Everclear: Loser Makes Good
Addicted to Noise, August 1995
By Michael Goldberg
Art Alexakis, the leader of the Portland-based rock band Everclear, is
pacing like a caged animal as he jabbers into a cordless phone that
seems to be permanently attached to the side of his
head. One minute you can hear him doing business inside the two story
suburban home he shares with his twentysomething wife Jenny and their
three-year-old daughter, Annabella Rose. The next he's out on the front
porch, squatting against the side of the house, telling a business
associate that, no, he's not going to get on a plane to New York
tonight to supervise a remix. Blink and he's over to the side of the
house, in front of the garage, walking in circles on the hot cement,
dealing, dealing, dealing.
"The first time I ever spoke to Art on the telephone, I had to hold the
phone about a foot away from my ear," says 24-year-old Everclear
bassist Craig Montoya, who joined the band after he answered an ad
Alexakis -- in search of musicians who shared his taste for Sonic Youth,
Neil Young, X, and the Pixies -- had placed in Seattle's weekly rock
paper, The Rocket.
Montoya, a compact and skinny kid with short, dyed-black hair and a
baseball cap (refreshingly not turned backwards), is sitting on
Alexakis' front porch on this muggy afternoon in Portland's Hawthorne
District. "Art just talked for like 45 minutes," he continues, lighting
a cigarette. "He was like, 'I want to make a record, I want to tour, in
a couple of years hopefully we'll be signed to a label and do this and
that....' and I was like 'wow!' I'd been in bands with guys who didn't
know anything about the music industry. And here was somebody that had
all these ideas and goals. He knew about the business. He was telling
me about his experiences owning a record label and touring with other
bands and this sounded so exciting. I thought, 'Wow, this guy is going
Montoya was right about that. Thirty-three-year-old Art Alexakis, one
time juvenile delinquent, drug addict, and major loser is headed for the
cosmos, and anyone joining him for the ride has already pledged their
allegiance. It's a small crew: Montoya, 25-year-old drummer Greg
Eklund, Alexakis' wife Jenny, manager Darren Lewis, Capitol Records A &
R man Perry Watts-Russell and Capitol Records president Gary Gersh.
They all believe that Alexakis is a star. But no one believes it quite
as much as Alexakis himself.
Or as he puts it, "Yeah, I've got a pretty strong vision."
"The first time I met Art, he came into the store with a cassette that
they'd recorded in his basement," says Peter Genest, owner of
Portland's hip indie outlet, Roundhouse Records (a five minute ride
from Alexakis' house). "I thought, 'Geez, this guy wants to be a rock
star so bad.' Couple of days later I played the tape [which became
World of Noise, Everclear's debut album] and thought, 'He's got
the songs to back it up.' I became a big fan.'"
If sheer will power can translate dreams to reality, that would help
explain the rather miraculous transformation of Alexakis, who was the
kind of kid who should have had "Born To Lose" etched into his skin,
and whose theme song would have been Beck's "Loser," if that song had
been written 15 years ago.
Alexakis died his brown hair blond, and it's cut short so he looks a bit
like Les Claypool, but with a goatee. He's got two small rings through
his left ear lobe. Gray shirt, nondescript pants. The fashion statement
is no fashion statement. A huge chain runs from his belt loop to the
wallet in his back pocket. This is a guy who is not going to have his
"If I wasn't such a hard ass, I don't think we'd have gotten as far as
we have," he says, sitting on the porch, the phone within reach. "We
basically got every door shut in our face here in Portland. Cause we
weren't from Portland. If you're not part of the clique, it doesn't
happen. And we did happen without any help from those
people and they resent the hell out of us."
He gives me an intense stare, then adds: "I've got a chip on my
shoulder, no doubt about it."
