“First of all, I wanted to talk a little bit about the new album,” Everclear’s Art Alexakis hears on the other side of a phone. “I had a chance to listen to it and it’s great. I really, really like it. So, I was wondering what went into it and how it came about.”
“OK, cool,” the band leader responds before continuing in earnest. “Can I ask you a question, though, in all honesty?” he says. “If you didn’t like it … would you tell me?”
Laughter breaks out. Half uncomfortable. Half playful.
“‘You know, I listened to it, man, and wow, I just don’t fucking get where you’re at, dude,'” Alexakis continues sarcastically, chuckling to himself now, offering up an example of what could have been said. “I’m not accusing you of being disingenuous, but you know what I mean. It’s just really funny.”
He then gets himself together for a moment of sincerity.
“I appreciate you saying that.”
It’s true, though. His band’s latest set, Black Is The New Black, is a bit of a return to form. Heavy guitar riffs that play just as well on pop radio as they do on anything under an “alternative” name tag. An endearing repetitiveness that forces each harmony to get in your head and stay there. And a hunger within Alexakis’ voice that hasn’t felt this exciting since the band’s mid-1990s heyday.
You remember those days, right? First, there was “Santa Monica”, which broke Everclear onto mainstream rock radio. But then came “I Will Buy You A New Life”. And “Everything To Everyone”. And “Father Of Mine”. And “Wonderful”. And “A.M. Radio”. And on and on and on and on. 1997’s So Much For The Afterglow, the hit-filled record that essentially proved the band could outrun the one-hit wonder perception so many bestowed upon them, sold a boatload of copies and launched the group onto such Billboard charts as The Hot 100, Top 40 Mainstream and, of course, the ever-lauded Adult Top 40.
But then, some would argue, the band’s ambition got in the way of practicality. In July 2000, they released Songs From An American Movie Vol. One: Learning How To Smile, which sold more than a million copies and spawned the aforementioned “Wonderful” and “A.M. Radio”. The problem? No more than five months later, in November of the same year, they released Songs From An American Movie Vol. Two: Good Time for a Bad Attitude. The gimmick proved to be too much too soon as single “When It All Goes Wrong Again” was just a bit too hard-edged to cross over and a cover of Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl” failed to connect. Vol. One would be the last time an Everclear record would reach Gold status.
From there, they would release 2003’s Slow Motion Daydream, which for some marked the end of an era as it would be the first Everclear record on which longtime members Craig Montoya and Greg Eklund were not featured. Alexakis was eventually faced with a decision: Embark on a solo career bearing his own name or bring the Everclear name back with a new lineup. He chose the latter, which today, he says, ultimately worked out better than he could have ever imagined.
“I’m a little more open to stuff now — other people’s ideas,” the singer explains while reflecting on Black Is The New Black. “Back in the old days of Everclear, that was all me. I’d tell those guys what to play. And I’m not like that anymore and I think it’s made a better record. I know a lot of people will think I’m crazy for saying this, but I think it’s the best record that’s ever been an Everclear record. I think it’s the best sounding record. We went in to make a rock album. That’s what I wanted to make. A balls-out rock album.
“You listen to it, there’s no real ballads on it,” Alexis continues. “A couple songs are a little slower, but they’re not ballads, you know? There’s no ‘I Will Buy You A New Life’ on this record. There’s no ‘Wonderful’ on this record. There’s no ‘Na Na Na’ on this record. This is getting back to the fire in my belly, that angry, misfit kid that’s still inside of me that loves hard rock, punk rock and big guitars.”
He’s not wrong. Take a song like lead single “The Man Who Broke His Own Heart”. Backed by a thundering drum beat and aggressive guitars that rock so much more than they roll, the frontman introduces himself with lines like, “I know you want to be my almost-instant karma,” and “I know you want to be the one that made me pay” before ultimately revealing the he, indeed, is the man who broke his own heart. It’s a clever form of self-reflection turned up as loud as mid-90s alternative rock ever sounded.
Then there’s “American Monster” and “Anything Is Better Than This”, which both recall the band’s World Of Noise era, when pushing forward with tempo was a clear priority. It’s an angst many might have believed could never return to the Everclear formula, but the singer prided himself on creating his own form of renaissance when getting in the studio for the sessions that paint Black. Having produced every prior Everclear album, this marked the first time he allowed other perspectives to have the same authority for a project.
“I co-produced it with these two kids, and when I say kids, I mean guys in their 20s and early 30s, which just kind of dates me a little bit,” he says. “I had just wanted to make a big rock record. The record we made before this was called Invisible Stars and we did that with a very little budget. ‘Oh, I made some money from this show, let’s go record the vocals and mix two songs. Oh, we have some time here, why don’t we go and record some songs?’ That’s kind of how that album was put together.
“This album, I saved money,” the singer eventually counters. “I had enough money to go in and plan this. I went and met with producers because I wanted to add a contemporary rock edge to an old school Everclear rock record. Just from the sound of the instruments, the way it was mixed, I wanted it to sound contemporary but classic at the same time. I wanted to kind of walk that line.”
So, as the frontman tells it, he became friendly with the current lineup of the band Live during 2013’s Summerland tour. Chad Taylor, Live’s guitarist, told Alexakis about a studio the band built in York, Pennsylvania, and there were two guys helping out engineering Live’s next record, The Turn. The singer eventually took a meeting with Carson Slovak and Grant McFarland, the engineers in question, and everyone hit it off.
So much so, actually, that the bandleader agreed to start demoing songs, something he says he’s never done before. Those demos would ultimately make up what can be heard on Black Is The New Black. There were even some elements of the initial “The Man Who Broke His Own Heart” sessions that made the version heard now on the album. The decision to work out new songs in such a manner, Alexakis sending them across the country to the rest of his band, having them add their own ideas to the structures, proved fruitful for not only the singer as an artist, but also the band as a unit.
