Art Alexakis of Everclear: ‘The ability to be present and aware … is the best drug I ever had’

Art Alexakis
Everclear is, from left, Dave French, Art Alexakis and Freddy Herrera. (Not pictured: drummer Brian Nolan.) Photo courtesy of Paul Brown.

Dope had its hooks in Art Alexakis’ life long before he became an addict.

The Ties That Bind UsAs the founder and frontman of Everclear, a band whose ’90s heyday produced several staples of alternative radio, he found sobriety early on. He stopped his IV drug use in 1984 and quit drinking entirely in 1989, and ever since, recovery has been one of the most important things in his life.

Because he remembers well, he told The Ties That Bind Us recently, the darkness that drove him to leap from the Santa Monica Pier when he was 12 years old, consumed by grief and spiritual pain and a weariness that would have crippled people four times his age.

“My brother had died of an overdose two months before, and my older girlfriend had killed herself while she was pregnant,” Alexakis said. “I’m not sure it was my baby — I was 12, and she was 15 — but it was a rough time, and my mother had just got diagnosed with uterine cancer. Being a 12-year-old in the best of circumstances is rough anyways, but that was a rough time.

“So I jumped off the Santa Monica Pier in boots and an Army jacket filled with fishing weights, and I sank to the bottom. That’s when I saw my brother, plain as day, and he said, ‘You’ve gotta go back.’ I remember there were sand sharks swimming above me, and my brother talking to me through the water. So I swam up and bodysurfed in to shore.”

For the next 15 years, Alexakis languished in that twilight place between life and death, a darkened landscape familiar to addicts and alcoholics who exist there like shadows on the walls of crumbling buildings, watching the rest of the world pass them by. As Everclear found its place as one of the iconic alternative bands of the 1990s, he slowly found his way into the light by drawing on the tools of sobriety to turn his poetic eye inward to mine the darkened corridors of a scarred heart for visceral, sometimes-painful, always-beautiful melodic alt-rock.

“I don’t think I would have been able to write those songs as stark as the personal ones were without sobriety, because that’s part of sobriety and doing the (12) Steps, man,” he said. “If you’re going to do the Steps, you can’t bullshit anybody. The game just doesn’t work anymore, and you can’t do the dance you’ve been doing your whole life with everybody.

“That’s why some people fail, because they just don’t understand that the bullshit doesn’t work anymore. You can’t fake it. You’ve got to dig in there, get into the dirty shit and understand it, and then be able to push yourself up out of it, shake all of that off and walk away. You’ve got to still acknowledge it but not be there, and I think those songs helped me to do that.”

Living in the 'Sun'

"Sun Songs" album cover

It’s serendipitous, almost, that Alexakis’ latest effort is a solo album, released in October, called “Sun Songs.” Technically, he pointed out, every Everclear record has started out as a solo album — “I decide what everybody is going to play, and who’s going to play it,” he added — but everything under the Everclear moniker contains a clearly defined sound: guitar, bass and drums, with a few flourishes along the way to flesh out the song structures but always sticking to a ragged, muscular combination that captures the desperation, angst, sorrow and headstrong determination of the boy he was once, dragging himself onto the rocks beneath the Santa Monica pier all those years ago.

“I knew if I ever did a solo record, it would be like ‘Nebraska’ or something like that, and I would play all of the instruments,” he said. “With ‘Sun Songs,’ it started out very stripped-down, but then I realized: I’m a rock ‘n’ roll songwriter. I’m not Iron and Wine; I’m not Bon Iver. Those guys are great, and I love what they do — James Taylor, Cat Stevens, John Prine, all those guys. I love it, but that’s not me. That’s not how I write.

“I always considered myself a singer-songwriter in a hard rock/punk rock band, and that’s what this is with the hard rock/punk rock taken out of the equation. It’s me with an acoustic guitar, banging on drums when I need to, playing bass when I need to, singing harmonies and using a very limited palate. It’s all acoustic, with drums and keyboard, just me and another guy in a room. It seemed like this was the time to do that, so when I started writing the songs, I didn’t want to make an Everclear record. I wanted to write and record songs I could play by myself.”

