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'It's What You Do Going Forward': Everclear's Art Alexakis is Singing in the Sun on His Solo Debut

Wednesday, 09 October 2019 Written by Simon Ramsay

In many ways, Everclear frontman Art Alexakis is the walking, talking, rock ‘n’ roll-loving embodiment of the American Dream. The idea that success and prosperity can be attained by anyone, regardless of their background, is certainly a wonderful ideal. But it can only be achieved through serious hard graft, a fierce sense of determination and the ability to get back up and keep fighting. 

That invaluable ability to triumph over adversity forms something of a running theme throughout the story of a multi-talented musician who, not content with having significantly shaped the ‘90s American alt-rock landscape with his band, has also founded record labels, been an A&R executive, run successful tours, dabbled in acting and become a keen political activist.

In his younger years, the impoverished kid who would go on to guide Everclear to multi-platinum success didn’t have it easy. His parents separated when he was a small child, his brother died of a heroin overdose in his teens, and he lost a girlfriend to suicide. If it’s true that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger then it’s little wonder Alexakis, who also overcame serious substance abuse problems early in his career, bounced back from those formative blows to make a name for himself. Furthermore, it’s hardly surprising that such a strong person would be able to face Multiple Sclerosis (MS) with unwavering positivity.  

In March this year, several years after his diagnosis, the L.A. native publicly opened up about his condition to diffuse specious rumours that were circulating about why he was stumbling onstage and forgetting his lines. “So, if you see me stumbling…sweaty, looking both tired and anxious at the same time, maybe a little more confused than usual, or forgetting lyrics yet looking happy (which is weird for me), please know that I have not fallen off the wagon,” he wrote. “I am just learning to be the new me.”

He’s always been an unflinchingly honest lyricist, but 2019 will perhaps go down as the year Alexakis truly bared his soul for all the world to see and, with particular reference to the first solo effort of the 57-year-old’s career, hear. ‘Sun Songs’ is a bonafide singer-songwriter album and a superbly sculpted sojourn through emotions and styles, with his characteristic drawl in career best form on songs replete with rich melodies, addictive harmonies and subtle instrumental textures.

Ahead of the record's arrival and his accompanying UK and Ireland shows, which kick off on October 14 in Manchester, we spoke to Art about anything and everything to do with the making of 'Sun Songs' and also found out why, in spite of his health troubles, he’s currently feeling more wonderful than ever. Pun intended.

‘Sun Songs’ is a very different album for you.

I was inspired by albums I grew up listening to in the ‘70s like early Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Even Elvis Costello.  Just really simple albums. Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska.’ I didn’t make a record like that, I’m not that kind of songwriter, but I wanted to make something that was honest, simple and still touched all the bases that felt like a record for me. And [to] be able to talk about things I don’t normally talk about. There’s some serious stuff on there, but also some happy, loving, fun stuff; songs to my wife and daughter and even a love song to myself, because I have a hard time with myself, as a lot of people do.  

It’s also a true solo record in the sense that it’s me playing everything, good or bad. It’s all acoustic instruments, no electric instruments, and I kept it very sparse. There’s no double tracking, no vocal pinging or polishing or any of that stuff. It’s a very honest record. It’s 11 songs, 38 minutes. I’ve always thought since the invention of CDs albums are too long with too much filler.  This record is everything it needs to be, no less and no more. 

You’ve always described yourself as a singer-songwriter in a hard rock or punk band—what was it like working in that more exposed format?

If you know anything about Everclear’s music, I tend to hide my voice behind a bunch of guitars. I wasn’t able to do that and had to put my voice front and centre on this record. I still needed the acoustic guitars, banjos, ukuleles, dobro and mandolin to be aggressive because I’m a rock ‘n’ roll guy. I also wanted it to have that reverb-y sound, but not too much. I didn’t want to sound like I was trying too hard.  I just wanted it to sound natural and got as close as I could. I hope it comes through.

