Long before Matt Skiba helped found Alkaline Trio or became the pensive, prolific artist he is today, the 37-year-old, like many of us, was conscripted into the childhood duty of piano lessons.
“My mom forced me and my sister to play piano for three years when we were like six or seven years old, maybe a little older,” he says. “Yeah, I played piano before guitar. But I first started playing guitar because my mom would play acoustic and I’d try to bang around and play on her guitar a little.”
As the seed of punk rock was just starting to germinate in the young Skiba, he learned that guitar lessons weren’t for him either.
“I took one-and-a-half guitar lessons and my music teacher was this total dick,” he recalls, “And he was trying to show me scales and all this technical stuff and I was like, ‘I don’t need this to play “Richard Hung Himself” by D.I.’ I just wanted to learn how to play punk songs, which you can do at home and figure out on your own so I opted for that.”
After flying back home to L.A. from New York where he had collaborated on an art exhibition with friend and artist Heather Gabel (who designed the Alkaline Trio heart-and-skull logo), Skiba spoke to Punknews interviewer Gen Handley about his musical roots, as well as the story behind the song “Radio” and how Dave Grohl’s Studio 606 lost its virginity to the HELL.
He talks about the possibility of another Sekrets record (which he is apparently in the process of writing) and tour, how a 20 year anniversary Goddamnit tour is “possible,” and writing a screenplay.
Illinois punk band Alkaline Trio formed in 1996, broke through in 2001 with their From Here to Infirmary album and have consistently rocked loyal fans ever since.
So when Fuse caught up with Alkaline Trio at Voodoo Music Experience 2013, we got their thoughts on how things have changed since they first got together.
"The industry itself has changed a lot," drummer Derek Grant says. "The way people release and record music has changed a lot with the technology. But thankfully, people are still coming to shows. That’s the one aspect that hasn’t changed. People still want to see a good live show, and that’s always been our focus."
To find out how the mostly vegetarian band handled New Orleans cuisine, watch the full interview above.
Though their popularity sprouted in the middle of ‘00s, punk rockers Alkaline Trio have been playing together for nearly 17 years. The band first gained notoriety in 2003 with their albumGood Mourning, and continued their upward ascent with follow upsCrimson(2005) andAgony and Irony(2008). Currently touring behind their most recent release this past April,My Shame is True, Alkaline Trio’s vocalist/lead guitarist/song writer Matt Skiba sat down withWhere Y’atto discuss their upcoming Voodoo Fest performance.
WY: How’s latest tour been going for My Shame is True?
Skiba:It’s been great. We’ve been out for the past 2 months touring the whole U.S., with the exception of New Orleans, of course, which we’ll be playing during Voodoo Fest. The response to the new songs has been amazing. As far as us as a band, we have hit a point in our career where this is one of the best tours we have done in the states. We are about to come see you guys, and then we’re off to Russia.
WY: Most of your songs deal with dark subject matter, particularly heartbreak and personal issues. Is it hard to relive these songs on stage?
Skiba:Song writing is sort of the catharsis – the performance is a celebration of those things being a thing of the past. When you are performing you kind of get lostnot thinking about the things you are singing about; then, seeing people singing along and smiling to what you have written – how they respond positively to it – that makes it rewarding, it turns it into a positive thing for you. This last album I was going through a hard time during the writing phase. When you are writing about something personal and something that hurts, you tend to go down some dark roads. Playing it live, though, we just love that people are in to it. It’s hard to get bummed out on stage when people are enjoying what you do. That’s not to say there aren’t times performing when things cross my mind, but I don’t think anyone notices. For the most part, I’ve gotten it off my chest by the time it is written, or recorded in the studio.
WY: Everyone in the band is involved in multiple side-projects. How does this bring energy to the creative process for Alkaline Trio?
Skiba:I think our side projects are sort of a subconscious way of exploring something new. Song writing is a process – it’s like meditation, or a martial art – you are reaching for some form of enlightenment that you may not otherwise reach. But with music, or anything creative, whether its a side projects or working with other people, you pick things up that you wouldn’t otherwise. I think when you try something new you always take something away from it – hopefully positive. As it relates to Alkaline Trio, whenever you play music you are refining your craft, you’re building on your experience. The other day I was sitting around my house and picked up my guitar, just playing around, and got an idea for a new song in about three minutes. I don’t think anything you do artistically is insignificant. I think all our outside endeavors are healthy – there are no egos, we aren’t trying to compete with each other. My band mates are friends and people I love and look up to, and I encourage whatever they involve themselves in.
