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The High Charting Art of Everclear
Basking in the Afterglow
Guitar Magazine, March 1999

By Dave DiMartino

Should anyone offer you a Yahoo! map bearing directions to the house of Everclear's Art Alexakis, look carefully before taking that last right turn. Why? During the final leg of the journey through Portland's West Hills, the road abruptly stops, drops maybe 100 feet to the base of the very large hill you've just ascended, then continues - and tends to kill you real, real bad if you keep driving.

Such are the hazards of maps based on aerial views - and, for that matter, of believing everything you read without questioning the details. In the case of Portland trio Everclear, there has been a lot to read lately, and likewise, much of it has been deceptive. Fallacy One: So Much for the Afterglow, Everclear's 1997 follow-up to their platinum 1995 debut, Sparkle and Fade, has been any sort of sales disappointment compared with its predecessor. Wrong. At a time when many important new albums have debuted high on the charts and then dribbled down in a a brief series of weeks (i.e., Smashing Pumpkins, Garbage, Hole, R.E.M.), Afterglow has taken that less-conspicuous power-ride, the one most label exectives know brings the ultimate high yield: the mid-chart linger. Since its release, the platinum-selling album has hung on and sold consistenly, bolstered by three successful singles - "Everything to Everyone," "I Will Buy You a New Life," and "Father of Mine" - and a fan base that is decidedly non-fickle and noticeably growing.

In short: The album won't go away.

So, 14 months after Afterglow's release, we are driving to Alexakis' house - located in the very West Hills name-dropped in his "I Will Buy You a New Life," a Portland location that is beautiful, prosperous, and presumably a far cry from the dwellings of the guitarist's much-discussed "Old Life." The house is gorgeous, covered with wood paneling, bearing decks strewn with Christmas lights, and Alexakis strolls out to say hello. In his hands is a just-received batch of color photos taken from the recent video shoot of "One Hit Wonder," which features his band wearing gold lame suits and the participation of renowned game show host Wink Marindale - "very nice, older, prim and proper," the singer later reports. We stroll inside, Alexakis introduces his wife, and we make our way downstairs to the home studio located in the basement, where his new solo album is currently being assembled.

Wearing glasses, looking friendly and businesslike, Art Alexakis seems like one of the brighter rock musicians you might ever encounter. This brings up Fallacy Two: the singer/guitarist, now 36, is a biz-rat, fixated on the trappings of the industry, a little too familiar with lingo like "units moved" and the dreaded "product." True, Alexakis is market savvy, but this is bad? Intelligent, candid discussions about business with musicians of Alexakis' stature are hard to come by - and, as the these things go, refreshing. When I mention Afterglow's bustling chart health, it's obvious the topic has crossed his mind. "I just got the sales for last week from Soundscan," he says, "and we went up again. To 35,700 [for the week]. It's our third best week - and actually it's a higher week than when we debuted."

Two days earlier, Alexakis received Best Modern Rock Artist honors from the Billboard Music Awards. Typically, an artist's appearance on any such network TV special gives a significant boost to an albums' weekly sales; what made Afterglow's sales jump significant, however, is that it happened in the week prior to the televised ceremony.

"Exactly," says Alexakis. "This is a week where your sales are supposed to go down or stay flat. The whole market's down about 17 percent, and we went up 6 1/2 percent - so against the market that's like 23 percent. There were 15 records that debuted ahead of us - because this is the time of year when they drop the big shit, the live albums and the greatest hits, and we stayed the same place on the charts."

We're An American Band

So who is this man who dares to call selling records "exciting" when his peers typically mutter, "That's cool, but who cares?" Together with bassist Craig Montoya and drummer Greg Eklund, Art Alexakis is Everclear - Portland, Oregon's most notable rock band, and a trio whose growth after just three albums has been unfashionably artistic. First came the 1993's indie slab World of Noise, a batch of demos recorded for a measly $400, initially released on Tim/Kerr Records and picked up by Capitol within a year. Next up came the "real" record, 1995's Sparkle and Fade, a noisy affair that bore the genuine hit single "Santa Monica" and went platinum in 1996. With tracks like "Heroin Girl" and a conspicuous Northwest association, the disc seemed yet another successful slice of post-grunge grunge, but one received surprisingly warmly.

And bandleader Alexakis, a singer/songwriter/guitarist a decade older than his rhythm section, came with a colorful past combining romance and tragedy in near-storybook form: bad neighborhoods, drug abuse, detox, rehab, divorce, remarriage, fatherhood. He was an interesting, outspoken character who'd amassed a few naysayers in his own backyard, but wiped them out with the power and appeal of his songs. A colorful figure, Alexakis did something few colorful figures have managed to do in the '90s: He got even better the second time around.

What helped cement his band's appeal, in the eyes of both critics and the record-buying public, was the quality of the songwriting on So Much for the Afterglow. It was a step up, and noticeably so. "Maybe 85-90 percent of the people who reviewed it loved it," recalls Alexakis. "I had a lot of old-time writers who had written us off or hadn't been paying attention to us earlier on who basically came back and said 'I was wrong about this band - I was wrong about this song - and they are a viable, honest-to-goodness American rock band.' And that's all we ever wanted to be - a rock band that did great songs and played great shows and was interesting. And fun to follow."

That Everclear is being followed by more people than ever becomes increasingly evident daily. USA Today recently ran a piece about the success of America Online's "Instant Chatting" technology among teenagers. There in the photo spread was a teenage girl advising her girlfriend to "check out the hot Everclear pix" posted on some nameless fan site. "Oh really?" asks the bemused guitarist. "Talk about working your way into Middle America. I got a call from my management assistant yesterday, and she says, 'You'll never believe what happened - I was watching Jeopardy and a question came up - 'It's pure grain alcohol or a popular rock band.'"

