Raise the Question: ART ALEXAKIS

CONVERSATION WITH EVERCLEAR frontman
and
“Committed” director LISA KRUEGER
(July 2000)

‘SONGS FROM AN AMERICAN MOVIE, VOL. ONE:
LEARNING HOW TO SMILE’:

A candid conversation on music, movies, fatherhood and redemption with “Committed” director LISA KRUEGER and EVERCLEAR frontman.

** Lisa Krueger, writer-director of the Sundance hit “Manny & Lo,” recently directed “Committed” for Miramax Films. The film–starring Casey Affleck (“Good Will Hunting”), Luke Wilson (“Bottle Rocket,” “Home Fries”) and Heather Graham (“Boogie Nights”)–finds ALEXAKIS in his big screen debut, playing the role of a drug-addicted car thief.

LISA KRUEGER: What does the title of the record refer to?

ART ALEXAKIS: It references a song I wrote back in ’97 that was originally for the So Much For The Afterglow record but it didn’t fit. I believe records should all thematically and musically fit into the same vibe.

LISA: Did you have a master plan in writing this record or did you just sort of discover it as you went along?

ART: No, I wrote a bunch of songs and it became a series of trial and error to see what actually fits in with the theme of the record. Basically, we just add and subtract until it feels like a record. ‘Songs From An American Movie’ is a song I wrote when I was going through a really, really hard time a couple of years ago. Around that time I went and saw “Jerry Maguire,” a cheesy American movie.

LISA: It’s a great cheesy movie, which gives you hope in cheesy movies.

ART: You’re not going to impress anybody at Sundance by saying you like “Jerry Maguire.” Yeah, it’s one of my favorite date movies. When me and my gal are feeling cuddly we’ll put that in or something like “Sleepless in Seattle.”

LISA: Another great one for me is “Say Anything.”

ART: I love that movie.

LISA: That’s one of the best movies about first love. I feel like the kind of stand-up guy John Cusack plays is under-represented in teen movies.

ART: It’s great when there’s a teen movie that’s intelligent and funny that not only teens can enjoy, but people who were teens before can connect with as well. When you strike classic notes that–no matter what the technology, the styles of fashions, the trends–there are still inherent things that have not changed from the time we were kids to the time our grandparents were kids.

LISA: Yeah, both of those movies are about someone struggling to do the right thing and still have passion, which seems to be a theme in your music and in your life.

ART: I’m big into redemption.

LISA: I know. The character you played in “Committed” wasn’t meant to be redeemed in the end, he was never even meant to come back. But you felt strongly that if Heather Graham’s character was willing to give him a shot, then it would be great to show that he made good on it. And now that’s a lot of people’s favorite moment in the movie.

ART: I really think it just made her character feel justified for what a lot of people call obsession. She felt justified in her commitment that doing the right thing is always the right way to go, regardless of whether it comes around or not, and when it does come around, it just shows you that it was the right thing to do. I love that you connected with that. It made me so happy to work on the project. It was so much fun.

LISA: One of my personal favorite songs on the new album is “Unemployed Boyfriend,” because it makes fun of that guy every girl dreams of. There’s a secret desire to have a guy that’s all things.

ART: Yeah all things, the masculine bad boy, the guy who’ll do everything, who’ll be daddy when you want him to and the guy who would then be just like your girlfriend.

LISA: I just felt that there was sincerity to the song along with a sense of humor. That’s such a rare and great combo, and it runs through so much of your music. I also love how personal the record feels.

ART: A lot of the record’s about the fact that I went through a divorce last year. “Wonderful” is watching my daughter Anna go through what I went through as a five year-old about thirty years ago. I went through the break-up of my parents and I’m watching her deal with it better than I did, mainly because we’re dealing with it better than our parents did. The parents of our generation had no idea about divorce. I’ve been through it before and I knew what to do. I knew you didn’t bad-talk about your ex to your kid. You didn’t move to the other side of the country away from your kid. You know, it’s these little things.

LISA: Yeah, I went through it too and it’s funny because we were talking earlier about the common interest in redemption, and also in the willingness to take that same leap of faith again. I know you have a fiancòe now and that’s interesting that you can jump in there again, which I obviously did as well. I got married seven months ago.

ART: I’m all about people being happy. She (Stephanie, ART’s fiancòe) grew up on a farm. She’s just pretty focused on what she wants to do; she wants to take photographs and act. The cool thing is she gets along with my daughter and they love each other, and that’s the most important to me.

LISA: I don’t know what it’s like to separate from someone who’s the parent of your child.

ART: When you separate from someone with whom you’ve had a tumultuous relationship, you can choose not to see them. But when you have a child, you don’t have a choice. You have to see them, you have to get along with them, you have to deal with them. Sometimes on a day-to-day basis. And it’s not easy at first. You go tell yourself this is going to become more normalized. Right now it just feels really weird and freaky. But it’s like anything–you get used to it.