Did playing so many different instruments on this record open you up to discovering and utilising new textures you hadn’t employed before?

Absolutely. I was looking for the textures that were in my head but had to be able to do them with what I had in the studio. I used a xylophone I bought 20 years ago, but never used, on three songs on the record and there’s a little vintage keyboard and some B3 organs in there. I don’t know how to play keyboards, but I figured it out. I pushed myself to make it work the way it needed to and it didn’t take as long as I thought it would. It did open my mind to different things.

‘Sun Songs’ feels like a complete album. It’s well sequenced with a beginning, middle and end. Is that something you worked hard to achieve? It feels like a dying art form these days.

I worked very hard on sequencing—how far the songs are away from each other, whether they go into each other, what keys they are that you can end in.  That is a lost art. I listen to a lot of new records and it’s like they throw the songs on there in any order, like they let the label do it or whatever. To me an album is an album. I’m a dinosaur, it’s never gonna be different. I understand the trend is now for singles, I get that, but I don’t write like that. I write a whole theme of a record, I’m telling a story. Not necessarily a concept record, but it’s thematic.

Likewise, one of the record’s biggest strengths is that it’s emotionally, stylistically and lyrically varied but hangs together.

I try to do that with every record. My favourite records are by bands that can play hard, soft, fast, slow, but at the same time still sound like them. Writing autobiographical songs, writing fictional songs, writing songs that are somewhere in between the two and making it so the listener can’t tell the difference. That’s the challenge, that’s the craft. You can’t teach creativity.  You can’t teach the ability to come up with melodies and I don’t think you can teach how people tell stories. But you can teach the craft of it and fine tune that over the years. That’s something I’ve worked pretty hard at, so thanks for saying that.  

Even by your past standards this sounds like a very autobiographical album. Are any of the songs saying things you’ve wanted to say for a long time but either haven’t had the right way to present them or were apprehensive about putting out there?

Yeah, I’ve wanted to say White People Scare Me for a long, long time. It’s like all the worst things in this world come from white people—atom bomb, slavery, manifest destiny, trickle down theory, all these things. It’s about entitled white people and was [originally] a joke, but now it’s about what’s going on in the world, especially in the US. It was obvious to me that it wasn’t a joke any more. 

Sing Away sounds particularly personal. What inspired that lyric, which is dark, but also provides an uplifting sense of release during the chorus?

Yeah, it kind of needs it after the verses, right? That’s a story I made up after hearing these huge things about kids being shamed and bullied online to the point that they killed themselves. I’m putting myself in the shoes of their parents, how that would make me feel and how I would deal with that because I have two children. My youngest went through a little bit of bullying, not bad, and it made me and Mom crazy—[laughs] the fact I used to want to beat up 11 year olds or eight year olds who were picking on my child. It gets ugly, dude, when people fuck with your kids. So I wrote it from that and it got into some dark places. 

Seat At The Table and Line In The Sand sound like you’re expelling long held frustrations about being let down by what the world promised but never delivered.

Seat At The Table is a political statement and something I think everybody in America, and worldwide, has felt at one time. If you believe in the idea of a democracy, which I do, then I believe I deserve a seat at the table, but that’s what my elected representatives are for. Millions of people can’t all have a seat at the table but we do vote, which means we’re engaged, and when you tell me I can’t that’s when I fight back. We’re kind of going through that in our country right now.  

As far as Line In The Sand Goes, it’s kind of in other songs I’ve written like Learning How To Smile, but this one doesn’t have a happy ending. It has a much more realistic, Trump-era ending. There’s always light at the end of the tunnel in my songs. Sometimes you have to squint to see it, but even in Line In The Sand at least the protagonists understand what’s going on. They’re self aware. That’s good news because unless you’re self aware there’s no chance of redemption whatsoever.

