Hendrix was gone when I first got hip to him but reading about him, I delved in from an early age. When you read that, you read about a lot of the stuff we’re talking about and how he endured all of it from poverty to racism and everything.
I had Prince when I was coming up, and when I was hearing more guitar in the music, I was like, “Alright! I’m with you now!” [Laughs] He was on his own thing because it takes a lot of courage to look the way he did in black music. First of all, he’s got Farrah Fawcett’s hairdo, then he talks about “I ain’t got no money, I’m not like these other guys” and then “I want to be your brother, your mother and your sister, too.” And you’re coming to that age where you’re seeing the girl across the classroom and you wish you could talk to her, trying to figure out how do you talk to girls?
All of the other images were Teddy Pendergrass and The O’Jays and this dude [Prince] looks crazy, that’s the kind of dude that gets hassled everywhere he goes. If you have the courage to look like that — and it was way more interesting to me. He was unapologetic.
He was dealing with the same shit we all have to deal with, getting into the music industry. He was trying really hard not to be shoved in a certain direction, not like Stevie Wonder or Earth Wind and Fire despite loving those bands but I want to be the Rolling Stones. You don’t see them trying to pigeonhole Mick Jagger; he can come out with any music he wants to. Prince just wanted to be whatever he wanted to be.
I think you just have to understand that you’re going to have a battle royale and this is no accident. There is a tremendous amount of effort that has gone into this stratification of people and formats and focus grouping the singles etc. Meanwhile, on the internet people are just going online and finding whatever they want wherever they want and that’s having an effect on the music too at the human grassroots level.
As far as a person of color getting into it, you’re either going to do this and nothing is going to stop you. There’s nothing I could tell somebody if you’re like how I was. You’re just going to be here no matter what anybody says. You’re not alone, there’s some solidarity, we’re all here still dealing with it together.
On the title of his new solo album One Alone
There could be a lot of layers there but it was simple — the whole album is just one voice and one guitar. So I thought, let’s just call is what it is. But for now let’s just get this all the way down. There’s been all of this work over all these years and it was just time for something else.
You could look at it as a pallet cleanser but I look at it as if you can establish this aspect of your music now then it’s something you can return to or incorporate. Acoustic guitar has played a role in all the Comes With the Fall records, in Alice in Chains music. To really feature it now, it’s so stark, there’s nothing to hide behind when you do it this way and then touring that way also. This is as undiluted as you can get.
On what we can hear about who he is as person and musician today on this solo album
I think it’s a good snapshot of what I’m like when I’m writing a tune or what it would be like when I’m playing these things first for myself, to see if I think they’re any good. It’s about reducing everything down – before all of this other stuff happens with any band or anything, before anything gets electrified, this is what it is. Seeing whether that translates to people was something that I had to do for myself.
On his writing approach with the solo album
In terms of writing it, there’s a lot of internal dialogue happening. When it really gets good, it bypasses the internal dialogue and I’m just channeling exactly what I’m feeling about this. Somehow, in this moment, these words and this melody are how it’s coming out and I just let it happen.
[With the songs “White Hot” and “Smoke and Mirrors”] those two songs, in particular, are songs of desire and just really wanting some kind of a connection and you’re not getting it but you’re going to really reach out and extending in hopes of getting it. So in the creation of it, yes I’m just going to say it, record it and get it out there. But then it becomes, hopefully, a more universal experience that people can inhabit. That’s the whole point. I couldn’t see myself doing this otherwise.