Takin' Care of Business
Guitar World, November 1997
By Greg Kot
Trying to hold a conversation with Everclear's Art Alexakis is like
talking to two people. There's the Alexakis who speaks with emotion of
the pain he feels after writing a song he is certain his father will
hate. And then there's the Alexakis who, in the clipped tones of
financial consultant, recounts how a bad marketing move cost him sales
and chart momentum on the last Everclear album - which sold more than a
million copies, anyway.
It's unusual to find someone so passionate and informed on both
making music and the business of music making, but Alexakis has been
through the ringer enough times to appreciate the meaning of the term
"starving artist," and has a keen desire not to reacquaint himself with
it first-hand. At age 36, he's young enough to count punk as a major
influence, but old enough to remember the heyday of Seventies corporate
rock, and his music and career incorporate the lessons of both eras.
Alexakis, who grew up in a broken home near Los Angeles, was a heroin
junkie as a teenager before kicking the addiction in his early twenties.
In 1984 he moved to San Francisco where, clean for the first time since
boyhood, he threw himself into music; he formed a pop-punk band Colorfinger
(which authored such sarcastic ditties as "Kill Jerry Garcia") and launched
the Shindig record label.
When both ventures collapsed, Alexakis moved to Portland, Oregon, in
1991 and recruited the first incarnation of Everclear through personal ads.
The trio quickly became a big local draw with its fierce performances and
recorded a demo for $400, which turned into their debut album, World of
Noise, for the Tim/Kerr label. Capitol Records signed Everclear in
1994, and the Sparkle and Fade album rode massive hits in "Heroin
Girl" and "Santa Monica" to Platinum-plus sales.
With bassist Craig Montoya and drummer Greg Eklund, Alexakis cushions
the punk assault of his earlier releases with more textured production on
Everclear's latest, So Much For The Afterglow. The deeply troubled
voice of past Everclear rants is still much in evidence, especially on such
searing anthems as "Father of Mine" and the "hidden" track that closes the
disc, a bilious anti-Christmas carol. But there's also a more nuanced touch
evident in the sumptuous vocal intro to the title song, the countryish
accents of "Why I Don't Believe in God," the string drenched fade of
"Amphetamine" and the conversational back-porch sway of "I Will Buy You a
Despite more than a year spent on the road in support of Sparkle
and Fade, and a heavy touring schedule in the works for So Much For
The Afterglow, Alexakis makes his five-year-old daughter Anna and wife
Jenny his top priority. His family and his band grew up together; Everclear
had its first rehearsal the same week Anna was born.
Songwriter, singer, guitarist, producer, co-manager and primary
spokesman for his band, Alexakis has little time for luxuries such as
sleep. He's up at 8 a.m. taking phone calls - "I'm a daddy, so I'm up
early every morning," he says. And just as his songs rarely indulge in
ambiguity and cryptic metaphors, Alexakis comes across as a straight
shooter in conversation.
Guitar World: When I first heard So Much For The Afterglow,
the opening vocal harmonies made me wonder whether I had picked up a Beach
Boys record by mistake. Was the homage intentional?
Art Alexakis: Totally. I had in my head this Pet Sounds
thing. This is a pop record. I always wanted to do a pop record, because
I'm an old fucker. I grew up with AM radio and I wanted to make a more
diverse record that would sound to the listener like one of those Top-40
stations - some soulful stuff, some country indulgence, some instrumentals.
Being on tour for a year before we recorded, I listened to a lot of
music. And I listened to what was hot and new, but it didn't really stick
with me. So I found myself turning to a lot of Elvis Costello, Beach Boys,
Beatles, Public Enemy, the early Pixies records - all the stuff I'd grown
up with. I had lots of Sixties and Seventies stuff, these 10-CD collections
of pop hits. I think all that had a big influence on this record.
Production-wise, it's a very lush record. That Beach Boys vocal part was
just another texture, along with the strings, the horns on "One Hit
Wonder," the keyboards that are all over the record and a wealth of
vocals with all of us singing. Then I brought Andy Wallace in to mix it,
because I still wanted an edge to it.
GW: Which is where the dark lyrics come in.
Alexakis: When you meet me, you think I'm a relatively nice,
happy guy - at least I would like to think people perceive me in that
way. But underneath I'm a pretty crazy maniac depressive. The lyrics are
gonna be dark and depressing. If you want happy songs, by all means, go
buy a Spice Girls record.