Everclear’s always been your project where you write and produce everything, make the videos etc. You also have your own record label and insist on making all the decisions about the Summerland tours you’ve organised. This new album is entirely your baby. Would you describe yourself as a control freak?  

Maybe I should think about that..but fuck yeah, I’m a control freak! All my heroes are control freaks. Neil Young is a control freak. John Lennon and Paul McCartney were control freaks. So yeah, I am. At the same time you have to be able, if you’re working with great musicians and great people, to let them work within your parameters and open up those parameters.

It’s like being a parent: the more you trust the more they open up. But at the end of the day if it doesn’t sound the way I want it to sound it’s not happening. I love a strong vision, when people make records that sound like that record, they don’t sound like anything else. I’ve always tried to achieve that and you’re not gonna get it through a 100% democracy. Even the bands that say they are, they’re not.    

The reason I ask about being a control freak isn’t just to do with music.  When people get a serious illness it can be very hard for them after the initial diagnosis, when everything feels completely and totally out of their control. Did that trait affect how you initially dealt with the MS?

Yeah, it kicked my ass at first. It came from out of nowhere, but then once I learned more about it a lot of the initial fear went away. I was like ‘Oh well, I’ve been having this for 10 years, that for 10 years, this for eight years, that for six years’ and didn’t know. All these symptoms. Both of the neurologists I went to see were like ‘You’ve had this for over 15 years.’ I’m starting to understand you can get it from certain viruses I had about 16 or 17 years ago.  It all started to make sense.  

But at the end of the day all that shit doesn’t matter. It’s what you do with it going forward. For the last three months I’ve been feeling really good. I’ve changed my way of living. I’m much more active and athletic than I used to be. I quit nicotine. I’m on a plant-based diet. The first time you hear the words Multiple Sclerosis it’s scary but you get over that and get to work. The more information you have about it, the more you know. Learning what works for you and what doesn’t, that makes you feel more empowered, less afraid and more proactive.  

Looking to the future, what’s the long term prognosis like in terms of your ability to play and perform?  

Well, my long term prognosis from my neurologist is that if I stay on medication and this diet then I will die an old man and without a lot of pain.  I’ll never progress. And the Nutritarian diet I’m on, I have a really really high chance of putting this into remission and keeping it there over the next six to nine months. So I’m feeling very upbeat because I’m being very proactive.  The more you do the better you feel about it, psychologically and physically. 

It really is up to you how you decide to do it. Whether you’re walking on crutches or in a wheelchair, it’s all about where you’re at in your head. It’s not just words, not just a Hallmark card type belief. It’s the truth. I’ve met people who’ve been dealing with the disease in worse ways than me and they’re just the most upbeat, happy people that live the fullest lives they can. They’re inspirational to me. 

Now you’ve made your solo bow, are you eager to do more records like ‘Sun Songs’ and explore even more styles that you can’t with Everclear?

Yeah, but I want to start working, in fact I’ve already started working, on my book. I’m writing a memoir. I’ll get it done and then see what I feel after that.  Right now, I don’t have an urge to do any more records. But I always feel that way after finishing an album.  

Finally, it’s approaching the 20th anniversary of Everclear’s ‘Songs From An American Movie:  Volume One’ and you’ve announced that you’ll tour that album, and play it in full, in the States next year. Might you do the same in the UK?

Wouldn’t that be wonderful? I’ll talk more about that later, but I think it would be wonderful. Let’s leave it at that. And the pun is intended.

'Sun Songs' is out on October 11 through The End Records/BMG.

Art Alexakis Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows

Mon October 14 2019 - MANCHESTER Night and Day
Tue October 15 2019 - NORWICH Epic Studios
Wed October 16 2019 - LONDON O2 Academy2 Islington
Fri October 18 2019 - GLASGOW Broadcast
Sat October 19 2019 - BIRMINGHAM The Actress & Bishop
Sun October 20 2019 - DUBLIN Sound House

Click here to compare & buy Art Alexakis Tickets at Stereoboard.com.

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