The singer was known for the powerful vocals heard on the band’s first three albums Facelift, Dirt and Alice In Chains, as well as their two EPs Sap and Jar of Flies and a few other one-off tracks. In late 1994, he also joined a supergroup with Pearl Jam‘s Mike McCready, Screaming Trees‘ Barrett Martin and Mark Lanegan and John Baker Saunders called Mad Season. They released one album titled Above in early ’95.
Staley had a distinct vocal style with a wide range, but it was also his chilling harmonies with guitarist Jerry Cantrell that became a signature element of Alice in Chains’ sound. So how did he become the band’s singer?
How Did Layne Staley Join Alice In Chains?
Staley played drums in a few different glam bands when he was young, but the first he started gaining momentum with as a singer was one called Sleze. According to Mark Yarm’s Everybody Loves Our Town: A History of Grunge, they eventually changed their band name, and were inspired by a backstage pass the members of Sleze had seen that said, “Welcome to Wonderland.”
It reminded them of Alice in Wonderland, so they were going to go by Alice In Chains, however they were worried that the name would cause controversy over its reference to female bondage, so they went by Alice N’ Chains instead.
Thus, Staley was technically in a band called Alice N’ Chains before he joined the Alice in Chains we know and love today. That happened after the singer met Cantrell at a party, who was homeless at the time. The pair became friendly, and Staley invited the guitarist to live with him.
Cantrell had been in a band called Diamond Lie, and when they broke up, Staley connected the guitarist with drummer Sean Kinney. Kinney had been dating the sister of bassist Mike Starr at the time, so the trio of Cantrell, Kinney and Starr formed a band together, and needed a singer.
Staley was in a new band too, and they needed a guitarist. He asked Cantrell to join, who agreed only if Staley joined his own new band as their singer.
“It was just a period of time of kind of like, waiting him out. And then that didn’t seem to work, so we basically told him, ‘Okay we’re gonna get a new singer.’ So we started auditioning singers in his rehearsal room, and we just brought in the shittiest guys we could find,” Cantrell recalled in an interview.
“I think the final straw was we auditioned a male stripper… That was it, [Staley] was like, ‘Okay, fuck it. I can’t let you guys play with these fuckin’ clowns, I’ll fuckin’ join the band.’ And that was it.”
Why Did They Keep the Name Alice In Chains?
At first, the new quartet of Staley, Cantrell, Starr and Kinney went by a few different monikers, including that of Cantrell’s old band Diamond Lie (you can find early footage of them performing under the name on YouTube). Another name they came up with, according to the latter half of the aforementioned interview, was Fuck.
“That didn’t last long, because no one would put your fliers up anywhere,” Kinney said.
Staley then contacted his former Alice N’ Chains bandmates, as the group wasn’t together anymore, and asked for their blessing to use the name Alice In Chains, that they had originally come up with, for his new band. David de Sola’s Alice In Chains: The Untold Story notes that one of them, Nick Pollock, wasn’t thrilled about it and thought Staley should come up with a new name. But, the other musicians agreed to allow him to use it, and the rest is history.
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