Mike Inez: Through The Looking Glass

Mike Inez Journeys Through Wonderland With Alice In Chains, Heart and Ozzy Osbourne
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“It’s so funny—I’ve never done the Van tour,” admits Mike Inez. “All these other guys are like, ‘We used to live in a van and eat McDonald’s and wipe our asses with McDonald’s napkins.’ And I’m like, ‘I was on a private jet with Ozzy when I was 23 years old. I never did that.’ I’m not even saying it in a boastful way; it’s just reality.”

The trajectory of Mike Inez’s musical career is so whimsical, it would be a fairytale if it weren’t entirely true. He was plucked from obscurity by Ozzy Osbourne, tapped by Alice In Chains (AIC) at the height of its popularity, landed in Heart at a time when he needed the atmosphere of love they provided, and returned to a resurrected, stronger, tighter, emboldened version of AIC in 2006. When he openly admits that Ozzy was only the third band he was ever in, it affirms just how magical his journey has been. It isn’t lost on him, either. One gets the sense he’s still in awe when experiencing his own life. “I stumbled into a musical career with some of the coolest people you could ever imagine. I’m just like, ‘Wow, what a blessed life.’ Music is such a powerful thing; it’s a noble job. It’s just fantastic.”

These days, Inez is celebrating his 25th year with AIC, the Seattle-born rock band that helped define grunge with early-’90s albums like Facelift and Dirt. Inez joined in 1993, replacing original bassist Mike Starr (who sadly died in 2011); he participated in recording the acoustic EP Jar of Flies, which debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 in 1994, becoming the first AIC release to top the charts. The EP featured “No Excuses,” the band’s first #1 single on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock charts, and it showcases one of Inez’s signature countermelodies, a sonic embellishment that has come to define his role within the band.

In 1995, AIC released Alice In Chains (sometimes referred to as “the dog album” because of its cover), which again debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 and spawned four hit singles: “Grind,” “Again,” “Over Now,” and “Heaven Beside You.” In 2002, original frontman Layne Staley passed away after his years-long battle with drug addiction, and the band took an indefinite leave from the music business. During the downtime, Inez played with Slash’s Snakepit, Heart, Spies For Darwin, and Black Label Society.

AIC regrouped after a four-year hiatus, with William DuVall ably taking over lead vocal duties and reigniting the fan base. In the ensuing years, AIC released Black Gives Way to Blue (2009) and The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here (2013). Both were well-received, massive statements about the band’s future, highlighting guitarist/vocalist Jerry Cantrell’s role as the songwriting catalyst holding the secrets to the band’s musical identity. The striking power of Inez’s bass tone and melodic touch on both discs continued to illuminate how essential his approach is to AIC’s sound.

We spoke to Inez while he was in Padova, Italy, about a half an hour from Venice, looking for a legit cappuccino and soaking up more of his blessed life. AIC is currently touring in support of its latest release, Rainier Fog. Once again produced by Nick Raskulinecz (who helmed the last two), Rainier Fog cements the band’s legacy as the fulcrum for an entire sub-genre of rock and metal, and Inez’s playing has never sounded more muscular. Whether he’s grinding away under riff-oriented tunes like “So Far Under” and “Drone,” or providing the sub-hooks on the mellower “Fly” and “Maybe,” his bass lines are exercises in terseness, where the minimalist, less-is-more approach reaches maximum effect. Meanwhile, melody—a key component of Alice In Chains’ sonic template—reigns supreme.

What was the gestation period like for Rainier Fog?

We took some time off after the last tour and tried not to rush things. If we were doing it like the old days, we’d be jumping into the studio in between tour legs and, if that was the case, you’d only get songs about catering and missed flights [laughs]. So, it’s nice to live life.

Walk us through Alice In Chains’ songwriting process.

We started throwing around riffs a couple of years ago. Jerry lives by me in L.A. now, so I would just go over to his house and we’d jam out and come up with stuff. It’s a high bar of filtration—you’ve got 500 riffs, and 80 percent of them are crap. The ones that make it get filtered through all the guys in the band, and then through our producers, and by the time it gets down to the last ten [tunes], hopefully we’ve picked the best ones for the record.

You went back to Seattle to cut tracks. What was that like?