GW: You finished this record once, but weren't satisfied. What
Alexakis: This record started in November and I mixed it in
February. Then I scrapped half the songs. I played it for the record
company, and we thought it was pretty good, but not great. My A&R guy
said, "You're right, you can push yourself a lot harder." I asked for more
money to go back and record more, because I had new songs that I thought
were better, and I knew I could go back and make a great album. And they
said, "Do it."
GW: This is a long way from the $400 punk-rock record you recorded
in your basement when the band first formed.
Alexakis: That record would have been more diverse if I'd had
the chance. There are still people who say it's the best thing we've ever
done, but I don't think so. That was a demo, and it really shows how fucked
I was and where we were at musically. I had one guitar, one amp - a Fender
Super Twin, a weird amp from the Seventies - and I couldn't afford new
tubes. I'd play for like five minutes and get this blue lightning thing
coming out of the tubes. They'd start smoking and I'd have to turn the
amp off. I was at the stage where I literally had no money to buy a matched
set of tubes. That's like $120, and I didn't have it - considering that was
a quarter of my recording budget. [laughs]
GW: There are a few more guitar layers on So Much For
Alexakis: Oh, yeah. It's kind of sick how many guitar tracks
are on some songs. I'm a little embarrassed - there are probably 20 guitars
on "California King." My group calls my guitar collection the
"guitar-senal." I used Mesa amps and seven or eight different guitars,
but I primarily use three: a Les Paul gold top, which I used a lot on
Sparkle and Fade; a Gibson EDS-1275 double neck, the Jimmy Page
model, on which I played the 12-string a lot; and an Eighties Gibson
Explorer, for the high and mid-range bite. Then I added stuff like banjo,
mandolin, and steel guitar.
GW: Lots and lots of guitars, but not many solos. What's your
attitude toward the guitar as a solo instrument?
Alexakis: The guitar is what I write on, and anything I do is
gonna be guitar rock. I'm learning the keyboards now, and I would like
to incorporate more acoustic keyboards and electronic keyboards. I'll
never stray very far from guitar, though. But if you're gonna play a solo,
it's gotta fit the song. I try to keep them either very melodic or dissonant.
On this record, I played more bluesy, soulful type stuff in the middle
of "Father of Mine" and some country licks on "I Will Buy You a New Life."
To me the song is God. You use whatever textures and whatever confidence
you have as a musician to make the song realize itself. If that means you
don't use guitar solos, don't use guitar solos. For the most part, they are
pretty gratuitous and masturbatory.
GW: What guitarists influenced that attitude?
Alexakis: I loved Jimmy Page's guitar playing because he didn't
play long solos. He played licks, and these little 16-bar leads that
etched themselves into your memory. Put him up next to one of those
hard-core studio guys and he'd sound too sloppy. He moves around the edges,
but I've always been attracted to guitar players like that, the Neil Youngs,
who use creativity over technical prowess, even though I appreciate
GW: You've also given the Pixies' Joey Santiago his due.
Alexakis: If you listen to music recently, including Nirvana,
he's influenced a lot of it. He's influenced by the Sonic Youth school,
but instead of working more in an art-guitar situation, he applied it to
twisted pop songs. He could be so melodic and yet so dissonant. That first
Pixies record, it was like, "What's he doing? He can't do that!"
But there are no rules. Why can't he do that?
GW: There are a few songs on the album that take a less than
fond look at the record industry like "One Hit Wonder"and "California
King." Is that a reflection of your own jaded attitude?
Alexakis: "One Hit Wonder" comes from a lot of Seventies bands
who came out with one song and weren't heard from again. I think the
Nineties have given rise to this Seventies phenomenon. It's also a
commentary on the entertainment industry and the idea that you can't
get hurt unless you let them hurt you.
GW: Is that how you dealt with some of the backbiting in the
Alexakis: Locally, I've had my share of bad press. When you're
the first to break out of a small scene, you're bigger than everybody else,
so you're easier to throw rocks at. We made a decision early on to not let
it affect us. The only time it got personal was when they brought my
family into it, which I think is really bad journalism. If you ever deal
with the British press, it has nothing to do with the music and everything
to do with personality. It's just a lesson I learned: If people who fuck
with you don't matter to you, then what they say about you doesn't matter.
It's just words.
GW: Have you considered moving out of Portland because of
Alexakis: My daughter was born here and I want her to grow
up here. My priorities come second to her's. My wife is also from here.
I'm from L.A., and I used to hate it, but now I feel comfortable there.