When you see Alexakis rockin' hard on a club stage (as I did in late
July, a few weeks after spending time with the group in Portland),
singing "Loser Makes Good," a song about holding true to ones
convictions no matter the price, you begin to understand what a force of
will can accomplish. "Just another fucked up day/ Just another
waste of time," he sang, desperation coupled with raw fury in his
voice. "You wonder why I live like this, man, you just don't
Then, real quiet, but with an intensity that makes the words carry with
far more impact than if he'd screamed them: "I won't give in. Man, I'm
not like that. I won't give in."
KILL THE SUN
I am sitting in my office, staring at my computer screen. It is a cool
day in May. I decide to go through the day's mail, which includes a
package from Capitol Records. Inside are two CDs. One is by Truly. I
put it on; it's good. The other is by this band called Everclear. All I
know about them is that they spent just $400 to record their first
album, World of Noise. That's $200 less than Nirvana spent on
Bleach. The second album Nirvana recorded (for a lot more than
$600) sold millions of copies and made them international stars.
So I play this new Everclear album, Sparkle and Fade, which,
like Nevermind, was recorded at Smart Studios (although it was
produced by Alexakis himself, not Butch Vig). And I am floored. One
amazing song after another. This, I think to myself, is the real deal.
[WL Note - Nevermind was actually recorded at Sound City Studios
in Los Angeles. However, it was demoed at Smart Studios, and the version
of "Polly" recorded there is the one that appears on the record.]
Two and a half months after I first heard Sparkle and Fade, I
haven't stopped playing it.
Two and a half months later and things are looking pretty good for a
band whose roadie wears a "Loser" t-shirt. The album has been receiving
rave reviews. Some critics, myself included, think it's one of the ten
best albums released this year. Everclear will be touring with Filter
during August. Meanwhile, Modern Rock radio is on the tip. "Heroin
Girl" is on 57-plus stations; Number 32 on the Billboard
alternative chart, he tells me. "That's amazing," he says." That's a
hard-edged song. That is a loud fucking in-your-face song about an
overdose, a drug overdose. I'm just amazed that it's gotten as far as
Since first playing Sparkle and Fade I have become obsessed with
Everclear. I got the earlier CDs -- World of Noise and the six
song EP, Fire Maple Song, the group's first single, "Nervous &
Weird" b/w "Electra Made Me Blind" and even the rather obscure Deep
in the Heart of the Beast in the Sun, the album Alexakis made with
his previous band, Colorfinger -- and I've been lost in the hard, dark
stories Alexakis tells in his songs.
He is, as they say, a piece of work. He is angry. Frustrated.
Depressed. His world is bleak. His world is fucked. The sun never
rises. "Kill the sun," as he puts it on the Colorfinger album. And yet,
there is hope. At the end of the tunnel, one can see some light. Not
much. No happy endings here. But survival is possible. And maybe, just
maybe, a few hours of reprieve, of escape, from the always beckoning
abyss. "You look like Satan, ask me if I want to get high," Alexakis
sings in "Strawberry," literally describing the Devil himself offering a
one way ticket to hell.
Everclear is the kind of band that you wish you'd "discovered." In 1974
or so Jon Landau went to a Boston club, saw Bruce Springsteen and
wrote, "I have seen the future of rock & roll...." You listen to
Sparkle and Fade and it makes you feel like Landau must have
felt that night.
Alexakis, who plays guitar, sings, and produces, is one of the great
songwriters. Listen to "Summerland" or "The Twistinside" and then try
to deny him his due. A punk Springsteen, a grunge Dylan. J. D. Salinger
with Les Paul and a really bad attitude. When he sings -- about himself,
about people he's known, and people who've died -- it feels like he's
giving up a piece of himself. When he sings, you believe him.
He can set a scene and get to the heart of the matter in a line or two.
"I used to know a girl/ She had two pierced nipples and a black
tattoo," is how "Heroin Girl" begins. "She'd do anything to give me
what I need for my disease."
In the first verse of "Sick & Tired," he sings, "I'm sick and tired of
being sick and tired." Who hasn't felt like that? And when he begins
"Loser Makes Good" with the line, "I hate waking up/ It means that I
have to die again," you know just what he's talking about. Caught in
that dark depression, where another day just means 16 hours of
frustration, of nothing happening, of grasping hands, of small time
wannabes hustling, of nowhere to go and nothing to do.
