Interview: J.T. Phillips of Jar of Flies talks Layne Staley Tribute Concert and Saving The Showbox

Over the last few weeks, Seattle has had a distinctly 90’s feel to it, especially when it comes to music. Pearl Jam rocked two epic shows at Safeco Field. Mudhoney headlined a massive day-long festival celebrating Sub Pop’s 30th anniversary. Alice in Chains just released their new album, Rainier Fog, and is set to headline KISW’s Pain in the Grass concert on Saturday, August 25th and a secret show on Friday at The Crocodile. The current lineup features two original members: guitarist Jerry Cantrell and drummer Sean Kinney, joined by longtime bassist Mike Inez and singer William DuVall. Glaring in their absence: original bassist Mike Starr, who passed away in 2011, and singer Layne Staley, considered the soul of the band (to Jerry Cantrell’s heart).

Layne would have turned 51 years old this week, had heroin not robbed him of his life in 2002. His legacy lives on in Alice in Chains’ music, and his life is celebrated every August, through an annual tribute concert started by his mother, Nancy McCallum. The tradition has been carried on by Alice in Chains tribute band, Jar of Flies, with Nancy’s blessing. The yearly shows benefit Therapeutic Health Services, a Seattle-based nonprofit that offers a wide range of services for people struggling with addiction. This year’s show takes place Friday, August 24th, at the iconic Showbox in downtown Seattle, across the street from Pike Place Market.

For the guys in Jar of Flies (singer Rane Stone, guitarists J.T. Phillips and Kyyle Cort, bassist Lee Bruso, and drummer Daryl Williams), this project is a labor of love. Those familiar with the Seattle music scene know these guys from their other bands: Klover Jane (Rane, JT, Lee, and Daryl), and SUPERFEKTA (Kyyle), as well as a number of other side projects (Years of War, Bruiser Brody, Outshined, the list goes on). But their shared love for Alice in Chains, coupled with Rane’s haunting vocals, makes Jar of Flies a band popular with AIC fans from all over the world.

I caught up with guitarist J.T. Phillips earlier this month, as he headed over to Safeco Field for the first of Pearl Jam’s two sold-out concerts. We chatted about the upcoming Layne Staley Tribute Concert, as well as what it is that keeps the music of bands like Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Nirvana, and other groups that created the Seattle Sound, as relevant as ever.

NWMS: What drives your passion for keeping Layne’s legacy alive with the annual concert and your incredible tribute band, Jar of Flies?

JTP: It’s an incredible honor. It’s important to us as fans and individuals to recognize our love of that (Alice in Chains) music and to have Nancy’s support. The fan response is great. They reach out to Nancy through her website from all around the world, to tell stories of how Layne has touched them. She’s got books of baby pictures from fans who called their kids Layne or had some connection with him. The fan response is what drives it. For years, the tributes that we’ve done have had people from (as far away as) Israel come into town, just because of their connection to the music. Because we can do it here in Seattle, we have that very special connection – the music history. We’re able to perform it well and people get lost in the moment. I always love when people say, “That reminds me of” – boom! Wow, the stories that come after that are incredible, like: “I remember seeing them in 1988 at the Central. It was a great show. We were packing up and all of a sudden, there was Layne and we gave him a ride home.” We get fantastic stories of what happened. We get to see all these things – these connections that people have, and we’re a conduit to making that happen. We’re here because we’re fans of the music and we’re able to introduce that on a stage that allows people to have memories. It’s awesome to see Alice in Chains. I love to go see them even today.

NWMS: What are your early memories of Alice in Chains’ music?

JTP: I close my eyes and listen (to Alice in Chains) and I’m in my high school bedroom. I’m aging myself! It (also) brings back memories of times in college. I never saw Layne perform live. I just missed that. Our goal (as Jar of Flies) is to let people close their eyes and remember, like I do. We’re happy to help keep that memory alive. It has nothing to do with us. The memories people have with Layne’s music, with Alice in Chains, it touches people in an incredible way. I’m sure there are other bands that do that, too, but it (AIC) is unlike anything else that I know. And that’s what’s really important for us (Jar of Flies)

NWMS: As a performer, do you have a song or two that you look forward to performing?

