Alice in Chains

Sep 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By Bud Scoppa



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Producer Nick Raskulinecz (left) at the 8058 in Studio 606, and engineer Paul

Producer Nick Raskulinecz (left) at the 8058 in Studio 606, and engineer Paul "Fig" Figueroa

When Raskulinecz got the call from manager Frank McDonough that Alice in Chains wanted him to produce an album, he didn't know what to think. “To be honest, at first I was a little hesitant,” he says, “because I grew up listening to Alice in Chains, and how can there be Alice in Chains without Layne Staley? But my curiosity got the best of me, and I went over to the studio where they'd been cutting demos and met the guys. We all hung out outside for a couple hours and talked, breaking the ice. Then they took me in the studio and played me a track. When I heard those guitars and those guys started singing, that was it — I was in. I looked at Jerry and said, ‘I don't need to hear anything else.’ I was just blown away by how they'd kept the original sound intact with Will's voice. I couldn't believe it, man — I was floored.”

The song they played Raskulinecz was “Check My Brain,” now the no-brainer lead single — a track so mind-blowingly heavy, and so memorable, that it immediately silences all those fans who questioned the surviving members' decision to pick up where they'd left off. A glorious moment occurs on the completed track when Alice in Chains' menacing minor-key chords, bent into gnarly new shapes by Cantrell's calloused fingers, burst into Technicolor as Cantrell and DuVall break out those unique underneath harmonies in the goosebump-inducing refrain: “California's alright/Somebody check my brain.” Crank it up and you can't help but be swept away in its relentless thrall, just as Raskulinecz was merely by hearing the demo.

“We worked with some good producers in the past,” says Cantrell, “and we've always had a pretty good idea of what we're doing musically and what we want. Even before we got in a room with Nick to do preproduction at the end of last summer, he already had a ton of ideas laid out in his head. I could see the thought he'd put into amp-and-guitar combos, and he had a lot of things worked out tonally that he thought would work best with us. Plus, he has so much enthusiasm; he's a stoner kid that just loves makin' music, just like we are.”

“There was a lot of preparation, a lot of homework, for me and my engineer, Paul Fig [short for Figueroa], on this record,” Raskulinecz confirms. “As an Alice in Chains fan, and now as their producer, I knew what I wanted to hear: I wanted to hear the record after Dirt, which I don't feel they ever made. The challenge was to maintain that consistency and the sonic massiveness, especially when it came to the guitar tones and the vocal layering. I got back into my 19-year-old head space, trying to reconnect with why I got hooked by those records in the first place. I drove around blasting Dirt, just zoning in on the hi-hat or the lead guitar tones or the vocal sound. I did it because I've never made a record with a huge band like this one that's replacing a fundamental part of their sound. Jerry Cantrell knows how to write amazing songs; it was my job to not mess it up.”

Studio 606, which Raskulinecz helped construct, boasts a Neve 8058, a variety of vintage and modern outboard gear, a big tracking room and an extra-large control room. “I think about making records like going on a camping trip,” he says. “The control room is the campsite and the console's the fire. That's where we're gonna live for the next few months. I knew it was gonna be a long project, and we wanted to be someplace that was really comfortable, as well as great-sounding. Half of this job is about knowing how to turn knobs and push faders; the other half is knowing how to hang out with people, to get them to trust you.”

On the first day of the project, the band set up in the tracking room of 606 with their live rigs and jammed while Fig gradually dialed in sounds. “Nick starts with the drums and builds it up from there,” the engineer explains. “The band doesn't usually play to a click track, so we wanted to capture that breathing throughout the song, with Sean vibing off the guitars.”

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