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Everclear, a band fully embracing of its status as a band playing the hits. (Harmony Gruber/Flickr)
The tragically unhip status of a ’90s alt-rocker in 2018
The second life of a late-‘90s alternative rock musician, especially a lead singer, is usually not a particularly glamorous path. While some radio staples of the era (Pearl Jam, Beck, Bjork, Gwen Stefani, Dave Matthews, Rob Thomas, Weezer, Ben Folds, Dave Grohl) have transcended this status to become elder statesmen and stateswomen of popular music, many rock-radio hitmakers of the era have become straight-up defined by their period of momentary glory. Decades out from their last hit and predating the nurturing nature of social media to keep fanbases hooked, many have been relegated to oldies tours.
The band Everclear, one of the better bands of this specific era, is a key example of this. While the act hasn’t had a sizable hit in about 15 years and Art Alexakis has been the only constant over the past decade, it has maintained a touring presence during most of that time, and has leaned hard into the idea of alt-rock being an oldies game. In 2012, Alexakis launched the Summerland Tour, a festival giving still-active rock acts from the late ‘90s access to rock venues around the country. Among Summerland’s alums are a number of bands known primarily for one song: Marcy Playground, Spacehog, Sponge (OK, I’ll give ‘em two), Eve 6 (ditto), and Local H.
Part of the reason so many of these bands largely became known for a single song, as I’ve noted in the past, is because the music industry (at least on the rock side) was not structured in a healthy way in the late ‘90s, making it difficult for radio-driven major label bands to maintain a long-term career unless they hit a certain threshold of critical acclaim or musical success. Bands that built a less-showy cult following were often, ironically, better off over the long haul than overnight success stories.
And often, one-hit wonders that managed to stick it out into the present day, such as Nada Surf and former Refreshments lead singer Roger Clyne, survived because they got off their major labels and went independent, where the odds of a steady career of working in music were just a bit better.
Sometimes, you have to embrace your status as a band that plays oldies tours. (Harmony Gruber/Flickr)
Even bands that had a number of hits in the late ‘90s, like two-time Summerland alums Sugar Ray, have found their second acts somewhat wanting. That band’s singer, Mark McGrath, has parlayed his TRL-era fame into a lengthy career as a media personality, complete with a Celebrity Big Brother appearance; he has also become the lead singer of Royal Machines, an all-star cover band built from the roots of a prior all-star cover band, Camp Freddy. (Hey, things could be worse.)
Really, the best gig one can have as an late-career alternative rocker, outside of a robust touring business, is taking a role behind the scenes. Semisonic lead singer Dan Wilson didn’t win his well-deserved Grammy for “Closing Time,” the greatest song ever written about childbirth, but his mantle has gained plenty of hardware nonetheless, thanks to his significant songwriting and production skills. Among other awards, Wilson has earned Grammys for working with the Dixie Chicks—he cowrote “Not Ready to Make Nice”—and Adele. Wilson produced “Someone Like You,” the closing track on 21, the best-selling album of the past decade, as well as one of Adele’s biggest hits; that’s no small feat.
(Semisonic’s drummer, Jacob Slichter, wrote a great book about being in the music industry that feels relevant to this conversation.)
And Better Than Ezra lead singer Kevin Griffin, whose band should have been more famous than it actually was (“At the Stars” is a good song, fight me), has become an active songwriter himself; remember the Howie Day song “Collide”? He co-wrote that, along with a number of songs on the last two Barenaked Ladies albums.
Call it the Rob Thomas template: While Matchbox Twenty was a band that had a lot of staying power, a big reason for that staying power was the fact that Thomas dabbled in writing songs for other artists. Most famously, of course, he co-wrote and sang “Smooth” with Santana, ensuring that every bar in every city, at some point during the the day, would have someone saying, “Man, it’s a hot one …” on the loudspeaker. Score the right hit, and you’re set for life.
I say all of this to preface the fact that Gregg Alexander was a genius for breaking up The New Radicals when he did. What seemed like a very rock-star thing to do, quit a band before it had a chance to even shine, was actually quite brilliant.
“There was a long time where no matter what I did, I could be absolutely certain that the first paragraph would be a snide dismissal of ‘Flagpole Sitta’ with a little twist at the end of ‘But I like it okay.’ No one could just admit that they liked it or say they hated it. It was always couched in dismissal. I happened to be hypersensitive to that. Which is a stupid thing to be, but I am nonetheless.”
