Art Alexakis never imagined that he would actually get to live the dream.
Nearly 30 years after forming Everclear, the singer-songwriter remembers living a life far removed from his later rockstar years. Once it took off, everything happened fast, and he’s been enjoying the ride ever since. Now, he’s about to go on tour with Everclear for the 20th anniversary of Songs From an American Movie, Volume One and reflects on the band’s early years, life after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, his first solo album, and keeping the dream alive.
“I didn’t want to make a rock record,” Alexakis tells American Songwriter. Instead, ‘Sun Songs’, his first solo album — something he’s attempted in the past only to turn efforts into Everclear albums — retains a rawness and simplicity, but with pared down vocals and an acoustic guitar throughout most of its 11 tracks.
It’s not a rock album but more a response to his wife Vanessa Crawford and daughter Arizona Star — he has another daughter, Annabella Rose, from a second marriage — the state of the world, and dealing with a debilitating disease. Last spring, Alexakis revealed on Everclear’s website that he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis nearly four years ago. He first noticed symptoms following a car accident in April of 2016 but believes it’s likely he may have had the disease 10 to 20 years.
In pulling together ‘Sun Songs’, Alexakis touches on MS in “Hot Water Test” matter of factly singing “I’m afraid I will never be the man that I used to be / I’m afraid I will never be the man that I want the world to see when it looks at me.” In some ways, he compares the track to ‘So Much for the Afterglow’ 1997 hit “Father of Mine,” as another song that hit home since he had an absentee dad. “It was cathartic to write it [“Hot Water Test”],” he says. “I write lots of songs, and I wrote poetry and stuff that I don’t put out into the world. If I think it has a universal theme that other people can connect with, then I put it out in the world.”
Deeply personal, nothing is left unturned on ‘Sun Songs’, and Alexakis didn’t pull together tracks on automatic pilot.
“I write when I feel like I need to write — and when I feel like I need to write more than a couple of songs, it’s time to make a record,” he says. “I felt that coming on, but I just didn’t want to make a big, rock record, because we just made a big rock record a couple of years ago [2015’s ‘Black is the New Black’], and it was a lot of fun, and I think it’s one of the best records we ever made.”
Taking full control, Alexakis played what he needed to piece ‘Sun Songs’ together but centered mostly on guitars and vocals. “I wanted to do something different, and I’ve always wanted to do a solo record that was just me, by myself, playing acoustic guitar,” he says. “If it needed drums, I’d play the drums. If it needed anything else, I’d play that. But other than that, it was going to be based on me and an acoustic guitar—and that’s Sun Songs.”
“Sing Away” is Alexakis’ soulful response to the often deadly impact of bullying on children today. “I haven’t lost a child, thank God, to bullying, and shaming, and suicide, but as a parent, I could imagine how it would feel, and that’s why I wrote that song,” he says. Alexakis remembers a recent story he heard about a little boy who was teased because he had to wear a colostomy bag, who later committed suicide. “How do you not want to go kill the world?” he says. “Until you realize that these are children, and these are damaged children, and these are abused children, there’s no black and white bad guys. That’s what that song’s about.”
Named after his daughter, “Arizona Star,” Alexakis says is 100-percent Everclear, specifically in the third and fifth harmonies, while the more uplifting “House with a Pool” taps into Alexakis’ upbringing, growing up in a housing project.
Reflecting more on his upbringing, he remembers growing up in Los Angeles with little hope of living a middle-class lifestyle, much less an American Dream, coming from a broken family, surrounded by drug addiction, and living in poverty.
“I didn’t know what that felt like,” he says. “I had never been successful. I think that was something that helped drive me as far as the music goes. Well, fuck, if I can do that, I can do this.”
When the band first got first approached to get signed, Alexakis says he just tried not to make the same mistakes he saw other people making around him.
“I sat down with my guys and the management, [and] I said, ‘Don’t anybody have the illusion that this is [it], that we’ve made it, that this is success.’ Now the car that we’ve been driving this whole time, now we have a real engine in it—an engine of money, and expertise—and people who know what they’re doing, and people who know people, and all that good stuff, we have a real, bonafide chance.”
A bonafide chance of success is what Everclear had signing with a major label, but he knew it came down to the music. In 1993, Everclear released their debut ‘World of Noise’. The label wanted a single, and Alexakis hadn’t even written “Santa Monica” — the breakout track from ‘Sparkle and Fade’ — when they were signed.
“Unlike most bands, I just wrote a song about comfort zones, and tried to think of where my comfort zones were in life, because I was suffering from anxiety real bad, and living in Portland, just trying to do the right thing, trying to be the guy that my mom raised me to be and all that good stuff,” he said. “At the same time, [I was] just trying to make a living out of playing rock and roll, because that was the dream—not being a rock star.”
When it was time to sign everything turned into a bidding war over the bands, and 27 offers later Alexakis met with the labels and presented what the band wanted in terms of money, and releases. When he asked for total creative control and the ability to produce all his records, the number offers swiftly dropped. “Literally, in like an hour, it went down to 12, and then I think it went down to eight the next week,” says Alexakis. In the end, they had four solid offers, making the decision easier, if only by exclusion.
“I went with Capitol because I felt like they had something to prove, and they have the money to do it, and they didn’t really have, other than The Beastie Boys, anything else that was huge, that was going to become a conflict,” says Alexakis. “Bands that went to where all these other labels and management companies had all these other successful artists in their genre, I thought it was stupid. Dude, you’re going to get buried. You don’t understand how it works.”
It wasn’t so much the rockstar dream Alexakis was after but a strive for that middle-class life that appeared off in the distance during his formative years. “Playing rock and roll, and making a living, and having a wife and kid, and a house, and the picket fence, and all that crap,” he says. “For me, where I grew up in a housing project, that was like two or three castes. That was just two or three levels above what I knew. Anyone who lived in a house was rich — even if it was a shitty house. Compared to what I lived in, that was rich to me.”
This year, Everclear will tour around the 20th anniversary of ‘Songs From American Movie (Vol. 1 and Vol. 2)’ with the band’s current lineup including guitarist Dave French, who joined the band shortly back in 2004, stayed for 2006’s ‘Welcome to the Drama Club’, and rejoined six years ago, along with former Exies bassist Freddy Herrara, who Alexakis has known for 25 years and has been in the band since 2009.
Still open to new Everclear music, Alexakis admits — without naming names — that there are some tracks he would have left off some previous albums. He also always thought that “Heartspark Dollarsign” would be another hit for the band, possibly becoming Everclear’s version of “Teen Spirit.” Alas, it was “Santa Monica” that ended up getting all the radio play.
“Everybody thought ‘Lithium’ or ‘Come As You Are’ was going to be the big hit off ‘Nevermind’,” says Alexakis. “I was like, are you fucking kidding me? The first time I heard it, heard ‘Teen Spirit,’ I’m just like, Holy shit, that is going to tear houses down. That’s going to change the landscape.”
Still, Alexakis is not one to knock the band’s hits and says he is forever grateful for “Santa Monica,” “Father of Mine,” “I’ll Buy You a New Life,” “Everything to Everyone,” “Wonderful,” and “AM Radio.”
After all, they have played a part of his dream.
“All of our really successful songs, I look at those as being blessings,” says Alexakis. “Those were the universe or God or whatever you want to call it working through us at the right place, at the right time, and they made impacts on other people’s lives to the point that they wanted to buy that record.”