Occasionally, a celebrity phone interview can reveal a slice of life not intended for print. It's usually something mundane, maybe a rock star reiterating he needs his groceries to his nanny or personal assistant. But since rock journalists are like priests and not only in a monastic sense, revealing even the most mundane overheard exchange seems like breaking a vow.
Hearing a calm and somewhat tired Art Alexakis talking to a business manager on the other line before our interview, you get a sense that his days of fronting the highly successful alternative rock group Everclear may be numbered. You hear his voice straining with distrust as he shares numbers with a qualifier for the other person not to share the information with his bandmates.
It's an impression that, perhaps, is reinforced by the disappointing chart showing of the band's latest album Slow Motion Daydream and by Alexakis' own forthright career comments.
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"We haven't really talked about it, but I can see us taking a break," the 40-year-old Alexakis says. "And I think that's realistic. We've been pretty tight for 11 years. We've done six albums. That's a long time in this business. I see us going in different directions after this album and after touring. I think it would be an amicable thing. I wanna do solo stuff and I think they wanna do stuff, too.
"I can see Craig [Montoya] going on and doing a much more heavier rock band 'cause that's what he likes, and Greg [Eklund] is into weird atmospheric stuff and even some weird house and techno. He's an amazing songwriter, actually. He's into indie pop. I'm so all over the place with what I'm listening to now." His recent fancies include powder-keg polemicists the Coup, Australian singer-songwriter Casey Chambers, and Zwan, even in spite of Billy Corgan's voice.
Alexakis' own phrasing is one of the most unique of the post-grunge growl and snarl derby. Its redolence to Thin Lizzy's Phil Lynott wasn't apparent until the group covered "The Boys Are Back in Town" for the Detroit Rock City soundtrack a few years back. It also has a comical drawl to it, when Alexakis stretches syllables and reacts to a devastating lyric like Tommy Chong on some bad dope. People nationally got a taste of Alexakis' sound and troubled drug-addled past on the 1995 gem Sparkle and Fade, the band's major-label debut on Capitol, and its corresponding singles "Santa Monica" and "Heroin Girl."
"There are always a couple of fans who want me to make Sparkle and Fade over and over again, and that just doesn't interest me," he contends. So Much for the Afterglow came close, though, refining the group's core trio sound with subtle embellishments, like the a cappella Beach Boy harmonies at the start of the title cut that get wiped out by a rushing wave of power chords. As the band's popularity grew, however, Alexakis says he started itching for other things.
"Songs From an American Movie, Vol. 1 started as a solo record," he says. "I wanted to do something fun and R&B-ish. The original versions of those songs were a lot more fun and less rockin'. I purposely didn't use distorted guitar. It wasn't very Everclear-sounding. But it sat for a year because I was touring with Everclear, and So Much for the Afterglow kept selling and selling, so it made sense to go on tour again."
The delay and subsequent touring plans wound up birthing that most dubious of marketing ploys -- the overlapping release of two records as freestanding entities, not as a double album. The band released Songs From an American Movie, Vol. 1: Learning How to Smile in July of 2000, enjoying an extensive media coverage and ubiquitous airing for the single "Wonderful."
Yet the second installment, Songs From an American Movie, Vol. 2: Good Day for a Bad Attitude, wasn't so blessed. Released four months after Vol. 1, it barely troubled the Top 50. Vol. 2 seemed like a concession to bassist Craig Montoya, who has been vocal about his displeasure with the band's softer, poppier underbelly, captured in full girth on Vol. 1. The resulting album seems almost defensively heavy, its humor blunted by dense production, which makes the calmer numbers on the album almost a relief. While the radio-friendly "Rock Star" seems a forced anthem MTV could get behind, it was immediately followed by the more sympathetic "Short Blond Hair" where Alexakis admits to losing follicles. Metaphorically, it seems like such moves potentially could have sealed their fate to roam with the backward baseball cap, future male pattern baldness set.