— Sean Nelson, the lead singer of Harvey Danger, discussing the odd status of his band’s biggest hit in his life during a 2013 interview. Nelson has spent more than two decades as an editor at the Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger, while periodically performing and touring with various well-known Northwest bands such as The Decemberists, The Long Winters, and Death Cab For Cutie. (Harvey Danger broke up in 2009, and Nelson’s 2013 interview was celebrating the release of a solo album.) Nelson’s long-term gig as a journalist with one foot in the music industry has at times led to unusual situations, such as in 2015 when he wrote a news story about Critical Mass activists going after a Zipcar driver while “Flagpole Sitta” was playing on a speaker attached to one of the cyclists’ bikes. “It's enough to make you take public transportation,” he wrote.
Wake up kids, we've got the dreamer's disease.
Why The New Radicals’ breakup was the best thing that could have ever happened to Gregg Alexander
The New Radicals may be the only band that has been broken up by press release.
It was a damn good press release, too, courtesy of Gregg Alexander himself. He wrote of his desire to move back into production work, to focus on being in the studio and songwriting. He even knew the perfect person to work with out of the gate: Danielle Brisebois, the former child star who added a late-season dynamic to All In the Family and had resurfaced in his band. (The album was never released, but Brisebois remains a close collaborator with Alexander.)
He also wrote about being tired of the hustle that came with a band on the brink of long-term success. While he had a hit single, the odds of scoring a second one weren’t great. He knew what was coming. He got ahead of it before it defined his career and life.
From the press release, here’s what Alexander had to say:
It was an experience playing the artist, but I accomplished all of my goals with this record, and I'm ready to move on and make the next step in my career. I've been writing songs for and working with artists as varied as R&B acts to Belinda Carlisle intermittently for the last nine years, and I'm looking forward to starting the day-to-day creative process of building a successful production company. I view myself much the same as a just getting started Babyface or Matthew Wilder (No Doubt producer), who dabbled in performing, but whose real calling was being a producer.
The band’s album was well-reviewed and their single well-regarded, but Alexander was probably aware that there was likely more potential for him to have a decent career if he moved behind the scenes, while someone better suited to the “hanging and schmoozing” of being a pop star, as he described it, could do all that.
As he noted, he had already found success as a composer; after his first two albums as a solo artist, Michigan Rain and Intoxifornication, tanked, that was how he made his money before forming the New Radicals.
(In case you were wondering, Gregg Alexander’s first attempt at stardom didn’t receive a lot of critical acclaim. A Chicago Tribune review of Intoxifornication said this of his appeal: “The ‘Beverly Hills, 90210’ version of Prince is here, complete with gorgeous face, guitar, and songs filled wish sexual play-by-plays.”)
But the experience of creating the two albums, which had a more melancholy sound than his later band, was nonetheless important. The producer on those two albums, a guy named Rick Nowels, became key to Alexander’s later success as a songwriter. You may not know Nowels by name, but you’ve heard his resume on the radio. Among the songs he’s helped to write and/or produce in the past 30 years: Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is a Place on Earth,” Dido’s “White Flag,” John Legend’s “Green Light,” and Lana Del Rey’s “Summertime Sadness.” He cowrote the title track on Celine Dion’s breakthrough Falling Into You, three tracks on Madonna’s Ray of Light, and worked on solo albums for most of the Spice Girls. In recent years, he’s worked closely with Del Rey in particular. Another frequent collaborator? Gregg Alexander.
Nowels cowrote “You Get What You Give” with Alexander, and after the New Radical went behind the scenes, the songwriters kept up the partnership, most famously on “The Game of Love,” a Santana collaboration with Michelle Branch that became the “Smooth” of 2002. That song won a Grammy.
Here’s a fun fact about the tune: The song was originally demoed with Alexander performing the vocals, but producer Clive Davis decided a female vocalist would be a better choice. It took them a few tries to find the right one: First, Tina Turner was brought on board, but the semi-retired soul icon didn’t want to do the video; then Macy Gray was brought in, but the vocals weren’t to Davis’ liking. Finally, Michelle Branch was pulled in, resulting in one of the biggest hits of the early 2000s.