WY: Year’s ago you got into meditation. How does this affect your writing? Has it helped take you from that darker place, or in a different direction?
Skiba:I don’t think it’s taken things in a new direction. It really helps to focus your life – and, in that way, it focuses the music. I got into it partly from reading “Catching the Big Fish” (by writer/director David Lynch). Lynch has been a hero of mine for some time. I love his movies – he just writes some dark, twisted, f#$ked up, wildly creative stuff. In this book, he says if you have an edge, it (meditation) sharpens it. Therefor, if you have darkness in you, meditation doesn’t turn you into a flower child, it amplifies those emotions. At the same time, it allows you to control them; it helps you to confront your emotions without fear. In that way, it’s had a profound effect on me for the five years I’ve been doing it. In that time, I have found the darkness I feel hasn’t gone away, but it has allowed me to explore it alongside other emotions, creating a duality. I’m now a more positive person, and respond more positively to negative situations. As an artist, it allows you to navigate fear and ego, which destroy creativity. Writing comes way easier to me now.
WY: A few years ago, Alkaline Trio released Damnesia, and album of acoustic renditions of classic songs. Can we expect any acoustic renditions during Voodoo Fest?
Skiba:We’ll still definitely roll a few out – after the release of (Damnesia) we did it much more often. On the current tour, we’ve performed a few older songs in this vein for fans that aren’t necessarily fully acoustic, but in that same cadence. We’ve found with festivals, it’s a challenge because you are faced with more of a time constraint, as well as a lot of people who have never heard your band before, so you want to have as memorable a set as possible. You want to deliver them the best smorgasbord of your musical history that you can.
WY: What is your favorite song from the new album?
Skiba:I can’t say that. I don’t have children, but I fell it’s like picking your favorite child. “She lied to the FBI” is the lead track and has been getting great feedback when we do it live. For me, the best songs are those that are a bit calmer and allow you to interact with the audience. Also, if the audience is having as much fun as you are you know you are doing your job right. I’ll say “She lied to the FBI” just for the sake of answering your question.
WY: What young bands excite you today? Do any different styles of music influence your writing?
Skiba:We just toured with Off With Their Heads, a great young band, a great punk band. We couldn’t ask for a better band or a nicer group of guys to tour with.I really listen to a little bit of everything, to tell you the truth. I’ll do ghost writing from time-to-time, some for pop-singers, some hip-hop acts, so I do listen to a lot of different things. That said, those songs are not Alkaline Trio; it’s not like it’s my primary thing and I’m making millions of dollars making Britney Spears hits…not that I’d be objected to that. It’s fun to do, because many of these people are figureheads, so you need to approach the writing from their perspective, and how they are perceived. A lot of times, I won’t event meet these people. We’ll submit the song to their manager, and they’ll either approve it, or it’s back to the drawing board. You won’t ever see my name on any of these songs…that’s why it’s “ghost writing.”
WY: What bands are you most excited to see at Voodoo Fest?
Skiba:Nine Inch Nails, for sure. They are one of my favorite bands. I think they are going to be one of those timeless bands, you know?…and the new stuff is great. Trent lived in New Orleans for the longest time, so it’s a pseudo-homecoming of sorts for him. We have family in New Orleans as well, so it will be a homecoming for us as well. We love New Orleans.
Tonight, a relationship that began 10 years ago comes full circle. In September 2003, the Islington Academy threw open its doors to the gig-going public for the first time, with a headline show from Alkaline Trio. The intervening decade has proven colorful for both parties. The Academy has gone on to host the likes of Kiss, Muse, Paramore, Biffy Clyro and Alkaline Trio’s musical heroes, The Damned. In roughly the same time frame, Matt Skiba’s ghoulish punks have released five albums - spanning the sublime (Good Mourning) and the not so much (Agony & Irony) - while, of late, garnering a similarly variable live reputation. But, with latest album My Shame is True proving a return to form, and excellent appearances at Reading and Leeds, the omens for this 10th anniversary shindig are good.
Hand picked by the headliners as part of a K! competition, all-girl rockers Roses & Pirates only found out they were opening this show four days ago. This is a bittersweet triumph, though. In March, their drummer Fay Howell passed away suddenly. As a result, the trio are performing acoustically, celebrating their bandmate with the warmly received Lost Treasure.
