Twenty years ago, Everclear released its second album, Sparkle and Fade, to much fanfare amongst the bleached-haired, flannel-wearing set. Pretty much every track on the disc fit snugly between Better Than Ezra and The Rentals on FM radio, and the album would eventually go platinum. Leading the charge was one of the Alternative Era’s ubiquitous songs, ‘Santa Monica,’ written by lead singer, guitarist and creative force, Art Alexakis.
It’s a catchy, sunshine-y tune with a memorable riff, but upon closer inspection, it takes on a darker hue. It not-so-subtly nods to Alexakis’ troubled past, which included personal struggles with drug addiction, losing a girlfriend and brother to overdoses and an attempt to take his own life by throwing himself off the Santa Monica Pier. While the tune’s lyrics don’t delve into any one of these events, they do showcase an ever-present longing for a better life, a notion that pops up in several of Alexakis’ compositions.
Although Alexakis says only a fraction of his Everclear songs—maybe 10 percent—deal directly with ultra-personal topics, ‘Santa Monica’ seems a pin-prick compared to the gravity surrounding ‘Father of Mine,’ which appeared on the band’s third album two years later.
“You get your ass kicked, you pick yourself up, and you move forward. That’s what life is all about.”
So Much for the Afterglow stormed the charts and went two-times multi-platinum atop a bevy of hits like ‘Everything to Everyone’ and ‘I Will Buy You a New Life.’ But ‘Father of Mine’ stands out as one of the greatest, most personal “Fuck You” moments ever put to tape by any band. Addressing his own deadbeat dad, who had abused his mother and walked out on the family when he was a boy, Alexakis used his pen and electric guitar as tools of calculated revenge, spilling his father’s ugliness on the world. It struck a chord with not only the band’s rabid fan base, but also thousands (if not millions) who could empathize with the songwriter.
All these years later, Alexakis and a retooled lineup are still putting out new music, gearing up to release their ninth studio album, Black Is the New Black, on The End Records this coming spring. Aside from helming the ’90s alt-rock-nostalgia Summerland Tour—which last year featured Oral Hit-story vets Live and Sponge—Alexakis and his band have done their utmost to stay relevant. One big way? Alexakis has an awesome bit part in the Oscar-nominated Reese Witherspoon vehicle, Wild.
We had a long, heavy conversation with the durable frontman about his acting gig, new music and ‘Father of Mine.’
Tell me how you got involved in Wild.
Well, it’s funny, I’ve known [Wild author] Cheryl Strayed’s husband, Brian Lindstrom, for years. He had been an acting teacher for a high school film and acting club for my daughter when she was 15 or 16. When they were casting, he suggested to Cheryl, ‘Hey, Art, would be a great idea for this one,’ and she was like, ‘Let me talk to Reese.’ She called Reese Witherspoon on the phone, which is something I can’t do, and [director] Jean-Marc Vallée and all these people, and I did three interviews and two auditions. I worked to get this part. Knowing someone is cool; it gets your foot in the door, but [it’s] not going to get you a job where you have real dialogue and you’re dealing with a superstar like Reese Witherspoon.
Like Wild’s lead character, Cheryl, there’s similar personal trauma, addiction and redemption in your backstory. Did any of that make it onto your new album, Black Is the New Black?
No one’s asked me that question. That’s a good question. Absolutely. You get your ass kicked, you pick yourself up, and you move forward. That’s what life is all about. I don’t care what you’re doing. Whether you’re a musician or a truck driver. There are some very intense, expository songs on this record that maybe come from that experience. I read the book before I even auditioned for [the part], and I didn’t know Cheryl Strayed [was the author]. She’s just a very reserved-looking, sweet, mom-ish, intelligent woman. I never put it together that that was the same woman that wrote Wild, because that woman was out of control. I think you might have something there. I think anything that affects you as a person, if you’re a writer, it’s going to affect your writing. How can it not?
I would compare this record to our first, World of Noise, and Sparkle and Fade, when life was in upheaval for me. Newly sober, baby, coming off welfare. Just not knowing where I was at the time and finding my way to the top. And now I’m in a really good place—great wife, great kids, I’m loving life, I feel strong, I feel like I can do anything. I’m older, you know? But I think that because of that—because of that security—I felt safe enough to go into the dark places. Because sometimes, I don’t think you come back out. There’s a song on our new record that deals with an incident that happened to me when I was eight. It was really, really life-changing. I got raped by, like, [older] boys. Brutally. Beaten and raped. And it was really hard for me, for years and years, to even talk about that. There was all sorts of shame and pain and anger and rage. I don’t know if you have children, but imagine that happening to your eight-year-old. It’s just unbelievable.
Not to continue down a depressing path, but let’s talk about ‘Father of Mine,’ probably the most personal song in your catalog. Do you remember what prompted you to write it, and where you were exactly when it came out?
Absolutely. This was after Sparkle and Fade was very successful. I grew up in a housing project with a single mom, poor, violence around me, [my] brother died of an overdose when I was 12. So I’ve had a chip on my shoulder the size of California my whole life. I’m finally successful, I’ve got this big house in Portland, and I remember going to my oldest daughter’s room and watching her sleep. My wife at the time came in, and we’re playing with my daughter’s hair, watching the light play off her face—one of my favorite things to do. And just as I’m walking away, [my wife] goes, ‘God, she looks just like those pictures of you when you were little.’ And then I just looked back at [my daughter], and I’m just thinking, ‘That’s me. How could anybody abandon that? How could anybody walk away from that? I would [fight] to be there in my daughter’s life. It’s not a job, it’s not a requirement, it’s not an obligation. It’s an honor and a privilege.
