From Ozzy to Alice in Chains
"I remember the exact moment when I heard my first sound," recalls Mike Inez. "It was the sound of my own heartbeat." Taking a cue from his early memory, Inez has now spent half his life providing one of metal's steadiest pulses for the likes of Ozzy Osbourne, Alice In Chains, Heart, Slash, Black Label Society, and Michael Schenker. These days, however, he faces a rebirth of sorts. Alice In Chains, his musical home, has recorded and released its first album of new material in 14 years. Black Gives Way to Blue is a full-on, four-man phoenix rising from the grungey ashes of early-'90s Seattle, when AIC, Soundgarden, Nirvana, and Pearl Jam ruled the rock roost. Inez, guitarist Jerry Cantrell, drummer Sean Kinney, and new lead vocalist/guitarist WilliamDuVall reinvigorate the band's buzzsaw blend of maniac metal and acoustic aptitude, with vivid, pain-filled lyrics meant to reveal and heal.
That Inez was able to fill the AIC bass chair vacated by original bottom-keeper Mike Starr in 1993 is further testament to his sonic sensibilities. Born May 14, 1966, in an Fernando, Californio, Inez was raised amid the sound of his uncle's Top 40 band, which included Earth, Wind & Fire guitarist A1 McCay. He laughs, "When my mother first brought me home, the band was rehearsing, so I always say I went straight from the hospital to a rehearsal. That's how I got interested in music; uncle Matt would say,'Don't touch the gear', so as soon as he went out I was all over it". Inez wanted to play drums, but his father steered him toward clarinet and saxophone in school, while his grandmother bought him a guitar. By age 13, rock & roll had caught his ear, and an old Fender Telecaster Bass-left by a musician who owed his uncle money-caught his eye. "I painted it black and put on a mirrored pickguard to be like Phil Lynott, and I played along with albums by Thin Lizzy, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and Van Halen".
A mainstay in local bands through and after high school, Inez took music courses at Pasadena City College and had been accepted at UCLA. Then came the break of a lifetime: A rehearsal studio owner told Inez that Ozzy Osbourne was auditioning bassists around the corner. On a lark, he headed over. “Finally, two weeks later, Sharon Osbourne called to say the gig was mine. One week after that I was living in Ozzy’s castle in Ireland rehearsing for our first shows at Wembley Stadium!”
During a run of gigs opening up for Osbourne, Alice In Chains cemented a connection with Mike that led to Inez’s invitation to join the band. Inez recorded the Billboard No. 1 albums Jar of Flies, Alice In Chains, and the later-released MTV Unplugged with AIC before internal problems stemming from frontman Layne Staley’s drug addiction ground the group to an unofficial halt in 1996. In 1998, Cantrell recorded his solo album Boggy Depot using Inez and Kinney, but Staley’s death in 2002 signaled a painful end to an era. It was the Asian tsunami disaster that first brought the surviving members of AIC back together for a Seattle benefit concert in 2005. This led to a series of reunion tours in 2007, with DuVall—who first sang with the band at a VH-1 tribute to Heart—handling lead vocals. In 2008, AIC began writing in earnest, eventually recording at Foo Fighters’ Studio 606 in L.A. last winter. With much anticipation, the initial launch of multiple “comeback” tours commenced in late July.
How has the band’s sound evolved on this album?
We mainly evolved as people, having learned a heck of a lot of lessons. What hasn’t changed as much is what’s coming out of the speakers; we tried to stay true to that. Of course we’ve grown as musicians and we have a fantastic new singer, a new label, new management, and new crew. The whole album, from the first lyric to the last note, is a journey. It’s pretty much the story of what we went through the past five years to get here. I’m ecstatic because I never thought it would happen.
How has your playing changed since the last AIC CD in 1995?
I got to grow and refine my style by virtue of playing with some different artists— mainly, doing five tours, an album, and a soundtrack with Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart. Music just oozes out of their pores. They’ll jam all day, perform at night, and then get on the bus and play Beatles tunes until 6 AM. We would do country sessions jamming with folks like Wynonna Judd, Carrie Underwood, Rufus Wainwright, and Gretchen Wilson. That really stretched me out, musically. And a personal crowning moment for me was having Lemmy ask me to play on a Motörhead record!
How did the songs come together?
Most of the songs were written by Jerry, and when we got them into that laboratory setting, we picked them apart to come up with all of our parts.
How do you come up with bass lines?
I’ve always gone for countermelodies first. Jerry will throw a riff at me and I’ll play a bunch of counter parts, so initially it sounds like I’m overplaying. But I’m just trying to find the cool notes—the ones that rub against the riff or complete the chord. Then I’ll strip it down to come up with the tastiest line that fits the song and the time feel, without trying to be showy.
Do you think your melodic instincts come from starting on horn?