LISA: Do you find that this record helped you get to a better place?

ART: Totally. I mean, there are songs on this record that have a lot to do with what I was going through–but not necessarily speaking autobiographically. Take the song “Learning How to Smile.” There’s a line in that song talking about how I can handle all the hell that happens every day. “When you smile and touch my face you make it all just go away.” That’s totally about Stephanie. You know, she can just–like no other person before–bring me out of the dark corners of myself where I get lost sometimes. That’s one of the things about this record I’m really proud of. There’s a lot of ups on it, you know. There’s a lot of light at the end of the tunnel.

LISA: Right, even in terms of the order of the songs, you get that feeling that just as it’s getting to this kind of dark space, along comes something really lovely and sweet.

ART: It gives you the ups and downs. It goes up and it goes down like life does. I’m really big on art imitating life.

LISA: This feel you have for acting: Is that something you always had or something you developed from performing?

ART: I had it when I was a kid. I was always pushed into acting because I was pretty good at it and I liked it. With acting, you have to study but I didn’t want it that bad then. Back then all I wanted to do was play in a rock band, get high and chase girls. I enjoyed the buzz of acting, but I enjoyed the buzz of performing even more. Lately, I’ve been directing my own videos. I just directed a video that I’m really proud of for the song “Wonderful.” Also, I got it done for a lot less money than paying some name video director.

LISA: A music video is meant to be a further expression of a song that somebody sat and wrote very personally with heart and soul. And then a video director can apply a whole other meaning. It must be very strange to end up with something totally different than what you had in mind when you were writing it.

ART: When a director expresses what you want in a different way, that’s awesome. But that’s rarely the case. Usually they just follow the lyrics verbatim and that’s really boring. And you can do that better yourself if you wrote the song because you understand where it’s coming from. They go so far off in left field it’s just like, let’s put everybody in a white background. You guys will be in black with a pink light on you. When I was a kid, I had a Super Eight movie camera. These are the days before video cameras. I was always shooting it and waiting for money to develop the film because it was kind of pricey. I got my little editor out and I’d make movies. I was doing this when I was, like, 12 or 13 years old.

LISA: Have you looked at them lately?

ART: I don’t know where they are.

LISA: When did the rock ‘n roll idea come to you?

ART: Four years old.

LISA: No kidding?

ART: Yeah, there’s a letter to Santa that my mom still has. I asked for an electric guitar, drum set and an organ.

LISA: You could be a one-man band.

ART: You know, well, the control freak tendency showed early on.

LISA: How did you, Craig and Greg meet?

ART: I met Craig from an ad in a paper up in Seattle. I was looking for a bass player and a drummer. Craig is, like, eight years younger than me. Back then he had long hair, boots and cigarettes wrapped in his t-shirt. He looked like a picture of me taken 15 years earlier. I just felt a connection with him. We had another drummer but it didn’t work very well. He had a hard time getting along with us. By mid-1994 we did a tour and were getting offers from the major labels who had been sitting on the fence. When we started getting those offers, Craig and I knew that we couldn’t do it with him. I started looking for a new drummer and I got a call from this guy who had been in a fusion band. It was Greg. I’m like, ‘man, that’s like a stoner band. I’m not really into that music.’ And Greg’s like, ‘I’m not really into it either, it’s just fun to play.’ He goes, ‘I belong in your band. I’ve seen your band. I’m the guy for you.’ He was really cocky. He came down a few days later and he just rocked so hard that Craig and I didn’t even leave the room to ask him to join our band. I had talked to him on the phone and I was like, ‘man, we’re poor. We sleep on floors, we eat pizza. We come home, we work to make money to pay off the debts from the last tour. Go out on tour, make more debts. That’s the indie-rock lifestyle.’ He said he just wanted to be in a band that tours. I neglected to tell him about all the major label offers because I wanted him in there for the right reason. We got together and I told him I wasn’t really honest with him in the beginning and that we were going to get signed by a major label within a few weeks. He told his parents and they were very excited for us. By the way, he’s the only one in the band whose parents are still together. Now we’re in this limo to Capitol Records who were wooing us at the time. I had been through it before. The other boys hadn’t. But it was really funny because there was a cell phone in the back of the limo. And there was a bar in the back of the limo. And, I don’t drink, but I’m like, ‘it’s 11:00 in the morning, here have some bourbon.’ And I’m pouring those guys drinks and they’re calling Greg’s mom. He’s like, ‘hey I’m in this limo. We’re going to Capitol Records. I’m drinking bourbon on the rocks. Love you, mom. Bye.’ I felt justified.

