Two decades ago, Everclear’s hit single “Santa Monica” made them alt-rock superstars. This came from their album Sparkle and Fade, which also made a deep impression with tracks that addressed topics like drugs (“Heroin Girl”) and interracial relationships (“Heartspark Dollarsign”).
More hits followed on cheerful subjects such as trying too hard to fit it (“Everything to Everyone”), parental abandonment (“Father of Mine”), and divorce (“Wonderful”). OK, actually not-so-cheerful subjects. But that was arguably why Everclear’s music struck a chord with so many people in the 1990’s and beyond.
This interview with Everclear singer/songwriter/guitarist Art Alexakis was for a preview article for the band’s 11/22/15 concert at the Majestic Ventura Theater. It was done by phone on 11/18/15.
Art Alexakis: That’s a good question. I guess my reflection on it is that it was the album that I always wanted to make. You know, they always say your first album is where everything is, and the second album is the sophomore slump and all that stuff. That was my second album. It was actually my third, in a way, because I had done a full record with a band called Colorfinger that was all me, written, produced, sang, played, the whole thing.
Only this time I had the muscle of the major label behind me, and the money to go into a a real studio, not into someone’s basement, which had been my experience before. A real studio, recording on good instruments and good amps, with a really good engineer. That was what I had been waiting for.
I had grown up. A lot of friends of mine had been signed to major labels, but had failed miserably, because I always felt like they felt like getting signed was the end all be all, like they had arrived. They started getting fancy cars and doing this and that, and I was like, “Dude, getting signed means you’re in the show, but that’s where it starts. You’ve got a motor behind you now. Use it. Use that motor and do something with it.” So I had that kind of attitude going into it.
So when I reflect on Sparkle and Fade, it’s kind of like eternal pride [laughs]. Does that make sense? I put a lot of myself into it, and it was kind of like a baby. I have two children, and nothing’s more important than my children. Making an album – and we’ve made nine of them as Everclear – every one of them I put my whole self into, and that record was no exception. I just think it was at right place at the right time. It was the perfect storm for that music at that time, and where I was. I wasn’t trying to make music to sound like the time. It’s like the times had caught up with me. I think timing and luck are a part of it, but I also think it’s the hard-ass work and pushing to get your voice heard.
JM: Do any of the songs from that album resonate with you in a different way from how they did 20 years ago?
AA: You know, people ask me that question. I have to say… I’ve been playing some of these songs for so long, to be objective about it from a 20 year point of view is kind of hard. I’m pretty present with them. But on side 2, there’s a lot of songs that we haven’t performed in many years. A couple of songs we’ve never performed. That’s been interesting, to really get into the emotion of those songs.
As I’ve said many times, a small percentage of my songs are straight autobiographical, and then there’s a larger percentage where I take different things from my life and use artistic license and create characters. You know, I write, basically. And then there’s a couple songs that are straight creations, just writing. I just created a story, I wrote a story, I’m just telling a story. Even some of those songs are so personal, because I see them from a personal point of view. So they’re kind of intense to sing. All the stories are very intense to me.
I still write from a pretty intense point of view. We put out a record this year called Black is the New Black, in April, and it’s a very intense, personal record. But again, it’s the same formula, if you will. There are songs that are totally autobiographical, some songs take things in my life and mix them around a little bit and create characters, and then there are songs that I just create. Trying to make those all live together on an album, that’s where the craft comes in, I think.
JM: Regarding the new album, the song “You” really stuck out to me. When you write about negative events from your life, do you find that to be therapeutic, like it helps you to come to terms with things that happened to you?
[lyrics from “You”: Little boy, back when life was new to me / Hiding in my room, waiting for my mom to leave / I learned to lie, to save her from the truth / I was raped when I was eight years old / On a sunny afternoon]
AA: Absolutely. That was a subject that I didn’t know if I was ever going to write about. But it just seemed like this was the time to write it. I felt compelled to write about it. It wasn’t like a conscious thing. I just started writing this song, and put it to this riff I’d come up with, this big heavy guitar riff. It was like, yeah, this is the song that’s going to be about the abuse.
I don’t know if I’ll ever perform that song, to be honest with you. I don’t know that I need to. I get to asked every show to do that song. I’m not exaggerating. I get asked every show by at least one person to do that song. It’s like, “Wow, do you really want to see me fucking bawling onstage?” [laughs] There’s songs on all my albums that I just have a hard time singing, because they’re so emotional. But that song in particular, you nailed it. That is an autobiographical song, and it’s about being abused when I was 8 years old.