Alexakis is currently on a solo tour to promote “Sun Songs” that will continue through January, but then Everclear ramps back up for an Australian tour throughout the month of February. Now a four-piece (with Alexakis on vocals and guitar playing alongside guitarist Dave French, bassist Freddy Herrera and drummer Brian Nolan), the band’s last studio record was 2015’s “Black Is the New Black.”

Alexakis, however, is focused on his health these days as much as he is music. Earlier this year, he revealed that he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis three years ago, after a car accident led him to seek treatment for a pinched nerve. Doctors discovered scarring and lacerations on his spinal cord and informed him that he’d likely had it for a decade or more.

While the principles of recovery had helped him learn to live with the disease of addiction for three decades, this new illness, he said, threw him for a loop.

“When I got the news, it was scary, man,” he said. “The thing about recovery is at least the light at the end of the tunnel, at least for me, is all about choices. Yeah, (addiction) is a disease, and it’s going to be with me the rest of my life, but I have that choice to use or drink or go down that road. MS took that choice away from me as far as the possibility of my health. I’m powerless, but not in a good way, because it’s my body basically saying, ‘Fuck you.’ And you can’t really say ‘fuck you’ back, and that’s my MO in everything!

“So I’ve been learning to accept that, and not accept it, all at the same time. I’ve accepted that, ‘OK, this is there, and these things could happen, but what are my options, and how do I make this the best I can make it?’ For starters, I was an avowed meat eater. I want to eat meat and cheese and dairy and sugar and all this stuff, and now I can’t do it. I’ve been 100 percent plant-based, no salt or sugar, for 4 ½ months, and I don’t think I could have done it without having already been in recovery.”

When at the end of the road ...

Courtesy of Andrei Duman

Any studious fan of Alexakis’ songs knows well that life for the Santa Monica native has never been easy, especially during childhood. “Father of Mine” and “Why I Don’t Believe in God,” two standouts from “So Much for the Afterglow,” are as visceral as they are autobiographical, but among the thorns, there are plenty of roses. “Santa Monica,” perhaps the band’s biggest hit, is simply about “dealing with comfort zones and feeling out of place,” Alexakis said.

“For the most part, my thing as a writer is that I just try to write songs. If I feel the need to write a personal song, I do it, but I write all sorts of songs, and if I can blur the lines and you can’t tell the difference, then I’m doing my job,” he said. “That’s what a writer does.”

He had plenty to draw on from his youth, however. His father left when he was 5, and his mother struggled to keep food on the table. The family moved to a Los Angeles housing project, where the neighborhood kids were a source of torment, and when his brother and older girlfriend died within a short span of time, he took that infamous swim off the pier. Rock ‘n’ roll was a salvation of sorts, and early bands like Shakin’ Brave and The Easy Hoes helped him hone his craft as a songwriter and frontman. He married young and eventually weaned himself off of the needle, but by 1988, even heavy drinking couldn’t keep the darkness at bay, he said.

“I had worked on getting clean for a while, but when I started drinking really heavily, I started going looking for dope,” he said. “My wife at the time and I were living in San Francisco, both making $25,000 a year each, which in 1988 or ’89 was a lot of money. With no kids, you could live a pretty good life unless you’re going out drinking and blowing money, and I was right on the edge of going down.

“It was after a really bad drunk, where I actually bought some dope and a needle, but I didn’t shoot up. I remember I was staying in my car, and I was sitting there, just crying. It was 9 in the morning, and I couldn’t go home to my wife, so I went to this record store, where I remembered a guy who said he would help.”

The guy was the owner of the music establishment, and Alexakis had first noticed him on previous trips to browse his collection of records. Alexakis remembers that the man used to stare him down, and he eventually confronted him.