JTP: All of them. As an individual, I have particular favorite songs. Some of them may or may not be anyone else’s (favorite). Each song represents memories that bring back where you were when you heard it, what connection there is to these particular songs.

One of the standards is “Man in the Box.” When the band (JoF) is rolling and we play that and people are singing along – that is a highlight.

When we do the acoustic stuff, the song “Frogs” is a highlight off of the acoustic record. It’s a deep track that some would say it’s a “weird song,” but it’s haunting. It’s beautiful. It’s got the vocal harmonies. Weird guitar stuff happens. It’s a quintessential Alice in Chains song.

The third one, I would say, is “Sludge Factory.” ON the record, there’s so much vocal and so much production with the song and it’s got this huge trail-off ending. It’s a 7-8 minute song. On record, it just doesn’t grab me. The acoustic performance – it’s also one of the highlights of the acoustic record. The way we perform it is a hybrid kind of between the acoustic and the electric versions. That live, has this incredible reaction from people. It’s a very powerful song and an incredible amount of fun to play.

NWMS: Tell us about this year’s Layne Staley Tribute Concert. Who’s playing?

JTP: This year’s show is just Jar of Flies. No special guests. We’ve never done it like this. In the last couple of years, we wanted to invite many guests from the Seattle music scene to do it and to honor Layne. After last year, we decided to keep it simple. We’re raising the bar on ourselves to produce this show. It’s just going to be us doing our tribute in the best way that we know.

NWMS: You’re playing the same weekend as Alice in Chains.

JTP: I’ve heard from people who are coming from all over, who have been to tribute shows in the past, are planning to come see Jar of Flies on Friday and Alice in Chains on Saturday (at KISW Pain in the Grass). I’m going to be watching the band (AIC). It’s going to be a very special weekend for people who want to connect with that.

NWMS: This year’s tribute concert returns to the Showbox, which is fighting for its future.

JTP: The Save the Showbox campaign – we’re going to work to highlight that and make sure everyone who comes through that door will have information about where we’re at in the process. We’ll have information about how they can help.

We had no idea when we booked that show that we might be able to have some kind of impact, to give people some insight into what’s happening with that wonderful building. We’re in a unique spot – a Seattle tribute to a Seattle legend at a unique Seattle venue.

I did the Save the Showbox photo project and what I wrote was “Seattle is a Music City and the Showbox is a cornerstone in the foundation” It’s a very important issue to us and a lot of other musicians. We’re lucky to be able to host this (tribute show) this year at the Showbox. Hopefully, for many years to come, we’ll get to play shows, and see shows, and experience the legacy of the Showbox.

NWMS: As a performer what makes The Showbox such a memorable place to play?

JTP: Everything about it: the design, the layout, the staff, the history behind it. It has the entire package. It’s right across from Pike Place Market, another one of those significant Seattle icons. You get to see that big Pike Place Market sign as you walk in the door. You get in there and it opens up to this beautiful theater that was designed for music. Everything sounds great in there. It’s built to be a performance space and it looks like a cool concert hall. It’s got all the characteristics you’d expect. You want to see a great show – it just looks cool. The staff – the bartenders, waitresses, sound guys, lighting guys – they’re great at what they do. They create wonderful shows in this wonderful venue. And then you get the history. I mean, you’re on the same stage that Duke Ellington played on in the 1930’s. The history of the people who have played there lends itself to the history. I’ve seen Mike McCready and Flight to Mars a few times. The first concert I saw there when I moved to Seattle was at the Showbox. I saw the Soundgarden reunion show when it was the anagram Nude Dragons. I have some incredible memories in that space. When you step onto that stage, you just know that history around you.