To me, it is a catharsis, because if you look at the song, it’s me coming to grips with that little boy inside of me, who’s still there. I firmly believe that all these people in our life that we’ve been at different times and different stages of growing and learning and experiencing things are still there. And when there’s damage there, you’ve got to go back and deal with it. I was just trying to be like a father to that little boy, because he didn’t have a father. He had a mother, but like I say in the song, I never told her what happened. She would’ve killed those boys, flat out. She was a hillbilly from North Carolina. She would’ve killed those children. Well, they weren’t children. They were like 16, 17 years old. But it would’ve been bad. I just didn’t want to put that pain on her. I knew even as a little boy… it’s like, she told me not to go there. I was told, “Don’t do that!” That’s what we do with our children. And now, people are talking all this smack about being helicopter parents, and all that stuff. Well, yeah, I am a helicopter parent. Proud of it. That’s not going to happen to my kids. It’s not going to happen.
Yeah, it brings up a lot of emotions. You kind of opened up the door on it, and I start talking about it. I could talk about that forever. Sorry, what was your original question? [laughs] I just write, man. I write songs that I would like to hear. I think every songwriter writes songs that no one else is writing. “I’m missing this, I need to hear this.” If I heard everything I needed to hear from someone else, I wouldn’t write, I wouldn’t make music. I wouldn’t make music just for the hell of it. I do it because I kind of have to.
JM: Another song along those likes, and I don’t mean to be like, “tell me about your childhood”, but “Father of Mine” is such a powerful song that I believe is also autobiographical. Do you get a lot of people telling you that they really relate to that particular song?
AA: Every day. I’m not exaggerating. Every day. Every show, every place I go. I can go to Starbuck’s, I can go to the supermarket. That song… They’ll stop in the middle of shopping, have the kids in the cart, and just start telling me this huge story about how that was them. Even, I get people say, “I had a great Dad and a great Mom, and that wasn’t me, but I just relate to that so much as a father.” It comes from every different perspective. The song “You”, it’s at a different arc in my career, so that’s never going to get the exposure that “Father of Mine” got. Nor necessarily should it. It’s a harder situation to talk about. People don’t want to talk about abuse. But abandonment…
I’m glad it just helped create a dialog of people talking about it, not feeling ashamed. Because a lot of people felt ashamed about being abandoned. Why? You didn’t abandon anybody. You’re the victim. Take that pain and learn to make something positive out of that. That’s kind of what my character does in the song, what I’m trying to do. Me being the character, I’ve tried to take that and move on, move ahead. In both instances, from both songs. I think that inspires people. I don’t know if I’d write about it if there wasn’t a light at the end of the tunnel, you know? I truly believe there’s a light at the end of every tunnel. Sometimes it’s hard to see.
JM: Another song I want to ask you about is the huge hit “Santa Monica”. How did that song come together?
AA: You know, it’s funny. I was living in Portland. We had gotten signed to Capitol, but we didn’t have that song. We weren’t signed to Capitol for that song. I would write songs at night in our rented house, me and my then-girlfriend who became my second wife and our oldest daughter Anna who was two at the time. They’d go to bed and I’d go out on the back porch and write songs. During the day, the guys would come over and we’d go down in the basement and work out the songs.
It’s not autobiographical, it’s about comfort zones, finding a comfort zone. I wrote it in the form of this relationship, and this person trying to find their way back to what they knew, what they were before. I’m living in this rainy place, Portland, and I’d grown up in the sunshine. I’d grown up in Santa Monica, California, which wasn’t all sweetness and light. But there was warmth, and Mexican food. That was my comfort zone, what I knew. That’s why I named it “Santa Monica”.
Everybody, including my drummer at the time, was like, “But you don’t say ‘Santa Monica’ anywhere in the chorus.” “I don’t care, it’s called ‘Santa Monica’. Fuck off. How about that?” [laughs] You know, that’s what it came down to. The label’s like, “No, call it, ‘Watch the World Die’.” And I go, “Don’t tell me what to name my songs. Shut the hell up. How about that?” But when they put out the single to radio, they put in parentheses “Watch the World Die”, and they begged me to be able to that, because I had creative control. I’m like, “Put it on the single, not on the album.”
It was just this anthemic chorus, and it was really defiant if you think about it. Like, “Watch the world die, leave the fire behind.” People sing that and get so happy. It just mystifies, because it’s really not a happy song [laughs]. But I guess there’s a sense of personal triumph in it that people respond to, as well as the major notes of the chorus. It’s kind of anthemic.
Hey, that song is definitely like a child to me. People a lot of times don’t want to play their hits. I think that that’s really selfish and kind of short-sighted. You know, people know us because of that song. They might like us for other songs even more, but they know us because of that song. That was the song that opened the door. I have nothing but respect and love for that song. I put everything into it every night, like it’s the first time I ever sang it. That’s hard to do, because I’ve sang it literally thousands of times. But I think that’s what the song deserves, and that’s what the people who are paying money to come see me deserve, and I think that’s what I deserve. For me, even, I need to put myself into all my songs every time I play. It’s kind of hard sometimes. Songs like “Father of Mine” and other songs I do are not easy. You can’t phone those songs in. You can’t phone “Santa Monica” in. I can’t think about what I’m going to make for dinner tomorrow night while I’m playing the show. [laughs, pauses] I love to cook. I’ve been on the bus a long time. I want to go home and start cooking.
