Alkaline Trio on How Depression, Trump-Era Mayhem Fueled Their New LP
“You talk about us like we’re electricity or something,” Alkaline Trio frontman Matt Skiba jokes when Rolling Stone mentions the pop-punk trio’s heyday at the turn of the 21st century. But at this point, it’s a simple fact: The band, representatives of a movement that once seemed eternally youthful, is now bona fide veterans. And if there ever were a comprehensive tome on the history of pop punk, Alkaline Trio’s chapter would be penned in blood and signed with a black-stained kiss.
Unlike genre progenitors Descendents, Green Day or Blink-182 — we’ll get to them later — the Chicago band always stood out for its dalliances with the macabre, in songs that chronicled the squalid lives and death wishes of sad-eyed heroes (and feistier heroines). Kicking since 1996, Alkaline Trio now celebrate more than 20 years of gloom and rage on their upcoming ninth studio album, Is This Thing Cursed?, due August 31st. Produced by Cameron Webb (known for his work with Motörhead and Sum 41), the band’s follow-up to 2013’s My Shame Is True draws from the same brackish well that birthed early-2000s highlights “Maybe I’ll Catch Fire,” “Armageddon” and “Queen of Pain.” But the ghouls and vampires of previous Alkaline Trio records have taken on new forms in 2018 — some more sinister than they could have previously imagined.
As the band headlines its first U.S. tour in five years, singer-guitarist Matt Skiba and singer-bassist Dan Andriano spoke to Rolling Stone about how depression fed into their new songs, how Skiba joined forces with Blink-182, and keeping their heads above water in the madness of the Trump era.
You’ve described Is This Thing Cursed? as the companion to your 2000 record, Maybe I’ll Catch Fire — an LP that put Alkaline Trio on the map with the song “Radio.” What about writing this new record caused you to revisit the old one, 18 years later?
Matt Skiba: Eighteen years? Holy shit. I need a minute.
Dan Andriano: Our beautiful producer human, Cameron, found us a studio called the Lair, in Culver City — if Alkaline Trio could design a studio, this is what it would look like. The owner of the place, Larry Goetz, collects cool shit from all over the world — he had these big castlelike doors, old, beautiful wood beams and red velvet curtains everywhere. We basically recorded [Is This Thing Cursed?] as we wrote it. So Matt and I started talking about Maybe I’ll Catch Fire while writing [this record] — because we wrote it really quickly. We wrote it in two weeks, in the Chicago winter. Matt wrote “Radio” in that recording session, and that ended up being one of our more well-known tunes.
Skiba: I feel that the pace of the record and the feel of the record is not directly related, but structurally, [Is This Thing Cursed?] felt very similar to Maybe I’ll Catch Fire.
Andriano: There’s songs like “Demon in Division” that really reminded me of “Maybe I’ll Catch Fire.” That song is filled with references to Chicago. I was writing this opening riff on the bass and started coming up with this saying, and Matt was like, “Oh, that sounds cool. Reminds me of the Nineties. Reminds me of Chicago.” At that time, we didn’t know what was happening with our band. We had just written our first record, God Dammit, toured on it. It seemed to be going well, but we didn’t know if we would be doing this for 20 years, or longer.
Now, there’s a bit of a rebirth of the band. Again, we don’t really know what’s going to happen — we’re just really excited about these songs. I think there’s a sort of freedom to not making a record in five years and coming back to it and just writing in the studio. There was no talk of a single. There was no “What song are we going to work on to push on the radio?” That’s not something we really focus on ever, but it is something that gets brought up by the producer, or the record label. People want to sell records and that’s 100 percent understandable. But this time, it just didn’t come up. We just made a record.
What inspired the title of the new record? What is the possibly cursed thing?
Andriano: It’s an idea that spurred in my head about being in the throes of depression. Being stuck in those moments, looking around and feeling like it doesn’t matter what you do or where you’re at, things don’t seem to be going right. And a lot of the times, we look for things to blame and we look for other things instead of looking inward. You know, I was not officially diagnosed with depression until about three years ago. I’ve never mentioned that, like, publicly or anything — I just assumed everyone else knew. But it’s something I always felt was there.
You’ve always been really candid about depression and mental health issues. Even if it confirmed what you already sensed all your life, there’s something comforting about having somebody else validate that for you in a professional setting.
Andriano: Exactly. And I have great family and friends. Matt and I write in a cathartic manner, and that’s been one of the tools that I use to help me get through. But you want to be able to talk to someone who has no real interest in your life other than your health. To be able to say, “I don’t want to feel like this anymore.” At the time, I was in my late thirties, still very young. There’s still so much life left to live, I hope. I gotta try to make it fun.
