For a lot of bands, this would be the perfect moment to clock out — with a retrospective compilation, a final ragged tour and the security of knowing that your place in pop music history was fairly set.
Everclear’s Art Alexakis knows from endings. When he was a kid, his brother and girlfriend both died from drug overdoses. That dual gut-punch was the impetus, endlessly bandied about in Everclear’s mid-1990s press, for his own ongoing commitment to getting clean. He made his name by writing sly, twisted songs about how it feels to lose it all, or damn near, and then find a way to work through the loss into something else.
And in a year when he’s dealt with a number of endings — a recent divorce, a changing lineup for the band he’s fronted for a decade now — he finds himself again meditating on chaos, and how to move past it.
The ostensible occasion for this conversation with Alexakis is the Everclear compilation Ten Years Gone, a 21-track survey drawn from the band’s six Capitol albums, as well as assorted non-album cuts and one new track, “Sex with a Movie Star.” It’s a disc that Alexakis, who cherry-picked the play list, is rightly proud of; but it’s also something of an aerial map of the changes of the past decade.
“Not changes in the band, more like the changes that I’ve been through,” he says, clarifying quickly. “I was a little daunted by [the project], but I was also excited about it. It’s one of those things you dread and look forward to at the same time. I looked at this record not as a best-of, but more as a chance to show the band’s breadth — where we were and where we’re going and where we’re at right now. I think it’s as good as it can be.”
Though it boasts unavoidable heavy-rotation cuts like “Santa Monica” and “Heroin Girl,” Ten Years Gone tends to favor Alexakis’ character-driven songs over the radio standbys — meaning that for the jaw-dropping omission of “Heartspark Dollarsign,” we get a gem like the largely overlooked “When It All Goes Wrong Again.” In the process of culling most, if not all of the band’s radio cuts, Ten Years Gone underscores just how unlikely was Everclear’s ubiquitous FM presence during the band’s popular peak, when muddy grunge and overproduced rap-metal were the order of the day.
“I never thought of us as a singles band,” Alexakis says. “I’ve always endeavored to make albums. I’ve never written songs with the intention of making them stand alone.” But it was in the single-song format that Alexakis’ dramatic voice resonated most compellingly: Think of the aching “Strawberry,” or the shambolic, kid’s-eye-view divorce rocker “Wonderful,” or even “Volvo Driving Soccer Mom,” delivered in the voice of the title character, which managed to be both smartass and wistful in equal measures. Even as he poked fun at a former porn star, Alexakis couldn’t help empathizing with her prim and grown-up environ — perhaps because he shared her dream of domestic tranquility. (After all, as over-30 punks will tell you, there’s finally only one way to ensure you’ll never get old. And it ain’t pretty.)
This, finally, was Alexakis’ great talent — the ability to put himself in the minds of the people he wrote about — and that talent was what set Everclear above the rest of the bands that shared radio space with them in the mid-1990s. So evident was that empathy that it’s strange to hear Alexakis talk openly, as he does, about his recent romantic split and its impact on his writing.
“The divorce has been hard, and humbling; and very good, too, because I’ve stripped away a lot of bullshit. I feel like I’m living honestly and in the moment for the first time in my life. I’ve tried to be honest with myself, and with most of the people around me, but I’ve never been honest with the women in my life. There were a lot of things that were blocked off about me that are open now. That’s not a contradiction, man, it’s just that the older you get, the more you find out that there are levels to yourself you were never aware of. You figure it out as you go. And you try not to beat yourself up about it too much.”
With a new lineup and a new set of songs, Alexakis is already stepping back into the studio in anticipation of the next Everclear record, with mid-2005 as a release target. So does this compilation represent the end of the old Everclear, or the kickoff of the new?
“Well, brother,” he drawls, “you can’t have one without the other, right? You can’t have a start without the end of something. Tattooed behind my left ear I have a bunch of Japanese characters, one of which is the symbol for chaos. The Western view of chaos is the end of all things; the Eastern view of chaos is a new beginning. [Ten Years Gone] encapsulates one era of Everclear, and the next album will start a new era. But it’s a continuation, it’s still my songs. I don’t look at it as, ‘Oh, wow, that’s over.’ I look at it like, ‘Wow, cool, that’s over. Now let’s go.’”
As he talks about the past year, and the changes those challenges have wrought in his writing, Alexakis starts getting loose and free-ranging, delivering a freewheeling monologue that finds him trying and testing his thoughts as he puts them into words. Touching desultorily on most of the things he’s been talking about, it’s a response best quoted at length:
“The best art,” he says, “and writing, and music, works on many levels. Like right now, I can feel myself getting deeper into characters. After the divorce, I felt myself getting open to a lot of stuff I wasn’t open to before — how sunlight on the leaves can affect a character — or making the attempt to get more colors in the picture, while never losing sight of what the picture’s ultimately about. Sometimes I catch myself making a song more stark and simple, getting away from superfluous words and focusing on the character, making the song seemingly more one-dimensional — but with the addition of certain kinds of inflection, opening the song up to a lot of different levels.
“I’m feeling pretty potent as a writer right now,” he continues. “I don’t feel anywhere close to burnout. I feel stronger than ever. I think the experiences I went through this year helped a lot with that, because it broke down a lot of walls inside of me. Fuck, man, life takes you where it wants you to go. We can do everything in our power to make things happen, and to prevent getting damaged or hurt. But you might walk out of your door and get hit by a car, and there’s not a goddamn thing you can do about it.
“A friend of mine, a beautiful woman in her late 40s, recently came down with tumors in her brain, malignant tumors in her lungs. Out of nowhere. Ultimately you have no idea what shit is going to happen to you. You hope for the best and prepare for the worst. If you can get almost broken, and come back from it, if what you go through doesn’t kill you.”
Sensing that he’s drifting, Alexakis stops for a moment.
“I believe in grace,” he says, finishing firmly. “And love. And acceptance. We still live in the world, regardless of what happens to us. That’s it. We have to keep moving.”
Appears Saturday, Nov. 13, at St. Andrew’s Hall (431 E. Congress, Detroit; 313-961-MELT).Eric Waggoner is a freelance scribe. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org