I'm not totally anonymous there, but kids are a lot less intense about
it than they are here because they see celebrities all the time. "Yeah,
Paul Newman comes in where I work all the time." Here, kids are like, "I
can't believe I'm talking to you." And I'm like, "Why? I live in Portland.
I'm at a fucking grocery store, and I'm buying toilet paper." "Will you
sign that?" "No, I need it just like everybody else. I need to take it
home. Lighten up." Other people coming out of the Portland scene, like
Meredith Brooks and the Dandy Warhols, can be rock stars. I don't want
to be. I would love to be able to walk down the street with my daughter
and just fade. But it's not gonna happen any time soon. All I wanted was
the acceptance of my peers, people I respect, and to make a living from
playing music. And I've been very blessed. With the good you take the
bad - don't get me wrong, I wouldn't change it for the world. But it
would be nice to go to dinner with my wife and not have the waiter go,
"The guys in the kitchen would like you to sign this napkin."
GW: You have a reputation for taking a hands-on approach with
everything, not only writing and producing the records, but overseeing
the business side of the band. Do you ever consider delegating some of
Alexakis: I think all artists should co-manage their bands.
My manager does everything I need him to do, but we talk about every
decision. And if it involves the band, we talk to them about it. But I
basically make every decision, and I couldn't imagine doing it any other
way, because if I'm wrong I can live with that and learn from that. But
if someone else is wrong, I can't live with that. Because the "what
ifs?" just fuck with me too much.
But just me saying, "Here, I'm too busy, you guys take care of this,"
then it gets fucked up. At times I have let other people, even the band,
make decisions over what I thought was best, and it has not worked for
the best. And they've acknowledged it. Basically, on the "Heartspark
Dollarsign" video [from Sparkle and Fade], I didn't want to use
[Kids movie director] Larry Clark, and they did. They hadn't seen
Kids and I had, and I didn't think it was the way to go. Capitol
was like, "He's famous, MTV will love it." And I'm saying, "I don't think
they're going to love this. He's great at what he does, but I don't think
it's gonna translate to the MTV generation." And I was right.
I thought we should have gone with this unknown kid who wrote a great
treatment. I thought it would have been more of a poignant West Side
Story-type video, which would have made the song happen a lot more
than it did. It did well on the alternative and rock radio charts, but
it didn't follow up "Santa Monica" like it should have. Everyone in the
industry thought that would be a slam-dunk single, and I think that if
the video had been there, it would have happened. Plus we pushed it too
soon after "Santa Monica", which was still Top 20. That song still won't
GW: "Father of Mine" is the emotional centerpiece of the
album, but I can't imagine it was easy to write - a father coming to
terms with his father's failures.
Alexakis: I did the song, then I got away from the record for
about three weeks after I mastered it. Then I listened to it again, like
a new album, you know? And listening to "Father of Mine" and "Why I Don't
Believe In God," I started to cry. It's autobiographal, but I wouldn't have
put it on the record if I didn't think other people could relate to it. All
these themes are universal, even though it might be a small universe. A lot
of people have issues with fathers, because a lot of men are dogs. I was a
lot cooler with my dad until I had a child and I saw what it really takes
to be a father, emotionally, to be a role model and to learn to walk that
line. And he just wasn't it. He didn't do it. Now he wants to be my buddy,
and I could give a shit. I do want to make peace with my dad, and I will,
but he's not gonna like this song. I don't think a lot of fathers will.
GW: The record also addresses coming to terms with the mundane,
which is what we're left with once the "afterglow" fades.
Alexakis:The scariest thing is not necessarily the bad things
that happen, but the people who get stuck in such a mundane rut that they
secretly wish bad things would happen - to have anything happen. Things
are going so well with the economy, crime is down, but then you have these
lunatic fringe things happening, like kids blowing away their families.
Is our success at making a society work taking away our sanity? There's
a line on the album that says, "I guess the honeymoon is over." And
one of the T-shirts we're gonna have on tour is a picture of a palm tree,
which was a symbol from the last tour, when we had big inflatable palm
trees that went in with the "escape from Santa Monica" theme. The shirt
will have a nice palm tree minding its own business, inside a circle and
a slash, and in small type beneath it, "I guess the honeymoon's over."
GW: Who would have thought: dark, nasty Everclear with a sense
Alexakis: Once in a while you have to poke fun at yourself
because, let's face it, it's rock and roll. Who's gonna give a shit 20
years from now?All I want is to write and produce rock songs that I will
enjoy singing when I'm 50 or 60 or 70 - not necessarily singing them for
anyone else other than myself or my grandkids. I think that's what it's