Everclear's Art Alexakis: 'I'm More Into Guitar Now Than I've Been For Years'

artist: Everclear date: 05/06/2008 category: interviews
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Everclear's Art Alexakis: 'I'm More Into Guitar Now Than I've Been For Years'
From the very first moment Everclear's Art Alexakis begins to speak, you know you're listening to someone who has been there back. There is something in the voice that suggests pain and overcoming big odds. He is instantly likeable and you know that everything he says is the truth. You're even doubtful whether he's capable of lying. Everclear has just released a CD of their favorite cover songs. Titled The Vegas Years, these hits go all the way back to the 60s and range from Tom Petty and Cheap Trick to Neil Young and Paul Revere and the Raiders. They are all extraordinary songs and on the record, guitarist/singer Alexakis has tried to bring his unique sense of orchestration to bear in stamping the songs with his own musical voice. We spoke on the phone for well over an hour. It turns out that the musician grew up just around the corner from where I lived. He lived in an area of Los Angeles called the Mar Vista Projects and I was brought up in Culver City. Culver City was, at best, a middleclass neighborhood not far from Venice, California. Mar Vista was a lower income housing community. We talked about listening to the same am radio stations (93 KHJ) and going to Johnny's Pastrami on Sepulveda Boulevard, a small sandwich shop that had existed in that area for over 50 years (it is still there)). We probably would have kept talking if his baby daughter hadn't demanded his attention. But what you'll read here are the thoughts and memories of a musician who beat the odds (coming from a family of divorce and surviving drug/alcohol addiction). His interpretations of the songs are remarkable and his obvious love of these originals is really what makes the CD so engaging. Ultimate-Guitar: Do you think growing up amongst Hispanics and blacks by default listening to that kind of music? Art Alexakis: Yeah, that's what I was listening to. I always asked for a hard rock record and a soul, like a funk record. In the seventies that was what was happening, you know, Ohio Players and P-Funk and all the George Clinton stuff. In the one side I'd get like Ohio Players or Mothership Connection and on the other side I'd get We Sold Our Souls For Rock 'N' Roll by Black Sabbath or Led Zeppelin IV or something like that. My older sister was into more like the Tamla/Motown sound. Do you remember 93 KHJ, that's what you'd listen to, hip pop radio. That's when pop radio was awesome, that's why I wrote that AM Radio. Because that's what I grew up with and I still listen to the songs that were played on am radio then and they were awesome. But my oldest brother was nine years older then me and he was into hard rock and Zeppelin and acid rock and Hendrix and stuff like that. And then the sister underneath him was into more of the Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills and Nash and Young, James Taylor, Paul Simon. And then the younger sister was into like bubble-gum radio, like bubble-gum pop. And I loved it all. My mom was into country music; my dad was into Sinatra and I mean, I loved all that stuff. 'Cause when you're a kid you either like it or don't. Or I don't identify with that with my image; you don't have an image when your five years old. You look like your dad or your mom. Over the years the band has gone through some changes, I mean guys have come and gone. Was that personal things or changing directions as a writer and wanting to grow musically? You added a second guitar player, Dave French, then a keyboard player. Most of it came from the fact that I just wanted to move in another direction. I'm one of those guys that don't want to make the same album over and over and over again. As a precursor to what I'm going to say is that, I really try to make songs sound differently. And when you listen to our albums I think it's arguable that I mean, you can go from am radio to some songs off Sparkle And Fade or So Much For The Afterglow. I grew up with the idea of an album of songs that would be different but would sound like that album and sound like that band. Like Led Zeppelin IV, I can tell the drum sound is from those sessions. The Sex Pistols, even on their out takes I can tell the stuff that came from the original sessions and they just had kinda that feel to it. Maybe some of it was the technology but I like to believe a lot of it was the spirit and the mind set in that album. I guess that's romanticism but that's something I always had about records. Even the record we got out now which is covers that came from all the way back to '96 up to now. It was a hard job especially