Dave Marsh thinks the group's new album, Sparkle and Fade is one
of the great junk records. And yeah, it's true Alexakis was a junkie,
now more than ten years ago, as he tells it. But even though some of
the songs on the new album -- "Heroin Girl," of course, and "Strawberry"
are about addiction, you don't have to be a drug addict past or present
to listen to this album. Addiction just compounds the problems we face
"Summerland" is Alexakis' defining song. It is a rock anthem in the
tradition of Springsteen's "Born To Run" and "Thunder Road," the Sex
Pistols' "Anarchy in the U. K.," and the Clash's "London Calling," a
song about breaking free, of escaping the nowhere job, the dead-end
life. It begins with a pounding drum beat, setting the stage for the
first raging, ringing guitar chords. "Let's just drive your car/ We
could drive all day/ Let's just get the hell away from here," sings
Alexakis. "...we would do the things, all the things you wanted to, no
one cares about us anyway.. no one really gives a fuck about us
anyway, we could live, live just how we want to live."
The dream of a new life, of starting over. "Let's just leave this
place," he continues in the song. "Go to Summerland, just a name on the
map, sounds like heaven to me, we could find a town, be just how we
want to be."
Everclear is loud, raw and noisy. Their first album was called "World
of Noise" and it was an apt title, both for the music it contains, and
for the world it describes. Alexakis plays vicious rhythm guitar. He is
an edgy guy, wound tight. Barbed wire. There is a recklessness, a bet
it all on the roll of the dice quality to the music. Imagine a ball of
fire rolling through a hillside covered with dried-out grass.
IN THE BASEMENT
Alexakis leads the way, though the small, messy living room, the cozy
dining room, the kitchen with the '50s tile floor, and down the stairs
to the basement.
This is where Everclear rehearse. This is where the songs that comprise
Sparkle and Fade came together. But this is not the basement
where World of Noise was recorded with a friend's 8 track. That
was another basement, another house. Alexakis and his family have lived
in Portland for less than four years, yet they've moved four times. The
band leader is a restless soul, a self-described "misfit" who's not
sure if he'll ever be able to settle down, if he'll ever feel he's
His wife Jenny, in a black flowered dress, a tattoo bracelet around her
left ankle, her long hair red and wavy, hopes otherwise. To that end,
she's convinced her husband to use some of his publishing advance to
buy a modest two story house with a big yard on a safe street not all
that far from here, where they believe their daughter will be able to
grow up in safety.
All of that is in the air as Eklund takes a seat behind his drum kit,
Montoya plugs in one of the numerous basses he owns ("I invest my money
back into my career," he explains, though the rational doesn't hide the
fact that this is guy loves instruments. How else to account for the 12
string Rickenbacker he purchased the other day?), and Alexakis straps
on an electric Guild and steps up to the microphone.
Thick rug has been hung to soundproof the practice area, which is
adjacent to the laundry room. In fact, Alexakis can see the washing
machine from the spot where he typically stands during rehearsal. It's
a juggling act, his life. Rock & roll rebel on one side; family man
on the other.
A single bulb, hanging from the ceiling, baths the area in a harsh
light, the kind of light one would expect a detective to shine on a
suspect during an interrogation. It makes Alexakis look extreme,
exaggerating the lines of his face, the goatee. Here in the basement,
everything looks grainy and black and white, like an old photograph of
a hardcore band from 1979.
"So what do you want us to play," he asks me, hitting a chord, filling
the room with guitar noise.
"Summerland," I reply without hesitation. It is the group's
masterpiece, a song so right, so true, so heartfelt and timeless that
if it doesn't become something of an anthem for the '90s, this world
really is as fucked as I usually think it is.
