Before my interview with Art Alexakis, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Aside from being familiar with Everclear’s hits Heroin Girl, Santa Monica and Father of Mine, a Google search had me slightly apprehensive (go on, try it), given that one of the first headlines to surface is ‘The Most Hated Musician In Portland’. Thankfully, I can wholeheartedly say, based on that descriptor, I was pleasantly surprised.
Down Under for solo acoustic tour ‘Songs and Stories – An Evening with Art Alexakis’, his seventh time to Australia since bursting onto the scene as front man of rock band Everclear in 1991, the songwriter says he has grown to like intimate gigs.
“I like playing to the smaller crowds and really just connecting with people. The show’s called songs and stories, and that’s pretty much what it is; me telling stories about the songs. I think people find it funny and engaging … and just a lot of fun.”
Twenty-five years on, and now aged 54, Alexakis still has the “fire in my belly and the spirit in my heart” to make music. In 2003 he made the decision to continue with Everclear but with new band members, and together they have since released three albums, the latest being ‘Black Is the New Black’.
While there are audible similarities to their first record, there are also changes, and it’s a transition that has occurred authentically, which he is proud about even if it hasn’t always won him fans.
“You can fool some people; you can game some people, and manipulate them. But when you start trying to game or manipulate yourself, it comes through and people can see it … at least call yourself out on it. I try to do that everyday and I’m lucky to have a partner, my wife, who has no problem calling me out on my shit,” he laughs.
“I just try and keep everything very genuine … I’ve never made the music that was expected of me and a lot of people at the record label back in the day didn’t enjoy that. But I’m like ‘look, I’m going to write songs, and I’ll keep writing songs until you guys have one that you feel like you can work to radio’. I understand the business end of it. I’m not going to write songs to write hits; to me that’s called writing product. I probably could, but I don’t want to.”
And when he talks about being genuine, it doesn’t only apply to his music.
Having lived a turbulent life, Alexakis (nee Arthur Paul Alexakis) has never shied away from being open about his past. Born in Los Angeles, he was just a young boy when his Greek American father abandoned the family; an act typical of the men in his family, he reveals.
Faced with financial difficulties, his mother did the best she could to provide, relocating Alexakis, his brother George and three sisters to a housing project in California. Unfortunately he was in store for darker days. Sexually abused by older children, it was at age 12 that he lost his brother to a heroin overdose; the same year his own girlfriend would commit suicide.
Things all got to be too much, when at his lowest, Alexakis, a drug user himself, attempted to take his own life unsuccessfully off the Santa Monica Pier.
But Alexakis isn’t one to seek sympathy. Having since become a father himself, in hindsight he is thankful for the lessons learnt and is trying to break the cycle of negativity with his own children.
“You try to give less damage and baggage to your children than what your parents gave to you. My dad abandoned us; I haven’t abandoned my children. I will never abandon my children. I broke that cycle in my family. That’s big,” he says.
For a rock and roller, it quickly becomes clear that Alexakis deep down is very different from his tough, tattooed exterior. Wearing his heart on his sleeve, aside from the love he has for his current wife and children, he also has a strong sense of social justice.
“One of the things I’ve been doing a lot and I try to inspire people to do is micro investments. About $500 or $1,000 and you’re buying someone a food cart in India, and they pay you back $10 a month with interest. It changes lives, it changes people’s standing in the class system and they can move out of poverty,” he says.
“I think it’s really important that when a kid gets out of high school that they spend a year in a third world country and they get an idea of what it’s like to live there. We in western civilisations live like kings; even the poorest of us. I grew up in poverty in the housing projects … But you know what? My mum never let me miss a meal. I always had clean clothes to wear; I always had activities to do – not as much as my daughter who does 15 things a week,” he says with a laugh, “but we always had a roof over our head, and more importantly, I had running water.”
