William DuVall: “Nothing prepares you for your gigs being invaded, or for Nazi skinheads putting a contract out on you”

Alice In Chains vocalist William DuVall on fatherhood, survival and the power of Layne Staley…

William DuVall: “Nothing prepares you for your gigs being invaded, or for Nazi skinheads putting a contract out on you”
Header photo:
Thomas Falcone

William DuVall remembers November 22, 1973 as if it was yesterday. He remembers the traffic lights turning green and his family’s car starting to go faster and faster. He remembers the violent shaking as the car veered off the road. He remembers seeing the construction fencing they were hurtling towards. And he remembers what came next.

“One of the fence poles broke through the floor of the truck, hit my father in the chest, came out through his back and went out the rear window,” says the singer. “I saw the pole go through him. There was glass, blood and viscera everywhere. He was impaled.”

William was just six at the time. He was in a pickup truck with his dad, his stepmother – who was pregnant with his little brother – and his dad’s friend Lox on the Suitland Parkway, a highway outside of DC and Maryland. His father, still recovering from a previous work accident, was wearing a leg brace on the day of the crash – one which broke mid-journey, meaning he was suddenly unable to lift his leg off the accelerator. William’s dad kept his cool for as long as he could, manoeuvring the speeding vehicle through traffic while looking for the safest place to crash.

“Literally 10 seconds before the light turned green, I had asked Lox if I could sit in his lap,” says Will. “My father and stepmother were arguing and I wanted to get away – my father was really intense when he was angry – so I said to Lox, ‘Can I sit in your lap?’ It saved my life. Otherwise, I would have been gone.”

We’ll return to that miraculously non-fatal accident for all concerned in due course. For now, suffice to say, far from being gone, Will joins Kerrang! today in New York to reflect on his life so far. He may be famous as the preternaturally cool guitarist and vocalist in Alice In Chains, but his credentials long precede this. He started learning guitar aged eight, having discovered a near-fossilised acoustic in his grandmother’s basement. When his family later relocated to Decatur, Georgia, he witnessed a divided city where the Ku Klux Klan would march downtown, and even the neighbourhood pool was still illegally racially segregated.

Music was his escape. Although his life has been defined by his bands – Awareness Void Of Chaos, Neon Christ, BL’AST!, Comes With The Fall, Alice In Chains and Giraffe Tongue Orchestra, among others – in 2019 William changed the script. He released his stunning debut solo album One Alone. It’s just him, an acoustic guitar and a lifetime to reflect upon.

“One’s childhood is a constant source of grist for the mill,” he observes.

You previously told K! you had trepidations about issuing music under your own name. What was the source of that?
“Just habit. From the time I was 14, my entire musical life was very focussed on bands. To suddenly come to grips with, ‘Okay, this is not a band. This is just me,’ may seem like a fairly inconsequential distinction, but for me it certainly wasn’t.”

So was there any risk in putting out a solo record?
“There was lot at stake. Coming out with an album under my own name and it not working would be a death knell. The idea of putting out a record that is, in some respects, such a left turn from everything I’m known for doing is itself a risk. Playing acoustically reveals more than it conceals – it’s ruthless (laughs). The acoustic guitar is one of the most unforgiving taskmasters, and to go out night after night and have to play these songs is a challenge. On an emotional level as well, it’s both challenging and healing. It’s an intimate record, and that can either work for you or it can work against you. And if people didn’t like it, the hurt would be a very personal thing. But to hear people’s positive reactions and how much this music is helping them has been gratifying on many levels.”