"That album didn't really sound like Everclear to me," Alexakis admits now. "I wanted to do one record with 16 or 17 tracks on it that was like Rust Never Sleeps. Acoustic song, heavy song. Acoustic song, heavy song, for the whole thing. I'd never seen anyone do it, and it would be like two separate records that were interlocked. I never wanted to do two records -- that was Capitol's thing. The people that were at Capitol when that happened aren't there anymore and they aren't even the people we signed with. We've been through three regimes at Capitol. The one that's there now hasn't sold anything except Lisa Marie Presley's first week. That's the biggest thing they've had, so I don't know how long they're gonna be there. I'm hoping we're not gonna be there much longer, but it's up to them. We haven't got a lot of airplay on this record because of our label and because alternative radio thinks we're passé and old, we don't belong in the format. And we're too edgy for modern AC or pop radio. We don't really fit in anywhere."
That's a dirty shame, as Slow Motion Daydream finds the band in peak form and Alexakis looking more outwardly for compelling subject matter. "9/11, you can't get away from," he says. "The songs aren't specifically about that, but you can't not take that into consideration as a writer or as an American. It was that devastating. I was in bed, it was 6:30 in the morning in Portland, my daughter was in bed, everything was groovy, we were getting ready to do a tour in a couple of weeks, and the phone rang. It was my sister-in-law from Atlanta. And she said turn on your TV.' And I said what channel' and she said any channel.' I turned to my wife when the second plane went through and said, Oh, fuck, that wasn't an accident.' Then my daughter's school called and goes, By the way, school's open,' and I said I'm not taking my daughter to school today! Fuck that.
"Our last three records came out of the Clinton years when things were pretty good. I think when things are pretty good on the outside and people are fat, I think writers tend to be more introspective.
"I wanted to do more storytelling as opposed to narrative," he says a few moments later. "There's still a lot of narrative on the record. I tend to write in the first person a lot. It's a form of storytelling that for me is more exciting. Telling a story and involving yourself in it. I usually fall back on it because it tends to flesh stories out and it feels good. The few times that I've really bared my soul like Father of Mine' and Wonderful,' which wasn't really autobiographical but there was a lot of things in there that touched home for me because I had gone through divorce twice. Once as a kid with my parents and once as the father of a daughter. That was tough. She was 6 or 7 when we got divorced. And her mom remarried immediately, she had a baby pretty close after that with her boyfriend. She's got two beautiful boys, we get along great, and I get along fine with her husband. We live 15 minutes away from each other, we've got co-custody, everything's groovy. As long as I keep paying those checks, everything's cool."
Alexakis adopts the guise of a parent twice on the new album to different effect. There's the moving "Chrysanthemum," loosely based on a story about the abduction of two girls in Oregon City. "That song was me putting myself in the shoes of the parents of someone who was in any kind of disaster. I used the word chrysanthemum because my daughter came home from school when she was in kindergarten and had two front teeth missing and she could spell chrysanthemum. I can't even spell it. But when I hear that word, I think of her."
And there's "Volvo Driving Soccer Mom," the single that asks, "Where do all the porn stars go when the lights go down?"
"I've met a couple of people offended by it or I've heard about it through other people," he says. "For the most part, I've had people come up to me and say, I'm a Volvo-driving soccer mom and proud of it. And I've got tattoos,' and I'm like, And I don't want to see them.' It was just a fun song that kind of pokes fun at people defining themselves and being defined by other people. That's a very junior high school thing to do, and it's understandable when you're in junior high school but not when you're in your 30s. Then it becomes petty and stupid."
Shifting gears, Everclear targets Attorney General John Ashcroft in the song "Blackjack." But people, best Alexakis can figure, aren't buying Everclear CDs just to bulldoze them.
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"Naw, they don't give a shit about me," he says, laughing. "I wish they did. I wish that song had the impact. It's different to write a song about John Ashcroft whose own state elected a dead guy over him. They thought he was scarier than a dead guy.
"I was at the New York anti-war protest and there were like 350,000 people there and I know there was that many people 'cause the cops told me there were that many people. CNN didn't talk about it. That day, they showed 20 seconds on CNN and then spent 15 minutes on a pro-war rally in upstate New York where there was 200 people at a military base. So I don't believe the media."
As if to censor his own media, Alexakis concludes by keeping his band's options open and hinting that under the right circumstances (a new record deal on a more supportive label, mostly), "we just might have one more album in us."
But you don't have to believe anything you read, either.