What brought you back into the studio as Alkaline Trio? Your last album was in 2013, so you guys took a bit of a break.
Andriano: We did. We made [My Shame Is True] and then toured on it quite a bit. Then we did these sort of anthology shows that year — we called them “Past Lives” and played all eight of our studio albums up to that point. We played two albums a night and then did 12 or 13 cities total. I don’t want to say we were burnt out, but we were going to take a minute regardless — and always had plans to continue making music as Alkaline Trio. Six or seven months later I was in San Jose, California, working with Jeff Rosenstock a solo record called Party Adjacent — he was playing as a member of the band, but he was also producing the record. I was doing that when Matt called me and said he got a weird call from Mark Hoppus asking him to play in Blink-182. It was a pretty strange turn of events!
Matt, you initially signed up as a touring member, right? How did you become a full-time Blink member?
Skiba: I signed on to do a show. Travis [Barker] has an annual festival called Musink — it’s in Orange County, and it being Travis’ festival and having Blink play was a big deal, but they lost a member [Tom DeLonge] right before this festival. I did not sign on as a touring member initially — it was discussed that we would possibly record, possibly tour, but let’s see how this show goes. We ended up adding two more shows, and then shortly thereafter going to the studio and recording with the band. So it happened pretty quickly that I was signed on as a full-time member. It happened in a short period of time, if not immediately.
The most recent Blink record, California, seemed to have a subtle Alkaline Trio influence — like that Bauhaus moment in “She’s Out of Her Mind.” Was that you?
Skiba: You wanna know something funny? Mark wrote that line. Mark is a big goth kid on the inside. He’s a big fan of Bauhaus, the Cure.
Blink-182 did that song with Robert Smith in 2003, so it’s not too much of a stretch!
Skiba: You know, Blink wasn’t something I immediately fell in love with — but Enema of the State just hooked me in. It was a really fun record for me to listen to, and all of a sudden I became this huge Blink fan. [Producer] Jerry Finn brought out the best of that band, and I think he helped to bring that goth kid out. As more Blink records came along, I feel like they got less silly and more about death and divorce and depression, and things that actually affect people’s lives.
That’s familiar territory for Alkaline Trio. But on your new record, you delve into current events. It reminds me of the Rock Against Bush era in the early 2000s — many bands have turned to writing darker, sadder music since Trump was elected.
Andriano: If the election has depressed you, I understand.
Skiba: It’s something that all of us — you, me, anyone with a brain that works, with any blood in their heart, or any thread of compassion, and intellect — would feel. Absorbing all of the sadness, and atrocities, and all the other things may subconsciously affect you. It would be weird if it didn’t.
What was it like reconvening to write a record after the 2016 election?
Skiba: I think it’s pretty safe to say that we have a left-leaning band. We haven’t been shy about that. When George W. Bush was up for re-election, we took part in Rock Against Bush. I just don’t like preaching the obvious — it’s like singing “Hitler sucks,” or “George Bush sucks,” or whatever. I’m not comparing the two. But bad politics, terrible leaders, war, those things have always played a part. You can’t ignore that it affects your everyday life. It’s in there. I mean, it’s somehow in every movie, even movies that aren’t about anything. A movie that takes place in New York that has the Freedom Tower where the [Twin] Towers once were. You can write about something completely different and somehow those things have a way of seeping in.
We have a new song called “War Brain.” It’s about a hangover, but about a specific morning that I shared with a friend of mine where we were watching the news. Those things coupled together, I felt like I had “war brain.” And I try not to watch too much television, period — I prefer watching films and reading. But I do turn on CNN and try to just see what’s on fire, what got shot up today. I mean, it’s always something terrible.
In this new record, we also have a song called “I Can’t Believe.” After the Access Hollywood tape came out, I’ve been in complete shock and awe that Trump just didn’t get roadblocked right there. People kept buying it and supporting him, and it’s un-fucking-believable to me. Being a feminist and a pagan and someone who considers Mother Nature, not Father Nature . . . that guy is the enemy of everything I stand for. He was a sexist, rapist, fucking racist piece of shit — is one, will always be one. I’m having a hard time saying his name, but his followers, and the state of this nation that I love and that I’m proud to be a citizen of — he’s attempting to pull the fabric of its being apart and letting foreign nations have a turn.
Obviously, the history of the United States is not a clean one.
