Alice in Chains are the recipients of the Museum of Pop Culture's 2020 Founders Award. Located in the band's hometown of Seattle, the museum chooses an artist who's had a largely impactful career to celebrate each year. Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart, the Doors, Jimmy Page and Joe Walsh are among the previous recipients.

AIC's debut album Facelift came out in 1990 when popular rock music was shifting from '80s hair metal to a more sullen subgenre that was developing up in the pines of the Pacific Northwest. Singles like "Man in the Box" grew quite popular, but it wasn't until they released Dirt in 1992 that the band reached explosive success.

The group met bassist Mike Inez in 1992 when they toured with Ozzy Osbourne for his No More Tours tour. When their bassist Mike Starr departed from the group, they invited Inez to join them. He's appeared on every one one of their releases since, starting with the historically successful Jar of Flies EP.

Photo by Pamela Littky
Photo by Pamela Littky

When original frontman Layne Staley died in 2002, Alice in Chains had already been on hiatus — but now, their future was definitely unclear. While the surviving members — Inez, Jerry Cantrell and Sean Kinney — were working on their own endeavors, guitarist and vocalist William DuVall came into the picture.

On Sept. 29, 2009, Alice in Chains returned with Black Gives Way to Blue, the very same day that Dirt was released. Featuring DuVall on vocals, the album marked a triumphant comeback for the band. They've since released 2013's The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here and 2018's Rainier Fog, and they don't show signs of stopping anytime soon.

We had the privilege to speak with Inez about the Founders Award. Additionally, he offered some insight on the "secret" to the band's longevity, how Staley would react to the achievement and more. Read the full conversation below, and tune in to the virtual Founders Award benefit on Dec. 1 at 8:30PM ET to see a performance from Alice in Chains, as well as other bands covering songs from their legendary career.

Chris Carroll, Getty Images
Chris Carroll, Getty Images

How have you been doing throughout 2020? This year has been absolutely crazy.

Oh man, I know right? I mean not even just for our business, but for just the world. I've never seen anything like it.

What have you been doing to stay busy?

Well we got off our tour — we had like 18 months on the road, a 31-country tour for the Rainier Fog campaign. We were kind of gonna chill out and just take this year off from the road anyway. So we got home and had some time. I had like a million American Airlines miles, and my wife — she's an art major — I was like, "Okay I'll just use all the air miles."

I was gonna go to Italy right at the end of February. Then the weirdest thing happened. You know the comedian Dean Delray? He, our friend Bill Burr the comedian and this other guy named Marc Maron, they did this comic show on Hollywood and Vine down here in Hollywood, and then they invited a bunch of us to go jam on March 10.

We were just gonna do about an hour, hour-and-a-half of just old AC/DC. It was like me, Dave Lombardo from Slayer, Steve Gorman from the Black Crowes, Brad Wilk from Rage Against the Machine, Larry [LaLonde] from Primus, just a bunch of us showed up to jam.

So we put our vacation off until after March 10. We did that show and then they shut down everything March 11, and then we started getting all these reports from Italy and Milan. All my friends over there were saying, "Don't come over here, it's terrible." Rock 'n' roll saved the day on that one right? I mean we would've been right in the middle of that.

Then everything shut down in L.A., so I decided I'll take the time now, I built a 20 by 40 drum room in my house from the dirt up — cement, plumbing and everything. So I spent most of the summer just doing that with a crew of guys, I tried to just stay away from everybody. So I got that built so I can just spend the whole winter making a bunch of racket. I think I load in all the drums and amps on Saturday.

So yeah, I'll get back into some music. But it's been nuts, man. That was the last time I played with a real drummer, I've just been playing with like drum software on my computer this whole year. God, it's just getting really old. So when it came up with this Founders Award thing, it was so nice just to go up and play with the band up in Seattle. Between those two things, everything is just shut down. All the studios here are shut down.

Well luckily, the positive thing this year is that Alice in Chains is the recipient of the 2020 Founders Award by the Museum of Pop Culture. Previous recipients include the Doors, Jimmy Page, Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart. How did you and the rest of the band feel when you found out that you were going to be receiving the award this year, and what does it mean to you?

It's really cool because first of all, it's a hometown kind of thing. I think Heart was the first recipient, they even had Joe Walsh, and just these legendary people. I think last year it was Brandi Carlile. When our band in the mid-2000s kind of were taking a break, we didn't think we were gonna play again during the 2000s. So Ann and Nancy Wilson actually asked me to play in Heart for five or six years.

We did a record over at Paul Allen's house called Jupiters Darling. I knew Paul Allen back in the day when he was building the [MoPop]. It was just a really cool experience to see that, they got [Frank] Gehry to design the building. They put it right at the bottom of the Space Needle. It was just this huge thing for Seattle.

To see that being built from the ground up, and then to see Ann and Nancy get the Founders Award, for people in the Pacific Northwest it's just such a big deal.

It was just really cool. We went up there. Usually — I think Jerry and Will jammed with Jimmy Page [when he was a recipient] — it's a live concert in this big giant thing called the Sky Church, an amazing room. So it's kind of cool, you get to jam with your idols. That's a thing that we couldn't do this year because of COVID, so we just played a couple of songs, and then other people are playing.