He pauses. "'What is Everclear?' Can you believe that?" You made it, I dutifully note. "Man," he grins. "Alex Trebek is saying my name! Wink Martindale is singing my lyrics!"

The Man With The Plan

Alexakis has plenty of theories regarding his band's success. "I think what we're doing is slowly but surely starting to get across the idea we're not a flash in the pan. I think people really want to accept a rock band that can be more than just the image of somebody brooding. The whole alternative thing - I think a lot of people really want something that can ..." He trails off. "Like the music when we grew up. Music changed from record to record, you know? Sometimes bands did the same thing, but the bands that really made an influence weren't afraid to take chances. The Peter Gabriels, people like that. The record I'm working on now, there's a lot of strings, acoustic guitars, a lot of keyboards - it doesn't sound like Everclear."

Alexakis' solo album, nearly all of it recorded within the very room we're sitting, promises to be interesting, indeed.

"I think what I wanted to do was experiment with different types of colors and different sounds," he says. "I don't know that I couldn't have done this record with Everclear, but it would've been a different-sounding record. It would've sounded like Everclear. I just wanted to do this myself and call all the shots. Plus, I needed something psychologically I could just do by myself - and whether it fails or does well or whatever, I know when it's going to be done that it's going to be great. It's a more mature record - a less rock record."

If this sounds like phase one of a long-term plan to shift into middle-aged singer-songwriterdom, guess again. "One of the things that it has done is it has made me really want to make a rock record," Alexakis says. "I'm going to be one of those guys who'll be in his eighties playing the electric guitar, which doesn't mean I'll be jumping up and down like a bunch of kids, but I'm definitely going to play loud rock and roll, because I just love it so much." He points upstairs. "I was just listening to Chuck Berry today and Little Richard - that stuff is so punk rock to this day, so in-your-face. The way Little Ricard sang, overdriving those old tube parts, just sounds so good."

Still, the need for Alexakis to express himself away from the Everclear context is revealing. That the singer spent his time off the road involuntarily establishing himself as a well-spoken celebrity figure is not insignificant either. I mention his recent appearance on TV's Politically Incorrect. "I was on twice," he notes. So is this the start of yet another career for him - spokesman for a generation, smooth-talking ambassador buying himself his own new life?

"I think it all comes from a place inside where I just don't want people to define me by just one or two different things," he says. "There's a lot more to me than just Everclear. They're younger than me, and they also don't come from the perspective that I do, of being solo for so many years, and that has really made me very driven.

"And being a parent has made me very driven. Once you have a kid, you become very focused: 'All right, I'm not just in this for me.' I could live in a room with a VCR, a TV, a guitar, and a bathroom, you know? I'm a very Zen person, but when you have a family, you need more that that, and you need to provide a really great environment." He looks around his basement studio. "So I have this nice house - and, um, that's cool. But basically I've always been interested in different things. I went to film school, I always wanted to work in film one way or another, and I stuck with music because that was my first love. And that's what I've been doing.

"It's also a young man's thing," he adds. "I never thought I was going to be 32 when I got signed. If someone had told me that, I would've stopped playing guitar when I was 16. It was so hard - but I've wanted to play in a rock and roll band since I was four years old, and I got sidetracked - by drugs, by getting off drugs, by getting married the first time. I got sidetracked - and I made the decision when my daughter was born to really try this. And if it didn't work, to be big enough, grown up enough, man enough - and I don't mean that in a sexist way - but to be man enough and adult enough to say, 'You're just not gonna get it.'"

After The Afterglow

Typically, Alexakis' conversation is filled with references that could only come from a musician settling into adulthood; his musical reference points, his concerns both business and personal, are less about going for the gusto of full-blown rockstardom, and more about achieveing personal happiness and satisfaction. The recent Billboard award, he again notes, meant a lot to him.

"I felt like we were getting respect from the industry that we've earned for a long time but had never gotten before," he says. "And we can't be denied it - because that award is based on record sales, spins, and I think even tour receipts are figured in. It's the whole picture, and it's not based on what's hip and what's cool - it's based on numbers. And the numbers show that this record has defied the sophomore slump, the one-hit wonder ghetto. We need to be taken seriously as an American rock band that has a career. If we want to have a career. If we want to stop tomorrow, we can. But we don't want to."

Again, Alexakis pauses. "I'm 36 going on 37. I can't see myself doing this for that much longer. I feel like I've got, after this solo record, maybe two more good records in me. But hey, man - five years down the line, I might think I've got two more records in me. I'm just saying what I feel now, but I'm not counting on anything. I think too many people (like Mick Jagger) make sweeping statements like, 'I'm not gonna be singing 'Satisfaction' when I'm 40 years old.' Well, brother, you are. And you're way past 40." Alexakis looks over at me and grins. "He goes out with girls who were born when he was 40."

A few hours later, Alexakis emerges from a Portland photo studio, his guitar case in hand, ready to drive back to his house in the West Hills. He opens the back of his Toyota truck, trying to find a place to slide the case amid piles of Christmas presents he's bought for his young daughter. "We have to put them here," he explains. "She knows every hiding place in the house."

As Portland's biggest rock star prepares for his return journey, two female clerks walk out of the photo studio, cameras in hand. One wants to take a picture of Alexakis leaning against an old yellow pickup truck parked on the street. The other asks him if she can take his picture for a local radio station's charity drive. "Sure," he says. Then she asks him to turn around. "Why?" For the charity's calendar, the one featuring "celebrity butt shots." Alexakis turns around, looks skyward - and if the afterglow ever burned in the Portland sky, it is long, long gone at this very moment.