It (Showbox) stands out among other venues. It’s a world class venue. Seeing shows in other places makes you realize how it stands up on a world class level.  I hope that’s not lost on Seattle people because we’re so used to having it. Those places don’t exist elsewhere.

NWMS: Do you remember the first time you performed at the Showbox? How surreal was it, knowing that you were sharing the stage with music greats and history-making musicians?

JTP: The first time I performed there was a Layne Staley Tribute that Daughtry headlined. There were three of us (Rane Stone, Johnny Smokes, and myself). We did three acoustic songs for a packed crowd. It was an incredible atmosphere. Sitting up there on the stage – even recounting this now, I get goosebumps remembering sitting up there with an acoustic guitar, playing some Alice in Chains songs in front of this crowd. It was a surreal experience, knowing the history of the greats that have performed there , that have been on this stage., that feeling of nervousness, that I don’t want to make a mistake. It was phenomenal. We’ve played there since then, but we’ve never done the Layne Staley Tribute there. It’s such a special place, because of everything.

NWMS: Pearl Jam just played Safeco Field. Mudhoney has a new album and headlined Sub Pop’s 30th Anniversary Show. Alice in Chains has a new album and is touring. All continue to have healthy fan bases. What do you think there is about the Seattle Sound that perseveres where so many others do not?

JTP: It’s an authentic sound. All the bands that you mentioned, and you can add Soundgarden, have rekindled that fire. They’re steadfastly unique bands. When you hear one, it doesn’t sound like another one. They’re truly authentic and that’s what connects with people. Like the bands out of the 60’s and 70’s, are bands you still talk about today – the Led Zeppelins, the Aerosmiths. They’re bands that had that connection and were true to the music. They’re the ones that you still talk about and I think in that way, Seattle, in that time period (early 90’s), put out those bands – Mudhoney, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Nirvana. They were incredibly lucky to have that. The community bred that type of music. They were very true to the art that they produced. That’s a testament. They weren’t in it to sell anything. Bands that do that never last. There were few scenes that had that kind of impact – London in the 60’s – Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, those type of bands, that nexus of people being very true to their art and playing authentic music that’s still being talked about today. The Seattle Sound will carry on like those other classic rock bands. It was the right time and place, and the right attitude. They were authentic in creating what they wanted to, and the world responded and clearly still responds to this day. They were able to make that connection with people. I’m standing out here on First Avenue and I’m watching people walk up wearing Pearl Jam t-shirts. There are cars full of people and people in Ubers getting dropped off here at the stadium (Safeco Field). They (Pearl Jam) made that connection with people. That’s the most important thing. And I don’t think you can do that if you’re not authentic.

I played last night with Kevin Hoffman at J&M – an acoustic set. We played a bunch of Chris Cornell songs and everyone in the crowd was in from out of town sang along. I talked to people from Cincinnati, from Ottawa, from Germany, from Sweden, that had flown in to see these Pearl Jam shows here. Because the Seattle connection, the connection with Pearl Jam. They chose to come HERE, and that’s how strong that connection is, that people from around the world are coming to Seattle to see Pearl Jam in Seattle. It’s not like going to see them at Madison Square Garden – that’s okay, but this is Seattle. This is the connection that all of these bands have. The connection rings true. And that’s a testament to what all of those band did that that time. It’s a phenomenal thing.

The Layne Staley Tribute Concert takes place Friday, August 24, 2018, at The Showbox in Seattle (1426 1st Ave, Seattle, WA 98101)

Ages: All Ages to Enter, 21 & Over to Drink

Doors open at 7:00 pm

The show begins at 8:00 pm

Get tickets HERE

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Su Ring

Su has worked in and around the music scene since the tender age of 19, when she formed her first heavy metal band on the Jersey Shore. Since then, she's hosted a radio show, worked at several major record labels in New York City, written for a now-defunct rock periodical, and self-published a novel set amid the 80s metal music scene in the Big Apple. She spends her time now singing anthems, hosting a hockey podcast, and producing segments for a daytime TV talk show. And enjoying rock and heavy metal shows, of course.

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