“I said, ‘Dude, why are you staring at me?,’ and he said, ‘Because, man, I see you. You’re a drunk and a drug addict, and you don’t know it yet,’” Alexakis said. “At first I was like, fuck you!’ But I went back and asked him why he said that, and he told me, ‘I’ve been clean for two years. I can see it, and I’m here to tell you, it doesn’t have to be like that.’ And then he told me something I had been telling myself: ‘You deserve a better life. This is not you. You don’t deserve this. You are better than the life you’ve made for yourself; you just have to learn a new way to live.’”

Finding a new way to live

Art Alexakis

Art Alexakis performs at Emory University in September 2007. (By The original uploader was Nrbelex at English Wikipedia. - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Kelly using CommonsHelper., CC BY-SA 2.5, Link)

That morning, sitting there with an empty rig and a full bag, he remembered those words. He also remembered something else the guy told him: If Alexakis ever wanted help, he would stop what he was doing and take Alexakis to a recovery meeting.

“I went to that record store, and I went to that guy, and I said, ‘Hey, man, remember me? I want to go to a meeting right now,’” Alexakis said. “He said, ‘I’m working, and I just opened up, but I can take you at 5.’ And I said, ‘You told me that if I came back, you’d drop what you were doing and take me to a meeting!’ He looked at me for a second, then looked at the girl who was working with him and said, ‘I’ll be back in two hours.’

“We went to a meeting, and then one more meeting, and then I went to two more that afternoon and another that evening. I went to four or five meetings a day at first, and I learned something every time I walked into those rooms. Sometimes it was a big thing; sometimes it was a little thing. But I learned something new every time I went, and I learn something new every time I go today. I’m open, and that’s what you have to be — open.

“He was a blessing, that guy,” Alexakis added. “That was God or the universe telling me, ‘This guy is an angel who pulled you back up onto the curb when you weren’t looking at the traffic.’ And I’ve never looked back.”

Recovery, he added, became an anchor once Everclear got off the ground. Some of the band’s songs found their way into the catalog of his pre-Everclear project, Colorfinger, but it wasn’t until he moved to Portland, Oregon, that he put together the iconic power trio that would find fame: bassist Craig Montoya and, after “World of Noise” was released, drummer Greg Eklund. As he celebrated five years clean, the band worked on “Sparkle and Fade,” which would be released on Capitol Records and, on the strength of “Santa Monica,” sell over a million copies.

“Recovery saved my life, because I didn’t know what success looked like,” he said. “I grew up poor, abused, abandoned — all that good stuff. I still had my  mom’s love and strength, so I had that in life, which was great, but I never saw success. So when I became successful and actually had money for the first time, I had no idea how to deal with it.

“I had some not-really-great people advising me who kind of took advantage of me, so that didn’t help. They pushed me in a direction where I made uninformed, bad choices, but I’ve got to say, as far as recovery and alcohol and drugs go, if I had still been using, I would have ended up killing myself, one way or another — a gun or a needle or jumping off a bridge or something.”

Personal and creative freedom abound

Everclear: Dave French (from left), Art Alexakis and Freddy Herrera. (Photo courtesy of Paul Brown)

At the time, that realization was hammered home on April 8, 1994: The day Kurt Cobain, arguably the “big brother” of all of the alternative bands who found success in the 1990s, committed suicide. Two weeks before, Alexakis remembers, he read the Rolling Stone cover story on Nirvana and felt elation that Cobain seemed to have risen above the demons that they shared.

“I thought, ‘He got through it. That’s awesome, and that’s an inspiration to me and people like us,’” Alexakis said. “More importantly, I was just happy for him. Then, two weeks later, I was in a movie theater, watching a movie in the middle of the day, and I go out to get a refill of popcorn, and the girl behind the counter was just bawling. She told me why, and then people started coming out of the movie theater just crying.

“In the Northwest, for that subculture we were a part of, it was super, super intense, man. It was like Pearl Harbor Day or that kind of thing. It was his choice, but it just broke my heart when he died — but it also served as an inspiration of where not to go and what not to do. We were right on the cusp of getting signed, and the dance was in full effect. It was messing with my head, but I was grateful then and super grateful now for my sobriety, to have gotten through that.”