Right about that time, my dad was starting to want to come back in my life, because he heard from other people that his son made it. I have no capacity for bullshit—with myself or anybody else. Don’t bullshit me. Do what you’re going to do, but own it; come to me, we can talk about it, I can deal with anybody’s grief or grift, but don’t lie to my face, don’t act like I’m stupid. I just got this rage and hurt and love—all those things put together—and I told my wife that I wasn’t going to watch TV with her, I wanted to write. I went into my room—I have this little writing room in this big house—and cried for about an hour. I wrote down a bunch of words, cried, and then basically finished the song in, like, a day.
I remember two weeks later playing it for my A&R guy, this crusty old English dude who was in his 40s, and his assistant. I look up, and this very stoic British man, his face looks like an earthquake happened—he’s trying to contain his emotions. I looked at the 25-year-old [assistant], who was just bawling, man. Just bawling. Heaving crying. And I’m like, ‘Damn, there’s magic in this song now.’ I wanted this just to be as minimal, stripped down and honest as possible.
Wild man: Alexakis with wife Vanessa Crawford (and Reese, sort of) at the LA premiere.
When I re-listened to the song, at the 2:30 mark, right before that last verse, it sounds like you could’ve ended the song. Was that last verse a late arrival in the songwriting process?
I’m sorry to tell you, but that was one of the first lines I wrote. I knew where I wanted to go with it after I watched my daughter sleep. I was basically like, ‘Fuck you! This is not going to be me. This is not going to be my child. She’s not going to grow up with this damage.’ We all grow up with baggage from our parents. It’s impossible not to, because we’re human. But this is a whole different thing, and I’m not giving this to my kid. I knew where I wanted to start the song, and I knew where I wanted to end it. I think most people have problems with [writing] songs, [just as they do] movies these days—anything with [an] ending. They start off great, they go to a good place, and then [the writer] just doesn’t know how to end it. To me, in any situation, especially in a song, you have to know where you want to go. I don’t want to say ‘exit strategy,’ because that sounds sort of contrived, but you have to know where you want to end up. It’s truly a journey for me as a songwriter. I write a lot of stuff, and then I go through and pick what’s the best story. I’m sure there’s verses that I wrote that aren’t in that song, but I wouldn’t know, because I don’t keep stuff like that. I throw ’em away.
Speaking of that last verse, I assume your older daughter has heard the song at this point. Have you ever talked about it with her, and have your kids asked you about their grandfather?
Yeah, I mean, my oldest daughter doesn’t want to meet her grandfather. She’s mad at him, she’s mad at me, she’s mad at her mom. She’s 22. She’s mad at everybody. Which is really funny, because she’s had a pretty great life. She’s doing well. She was never a rich kid, but I worked really hard to provide her with the best schools and everything, and she graduated from Sarah Lawrence, a phenomenal college, and she’s in law school now. My younger daughter would like to meet her grandfather, and I reached out to him a couple years ago, when we were in Houston. I was like, ‘Hey man, I’ll come meet you,’ because he’s 90-something years old. But I never heard back.
I read an interview you did back in August, and you mentioned your mom had passed. Do you think ‘Father of Mine’ is the closest you and her ever got to closure?
As far as closure goes, yeah, this was a large part. It was very cathartic for me to write this song. When I was growing up, I never had the attitude against my dad that my older siblings did, because they were old enough to see all the crap that he was doing. I knew it intuitively: I was five-and-a-half or six when he split, so I was just hurting. I was a little boy. So that’s where a lot of that came from. But when I had a child, I went through a lot of crap with my daughter’s mother—both of us making bad choices. But we finally figured it out, and we had a few good years there, but I was damaged coming in, she was damaged from other situations, and we tried to do the best we could and raise a pretty great kid. To me, if you’re a mother or father, and you make that choice to have that child, you’re in it for life, man. If your partner has custody and moves to another state, then you move to another state. That’s what you do. You go and you live down the street from your kid, you act like a grownup, and you raise your child.
It’s funny you bring up my mom. One of the things that I found out when I got a little bit older [was] a story my mom told me. When [she and Alexakis’ father] were still married, we lived in Redondo Beach on the west side of L.A. It’s down near Hermosa Beach, near the ocean. They owned a two-house lot, with a front house and a back house. We lived in the front house, and we rented out the back house. So when my life exploded, and my parents broke up, my mom went to my dad and said, ‘I want alimony [and] you to support your kids, so they know you’re supporting them, but leave the house. We’re not going to get any money out of it. We’ll sell it, [and] you don’t have to pay any money.’ All he had to do was sign it over to her. That was it, and walk away clean. And he said, ‘I’ll do that.’
Then he goes to the meeting with the realtors to do the closing, and he picks up the pen, and he looks at my mom, and he goes, ‘See, you stupid bitch? You can’t do this without me.’ He throws the pen on the table, [it] bounces and hits my mom, and he gets up and walks out. The houses went into foreclosure, and eight months later, I’m living in a housing project. So that was my mom’s thing. My mom never really bad-talked my dad like my siblings did. She just told me what a man was supposed to do. A real man. I just realized, even after my mom died, that I did have a father—that was my mother. My mother taught me how to be a man.
Like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, is there a memoir somewhere inside you, or is this—and the rest of your music—the closest fans will ever come to knowing about your personal life?
A lot of people think because of ‘Father of Mine’ and a couple other songs that all my songs are autobiographical. To be honest with you, maybe 10 percent are straight autobiographical. But another 20 to 30 percent are from things in my life, where I moved things around or I create characters based on those things and add a little embellishment. Some are just straight-out writing. Some are things that I read about or heard about from other people. To me, a writer doesn’t just write from one perspective; a writer has got to be able to [pull] from all the different places and make it look seamless. So when people listen to my songs, and they think the whole album tells a story, that makes me feel like I’m doing my job.