LISA: There you go, redemption.

ART: Yeah, redemption. The reason I like it so much is because I’ve seen it in my life. I know it exists. I know it’s what makes people go on. If it weren’t there, why would people would even bother?

LISA: It impresses me that lyrically you’re not afraid to talk about experiences that could only come from someone who has lived through a lot, things like divorce, parenting, getting over drugs…

ART: You don’t see that in rock bands too much. Most American rock, especially by males, is basically centered around their penis somewhere. I became comfortable with that part of my body a long time ago. I think it’s kind of hard to get away from that in rock and roll. Although, I don’t think you should get too far away from it–rock and roll is slang for sex. It reminds me of the summer I just spent with my wife before we got married. We just didn’t do a while lot of anything. We just stayed in bed, talked and laughed a lot. And those times are special. That’s something I don’t think most 17 or 18-year-olds can identify with.

LISA: I think they can, but the thing that struck me is that there are a lot of artists who go through things and come out with a sober, seasoned record, whereas this has a different energy to it. There is such exuberance in your music even when it’s about something painful.

ART: That’s something people have made mention of before that I happen to write really sad lyrics set to really happy music.

LISA: The vitality is the thread that comes through no matter what the lyrics are.

ART: I’m impressed you picked up on that. That’s something I never defined personally, but I know what you’re talking about. That’s in all the music I love, whether it’s Motown, pop rock or whatever. When that thread of real life–that undefinable juice–is there, it’s undeniable. That’s the kind of music I love.

LISA: You definitely get a Motown vibe off certain songs, and obviously on the song “AM Radio.”

ART: Horns and stuff.

LISA: You dove into the big pool of all the different influences.

ART: That’s what I grew up with. When we were kids–you know you and I and people of our age–AM radio played white music and black music and it played hits. I grew up listening to a lot of underground music from my brothers and sisters, but I always loved good pop radio. They had songs that stick in your head that you could sing to. There’s a lot of that on this record and I wanted to make songs that reminded me of that.

LISA: Some of your material has a Beach Boy flavor to it, like the intro for “So Much For the Afterglow” and “The Honeymoon Song.”

ART: Greg wrote “The Honeymoon Song” on his honeymoon three years ago. He bought a $30 ukulele and he came back and played me this little ditty. It was just like one verse and one chorus. I thought it was so beautiful. It makes his wife Ellie cry. Man, that makes me want to cry too. It’s so beautiful. It fits right in between “Learning How To Smile” and “Now That It’s Over.”

LISA: That’s the ultimate divorce song where it’s expressing two things at once. You do feel the desire to be friends and then, it’s like, fuck it.

ART: Yeah, right. Fuck that.

LISA: It does honor to do both impulses at the same time.

ART: It’s that juxtaposition of where you know what you’re supposed to do. You knew you were supposed to be civil about this, but you pull away the veneer and there’s a hurt kid inside who feels rejected and betrayed. Everybody feels like that, not just me.

LISA: I read in Rolling Stone where you said, yes, this record is about my divorce, but it’s not autobiographical. What do you mean by that?

ART: To me, autobiographical is when you’re telling a certain thing exactly how it happened. And I refuse to do that a lot of times. I’ll tell a certain story from my friend’s life, but then I’ll take a little piece from here and then make up something. It’s using my artistic license and just making it my own thing. By it being my divorce record, that’s what I was going through. That was a major part of my life and everything entails that. Whether it’s dealing with my daughter or my ex, it’s just my perception of what’s going on and having to deal with that. There’s a lot of different stories mixed with other stories. I try not to write down a journal of my life, because to me that’s boring.

LISA: You confront a lot of social issues on this album.

ART: Well, I’m kind of the king of confrontation. To me, confrontation is something that’s important when it’s done in the right way. It’s not just calling people on what they do. The song, “Father of Mine,” when I wrote that, I just knew he wanted to meet my daughter and I hadn’t really focused on my dad in a really long time. I had pushed it to the back of my mind. And since becoming a father, I was thinking, ‘do I want my daughter to have a relationship with this man?’ If I weren’t related to this man by blood, would I allow her to have a relationship with this guy? And the answer was no. I’m not going to let anybody have an influence on my daughter that I’m not comfortable with. I started thinking about my own self when I was her age and I thought of the damage I could do to my daughter if I left and called her once a year when she depended on me so much. Even though I split with her mother, I talk with her two, three times a day. And when she’s with me, I have full custody of her, she talks to her mom two, three time a day. Her mom’s 15 minutes away. My job and priority in life is looking over my daughter. Do I want my daughter to be around a person who would do what my dad did, even 30 years ago? The answer was no. That’s why I wrote that song. I knew no one had written a song like that before that said it the way I wanted to say it. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to pull it out. I pulled it out to where it worked. I didn’t know if it was going to be a hit song or not, but I knew it would touch a lot of nerves. And I get a similar response to this new song, “Wonderful.” I’m probably going to get pigeonholed as that guy who writes about domestic problems.