Eklund counts out the beat; Alexakis runs his pick across the guitar
strings, the triumphant first chord, all loud and distorted, filling the
When Alexakis sings, he screws up his face, as if he's in agony. He is
all anger and fury. He must sing these words, he must tell these
stories. He is only truly alive when he is rockin', when he is
communicating. He bends his back, as if riding a wave when he takes a
guitar solo, jerks to the left on downbeat. Sweat droplets appear on
The band run though "Heroin Girl" and "Fire Maple Song." Here in the
basement, with volume cranked, without the benefit of studio polish, I
get the essence of Everclear: punk with melody. Even for an audience of
one, Alexakis performs like nothing matter but playing these songs,
right now, fast and hard and loud.
At one point the ATN video camera is fucking up, and so I ask them to
repeat "Heroin Girl." Alexakis looks at me like I'm crazy, like what is
wrong with you, dude. But nevertheless, they play it again, with even
more passion. I'll show you, you fuckin' world, he seems to be
"I'm a hit back type of person," he tells me later. "You fuck with me,
I fuck with you back. It's conditioned from growing up where I grew
up -- the L.A. projects. I used to get beat up when I was a little kid.
They'd take my lunch money. Then I got to the point where I stopped
accepting that. I started hitting back. And I never stopped."
BORN TO LOSE, BORN TO RUN, BORN IN THE U.S.A., BORN TO WIN
We pile into Alexakis new set of wheels. Actually, the vehicle is a
cream colored Bel Air with red leather interior, given to him by his
wife, who in turn got it from her grandmother. We're in pursuit of food
and a relatively quiet place to talk. Jenny wants some time to herself,
without an inquisitive journalist and her husband's band hanging
around. There's nothing easy about being the wife of a rock musician.
And as his career is accelerating, it's becoming increasingly difficult
for the twosome -- who have managed to stay together for five years -- to
get any time to themselves.
"Art comes off the road and the phone just starts ringing," Jenny will
tell me later that night. "They're calling from different time zones.
His manager, the record company, the publicist, the press.... I try to
make a nice dinner and then just as we're about to sit down and eat
together the phone is ringing again. It's hard."
Alexakis navigates the Bel Air past the bright yellow house he's about
to buy. "Jenny and I drive by here so much the neighbors probably think
we're casing the area," he laughs. Eklund is riding shotgun; Montoya
and myself are in the back seat.
Next we make a stop for Alexakis to pick up the latest batch of fan
mail that has come in. The letters are arriving in increasing numbers,
25 or more a day now. And they're extremely intense. There's nothing
casual about the fans feelings about this band. "Girls write and ask me
if they should commit suicide or not," says Alexakis. Before starting
the car, he opens one letter that is a take-off on the Gap's recent ad
campaign. "Even junkies wear Khakis," reads the copy. Also enclosed, a
xerox of a topless woman. "They're sending me porn," shouts the band
He takes a certain pride in going against the PC nazi's that have
cropped up seemingly everywhere recently. "None of us do drugs
anymore," he says. "But we do have one vice. We often have lunch at one
of Portland's many strip joints. And you know it's weird, I know quite
a few of the stripers and a lot of them are feminists. I don't get it."
Today, perhaps sensing that frequenting a strip joint isn't exactly
what I'm interested in, we end up at Hamburger Mary's. We commandeer a
booth in the back, order up burgers, salads, and cokes. Now we're doing
the Q&A part of what happens when a journalist hooks up with a rock &
roll band for a few days.
I ask Alexakis where he was born and he mocks me: "Born in Santa
Monica, California. My birth date is 4-12-62. I'm an Aries and I like
Piña Coladas. I like tacos and my favorite color's magenta."
I'm here to try and figure him out, to understand what happened during
the first 33 years of his life, what's made him such a great
songwriter, such a vital artist. And how he managed to survive. I mean
he oughta be dead. As he sang in "13 Years," a song that appeared on
the Colorfinger album, "Every place I go/ It's always the same/ I keep
doing junk / I keep going down/ my mama got religion/ my sisters gave
up/ and I just gave up too/ I just died inside."