JM: To you, what was the good, the bad, and the ugly about the 1990’s music world?
AA: Well, the good thing to me… People were calling us Alternative. That was just some media thing they made up. I don’t know that there’s anything Alternative about us or what was being played on Modern Rock radio or Alternative radio. I was just happy that there were big guitars on the radio again. I love big loud rock guitar. And me, like a lot of the guys and gals that were in those bands, we had grown up in the ’70’s, with Cheap Trick and Zeppelin and Aerosmith, and all those other bands that were making very aggressive but very melodic hard rock. You take that through punk rock and hip hop and the Indie scene – The Pixies and Jane’s Addiction and Husker Du and The Replacements and all that stuff – and that’s what you get. You get the 90’s rock. It makes sense to me why it came out like that.
I know there’s a new batch of kids out there that are so sick of the Pop that’s being called Alternative right now. There’s these young 18, 19, 20, 25 year old kids, bands I see on the road that are just blazing rock. Punkish, noisy, some rap, some singing, a lot of melody. It’s kind of twisted, but I think it’s going to coalesce and come out pretty soon. That’ll be a good thing for everybody.
JM: What advice would you give to an aspiring musician?
AA: It’s pretty simple, and it sounds very Hallmark card-ish, but it’s very true. Don’t ever give up. Don’t give up. If you truly believe in what you’re doing, if you truly feel like that is what you are supposed to do, and there’s nothing else that you’re supposed to do, that you can do, that you’re able to do well, then don’t ever give up.
If you don’t give up, you still might not be successful. But if you do give up, you will not be successful. Someone else will go, “Thanks for getting out of the way, brother. Cool! You’re in between me and my spotlight. Get out of here.” [laughs] That’s kind of the truth of it all. Don’t give up. Keep evolving. Be your own harshest critic. If it doesn’t go right in your gut, if there’s one little thing, change it. Find the thing so that you can listen to a song that you’ve done and have no cringe factor whatsoever. Be your own harshest critic. But at the end of the day, that’s just a part of it. The main thing is don’t give up.
JM: What are your plans, musical or otherwise, for the near future? For example, are you thinking about another album already?
AA: No. I don’t think we’re going to do another Everclear record for a while. I think that last record was really great. I put a lot of myself into it. I think it was just a great rock record. It got streamed over a million times. Of course, artists make no money from that. It sold, I think last count I heard was like 8,500 records. OK, whatever. But we got a lot of airplay on it. For me, it was a success. It was an artistic success.
What I plan on doing now is now I’m going to compose soundtracks for movies. I’ve got two movies lined up, a documentary and a zombie Western that I actually acted in. I’m going to go home and work on those, and do those.
I want to do an acoustic tour with me and some other people. I did it last year called Songs and Stories, where I told stories and sang songs. I want to go out with, like, three other people from bands who had a lot of success and write great songs and tell great stories, do it like that. Take turns working with each other. Different people will play together, all four of us will be onstage sometimes, sometimes just ourselves, sometimes a couple of us. I think it would be a really great three hour concert for everybody. So that’s something I’m working on.
And I’m working on Summerland for next year. I’m trying to make it bigger and better, bringing bigger bands. I’m working with some really cool people right now to do that.
But as far as music goes, that’s what your original question was, I’m writing songs. I want to record some songs. Probably the first solo thing I do will be me putting out singles. Albums are kind of hard animals to sell right now. But I say that, and I might come back with a new Everclear record next year. Who knows?
JM: Sounds like you have some cool things in the works. Are you willing to reveal who you might go out with on the acoustic tour?
AA: It’s in the works. Until it’s real, I can’t talk about it. When it’s real I’ll talk about it for sure.
JM: Thanks for taking the time to talk to me, and for sharing your music with the world. A lot of it is very personal, so I’m sure there’s been some hesitation to do that.
AA: Thank you, Jeff, I appreciate it. Yeah, there was hesitation. You know, when “Father of Mine” came out, when it was on the record, some people were like, “Oh, that’s a single.” And I’m like, “I don’t know. It’s going on the record whether you like it or not, but as a single… We’ll talk about that. I just don’t know.” And it was. It was huge. It connected with people. I remember playing it for the assistant for my A&R guy at the time, just the first half of the song, and I looked up and she’s bawling. I’m just like, “Wow.” And then I played it for a couple of older men, and they were wiping tears from their face. I thought, “OK, there’s something powerful here. I don’t know if it’s going to translate to pop radio, or rock radio. We’ll see.” And it did. But you never know. Yeah, I had hesitation.