My dirty little secret is that when I make a chart for a session, I chart it in treble clef, like a sax player. With AIC, often I’ll put a part down early on, and after I hear the guitars and vocals I’ll add to it or edit it down; or, I’ll redo it altogether because I’ll hear a new line running through everything that will hook up all the notes. Our music is so dense with guitars and vocals that sometimes I’ll just stay heavy and low to let everything ride on top. It all depends on the character of the song; I try to approach each one as its own entity. This album was produced by Nick Raskulinecz, and he’s a bass player. It was fun for me to be under the microscope a bit more. I’d do a take and ask him, “How was it?” And he’d say, “Perfect … can you do it again?” [Laughs.]
How does an acoustic setting, like the title track, make you play differently?
On our MTV Unplugged album  I noticed I played “Rooster” and “Rain When I Die” differently. There’s more space. The tone and physical act of playing an acoustic bass guitar are not the same as on electric bass. I tend to float around more on the acoustic, and add more counter lines.
How did the band get the pitchshifting effect on “Check My Brain”?
Believe it or not, it’s just us bending our strings; there are no effects at all. That was my thought when I first heard Jerry’s demo: What effect are you using? When Jerry showed me the riff, I could see it came from pulling the strings up and down. Jerry calls it his “car sickness” sound. [Laughs.] After all these years, we’ve found we both play our bends a little behind the beat, so it came really naturally when we had to record the track and match up with each other.
Are you primarily a pick player?
I have been, but now it’s pick and fingers. Over the last three years I’ve been diving into alternating-string exercises with my index and middle fingers to get my right hand happening. It depends on the song; there’s something about fingers that makes you feel like a bonafide bassist. “Your Decision” from the new album is fingers, but on an AIC classic like “Them Bones” I need the cutting sound of a pick. I use the pick to slam a lot of 5ths and power chords, especially behind the guitar solos, but I haven’t had to use them as much with the addition of William playing guitar. I do a lot of string bends with my left hand, and I like using vibrato and slides to make my parts fluid.
Do you slap, tap, palm mute, or have any unorthodox techniques?
I don’t slap or tap; there are so many players who do those well. I’ll mute with my palm to varying degrees when using a pick, to shorten notes and reduce string noise—having in-ears has really helped clean up my playing. I have a technique I call “crabbing,” where I pluck with my thumb and index finger to play octaves, or to grab other shapes. My only other quirk is I’ll start patterns or riffs at different places on the neck to change it up and keep from getting bored. I mean, after you’ve been playing “Man in the Box” for 16 years . . . .
Let’s talk drummers, starting with Sean.
Sean is an intense, interesting person, and that translates into his drumming. When I get excited, I tend to start pushing. Jerry is laid back, and Sean is in the middle, so it makes for a thick pocket. Lately I’ve been learning to lay back and relax, I think having in-ears helps there, too. I’ve also had the chance to record with other top drummers, like Matt Sorum, Kenny Aronoff, and John Tempesta. One of my favorites is Ben Smith of Heart, who’s somewhat unsung. He’s established in New York and Seattle, and he’s like a musical encyclopedia.
What current bassists have caught your ear?
So many! I love hanging and talking with other bass players, and here in L.A. I have great access to them at studio sessions, the NAMM show, or at Ampeg events. I’ve met Billy Sheehan, Hutch Hutchinson, Alphonso Johnson, Michael Anthony, Will Lee, Flea, Les Claypool, Chris Chaney, Lee Sklar, Randy Jackson, Victor Wooten, and Tony Levin. There are more amazing bass players now than ever.
Any advice for young bassists?
I see a lot of kids, especially in these new emo punk kind of bands, putting a whole lot of effort into their image but not so much into their music. They’re glossing over the bass playing part and going straight to appearance and lifestyles and ego battles. You have to put the craft ahead of everything else; you have to really respect the art of making music on the bass. A key lesson I learned from being amazingly lucky enough to start my career with Ozzy was that I was representing a million-dollar organization. So I took it very seriously, and I’ve been that way ever since. I still go through my warmups and practice the modes, and at home I love to play along with records in all styles; it always makes the lightbulb go on when I hear a different way to approach a groove or some chord changes.
Do you have future plans to expand your sideman roles or start a solo career?
Maybe eventually; I’m blessed to have a magic phone that keeps ringing with people asking me to jam with them, and I love the challenges. But right now it’s all about Alice In Chains and our new journey. We’re just going to take it a step at a time and keep on rocking. For me, I love walking up that ramp in a stadium setting, grabbing the bass, and hearing all those speakers going at once; that’s my favorite place on earth.
On Black Gives Way to Blue, nihilistic grunge-metal unisons give way to tension-filled pedals and countermelodies, courtesy of Mike Inez’s thundering, detuned basses. Ex. 1 contains the main unison riff of “Last of My Kind.” Tune your bass (or at least your E string) down to Db and dig in. Ex. 2 features Mike’s potent pedal on “Take Her Out.” With his bass tuned down a half-step, his open-string Eb serves as the root of the tonic and the 3rd of the B chord in alternate measures. Note how he alludes to the B at the end of bars 2 and 4. “I like to stay on the same note through chord changes at times, to give the song a different personality.”