An outspoken Democrat and gay rights activist, with the 8 November US presidential election drawing ever so near, it doesn’t take long for the conversation to turn to politics, and the question to be asked about the prospect of Donald Trump being elected.
“Donald Trump is NOT going to be president; it’s just not going to happen,” Alexakis says without a moment’s hesitation.
“I know the media’s just trying to make this more of a horse race because it sells time. It’s like a Faustian play. I’m watching this thing go on and I’m just like ‘are people really buying into this?’ and they’re denigrating Hilary Clinton − and granted, she’s not perfect − but comparatively, there’s no comparison. To me there’s no choice.”
And if you happen to disagree, and are aligning with Trump, then you’ve lost a ‘friend’ where Alexakis is concerned.
“I have very strong political views but when it comes to my personal Facebook I really don’t get political and I really don’t like it when people get political. But to me it’s like, you’re showing your true colours. Boom! Gone. This election cycle has been good for people to go through their friend list and just go ‘Nope. No. Ohhh no’.”
But while it can be easy to pinpoint fingers when it comes to the politics of other nations, there’s no denying Australia’s own burden, carrying a poor global reputation regarding refugee policy and our stance on gay marriage. When I inform the musician of Turnbull’s proposed plebiscite, it’s clear he’s not too keen on politicians passing the buck.
“It’s totally cowardly. That’s their job, and their job is to do the right thing. If you’re talking about financial things or regulations or something, that’s one thing. But you’re talking about basic human rights,” he says, urging Australians to take note of the 1960s civil rights movement in the States; to fight and show strength in numbers.
“Do you think without a civil war our country would have abolished slavery? Do you think without political strife and battles we would have got through the whole civil rights era in our country? And now in the last 10 years the LGBTQ community has fought tirelessly to achieve what we achieved through both Obama and the Supreme Court. It’s a battle; no one’s going to give it to you. I keep telling people that. I’m a big fan of peaceful protest. You get people in their pocketbooks, you put on strikes, you refuse to work, you refuse to do business with these people − they’re going to change their actions. I’ve had to fight for everything good in my life. Nothing comes easy; I don’t expect it to.”
And of all people he should know. The musician has come a long way, fighting the good fight to stay sober since 1989.
While music has continued to be an outlet of expression for him, as a person he has evolved and added a few strings to his bow. Aside from the band, he is also working in radio, and coaching and mentoring other songwriters, and even surprised himself with writing the curriculum for a small music college in LA.
“I think I’m older and more mature, and I’m still very child-like, you know, I’m a big goofy kid, but I think I really understand my priorities in life a lot better.
“I’ve learned a lot; I still feel like I’ve got my sense of humour, which I think is really important. In my country with the election now you have to have a sense of humour or it would be a dark day,” he laughs.
But Art Alexakis is the real deal; rock and roll is running through his veins and for his fans, there’s good news, as he confirms that they’ll be seeing much more of him just yet.
“People ask me when I’m going to retire and I’m like ‘never’. I’m going to be one of those older citizens that work till they die, in one way or another.
“I’m going to be the grandpa where my grandkids and great-grandkids are like ‘oh, he’s playing that horrible loud music again’. They’re just going to put me in the back house with my cigars, and hopefully my Viagra … my wife will come and see me every now and then. You walk in you’re going to hear some Led Zeppelin and punk rock.”
Far more of us have experienced fewer hardships in life, and yet aren’t as optimistic as Alexakis. Sure the fame and fortune that has come over the years has helped, but there seems to be something else from deep within that keeps him humble and so very connected and engaged with the lower socio- economic class and their struggles.
“Everybody’s got a story to tell. I gotta tell you, what it really comes down to is being self-aware and being present. That’s been the best thing for me as a songwriter, as a person, as a man, as a father, as a son to my mother until she passed. I think people call it wisdom, but I call it being aware and present. When people do that, I think the propensity for bullshit both to other people and to yourself is severely diminished.”
To find out more about Everclear and hear their music, visit www.everclearmusic.com