Chicago-bred pop-punk outfit Alkaline Trio has, over the past 20 years or so, gone from being a band with a unique take on a genre to being a veritable punk-rock institution. Having recently released its ninth studio album, My Shame Is True, the band employs a formula of fusing the most macabre of lyrics with only the catchiest of choruses. This potent formula has delivered the trio to the incredibly rare air of late-career critical acclaim, something more or less unprecedented in the disposable world of punk rock.
New Times spoke with lead singer, guitarist, songwriter, and figurehead Matt Skiba about all the crap you have to go through to create a sonic masterpiece, about balancing his roles as a solo artist and a band member, and about the joys of high-displacement Italian motorcycles.
New Times: While there have no doubt been subtle changes, Alkaline Trio has remained pretty true to its stylistic roots over the years. Is there a key to staying creative in that style over almost 20 years, and have there ever been thoughts of doing something radically different within the context of Alkaline Trio?
Matt Skiba: Within Alkaline Trio? No, I mean, we've taken some chances. Like you said, there have been some deviations from the original formula. I think we've all become better players; there's been this shift change over the years. Derek being in the band makes a world of difference. I mean, that guy can play anything, he has an amazing voice, so we have tools we didn't have originally.
When I want to do something radically different, I do another project. You know, like the Sekrets. It's not that much different from Alkaline Trio, except I'm dressed like a witch doctor or whatever you want to call it — some people are more cruel about it — but it's a fun thing to do. I've always been into theatrics, and I love theatrical artists like Rozz Williams and Marilyn Manson, but musically, it didn't deviate too much. You can still tell that's the guy from Alkaline Trio. With the Trio, we can do whatever we want, but we just don't want to bum out our fans or make them feel disconnected from the band all of a sudden. I know some records have done that, but it wasn't intentional; it was just where we're at as artists. I don't think we'd ever want to, like, lose anybody too much.
With the Sekrets, it's pretty obvious there's a bit of a dark, '80s, British influence.
Yeah, the Sekrets was a postpunk band. It was very much influenced by Southern Death Cult, Headdress, Adam Ant, even the musical style — I didn't ask Hunter from AFI for no reason. I wanted people that were like-minded in taste. Really, my favorite kind of music is that postpunk stuff like the Furs or the Cure or the Chameleons UK, who are a really huge influence.
The new Alkaline Trio album has generally gotten extremely favorable reviews from critics, which is really impressive for a record released so deep into a band's career. What has the response been like from fans?
It's been amazing! Even critically, we've gotten so much love from everybody. The record is very immediate, very honest; it has a lot of energy. We realized that at this juncture in our career, we really had to throw down and make something exciting. It's a pretty fuckin' morose record. It was not written on easy times but well worth it because it is an honest record. We also wanted it to be fun and something that people can crank in their helmets or in their cars or whatever, you know, and be uplifted and energized by something that was actually horribly painful. But I think the honesty of it and the energy of it, luckily we landed it, and I think it translates. I'm not saying I think it's the best record ever made. I think it's the best record we could've made now for sure.
Being such a dark band, how do you maintain? Can you not write during good times?
I think it just comes naturally for us. There's no like theme, I mean. There's always been the one constant of the heart within the skull, and to us, it's always represented duality; it's almost like a more punk-rock yin and yang. You have love and life and death — that's what all our songs are about for the most part — with some booze sprinkled on top [laughs]. I think that you write about these dark things and the music is pretty and catchy and is sort of exactly what human beings are, and I'm not saying we're on the level of Ellis, but American Psycho is such a great story because you have this picture-perfect American successful banker and he's dressed perfect and his body is perfect, but inside, he's a wild fucking maniac, and I think the more normal people look, the more fucked-up they probably are.
I, myself, went through some incredibly hard times in like, fuck man... The last six years have been a rough one, and I'm lucky to have the problems I do, because they're fixable, but when you're going through them, man, it is not fun. And you know, even recording the record proved to be emotionally very much a struggle, but now that it's over and I feel like a truly happy, strong person, you know, going out just singing these songs for the crowds and hopefully having them sing 'em back to us.
Would you care to elaborate at all on what you had been going through that influenced the record?
I went through a really painful and both monetarily and emotionally expensive divorce. I don't want to bad-mouth anybody, but I had things said about me that weren't true — like really fucking bad things to people that I respect. Anyone that knows me knows that they weren't true, and I usually don't care what anybody thinks, but you have someone going around telling all of their girlfriends that you beat the shit out of them and it's real easy for people to believe that the man is the bad guy. People want to believe that.
So that, and of course just the failure of the marriage and all of this like, bitterness and anger and hurt that was involved just really sucked me dry, and I just started self-medicating like really badly. And then I met a new girl, and I was with her for three years, and right before we started writing this record, the whole thing went to pot. The record tells the story, but it was just like a one-two punch to like my whole being. You know, I wasn't in Afghanistan getting shot at or anything, but it's relative; it still hurts. It's what I know. And it was horribly painful for me, and I'm glad that it's over, I'm glad that we got some good music out of it, and that we're all healthier and happier and now we get to go out and party with everyone and play the songs.
There is a café racer on the cover of the new album, and I know you ride motorcycles, correct?
There's the café bike — the girl on the bike is actually my ex-girlfriend — and the record I wrote to her, and it's about our relationship, all of my songs anyway. But the bike is a '77 CB200 that I bought her for our one-year anniversary. It's a bitchin' little bike.
What do you ride?
I have a Ducati 1000cc bike that looks like a late '60s-like Desmo. People have no idea what it is. They think it's an old bike, and then they hear me turn it on and they're like "Whoa!" It's a black bike, but it has like a racing stripe, I have a number plate on it. Money can't buy you happiness, but it can buy you things that make you happy! Riding a bike has changed my life for the better and helped me clean my act up, because you can't be riding a bike around fucked-up. I was out all day today just terrorizing Los Angeles on that thing!