Earlier this week, Everclear frontman Art Alexakis revealed in an open letter to fans that he has multiple sclerosis. He received the diagnosis three years ago after a routine MRI for a pinched nerve he suffered in a car accident revealed lacerations and suspicious marks on his spinal cord and prompted more testing. (“The moment I walked in, they all looked at me and stopped talking,” he recalls.)
But despite having to give himself injections three times a week and go to physical therapy regularly, Alexakis’ prognosis is good, and he remains hard at work touring, gearing up for the release of his new solo album and even writing his memoir. He hopes to raise awareness about the disease and dispel some of the preconceived notions about it by going public about his diagnosis. “Multiple sclerosis is very scary if you don’t know what it is,” he says. “Most people don’t know what it is.”
Billboard caught up with Alexakis to talk about his decision to go public, the response and feedback he’s received so far and Sun Songs, his solo album due out this summer.
What has the response been like so far since you posted that letter to fans?
Phenomenal. I didn’t really expect that. A few people were like, “People are gonna really respond to this,” and I was like, “I think the fans will, and there’ll be some hard-cores reaching out,” but it’s been thousands of people reaching out through social media. So many that I can’t really respond to every person. I just don’t have the time. But I am responding to a lot, and I’m going to record a video message and send it out I think tomorrow just thanking people and talking about some of the things they brought up, which were amazing in their own right. So it’s been a weird experience for me to do it. It wasn’t something I wanted to do a lot, but I felt like it was time I had to just get that out of the way, you know? Just talking about it. I felt like I was doing people with it and the disease itself a disservice by not acknowledging it and just focusing on ways to get through and make things better. Because it’s not just multiple sclerosis for a lot of people. It’s so many other things — autoimmune diseases and cancer. And it’s amazing if you get a chance to peruse on social media some of the things that people talk about. It’s really great.
You mention in the letter that when you received your diagnosis, your doctor told you that you’d had MS for anywhere between 10 and 20 years. That must have been a huge shock.
Well, it was a shock, but at the same time, it started to make sense. Because a lot of the things that I had noticed starting to happen to me, a lot of the symptoms, it was just like, “Oh, I thought it was just age or getting older or the results of a misspent youth.” I really didn’t know. And then when I started doing the research — my wife and I have done hundreds of hours of research about it — it really made sense. So yeah, I was surprised. I was flabbergasted because the word scared me. You know, multiple sclerosis is scary if you don’t know what it is. Most people don’t know what it is. I’ve had people tell me, “Oh, too bad you can’t be on the Jerry Lewis telethon.” I go, “Dude, that’s muscular dystrophy. It’s not the same thing.” [Laughs] You know, it just sounds bad. It initially scared me, but by the time I got home my wife had looked up all this stuff about it and was pretty confident and calmed me down and just inspired me to be the badass that she is.
But yeah, it threw me for a loop. I didn’t expect it. The thing is, I thought I was coming in for a little shot in my neck to loosen up a pinched nerve. Not a big deal, right? And so I walk into this little doctor’s room that I’d been in three or four times before, and there’s like six men in suits and stethoscopes and stuff standing there, and they’re in a room that should only hold about three people really. And the moment I walked in, they looked at me and they all stopped talking, and I’m like, “Aww, man. This is not good. This is like a bad made-for-TV movie or something.” But you know, it’s been an adjustment, like I said. I’m just learning how to be the new me. And things happen in your life; people die, people break up, things happen. You’re still the same person, but you have to adjust. So I’ve adjusted a lot of things for the good: health, diet, exercise, dealing with my fatigue and still being able to work as hard as I like to work because I like to work pretty hard. Just being cognizant of it and being self-aware. I know it sounds very Hallmark card-ish to say this, but it was very much a blessing that I got into that car accident and found out about this. Because some people go years and years and never know what’s happening, and it could have been to a point where it progressed to progressive MS, and that’s bad.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about MS?
