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The Press

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 somewhere.'"

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 pocket picked.

"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 understand."

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."


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 it has."

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 in life.

"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.


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 "home."

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 room.

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 his forehead.

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 saying.

"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."


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 leader.

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."

In L.A.?

He keeps staring. "Yeah."

For what?

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 drugs."

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 cool."

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 to Portland."

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."


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, Blakesberg wonders.

"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 OK."

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 fades."

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 evil."

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 pretty.'"

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."