Fall, Glimmer, Sparkle, and Fade: Everclear at Twenty-Five
In 1992, a newly sober cowpunk rocker named Art Alexakis moved from San Francisco to Portland, where he took out an ad in the local music rag for bandmates. The result was Everclear, who released their debut album, World of Noise, twenty-five years ago.
“I got into a rut about six, seven years ago where I was just playing the songs to get them done,” Art Alexakis says. “And I didn’t know that at the time. My wife was like, ‘You’re phoning it in.’”
Alexakis, now fifty-six, knows most of you froze him in the ’90s inside your mind: the bleach-haired, tatted-up punk who briefly conquered the radio and MTV with his band Everclear’s handful of catchy, grungy hits—“Father of Mine,” “Santa Monica,” “I Will Buy You a New Life.” For plenty of people, Everclear is buried in the same pop-culture graveyard as Matchbox Twenty, Third Eye Blind, and The Offspring.
Measured in band years, they are now the equivalent of grandparents. This month marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of Everclear’s debut album, World of Noise, which came out on the indie Tim/Kerr Records on December 10, 1993. (It was reissued on Capitol after the band was signed a few months later.)
“We’re not the new kids on the block,” Alexakis says on a recent Wednesday, sitting on a couch in his Pasadena studio. He is wearing a black Everclear hoodie and a Johnnie’s Pastrami hat—a gift from the owner of the Culver City staple where Alexakis has been eating the same pastrami and swiss sandwich with Colman’s mustard since the ’70s.
“A lot of ’90s bands refuse to accept that. ‘Oh, we don’t do ’90s tours. We’re not a ’90s band.’ OK. Yeah, you are [laughs].”
Alexakis has fully embraced the chronological genre he helped create. He founded the annual Summerland Tour, a nostalgia trip that pairs Everclear with other alt-rock ’90s acts like Eve 6, Filter, and Marcy Playground. (They’re taking 2019 off.) He also hosts a show on SiriusXM devoted to that music, which he intersperses with war stories from the old days.
“I know who I am,” he says. “I know what I do. I write music. I’m not defined by what I did, but I don’t run away from it. We were a part of a thing, and it was a great thing to be a part of. The ’90s were really cool.”
When he plays live shows now, Alexakis likes to mess with the crowd. “I’m like, ‘Alright, you got a request? I’m probably going to tell you no, but go ahead.’ ‘Will you play this song?’ ‘No. Wait a minute. You know what? I’m being rude, I’m being hasty… [pauses] No. What am I, your fucking jukebox? You put a coin in and I play the song? I’m not that big of a whore.’ And then I’ll start playing ‘Santa Monica.’ If you can’t have fun—especially with yourself, man—you’re missing out on something in life.”
Alexakis had already lived several lifetimes by the time that first album came about. His childhood was a tragic gristmill for his future songbook: abandoned by his father, raised in Los Angeles public housing on welfare by a single mom, hooked on drugs by his teens, scarred by the overdose deaths of both his girlfriend and older brother—all culminating in an unsuccessful suicide attempt off the Santa Monica Pier.
“I’m not defined by what I did, but I don’t run away from it. We were a part of a thing, and it was a great thing to be a part of. The ’90s were really cool.”
He moved to San Francisco in his early twenties, where he struggled to make a career in music. He was in and out of several punk and cowpunk bands (he had joined his first at age fifteen), and even ran an indie label for a spell. His band Colorfinger piqued the interest of a label or two, but every deal fell through—and besides, he was clashing with the other guitar player who wanted at least thirty-two bars for guitar solos in every song. Alexakis hooked up with a girl from Portland, and got her pregnant. In 1992 they moved up to the hipster Oregon city, where it was much cheaper to raise a kid.
“I’m just like, ‘Fuck it,’” he recalls. “‘I’m thirty years old. I’m going to do one more band. I’m not a great guitar player, but I don’t really like these kind of noodly guitar players anyway.’ So I’m like, ‘OK, I’m just going to play it myself. I don’t know how—I’ll just figure it out.’”