He was five when his parents divorced. His dad moved to Florida. "I'd
get a birthday and Christmas card with five bucks in it every year and
that was my dad," he says.
For five years -- until he was 10 -- he lived with his mom in a housing
project. It was one of those experiences that left scars on his psyche.
"I was always treated like an outcast by other kids at school once they
found out where I lived," he says. "Or their parents would find out
where I lived and next think they'd send me home. And I couldn't go to
those kids' houses anymore."
He attributes his stubbornness to his mother. "All of it comes from my
mom," he says. He takes a drink of his Coke. "Tough little hillbilly
woman. She went though a lot of shit. And she was mistreated in life.
Through it all raised us kids. Put a lot of fears and weirdness in us,
but I think brought me up with a real toughness."
His older brother George Paul died in '74. Heroin. His mother overheard
a cop say "just another overdose." Alexakis was 12. "I kind of went off
the deep end. My whole family kind of fell apart."
Then, real casual, as if it don't mean shit, "I got in trouble as a kid
with the police, spent some time in Juvenile Hall."
When, I ask.
He stares at me. "Teenage."
He keeps staring. "Yeah."
He doesn't crack a grin. "Burglary, possession, dealing. Good
all-American clean kid, huh? Assault one time."
He was 14; running with a bad crowd; was acting out; getting high. Then
he got on a rock & roll jag. "I got a guitar and played and played
and played," he says, picking at the salad before him. "I was just a
guitar player for a long time, plus I was doing a lot of drugs.
Cocaine, speed, heroin. To me it was cool to do that. That was my
identity. Drugs. I did drugs. And I didn't like myself enough to think
that I could do anything else, basically."
Yeah, the glamorous life. "Sure. There's gotta be something alluring
about it. I liked the rush and the fact that for a short while, I
escaped. I was good at doing drugs. I really wasn't good at doing
anything else. I really wasn't a good guitar player. I couldn't keep a
job to save my life. I was a fuck-up at everything. I was good at
He hit ground zero in 1984. He was 22. "I overdosed really bad," he
tells me. "I tried to put quarters of a gram of coke in one shot in my
arm. I woke up with the paramedics. About six months later, I started
having anxiety and panic attacks real bad and had to get treatment for
that. That's basically when I just cleaned my life up. Quit smoking,
quit drinking. It was either that or put a gun to my head."
The next three years were spent pulling his life together, studying
film at Santa Monica College and U.C.L.A., working "shitty jobs" and
playing in a few bands. By 1987 it was time to get out of L.A.. He went with
his first wife to San Francisco. "It was cool," he says. "You could
get gigs there."
Eventually, he started both his own indie record label, Shindig
Records, and another band, Colorfinger. He released Deep In the
Heart of the Beast in the Sun in 1990. It is a rather amazing
album. The writing is already there. Songs like "Kill the Sun" (another
song about fighting against addiction) and "13 Years" (about his dead
brother) are pure genius. And one can hear the roots of the Everclear
sound there as well.
He sent the album to, of all people, Capitol Records president Gary
Gersh, who was an A&R man at Geffen Records at the time. "He sent me a
letter saying I think this stuff sounds kind of dated but I think your
voice is cool and I think you write really great songs. Please keep
sending me new stuff. He wrote by hand, 'Gary.' I sent it to him 'cause
he was the guy who had signed Sonic Youth, which I thought was pretty
Colorfinger got a bit of a buzz going in San Francisco, but no major
label deal. And when Rough Trade, the distributor handling Shindig,
went bankrupt, it was time for Alexakis and his new girlfriend Jenny to
leave town. They settled in Portland in 1991. "I moved to Portland
because my life was falling apart, because my record label went under,
my girlfriend's pregnant, my band's falling apart. So I'm going to go
He "worked shitty day jobs when I could" including a short stint at a
glass factory. And he formed Everclear. They recorded the demo in
Alexakis' basement. People liked it. It led to a gig at South By
Southwest, which led in turn to a deal with the indie label Tim Kerr
Records. World of Noise was released in 1993. And on and
on -- good reviews, more buzz -- until major labels were buzzing around.
