Everclear’s Art Alexakis Talks the High Highs and Low Lows of His Musical Life

Photo by Ashley Osborn, courtesy Press Here Publicity

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Art Alexakis, the frontman for the uber-successful rock band Everclear, would hear the story repeated to him often. His family would remind Alexakis about the time when he was just 18-months old and in the front seat of his parent’s car as they drove up the Pacific Coast Highway. The song, “Wipe Out,” came on, rich with the big opening drum roll. This was before car seats and seatbelts, sometime around 1963 or 1964. And at that moment Alexakis began to wild out, moving and gyrating in the front of the car, possessed by the track.

It was so overwhelming that his father turned the song off because it was hard for him to drive with his son moving so much up there. But Alexakis began to scream, wanting it back on. So, his father pulled the car over, put it back on the radio, and when it concluded, Alexakis fell into his mother’s lap as his father finally drove back onto the highway. In other words, Alexakis has always had a relationship with music. So, today, celebrating his band’s origins and its debut record, World of Noise, which came out some 30 years ago, with a new tour this summer makes complete sense.

“I fell in love with music and rock and roll,” Alexakis says simply.

He also remembers another occasion early on. He was about three years old at the time then. He recalls his parents putting him to bed one night around 8 o’clock on a Sunday. His parents would turn on The Ed Sullivan Show and watch it “with their cool haircuts” while drinking martinis. But that night, Alexakis snuck out of his room to see what was on television. He remembers seeing a rock band and the music caused him to “freak out” again. He ran to the television and just began dancing.

“My parents were laughing,” he says. “But I knew right then and there as my mom took me to bed that that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to do that. And it’s never really changed.”

As he got older, Alexakis fell in love with 1970s AM radio and what could be done with a three-minute song. Listening to music provided some of the happiest times of his young life. But his life would see many difficulties and hardships, as well. For example, Alexakis’ 21-year-old brother would later die of a drug overdose when he was just 12 years old. Alexakis’ brother had a nylon string Spanish guitar that Alexakis then inherited “because no one else wanted it.” At the time, his family was living in a housing project. They were poor. But the nearby rec center offered guitar lessons.

“Friends at school would be complaining about piano lessons,” the future frontman says. “I was like, ‘Let me go.’ I was just trying to be involved in music.”

Luckily for him, his mother bought him eight guitar lessons, at $5 each. This was around 1976, he says. With it, his mother said that if he could play a song for her by the time the initial set of lessons were done, she’d buy him an electric guitar. He obliged and she later purchased him a $40 electric from a pawn shop and “some cheap-ass” $20 amp to go with it. Alexakis began to “ruin” his records, learning how to play the instrument. One such messed up vinyl was Led Zeppelin I, which he would play, then move the needle and listen to again, trying to pick up what Jimmy Page was up to.

“I’m of a certain age,” the now-60-year-old musician says. “Any guy my age knows what I’m talking about. Trying to learn it by going back, like, ‘Oh, fuck.’ Taking the needle back and forth. Yeah, you just totally fuckin up your records. It was worth it.”

As time passed, life got harder for Alexakis. Today, he acknowledges that he’s both an addict and an alcoholic. He’s been sober for nearly 33 years (this June). But as a teenager, life was almost impossible. His father abandoned his family (as he sings about in one of Everclear’s hit songs). He was beaten and raped when he was eight years old, he says. His brother died from that overdose.

“I remember tasting beer for the first time when I was, like, three,” he says. “It tasted like fucking candy. When I tasted tequila when I was six, it tasted like candy. It burned but I liked the burn. The buzz made me feel normal. It was the only time I felt normal in my life.”

He began drinking and smoking marijuana around eight years old. He began dealing drugs at 12. He was taking acid and shooting speed by 13 or 14, he says. He almost died from an overdose, himself, in 1984 when he was just 22. After that, he gave up hard drugs but kept drinking. But he also began writing songs of his own. He’d already been playing in bands, but that’s when writing took hold. He’d always loved songs and songwriters. Now, he was trying it for his own. He wrote autobiographical songs, songs that took pieces of his life and songs that were entirely fictional.