Alexakis put his last-ditch ad in The Rocket—a popular, now-extinct music rag in the Pacific Northwest—seeking a bass player and drummer. He heard back from two guys, Craig Montoya and Scott Cuthbert.
“I had given them a tape of the songs that I recorded on, like, a boombox,” says Alexakis, who wrote a new batch of songs after moving to Portland—including “Invisible,” which was inspired by his heart-wrenching work at an HIV/AIDS outreach in San Francisco. “They had it for a week. And I’m from California, man. When you go in to audition for something, you know your shit. We went in and rehearsed at this rehearsal place—and it was fuckin’ horrible. These guys didn’t have anything down.”
Two days later he got a call from a bass player in Seattle, a fan of Colorfinger who also saw the ad. Alexakis took a train up (for fourteen bucks) and rehearsed with the dude and his drummer friend—“and it was fucking awesome.” But they were all poor and lived a state apart, so that could-have-been iteration of Everclear never was.
“So I went back to these other guys, who had gotten a little bit better,” says Alexakis. They gelled by playing shows throughout the summer and fall, and he kept writing songs.
One day, he was earning some extra cash by digging out a garden in an acquaintance’s backyard, and he saw some shady-looking activity in the house next door. “I’m digging, and I see over the fence these kind of hipster-looking guys walking around, all these guys coming in and out of a house. I had been clean at that point, you know, three years. I’m like, ‘Looks like a drug deal.’”
Alexakis struck up a conversation with the man of the house, who recognized him from a recent concert. He pointedly asked if the guy was moving drugs.
“He goes, ‘No man, I’ve got a studio in my basement.’ I go, ‘No shit?’ He goes, ‘Yeah, it’s a quarter-inch 8-track. I record bands, ten bucks an hour. Come on in and check it out.’ So I throw down the shovel, go and look at it, and I’m like, ‘This is really fucking cool. Would you take trade for time?’”
Alexakis offered some of the musical effects gear he’d acquired, an old QuadraVerb and a digital delay, and the guy offered $400 in trade: forty hours of studio time. The three members of Everclear went in one week after work (they all had temp jobs) and cranked out the demo tape that would become World of Noise—minus “Nervous & Weird,” the eventual single, and including a song called “Drunk Again” that bordered on heavy metal.
“We were pretty fierce in the day,” Alexakis says. “We were just a three-piece. I had one guitar. That’s why the record sounds like it does, because I needed to get new tubes for my amp, but I couldn’t afford them. We turned it on, it’d heat up, we’d play the song, and then it’d overheat and blue sparks were shooting out of the back of the amp. All that high, squealing feedback. Kids, later, would come up: ‘Man, I really like how lo-fi that record is, and how you did it like that.’ I go, ‘Dude, I did it like that because I couldn’t afford to do it any other way.’ [Laughs.]”
“Kids, later, would come up: ‘Man, I really like how lo-fi that record is, and how you did it like that.’ I go, ‘Dude, I did it like that because I couldn’t afford to do it any other way.’”
Alexakis mailed the tape to every magazine, club, and promoter he knew of—as well as South by Southwest. He had tried with the Austin festival in his previous bands and never got in. This time, he did. They hired a woman who ran a local record store to “manage” them, which just meant renting a van and booking a handful of shows on the way out to Texas and back. He called his girlfriend on the road from Denver to check in, and she told him he’d better get back to Portland: The band had blown up at home.
They recorded a few new songs, including “Nervous & Weird,” and found a home for their debut at Tim/Kerr, who paid them enough (split three ways) to pay for rent and food for a few months. The album came out, caught critical fire and the attention of Capitol Records, who signed them, and a star band was born.