Skiba: Oh, no, it’s a bloodbath. My parents are both war veterans; they met in Vietnam. They were involved in a war that they absolutely disagreed with. And we still have a lot of soldiers in places where they’re like, “What the fuck are we doing here?” Especially Iraq. There are things about this country that are horrible, there’s things about this country that are beautiful. I’ve been almost everywhere, and there’s nowhere else I’d rather live. But we do have an ugly history and . . . that dude is ugly history personified.
A lot of that ire comes out in your environmental dystopia song, “Goodbye Fire Island,” where you sing, “Oceans filled with plastic bottles/Tidal waves will wash us all away.”
Skiba: It’s about Fyre Festival. “Goodbye Fire Island,” you do the math. I thought about what would happen if there was no aid provided to those people, if they all started killing and eating each other. It had kind of the Lord of Flies vibe to it — Lord of the Entitled Flies. It’s people burning their money to stay warm.
“[Trump] was a sexist, rapist, fucking racist piece of shit — is one, will always be one.” —Matt Skiba
Did you guys even make it out there before everything imploded?
Skiba: No. When Blink-182 got offered that festival, I already had a bad taste in my mouth about it — I’ve been down there before, and maybe things have changed, since it was a long time ago. I went down there with some buddies from Chicago, before I moved to California. We went down to the Bahamas and it seemed like the whole island that we were on was impoverished. Not that there isn’t a beautiful, vibrant culture, but it is poor. Atlantis is like this ivory-white tower, and at the time, there was no one from the island employed there. It was [Americans] with home states on their name tags — Montana, New Mexico — employed at this hotel, and there were no islanders in the compound. It was this classist, racist feeling, like I felt this guilt and shame to even give them my money. Luckily [Blink-182’s] management was playing close attention to what was going on because there was something in the Fyre deal that caught our manager’s attention. These people didn’t seem to know what they’re doing, and they were friends of friends with people. I think Ja Rule was the artist who was supposedly hosting this.
Skiba: Somehow we heard that he took a helicopter ride over the island and just turned around and went back. . . . I don’t know if that’s completely true or not, but I had just landed in Los Angeles, and TMZ met me at baggage claim and asked me about [canceling] the Fyre Festival appearance. And I said that I used my witchcraft to make it not happen. I was totally joking, but people took it as real and they were like, “What is it about people that joined Blink-182, they lose their fucking minds?” Like, my God, I was kidding. We knew that it was gonna be a disaster. But in our wildest imagination we couldn’t have thought that it would turn out the way it did. And it really sucks that they played all those people.
Destination festivals can be kind of perilous at times, and very segregated from the people who actually live in those places. It’s hard not to internalize the disparity in a place like that.
Skiba: Yeah. You’re being paid to play where there are people getting paid, like, a quarter a day to dig ditches. I mean, life’s not fair, but that’s just segregated and classist, and I don’t want any part of that. So thankfully that didn’t happen. It wasn’t witchcraft; it was just, to put it lightly, poor planning. I don’t want their money. It’s all good.
Speaking of festivals, you guys are seasoned veterans of the Warped Tour. Do you have any thoughts about its grand finale this summer?
Skiba: I didn’t know it was ending until you told me!
Andriano: I can tell you about times where I’ve been, like, standing in a 109-degree parking lot in August and not feeling very fond of it! It’s not hard to play for 35 minutes a day; it is hard to be away from your family for, like, seven consecutive weeks. But some of the best times that we’ve ever had were on the tour. That’s where we made friends with bands like Bad Religion, Bouncing Souls, Every Time I Die.
What were some highlights from your time at Warped?
Andriano: On one of the tours, I was waking up and going to get coffee from Joe Gittleman of the Mighty Bosstones. Every morning he’d set up an iced-coffee stand called “Jittery Joe’s” and sold iced coffee. He just did it because he was like, “This parking lot needs an iced-coffee stand.”
Skiba: I mean, there was so much crazy shit that happened. One year we all had these little 50cc motorcycles, and people were cracking their heads open, and breaking arms on. One night, [skateboarder] Steve Caballero and some guys from the band Thursday built a jump. I don’t think Steve was wasted, but some of the other guys were super-trashed and were jumping motorcycles, which is, like, BadIdea.com. Then one day we played in Buffalo, adjacent to these projects. It was one of the last days of the tour, and I was like, “What am I gonna do with my minibike? It’s trashed!” It was held together by duct tape at that point. I just put it on a kickstand outside the projects, and 10 minutes later it was gone. Solved that problem.
Andriano: I remember when Brian Baker from Bad Religion came out to play guitar with us as we covered “Wait for the Blackout,” by the Damned. Wow, what a moment!