with hardly any budget, to make this Frankenstein of a monster seem like one body. But I think it came out pretty good; I'm pretty happy with it. So far the reviews I've seen have been great. Let's talk a little bit about it, Art. I mean the record starts off with, Rich Girl. Would anyone in the world associate Everclear with Hall & Oates? That's a great song; that was all over the radio. I love songs; the song is the guide. You give me a great hook, a good lyric, song-write where everything feels like magic and it all fits, I'm sold. The songs that you've chosen here are songs that you maybe you wished you had written? Well, you know there's a certain amount of truth to that. Because there are songs that are so cool that yeah, I guess so. That goes to a whole different theory why I think I make music is because I was not hearing something I wanted to hear. I would go deep on a psychological tangent and say, that's the reason why anybody blazes new ground or goes in the direction because they're not getting what's available and what they need.' Which is good for us because that keeps an influx of new ideas and new things coming in. I was never ever out to reinvent the wheel, but I wanted the wheel to have my personality. Because the people I grew up really loving were the Neil Youngs and later Black Francis from the Pixies; these are guys who just took everything around them and put their own slant on it. I just thought that was great. Joni Mitchell too; if you ever go back to Hissing of Summer Lawns, fuckin' amazing. When you were in the studio, are you trying to put your self back to 1983? No. What's in my head at the time musically and emotionally, I think it all comes out in the music. You know, how I attack playing the guitar; how I want the drum sound to sound; how I want the bass to be, whether I want it busy, walking or linear or whatever; and the more keyboard parts that I get in my head. I think that all depends on where I'm at that time. And I think that's what you got. There's a couple of songs that are interesting because, like Our Lips Are Sealed, which will probably be the single off the record, and Southern Girls, the basic tracks were recorded with Craig Montoya and Greg Eklund back in '96, one in '97, but I was never really happy with those songs; the mixes, they needed something. So I went back and put keyboards, more guitars and more vocals and now they sound right. You've got two different mindsets there; you've got where I was at in '96 and '97 and where I'm at now. But when you listen to Kicks and Rich Girl which were recorded this year with the new guys and Land Of The Lost was recorded two or three years ago with the new guys and six or seven songs are with the new guys and the rest are the old guys; it's a nice blend. Because it acts just not as a document of what we've done; it also gives us an idea of where we're at now. I love the keyboards; I don't know how other people feel about it but I guess I don't care too much because I think they're awesome. I love B3; I love piano. When I was a kid I was solely into guitars, hard guitars. Even acoustic guitars I wanted to sound hard. And now, I'm painting with a different palette I guess. So having somebody playing the big B3 chords, does it open-up your playing? Does it allow you to go different places as a player? In some ways, it's a backdrop; it's a pad. It does give you more room; you know the chord is being held and it gives you room to move within the key. Sometimes it's nice when everything is working as a sledgehammer, like in Kicks. I can't believe no one has ever really done it. It lights up your radio. I remember when we were poor I was sleeping in the same bed with my big brother, he played Zeppelin, Sabbath or Deep Purple or whatever and when he wasn't there, I would have my little am radio underneath my pillow and just waited for my song to come on. You know my favorite band when I was like four was the Animals. That was my Christmas present, the Animals Greatest Hits. I wanted to be in a rock band from the time I was four years old. We put out this record because I've been wanting to do this for years, these songs have been sittin' on the shelves gathering dust and I just, like for not a lot of money, we can go back and license them from Capital and put them out ourselves and it would be cool and it would be fun and fans would dig it. And Capital got the request and started going through the old songs and they come back and go, This is awesome, there's some good stuff here, we want to put this out. we're like, Hey, this is our idea. So, we worked out a deal, they licensed some songs from us, but it was a good deal. It's nice to be around Capital again.
"I was never ever out to reinvent the wheel, but I wanted the wheel to have my personality."