It was kind of mind-blowing for me. I had a big sense of anxiety going back and recording where we did the dog record in 1994. Studio X is a wonderful studio that was owned at one time by my “sisters,” Ann and Nancy Wilson, and it was called Bad Animals. The history of the place is fantastic. We did the dog record there, Soundgarden did Superunknown, Pearl Jam did Vs., and even going back to Heart with “Barracuda” and Steve Miller’s “Fly Like an Eagle”—just crazy history in the place. It’s on 4th Avenue right in downtown Seattle. I had an apartment nearby, so I walked to work every day. It was nice to breathe that air and drink that water.

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What was the anxiety about?

I had this big apprehension going up there on the flight with Jerry. My heart was pounding, and I was like, “Oh man, we’re going back to the belly of the beast. We don’t live that lifestyle anymore.” I lived up there during the band’s early days, too, and I thought I was going to have to face a lot of ghosts going up there. But it didn’t affect me at all. We walked in the studio, and I learned a lot about myself. I’ve learned that if we plug our guitars into amps, everything kind of works out for us for some reason, so I relied on that. I was happy to be there with my buddies. We just jammed out—it was a great summer in Seattle last year.

Did you cut the whole record there?

No. The guys went and did vocals and some guitar stuff at Nick Raskulinecz’s studio about 45 minutes outside Nashville in a really bucolic, farm/forest kind of community. Then it was back to Studio D at [L.A.’s] Henson Recording Studio, which is the old A&M Records, and Charlie Chaplin studios. It was nice being in that room where the Police did Zenyatta Mondatta and all the Carpenters records were cut. For guys like us, we really respect the history of these places. It’s such a shame that they are all going away now. Everybody can spend a couple of grand on a Pro Tools rig and think they can make a record in their bedroom—and they do [laughs]. There’s something good and bad about all of that.

How do your bass lines evolve throughout the writing and recording process?

For a lot of it, we’ll just use fake drums, me and Jerry, at his house. We come up with some stuff, and then when Sean [Kinney, drums] gets in the mix, he’s got a unique style, so it adjusts there. And then all the way up to the end, we’re tweaking as we go and coming up with counterparts. I try to have as many options as I can for our producer, Nick.

This is your third record with Nick Raskulinecz. What does he add?

Our communication is spot on. I’ll create a bass line and be like, “Okay, I worked on this all night and I’m going to kill it for you today, Nick.” And I sit down and play some good melodic bass lines, and he just kind of looks at me and, with one look, I know I didn’t do the right thing [laughs].

He’s a bass player too, correct?

Yeah. He’s my favorite producer to track bass with. We have such a great time, and there’s such positive energy. He’s open to every idea. He’ll go, “Whatchya got?” And then I’ll play something, and he’ll go, “Oh that’s cool, but do that part twice and cut that run out. . . .” And then Sean will adjust a drumbeat or fill, and I’ll match up to him. We just go, really. There’s no rhyme or reason. It might be one of our secrets—we secretly don’t know what we’re doing [laughs].

You do seem to have a knack for adding melodic subhooks to the songs, without being too busy.

I try to have a lot and then scale back, as opposed to the other way, where you’re sitting there playing whole-notes because you can’t think of anything. I’m also one of those guys who loves to get in there and have a lot of basses, too, but we always come back to that old beat-up Moon Burst from ’91 [Warwick Streamer Stage I] that Ozzy bought me back in the day. Nick just loves that bass, so we did the bulk of the record with it.

Since you brought it up, your tone is always slamming. What’s your secret, besides the bass?

I used a ’69 Ampeg SVT on this one with an 8x10 cabinet—real basic, with a bit of Tech 21 SansAmp. I used to use a ’62 Fender Bassman head, and I’d crank it all the way up for the distortion, but I blew that thing up years ago. That’s what happens when you do that [laughs]. It was really a shame. It was a nice head.

That’s it? No other secret weapons?

It’s compressed a little, but it’s pretty straightforward. On all these festival dates we’re playing, a lot of bass players come up after the set, going, “Hey, what the hell are you doing with your bass out there?” And you know, it’s so simple. I have the old SVT-2PRO and a SansAmp, and then the Warwicks and the Spector [for Drop-D tuning] and a Warwick hollowbody that I drop in on a few songs. It’s simple. I keep it very basic, and guys just don’t believe it.

