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How Everclear's Art Alexakis combines rock and comedy to fight MS

Pasadena, CA - March 19: The singer of Everclear, Art Alexakis, is getting into the comedy space with an event to raise money for MS research and here he poses for a portrait at his studio on Tuesday, March 19, 2024 in Pasadena, CA. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)
Everclear singer-songwriter and guitarist Art Alexakis is getting into the comedy space with an event to raise money for MS research and here he poses for a portrait at his studio on Tuesday, March 19, 2024 in Pasadena, CA. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Pasadena’s Art Alexakis, singer-songwriter and guitarist of Los Angeles alt-rock band Everclear, finds himself this month somewhere between dealing with the aftermath of a March windstorm decimating his wife’s BMW and rehearsing his rendition of “Diamond Dogs” for a benefit tribute to David Bowie. There’s also plenty of self-care and a fair share of looking back.

In 2016, Alexakis was diagnosed with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis after likely experiencing the autoimmune disease for a decade prior. Nearly 3 million people affected with nervous system impairment around the globe have included Christina Applegate, Selma Blair, Montel Williams, Jamie-Lynn Sigler and the late Richard Pryor.

Born and raised in Santa Monica, Alexakis continues his National MS Awareness Month tradition of kicking off the third annual 24-hour online “Dystopia Tonight Stream to End MS” starting Wednesday at 6pm Pacific. All funds raised benefit the National MS Society.

Event highlights from the event's previous years include a “That 70s Show” reunion with creator/showrunner Mark Brazil, Tommy Chong and Kurtwood Smith; Jimmy Vivino showing up with "Letterman" sidekick Paul Shaffer and the Four Seasons’ Lee Shapiro; video messages from comedians Lewis Black, Rita Rudner and others. Last year’s final quarter featured a '90s alt-rock gathering with members of Barenaked Ladies, Toad the Wet Sprocket, the Gin Blossoms and Sister Hazel.

Wednesday night's event features performances from New Zealand’s Ladyhawke and England’s Frank Turner along with comedians Robert Klein, Robert Smigel, Colin Mochrie and Jamie Kennedy. Actors Ed Begley Jr. (“Young Sheldon”), Beth Broderick (“Sabrina the Teenage Witch”), Dedee Pfeiffer (“Big Sky”) and viral Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield will also make cameos.

Comedian and “Dystopia Tonight” host John Poveromo expects more than 80 guests over 24 hours. His personal circle of MS Warriors range from his mother to an opera-singer friend. Poveromo’s original pandemic-era fundraising attempt ended up streaming 93 hours to break a Guinness World Record.

Ahead of the "Dystopia Tonight" streaming event Alexakis discusses his MS experiences, fundraising, his band's upcoming album anniversary tour of "Songs From an American Movie" and doing “bad things” at the Whisky a Go Go.

Man in black t-shirt sitting in front of blue wall mural
In 2016, Art Alexakis was diagnosed with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis. Two years later, he wrote a song — "The Hot Water Test" — about it. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

How did you originally connect with comedian "Dystopia Tonight" host John Poveromo over the issue of multiple sclerosis?

I was diagnosed in 2016 with RRMS. I started treatment and told friends and family, but I wasn’t really public about it with other people. I wasn't hiding it; I just wasn’t talking about it publicly. Then in 2018, I wrote a song about it called “The Hot Water Test” that was on my solo record [“Sun Songs”] that came out in 2019, and I knew I was going to have to talk about it.

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I sent a letter out to all my social media, and within two or three hours, I was getting calls from Variety, Rolling Stone, the L.A. Times, even “Good Morning America,” just to talk about it. L.A. morning shows as well. I guess it went viral in a sense, but it brought a lot of attention to MS in a positive way. Since being diagnosed, I made a video for the song “Hot Water Test” with people singing my lyrics along with me that were diagnosed with MS, ranging from being really young and different ethnic backgrounds. It came out really cool for a $5,000 video, and that got a lot of traction as well. When I play shows, every dollar from every show goes to the Multiple Sclerosis Society or Sweet Relief, because they do great work as well. That’s how I got involved and why I was on John’s podcast; he asked me because it was for MS.

What does your day-to-day look like now?

It changes. It progresses. It’s going to progress for the rest of your life. Through medication or not, it’s going to progress. That’s just what it does. They say if you live long enough, you’re going to be in a wheelchair. I want to push that date as far away as possible. So I swim every day. I try to eat a low-inflammatory diet, get a lot of sleep, drink a lot of water, physical therapy. I take medication. I get an infusion once a month. I’m doing everything I can to keep getting onstage.

Man sitting in a studio in front of a wall of guitars
How Art Alexakis works to treat his own MS: "I swim every day. I try to eat a low-inflammatory diet, get a lot of sleep, drink a lot of water, physical therapy. I take medication. I get an infusion once a month. I'm doing everything I can to keep getting onstage." (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

How would you prepare for a performance like the band’s “Live at the Whisky a Go Go” taping?

You play almost 100 shows the year before doing your 30th anniversary tour. We play a lot. We don’t rehearse a lot unless we’re trying to learn something. We don’t need to rehearse. And that’s not arrogance. It’s just we’re all guys in our 50s and 60s; we’ve been doing this for a while. I hadn’t planned on doing a live album, but we were playing a show at the Whisky. Which incidentally, growing up in L.A. and being a musician the whole time, I went to the Whisky, I did bad things at Whiskey, but I never played the Whiskey ever. So we played and we recorded it. Usually when people record for live albums, they record three or four shows. We only recorded one. I had to tweak three or four things, but there’s really not a lot of Auto-Tune. It’s pretty honest. I can hear some notes that I don’t hit, but we’re dinosaurs. We do it the old school way. What would be the analogy for comedy? With all these comedy specials, they make ‘em look like they’re not stopping or redoing jokes, but they are. And why wouldn’t they? They’re recording this for posterity. You want it to be the best as possible.

What else does 2024 hold for you and the band?

We’re going to do a tour in the fall honoring the 25th anniversary of making the album “Songs From an American Movie,” which has “Wonderful,” “AM Radio,” several different songs on it and did really well. But it’s also just going to be an old school Everclear tour. We’re going to take a couple of bands, friends of ours from the '90s.

Our audiences have been skewing a lot younger lately, which you really don’t really expect. But there’s a lot of younger people who are dissatisfied with contemporary music, and they are looking for rock 'n' roll. So they gravitate to the '90s . What a surprising thing at my age to be able to go out and still for a living play rock 'n' roll, which for a lot of people is the dream. It was for me.

It’s fun when you can see that fire in their eyes when they still get the buzz off it. I’m in my 60s; I still get the buzz. I played with guys in their 70s last night. They still get the buzz. I bet you Robert Klein still gets the buzz.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.