World of Noise, Alexakis says, “was just a lot of anger and confusion. Because I had a baby, I was broke, and I knew I was getting older. This was my last chance to do something. I just didn’t care about being polite. I never tried to fit any kind of musical thing. It was like, this is just full-in, out on the table. Noise.”
Cuthbert was soon replaced by Greg Eklund on the drums, and the band had their first top-ten hit with “Santa Monica,” off their major-label debut, 1995’s Sparkle and Fade. Alexakis’s lyrics, like so many of his songs, were first-person and personal: “I’ll walk right out into a brand new day / Insane and rising in my own weird way / I don’t want to be the bad guy / I don’t want to do your sleepwalk dance anymore.”
Rock critic Robert Christgau wrote: “In his thirties, with a load of drugs behind him and a young daughter waiting at home, Art Alexakis has a firm enough grip on his life to articulate the anguish other guitar-wielders yowl about… Almost every song comes with a story, a tune, and a musical pain threshold. Its cast of struggling souls is evoked by somebody past pitying himself—somebody who’s been around the block so often he’s finally learned that compassion is for other people.”
Everclear’s white-hot moment came next, with the 1997 album So Much for the Afterglow, which produced three massive hits: “Everything to Everyone,” “Father of Mine,” and “I Will Buy You a New Life.” These songs—and others like “Why I Don’t Believe in God,” Alexakis’s response to his mom’s nervous breakdown—continued the raw and confessional (but still playful) storytelling.
Alexakis uses his voice, a sheet-of-sandpaper whine, around a melodious and unguarded core, almost like a rhythm instrument. His melody lines are often rat-a-tat, syncopated and maximized (he likes to avoid contractions—“You would take me to the movie / You would take me to the beach”), but he also loves to leap, sing wordless “oohs” and “ahs,” and luxuriate inside the harmonies of fellow Hawthornites The Beach Boys.
The ’90s ended, the sun set on grunge and alt-rock…and that’s when Everclear got great. The 2000 album Songs from an American Movie Vol. One: Learning How to Smile is, in the opinion of this writer (as well as the frontman), the band’s masterpiece. It was originally planned as a solo effort—a deeply raw and vulnerable post-mortem on a marriage, ending with a bittersweet lullaby for Alexakis’s young daughter, Annabella—and Alexakis indulged in the groove of R&B, acoustic-folk simplicity, and the beauty of lush string and horn arrangements (which he contributed).
“I don’t think it’s schizophrenia,” he says. “I think everybody has different moods and different likes and dislikes. And remember, I’m fifty-six. I grew up listening to a lot of music that was a little beyond my grasp. Like, most kids my age were listening to AM radio. They weren’t listening to Led Zeppelin and Neil Young’s Harvest and Sam Cooke. I loved all that stuff.”
“I’m a loud spirit anyway. I’ve figured that out. I’m not your sweet-picking guitar player. I don’t sound like Iron & Wine. I sound like Art.”
Vol. Two was a much harder, electric counterpart. “This record just sounds tired to me,” Alexakis admits. “I think it’s overproduced.” 2003’s Slow Motion Daydream was another delightful cocktail of the sweet and the raucous, thematically bookended by the cocky strumming of “I Want to Die a Beautiful Death” and the orchestral elegance of “A Beautiful Life.”
But cracks were growing, and Montoya and Eklund both left the band later that year. (“It just wasn’t fun anymore,” Eklund told an interviewer in 2016.) Lots of people think Everclear died that year, but Alexakis—the band’s troubadour and its voice—rightly contends that he is, and always was, Everclear.
“Everclear is musicians doing what I’m telling them to do,” he says bluntly.
Welcome to the Drama Club, released in 2006 on an indie label, saw a new, bigger lineup around Alexakis (now including a second guitarist)—and it’s as good as any album he’s ever made. There’s almost a country twang to the hard rock, with organs and banjos fleshing out the familiar simple, strumming riffs, with lyrics exploring the wounded-but-hopeful nexus between another breakup and a new relationship (this time to Alexakis’s current wife, Vanessa Crawford). He sings to his daughter Annabella again, but this time it hurts a little more: “Gonna find a reason to hate me someday / Gonna find a reason to push me away / You are gonna find reasons to blame me for your pain.”
