In Milwaukee, Everclear leader Art Alexakis falls off the wagon. His palms are sweating and his pupils are dilating. It’s not beause of heroin, coke, acid, or speed–all substances that Art ingested in copious quantities between the ages of 13 and 22, until he went cold turkey eleven years ago. Art’s return to the chemical lifestyle comes courtesy of two bottles of the latest beverage innovation: Water Joe, caffeinated water. Because the hard drugs permanently thrashed Art’s metabolism, he stays away from even sugar and aspirin, but he sucked down two bottles of Water Joe by mistake–his first caffeine in over a decade. He’s always effusive, but now even more so. “Whew, I’m loaded!” he shouts. “Pass the hot dogs and Shasta cola! Go get some cinnamon rolls and we’ll be hitting the strip clubs!”
In reality, Art leads a sedate life, his principal vice being his cellular phone. At least four times a day, he calls home to Portland, Oregon, to check on his wife Jenny and their three-year-old daughter Anna. Meanwhile, on the road, after sixteen months of continuous touring and nine months after the release of Everclear’s second album Sparkle and Fade, the band has been playing sold-out shows–which delights and surprises them. Fans’ interest may have been sparked by MTV’s relentless play of the “Santa Monica” video, wherein Art frolics on the beach with bassist Craig Montoya and drummer Greg Ecklund, playing a more swinging version of the usual Northwestern thrash, singing about his longing for a failed relationship. The video features Art arguing with a girlfriend in a spat that seems to have a violent edge, but the music has a classic stuttering groove and even ’70s-style guitar fills. Here and elsewhere on the now-gold Sparkle and Fade. Art draws from his own life to populate his own songs: drug addicts, girls with pierced nipples, people who dream of packing up and escaping their miserable lives. The result is emotional, but more nuanced than the usual purge-and-howl routine. Something in the songs has an unerring ring of truth.
Everclear’s dressing room at Milwaukee’s Marquette University has cold cuts but no bread, so they steal the loaf in opening act No Doubt’s dressing room. Greg says, “I don’t think No Doubt’s a sandwich kind of band.” Greg started drumming at age three. He was an Army brat living in England; when Adam Ant came on Top of the Pops, Greg grabbed his mother’s wooden knitting needles and pounded out a rhythm, smashing them to bits. He went to college for a couple of years–to escape an ex-girlfriend and to gain access to the free racquetball courts–but flunked out and worked at a steel foundry. When he heard two years ago that Everclear had fired their first drummer, he found Art’s number, auditioned, and joined the band that same day.
Greg was immediately moved by the song “Queen of the Air,” where Art sings about an aunt he never knew, who committed suicide when he was a child–and his discovery that she was really his mother. Greg barely knew his bandmates’ last names, so he couldn’t ask Art about his dead mother. After a few months with Everclear, he summoned up his courage. “Man, it’s just a story,” Art told him. Greg never asked about the lyrics again.
In fact, Art was brought up by his (still-living) mother in the housing projects of Culver City, California, along with a brothers and three sisters–his mother had left his father after a fight, and his dad wasn’t around. Art remembers a friendly ice-cream man who would drive through the neighborhood with a cooler in the back of his pickup truck, and sometimes toss you a free bar if you didn’t have any money. It turned out he was also dealing heroin, and Art’s older brother George was the connection who distributed it through the projects.
When Art was 12, George OD’d and a devastated Art lost his hero. Soon after, Art stepped into his shoes, using and dealing a kaleidoscope of drugs. Predictably, things went downhill: After a girlfriend overdosed a year later, Art even tried to commit suicide by jumping off the Santa Monica pier, his pockets filled with sand. Underwater, he heard George’s voice telling him to swim, so he did. Some might call it an angel. Art just thinks it was his speed-addled brain.
