An interview with frontman Art Alexakis
With a string of hits including “Heroin Girl,” “Santa Monica,” “I Will Buy You a New Life,” “Father of Mine,” and “Wonderful,” Everclear are one of the most renowned alternative rock bands of the past three decades.
To celebrate, they undertook an extensive 30th anniversary tour last year, culminating with a concert in Hollywood. Fortunately for fans who couldn’t be there in person, that show was recorded for posterity – and the result is Everclear: Live at The Whisky a Go Go, which is set for release on September 8 via Sunset Blvd Records.
But frontman Art Alexakis says doing a live album was more of an unexpected opportunity than a deliberate plan.
“It’s one of those things that just came from an idea somewhere: ‘This is something that we need to do.’ It wasn’t something that was premeditated,” he says.
But the Whisky a Go Go is one most legendary music venues in Hollywood, so recording a show there immediately appealed to him. “I thought, ‘That could be really cool,’” he admits. “We’ve never really put out a live album. There have been bootlegs and there’ve been rough versions [of songs] that labels have put out, but I’ve never worked on a live album.”
The Whisky a Go Go show was longer than what would fit on an album, resulting in five songs not making the final cut, but Alexakis is confident the right ones remain.
“In picking the songs for the record, we had to do the fan favorites,” he says. “Then I looked into the last six or seven songs and just picked ones I thought I had the best performance and the best energy. It’s a really honest representation of the band.” (The album also includes a couple of studio tracks: “Year of the Tiger,” which had been released as a standalone single last year, as well as a brand new song, “Sing Away.”)
Listening to Everclear: Live at the Whisky a Go Go, it’s obvious that even after playing some of these songs for decades, Alexakis isn’t phoning them in. “I can’t play ‘Father of Mine’ or ‘Wonderful,’ songs that are intense and emotional, and be thinking about what I’m going to have for dinner after the show,” he says. “I think some bands can get away with that: ‘God, I wasn’t even paying attention!’ Man, I wouldn’t admit that to anybody. That’s not something to be proud of!”
Alexakis says he can still hook into the emotions of his songs because he is a storyteller at heart – even if he’s not always telling his own stories: “People have the mistaken belief that because I’m singing in the first person, everything I’m writing is autobiographical. They’re not. I’d say about a third is. Another third of our songs, I take different things from my life or things that I’ve read or from other people, and I create a composite character. Then the other third of the songs, I just make up stories. If I can write from different perspectives and no one can tell the difference, I’m doing my job.”
Despite drawing from different perspectives for his work, Alexakis says there is one element that binds all of his ideas together: “Hope. I think even in my darkest songs, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, always. Because that’s been true in my life. Even when things have been really hard, I’ve never given up. I’m very tenacious.”
He learned about perseverance from his mother. “I was raised by a single mom. She taught me, ‘You’re going to get knocked down, but what defines you is how you pick yourself back up.’”
VIDEO: Everclear “Father of Mine”
She knew this because of her own hard experiences: “My mom was born in 1927. She was raised in the Deep South during the Depression. So even though she was doing all these things, she didn’t want to do them. She just married the wrong guy, i.e., my dad. She wanted to stay home and bake things or take care of her kids, but she wasn’t allowed to: she had to work for a living. She had to go to night school. She had grit and tenacity.”
When Alexakis and his brother were small, their father abandoned the family. When he failed to pay child support, their mother had no choice but to move the family to public housing in a downtrodden part of Los Angeles.
“Trust me, my mom didn’t want to bring us to that housing project,” Alexakis says. Growing up in a neighborhood where most of the other kids were Black or Latino, he remembers getting beat up a lot.
Things weren’t much better when he befriended other white kids, as he realized after he went to play at one of their houses after school.
“When the mom found out I lived in the [housing] project, she sent me home immediately and made her kid take a shower because she was convinced I had lice,” he admits. “I’m like, ‘Lady, I saw a cockroach in your house. I’ve never seen a cockroach in my apartment in the project, ever. My mom would not allow it. Not even anything close.’”
Alexakis and his brother both ended up struggling with addiction, with his brother dying of a heroin overdose. Alexakis eventually kicked his own severe problems with hard drugs and alcohol, and says he’s been clean and sober for 34 years now.
Difficult as all of these experiences were, Alexakis can now see how they helped him in some ways, too: “When I learned how to fight, I gained respect. It didn’t matter what race or ethnicity you were – we were all friends. We were all discovering new things, new types of music. It was great. So I’m really grateful, because adversity is what gives you the fire in your belly.”
Taking that determination and his love for music, Alexakis moved from his native L.A. to Portland, Oregon, where he formed Everclear. They recorded their 1993 debut album, World of Noise, on their own dime. That received enough favorable attention that major record labels took notice, and the band eventually signed with Capitol Records.
When that contract came through, Alexakis was 32 years old – and because he was a bit older and wiser than many artists are when they sign such deals, and because he’d learned to stand up for himself throughout his challenging youth, he was uniquely prepared to withstand the attempts at underhanded manipulation that are so common to the music business.
“I get called into the [record company] president’s office and he’s like, ‘Look, the publicity team wants to say you’re 24 years old because your [real] age will push people away. You look young enough; you can get away with it.’” Alexakis said no, but the president persisted: ‘He’s like, ‘Well, I’m not asking.’ I go, ‘Good, because I’m telling ya, it’s not gonna happen. I’m not going to lie and say I’m 24 because people will find out [the truth] and I’ll look like an asshole. I am a recovering addict and alcoholic. I’ve made myself look like an asshole all the time. I don’t need help from you.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Man, they’re going to drop us. That’s OK.’”
But Capitol Records didn’t drop them, and Everclear released their second album, Sparkle and Fade, in 1995. That album achieved platinum sales, as did their next two releases, So Much for the Afterglow (1997) and Songs from an American Movie Vol. One: Learning How to Smile (2000).
Now, after more than three decades leading Everclear, Alexakis is content with how far he’s come from his difficult early years.
“Looking back, I’m grateful,” he says. “It’s one of those axioms of, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right? There’s some real truth to that trope. There really is.”
VIDEO: Everclear “Heroin Girl” (Live at the Whisky a Go Go)