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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

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A few years after the group broke up, DuVall saw Jeff Buckley play at the Point (now Clothing Warehouse in Little Five Points), and the similarities he noticed between Buckley's band and No Walls were uncanny to the point of frustration. "He had a drummer playing the same kind of jazzed-out drums in a rock club while he was crooning this otherworldly Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan shit over some Zeppelin-influenced rock, and he's getting pushed by Columbia," DuVall says. "He was fantastic, and he did it his own way, but we had a lot of mutual friends in New York and he moved there when we were getting started on our thing here."

It seemed to DuVall that No Walls had missed a great opportunity by remaining in Atlanta.

Meanwhile, the same A&R reps busy working on such pop filler as the next M.C. Hammer and Warrant albums were telling him that he lacked palatable songs. "I never saw what was so difficult about my music," he says. "I thought, 'I'm going to show these people!'"

DuVall immersed himself in the craft of songwriting, studying everything from Motown and the Beatles to Edie Brickell in an attempt to make his songwriting more viable while staying true to his personality. Before long it paid off. In '95 former Arrested Development singer Dionne Farris scored a No. 1 radio hit with "I Know," co-written by DuVall.

In '96 he formed the group Madfly, an over-the-top glam-pop group that took a complete 180 from his prior efforts. He dropped the guitar and became a full-fledged spectacle of a frontman, complete with flashy costumes and body paint. While DuVall describes it as a "tongue-in-cheek, pissed-off reaction" that stemmed from his frustration with No Walls' lack of commercial appeal, fans of Neon Christ and No Walls failed to see the irony inherent in the group's presentation and found themselves alienated by what seemed like a complete about-face at the time.

"We dressed in stupid clothes and I said, 'If I'm going to be a clown for you assholes, I'm going to have fun and write some cool music," he says. "I was just trying to move forward and explore. If my music wasn't commercial enough, what could I do to make it more commercial?"

Madfly later dropped the shtick and became Comes With the Fall. It was a return to the more stylized and sincere songwriting DuVall had fostered with No Walls. He was back on guitar, cranking out heavy but radio-friendly riffs and melodies. The lineup settled on Bevan Davies (drums), Adam Stanger (bass) and Nico Constantine (second guitar). But it wasn't long before DuVall found himself in the same situation he'd been in with No Walls — getting no attention.

Leaving Atlanta seemed inevitable, but DuVall was reluctant. He wanted to spark something new at home, the same as he'd done before with Neon Christ, but things were no longer as simple as they had been when he was 14. "There was no punk rock in Atlanta so we made it happen; I thought we could make something else happen here, but when the industry and art consciously interface with commerce, it gets weird," he says. "My family was coming down on me saying, 'What are you going to do with your life?' It was like that old Twisted Sister video — 'I want to rock!'"

In 2000, Comes With the Fall moved to Los Angeles. Within a week, DuVall met Alice in Chains guitarist Jerry Cantrell. A mutual acquaintance had given Cantrell Comes With the Fall's second album, The Year Is One (released on DuVall's DVL Recordings), and it caught his ear. "When I met Cantrell the first thing he said to me was, 'Cool hair!' The next thing he said was, 'I'm a fan.'"

That kind of validation was exactly what the group needed after leaving Atlanta. The disappointment over their stalled status had reached a breaking point, and they hit Hollywood "like a bomb," DuVall says. "Cantrell was one of the people who got hit." The two became friends, and soon Cantrell was learning CWTF songs and occasionally joining them onstage. The following year, Cantrell enlisted CWTF as his backing tour band to promote his solo album, Degradation Trip (Roadrunner).

In the meantime, Alice in Chains was slowing to a crawl. When Layne Staley died in '02, the group came to a halt until the surviving members reconvened in 2006 to play a tsunami benefit with various singers. Later that year, they played a second time at a tribute concert for Heart. Again, several singers, including Phil Anselmo (Pantera) and Duff McKagan (Guns N' Roses, Velvet Revolver) sang with the group during the benefit. DuVall was invited to sing "Rooster" with Heart's Ann Wilson.

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