Interview with Matt Skiba of Alkaline Trio: Punk’s Not Dead

Like featured clips aired on any episode of America’s Funniest Home Videos, the edgy soul of punk rock has received some serious shots to the testicles these days. Need proof? Babies rockin’ mohawks while drooling on teething rings and 40-percent-off racks at Hot Topic crammed with pre-patched leather jackets and already zippered up golf pants. ‘Nuff said.

Wounded and abused, it’s a genre many believe is close to death. Yet bands—both underground and mainstream—fight to breathe life back into the punk movement and are reliant on fans to stamp the music with an inked up “Circle-A” (anarchy symbol). It’s the punk rocker’s iconic seal of approval for music that’s disobeyed authority since the 1970s, and a stamp Illinois-rooted band Alkaline Trio hopes to receive with their recently released seventh album, This Addiction.

Vocalist and guitarist Matt Skiba, bassist and vocalist Dan Andriano, and drummer Derek Grant have touted the new record as a return to the band’s punk rock roots.

“We went back to the way we did things when we first started the band,” Skiba told The Aquarian Weekly. “The way that we wrote the record was much like the way we did when we originally started the band. We kind of went back to a simpler approach to the songs.”

Established in 1996, Alkaline Trio has permeated the music industry with six studio albums up until 2009, including the first full-length record, Goddamnit, and the movement-to-mainstream branded “Good Mourning.” But the latest album features something very different from anything released to date: After playing musical chairs with several record labels throughout their career, Alkaline Trio was able to release This Addiction under their very own label, Heart & Skull—a joint project with Epitaph Records.

The Aquarian Weekly interrupted Matt Skiba on a Friday afternoon as he watched The Shining for what he professed was the umpteenth time. Sorry, Jack Nicholson. But readers want the behind-the-scenes scoop on This Addiction, as well as—ah, screw it. “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” And hey, it’s only rock and roll.

What’s your favorite part of The Shining?

My favorite part? I don’t know. There’s a lot of them. I really like the opening scene. I think it’s pretty classic. When they’re driving. I like the opening sequence. It’s pretty amazing. And the whole movie is just so creepy. It’s slow grinding Creepsville. I love it.

The first time I watched the movie, I was a kid. It scared the crap out of me.

Yeah, it’s non-stop. I’ve seen it a million times. I just have it on as background noise and I always get sucked into it. I love Kubrick.

Definitely. But we have the new album to discuss, and I want to get you back into watching the movie. So I’m just going to get right into it.

I’m in the other room. You have my undivided attention.

It’s been said that This Addiction is a return to the band’s early days. How so?

We went back to Chicago to record the album, first of all, and we recorded it in the same studio and with the same guy that did our first three records. [When we first started], we would write on our own. The songs would take life and we would write when we were all in the same room together at our practice studies when the three of us all lived in Chicago. That’s the way we wrote this record, and it’s the first time in a long time. We were sending each other MP3s and we would learn the songs. This proved to be much easier and way more fun. When we recorded it, we planned on doing it really fast. Like in three weeks. It ended up taking eight or nine weeks total, but it was fun.

Why did it take longer to produce the album?

We were having a really good time. We started taking our time with everything. At first, we went in there and we had a strict plan on how it was going to go. Then we started exploring ideas and trying different things. It ended up taking a long time, but I’m glad it took that long. It had to come to an end, but we explored a lot of different avenues with things. The basics of the songs were recorded really quickly, but everything else that went on top of vocals and stuff we really took our time with.

Some fans say that Alkaline Trio changed its style of music to make a jump into mainstream, similar to what some say about Green Day. What do you say to that and do you think the new album will change that perspective?

Well if anyone has that perspective, then this new album will prove their theory I suppose. It’s not because we went to a major that our sound changed. We’ve been on a major long before anyone realized we were on a major. Vagrant was owned by Interscope for a long time when we were at that label. So it wasn’t anything new, and we would have written those same records no matter what label we were on. I think that the label has never really had an influence on the band. But if people think that, it will definitely appear that way.

The sound changed as we made the label switch, but I don’t think that drastically. Some people disagree. Some people think it was like a completely different band. I think it seemed like a natural progression to me. This new record—being back on a semi indie—it is more of a punk rock record. I think that’s just the way it happened. But it wasn’t premeditated.

The content of the songs on the album touches upon a lot of life themes the band has experienced, like love and death and politics. Can you tell us a particular story about one of the tracks?

There’s a song called ‘Dorothy’ on the record that’s inspired by the film Blue Velvet. David Lynch is one of my all-time heroes. I absolutely adore him. That song plays homage to David Lynch and, specifically, Blue Velvet. That song is a metaphor for a friend of mine, and I really like the way it came together.

You’ve performed on stage some of the songs on This Addiction already. Pick one of those songs and describe the feeling you’ve gotten while performing it.

There’s a song called ‘Dine, Dine My Darling’ that Dan wrote and Dan sings. It’s one of my favorite songs on the record. I feel like Johnny Ramone when I play that song.

Why’s that?

Because it’s got this super Ramones-y vibe to it, and we love The Ramones. The Ramones are the reason I’m doing what I’m doing. We play ‘The KKK Took My Baby Away’ all the time. We’ve done a couple of Ramones covers, and we’ve done stuff for Joey’s birthday [commemoration] and things like that out in New York. The Ramones are The Ramones, and if you play in a punk rock band, you have The Ramones in your blood. That song has a real Ramones-y vibe to it, and I really love playing it.