Let's start with Kicks. For this specific song, how does it touch you and make you come out with this version of it? First of all, that's a good question. Have you ever heard hooks that just give you chills? This is one of them for me. Back in the day, going to the super market with my mom, I remember being in the parking lot with the car and all sorts of kids listening to the radio really loud. Listening to the radio and man, when that song would come on it would just give me chills. Paul Revere & The Raiders are from Portland, Oregon. And Mark Lindsay who was the lead singer opened up a restaurant called, The Mark Lindsay Rock & Roll Caf, and he's also a DJ and got inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame and the guy who was running it, who's a friend of mine asked me if I would be interested to play a couple of songs with Mark Lindsay and I go, Fuck yeah, hell yes. So, Mark wanted to do like, Arizona, and something else and I didn't want to do those songs. I'm like, 'I'd love to do Kicks and how about Louie, Louie?' They recorded Louie Louie three days before the Kingsmen. And it's been a badge of honor with me, that I've never played Louie Louie. We worked out Kicks, I always liked the riff of the guitars but didn't really like you know, the two-beat, verses and stuff; love it in the chorus but didn't like it in the verses in the middle eight. So, I had my drummer do a kinda old you know, bossa nova two-beat that I thought fit really well with the guitars and had the keyboard player play like a Farfisa type sound on his organ. We learned it an hour or two and played it with Mark. Poor Mark, he was like, Ah, that's a really energetic version. I'm sorry man, I was raised on big guitars; that's what sounds right to me when I play rock n roll. We loved playing it so much, when we went in to record some more songs we're like, Let's throw this down and see what happens with it? And we did and it just came out awesome. Was it ever a thought to bring Mark in to do a background harmony in it or something? Uhm, no. It crossed my mind. I don't do a lot of that, not because I don't think of it or wouldn't like to do it. I'm just shy about asking people to do stuff like that. 'Cause it just seems like everybody and their brother plays on everybody else's stuff. If something happens organically, naturally, then I think its cool. But then with managementit became a premeditated thing where I tend to shy away from that stuff. If that makes sense. So let's talk a little bit about Southern Girls. Of all the Cheap Trick songs is that the one? I just love that song and I loved doing it. I loved doing our own arrangement to it, the kind of country shuffle at the beginning and then just goes kinda to all out punk; you know it just seemed right to it. And it's really funny, because that was originally done for a Cheap Trick tribute record that never came out. But they gave the song to Rick (Nielsen) and Robin (Zander) and they called me and they were like, Man, I love your take on this. And it started a relationship. We played a couple shows with 'em and I'm always on the side of the stage just going, 'Oh, my God, I so suck; these guys are so awesome. That album, In Color, it's funny because I was a kid and to buy an album back then was $4 or $5 and that was a lot of money. You couldn't go into shops and listen to music, you couldn't download music. The only way you could hear a record was either on the radio or buy it or go to a friend's house. So a friend of mine had the tape of Cheap Trick and they were opening up for a prog rock band, Kansas. And I was listening to the tape for two or three days and went and saw them. They were doing everything I wanted to do; they kinda had a punky edge but were heavy; they could rock; they kinda had a Beatles take to it. They just became my favorite band. And I stole my friend's eight-track tape or cassette tape. I loved the way those songs all just feed together on that record and so I always wanted to do a cover of it and we did. You know there were a lot of other songs we tried but certain guys in the band didn't get them or couldn't bring really anything to them. Like we did an INXS song called, Don't Change; it was their second single off their first album and it's the only INXS song I really like. It's kind of a poppy song. but we did a cover of that but we didn't put it on this record because I never really liked our cover