Art Alexakis released his debut solo album, Sun Songs, in the summer of 2019 to critical acclaim, then officially via The End Records/BMG on October 11th of the same year. He’s spent almost three decades performing with his band Everclear and has received countless accolades for his songwriting.
Scattered are the variety of songs encapsulating a plethora of emotions relating to West Coast living and familiar ties. The soft-spoken single, “Hot Water Test” lends an honest look into the isolation that accompanies a recent medical diagnosis, but still manages to champion a fighting spirit throughout. The progression of music, primarily recorded by Alexakis, continues to prove he is a alternative rock song-crafting staple after some thirty years and counting.
Zane Brammell recently had a chance to chat with Art during the national health crisis about the new record, quarantine life, and Everclear.
Do you mind going into detail on your new single “Hot Water Test,” and how it got its name?
Art Alexakis: “Sure. So long story short, I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (RRMS) in April of 2016. Apparently I’ve had it for over 15 to 20 years. I wasn’t public about it, you know I didn’t hide from it. Until I wrote the song about it when I was working on the songs for my solo record, Sun Songs, I knew I wanted to write about this. I couldn’t really write about my life in California. That’s really what the record is about, a West Coast perspective.
The title of the song comes from the late 1800s/early 1900s, the doctors knew about auto-immune diseases but multiple sclerosis was the most common one. They just didn’t know how to diagnose it, but they knew when people were hot, they would exhibit symptoms. So they had the great idea to wrap people in burlap and throw them in super hot water. 120-degree water. It’s called the ‘hot bath test.’ So once I came up with that title, the rest of the song just kind of came pretty easy for me.
Having a disease like that, having the stigma of any kind of disease that makes you feel different and feel isolated, or separate in a bad way from other people, it’s kind of like going through a test like that constantly, every day. Especially when you’re in pain, and a lot of people with MS have chronic pain 24/7. I’m lucky that I have a lot of symptoms, but they’re not that intense to the point that I have to be in a wheelchair or even use a cane at this point.”
I’m sorry to hear that. You seem to be channelling it into your music with the new album. Has writing the solo album been a different experience in comparison to writing Everclear records?
“Not the writing part because I write all the Everclear stuff anyways, but recording was different because I’m used to having people in the studio to get feedback. I work with really great musicians, there’s a symbiotic thing where we’re feeding off each other. It’s one of the great things about playing music. When I’m doing it all myself, drums, and everything else, it’s fun to do these things and feel outside of your comfort zone, but it’s very lonely and it doesn’t have that same buzz. Even though I might do another solo record someday, I’m never going to say never, but I don’t think I’m going to do this again.”
Having to do more of the work yourself, did you learn any new tricks while in the studio?
“I did. I learned that I’m a pretty good bass player, and I’m a really bad drummer. It’s fun to do things when you have a limited palette. Someone gives you five colours, you can mix and match them, that’s all you get, it becomes a little bit more monochromatic, but at the same time, I think it gives you more freedom to work out of your comfort zone. That’s what I thought for me, so that was really exciting to be able to do that.”
So, during this pandemic, have you found a good way to pass the time at home?
“Yeah man, I’m sitting right next to it! I put in a pool last year because, with MS, you’re not supposed to get overheated, swimming really is the best exercise for anybody. It’s low impact, it’s just good exercise. It took nine months for this thing to get finished. I came back from Australia in late February, and that was the first day I could swim in it, and I’ve not missed a day yet. I’m sitting here tanned and my hair is all beach blonde, I was speaking to my mother-in-law on FaceTime and she was like ‘Oh my god, you look like a surfer.’ I said ‘An older surfer, yes I do kind of.’”
In Australia, was that an Everclear tour, or promotion for your solo record?
“Everclear, we do very well down there. We were part of a tour called ‘Hotter Than Hell.’ Ironically named, it’s been around four years if you remember the fires over the holidays, it was just ramping down when we got there. It was very hot, it’s summer there so it was very hot in certain parts. We had a phenomenal tour, just a great experience, not one bad show of the whole fifteen shows. So we came back, had a bunch of shows booked, two tours booked, looking at having a really great year. Be careful what you ask for, right?”
What’s on your current playlist?
“I’ve been listening to the new X record that just came out. They’re a punk band from LA that was big in the ‘80s, and a big influence to me. On Facebook, everybody’s doing ‘top 10-20 albums’ and I got suckered into doing it. Listening to what everyone else is listening to and I’ll go ‘man, I forgot about that record,’ and I’ll go back and listen to something I haven’t listened to in years.”
Can you list any of your inspirations in songwriting, instrumentally or lyrically?
“Absolutely. In no specific order: Neil Young, Springsteen, John Prine, Elvis Costello, Dave Edmunds, all that stuff.”
Do you believe that the internet has impacted the music industry, positively or negatively?
“Definitely. The whole file sharing aspect of it basically killed the industry as it was, and labels. It used to be you would tour to support a record, the record was the main source of income, now it’s not… you put out a record to support your tour for most musicians. That’s why COVID-19 has been so devastating to everyone, at every level in our society, but in my small world of being a touring musician, I’ve had no income for two and a half months, and for the foreseeable month and a half to two months.
It’s bad at every level. It’s bad for people who are really big, and people like me who are kind of in the middle, and for the musician that’s out there hustling constantly and playing trying to make a living. It’s been devastating and trying to get financial help as a musician is all but impossible.
I’m not complaining… things are going to get back to a semblance of themselves in the next few months to a year, and I’m going to do everything in my power to hold on and meet my bills and do everything I have to do. My guys are doing it, they’re on unemployment. We’re all just waiting till they tell us ‘Yes!’ and we can go play these shows. We’re going to be on the next flight out, you know? As of now, we’re on a holding pattern like the rest of the world, pretty much.”