“As I became clean and sober,” he says, “my sobriety was a big part of my life. I would write about it.”

The story of Everclear begins, in a way, in San Francisco. Alexakis was living there, playing music. He’d started his own small label, too. Everclear hadn’t yet begun, but the seeds of it were planted. He was touring a lot and one place where he’d stopped was Portland, Oregon. He met a girl there who worked at a record store. They had a long-distance thing going and she eventually moved to San Fran. She later got pregnant and the two decided to move north to the Pacific Northwest in Portland.

“My next band was going to be my last band,” Alexakis says.

He named that next band Everclear (after very strong grain alcohol). This was around 1991. His daughter was born in 1992 when Alexakis was 30. Now, with a new baby, he needed to earn a living. But Everclear in its early stages “kind of sucked,” he says today. The band struggled to get gigs. But eventually he had the opportunity to record. So, he laid down a dozen songs that he and the band had at the time for $400 in a basement studio on a little eight-track and he listened to what they had.

“It’s different,” he says, “recorded music as opposed to live. I wanted to see if it had anything to it. And it did.”

Alexakis sent the newly recorded LP to people at SXSW. They got back to him quickly and offered him a showcase. Then, as the band drove from Oregon to Texas, he sent out more albums and press information. Soon, lots of newspapers and music outlets were writing about the fledgling Everclear. Soon, the band got bigger and bigger. It kept touring. Eventually, they signed to Capitol Records in June of 1994. He was a new dad and if Everclear hadn’t worked out, he was resigned to move to Los Angeles and work in the music business elsewhere, perhaps as a songwriter for other groups. Now, though, his dream had come to fruition.

“Every song we had [I put on World of Noise],” he says. “I put them in order and it sounded like a record.”

The album’s title came, in part, because of Alexakis’ amp, which was so old at the time that it would spark blue flames when the tubes got too hot. The amp would squeal and scream. That led to the phrase, world of noise. Since then, Everclear has put out 11 studio albums, four of which have gone Gold or Platinum. They’ve sold six million records and accrued 12 top 40 hits. It’s been quite the ride since it began 30 years ago. And the recent anniversary caused Alexakis to go back and listen to those original World of Noise recordings. He remains “immensely proud” of them.

“In real-time [back then],” he says, “I kind of put blinders on. It was 1992-93 and I’m barely three or four years sober. I had learned how to compartmentalize and just really put blinders on—as all this was happening, as my career was unfolding and the successes kept coming, I didn’t give myself a chance to really enjoy it.”

Instead, Alexakis kept his eyes on what was next. He even told his young daughter at the time not to use the term “rock star.” He didn’t want to think about the present. It was all next, next, next. Today, though, after all that success, Alexakis has new perspective. He’s not as angry or angsty as he was then. He recently turned 60 in April. He’s also recently been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an ailment that, in many ways, he says he’s grateful for today for the spiritual strength and perspective it gives him. These days, he works out a lot, eats right. He’s set for a long tour to celebrate World of Noise. Still, he endures pain and balance issues. He goes to physical therapy. He swims several times a week, and goes hiking with his wife.

“I fucking hate hiking,” he says, with a laugh. “But I love my wife.”

He’s come a long way from the housing projects and the bullying he endured as a skinny kid growing up without his father. He’s even recently gone back to school to get a degree in psychology. He’s embracing what’s ahead while appreciating what he’s done and where he is. He’s okay even with the specter of M.S. looming. And he owes a great deal of that to his deep desire and appreciation for music, which he’s had since “Wipe Out” hit his family’s car radio.

“I think music is the closest thing to magic that we have in this world,” Alexakis says. “That kind of energy and power is the best drug I’ve ever had in my life and I’ve had them all.”

Photo by Ashley Osborn / Press Here Publicity

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