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Are you mostly playing with a pick on Rainier Fog?

On this one, it’s all pick. Nick likes the tone we’re getting with it. I think picking very hard is part of the [tone] secret, too. I attribute that to [Ozzy guitarist] Zakk Wylde. He would run up on me onstage and be like, “Come on, dig in, dig in!” He’s such a loud player, too. And so, to keep my head above water in the Ozzy band, I just had to go for it. I learned how to control that hard picking. There’s an art to it.

Do you ever play fingerstyle?

I’ve done whole tour legs, like when we opened for Velvet Revolver in 2007 or ’08, just to prove to myself that I could play with my fingers. But the soundman was like, “No, your sound is that scrape of the pick, slamming bass chords, getting that good vibrato, and digging in.” My tone sounds bigger on those big stages where it’s elevated and the subs are really rumbly. The attack of the pick cuts through; it’s not just a bunch of mush on the bottom. On a good night, a good bass tone is your best friend.

You spent four years playing in Heart. How did that help shape your playing?

I did Heart from 2002 to 2006. It was right after Layne had passed away, and I couldn’t have fallen into a better place for me to heal. I was surrounded by the wonderful love of Ann and Nancy Wilson, and we did a few world tours and we tracked a record called Jupiter’s Darling at [Microsoft co-founder] Paul Allen’s studio.

I imagine you had to play a lot of different stuff, stylistically, with Heart.

Going from Ozzy’s heavy rock, like “I Don’t Know” and “Crazy Train,” into Alice, which is a vast palette too, set me up to go jam “Barracuda” with Ann and Nancy. I learned a lot. It made me such a better bass player jamming with those two. Nancy is throwing chords around that look like her fingers are tied in knots, and I’m like, “Wow! What the hell is that thing called?” And she’ll tell you [laughs]. But, like, “Dreamboat Annie” is a completely different style for me, so I had to really dig in and learn those wonderful Steve Fossen bass parts from Heart’s early days. And just being absorbed by Ann and Nancy.

What do you mean by that?

Those girls ooze music. From the moment they wake up in the morning, whether they are getting ready to do press, or while they are putting on their makeup for the show, they’re harmonizing with music, like Emmylou Harris CDs, and coming up with harmonies that aren’t even on those records. Then, after the show, they’ll be up until four in the morning drinking wine with acoustic guitars, and you can call out any band—the Kinks or the Rolling Stones or the Beatles— and they can play it. They just live music. I learned so much from Ann and Nancy on a personal and philosophical level. I was very grateful to get to heal after Layne’s death, which was really heavy for me.

Tell me about your early musical influences.

I was a product of the L.A. public school system music programs, which is another thing that’s sadly going away. I wouldn’t know anything about theory or reading if it weren’t for clarinet and saxophone in middle school and high school. My whole family has a lot of musicians in it—church people. My uncle Matt, my mom’s brother, was in a top-40 band that had Al McKay from Earth, Wind & Fire in it. He would yell at me: “Don’t touch any of the guitars, and don’t turn anything on when we’re at work.” And then, as soon as his car went around the block, I was back there hitting drums and turning on bass amps.

When did you start getting into the heavy rock scene?

Early on in high school. I gravitated toward the pioneers of distorted bass, like John Entwistle, Jack Bruce, and Geezer Butler. Before that, my mom was into Elton John and the Beatles, so I had a good musical garden to grow out of.

Did you always know you wanted to be a musician?

The concert that changed my life was the 1983 US Festival. I told my mom I was spending the night at a friend’s house, and he did the same thing with his mom, and we hitchhiked from Pasadena to San Bernardino. We didn’t have anywhere to stay, so we stayed in the back of some guy’s pickup truck.

Ozzy played, the Scorpions, Quiet Riot, Van Halen, Triumph, and Mötley Crüe. Ozzy was such a big influence on me. One of the first albums I owned was Blizzard of Ozz, and on the back, there’s a picture of Randy Rhoads, Bob Daisley, and Lee Kerslake—and Ozzy in the middle. Between that picture and seeing him at the ’83 US Festival, I was like, that’s what I want to do for a living. And lo and behold, seven years later, I’m in the guy’s band, living in Ireland [laughs]. So, I owe him greatly, too; Zakk Wylde and I always say we went to Ozzy Osbourne University.

