No Longer High Art
His band may share the same name as a potent form of alcohol, but Everclear lead singer Art Alexakis has more than two decades of sobriety under his belt.
The life of Everclear front man Art Alexakis may have resembled a Behind The Music special before he got famous, his greatest career successes occurred once he got sober. Alexakis dealt with an absentee father, the death of his brother to a heroin overdose and the suicide of his girlfriend—all before his 14th birthday. You kind of can’t blame the guy for turning to drugs to numb the pain. Smoking weed at age nine, he was shooting dope by 13 and eventually suffered a nearly fatal cocaine overdose at 22. After a few attempts at sobriety, he got fully clean in 1989 and has been sober ever since.
Since then, his band has sold nearly five million records, with 1997’s So Much For The Afterglow reaching double platinum and songs like Santa Monica and Everything to Everyone reaching No. 1 on the Billboard Modern Rock charts. Now, Everclear and several other ‘90s friendly bands including Sugar Ray and the Gin Blossoms have hit the road this summer for the Summerland Tour 2012.
In our exclusive interview, Alexakis talks about performing sober as a touring musician, how the heroin overdose of his brother inspired him to do more drugs and his wife’s reaction to seeing him on morphine at the hospital.
I shot up for the first time when I was 13 and that became my whole perception of self.
How’s the Summerland Tour been so far?
So far, so good. We’ve done really well in about 75 percent of the markets—some huge successes but no failures. As far as the performances go, everyone is on top of their game. No one is taking this for granted because it’s been so hard to tour for the last few years. You have to give people value for their money. With this tour, there’s five bands, four hours worth of performances and a lot of hits between us, all for 40 bucks. That’s what it takes these days.
You’ve been sober for 23 years now. How do you maneuver around performing in bars and clubs and places where alcohol is flowing?
It’s tricky because the alcohol isn’t just on stage but backstage as well. I’m an anomaly on this tour. There are only two or three sober people who are part of the entire tour and I’m the only sober performer. I just don’t pay attention to what other people do. You’ve got to want to be sober and not want to be part of that world.
There are definitely times where I’m not strong. I still think about drinking and I’ve been sober for 23 years. I’ve learned that when it gets bad, I’ll have a doughnut or something like that when I maybe shouldn’t. I’m a guy who allows himself to have vices—just not ones that will destroy my life.
It’s interesting you say that because a lot of people often think that there gets to be a point in sobriety where those cravings just disappear.
I haven’t met that guy or gal yet. I still get wake-up calls every now and then. Three or four years ago, we played a show with a guy that was big in the ‘80s and he said he had been sober for almost 20 years. He started having a couple beers every now and then and within two months, he was shooting dope and living with a stripper. You’re never out of the woods. I’m an addict and always have to ask myself what I’m doing that’s feeding my addiction.
I’ve always had a bad back but this past winter it turned into sciatica and was the worst pain I’ve ever had. It hurt too much to get on the MRI table and the doctors said, “We’ve got to medicate you, you’re not breaking your sobriety.” I didn’t want to do it, but I had two vertebrae that were smashed and they needed to see that. They gave me the smallest amount of morphine possible and I got on the table. My wife of nine years comes in and she’s never seen me using before. She goes, “I’ve never seen you like this. I’ve never seen you happy.” (Laughs). I was like, “That’s because I’m comfortable in my own skin now and you’ll never see me like this again.” (Laughs).
Were you ever worried about not being able to be in recovery anonymously during the peak of your fame?
There was some of that. There was a period where people would wait outside the door and ask for autographs or pictures. I don’t want to say no to people, but it just wasn’t the spot for that and I was uneasy about the safety of others at the meeting. But at the end of the day, it makes people happy and it’s just so easy to say yes.
You’ve said that you started smoking weed at age nine and shooting dope by 13. How do you score weed as a nine-year-old?
It was the ‘70s, dude! (Laughs). My brother died of a heroin overdose when I was 12. All my relatives except my aunt and my sister were smoking pot and I lived in a housing project in a rough neighborhood. It sounds incredibly crazy, but it wasn’t that hard. It might have been harder to get drugs in elementary school, but by junior high it wasn’t.
It seems like having your brother overdose on heroin would be the catalyst for most people to stop doing drugs. Why wasn’t it for you?
It’s gonna sound silly saying it now, but it was actually the catalyst for me to get into drugs seriously. I wanted to be like him because he was the only male role model I had at that point. How fucked up is that? But he loved me and cared about me. And there were other issues that were still being dealt with. My dad leaving us when I was six. Being sexually abused by a bunch of teenage guys in my neighborhood when I was eight. My girlfriend at that time committing suicide not too long after my brother’s overdose. All that shit adds up.
I shot up for the first time when I was 13 and that became my whole perception of self: I do drugs and I do more drugs than anyone else. If you do one hit of acid, I’m gonna do four. I didn’t even like doing drugs all that much. There was only one specific instance of getting high when I really liked it.Was there a moment when you realized something had to change?
Several years later, in 1984. I was living in Orange County and was miserable, doing a lot of coke. My car had been stolen, so I took the insurance money and bought an ounce of cocaine to go out and sell. I was at someone’s house in Orange County later that night and we’d been shooting up for hours. I put a three-quarters of a gram of cocaine into a needle and it was just too much. I went out cold, writhing about, tongue in the back of my throat and eyes rolled out. My friends who were there all ran out into suburbia screaming at 4:00am. The only thing that saved me was the guy living next door to me hearing everyone yelling. He was an EMT and coming home with his partner in the middle of the night to use the bathroom before going back to work.
You quit doing drugs after that?
I stopped doing hard drugs from there, but still had anxiety attacks and was smoking cigarettes and pot to deal with it. That New Year’s Eve, I quit everything. I started drinking again eventually because my doctor at that time, who knew about my sobriety, said it was okay to have a few drinks. It was absolutely retarded. So alcohol became my new drug of choice until I eventually just had enough and got fully sober on June 15, 1989.
What advice would you give to people who are trying to maintain their sobriety?
Stay present and be very aware. And try to form meaningful relationships in your life with great people. If you can afford it, try to get a therapist as well. It helps bring out things in your life that are there but aren’t always being addressed. Especially for addicts, that level of accountability is important.
McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer currently residing in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in Time Out New York, The Huffington Post, abcnews.com and usopen.org, among others. He has also written about Carré Otis and Celebrity Rehab, among many other topics, for The Fix.