of it. It's OK, it's not bad, but it's just not .. it felt like we hadn't gotten to the zone of it. It didn't do the song justice. And that was my criteria for the record - that we're doing the songs justice, true to the songs, the good things about the songs and that they sounded like Everclear. That was my criteria. What about the Thin Lizzy track? It really shows off all that double guitar stuff. Is that with Dave? That was just me. That was recorded in 1999. No one else played guitar on Everclear songs 'til our last record, our last independent record, Welcome To The Drama Club. Everything up to then was me. Explain how you would go about approaching that song with all the guitar parts in front of you? Well, it comes back to the Jimmy Page world of production. Listen to Dancing Days, there's probably a hundred and fifty thousand guitars on that record. But, it sounds awesome; they all snake, ride and harmonize with each other and that's orchestral guitar or one guitar player coming up with all that stuff. And I guess he was kinda my hero growing up, because he produced all that; he had the vision for all that; he worked with great musicians who had great ideas too. John Paul Jones, of course, John Bonham and Robert Plant and they brought a lot to the mix as well, but Jimmy's guitar work, what I really liked about was it can be really restrained at times and delicate and at times really intense. And he knew when to solo and when not to solo; he wasn't one of those guys that soloed for the sake of soloing. As much as like Clapton back in the day. I mean, you listen to the live version of Crossroads, it's like twenty-two minutes long and it's all guitar solo. And while I can appreciate the virtuosity that goes into it, that didn't get me. I was always into like that guitar lick in the middle of Whole Lot Of Love, where it breaks down and goes into that guitar lick. Do you need to do anything else on lead guitar? That was it. OK, here's the check, see you later. Nothing's wasted and that was the same with Bonham too. All these guys that came out after him trying to ape Bonham, doing all these technical crazy things, that wasn't his thing. He could lay back like on a song like, Kashmir, and just groove. He was an old blues drummer with just attitude. I give him and Keith Moon credit for recreating rock drumming. Absolutely. A lot of people looked towards Mitch Mitchell and Ian Paice as well. Yeah, Ian Paice I didn't really see that so much; Mitch Mitchell, I get it. Mitch Mitchell and Keith were jazz drummers so their accents were not on the two and the four. So you have guys like Ian Paice and Cozy Powell; Cozy was a great drummer. Those have always been my favorite drummers. Some of my favorite drummers of all time? Clem Burke from Blondie; I loved him. Martin Chambers from the Pretenders was aggressive, simple, would make the most of the fills, and not overdo it. I've been thankful to have two really great drummers. My first drummer was OK (Scott Cuthbert) but when Greg (Eklund) came in he was phenomenal. Chops-wise, probably not as good as my drummer now (Brett Snyder) but attitude-wise, Greg was just fearless. When you went looking for a second guitar player, what did you want him to bring to the band? Ability and restraint. One of the reasons why I went to just playing guitar by myself when I did Everclear and not having another guitar player, 'cause I was sick of arguing with my guitar players telling me I need to write sixteen bars of guitar lead into a song. It's like if the song calls for it, that's fine but if the song doesn't call for it, sorry, it's not going to happen. So screw it, I'm going to try a three piece and it was enough. The Boys Are Back In Town, we recorded specifically for a sound track back in 1999, Detroit Rock City. The original to that song is kinda like a swing Dixieland kinda beat and that just didn't fit what we were doing, so I recreated that middle part which was more natural to me and to the band and then like having three harmonizing guitars over that. That just sounds like Everclear but I thought that just gave it respect to the part they had done as well. And I thing harmonizing guitars are kinda cheesy but kinda fun. Brian May really took harmony guitar playing somewhere else. Brian May is a phenomenal guitar player; I love his guitar sound 'cause it sounds like nobody else.
"I want to go crank up a guitar and piss off my family."