We had to scramble and figure out a different kind of way to do it. But the cool thing about it is it's usually a private event, so they sell like five dollar tickets to all these rich people and they fund the museum with that. With this, I think we're gonna get more people and everybody's invited, on the website. I think they're probably gonna raise more money and get more people during it this way.

But it was so nice. I didn't want to fly, so I took a tour bus from L.A. up to Seattle with the wife. We just cruised up the coast. It was so nice, I can't even tell you what it felt like to just be on that tour bus, smelling the toilet, it was just like, 'Yes I'm on a tour bus!'

So we went up there, everybody was super careful, we came back to L.A. on the bus and we got COVID tests. Everybody got through safe, so we did it right, which kind of proved to us that you can do something like that and be safe about it, so hopefully we can do something like that again.

As far as the award itself, it's just such an honor. We've been hearing other bands and what songs they're picking to play, so we're really excited to hear it. We're gonna be just as surprised as everybody else. We're purposely not listening to the stuff because we want to be surprised.

All the fans are excited as well. How was the experience playing a livestream concert instead of to an actual audience?

I was so excited — I can only speak for myself. It was so fun to just walk in and just feel normal. To take a tour bus up there and stay in a hotel. Even me and my bass tech of the last 10 years, Scott, got this cool new amp, so we're dialing in the bass tone, eating catering, it was just like a normal... it felt so nice just to be normal again, if that makes sense.

What songs can fans expect to hear from you guys?

I'm not sure which ones are gonna end up on the telecast. I think they want us to surprise everybody too, so you'll have to tune in I think.

Speaking of the honor, I know, as a fan of you guys, I'm curious and I'm sure a lot of other people are as well — how would Layne feel about this kind of achievement?

I think he would dig it. It's so funny, Layne is so, kind of misrepresented in a way, everybody thought he was like gloom and doom and all negativity. But he probably laughed more than anybody. I miss his laugh so much. He was always looking for the joke and always just such a sweetheart of a guy.

That's why it kind of rubs me the wrong way a little bit when I see people [label him] as dark and depressed. He had his troubles for sure, but he was just one of the sweetest, most filled-with-life people I think I've ever met in this life. He just had this thing about him. It was just really special.

God, I just loved every second with him. Touring with him early-on was so fun. He was just a good dude. People don't realize that about him, but we know. So I guess that's all that really matters.

I think the big Alice in Chains fans can tell, that was the cool juxtaposition about you guys. The music you put out is mostly dark, but everybody behind the scenes seems to have a lighthearted personality. 

I think because we had an outlet to do this stuff. There's a lot of pissed off people in the world, and they don't really have an outlet to get it out of their system. We're just blessed by music and so grateful for everything, especially the fans. We couldn't do these albums and tours if nobody wanted to listen to us. It all just comes full circle, it's really all about the fans and the interaction.

That's what I miss most about this year is that interaction — playing live with the audience there. Even just the interaction between band members. Everybody's like sending files back and forth and doing Zoom jams, it's just not the same thing. There's no energy transference like when you're looking at the drummer in the eye, and you both do something really cool, and you try not to forget it.

I did hear you once say in an interview that you always knew you were going to be playing in a band when you were younger. You just had that inkling and were like, 'Yes, this is what I'm gonna do.'

I grew up in a family of musicians, so I always knew. I didn't know it was gonna be on this kind of scale. Early on, I remember counselors in high school like, 'What are you gonna do with your life?' I already knew from like middle school, 'Well I'm gonna be playing music somewhere.' So it was kind of easy for me.

Of course every one of them said, 'Oh, you shouldn't do that.' Thank God I didn't listen to them.

You proved them wrong! But did you ever think you were going to be in this position where you were going to be receiving an award for being in one of the biggest rock bands, not only to come out of Seattle, but in rock history?

Oh, we don't really look at it like that. We're just trying to do the best we can, and try to present the best product we can to people. We take our jobs really seriously, we have such a pride in craftsmanship... When we go out on tour, we hire the best sound guys. For us, it's just the process, we're always trying to keep up our quality and just go out there and keep playing.

At the end of the day I look at it like this — it's just four guys in a room, and you're making a bunch of racket. Whether it's us sitting in Jerry [Cantrell]'s bedroom, or in a dressing room, or playing acoustic in a club, or going up to theaters or arenas or festivals. It's all just like four guys making some noise at any one moment. So that's kind of what we keep our focus on, just making that racket and just keep on cruising on it.

We're really blessed. We have a great crew, great producers, great management and we just kind of do our thing. If you start thinking about all this big-picture stuff like you're thinking about, for me personally that's the stuff that starts freaking me out. I'm more comfortable just playing bass, playing some songs and hanging out with my friends and just playing. I think that's probably the secret to our longevity, we just really like doing that.

I see so many guys in other bands that are just like miserable! I just wanna shake them like, "Dude you just played in front of 150,000 people at Rock in Rio and you're complaining that your chicken is cold," or something after the show. You just played in front of 150,000 people man, how could you possibly have a bad day?

That's the kind of attitude we all need to have going forward. Well, congratulations again for receiving this award and I'm looking forward to your performance.

Okay, cool! I hope I played my parts good. We'll see, you tell me.

Tune in to the Museum of Pop Culture's virtual Founders Award ceremony here on Dec. 1 at 8:30pm EST. 

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