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With Alice in Chains, Atlanta punk icon William DuVall finds his audience 

Former Neon Christ frontman makes an epic leap toward commercial success

More than 25 years have passed since William DuVall's tirades as the guitarist and songwriter for Neon Christ kicked open the door for Atlanta's hardcore scene in the early '80s. Back then people called him Kip, and the same scene that he played a vital role in creating during the Reagan era still resonates on local stages. But like Atlanta's urban landscape, DuVall has changed dramatically since those days. Mention his name to the tight-jeans-wearing kids of the local punk scene now and Neon Christ hangs on their lips like the evocation of an ancient demigod. Mention his later, proto-grunge/art rock trio No Walls, or his more recent and decidedly commercial rock act Comes With the Fall to the same youthful zealots and they only offer blank stares. Truth be told, hardcore was only the beginning of a long legacy in which DuVall has labored to strike a balance between artistic integrity and commercial success.

When news spread in 2006 that DuVall had joined Alice in Chains to replace vocalist Layne Staley, who died of a heroin overdose in 2002, fans of Neon Christ scoffed at the new gig. In the early '90s, Alice in Chains was the watered-down cousin to the post-punk fuzz of Nirvana, Soundgarden and the rest of Seattle's Sub Pop grunge scene. Alice in Chains was a metal band first and foremost, and though the group's songs dwelt on the dark side, they were polished by comparison – and tailored to suit a much larger audience.

Reaching an audience of that size has been DuVall's M.O. almost from the beginning, and every phase of his career has inched him closer to that goal. Joining Alice in Chains – a band that has sold nearly 15 million records in the U.S., including two No. 1 albums and 21 Top 40 singles – is an epic leap that finds DuVall far removed from the hard-line aesthetics of his musical beginnings. And yet, even though he left hardcore's dogmatic ways to embrace commercial music a long time ago, he has never let go of his convictions.

Soon after Neon Christ broke up in 1986, DuVall left town. "Things got pretty heavy for Neon Christ and I bolted," he recalls. Although he didn't witness it firsthand, he was told that a group of racist skinheads had set up a gun range in a warehouse near DuVall's old punk haunt the Metroplex. For target practice they were using pictures of his face. The time was right for a change of scenery, so he moved to Santa Cruz, Calif., to join the SST Records band Bl'ast!

But his time there was short-lived. "I found it a bit limiting," he says. "They were just surfer guys trying to play rock music. I tried to turn them on to things like John Coltrane or MC5, but they didn't want to know about it. Playing with them was fun, but I was done."

Around that same time, bassist and vocalist Mike Dean of Raleigh's hardcore band Corrosion of Conformity was leaving his group. DuVall caught wind and gave him a call. "I said, 'Mike, oh man. I want to form the ultimate band for this kind of twisted punk-metal and it's gonna be called the Final Offering, because it's going to be the end for this kind of music.'"

Dean left COC and he and DuVall returned to Atlanta to convene with Greg Psomas – the drummer for Neon Christ contemporary DDT — whom DuVall canonizes as the Keith Moon of Atlanta. They were briefly joined by vocalist Randy Gue, but the Final Offering was short-lived. A few years after they broke up, Psomas died of a heroin overdose in '93.

In 1988, DuVall formed No Walls with jazz bassist Hank Schroy and drummer Matthew Cowley. The new project saw DuVall moving beyond punk's limited scope with a sound that encapsulated jazz, psychedelic rock and prog bursts of melodic, acoustic strumming. After giving a tape of No Walls' songs to Vernon Reid of Living Colour backstage after a show, Reid championed No Walls in the press, as did David Fricke of Rolling Stone, who described one CBGB show as "a brilliant collision of sinewy punk attack, angular-jazz maneuvers and catchy art-pop songwriting."

The demo, recorded at Jimi Hendrix's Electric Lady Studios in New York, generated a strong Atlanta buzz but was never properly released. Instead, the group's '92 self-titled CD, issued by Third Eye Records, met with disappointment. When the CD arrived, the punk edge had given way to a softer, overproduced pop sound, which was intentional.

Adulthood was approaching quickly for the 24-year-old DuVall and he still wasn't making a living playing music. A&R reps were courting No Walls, but label interest hadn't materialized. "I thought No Walls was the ticket," he says. "It was all the music I ever loved thrown into one band, but all I had was people telling me I don't have 'a song.'"

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