The Seattle grunge scene that transformed rock in the ’90s produced four great voices, but the most distinct among them belonged to Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley. Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain deeply understood musical dynamics and could simultaneously scream and sing a melody in a way that few others could—think of John Lennon’s searing lead vocal performance on “Twist and Shout.” Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell wailed and hit high notes, putting him at times in Robert Plant or Freddie Mercury territory. Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder combined a Jim Morrison-style natural baritone range with other punk and rock influences.
But Staley sounded like no one else. His ability to project power and vulnerability in his vocals, as well as the unique and complementary harmonies he created when singing with Alice in Chains guitarist Jerry Cantrell, made for a style that would get copied for years after Alice in Chains became a household name.
“I didn’t want another Morrison or
another Rob Halford,” Bacolas says. “I don’t know what we were looking for. We just kind of—we just found it.”
When he died over a decade ago, the ensuing remembrances often centered on his voice. “He was single-handedly the guy that got me to start singing,” Godsmack singer Sully Erna told MTV News at the time. “To this day, I’ve never really heard a cooler singer … Just the way they [Staley and Cantrell] addressed their melodies and harmonies, and his vocal style in general was so different from anything that anyone was writing that it was so appealing and attractive that you couldn’t help but be influenced by it.”
“Layne had an amazing voice that had such a beautiful, sad, haunting quality about it,” Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan said in a statement after Staley’s death. “He was different because his heaviness was in that voice.”
It was on Alice in Chains’s sophomore album Dirt that Staley would develop what became his signature sound: heavily layering his vocals in the studio by recording two or three vocal tracks in multiple intervals. The technique, called stacked vocals, “was totally Layne,” Alice in Chains producer Dave Jerden says. Staley hadn’t discussed or explained in advance his idea for stacking his vocals to Jerden: “What he would say to me when we did that stuff is he had it all worked out, and he would just say ‘Give me another track.’ ‘I want to double it.’ ‘Now let’s triple it.’ He was just telling me what he wanted to do, and we’d do it.”
There was also an improvisational element to how he recorded. Dirt engineer Bryan Carlstrom remembers that when working on the song “Them Bones” with Staley, Staley told him, “Oh, I hear a little vocal part I want to stick in the song.”
As he was hearing the music played back to him on his headphones, Staley began singing the “Ah!” screams timed to Cantrell’s guitar riff. He tracked the screams once or twice.
“He just made that up on the spot,” Carlstrom says. Cantrell is credited for the music and lyrics to the song, but it’s difficult to imagine it without those screams.
Staley was also capable of innovating in his ability to use his voice as an instrument. “He sings on the verse on ‘God Smack’ with this effect that literally sounds like there’s a tremolo [effect] or a Leslie [speaker] on his voice, and he is doing that with his voice,” Carlstrom says. No studio wizardry was necessary. Carlstrom has no idea how he was doing it because the production staff had put up a makeshift wall made of soundproof material in the studio at Staley’s request so he couldn’t be seen from the outside while he was singing.
It was his voice, in large part, that landed 17-year-old drummer Layne Elmer the gig that would turn him into Alice in Chains singer Layne Staley.
In the spring or fall of 1984, James Bergstrom, the drummer in a garage band called Sleze, was walking between classes at suburban Seattle’s Shorewood High School when he ran into Ken Elmer, a friend from the school marching band. Elmer knew that Bergstrom and his band mates were looking for a singer, and he had somebody in mind for them.
“Hey, my stepbrother Layne plays drums but he wants to be a singer,” Elmer told Bergstrom. “You should give him a call.” Bergstrom agreed, and an audition was eventually set up.
The tryout took place at Bergstrom’s parents’ house, where Sleze had their jam room set up in the basement. They were young—still in early high school and still learning how to play their instruments and perform covers. Layne eventually arrived. Before playing together, the band members noticed his tall stature, soft-spoken demeanor, and that he was very much dressed for the part of a rock musician, with band names like “Ozzy” or “Mötley Crüe” written on his pants in bleach.
“He came to our jam room and was really shy, real timid,” guitarist Johnny Bacolas says. “And just as we expected, we were like, ‘Fuck, yeah! This is what a lead singer should look like!'”
After initial introductions were made, the group started jamming. Bergstrom, guitarists Johnny Bacolas and Ed Semanate, and bassist Byron Hansen are all fairly certain that the first song they performed with Layne was a cover of Mötley Crüe’s “Looks That Kill.” They immediately knew they were onto something
“When he got to the part, ‘Now she’s a cool cool black,’ he could actually hit those notes. We were like, ‘Oh my God! This is awesome!'” Bergstrom recalls with a laugh. “So you had that feeling, ‘Here’s this kid. He’s got a great sounding voice. He’s cool. He could sing on key. And he also had good range and he was soulful, though he was just a raw beginner.’ So we knew we had something special, and we were like in heaven from then, man. We became a band.”
Semanate had a similar impression of Layne’s vocal performance: “He had a really high voice, kind of Vince Neil-ish, he could nail that pretty good. So I was happy.”
But aside from his ability to mimic Neil’s vocals, it was the distinct sound of his voice, even in that raw, undeveloped form, that caught Bacolas’s attention—and led Sleze to hire him, starting Layne on the journey that would lead to Alice in Chains.
“He didn’t strike me as, ‘Oh, this guy is a [Jim] Morrison wannabe,’ or ‘Oh, this guy is a Robert Plant wannabe,’ or an Ozzy [Osbourne] wannabe,” Bacolas says. “Layne had his own thing, and I think that’s what was the most appealing about him. He had a very distinctive voice. I didn’t want another Morrison or another Rob Halford. We weren’t looking for that. I don’t know what we were looking for. We just kind of—we just found it.”