The current version of Everclear has been together for three full albums now, he notes, and two of the guys have been on the last four records. Or, in other words, it’s not just The Art Alexakis Show with moving parts that can be plugged in whenever he sees fit. In fact, some musicians in the current lineup have been in the group almost as long as the guys who filled out what some consider the band’s classic lineup, which featured Montoya and Eklund. Creating that sense of collaboration came naturally this time around, the leader admits, and the end result was far better served because of it.
“The three of us recorded it in 10 days,” Alexakis says, “and then Davey (French, lead guitar) flew in for about a week and played a bunch of lead guitar and vocals and just took the record to a place where it was just awesome. Then Josh (Crawley, keyboards) came in and played a few keyboards here and there, sang some background vocals. We walked out in May with a finished record and I listened to it all summer. Then we wrote another couple songs, went in and recorded them. Remixed everything. Tweaked a couple things here and there. And the record was done.
“It was probably the most painless record I ever made.”
Which is important because pain is something Art Alexakis has tried to avoid, with varying levels of success, throughout his life. Having been sexually abused as a young boy, he endured the loss of his brother, who died of a heroin overdose, as well as an ex-girlfriend who passed away because of the same reasons. By the time he reached his early 20s, he, himself, had already nearly died because of drugs.
As it goes, he got clean in 1989 and hasn’t looked back since. But even so, the life of a Professional Rock Star has its share of ups and downs that comes with the territory. Being on the road. Experiencing the excesses offered up. Being away from family. Establishing personal relationships. Churning out hit after hit before going from selling hundreds of thousands of records to measuring sales by the tens of thousands.
Through it all, Alexakis has persevered. He turned 53 in April and when asked how he’s managed to carve out a career in music for nearly three decades, he wastes no time in responding.
“Tenacity,” he concludes. “Flat-out tenacity. I got a kid who just graduated from the most expensive school in the United States and I got a seven-year-old and I got a wife and I got to support my family. I go out. I do this tour. I play shows. I act in movies. I do everything to make money, but at the same time, I don’t do anything that I don’t think is fun. So, that I think, is part of the picture. There are guys who write jingles and write commercials and this and that, and they’re totally bending themselves to write songs about laxatives and shit like that. I’m just like, ‘I can’t do it.’
“Not gonna judge!” the singer then quickly points out. “I don’t judge any person making an honest living in any way shape or form, but I can’t do it. It might be generational. It might just be a personal thing. If someone came to me and said, ‘Can you write a song for this movie, and this movie’s about this and that?’ Yeah, I can do that. That sounds cool. And it’s not that I’m against doing things like that. If there was a commercial for something that I believed in and I used and it made sense: sure. I’m not in an ivory tower or an elitist. But there’s a certain level I just can’t do. My point is I work really, really hard. And I think every musician has to work hard. We’re making more money off less records, but we’re working 10 times harder. I just work my ass off.
“But that’s cool,” he eventually adds. “Working is better than sitting around.”
And work, he will. This summer, he’ll embark on the Summerland tour for the fourth straight year. He helped organize the event with Sugar Ray’s Mark McGrath in 2012 and this time out, in addition to his own band, the event will feature Fuel, Toadies, and American Hi-Fi. He says he has two rules for the bands he picks to perform each summer: 1. You gotta play your hits. And 2. You have to still be a real band, a band that tours and writes songs and releases music.
It might sound simple, but even today, he’s open about the times bands have turned him down, citing a desire to stay detached from the word “nostalgia”. The singer understands those criticisms, he insists, but he also realizes the value in still being able to go out and perform in front of hundreds of people on a nightly basis. All he really wants to do is play, he says, and the Summerland tour gives him that opportunity each year.
This year, though, he’ll have a brand new album to promote. He’s excited to see how the new songs connect with fans, and while he knows he might not sell a million records this time out, he’s optimistic for Black Is The New Black‘s release, feeling comfortable with the amount of work he’s put into it.
“I want this record to get every possible chance it can get,” he says. “I set it up through Pledge Music to take care of our core fans and reach out to those who like rock and roll and maybe weren’t still aware that Everclear were still around because we’re not on the radio like we used to be. People are usually just aware of what’s right in front of their face. We have this great relationship with this strong small independent record label out of Brooklyn that has major label distribution. The people that work there are super smart, super enthusiastic. You know, I think I’m doing all the right things.
“And what’s it going to do, sales-wise?” he asks himself. “I don’t know. This is a different world. Back in the day, when you put out a record, that was the end all/be all. You toured to support the record. You did TV to support the record. You did all these things to support the record. Now, the record is the minor aspect of it. You’re never going to make money off it. There’s just too much stuff out there; people don’t buy records like they used to. We’ve been averaging about 25-30,000 records an album, and I think this album will do more than that. I think that we could do 50. Maybe something big will happen, it will hit a nerve, and we’ll sell more. I don’t know. All I think about is just giving it the best chance to do as much as it can.”
Better yet is the singer’s refreshing attitude toward life. After enduring more in half a century than most people will in an entire life, Art Alexakis finally sounds content with where he’s ended up. No more lineup changes. No more drama. No more pain. The 2015 version of Art Alexakis, he argues, might just be the best version of Ark Alexakis that there’s ever been.
“What’s weird is when I made a lot of those early records, my life was way more fucked up than it is now,” he admits. “Because my life is really good right now. But I think I’m in a place in my life where I feel safe, so I feel safe going into the dark places. I worry about people who do really dark music because that’s where you live. And if you can’t get out of that …”
His voice fades into the empty air of the phone and for once, the sounds of silence appear more like a moment of happiness than a laugh about liking his new record ever could.