Kids At Heart
By Francis J Corva III
Approaching almost a decade as a band, The Alkaline Trio have gone from local favorites at hometown bowling alley shows in Chicago to selling hundreds of thousands of records worldwide, becoming one of the most definitive acts in the world of melodic punk in the process. Their latest effort, Crimson, finds the band furthering the parameters of their sound with broader instrumentation and matured subject matter. But fear not, longtime fans, because their trademark style, chock full of mordant lyricism set to an undercurrent of hook-driven three-chord riffs, prevails as per any of their previous work that you've come to know and love.
It's 2 p.m., and judging by his groggy voice, it sounds like Matt Skiba, guitarist/vocalist and founder of The Alkaline Trio, has just awoken. Though he's deservedly come to lead the life of a rockstar, his demeanor colors him as anything but one. Modest in his responses to my questions, Skiba, now 30, comes off as little more than a fan who made a splash with a band of his own. Caught off guard as I question where his knack for clever wordplay stems from, he pauses.
"Uh ... well, I appreciate that you think of it that way. Sometimes it's easier to write than others. I'm not really sure where it comes from," he admits. "I try to write music that I really want to listen to."
Luckily for Skiba, he's not the only one who really wants to listen to his music. As a guilty pleasure for punk purists and a dark indulgence to teeny-bopping Blink 182 fans, The Alkaline Trio have come to appeal to many layers in the strata of punk rock fans.
But what is it about the band's music that lends itself so generously to the ears of the youth? Maybe it's that, though Skiba has grown up some, he's still not much different from your average jaded, misled middle-class kid. He's just found a way to funnel his anxiety, displeasure and uneasiness into undeniably contagious punk rock songs. Though he's quick to defend the fact that he would never refer to his role in The Alkaline Trio as a job, but more of a "blessing" or a means to a good time, he's been involved in the tireless pursuit of a dream that began the moment he was introduced to punk as a youngster.
"One of the first bands I ever saw was Social Distortion. They've always been a favorite of mine. I saw them in 1989 on their Ball & Chain [tour]. When I saw Social Distortion was when I realized that's what I wanted to do," Skiba recalls.
While Mike Ness and Co. offered him the framework to writing bittersweet odes to life as an outcast, it was another act that turned him on to his more quixotic side. "Before that [the Social D show], I saw Public Image Ltd. and I was so blown away by it. I don't even think I could comprehend it," he recollects fondly. Fusing the inspiration from the two acts, Skiba discovered a balance between punk rock brawn and quirky, new-wave indie flavor, but it wasn't until other endeavors would dead-end that he would find his niche as the ringleader of The Alkaline Trio.
Throughout high school he experimented with bass and saxophone as well as the drums, which eventually landed him a position behind the kit in his first band, The Traitors. Honing his chops alongside friends from his hometown of McHenry, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, it wasn't long before Skiba would discover the guitar. Although never classically trained at the instrument, he took a liking to the process of writing songs on it. It would remain a hobby as he did what most middle-class kids do after high school Ð he went to college.
Enrolling in Chicago's College of Art and Design in pursuit of a graphic arts degree, Skiba proved to be a magnificent student. Unfortunately for the design world, the experience eventually became less than fulfilling as his desire to dedicate himself to his musical aspirations took hold. Taking on the job of a bike messenger to pay the bills granted him the necessary free time for songwriting.
Enlisting childhood friend Rob Doran on bass and Glenn Porter formerly of ska-punk act 88 Fingers Louie, Skiba organized the original lineup for The Alkaline Trio. Though that particular roster didn't last long Ð Skiba and Doran parted on amicable terms due to the fact that Skiba desired a life on the road in support of the band, while Doran didn't Ð it was a start. Dan Andriano, former bassist for the speedy ska-core outfit Slapstick, would soon fill the shoes of Doran. With a new wingman in place, Skiba and Co. lived under a work-hard, play-hard mentality.
"All of us were working as bike messengers in Chicago. We were working hard, but it was also a job that freed up time. We'd go out for a couple of weeks and try to play some shows," he recalls. "Over the course of three or four years, weeks would turn into months and we eventually quit our jobs. We'd get out to California and play Gilman Street as much as we could. It was a lot harder back then, but slowly the shows got bigger and it got easier for us to stay out on the road." The band's hearty work ethic and clever sound garnered them the attention of Mike Park, owner of Asian Man Records, a modest label (still) run out of Park's mom's garage.
The band signed with Asian Man for their first three albums (Goddamnit, Maybe I'll Catch Fire, S/T) before inking a deal with indie powerhouse Vagrant Records. Before heading into the studio, yet another member replacement occurred. Porter was replaced by Mike Felumee, former skinsman for the Smoking Popes. After a few practices with their new drummer and the big bucks of Vagrant behind them, they headed into the studio and wrote the album that would elevate them from the underground. From Here To Infirmary, rife with its diabolical lyricism and driving punk song structures, had pinpointed the band as contemporaries of The Damned, The Cramps or dare I say, The Misfits.
For the following record, Good Mourning (2003), a final shift in the lineup took place as Felumee was replaced by Derek Grant, well known for his work with So-Cal punk legends The Vandals, as well as with The Suicide Machines and Face To Face (with whom he actually played guitar). It turned out that Grant wasn't only an asset as a drummer, but a valuable resource in the studio as well.