While Art has written plenty of songs about his drug use and will share horror stories–like the time he woke up from a blackout to find himself behind the wheel, swerving all over the highway, with cars scattering in front of him–lately he worries that his music might be overshadowed by the tales of his lost decade. It ended when aged 22, Art shot up cocaine and had an OD of his very own. But Art survived and soon after, he quit everything cold turkey. No twelve-stepping: “I’ve never been a joiner.”
Art bounced around the country, working an endless series of jobs, in restaurants, supermarkets, offices, the mailroom of a record company, even up on telephone poles. All the while, he was really thinking about music–he would play guitar for country bands and cover bands at weddings, sometimes stepping forward to sing Del Shannon’s “Runaway” or Chuck Berry’s “Nadine.” Eventually he settled in San Francisco, where he had a band (Colorfinger) and an indie label (Shindig). Both soon went belly-up. He had been dating Jenny for only five months when she got pregnant in October of 1991; they moved to Portland (her hometown) and Art decided to give music one last try.
He placed a classified ad in the Portland Lafayette and recruited Everclear’s first drummer, Scott Cuthbert, and bassist Craig Montoya. Craig, a former metalhead and BMX racer, grew up in Spokane, Washington, and dealt drugs through his teens. When he was seventeen, the cops raided his house–luckily, he wasn’t home. But when he spent a couple of days in jail on a DWI, he decided he never wanted to return. He got a job washing boats and then moved to Portland with his band Soul Hammer; after they broke up, he called Art. On the phone, Art was talking so loud and fast about his grandiose plans for Everclear that Craig had to hold the receiver a foot away from his ear.
ART: “Can you use ‘miasma’ in a sentence?”
GREG: “I can’t breathe because miasma’s killing me.”
Around ten o’clock the morning after the Milwaukee show, Everclear and their crew get on the bus for the short drive to Chicago. They instruct Biscuit, the bus driver, to tell the toll collectors that he’s carrying Reba McIntire. Greg, the band’s magazine junkie, settles in with a copy of a special People issue: The World’s Greatest Romances. Art retreats to the bus’s back room, where he works on some new songs. Both Greg and Craig cheerfully acknowledge that Art is the band’s driving force, and are happy to follow the leader. Art exudes confidence that might border on arrogance, were he not so friendly. 33 years old, he calls Greg and Craig (both 26) his “boys,” and takes a paternal pride in encouraging the often-shy Craig to work on his own singing and songwriting. “When I met Craig, he was wearing all denim,” Art remembers. “Now he dresses better than any of us.”
Upon arriving in Chicago, all three band members are immediately sent to their hotel rooms to do telephone interviews–the wages of fame. Art doesn’t complain (much); he’s too savvy about the music business. His conversation is littered with terms like “going for adds” (trying for radio-station airplay), “merch” (t-shirts), and “blowoff” (the shirts sold after the show). “I know more about the business than a lot of the kids at my record company,” he says.That evening, the band head to the studios of JBTV, a local rock-video show. They’re introducing videos, and get loose and goofy. As usual, Art steps into the spotlight, but uses it to speculate about Craig’s romantic pursuit of MTV’s Kennedy–Craig insists they’re just friends who like to snowboard. The JBTV host tries to egg them on, but Art cuts him off, saying, “We don’t squabble any more. We’re so big now, we can pay people to squabble for us.”
The whole band starts mugging for the camera, stepping in front of each other as they jockey for position. Art regains control by taking out his wallet and producing his ID card from Santa Monica High School, academic year 1977-1978. Wearing a blue V-neck sweater, Art looks like a young Danny Bonaduce. “There’s a hickey on my neck,” Art points out, and stares solemnly into the camera. “Girls, that was sexy back then. In 1977, when most of you were born, I was experiencing free love.”
