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
"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
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
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.