He took a long break, then came back with 2012’s Invisible Stars, a more stripped-down record that features throwback grunge-pop songs like “Tiger in a Burning Tree” and lovely, sing-along ballads like “Santa Ana Wind” and “Wishing.” “Please don’t leave me,” he begs beautifully on the latter song in velvety harmonies. “Please don’t go. I don’t want to be alone.”
Everclear’s last album, Black Is the New Black from 2015, ditched the strings and the honey and went straight for the jugular. Surrounded on stage by a bunch of rock bands every year at Summerland, Alexakis remembers: “I’m just standing there with Freddy, my bass player, and I’m like, ‘Fuck, I want to make a rock record.’ He’s like, ‘Let’s make a fuckin’ rock record.’”
Now Alexakis is finally doing something he tried to do several times before: he’s making a solo album. Lyrically, it’s personal stories like normal, but heavily influenced by the politics of our time. You might call it a protest record.
“I remember someone saying something to me once: ‘Man, don’t get political. Everclear was never political before.’ I go, ‘You haven’t been paying attention, dude.’ Are you kidding me? Fucking ‘Your Genius Hands’ is about Bill Clinton, basically. I was living in Portland, and we were poor and just getting off welfare with a baby when Clinton got elected. You felt like something was changing. There was a different energy. Just like in 2008. And just like two years ago…I felt a different energy that I didn’t like very much.”
The album will be almost all acoustic, and he’s playing every instrument himself. Alexakis said if you had to compare the sound to anything, Violent Femmes might be a good reference point. “I’m trying to find a new way of doing loud,” he says. “I mean, I’m a loud spirit anyway. I’ve figured that out. I’m not your sweet-picking guitar player. I don’t sound like Iron & Wine. I sound like Art.”
Alexakis has another daughter, age eleven, and lives a relatively low-key dad life in not-exactly-punk Pasadena. He said this could be his swan song (even though he would love to do one last Everclear album with huge, expensive production again).
“My favorite music of any act is usually the early part of their career. That’s when it’s just fucking coming out of you.”
Does every artist have a shelf life?
“Yes,” he says emphatically.
And can he see the “sell-by” date for Art Alexakis?
“I’ve eaten food that was past its sell-by date, so…” he laughs. “You know, I’m poor. I come from a place where sometimes, ‘Eh, it’s only a month. Go ahead. You eat it first, but it’s fine.’ It just sounds to me like sometimes artists are just making music to make music, not because there’s something inside of them. My favorite music of any act is usually the early part of their career. That’s when it’s just fucking coming out of you.”
Alexakis is happy these days, despite having a laundry list of body ailments and a to-do list of operations. “Just maintenance,” he says. “I’ve put a lot of miles on this body, and I want to be around ’til… I’d like to see a grandchild.”
It’s pretty weird hearing “I’d like to see a grandchild” from the mouth of this avatar of youthful aggression and grungy romance, but here we are in 2018, and Alexakis isn’t trying to act anything other than his age.
“You know, man—I’ve had a career making my own music. That’s pretty fucking cool. And I’m really happy where I’m at now in my life. I’ve never been happier. At the most success, like between [Afterglow] and [American Movie Vol. 1], where I was really successful and had more money than God—well, not really, but for Portland I had a lot of money—married to a model… I was miserable. Absolutely miserable.
“And now I’m in my little studio,” he continues, looking around at a foyer wallpapered with platinum records. “It’s mine. I’ve got a house a mile and a half down the road, and a mile and a half down the same road the other way is my daughter’s school. My Starbucks is about a half a mile away. There’s a Whole Foods over there, there’s a Trader Joe’s over there. I’m good.” FL