That it’s gonna kill you. That it’s fatal. That I’m gonna be in a wheelchair and I’m gonna die in the next four to five years. They’re like, “Oh, there’s no way back from it.” And I’m like, “Well, that’s a different type of MS, and even that, it’s not fatal.” None of it’s fatal. A large part of dealing with this has been just the mental: accepting it and being able to stay upbeat and positive, and for that I really have to give a lot of kudos to my family. You start doing research on MS and you start finding out things like a large number of people who participate in assisted suicide are MS patients. It’s a thing. Because they’re in pain and they’re incapacitated and they don’t see a way out. It’s miserable. And thank God I’m not at that place now and hopefully never will be if I take care of myself.
What would you say to someone who just found out they had MS?
The first thing I’d do is give them a hug and just really try to be upbeat. And I’d just ask them, “So what are you doing about it? What does your doctor recommend? What’s your prognosis?” You know, if they want to talk about it. I don’t go around asking people private questions. I’m a pretty private person. For a public person, I’m very private about my private life. But I would just ask them, “What have you found so far?” and I would say, “Hey, can I recommend some stuff to you about diet and exercise?” I’m in physical therapy two to three times a week now, and you know, it’s not sexy. [Laughs] But I come out of it feeling better. I would tell them about so many ways to feel better. Diet — there’s a book written by Dr. Terry Wahls that came out, and she’s got several different regimens for different types of MS, and she suffers from progressive MS. She was at a point where she couldn’t even get into a wheelchair she was in so much pain, but she was a nutritionist and she figured out that inflammatory diets, especially with a lot of sugar, gluten and dairy, is really not good for your nervous system — for anybody’s nervous system, especially someone who has an autoimmune disease.
So I would point them to that book, and the main thing I would tell them regardless of what type of MS they have, and I do this all the time, I would say look at the positives. You’re gonna see a lot of people who feel like they’re in a hole, and don’t get wrapped into that because you’re not in that hole yet. And when you are, it all comes down to how you deal with it. I honestly believe that. It’s really how present you are with yourself in any kind of crisis in your life and how you deal with it. But just so you know, I’ve just become public with this, but I haven’t hidden from this. I meet people all the time with MS or other autoimmune disease and I share with them my experience. I wasn’t hiding this. I just hadn’t been public about it, and I felt like this was the time to be public about it.
In your letter, you mentioned one of the reasons you wanted to go public was so people don’t think you’ve fallen off the wagon. Were you hearing rumors like that a lot?
Well, really I wanted to just dispel a lot of myths that were there — that I was sick, or some people thought I had cancer or a tumor or something. And I’m really not that bad. I’m just not like I used to be. I used to do backflips on stage, and at 57, I don’t know that I’d be doing that, MS or not, anyway. [Laughs] But I just wanted to clear that up because there was misconceptions out there and I just wanted people to know the truth. The people that really care about me and care about my music and care about what I do, the true fans, I knew that they were gonna be supportive. I knew it. I had no doubt. I just wanted to comfort them. But really even though it didn’t show up in the letter, the main reason I wanted to talk about it was I don’t like being disingenuous. I don’t like having an elephant in the room.
Sometimes it would seem like there was that elephant, and I knew that I’d have to deal with this and talk about it for a while. I didn’t know it was gonna be so much attention. I knew it was going to be to a certain extent, but I figured after that, it was going to go away. But I wasn’t going to have to know that there was something I wasn’t talking about. Like I said in the letter, we don’t do fake in my family. I’ve been married four times. It’s not by accident. It’s because I made a lot of bad choices and I used to lie a lot to the women in my life, and now I try not to lie to anybody ever about anything. I might not come right out and go, “Your demo sucks. I hate your songs.” [Laughs] I can be judicious about it. I can tell a white lie when it’s appropriate like any adult, but at the same time, this felt big to me. I wanted to deal with it, and more importantly, I wanted people who were feeling symptoms or feeling weird to really go and find things out and go to the doctor. I’ve heard of people, even high-profile people, who were like, “My doctor said it was all in my head, that it’s all psychological.” And you know what? They were telling that to my mom when she had appendicitis back in the ’60s. If a doctor is telling you something’s in your head when you know it’s not, go to another doctor. There’s millions of them out there. Find a specialist that deals with these symptoms specifically. Do the due diligence because your life depends on it—maybe not your life, but the quality of your life, which is as important.