I thought I would do this for only a couple of years and then go back to college. I was going to play saxophone. I had a partial scholarship to go to UCLA, and then I ended up going to Ozzy Osbourne University instead and learned a whole different kind of curriculum [laughs]. My dad was skeptical and said, “I’m not sure you can make a living out of it.” So, I just texted him a picture of this castle I’m standing in front of in Padova. I think he’s finally accepted that you can actually make a living doing this stuff.

I understand you apply your music education to rock & roll by charting out tunes sometimes.

Mainly it’s just verse, chorus, where I need to put a fill in. I don’t get too into it. I don’t want to lock myself into something that the producer is just going to change. So, I go in there with an approach— mainly just the arrangements. [John Mellencamp drummer] Kenny Aronoff’s charts are a work of art, like Egyptian hieroglyphs—every hi-hat, every brush stroke; it’s just amazing to see him work. We played on a record together for Boston Red Sox pitcher Bronson Arroyo [Covering the Bases], after they won the 2004 World Series. I asked, “Kenny, why do you do all of this? It’s such a pain in the ass.” He said, “I forget everything, so I have to do it.” Now there are iPad programs that do it for you, which is nice.

Bronson Arroyo seems like an interesting call. Do you get these types of gigs often?

I like to keep playing when I’m in L.A., whether it’s something like that, or the Alice Cooper tribute that I did with Slash and Carmine Appice. I played on William Shatner’s most recent record not too long ago. I like finding myself in these crazy sessions at A&M Records, walking in and jamming with new people.

Is it as all spontaneous as that sounds, or is preparation is a key to your success?

I try to be as prepared as possible when I walk into these situations. It’s all a bucking bronco, and I’m trying to hold on and trying to integrate a style into somebody else’s greater picture. I’m not one of those guys who goes in there and tries to show everybody up with how great a bass player I am. I try to write for the song, write for the part.

You say you “stumbled” into a music career. How did you get the Ozzy gig?

I was at a rehearsal place called Mates in North Hollywood, and the brother-in-law of the owner said, “Hey, I just jammed with Ozzy around the corner. You should check it out.” That was my only goal at that moment, like, “Oh, cool—I get to go jam with Ozzy.” So, I got on the list and called in sick at work. I walked in, and there were all these guys dressed head to toe in leather, guys older than me who obviously knew their stuff—I was hearing them through the wall—and I had on tennis shoes and ratty Levi’s and an L.A. Kings hockey jersey. I think there were 212 guys, and I got in on the second-to-last day. I wasn’t even nervous, because I knew I was never getting this gig.

Maybe there’s a lesson in there somewhere.

Yeah, no doubt [laughs]. Mark Candelario, Tool’s production manager, was the drum tech at the time. He pointed me out and said, “Okay, you’re next.” So, I walked in the room and there’s Ozzy and Sharon, Zakk Wylde, Randy Castillo, and Mark. I got up and jammed four or five Ozzy songs, and I thought that was it. I was like, “Thanks a lot.” And as I was getting into my car, Sharon and Ozzy ran out and said, “Hey, we almost lost you. We want you to come back next week. You’re one of the top five.” I was off and running.

You seem to have such great reverence for all things bass.

I do. there’s something about the fraternity of bass players. Singers will be at a bar and they won’t even meet each other. Guitar players will meet each other and then turn around and talk shit about each other. But bass players are like, “Hey, I’ve got that same Mickey Mouse watch—we should be brothers forever!” [Laughs.]

SPECIFICATIONS

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LISTEN

Alice In Chains, Rainier Fog [2018, BMG]

EQUIP

Basses Two Warwick Streamer Stage I’s (Moon Burst and Go-Kart Blue Sparkle), Spector NS-2 (drop-D tuning), Warwick Starbass II
Pickups EMG
Amps Ampeg SVT-2PRO, 1969 and 1972 Ampeg SVTs (formerly owned by Van Halen)
Cabinets Ampeg SVT-810E, Ampeg SVT18 (custom), Ampeg PN-210HLF Pro Neo Series 2x10 monitors
Strings Dean Markley Blue Steel (.050–.105)
Picks Dunlop Tortex Pitch Black Standard 1.0mm

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