Can you talk a little bit about your own guitar playing, Art? What is that guitar tone your looking for? I think it changes for each song. Early on, I didn't have the resources to have multiple guitars and new sounds put on. Afterglow, I started having (different guitars). But let's go back to World of Noise was our first record, one guitar the whole time, it was a 1967 Guild Blackbird; it was semi-hollow with a Bigsby, didn't stay in tune for shit. Great sound, great tune, great tone. But that's all I had. So it defined that record. I had lost my other guitar in the pawnshop; I missed the ticket by two days because I didn't have the money. And I show up and they had already sold it. I had a Telly. And then on the next record, I might have used that a little bit. I used basically three guitars on that record, but basically one still. I had just bought a 1960 reissue Gold Top that I bought three days before I made the record, Sparkle And Fade. By the time I got to American Movie, I probably had a hundred and twenty guitars and probably used most of them for every little nuance; guitars, mandolins, ukuleles and banjos, and I still do that. I think I got to a place where I was really trying to be Brian Wilson and trying to make things really super dense. I think now, I'm producing with more air, do you know what I mean? I take lessons from time to time to just beef up my talent. I don't know how to play jazz guitar. I've been studying with this guy in Portland and learning how to play jazz songs. It's frustrating because I've been playing guitar for thirty-something years, but trying to get my fingers to go into these chords felt totally unnatural. But I think it's good because it's exciting me into guitar again. Instead of just using it as a means to be a background for songs, I'm more into the guitar now than I have been for years. What types of guitars and amps would you take on the road with you? You know how like guys who played guitar for a while, are either are Gibson guys or Fender guys, right. It usually correlates with they're either Chevy guys or Ford guys and I'm a Chevy/Gibson guy all the way down the line. Although, I do like the Tellys, I have two Tellys, never a Strat guy; I've always had a couple Strats but not my thing. And I appreciate the Strat, I respect it, and I respect the people who (play them). I was watching Jimi Hendrix live on TV with my daughter and she said, He's amazing,' and I said, Oh, yeah! Nowadays, I'm playing Taylor electrics and their pickups and just the feel of them are awesome. I still play my Les Pauls too, I'll never give up my Les Pauls. I grew up with Zeppelin and Aerosmith, man, Joe Perry and Jimmy Page is just like ingrained in me. If I think rock, I think Les Paul/Marshall Stack, done. But nowadays, I'm playing Hughes and Kettner amps and on all the stuff that we played has been Mesa Boogies and Marshalls. But Mesas for the most part; I would take Mesas on the road because I have an old Plexi I bought about six, seven years ago and I would always, when recording guitars, record through both amps at the same time and then double that. But then mix them down to one guitar sound; there's a certain sound you can get on an old Marshall, pushing those 15-watt Celestions that you just can't get anywhere else. That's not a real versatile amp but when you hit that zone, it's just gold. Uh, I get chills just thinking about it; I want to go crank up a guitar and piss off my family. Do you play a fair amount of acoustic guitar? Brown Eyed Girl has a lot of acoustic. Yeah, I do. I play Taylor guitars, I got a bunch of older guitars that I play as well. Small Nationals, Dobros, you'll be hearing more of that on the next record, I think. Like I said, I think things are going to be a little more stripped down; there'll be big electric guitars it just won't be as dense as it's been. I want to hear every little nuance. I've been playing a lot of acoustic guitar; I'm sitting here looking at my guitar, thinking I ought to pick it up; he looks lonely. I love the Petty cover, American Girl,is just Isn't that just a classic? That chorus is just stupid; that guy can write a chorus like nobody's business. Did you hear them on the Super Bowl last time? I thought he was great. He looks older than hell, but don't we all? And Mike Campbell, he knows what to play around those songs and he had so much energy, spirit and juice goin'. I thought it was a cowardly move on the part of the Super Bowl to go with a classic rock thing, but they couldn't have picked anyone any better. The year before, did you see Prince when he played? Oh, man, he was phenomenal; he played a Foo Fighters song (The Best Of You), which was really not a great song in my opinion. Dave Grohl has written better songs but Prince turned it into this R&B thing and I'm just like, Oh, my God, I never thought of it like that. That was cool. He was playing Purple Rain while it was raining on him. And still dancin' around in his four-foot platform heels. That guy was born to be a rock star. You know we didn't do a Stevie Wonder song and I wish we had done something. We probably would have done something from Fulfillingness' Final Finale (it is Fulfillingness' First Finale) or Talking Book. What's the song with the Jackson 5 on it? Real political (You Haven't Done Nothin'). I loved how political a lot of the singer songwriters were back then, it's great. We were talking about the album cycle and single cycle, how things used to be singles driven? I think the music industry is getting back to that, because of technology and because of the economy. I think people are really getting drawn to songs. And with that, I'm going to start putting out a new single two or three months and down load it and let people buy it for a buck. I'm writing this song called, Jesus Was A Liberal; it's a great song. We're probably gonna put that out June/July and I want to do an A and B side just like how it used to be; you buy a single and get two songs. I think it's cool.