It’s back to crunching unison riffs and fret-grinding string pulls in Ex. 3, from the verses of the CD’s first single, “A Looking In View.” Although his bass is tuned to Eb, Mike drops his E string to Db (C#) and matches guitarist Jerry Cantrell’s mid-bar bends in bars 1, 3, and 4 (by pulling his Ab string down toward the floor). “I know my theory and chord qualities, but in Chains it’s wideopen; not being handcuffed by the rules is cool and liberating.” Finally, Ex. 4 shows Mike’s typical part on the balladic “Private Hell” (with his bass tuned to Eb). Catch his application of other chord tones in his fills, as he moves along, leading to his use of the 5th of the chords in bar 4. “I play the 5th or other non-roots at times to add tension or create an unsettled feeling.”
Mike Inez’s 5 Favorite Bassists
1. DEE MURRAY (Elton John)
“When I’m at home, I find myself playing along with a lot of early Elton John. Dee’s playing on Elton’s live radio show album [11-17-70, Rocket/Island, 1971] is a showcase for how to be a tasty, melodic, space-filling bassist, without being pretentious. Doing all those moving lines underneath with such pocket and imagination is hard, but he’s fluid and natural with it.”
2. JOHN ENTWISTLE (The Who)
“I was drawn to John’s aggression and lead bass tones. He never took the easy approach and always wrote in context with each individual song. I met him when I was starting out, and I said to him, ‘Mr. Entwistle, I think you are a brilliant bass player.’ He looked me in the eye and without blinking, said, ‘I fucking know that!’ and walked away. I thought that was the coolest thing ever!”
3. PAUL MCCARTNEY (The Beatles)
“His bass playing gets overlooked sometimes. If you sit and listen to his bass lines as their own little pieces, you’ll be blown away by how much personality and tongue-in-cheek humor he puts into them. He’s Bass Playing 101—a great place to start if you are just picking up the instrument.”
4. JOHN PAUL JONES (Led Zeppelin)
“Zeppelin was an amalgamation of some truly great ideas: heavy riffage and superstar musicians creating a unique blend of timeless tunes. Mr. Jones is such a fantastic all-around musician, and it bleeds into his amazing bass lines. His solid fundamentals gave him a great platform to experiment as a bassist, songwriter, and producer. Chops, tone, and an inventive brain—this dude is an all-timer!”
5. CLIFF BURTON (Metallica)
“Cliff was magical to watch in concert. I always felt he wasn’t there to entertain you, he was there to kick your face in! He had a unique way of focusing all that aggression and angst into a finely tuned assault, delivered with the explosiveness of a shuttle launch. He smashed stereotypes of what the capabilities and limitations of the instrument were at the time.”
Basses Two Warwick Streamer Stage I 4- strings (one tuned EbAbDbGb, one tuned C#F#BE, both with Hipshot Xtenders); Warwick Alien acoustic bass guitar; Alvarez acoustic bass guitar; Gibson Les Paul Bass; Fender Telecaster Bass; fretted and fretless Fender P-Basses; Warwick Streamer 5-string; Kubicki Factor bass; Spector 4- string, Gibson Thunderbird
Strings & picks Dean Markley Blue Steels medium-light and medium gauges; Jim Dunlop heavy-gauge picks
Rig Bi-amped Ampeg rig: Two SVT-2PRO heads into four 1x18 cabinets for the lows (“They’re 8" deeper than the 1x18 cabs Ampeg used to make”); Two SVT-2PRO heads into two SVT-810E cabinets laid on their sides atop the 18s for the highs
Effects None; plugs into a SansAmp Bass DI live, which sends his signal three ways (direct, amp, and miked-amp) to the house board. “I also use the SansAmp to dirty up my sound in my Ultimate Ears inears. I keep them at about 3 or 4, so they’re more like earplugs, while still allowing me to hear my rig and side fills, if needed. Mix-wise, I have the whole band in my in-ears, with a bit more Jerry in the left ear.”
With Alice In Chains (on Columbia, except where noted) Black Gives Way to Blue, 2009 [Virgin/EMI]; MTV Unplugged, 1996; Alice In Chains, 1995; Jar of Flies, 1994.With Jerry Cantrell Boggy Depot, 1998 [Columbia]. With Ozzy Osbourne Live and Loud, 1993; No More Tears, 1991 [Epic]. With Heart: Jupiter’s Darling, 2004 [Sovereign Artists]; Alive In Seattle, 2003 [Epic/Legacy]. With Nancy Wilson: Elizabethtown [Soundtrack], 2005 [RCA Victor]. With Slash’s Snakepit: It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere, 1995 [Geffen]. With Motörhead: Kiss of Death, 2006 [Sanctuary]. Instructional DVD: Behind The Player: Mike Inez, 2009 [iMV]