Interview: Art Alexakis Discusses Everclear's 20-Year History and New Album, 'Invisible Stars'
Although it has been six years since the release of Everclear's last studio album, Welcome to the Drama Club, the band -- now in action for 20 years -- are back with an album that explores new sonic horizons while sounding very much like vintage Everclear.
The 12-song album, Invisible Stars, was released June 26 by Entertainment One (Buy it on iTunes).
Everclear will hit the road Thursday, June 28, as part of the Summerland Tour with Lit, Sugar Ray, Gin Blossoms and Marcy Playground.
Below, frontman Art Alexakis, who recently moved from Portland to Los Angeles with his wife and youngest daughter, reflects on his shifts from punk rock to pop-driven hooks to the big-sounding guitars on Invisible Stars. He also discusses the music industry, his writing process and life during the six-year-gap between albums.
GUITAR WORLD: Everclear have been around for 20 years. How does Invisible Stars reflect the band’s growth since its foundation in the early '90s?
I think that’s a good question. I think it’s mostly in the lyrics and the way I sing. Everclear, as you said, started in 1992. I started it with a couple of guys, and we worked on it for a couple of months. They lived in Seattle and I lived in Portland, so it was doable. I found these other guys in Portland and started working with the band during the summer, and it was just one of those things — by the time the guys started showing up in the videos in the '90s, that was like the third or fourth version of the band. I’ve got two guys now who have been in the band for almost 10 years.
How the band has evolved is how my lyrics have evolved. I think the music has kind of run the gamut from really loud and noisy punk rock to more produced pop, to where we are now, which is honed in production with big guitars and different textures we’ve brought in — a lot of vintage-sounding synthesizers from the old Devo days. That’s the stuff I grew up loving, and I love the way [the synthesizers] cut through big guitars.
So we are kind of old school in some ways and kind of contemporized in some ways. I think the lyrics are the main place. I think they’ve grown up with me, you know? I’m a 50-year-old guy making music for over 20 years. I’ve been writing songs since I was 20, so it’s really been 30 years, and it’s always been personal, but I’ve always told stories.
Since most of the evolution can be found in your lyrics, and given your involvement in political activism, are any of the songs on Invisible Stars related to the upcoming election?
Definitely. I’d say “Jackie Robinson” is political; I think “The Golden Rule” is political, “Aces” is political — I just don’t like reality TV, even though I get the addiction, right? I get when people sit down and it’s just a train wreck. It’s like drawing a line — I don’t pick up glasses of wine to taste them, because as of last week, I’ve been sober twenty-three years, and I just don’t go there. It’s the same thing with reality TV, and I’m always giving my wife crap about it, because I’ll come in from the kitchen and she’ll be watching The Kardashians [laughs]. I get it. I just intellectually hate it.
Are they political songs? I think they’re all kind of political — definitely “Tiger in a Burning Tree.” Especially in that song, I think there’s a prevalent attitude out there. It’s something more conservative, like it’s a doctrine without putting oneself in the other guy’s shoes — people are not putting themselves in the other guys’ shoes, and they’re not imagining worst case scenarios. They’re just going on the road, crashing and burning with a Paul Ryan mentality, and it’s easy to do when you’re an employed white guy.
What are you going to do when you’re in a place where there’s nowhere to go? It will come. It comes for everybody. The thing about tigers — tigers don’t like fire, and they don’t like going in trees, so a “Tiger in a Burning Tree” is not a happy tiger.
You guys haven’t put out an album since 2006. Was Invisible Stars something you wrote to commemorate the band being around for 20 years, or was it just a coincidence?
I don’t know. I purposefully just didn’t feel like making a record for a few years. I was just doing shows and trying to get my eldest daughter through high school and into college. We went through a lot a few years ago — had a new daughter, my mom died, bankruptcy, divorce — things that seem like bad things on the surface, but it’s really just life. I learned to adapt to it and figure out what I was going to do next. I just didn’t feel like writing. I didn’t have that fire in my belly to just pick up the guitar and write.
About two years ago, I started coming up with lines in my head and started writing songs again. I was just like, “Hey boys, I think we should make a record.” I started getting excited about it again. I needed a break. Being a musician, especially at the major label where you work for so long, it becomes a cycle. Write a record, make a record, tour. It’s just this cycle, and I don’t think there’s any life built into it with time to assimilate what’s going on in front of you and what’s going on in your head. I think taking some time off was a really good thing for me. Now I have the fire in my belly again.
Given that you lost that fire for a bit, can it be argued that you were, in some ways, jaded by your career and success?
You know, I was. I think that’s a really good question, and I think I was for a bit. It wasn’t a conscious thing like, “I’m going to take time.” It was more habitual and more like, “I don’t feel like doing this.” I’m not going to try and make a record that I don’t want to make. I feel like I’ve done that before. It never comes out well, so I just do something else — work on a book, a screenplay, just do work.
In 2010 I started writing again, and last year, my wife and I moved to LA with our 4-year-old. I lived in Portland for almost 20 years, and that’s where my eldest daughter went to college. I missed the sunshine. I grew up in LA. We moved back to California, and you’d think that being in a place where I feel safe and warm and there’s lots of sunshine; you’d think I’d get complacent. It was actually the opposite of that. It was an extreme kick in the ass. That’s how I knew what I wanted to do for this record.
A lot of bands — especially those on this year’s Warped Tour — envision straight rock and roll to come back as the next big trend in the music scene, even so far as to metalcore bands presenting a slightly less heavy yet more classic rock element in their newer material. What is your take on the state of the rock industry?
You mean those Cookie Monster vocal bands? I get where you’re going. I think that’s exciting. I didn’t know that. I was on Warped in 2010, and I saw a lot of these bands — the Asking Alexandrias and stuff like that. Some bands I really like, even though I don’t necessarily put their music on and rock out to it. It’s kind of like turning on madness. It scares my 4-year-old [laughs]. I think it’s more punk rock than any of the punk rock out there right now, but a lot of that music that I saw is cookie-cutter.
It’s like these kids grew up watching the Disney Channel and did all these choreographed moves and all of the sudden just, like [growls]. It’s like, where did that hit you as a good idea [laughs]? It’s funny because all these kids are rocking out, and I am standing there as an old man just laughing [laughs], but I like the idea of these kids getting back into rock and roll. It’s exciting, and it’s punk rock. Nothing is more punk rock than Little Richard. It’s overdriven — just this crazy gay black man from the South whose band is just smokin’, and you just can’t deny the power that comes out of the speakers when you put that on. It’s so punk rock.
To be honest, I really don’t know what the next big thing is going to be, but I wish it would fucking get here [laughs]. I really think that the radio, especially what they call “alternative radio,” really sounds like it did when Nirvana was around. It’s all cookie-cutter. It’s cyclical, and I just don’t know where it’s going to go.
You guys are heading out on tour this summer with a few other nineties classics such as Lit, Sugar Ray and Marcy Playground. While the intent is to play mostly fan favorites from over the years, what kind of gear can we see you playing out of for the duration of the tour?
My newest guitar is a Gretsch Penguin. It’s wonderful and totally versatile. I still fall back a lot on my Les Paul, and there is just no getting away from a Les Paul and a hot pickup. I play through a Tremoverb, and my sound processors — I don’t always use them, but on this tour I’m using a Line 6 M9. It’s basically a board where you can program different effects.
My guitar player, Davey [Dave French], is using a Line 6 M13 and is playing through everything from Les Pauls to his Tim Armstrong Gretsch. He plays all sorts of cool stuff. He usually plays through a Hughes & Kettner or a Peavey 5150, so our sounds are very different and sound big as hell.