In late summer of 2008, at the suggestion of longtime friend/Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl, Alice In Chains met with producer Nick Raskulinecz to talk about the possibility of collaborating on a new album.
"I went to the studio where they'd been working on demos," recalls the producer, whose credits include Foo Fighters, Rush, Deftones. "We stayed outside and just talked for a couple of hours. After the ice was broken, they brought me inside to hear some music. The first track started playing and I was immediately hooked—the riff was so killer, so catchy and so heavy, and when the vocals kicked in, I looked at Jerry (Cantrell, Alice In Chains' guitarist/vocalist) and said, 'I don't need to hear anything else—I'm in.' I was just blown away."
By early fall, the band and producer had hunkered down at Grohl's Studio 606 in Northridge, CA, and were hard at work on Alice In Chains' first new studio release in more than 10 years.
Production eventually moved to the famed Henson Studios in Hollywood, and by spring of 2009 the band emerged with 11 electrifying songs about faith and perseverance. They titled the album Black Gives Way To Blue after the song of the same name, a heart-stirring tribute to Layne Staley, their brother and vocalist who passed away in 2002.
"I'm really proud of that song," says Cantrell, who sings on the track (and shares lead vocal duties throughout the record). "It's about facing up to the bad stuff and continuing to walk forward and live a life."
The song features a special guest appearance by Elton John on piano.
"We were thinking about adding piano to the track and a friend suggested we call Elton," recalls Cantrell. "I remember laughing and saying, 'Yeah, I'll get right on that.' But I decided it was worth trying and wrote him an email explaining what that song means to us—that it's a real, raw openhearted song for Layne. We sent him the track and got a call shortly after saying he thought it was beautiful and that he wanted to play on it. He was finishing his 'Red Piano' run in Vegas, so we flew there and hung out for a few hours. Walking into a studio and seeing the sheet music for that song on Elton's piano made it meaningful on so many different levels. The whole experience was pretty magical."
The album's genesis can be traced back to January of 2005, when drummer Sean Kinney called Cantrell and bassist Mike Inez about getting together for a benefit show to raise money for tsunami relief. It was the first time in nine years that the three had performed together and following the loss of Staley, was the first in a series of little steps toward hope and healing.
"After that we started talking about how we could maybe do another show," recalls Kinney. "Everyone was comfortable with the idea, so we decided to take another step."
Enter William DuVall, a gifted singer and guitarist from Atlanta who had previously worked with Comes with the Fall and as part of Jerry Cantrell's touring band for his solo work. As live audiences discovered, DuVall brings a sound and stage presence all his own, and when DuVall and Cantrell blend their voices—as Cantrell and Staley did so often—singing together over the rhythms of Kinney and Inez, there could be little doubt that the spirit of Alice In Chains was once again alive and well.
"To his credit, Will never tried to do a karaoke version of the past," says Kinney. "It's not easy to find your place in a pre-existing dynamic, but he did. He puts his all into it and it fits."
"I've joined a group that has a strong identity and a strong legacy," says DuVall. "Nobody wants to, in any way, disrespect or sully that legacy. You want to add to it."
And it was while on the road that the quartet opened itself up to the idea of writing new material.
"On tour we jammed pretty much every day," recalls Cantrell. "Cool riffs would come up and we'd record them backstage and in dressing rooms. By the time we got home from the tour, we had a disc full of ideas. Eventually we wound up with a body of work and started thinking about taking yet another step."
"There was no master plan," adds Inez. "Everything felt right, so we kept moving forward. The whole process was very organic."
"If we had gone through all of it and felt that it didn't live up musically to the legacy of the work we'd done before, then we would've shelved it," says Cantrell. "We would've known for ourselves that this is the end, and that would've been cool. But that didn't happen. You ask yourself questions like, is this record something positive to add to the catalog? Is it worthy? And the answer is yes, it is. But you don't know that until you go through the process. We all busted our asses and have been rewarded with a record that exceeds our own expectations.
In the end, Cantrell explains, Black Gives Way To Blue is an album that reflects survival for Alice In Chains. "And," he says, "I think survival is something to celebrate."