"A lot of the production comes from Derek's ideas," claims Skiba. "Derek's a big Adam Ant and David Bowie fan. He's also a big black metal fan." Just as happy to have Grant onboard as Grant was to have finally found a home after moonlighting in the aforementioned acts, the band took off in support of Good Mourning, often heralded as their most engaging record to date.
While on the road, the band sketched out the songs for their upcoming release. After rounding out a hectic tour schedule, the band headed into the studio with producer Jerry Finn, best known for his work with Morrissey, AFI, Jawbreaker and Green Day.
"We've always wanted to work with Jerry Finn," enthuses Skiba. "A few records ago he mixed a record for us, and on the last record he co-produced. To have his full attention for the whole time was incredible." Derek's production intuition found amplification through Finn's mastery as the eclectic influences of all the band's members found an outlet somewhere within the depths of Crimson.
"I was listening to a lot of Psychedelic Furs Ð I think they've been a big influence on this record," says Skiba before citing his love for The Damned. He stumbles over his words, thinking back on other inspirations but concedes at, "I listen to so much different stuff. [We're] constantly, constantly listening to all different kinds of stuff ... I love Interpol like crazy." However long Skiba's list of influences may be, they've obviously played a substantial role in the crafting of Crimson, on which each song has a personality all its own.
A current of cutting guitar and Skiba's reverberating delivery on the album's lead track, "Time To Waste," sideswipes a delicate piano introduction. The song's hook takes hold like the first sip of beer inaugurating a long-anticipated night out. On "Burn," the echoes of power chords pan from left to right, easing into Skiba's crooning, which later segues into gentle instrumental swells and crashing riffs that dissipate like fireworks from the sky. Andriano's voice, as opposed to his usual teetering heart-on-sleeve delivery, has an air of certainty to it on tracks like "The Poison" and "Satin," but can still be just as softhearted on songs like "I Was A Prayer." Breezy synth arrangements well up to compliment Skiba and Andriano's oft-harmonized vocal deliveries throughout, very much contributing to the record's breadth. All in all, the songs lament more than they aggress; yet in some cases they present themselves as overtly provocative.
On "Sadie," a spoken-word interlude surfaces mid-way through the song. "I'd do anything for God, even murder if I knew it was right. How could it not be right if it is done with love? I have no remorse for doing what was right to me. I have no guilt in me," confesses a tiresome female voice as if stating her last words before heading down death row. Given the success of the band and the happiness that Skiba's found in his personal life (he's recently engaged), one can't help but question the root of the album's gloomy qualities.
"It's a dark record, but I think it's a fun record, too. It's from real life experience. It's from things we've read about and [it's] influenced by movies we've seen," states Skiba. "There are songs that are inspired by things that are going on right now. These three young men, well, one of the kids is on death row and two of them are serving life sentences for some murders that happened in West Memphis. That's something that I follow very closely. I saw the documentaries and then I read this book called Devil's Nod about it as we were writing this record."
Upon researching the details of the case, it becomes incredibly apparent as to why it's played upon his consciousness. The three youths involved in the case were tried and persecuted under no physical evidence and not necessarily for murder, but for being "satanic."
"Derek and I are members of the Church of Satan. We are Satanists, but when people hear that they think it's actually worshipping the devil," explains Skiba. As the product of parents who never enforced organized religion on him, Skiba's grown up against the grain, caustically challenging his audience through his black humor. "Just like Halloween is fun, I think Anton LaVey [and] all of this imagery he's created is something that we think is threatening in a way to a lot of people. It's really just fun," he states. As one might imagine, his beliefs become less of a joking matter in light of the "West Memphis Three" case, and it's no wonder that "the modern day witch-hunt was certainly an influence on this record," as Skiba puts it.
While his feelings on certain dubious political happenings hardly carry over into his rhetoric as a songwriter, Skiba insists that "it's all good to at least express some opposition." This past year, the band joined forces with NOFX frontman/political activist Fat Mike and his Punk Voter campaign in hopes of ousting the Bush administration prior to their re-installment. In a climate of such heightened political tension, it was inevitable that politics would affect the vibe of the record. According to Skiba, though, "There's nothing directly political about the album," he assures. "Hopeless as it seems, it at least feels good to have said something about it. Obviously, we didn't alter the election or anything, but I think that it was a voice that needed to be heard and it was nice to be a part of that with really good friends," comments Skiba on the collective of bands and fans that united under the Punk Voter flag.
Punk has always been the voice of the kids and their apprehensions (whether political, personal or otherwise), and it's a voice that Skiba has always embodied, whether he realizes it or not. Much like the role his band plays in the lives of so many kids these days, it wasn't all that long ago that Skiba had his mind blown to bits by the likes of Green Day and Social Distortion. Over the years of playing with The Alkaline Trio, there've been countless instances where he can recall fans thanking him for his music saving their lives.
"I hear it from time to time, and I just know how that feels. So to hear somebody say it to me is amazing Ð it never really gets old. It helps me [to know] that in turn it's helping somebody else. That's a wonderful thing," unravels Skiba. "I've been that kid before, and I still am to an extent."