You said lead single ’Til The Light Guides Me Home was partly inspired by your experience of fatherhood. How did becoming a dad change you?
“Oh man, on an emotional level, it’s indescribable. One of the things about parenthood is that you come to grips with your own history, and your own childhood. What was good about it, what was not good, and mistakes that were made. It’s your chance to perhaps correct some of those things, to emphasise the things that were positive in your own childhood and hopefully pass those things along, and change the pattern with regard to things that weren’t so good. You have a decision to make about how you conduct yourself, now that this little person is modelling themselves on every behaviour you display. It’s tempting sometimes to implode under the responsibility. My whole life was always about artistic pursuits. It was always me, me, me and music, music, music. So it’s about having to change that mind-set, or at least change some of the life habits that are fuelled by that mind-set, now that there’s something more important.”

What were you like as a kid?
“I was kind of a loner, and because I was an only child for the first 10 years of my life, it was pretty solitary. I didn’t grow up in a neighbourhood full of kids out playing. I grew up in the city in DC. There was a lot of alone time spent in my own head, which I think is good for kids. It definitely helps you develop your own inner world. It was mostly just my mother and me. My biological father wasn’t really around, and when he was, it was a really volatile situation. I built my inner world, and that naturally led me to pursuing music. When I was really small, I wanted to be a cartoonist, so I used to draw. I loved comics and I loved inventing characters and developing stories. Later on, music came along and it quickly took over everything.”

Your first band was Awareness Void Of Chaos. How come you guys didn’t conquer the world?
“(Laughs) Well, I was only 14. There were only two kids who would talk to me in school, so I convinced them to be in a band with me, and that became AVOC. Roger [Maynard] didn’t play anything, but I said, ‘Bass is easy!’ It was truly punk rock. We didn’t conquer the world because that wasn’t even in our wheelhouse. It’s hard to really convey how hostile people were to that music at that time. When parents, club owners, police or whatever saw the reactions at the gigs with what became known as moshing, it was like, ‘We’re not having that!’ But people grow in different directions and I wanted something even more intense. That’s how I recruited the guys in Neon Christ.”

Can you paint a picture of who you were as an artist in Neon Christ?
“I was very driven, focussed, and intense. I was hard on myself, and I was hard on everyone playing with me. The bands I loved were ones that have now gone on to stand the test of time, like Black Flag and Bad Brains. I was always trying to measure us against the best of what I was hearing. And most of the time I felt we were falling short. A lot of things had a role in us eventually falling apart, but things had gotten really intense. Neon Christ went from being totally written off to becoming a real force for our kind of music. The scene was growing, our audience was growing, and naturally, the resistance also came to bear. You had skinheads and interference from the police. That was heavy stuff for a 16-year-old. I just wanted to rock. Our music did have a message and I wrote all the lyrics, but nothing prepares you for your rehearsal being staked out by three different counties with cop cars, or for your gigs to be invaded, or for rumours going around that there’s a contract out on you by Nazi skinheads. It was nuts, man. The band broke up partly because of all of that pressure. It was getting plain dangerous. There were people getting hurt and there was a lot of violence. Eventually I was like, ‘The band’s done. I need a change of scenery.’ That’s when I moved to Santa Cruz, and joined BL’AST!. Them and Alice In Chains were the only bands I ever joined.”

Around that time, Alice In Chains were one of the biggest bands in the world. What was your first memory of coming across their music?
“The time I really took notice was around Would? [which first appeared on the Singles soundtrack in 1992]. I was a fan of many of the bands coming out of Seattle then, and I felt somewhat vindicated because I felt myself, my friends and acquaintances had sort of laid the groundwork for that. We prepared the culture for stagediving, moshing, crowdsurfing. That didn’t happen in mainstream rock. Punk rock did that. I also was a fan of the music. I saw Nirvana in Atlanta before Nevermind came out, and Alice In Chains when they opened for KISS.”

You and Jerry Cantrell started hanging out when you were fronting Comes With The Fall. What do you remember of that time?
“He was in our apartment every day. We were playing frisbee-golf, or he would be sitting in our kitchen asking me to show him how to play my songs, and I would ask him how to do his. Every time Comes With The Fall had a gig in Hollywood, he would always jump onstage with us to play the two songs he’d learned off of our first album. People thought he was joining our band (laughs). He actually played bass for us once, when our bassist got locked up for passing a joint to a cop and we had a show at the Cat Club on Sunset, Hollywood. Jerry was like, ‘I’ll play bass!’ We worked up a set, played the gig, and it was great!”