Absolutely. Well, switching gears a bit, you also have a new solo album coming out this year. Is there anything you can tell us about it?
Sure! It’s 11 songs, and it’s called Sun Songs, and it’s just me in the studio with an engineer/co-producer guy, Stuart Schenk, who I’ve worked with before. He’s a good friend, and it’s just the two of us. If it needs to be played, I play it. If it needs to be sung, I sung it. It’s a true solo record. It’s not an egotistical thing, I just needed a new challenge. I made records the traditional way with other musicians my whole life, and I wanted to do something different. It’s all acoustic guitars, all acoustic bass, some keyboards, drums — I’m playing the drums, and I’m not a good drummer at all, but we made it sound really good. It’s raw, very raw. I didn’t ProTool a lot of it. I wanted it to be a really honest thing, and for the first time, there’s some uplifting songs on there and some dark songs. The reason I called it Sun Songs is I moved back to California. I grew up in California, and I moved to Oregon when I started Everclear. I lived there for 21 years and I loved it, but when my daughter went to college, my wife wanted to move back to somewhere warm, and I was feeling like I needed more sunshine. And it’s funny because I didn’t know about the MS at the time, but one of the things about autoimmune disease is not getting enough vitamin D and sunshine. A lot of people who get diagnosed with MS come from more northern climates. Anyway, there’s a song about my daughter, there’s a song about my wife, there’s a song about the MS called “The Hot Water Test,” which is a reference to back in the ’40s and ’50s to diagnose MS, doctors and specialists would put people in hot, hot water — like hot baths, hot tubs of water, really hot — and see if they showed symptoms. It’s kind of barbaric. These are the days before the MRI. We’ve come a long way, but every day when you have a debilitating degenerative disease like this, every day is kind of like a hot water test. Especially for people who have it really bad. So I wanted to just share that and share the way I feel about it.
In addition to the new album, you mention in the letter that you’re going to start writing a book. What made you decide that now was the time to start doing that?
Because I’ve got time! [Laughs] I’m not on an album cycle. People have been wanting me do this for years and I tell little stories here and there, and I’ve got hundreds of them, and I’m like, “Yeah, okay. I’ll write a book.” About four or five years ago, one of my agents hooked me up with a book agent, and he got an offer for a book, but they wanted me to use ghostwriters. We did about 10-15 pages, and I just didn’t like it. I mean, they were great writers, but it sounded like them. It didn’t sound like me. I wanted it to feel like one of my letters. I wanted it to be personal. That’s what I like when I read other people’s books, especially when you’re dealing with a memoir. I just think it’s time to do it.
Is there anything else you want to make sure people know about?
Yeah, I’d like to mention I’m doing a tour starting May 1 before the album comes out. It’s a solo tour with three other guys from ’90s bands, Chris [Collingwood] the singer of Fountains of Wayne, Max [Collins] from Eve 6 and John [Wozniak] from Marcy Playground, songwriters that I really respect and admire a lot, and the four of us are doing this tour called Songs & Stories that I’ve been wanting to do for years, and it’s basically going to be all four of us onstage doing a song, and then three guys walk off and one guy does a small set, then we walk back on and do a song together, then the next guy does a set and so on. At the end of the show we’ll have encores, talking and some heckling and a Q&A from people. So I think it’s gonna be a lot of fun.
What made you want to do it in that format, incorporating stories and a Q&A?
I don’t know. My solo shows have kind of evolved to incorporate telling the stories behind the songs. I think it’s good entertainment. I think the people who were into ’90s music, or rock and roll from any age for that matter, will really appreciate the songwriting and the stories and the experiences that a bunch of guys who have been there for a while and were there back in the day can tell about it.