"Quite a little songwriter, you are," was the vibe Alexakis got from
A&R men. "I talked to all these people in one day and I was so jaded
that I wasn't going to sign with anybody and then I went and met with
Gary Gersh -- actually I met with Perry (the A&R man at Capitol) first.
When I met with Gary, he told me he'd really become enamored with the
record, with the music and my songwriting."
He takes a sip from his Coke, asks what time it is. Motions to me and
Greg and Craig that it's time to move. Jenny is expecting a quiet
dinner with her husband, and if he doesn't get back, there will be hell
to pay. Sensing that I'm confused about the contrast between the angry
young man singing about the dark side, and the family man with young
daughter about to take on a mortgage, he tries to explain: "All I
really ever wanted was just a really normal picket fence type life," he
says. "I never had that. Still. I'll probably never have it. I'm too
weird. Never going to happen."
NERVOUS AND WEIRD NO MORE
Two weeks later, Alexakis stands outside the Bottom of the Hill in San
Francisco, squinting in the afternoon sun. He's only been away from Portland
a few days, but already he's homesick. He shows ATN photographer Jay
Blakesberg, who he's know for years, photos of his daughter and the two
fathers compare notes.
Is he glad to be back in San Francisco, if only for a few days,
"No, it just makes me feel sad to be here," he says. "Reminds me of a
failed marriage and my record company going down in smoke."
He's silent. None of us know what to say. But it's time for a sound
check, so we head into the club, which holds about a 100 people and has
a typically small stage at one end.
Alexakis surveys the place. His crew are still getting the equipment
ready. "You know," he says, "The song 'Strawberry' (about the
temptation of junk) is like my biggest nightmare, falling off the
wagon. I actually was having a bad dream abut that when I was in
Madison recording the album. I was calling Jenny and telling her about
it. I couldn't sleep. I couldn't really articulate what my dream was
about, but I was having anxiety attacks. We'd been in the studio about
a week, and I woke up in the middle of the night and I wrote the song.
It's my biggest fear, and by facing it like that and putting a face on
it I think I deal with it a little bit.
"But if I got high again, if I drank again, if I shot up again, I would
feel like the last ten years was just a total fucking waste," he says,
eyeing the bar across the room like it's a death trap. "I shouldn't
look at it that way, because you should just get up and go from there,
but I would feel like everything good I'd done in the last ten years
just didn't mean anything. I'd feel negated."
He laughs darkly. "It's the feel good song of the album."
It's been ten years, it's behind him, and yet, it's still real, it's
still there. Just a shot away. And he knows it. And he's not going to
let it grab him again, and take hold. He's worked to hard. He's created
a new life. Wife, kid, house, successful rock & roll band.
I ask him about "Heroin Girl."
"The heroin girl wasn't just the girl," he says. "It's the drug. That's
his girl. That's his romance as well. Older people will pick that up.
The kids won't pick that up. They'll take it more literal but that's
He eyes the stage. He's getting tired of talking about himself. "I
create stories and put certain yearnings of mine or experiences of mine
into them. This record is about making your own life and making your
own sparkle. That's what life is about to me. The good things that we
do and the right things we do are the sparkles and the bad things are
Why, since he's given up drugs and drink, did he name the band after a
hard liquor, Everclear, which he himself has described as "pure white
Alexakis smiles; he savors the words: "Pure white evil. That's what I'm
going to call the next record. Because it sounds so benign. My mom is
like, 'Oh, that's a pretty name. Everclear. That's beautiful. That's
He fiddles with his goatee. "I think you get higher off alcohol than
anything else. Even dope doesn't make you lie on the floor in pure
agony. Nothing but alcohol when you overstep your bounds with it, will
make you throw up for three days like Everclear. And I've been there.
And if you're going to have an intense band there's nothing more
intense than that."
It's time for the sound check now; he's got to go. He starts walking
toward the stage, then turns around. "Hey," he says. "I thought it was
a cool name."