'Clear Unpleasant Danger
Details Magazine, May 1996
By Gavin Edwards
Needles, death, and suicide: Art Alexakis wasted his youth, and it almost
wasted him in return. With alternative extremists Everclear, he's become
grunge's voice of experience.
In Milwaukee, Everclear leader Art Alexakis falls off the wagon. His palms
are sweating and his pupils are dilating. It's not because of heroin, coke,
acid, or speed - all substances that Art wolfed down between the ages of
thirteen and twenty-two, until he went cold turkey twelve years ago. Art's
return to the chemical lifestyle comes courtesy of two bottles of the latest
beverage innovation: Water Joe, caffeinated water. Because the hard drugs
permanently thrashed Art's metabolism, he stays away from even sugar and
aspirin, but he sucked down two bottles of Water Joe by mistake - his first
caffeine in over a decade. He's always effusive, but now even more so.
"Whew, I'm loaded!" he shouts. "Pass the hot dogs and Shasta cola! Get some
cinnamon rolls and we'll hit the strip clubs!"
In truth, Art leads a sedate life, his principal vice being his cellular
phone. At least four times a day, he calls home to Portland, Oregon, to
check on his wife Jenny and their three-year-old daughter Anna. Meanwhile,
after seventeen months of near-continuous touring around Everclear's second
album, Sparkle and Fade, the band are playing sold-out shows - which delights
and surprises them. The fans may have been hooked by MTV's relentless play
of the "Santa Monica" video, wherein Art frolics on the beach with bassist
Craig Montoya and drummer Greg Eklund, playing a more swinging version of
the usual Northwestern thrash, singing about his longing for a failed
relationship. The video features Art arguing with a girlfriend in a spat
that seems to have a violent edge, but the music has a classic stuttering
groove and even '70's-style guitar fills. Here and elsewhere on the now-gold
Sparkle and Fade, Art draws from his own life to populate his own songs:
drug addicts, girls with pierced nipples, people who dream of escaping their
miserable lives. The result is emotional, but more nuanced than the usual
purge-and-howl routine. Something in the songs has an unerring ring of
Everclear's dressing room at Milwaukee's Marquette University has cold cuts
but no bread, so they steal the loaf in opening-act No Doubt's dressing
room. Greg says, "I don't think No Doubt are a sandwich kind of band." Greg
started drumming at age eleven. He was a navy brat living in England; when
Adam Ant came on Top of the Pops, Greg grabbed his mother's wooden knitting
needles and pounded out a rhythm, smashing them to bits. Two years ago he
heard that Everclear had fired their first drummer - he found Art's number,
auditioned, and joined the band that same day.
Greg was moved by the song "Queen of the Air," where Art sings about an aunt
he never knew, who killed herself when he was a child - and his discovery that
she was really his mother. Greg barely knew his bandmates' last names, so he
couldn't ask Art about his dead mother. Eventually he summoned up the
courage. "Man, it's just a story," Art told him. Greg never asked about the
In fact, Art was brought up by his (still living) mother in the housing
projects of Culver City, California, along with a brother and three
sisters - his mother had left his father after a fight, and his dad wasn't
around. Art remembers a friendly ice-cream man who would drive through the
neighborhood and sometimes toss you a free bar if you didn't have enough
money to buy one. It turned out that he was also dealing heroin, and Art's
older brother George was the connection who distributed it through the
George OD'd, and a devastated Art stepped into his shoes, using and dealing
a kaleidoscope of drugs. Things went downhill: After a girlfriend overdosed
a year later, Art tried to commit suicide by jumping off the Santa Monica
Pier, his pockets filled with sand. Underwater, he heard George's voice
telling him to swim, so he did. Some might call it an angel. Art just thinks
it was his speed-addled brain.
While Art will share his horror stories - like the time he woke up from a
blackout to find himself behind the wheel, swerving all over the highway
with cars scattering in front of him - lately he worries that his music might
be overshadowed by the tales of his lost decade. It ended when, aged
twenty-two, he shot up cocaine and had a OD of his very own. But Art
survived, and soon afterward he quit everything, cold turkey. No
twelve-stepping: "I'm not a joiner."
Art bounced around the West Coast and ended up in San Francisco, where he
had a band (Colorfinger) and an indie label (Shindig). Both soon went
belly-up. He had been dating Jenny for only eight months when she got
pregnant in October of 1991; they moved to Portland (her hometown), and Art
decided to give music one last try.
