By Dan Weiss
Single Again is a new column on Radio.com where Dan Weiss investigates chart hits of the past and present, their stories and what they meant and how good they really are.
For this edition of Single Again, Radio.com spoke to Art Alexakis of Everclear about “Father of Mine,” one of the hits from the multi-platinum 1997 album So Much for the Afterglow, and one of the most raw and emotional songs about parental neglect and abuse to ever see radio play.
When you look back on “Father of Mine,” almost 20 years ago, does it feel like you said what you wanted to say? Your songwriting is always unusually open but that one didn’t hold back anything it feels like.
First of all, when I wrote that song I had no idea it was going to be a single, much less such a huge single. I didn’t know that was gonna happen. I never try to pick that because I think that’s the devil’s work right there, trying to tell what people are gonna like and what they’re not gonna like. But when I wrote that song, I needed to get that catharsis. I think most of the best songs in the world come from a selfish place, but they have a universal theme that other people can connect with, and I think that’s the case with this song. I think people thought it was a little too expository, a little too personal, and I understand that. But I was actually being nice about my dad. [laughs] I didn’t put all of it in there, it got worse than that.
A lot of people have issues like that all the time…they still don’t know who they are. That might even be worse, having seen their dad but not being able to break that barrier and get close to him. That would be hard. That’s something I fight with my daughters; I’m gone a lot. I try to be present constantly, take time every day when I’m gone and when I’m there. Like I’m keeping them home from school today just because after I’m done with the interviews we’re gonna go out and get some breakfast and do some daddy/daughter things just because I’ve got a date.
There are very few hit songs that are addressed with such complete directness. Eminem comes to mind, particularly the way he swears he wouldn’t let his daughter go through what he did. Other rappers too.
Yeah, all the stuff you’re talking about, it’s funny because there’s different types of emo. When we were coming up there were bands like Slint and Codeine and they called them emo, and then emo came to mean something else. But as far as just touching into emotions, that goes way back to singer-songwriters, and that’s what I grew up with, both hard rock and punk bands, and singer-songwriters. And that’s what Everclear’s always been, trying to be a blunt between that, because that’s my loves and my inspirations and influences.
Did your bandmates feel it was too expository, or the label?
Well, my other bandmates have always worked for me, it’s always been my band. I didn’t even ask what they thought. The label didn’t say anything, they thought it was a hit song from the beginning. I think most of the trepidation about it being expository came from me. I didn’t think it was too intense to be a song on a record, I didn’t think that at all. But I thought that being a single, it might not connect with people, it might put people off. I usually heard from like, guys who were irritated at me because their girlfriends liked me. [laughs] That didn’t like the song because they think it’s fake or that I made it up or something. I think they had a different agenda.
That’s crazy, I thought most people would be writing to you to say how much they could relate to it.
I’ve really never had anyone write to me where it wasn’t positive. I get people who come up to me every day, every day to this day about this song, from all walks of life. The African-American community, Asians, white people, Hispanics…it’s amazing that it has really connected and still continues to do so.
What lines do people quote to you or react to the most?
I don’t know…I don’t think I’ve had people come up to me quoting lines to me. That might be kind of creepy and weird.
Did you have things saved up for that song from a long time ago, or was there an event that caused you to finally unload it when you were writing So Much for the Afterglow?
I think it was basically…when I’m writing I’m in a really sensitive place. I don’t write a lot of autobiographical songs, maybe two per record, even though everyone thinks a lot of my songs are. Well, not real fans. People who don’t know the band really well think a lot of it’s autobiographical because I like to write in the first person. I like to tell stories. I don’t really think anybody has ever focused on one line to me about what’s connected with them. Most people say, “You wrote that song about me.” Okay, but I didn’t know it so I didn’t name you by name. [laughs]
Some people will say, “I had a great dad, but my mom wasn’t there. It could be ‘Mother of Mine’ for me.” I get a lot of dads who really connect with it, every father’s day I get a lot of emails, a lot of social media traffic about this song — dads, kids.
You were a little older and writing from more experience than some of your peers in the grunge/alternative/whatever era when Everclear found success, do you feel like fans understand your songs better now that they’ve gotten to that same age?
One of the things that I never wanted to do was be a guy in my thirties — and I’m not that much older than my peers, I’m like four or five years older than my peers — one thing I never wanted to do was write down to people, like write songs for younger people. I have no interest in being a young adult author. So my songs were written for me, at my level. And I think younger people are a lot smarter than people give them credit for, and can understand bigger themes than most people think they can.
Has the line about being a “scared white boy in a black neighborhood” ruffled any feathers? It feels like the way things are received, like with the controversy about Macklemore, that it would’ve been a distraction from other things in the song if it was released today.
That’s a really, really…Listen, that’s a lame question. The reference to Macklemore, I mean…he dressed up as a Hasidic Jew. What does that have to do with my song?
Oh no, I just meant that people can be sensitive about signifiers like using the word “black” regardless of the interpretation.
Look, the deal is that I’ve never had anyone bring that up in a negative way. This song is the song that connected me to the African-American community. After this song came out as a single, black people, men and women, started coming up to me and connecting. They understood that it was not black against white, it was my experience. Being a black kid in a white neighborhood is just as traumatic. And being a white kid in a black neighborhood, it wasn’t that it was bad! It was just hard for me because I didn’t know what it was until I moved there. After living there for a couple years, I loved it. I’ve always said that I’m grateful I was able to grow up in a multiethnic community. So yeah, I’ve never had anyone say anything negative about that line whatsoever.
Yeah, to clarify, I just thought it was notable on that song and a song like “Heartspark Dollarsign” (“The world resolves into a death’s head grin/ Because I walk with pride with a black girlfriend”) that you were one of the few bands from that whole alternative scene at the time who addressed race at all.
I get you, I appreciate you saying that.
Have you ever heard a response to “Father of Mine” from your dad?
He’ll call me every now and then because my sisters gave him my number, which was kind of lame. But he’ll call me, and when the song came out he was like, “I hope you did me proud, son!” and I was like, “Well, dad…I was honest!” And after the song came out, I think he listened to it because I didn’t hear from him for a couple years. [laughs]
I don’t have a relationship with my dad. My mother raised me and was a wonderful, wonderful person. She passed away in 2006. In 2005, my dad was bugging me and my sisters to have a relationship with him. But I don’t have a relationship with you, Dad…I’m not even mad anymore, it’s just like what’s the point? I don’t know you. I’m okay with where we’re at now. I’m okay with those feelings. I didn’t used to be, but I am now.
He’s like, “What can I do in this world to make you open up to me?”
I said, “You know what? My mother’s dying of cancer. She was given six months to live a year ago.” She’s been through all the stuff, she smoked cigarettes for 47 years, you just don’t get away with that. She died of lung cancer in February and this was like, October. And I’m like, “You want to make it up to me? You want to start a relationship? You call my mom. You be a man for the first time in your life and let her say whatever she wants to say to you. You take it like a man. Listen to what she has to say. She’s an old lady, she’s dying, she’s not gonna hurt you. What are you afraid of? Call her.”
He says, “Son, I’m gonna call her as soon as I get off the phone.”
I go, “You do that, dad? She tells me that you called her and that you listened to her? I’ll pick a time and bring my daughter around for you to meet her, and we can start building a relationship.”
He said, “That would mean the world to me.”
He hung up the phone. Never called her.