That chemistry perhaps explains why you made joining AIC look so effortless. It must have required a lot of you personally, though?
“There was a lot of history and a lot of road miles under us that led up to all of that. But nevertheless, when you do get to that point where you have to go out to the public with this thing, of course the pressure is immense. It’s enormous, and it’s unfathomable. Between the pressure I put on myself anyway, and the pressures that the four of us put on ourselves as individuals, there was an incredible amount of internal pressure inherent to the situation. Couple that with all the external noise around us, particularly at that time, from 2006. It was unbelievable.”

How did you keep yourself together?
“You don’t have much choice. I didn’t want to cave in, so the person you were at 16 comes out again. By that point, I had five or six years of history with Cantrell. We had seen each other in every state of mind. We’d experienced life-changing events together and played many gigs. So it was a process of, ‘How do we bring all this history, baggage, and expectation from people and navigate it?’ Of course, the way you do it is, you do it.”

From there you released Black Gives Way To Blue to critical acclaim. Some reviews said it was eerie the way your voice seemed reminiscent of the late Layne Staley’s. How did that make you feel?
“I have my own thing, I always have and I always will. But when working within the context of Alice In Chains, there are certain areas that naturally overlap in terms of our influences, taste and even vocal tonalities, approaches to riffs and harmonies. What you’re really doing in a situation like that is exploiting the overlaps to their maximum – they exist, so make the most of it and, at the same time, inhabit the songs with your spirit.”

So what do you get out of singing Layne’s words to an audience – did you learn anything about him from doing it?
“It’s incredibly powerful, especially if there’s a sea of people in front of you – it’s unbelievable. Unbelievable. For many years now, I’ve had to live in that space with the older material and inhabit these songs which, in some cases, have lyrics written by Layne describing a state of affairs with him. Of course you learn things, and I’ve heard countless stories from my bandmates about who he was as a person, how funny he was, and how we would have gotten along. I’ve met his family, all of that. The circumstances that inspired the songs may or may not be unique to the individual, but it’s universal. Layne was doing the same thing that all of us try to do as songwriters: you’re trying to tell your truth, and hopefully it strikes a chord with somebody else. And when it does strike a chord, it’s an incredible thing. It really transcends space and time. And death.”

You’ve become an incredible frontman in your own right – someone often touted as one of the coolest in the world. But is there anything uncool about you we’re not aware of?
“Well, I don’t know if this would be classified as cool or uncool, but I’m a very bookish person. One of my favourite things to do is to go to the bookstore and stock up on new stuff. My luggage on flights will always be over the limit. What’s my most cherished book? There’s one I was given when I was six years old, back when I thought I was going to be a cartoonist. I was really into Batman, and my dad’s friend Lox [from the car accident] got me a history of Batman which I took with me everywhere. That was a book that I would always dive into, and read over and over again for hours. So when I talked before about developing an inner world, that book was a big part of that development.”

Going back to the car crash, it really does seem miraculous you’re alive…
“I could have either been impaled, gone through the windshield or be thrown out of the side, but Lox held onto me for dear life the entire time. As soon as we came to a stop, he ran out of the side with me under his arm like a football, because he thought the truck was going to explode. Everything was smoking, and everything was insane. My father survived because he actually slowed his own heartbeat down with the force of his mind, so he didn’t bleed to death. He waited an hour-and-a-half for paramedics to show up and cut him out. He had to go to the hospital with that pole still in him.”

Finally, then, to bring this race through your life story to a close, please could you do us the honour of finishing this sentence: My name is William DuVall and I have one thing to tell Kerrang! readers…
“(Laughs) Buy One Alone, buy One Alone, buy One Alone, buy One Alone!”

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