(Santana was partial to Turner’s version, which was eventually released on a compilation disc.)
The result of all this is that there’s a version of the song with Alexander’s vocals on it. In case you were wondering what that would sound like, here you go.
Most of the songs that he’s worked on, however, haven’t gotten quite that degree of notice—something that was largely by design, as Alexander used pseudonyms such as “Alex Ander” (as he did on “The Game of Love”) and also collaborated with artists with relatively small American profiles, such as Boyzone’s Ronan Keating, for whom he’s co-produced at least four albums.
Alexander has at times dropped out of doing music entirely in favor of pursuits like activism. He’s largely avoided doing interviews, but surfaced in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter in 2014. The occasion? He was roped in by John Carney, the musician-turned-director best known for Once, and worked closely with the director on Begin Again, a film about the music industry that stared Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, and Maroon 5’s Adam Levine. (Levine, side note, knows a thing or two about the music industry circa 1998; ask him about Kara’s Flowers sometime.)
Alexander noted that the film’s story reminded him of his own time in the music industry, and signed onto the project, writing most of its songs with many of his frequent collaborators, including Brisebois.
One of the songs he wrote, intended as something of a centerpiece of the film, was “Lost Stars,” which was nominated for an Oscar for Best Song—hence why Alexander started appearing out in public again.
“‘Lost Stars,’ more than any other song in the film, was the one where you wanted to get out a philosophy that Keira's character would sing but Adam would relate to and something that would also touch a contemporary audience,” Alexander told Billboard as he made the awards-season rounds. “At the end of the film, it’s a young audience watching this song that really has a lot of pathos and pain in it, but yet people are doing this.”
Watching a live recording of Alexander performing this song with as much passion as Levine throws at it in the film (albeit with a scratchier voice), one wonders what might have happened had Alexander had his brush with fame just a few years later, in a music industry that was a bit more artist-friendly, where he could have faded in rather than burning out. Would Alexander have written a song like this for the New Radicals? Would his profile be similar to that of Levine’s? Maybe, maybe not. The music industry, even today, is still built on sheer chance, not just talent.
But two decades on from the fateful release of a song that was so destined for the mainstream that its music video was literally shot in a mall, one thing is clear from Alexander’s take on the song that nearly won him an Oscar: He’s still got the goods.
On its merits, “You Get What You Give” was one of the best pop songs of its era, classically soulful, evoking the best of both ‘60s soul and the best parts of a John Hughes film soundtrack.
But at the time of its release, it became a target for controversy due to a ticking time bomb that Alexander laid at the end of the song. The lyrics did two things: They casually dropped a whole lot of incongruent political issues, calling health insurance a rip-off and big bankers a threat, hinting at the overblown status of the looming Y2K bug, and questioning the ethics of cloning animals. They then slammed a bunch of pop stars. You know the lyrics, but let me publish them here for posterity:
Fashion shoots with Beck and Hanson
Courtney Love and Marilyn Manson
You're all fakes, run to your mansions
Come around, we'll kick your ass in
It was a test. Alexander wanted to see if the major label push he knew the record would get would lead the media to pay attention to his willingness to talk about serious political issues—or his willingness to fight a trio of generally wholesome teenage brothers from Tulsa, Oklahoma. We all know what happened, and it likely drove the success of the song because it gave people something to talk about.
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter in 2014, though, it was clear that Alexander was still bummed at the results of that test.
“But to put them next to each other, and then to notice that everybody focused on the so-called ‘celebrity-bashing’ lyric instead of this lyric that was talking about the powers-that-be that are holding everybody down … That was something that I was kind of disillusioned by,” he told the magazine’s Scott Feinberg.
Love or hate the song, or the controversy, it simply highlighted Alexander’s savvy as a creator.
The status of the music industry at the tail end of 1998 was quite strange. It was mere moments from getting disrupted in a way where the power of your following mattered more than the power of your label, where the old calculus of aggressively promoting a song and then ditching a band after their big hit had been used up was finally looking like bad business.
The New Radicals caught on at a time where they could play that game, but Gregg Alexander was smart enough to know that it was better to jump off before the industry ate him alive, and instead focus on his creative output.
It sure beats the oldies circuit.