The support bill is completed by Max Raptor, teasing their forthcoming album via the boisterous Grace and Favours, and The Drowning Men, who end with the polka stomp of Courageous Son.
While playing a venue of this modest capacity may be a pinnacle for these bands, this reconvening highlights that Alkaline Trio’s success has plateaued in recent years. They haven’t taken a step down, size-wise, to return tonight, like fellow venue alumni Biffy Clyro would be if they were appearing. And, unlike fellow pop-punk threesome, Green Day - whose very name receives a surprising chorus of boos when mentioned tonight - they remain criminally underrated. This is confirmed by the brilliance of this career-spanning set, beginning with a turbo-charged Private Eye before visiting newer highlights (I Wanna Be A Warhol) and even going back to “the first song we ever wrote,” 97 - a tune that predates this very venue by six years.
"This is the best crowd of the tour," Matt confesses. He may say that to all the crowds, but for sheer enthusiasm it’s hard to see how this one could be bettered. So, everyone back here for the 20th anniversary 2023?
5 MINUTES WITH MATT SKIBA
It it good to be back at Islington Academy after 10 years?
"It’s weird, because it seems like it’s gone by really quickly. It seems like only yesterday when they were saying ‘Oh, you’re the first band to play this venue!’ and then I look at the photo in the hallway [of the venue] of us playing here 10 years ago, and it suddenly seems like a long time ago. The time has gone by so quickly but, at the same time, so much has happened to us since we played here. It’s an honour to be back, but it’s very surreal. I’ll tell you that. I mean, the place is great and the people are great but, for us as a band, it really dates us in a sense… holy shit!"
How would you say you’ve changed as a band?
"I think we’ve just gotten better at it. Like any profession, hopefully with time you get better at it. Me and Danny’s [Andriano, Alkaline Trio bassist] one rule was always: if it stops being fun, we’ll stop doing it. Okay, this job isn’t fun 24/7, and it’s not as glamorous as some people might think, but I concentrate on the time when I’m onstage, because I’m in love with that. I think we got better at being really present and realizing, ‘This is the only time we’re going to play this show’ and making it as good as we can."
"What would the Matt Skiba of today say to the 2003 version?"
"Hmm, the one today would say, ‘You’re going to play this venue again in 10 years - so I’d get your shit together!"
Do you see yourself being here for the 20th anniversary show?
Alkaline Trio have been together for over 16 years and their foot has never stepped off the gas. With their release of their new album ‘My Shame Is True’ earlier this year, these godfathers of punk come out with an ‘ain’t broken don’t fix it attitude’ towards their song writing that make for some great festival anthems. With catchy tracks such as ’ She Lied To The FBI’ and ‘I Wanna Be A Warhol’, they prove that these lads can successfully keep relevant and fresh even after all these years.
We caught up with the guys before they headlined the Lock Up Stage at this years Reading Festival totalk about police surveillance at the festival, what it’s like to play with friends of similar good fortune and discuss the first band that singer Matt Skiba saw at a festival that got the ‘Trio’ train rolling.
Ahead of their blistering set at Reading, we caught up with the band to discuss their legacy, the secrets to their survival, the catharsis of their latest album and how punk will never die.
"England always feels like a second home to us," said bassist Dan Andriano. "So coming and playing the Lock Up Stage, which has always been a huge champion of our band and we appreciate everything that Mike (Davies) has done - it’s important to us.
"We’re with some great bands like Quicksand, RX Bandits and a lot of good friends."
When asked about the secret to appealing to generation after generation of punk fans, frontman Matt Skiba said it was a simple matter of biology.
"I feel like most of the rejuvenation of fans comes from people having children, oddly enough," said Matt. "That’s when you know you’ve been a band for almost 20 years. New people get turned onto it, and I think the thing about English fans is that in the States you’ll neversee a Slipknot t-shirt at an Alkaline Trio show, but here half of the kids are wearing Slipknot and Alkaline Trio shirts - it’s not as snobby, gentrified or segregated. People are more open-minded here.
"Also, people fuck and have way more children here who turn out to be babies who turn out to be Alkaline Trio fans. If these two punkers were to fuck and have a baby, and that baby had ears then it’s going to like Alkaline Trio."