Imagine being a band on the road, supporting your biggest album, an album that has yielded five radio singles, and wrapping the tour with a co-headlining slot on one of the top traveling festivals in the country, Lollapalooza. You’re on top of the world, right?
Then, you return home and find that you’ve been 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 and newly homeless, 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.”
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.
Alice in Chains, “No Excuses”
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 former member of Ozzy Osbourne’s band came on board during the Dirt tour 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 liner notes to the band’s box set, Music Bank, “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.”
The lead single was “No Excuses,” released in early 1994. It was a change of pace for the band, the song became a radio and MTV hit; it was their first chart-topping single and the only song to reach No. 1 during the Layne Staley-era of the group.
Alice in Chains, “I Stay Away”
The next single was “I Stay Away,” which would climb to No. 10 on the Mainstream Rock chart, and received 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. (Today, you can see the puppets from the video in an exhibit in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.)
“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 it has since been covered by Adema, Staind, Shinedown, Seether and Ryan Adams over the years.
Alice in Chains, “Nutshell”
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.”
Jar of Flies ultimately became one of Alice in Chains’ biggest hits and was the first EP to debut at No. 1 ever on the Billboard 200 Album Chart, selling 141,000 copies in its first week and was 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, Jar of Flies exceeded the everyone’s expectations.