In 1998, Gregg Alexander, a lanky Detroiter who’d been bouncing around the music industry for a few years without any success, scored a massive out-of-nowhere hit with “You Get What You Give,” an off-kilter piece of soul-pop credited to a basically-nonexistent band called New Radicals. I have plenty of friends who still react to that song with absolute rapture. But Alexander was weirded out with everything that came with late-’90s success. So after releasing the album Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too, he broke up New Radicals, moved to England, and essentially disappeared completely. The whole time, he was writing and producing songs under pseudonyms, and he was partly responsible for hits for people like Santana and Sophie Ellis-Bextor. But he hadn’t really returned to the spotlight until he wrote the songs for Begin Again, the recent music-themed indie romance with Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo. Alexander recently talked to The Hollywood Reporter, giving his first interview in many years, and the resulting profile traces a truly strange and interesting story. Here’s an excerpt:
His own growing celebrity was also increasingly troubling to him. “Artists are supposed to observe life,” he says, noting that it became harder to do that without people observing him. Moreover, people wanted to know about his personal life more than his art. “My favorite artists — Prince, [David Lee] Roth-era Van Halen, even Madonna when she was doing cutting-edge work — they were mysteries to me and my friends,” he emphasizes. “That was part of what made their work compelling, was that we didn’t have their opinions tweeted and Facebooked every 30 seconds. I didn’t know what Prince was having for dinner, thank God. So that was some of what I idealized and thought would be more present in my life as an artist” — only, that era had already begun to pass.
But perhaps most intolerable to him was the insistence by the industry itself — “the big business that run these corporations and multinationals that own the record companies and all of the conduits through which artists get their music out there” — that he and other artists “whore out” themselves in order to continue to make art. An example? “Things like doing station P.A.s, you know, where you have to go, ‘You’re hangin’ with The Party Pig!’ [The Party Pig was the mascot for the LA area’s now-defunct KQLZ 100.3 AM.] You know? ‘This is Gregg from The New Radicals and you’re hangin’ with The Party Pig!’ ‘Hangin’ with the Party Pig’ is a metaphor for all the sort of stuff that artists, to this day, have to do, and as bad as it seemed back then, it has multiplied a thousand times. It seems like a sad trade-off for artists. It’s the deal with the devil: if you want your work to be seen, it’s unfortunately not just about the work. And when it becomes less about the art, then the art suffers.”
“I simply missed feeling like an artist everyday and being able to write songs everyday and not feel like my time was being controlled and managed to answer to corporate shareholders,” Alexander says. Moreover, he adds, “I missed my old life.” So in 1999, just one year after “You Get What You Give” neared the top of the Billboard charts, he disbanded The New Radicals, turned his back on fame and fortune and simply walked away.
Check out the entire story here.