"If people like what I did ten, fifteen years ago, God bless them."
It's a terrific idea. It must be amazing to have that kind of success and power. I've done my time, brother. When people talk about it, I remember when Everclear had success. People were like, Oh, you're an overnight success. I go, Overnight success? What are you talking about? I've been playing in bands for twenty years. I didn't have a hit song until I was 33 or 34. It's like me, I'm trying to get this film financed that I wrote and I thought it would be easy; I've been trying to do it for a year. It's really, really hard, but I really, really believe in it. I'm gonna stick with it just like I stuck with Everclear. Man, I had everyone telling me, Man, you're too old, you're not pretty enough, you're not a star, you don't write good songs, you've got a shitty voice. Don't do this, be a producer. Part of me was like, Well, I want to be a producer and another part of me was like, Go screw yourself, fuck you. I wanna do this and I'm gonna do it. And I did it myself; I put out a record myself (World Of Noise). It cost me $400 and people got a buzz on it and we made another record (Sparkle and Fade) and we got signed to Capitol and we just went from there. And toured constantly constantly. Probably 220 shows a year back in the day. I think it was one of the big keys for the success of Everclear and one of the big keys for lack of success of my many marriages. (I break out in laughter) I'm sorry, Art, I didn't mean to laugh. No, man, it's sad but funny but it is what it is. This time I'm doing it differently; the baby and her mom are coming on the road with me. Art, twenty years from now, when a band wants to do their own CD of cover songs, what writers will they choose? Will they do an Everclear song? Everclear? Dave Matthews? Who? The guys who I like who are songwriters now are like the Jack Johnsons, Ben Harper, even John Mayer. I think he is a really talented guy; I like his voice a lot. Are the Foo Fighters gonna be what Sabbath or Zeppelin was to us? Who is still doing straight up rock? Well, who is the next Nirvana? I mean, Nirvana took everything from the past and put a unique slant on it and it changed music. It did, I loved it. It brought rock 'n' roll back to the radio. I'll be crucified for this, but I just never thought Nirvana were that extraordinary. I'm not deifying Kurt Cobain. I think Kurt Cobain had a really good knack for a melody and putting it with different things. I think that was his talent. And I know being a damaged white-trash kid with a turbulent background, he was able to take a lot of that element and put it into something that connected with a large amount of people. But I think I'm more influenced by the bands he was influenced by: Pixies, Jane's Addiction, and going back to like Neil Young and Big Black and all sorts of stuff. I get what you're saying. I don't see any band right now that sounds classic to me. I think that we're the closest thing to a classic rock band. People used to say, 'Well, Santa Monica used to sound like classic rock, I hope that doesn't offend you.' 'No, actually, I think you do hope it offends me.' Little do they know that to you, that's a compliment. Dude, that's classic! That means this is a song that people are going to be listening to ten years from now and now it's twelve years and people are still listening to that song. It's getting played more on the radio than it has been in like six or seven years, all our songs are. So, I think we went through a seventies revival, eighties revival; there will be a nineties revival, you know it's gonna happen. I'm not really interested in being a part of anybody's museum, but if people like what I did ten, fifteen years ago, God bless them; I hope they enjoy it. And that's the great thing about recorded music; I can get into a Charles Mingus record or an old jazz record which I'm discovering for the first time even though it's been around my whole life. Now it's brand new to me and old music can be brand new. What I always hoped is that people will look into the originals of what these covers are and that's why I'm pretty explicit in the artwork talking about each song and where it came from. And also who did the original song, regardless if they wrote it or not. Interview by Steven Rosen Ultimate-Guitar.Com 2008
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