I don't want to be known as "Cancer Boy' for the rest of my life," sighs Eric Alexandrakis. "You know, "That musical cancer guy.' But it is marketable."
Alexandrakis, a Miami-based multi-instrumentalist who produces homemade pop songs in relative isolation, doesn't make his bouts with Hodgkin's disease the subject of all his quirky material. However, he did devote a whole album to the topic on last year's I.V. Catatonia, a cathartic overview of his diagnosis and treatment. The disc gave reviewers an easy route into Alexandrakis's mental state during his sickness. During the worst parts of 1998 and 1999, Alexandrakis explains, making music was his refuge from pain, boredom, and hopelessness that at times could have overtaken him.
"It's amazing what something like that will do to your brain," he relates while waiting out an afternoon thunderstorm in his car. "It will mess up your mind." Since recovering from a relapse 18 months ago, Alexandrakis has been given a respite from hospital beds, blood transfusions, and stem-cell transplants. He is still bothered by exhaustion, but with his disease in remission, he's back to creating his unpredictable little tunes at a typically impressive rate. Alexandrakis continues working at home on a 16-track recorder and passing out limited-edition EPs to friends and fans and plans to release a double album later this year on Miami's independent Y&T Records. Each CD bears some version of the tag "Written, Arranged, Produced, Engineered & Conceived by Eric Alexandrakis," making him the local approximation of Todd Rundgren or Prince.
"When I hear the phrase one-man band, I picture Bugs Bunny playing a bass drum and a crash [cymbal] while he's walking," chuckles the 29-year-old. "But I'm disillusioned with past projects, and I'm still turned off from working with anybody."
A decade of classical piano training starting when he was six years old built Alexandrakis's creative core. At the same time, "I was always picking up toys around the house and making music out of them," he recalls. However, it's nearly impossible to ascertain keyboard virtuosity in his songs. In fact his musical milestones would seem to begin and end (literally) with Duran Duran.
"Around 1982 I heard "Hungry Like the Wolf," and I was like, "Oh man, synthesizers are so cool!' That killed my whole classical training." Drama, music, and art classes kept his creativity up through high school, when he briefly played in a rock band.
"It was really frustrating, because one guy just wanted to play music that sounded like giant spiders eating your spleen, and the other guy just wanted to play Pink Floyd," he says. "And I just wanted to write songs."
As a theater major at the University of Miami, Alexandrakis dabbled in music production, working in the school's recording studio on weekends. Grad school followed, and he earned a master's degree in music business/entertainment industry. An internship at Y&T introduced him to Miami musicians, including Mary Karlzen and Amanda Green, but Alexandrakis was also studiously making his own four-track recordings at home, borrowing the machine from his friends Susan Tojo and Robert Gueits of the band Eyes of Pandora; he later produced the duo's debut album. After his 1996 graduation, employment promised by UM failed to materialize, so between freelance photography assignments, Alexandrakis recorded his debut, Nine Demos on a Four Track.
Successfully marketing his music seemed a long shot until Alexandrakis met Duran Duran bassist John Taylor at a 1998 concert and gave him a copy of Nine Demos, for which Taylor quickly developed a fondness. "He put it up for sale on his Website," Alexandrakis says, "which was unbelievable."
But just as unbelievable was Alexandrakis's ability to meet the former pinup idol at all, since that very day he'd finished a grueling series of chemotherapy treatments at Jackson Memorial Hospital. In March 1998, after noticing a lump in his chest, Alexandrakis was diagnosed with Hodgkin's -- a deadly lymphatic cancer -- that resulted in extensive tests, treatments, and hospital visits. In addition to providing the grist for the sometimes sonically hostile I.V. Catatonia, the experience had an upside.
"It gave me free time to record during that first barrage," Alexandrakis says. "It was a good thing in that it gave me more determination to succeed, but it caused a lot of suffering and pain for other people. It was worse for my family members than for me: They see you in this way and can't do anything about it. I wasn't really depressed, but the people around me were. There were painful moments, but since it was curable, it wasn't really that bad. If it had turned out worse, then..."
Quickly pushing that thought aside, Alexandrakis now reports that, aside from a relapse in February 2000 that left him hospitalized for weeks, he's back to normal.
"If you can call it normal," he clarifies. "This year I had shingles, I had food poisoning, and I had the worst two flus I've ever had. But now I seem to be all right." Illness aside, Alexandrakis has found time to record several limited-edition singles since Catatonia, which he releases in quantities of 100. For Valentine's Day 2000 he offered "Good Girls Never Waltz with Me." Last December he put forth his purest pop song yet, the gorgeous "All I Want for Christmas Is You," followed by another five-song single featuring "Open Heart Surgery," which came packaged in a box of chocolates. Another recent release, recorded in Miami and Paris, suggests that Alexandrakis is still haunted by his own traitorous cells, as tracks like "Psycho Immunology" and "My Rainy Day (acyclovir 400mg mix)" attest. Thanks to a cover of "Election Day" from the Duran Duran spinoff project Arcadia, the four-song EP is markedly more accessible than the skewed experimentalism and musique concrète tape-collage of Catatonia, which is full of bloodcurdling screams, insane cuckoo clocks, revving motorcycles, and uneasy-listening nightmares such as "Selenium, Vitamin E, Beta Carotene, B-12, Vitamin C, Cat's Claw and Multi Vitamin & Mineral Supplement."
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"I don't buy into being weird just to be weird," he explains. "I don't really have the patience. I'm attracted to happy, poppy tunes like the Beatles or R.E.M. I don't like to listen to weird stuff unless it's a good song with an element of weird in it." Though a fan of Radiohead, Alexandrakis comes down hard on Kid A and Amnesiac: "I just hate them! I don't like them at all. I think they're the most pretentious collections of half-assed demos I've ever heard."
Envisioning himself as a sound painter, using found sounds and instruments to create landscapes or abstracts, Alexandrakis works in a painterly way on his 16-track, adding elements, removing and rearranging them, covering up mistakes. He reports that his version of "Election Day" will be included on a soon-to-be-released compilation Bangs and Sounds of the 1980s, in addition to his next record, provisionally titled Terra. For now, Alexandrakis is making preparations to take his idiosyncratic compositions to the stage -- something he's done only three times in the past.
With keyboard parts prerecorded on MiniDiscs, Alexandrakis is free to play guitar and sing his increasingly accessible songs, his patina of "normality" gradually replacing tortured sickbed-diary drainers with love songs and melodies that caress rather than scratch. Yet he remains unafraid to spear pretty tunes with shortwave radio blasts.
His persistent, delightfully unbalanced approach to pop songcraft proves that, in the best possible sense, Eric Alexandrakis's time has come.