LISA: It’s more than that–you are breaking the mold of the rock star that lives that life and forgets about anything else. You are a stand up kind of guy and that shows up in your songs.

ART: Being a good person.

LISA: Yeah, being there for somebody who depends on you.

ART: That’s important to me. That’s one of the first things Stephanie said to me when we were just friends. She was, like, ‘the most attractive thing about you is that you are a really good person.’ That’s the nicest compliment anyone has ever given to me. I used to be a drug dealer. I used to carry guns. I used to do all sorts of horrible things. That lifestyle never felt comfortable to me because that wasn’t the way I was raised. I don’t know, when you’re on drugs, you allow yourself to go places you wouldn’t normally go. That’s a whole book unto itself. The most important thing for me is to be a good role model for my daughter and to be a good person.

LISA: It definitely comes through and you do have an influence on kids.

ART: I think a lot of kids appreciate that, and I think some kids don’t. I think a lot of kids want that Marilyn Manson kind of rock star having sex with 15 year-olds. Not that Marilyn Manson does that, but I mean back in the days when I was a kid, rock stars did that. It was in the news. Jimmy Page had a 13 year-old girlfriend and it was OK. You know, he had parental consent. If some rock star tried to pick up on my 13 year-old, he probably would be dead.

LISA: Was there anybody when you were a kid who influenced you?

ART: I wanted to be Jimmy Page and Joe Perry. I wanted that kind of life. Those two guys were the coolest to me. I didn’t really idolize singers, I idolized guitar players, because it was a guys thing. You know, chicks like singers and guys like guitarists. That was it. I was thinking about this the other day. My mom is my hero. I saw my mom last night and played her some of the record and she just sat there silently and was crying a little bit. She took my hand and said, ‘you’re a good boy. You did good.’

LISA: Oh that was great.

ART: That means so much to me. I wouldn’t have thought it, but it hit me hard when she said that. Having mom’s approval is very important to me. When I was a kid, there were a couple of teachers in school that saw through my stoner veneer and rebelliousness and connected to me. That’s why I think being a teacher is so important.

LISA: Tell me a little about your involvement in the congressional bill where the federal government can collect money from dead-beat dads from the IRS.

ART: It’s a bill that’s on the floor right now. ACES (the Association for Children for the Enforcement of Support) is an organization that was started by a single mom who was abandoned by her pretty well-to-do husband who wouldn’t, out of vindictiveness, pay child support. And she was on welfare struggling. That was back in the 70′s when the law couldn’t do anything to help her and she got pissed off and made changes. She now has an organization that’s in all 50 states and is doing some really wonderful things. One of the things we’re working on right now will take a lot of the power away from the states where they create funds of money that go nowhere and never get to the people that are supposed to be paid. We’re trying to get it taken away and given to the federal government, so that when someone has a judgement against them and won’t pay child support, it will come directly out of their paycheck every week. They can’t run from the Federal government unless they get paid under the table. I just don’t see why it’s not immediately like that. State laws are funny that way.

LISA: It’s pretty idiosyncratic like that. Like who made the laws and why?

ART: It tends to be Republicans.

LISA: And men too.

ART: One of the people who co-wrote this bill, of all people, is Henry Hyde, whom we know from the Clinton impeachment hearings. He and Lynn Woolsey, a Democrat who’s also a single mom, co-wrote the bill. Other people have championed it and it’s been piggybacked on a bill that they feel’s going to pass this fall. It makes me feel good that I was using my celebrity to make this happen, because I rarely ever do that.

LISA: It’s amazing and brave, because it’s not what people expect from rock and roll musicians.

ART: Not a sexy issue, you know?

LISA: It is. It could be sexy issue.

ART: Yeah, really. What’s more sexy than a man who wants to take care of his kids?

LISA: This record’s called Volume I. Does this mean there’s a Volume II coming?

ART: Yeah, actually the boys are downstairs waiting to work on it right now. Volume II is subtitled Good Time For A Bad Attitude. It’s going to be guitars, guitars and a lot of guitars. It’s going to be fun as well.

LISA: That will be a great companion to this one.

ART: It needs it, because it’s two sides of what our band does. If you ever see us live, we rock, we’re a rock band, but that doesn’t take away from our pop side. So it’s good to have two sides of the coin showing. I felt like we had enough songs that justified two albums. The second record needs to be done by the 8th of August, because I’m getting married on the 13th.

LISA: Good luck with it. I know it will be great–as great as this one.

ART: Hey, thanks!

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