23 Years Ago: Alice in Chains Release ‘Jar of Flies’ EP
Imagine if you will being a band on the road, supporting your biggest album that’s released five radio singles and having just rocked one of the top traveling festivals in the country, Lollapalooza, only to return home and find yourself evicted. That was the situation that Alice in Chains found themselves in in 1993 after coming off the road and learning that through some miscommunication, they had failed to pay the rent on their crash pad and that they had no place to stay.
Frustrated by the development, the band moved into Seattle’s London Bridge Studios until they could get things sorted out. But the unplanned visit to the studio yielded something else … a new EP. Lonely, depressed and bored, the band made the most of their surroundings and a flurry of creativity led to what would eventually become the Jar of Flies EP, released on Jan. 25, 1994.
While in the studio, the band called upon Toby Wright to co-produce their new music with them and in a seven-day period, they managed to turn around another collection of songs.
“[I] just wanted to go into the studio for a few days with our acoustic guitars and see what happened,” said vocalist Layne Staley to Hit Parader. “We never really planned on the music we made at that time to be released. But the record label heard it and they really liked it. For us, it was just the experience of four guys getting together in the studio and making some music.”
As Staley stated, the EP did happen rather organically. Guitarist Jerry Cantrell revealed to Wright that he hadn’t written any songs and just had one guitar part — a jangly chorus to a piece of music that would eventually become the hit single “No Excuses.” And that proved to be the starting point.
Wright told AVClub, “They’d go out on the floor and jam, and I’d just hit record. They’d get a little form together, go out and jam it, and send it upstairs to Layne who was anxiously awaiting. He’d write lyrics and melody and come down with a little demo on, I think, a four-track recorder. We’d all listen and go, ‘Hell yeah!’ Then he’d run back upstairs and keep going. It was a very positive attitude from everybody.”
The EP also proved to be the first extended recording the band had done with bassist Mike Inez. The musician had come on board while the band was promoting their Dirt album and recorded two soundtrack songs (“What the Hell Have I” and “A Little Bitter”) for the Arnold Schwarzenegger flick Last Action Hero, but really hadn’t got the full studio experience feel with the band. Cantrell recalled in the band’s Music Bank liner notes, “The whole Jar of Flies EP proved to both us and the fans what a talented and valid part of the band Mike was. He plays the nastiest, darkest s–t, but he’s got the sweetest heart in the world.”
Having seen some success with their previous EP, SAP, the band decided to try out the format again. The disc gave the band a chance to add to their musical palette. The band worked in a talk box and harmonica into some of the songs, while also exploring a more acoustic and bluesy type vibe on select songs.
Coinciding with the release of the EP, Alice in Chains rushed out the single “No Excuses” in early 1994. It was a change of pace for the band, with a more syncopated drum beat from Sean Kinney and a lighter, more melodic vibe delivered by Cantrell and Staley. Accompanied by a Matt Mahurin-directed video that made great use of colorful lighting as actor Max Perlich stumbles into a theater populated by theatrical beings, the song also became a favorite at MTV. The track would go on to be their first chart-topping single and the only song to reach No. 1 during the Layne Staley-era of the group.
By the fall of 1994, Alice in Chains would dig deeper into the EP, releasing “I Stay Away” as a single. The slow-building track found the band in a more acoustic vibe as Staley and Cantrell’s vocals dance in perfect harmony. But eventually, Staley leads the song toward a more aggressive and darker turn before the introduction of violin backing in the latter part of the song. “I Stay Away” would climb to No. 10 on the Mainstream Rock chart, but did receive a Grammy nomination for Best Hard Rock Performance in 1995. “I Stay Away” is also notable for its video, which featured a puppet-led circus all shot using stop-motion animation. The clip was so beloved that the puppets from the video can now be found at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The EP was also notable for several other tracks. The melancholic “Don’t Follow” earned some modest airplay during the EP’s cycle. The track mostly features Cantrell on lead vocals and introduces David Atkinson on harmonica. The dark and ominous instrumental track “Whale & Wasp” was released as a single in early 1995, but failed to chart. Meanwhile, “Nutshell” turned out to be perhaps the biggest fan favorite song among fans that was never released commercially. The group opened their 1996 MTV Unplugged special with the song and its emotion-driven acoustic feel has made it a popular choice for other acts to cover, as well. Adema, Staind, Shinedown, Seether, Ryan Adams and more have covered “Nutshell” over the years.
As for the Jar of Flies title, Staley revealed that it came from an experiment Cantrell conducted as a kid. He recalled, “They gave him two jars full of flies. One of the jars they overfed, the other jar they underfed. The one they overfed flourished for a while, then all the flies died from overpopulation. The one they underfed had most of the flies survive all year. I guess there’s a message in there somewhere. Evidently that experiment had a big impact on Jerry.”
By the time all was said and done, this impromptu recording session of songs that was never meant to be released turned into one of Alice in Chains’ biggest offerings. Jar of Flies became the first EP to debut at No. 1 ever on the Billboard 200 Album Chart. It sold 141,000 copies in its first week and has gone on to be certified triple platinum. In addition to the Grammy nomination for “I Stay Away,” the album also received a nod for Best Recording Package. They didn’t win in either category, but for a collection that was never supposed to be anything, the sales and the accolades for Jar of Flies exceeded the everyone’s expectations.
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