He recruited Everclear's first drummer, Scott Cuthbert, and bassist Craig
Montoya. Craig, a former metalhead and BMX racer, grew up in Spokane,
Washington, and dealt drugs during his teens. When he was seventeen, the
cops raided his house. Luckily he wasn't home. But when he spent a couple of
days in jail on a DWI, he decided he never wanted to return. He got a job
washing boats and then moved to Portland with his band Soul Hammer. When
they split, he phoned Art, who talked so loud and fast about his plans for
Everclear that Craig had to hold the receiver a foot away from his ear.
ART: "Can you use 'MIASMA' in a sentence?"
GREG: "I can't breathe because miasma's killing me."
Around ten o'clock the morning after the Milwaukee show, Everclear and their
crew get on the bus for the short drive to Chicago. They instruct Biscuit,
the driver, to tell the toll collectors that he's carrying Reba McEntire.
Art retreats to the bus's back room, where he works on some new songs. He's
the band's paternal mastermind - thirty-four years old, he calls Greg
(twenty-six) and Craig (twenty-five) his "boys." Art exudes confidence that
might border on arrogance were he not so friendly, and his conversation is
littered with terms like "going for adds" (trying for radio-station
airplay), "merch" (T-shirts), and "blowoff" (the shirts sold after the
show). "I know more about the business than a lot of the kids at my record
company," he says.
That evening, the band head to the studios of JBTV, a local rock-video show.
They're introducing videos, and they get loose and goofy. As usual, Art
steps into the spotlight, but uses it to speculate about Craig's romantic
pursuit of MTV's Kennedy - Craig insists they're just friends who like to
snowboard. The JBTV host tries to egg them on, but Art cuts him off: "We
don't squabble anymore. We're so big now, we can pay people to squabble for
Art has something he wants to tell me. We go and sit in his private room at
the back of the parked tour bus. Subdued and clearly nervous, he starts
talking about 1993, when he and Jenny were going through hard times. The
band was struggling, Art was always on the road, and he'd been fined for
cheating on public assistance. They had both been unfaithful, and Art found
out about Jenny's lapse after he returned from a tour. Jenny threatened to
leave him and take Anna with her. Summoning up a horrible memory, Art lets
the words spill out in one long sentence: "We got into a physical
confrontation where we actually started fighting and I bruised her on the
arm and pulled her hair and it was basically abuse - I had never done that
before - and I called the cops and she called the cops and I went to jail."
Art cried for three days when he got out. He almost jumped off a bridge, but
didn't want to leave Anna fatherless. At the urging of the D.A., Jenny
pressed assault charges - as a first time offender, Art was offered probation
and a twenty-four-week course in anger management. While in therapy, he
remembered an incident when his father hit his mother.
Art often speaks of wanting to break the destructive cycles in his family.
The course, and the band's success too, have helped him to control his
Neanderthal tendencies. But he still has to live with the knowledge that he
threw Jenny around in front of their baby daughter, and that some people in
Portland already know about the arrest - Everclear had to cancel a show the
night Art was in jail. He doesn't want to be judged on the basis of one
outburst, but he knows that is he doesn't talk about it, somebody else will.
He gives me Jenny's number and suggests that I hear her perspective.
Jenny is assertive yet clear about the growing lack of privacy in her
marriage. "Both of us were very abusive, physically and mentally," she says.
"With the accent on both of us." From her side, the story's happy ending is
evident in how she and Art were able to change and work past their abuse:
Sixteen months after Art got arrested, they were married. She guarantees
that if Art did something terrible to her, she would never cover up for
him - and I believe her.
Wearing a Milli Vanilli T-shirt and black jeans, Art strolls onto the stage
at the Metro Club in Chicago and plays a solo version of the heroin
codependency ballad "Strawberry." Already, the audience is singing along
with every word. And when the full band launches into "Electra Made Me
Blind," the crowd mosh like they're standing on a skillet. Everclear reply
by pulling out all their stage tricks: Craig jumps off the drum riser, Art
falls to his knees during a guitar solo, and Greg sticks out his tongue
like he's Michael Jordan driving to the basket.
They play without a set list. Several songs in, Art calls for "Fire Maple
Song," from Everclear's first album, World of Noise. The recorded version is
fairly quiet, almost a hymn in memory of Art's dead brother George. "Turn
away from the pain you don't want," Art sings, but he doesn't take his own
advice. His agonies provide the fuel for his incandescent songs. So tonight,
Everclear grab hold of the riff and keep stomping on it. Art slams his body
into Craig's and they almost topple a tower of speakers. They finish the
show with a cover of Tom Petty's "American Girl" and retreat,
sweaty and happy.
Afterward, the band sign autographs for an hour. Some of the group and crew
go out drinking, but not Art - he heads back to the hotel to call Jenny.