Art has something he wants to tell me. Looking for a place we can be alone, we sit in his private room at the back of the parked tour bus. Subdued and clearly nervous, he starts talking about 1993, when he and Jenny were going through hard times. The band was struggling, Art was always on the road, and he had been fined for cheating on public assistance. They had both been unfaithful, and Art found out about Jenny’s extracurricular activity after he returned from a tour. Jenny threatened to leave him and to take Anna with her. Summoning up a horrible memory, Art lets the words spill out in one long sentence: “We got into a physical confrontation where we actually started fighting and I bruised her on the arm and pulled her hair and it was basically abuse–I had never done that before–and I called the cops and she called the cops and I went to jail.”
Art talks a long time, sorrowfully, about his act of violence and its aftermath. When got out of jail, he cried for three days. He almost jumped off a bridge, but didn’t want to leave Anna fatherless. With the urging of the DA, Jenny pressed assault charges–as a first-time offender, Art was offered probation and a twenty-four-week course in anger management. Art would fly home from tours to attend group sessions. In therapy, he discovered that one of his earliest memories was of his father hitting his mother. Art often speaks of wanting to break the cycle of abuse and abandonment by the men in his family, but how matter how much he wants to consider his fury an isolated incident, he has to live with the knowledge that he threw Jenny around in front of their baby daughter.
Art says the anger-management course taught him to control his Neanderthal tendencies. The success of the band has certainly reduced his internal rage; I can’t help but wonder how he would cope if his life ever fell apart again. At the very least, he has more tools now: whenever he feels his control slipping, he knows to take a time-out and walk around the block.Some people in Portland already know about Art’s arrest, because Everclear had to cancel a show the night Art was in jail. He doesn’t like the way people judge his life on the basis of the outburst, but he knows that if he doesn’t talk about it, somebody else will. He gives me Jenny’s phone number in Portland and suggests that I hear her perspective.
Jenny is assertive yet clearly worried about the growing lack of privacy in her marriage. “Both of us were very abusive, physically and mentally,” she says. “With the accent on both of us.” She is fierce about not wanting to be portrayed as a victim in the relationship. To her mind, the story’s happy ending is evident from how she and Art were able to change and work past their abuse: ten months after Art got arrested, they were married. She guarantees me that if Art did something terrible to her, she wouldn’t cover up for him–and I believe her.
Backstage at the Metro club in Chicago, Art laments that he won’t have time to visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater while he’s in town–but soon he’s drowning his sorrows in a food fight, flinging handfuls of carrots into the other dressing rooms. Meanwhile, Craig sits quietly, inscribing a word onto each hand, like Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter. His left knuckles sport “HATE,” so naturally the right hand reads “OZZY.” As usual, the band has no idea what time they’re supposed to be onstage. Greg lays out his number one rule of rock ‘n’ roll: “Smile and look pretty and someone will tell you what to do.”
Eventually, Everclear are told to go onstage. Art strolls out, wearing a Milli Vanilli t-shirt and black jeans, and plays a solo version of the heroin codependency ballad “Strawberry.” Already, the audience is singing along with every word. And when the full band launches into “Electra Made Me Blind,” they mosh like they’re standing on a skillet. Everclear match their physical enthusiasm by pulling out all the stage tricks they know: Craig keeps jumping off the drum riser, Art falls to his knees during a guitar solo, and Greg sticks out his tongue like he’s Michael Jordan driving to the basket.
They perform without a set list, Art shifting the tempo between fast and very fast. Several songs in, Art calls for “Fire Maple Song,” from Everclear’s first album, World of Noise. As recorded, it’s relatively quiet, almost a hymn in memory of Art’s dead brother George. “Turn away from the pain you don’t want,” Art sings, but he doesn’t take his own advice. His agonies provide the fuel for his incandescent songs. So tonight, Everclear grab hold of the riff and keep stomping on it. Art slams his body into Craig’s and they almost topple a tower of speakers. They finish the show with a cover of Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” and retreat, sweaty and happy.
After the show, the band signs autographs for an hour or so. Some of the group and crew then go out drinking, but not Art–he heads back to the hotel so he can call Jenny.
By Gavin Edwards. Originally published as “‘Clear Unpleasant Danger” in the May 1996 issue of Details.