I saw you’ve been doing regular Facebook videos. How’s that been?
“That’s for hardcore fans. They started a list of songs that we don’t play a lot and I’m like ‘Ok. I will do a couple songs a week.’ I try to do it every week.”
Over the span of your career, I’ve seen you play a variety of guitars. Has there been one that you’ve held on that you couldn’t live without, and do you consider instruments just as tools to create your music, or do you believe that you can build up a relationship with a specific one?
“I would say yes to all of it. I mean they are tools, but at the same time if you pick up a guitar that just plays like right off the wall, and it just talks to you, buy that guitar if you have the money, or if you have to borrow or steal the money to get that guitar. It’s like love at first sight. Your soul and your body in your hands, you gotta get it.
Back when Everclear first got signed to Capitol Records in ‘94, we went to record our first major label record, which ended up being Sparkle and Fade in Madison Wisconsin. We drove cross country, we stopped at a place we’d played a lot on tour, La Crosse, Wisconsin and there’s a famous guitar shop there called Dave’s Guitars. I went in there, and I’ve always had a thing for Gibson Les Pauls, and I’ve always had a thing for gold tops but I could never afford them… I walked up and saw this guitar and he wanted like 980 dollars and I was like ‘Dude, I’ll give you 800 dollars cash right now, I’ve got in my pocket’ and he was like ‘Ok,’ and I’ve used that guitar all over every Everclear record that’s ever happened.
I don’t tour with it now because it’s getting kind of old. It was actually in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for about ten years, and they let me have it back, I gave them something else. That’s the guitar I will never, ever, ever sell, ever.”
When you started out, was there a piece of advice that you’ve held onto? Like an inspirational guitar instructor, or did you learn yourself?
“I had a couple guitar teachers but didn’t take too many lessons. I took a few, but I was self-taught from there. Once I knew the chords, and chromatics, and scale, I took it from there… I went home and basically learned how to play everything on Led Zeppelin I, Aerosmith’s Rocks, and Elvis Costello’s My Name Is True. And that’s it. I never really wanted to play in a cover band because most people I knew in cover bands lost some sort of original aspect in their writing, and their playing, and their singing by playing someone else’s music. So I’ve concentrated on my own music since I started writing songs when I was 20. I’m 58 now, so almost thirty years of writing songs.”
What’s been your most memorable experience over your thirty years, whether it be in writing, touring, or studio?
“That’s kind of an impossible possible question…playing Woodstock in 1999 in front of 280,000 people, and hearing that many people singing ‘Santa Monica’ with me, that was pretty amazing. Going to the platinum record party with my mom, and her not really realizing what had been happening, and we got out of the limo… there was a red carpet and paparazzi and all these people at this restaurant, and she was like ‘Boy, are all these people here for you?’ and I was just like ‘Yeah, mama.’ She goes, ‘Well ok,’ and that was it.
Watching that realization hit her, you know my mom was from the deep south, she grew up poor. She raised me up to be pretty simple, and respectful, you know, she was a southern girl. She raised me with those beliefs. They’ve never left me. She taught me a lot about gratitude and respect. Being on the road here and there, and hearing yourself on the radio and playing on Saturday Night Live back in 1996, that was a big deal. That was huge. I’ve had hundreds of experiences like that so it’s hard to nail just one down.”
As for your songwriting process, do you have to wear purple socks for example, or do you have a certain ritual that you get into?
“No, I don’t do that. I write when I feel I need to have to write. I’ve tried to sit down with people and write, and it’s just not my thing. That’s when your songs start sounding like other people’s songs: you’re trying to put round pegs in round holes, and square pegs in square holes, that’s not what songwriting is about for me. It’s about telling stories and communicating and connecting me to a hypothetical bigger world. I’m not superstitious like that.”
I know “Hot Water Test” is deeply emotional for you. Is there another track on the album that stands out to you?
“Yeah, there’s a couple songs on the record that I really like a lot. There’s several love songs, there’s a love song for my wife. There’s a song for my daughter, ‘Arizona Star.’ There’s a lot of special things there. There’s some I write about that are autobiographical, and some songs that aren’t. There’s songs that are political. Typical of any record I write, whether it’s Everclear or my solo record, I tend to mix it up with different perspectives. I’ve always felt that my favourite writers dig through the lines between what’s autobiographical and what’s not, if I can’t tell the difference, then they’re doing their jobs. That’s what I’ve always tried to emulate.”
Jumping back to Everclear, specifically the song, “Father of Mine,” listening to it growing up, and it being significant for me personally, is there anything you’d like to add to give backstory for it?
“Not really, I mean I’ve talked about that song enough; there’s probably a site of interviews talking about that song. One of the things that’s interesting, you know, I wrote that song when my eldest daughter who’s going on 29, was five years old. I used to watch her sleep. When you have children, sometimes you just want to watch them sleep. It’s better than any TV show. I remember watching her and just going ‘How the fuck does a man leave that? How do you walk away from that?’ I understand if your relationship with your wife or your partner isn’t working out, but how do you walk away from kids? You walk away from a part of yourself. That’s what I just couldn’t get.
I went to my office and wrote that song. Even though I wrote it that long ago, it still connects with me. I still connect with that kid inside me that feels those things because that’s what I had to connect with when I wrote that song. The perspective has changed a little bit, and now I have another child that’s just getting into being a teenager, and it’s a different experience than the first time around.”
Thanks for speaking with me, Art.
“Thank you for calling, all the best to you. Be safe, and be well.”