Over the next five years, Everclear muscled its way into the mainstream thanks to “Afterglow,” and as the 20th century came to a close, the band put out the two part “Songs From an American Movie” cycle. Montoya and Eklund parted ways after 2003’s “Slow Motion Daydream,” but as Alexakis’ baby, the band has continued to release new music ever since. A series of nostalgia tours beginning in 2012, featuring Everclear and many of the band’s ’90s contemporaries, maintained the group’s visibility, and at this point in his career, Alexakis has earned the creative freedom to pursue whatever whims his muse brings his way.

His continued recovery, however, keeps him grounded, especially when the addiction that once dictated the terms of his existence rears its ugly head.

“I feel like I feel comfortable in my skin, and I have for years, but about four or five years ago, I was having back problems, and I went to the hospital in the middle of the night,” he said. “My wife and my daughter came in and saw me, and I was in mad pain. When my wife went to take my daughter to school and come back, these four doctors were trying to get me to take some sort of medication to get me in the MRI machine. They basically said, ‘You’ve gotta let us give you something; you’re not breaking your sobriety.’

“So I said okay, and they gave me two grams of morphine. I was sitting there when my wife walked into the room, and she immediately asked, ‘What happened? You look happy. I’ve never seen you look happy like that.’ And I was able to get in the machine, and I remember thinking, ‘This is what it feels like to have no pain. This is what it feels like to feel normal.’ And this was five or six years ago, after success and all that stuff, and that just reminded me that you get used to different levels of what you are. And that drug guy, the one who liked the warm water of his chains, is still around.”

Recovery buys him a new life

Art Alexakis

Courtesy of Andrei Duman

With his MS diagnosis, the possibility of taking narcotics is always there — and not just those prescribed by doctors. The line in the sand that he drew all those years ago is still visible, however, and he knows what will happen if he crosses it and picks up again.

“If I do, I’m going to lose my family, and I’m going to lose my life. I’m going to die, so I can’t fuck around,” he said. “I’ve got all these lines in the sand that I’ve drawn, and I acknowledge them and see that they’re there and respect them. At the same time, I have to accept that I have (MS), but I do not accept that it’s going to define me.

“I can say, ‘OK, I’m going to have this, I’m not going to have that,’ but when it comes to any mind-altering substance — nope. Not even close. Someone said, ‘Maybe CBD would help you,’ but I don’t want it in the house, and I don’t want it on the bus. It’s my bus and my house, and people know that coming into it. That’s the deal with the band — if you want to play in this game, there are certain rules, and for me, it’s a no-tolerance thing.”

The same can’t be said, he added, of the food he chooses to no longer consume. At this point, he’s far enough into his recovery that it’s not the drugs that he misses — it’s things like actual cheese.

“I have to eat vegan cheese, which is not great,” he said with a laugh. “It used to be horrible. Now, it’s just mildly terrible.”

His multiple sclerosis is still a fairly new challenge, but thanks to the work he’s put into recovery, he knows that eventually, it will find its place alongside everything else in his life. They all make up who he is, but none of them define who he is. Recovering addict … MS patient … husband … father … rock ‘n’ roller — they’re all pieces of a beautiful and full life, which is a far cry from the shadowy existence that was once his prison. And no amount of drugs or narcotized bliss is worth jeopardizing any of it.

“Sometimes I think, ‘When I’m 80, if I’ve got $100 million in the bank, maybe I might start shooting dope again,’ but that’s just an escape valve,” he said. “If I’m going to be 80, I’ll be a grandpa, and why would I want to give that up for drugs? Then I think, ‘What if I get cancer, like my mom had?’ That has to be a get-out-of-jail-free card for a junkie.

“But to be honest, I don’t know if I’d go there, because just the ability to be present and aware, right here and right now, is the best drug I’ve ever had. It really is. It’s scary sometimes, and it’s frightening sometimes, but it’s awesome.”