The title of that song is actually a play on a title of a Misfits track.

Yeah. That song is about a friend of ours passing away and it’s another homage to The Misfits, which is another one of our favorite bands.

This Addiction is Alkaline Trio’s seventh album. Does it get difficult to keep producing material, especially since you have a whole new generation to market to as well as the weight of satisfying bands that have been with you since the beginning?

It’s not difficult. We really enjoy what we do, and me and the guys said we will stop doing it as soon as it stops being fun. And it hasn’t stopped being fun. We really enjoy writing songs, and we really enjoy playing music together. I think that’s the secret to any band’s success. There are plenty of bands that have been out there together forever and they hate each other. I mean, look at Aerosmith and The Ramones. The Ramones all hated each other.

Yeah, they did eventually.

They were like brothers, but they couldn’t stand to be in the same room together. We’re lucky we’re all really good friends, and we inspire each other and depend on each other. It’s constantly rejuvenating itself. And that’s part of why it’s inspiring for me. Playing a gig with your friends and getting paid for it is like getting paid to breathe.

As an aside, I read somewhere that Aerosmith was looking to replace Steven Tyler with Billy Idol.

[sarcastically] I might do it, actually.

You might do it? Good luck. [laughs]

I’m trying. Billy Idol singing for Aerosmith? Are you fucking kidding me?

[menacing laugh]

That is ridiculous. That is ridiculous. That’s not true! That’s like Hulk Hogan singing for U2. It’s not going to happen. Billy Idol? I mean, Aerosmith has some great songs, but Billy Idol is cool, man. He shouldn’t be doing Aerosmith, and especially now. It’s just ridiculous. It’s a little soap opera. No, dude. Steer clear of that. Billy Idol is so awesome.

That’s funny. But anyway, This Addiction is the first album you’ve released under Heart & Skull. What were you able to do differently with your own label as compared to the past?

Well, so far we are pretty dependant on Epitaph to do everything. It’s a new thing, but ultimately we want to sign other bands and do something similar to what Tim Armstrong did with Hellcat. So now we are planning. We were talking to some different companies about doing deals where we would start the label and they would help us with the running of the label aspects of it. You know, we’re going to be on the road and we need a staff and we need people to operate the label when we aren’t there.

We’re going to work with Bret [Gurewitz, guitarist of Bad Religion and owner of Epitaph Records], who is a long time friend and fan—we are mutual fans of each other’s bands. I worked with Epitaph in the past and got really close to Bret. So here’s this guy that we love and trust on this really great label. And they offered us some kind of deal we were looking for with our label, but more so with Epitaph. We weren’t going to do this with either of the companies. It was going to be our own thing completely. But with someone like Bret, he’s been doing this a long time and we trust him and we want to be like him, like Epitaph. We were raised on that, so you know Bad Religion is one of the reasons we became a band. And Epitaph is the reason we wanted to start our own label. We want to do what Bret’s doing. And then Bret said, ‘Hey man, let’s do this thing together.’ We said, ‘Of course. This is perfect.’ And there you go. So now we’re partners in crime.

Let’s talk about something that happened in AT’s past. The band received a lot of slack for teaming up with Nike to produce a limited edition sneaker in support of the Agony And Irony release in 2008 —being that Nike has questionable labor practices that go against some of the Alkaline Trio’s charitable works, such as fighting for animal rights. Do you still deal with this issue today?

I never even knew that.

Oh no?

I never even heard about it. So no, I didn’t know there was any slack. We just do what we do. I didn’t know people were up in arms about us doing The Hills. People were like, ‘Why the fuck would you do that?’ The girl in that show loves our band, and her sister had a kid and named her after one of our songs. And she works at our label. I didn’t know what The Hills was. This girl is our fan, they’re on some TV show, and they want to come to the studio. She works for the label. Cool, let’s do it. Then we find out The Hills has like six million viewers a week or some shit. I was like, ‘What the fuck is this?’ They all came in with trucks. If no one saw the show, we would of done it because they were fans. I’d rather would have not done it if I would have known people would of got so worked up and bummed and confused. They didn’t know the back story. There was a reason why we did that. We’re not just these whores. There was a connection there. Like I said, if no one was watching, we would have done it.

But the Nike thing. Oh yeah, like Nike is this big, awful, evil company. And the kids that are saying that are wearing Chuck Taylors. Who makes Chuck Taylors? Nike. They might have had a checkered past, but so does every company. Nike just got popped because it’s huge. I’m not making excuses at all, but I feel they made reparations and the way Asian shoe manufacturers operate now is much different than it used to be. But all these companies—Adidas, everything that you see— is made in Asia. Every shoe. Nike had some unsavory business practices back in the day, but they’re not doing that now and we have friends who work there. We made a vegan shoe, so shut the fuck up!

Ha! Ok, so last question. What do you say to the phrase ‘Punk is dead?’

I think that’s silly. Punk rock to me isn’t a haircut. It isn’t a style of music. It’s something that is what it is. Being punk rock is being an individual, and that’s not going anywhere. Being yourself is punk. Johnny Cash is punk. To me, that’s never going to die.

This Addiction is out now. Catch Alkaline Trio at Nokia Theatre in NYC March 12 and at Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, NJ, March 13.