By Al Kaufman
“It’s better to burn out then to fade away,” said a wise rock and roller (who has yet to do either after over 40 years). But these words ring even truer in the world of punk rock. Like a red dwarf, these bands burn brightly with passion and fury, then fade out quickly. It’s just too damn hard to maintain that intensity, and, in some cases, the lifestyle.
Alkaline Trio have been together for 17 years and just released their ninth album, My Shame Is True. It has all the intensity that 1998’s Goddamnit contained. And it should, it stems from a very intense and personal time in lead singer Matt Skiba’s life.
In his interview, Skiba talks about that turbulent time in his life, the new album, and how the band has changed and grown (sometimes to the chagrin of their fans) over the years.
I understand this album came from a personal place for you, so I wanted to give you a chance to explain the title, My Shame Is True.
Actually, our drummer, Derek [Grant], came up with the title. It’s very representative of the subject matter of the record. The songs that I sing on that album were written to my now ex-girlfriend, who I was with for about three years. And we got together while I was going through my divorce and estranged from my ex-wife. So I’m going through this divorce and without looking for it I meet this beautiful woman. We fall in love. Then things just went a little pear-shaped, and by a little I mean a lot. It was really painful and I did some things I’m not very proud of. I wasn’t running around sleeping with other people or anything, but it just got real messy in all kinds of ways. I wrote the album as this sort of apology letter in song form. I wrote it from a place of shame. I was ashamed of myself for several reasons. We all talked in pre-production when we all got together to listen to the songs. Everyone was really aware of what was going on. I was a bloody mess. Now I’m glad I was and I’m glad I survived it. I think it made the record what it is. Me and the girl are still friends, but we weren’t at the time. So it was a pretty dark scene.
What was her reaction to the album?
Well she’s on the cover. That’s her on the little CV 200 I bought for her on our one-year anniversary. We’re still friends. We ride together, we hang out together, but that wasn’t the case for some time and it was pretty bad. So I wrote the album for her and the title just kind of applies. Derek is very good with wordplay. He’s the idea man. I write a lot of the songs, I usually come up with the artwork, but Derek usually comes up with the title.
Did she have any trepidation about having all this laundry aired out?
I don’t think she really knew. But, no. We’re both pretty much open books. It’s nothing that bad. It’s something every couple goes through, so no. She’s fine with it.
(Laughs) Um, you’d have to ask Milla. She and I have been friends for many years. We’ve been playing music together and that’s how we became friends. My friend Danny Lohner, who used to be in Nine Inch Nails, he and Milla do a lot of music together. When I got divorced I was living up in Danny Lohner’s house and he just saved my ass. I really had nowhere else to go and he let me stay in his beautiful big castle up in the hills. It’s actually very serene and beautiful, and Milla was up there all the time. She and I just fell in love immediately. I mean I always had a crush on her as a kid growing up, just like every other straight kid in the world. Even some of my gay friends are in love with her. She’s just drop dead beautiful on the outside and on the inside. She’s very humble, a beautiful soul, and a very, very talented person. So I was playing music with her. I sang on her newest record. So I wrote the treatment for the video and she was just . . . I’m not going to tell you what it cost to have Milla Jovovich in your video or your commercial for the day, but it’s not cheap. And she did it completely free because we’re friends. So that might be why I owe her my soul, and that girl can have it. She already has my heart, she might as well have my soul, too.
Dan [Andriano, bassist] wrote that song. I saw the rough draft of that song and it already said, “Tim, me, Tim, me.” So he called Tim up and said, “Do you want to sing on the record?” and Tim said, “I’ll be on the first plane out.” We’ve been friends with Tim and Joe [Principe, bass] before me and Dan were even in a band together. We’ve known those guys forever. We’re all from Chicago. We’ve all toured together. When Rise Against were first coming up, we took them on tour to open for us. We have a joke, we call Tim “Famous Tim” because we’re all Chicago kids. None of us care about being fucking famous, you know. I mean, nobody hates money, but those guys are always going to pay it forward. If it’s going to happen to anybody, it should happen to those guys. They’re just beautiful human beings, and they practice what they preach. We were on tour with them some years ago and it was a long tour. And right when we finished Tim went straight to New Orleans and helped people start rebuilding their homes after Katrina. He wasn’t getting paid for that shit, and that was before they were as huge as they are now. And he still does that stuff. And for us he came out and sang on the record for nothing. We bought him a vegan dinner. That was it. He paid for his own plane ticket, everything. It was awesome. He’s a really dear friend of ours. Dan wrote the song with his voice in mind, and that’s that. Same thing with Brendan Kelly [of The Lawrence Arms and The Falcons]. He sings on “I Wanna Be a Warhol.”
You were mentioning how none of you guys care if you’re famous. In the punk community sometimes you’ve taken some crap for putting too much production value into your records, especially Crimson and Agony & Irony.
I know. God forbid, what assholes.
That’s what I wanted to ask. What’s your response when that kind of stuff happens? Does punk have to have a certain sound? Does it have to be simple?
No, punk rock is about being an individual. I use the term “punk rock” for all sorts of things. Like if something is awesome, “That’s so punk rock.” Even if it’s a fucking car or something. I mean, there’s nothing punk about it. I just grew up a punk rock fan and it’s in my blood, but there’s nothing tying us down to a punk ethos that we need to abide by while making a record. We grew up on punk music. People ask what we are I say we’re a punk band. We’re definitely a rock band. And we’ve gone the way of bigger production and more instrumentation and all of this kind of stuff. But it doesn’t change the energy, at least not for us, of where it’s coming from and what we’re trying to communicate. We never want to make the same record twice. We catch shit with anything we do. We signed to Asian Man Records and people were calling us sell outs. So after a while you just realize haters are going to hate. You just have to do your thing. And a lot of that stuff, a couple of years down the road and people are like, “I love that record.” So I don’t really take that stuff to heart. If people are really mean to each other, like on instgram or Twitter, that’s when I jump in and say things, like, “Why do you have to be mean?” To me that is not punk. Being an individual and doing your own thing . . . it’s about being an individual. It’s not about a hairstyle or what instruments are on a song. That’s my take on it.
That’s the Clash’s approach. Joe Strummer was always big on saying that punk isn’t about breaking down, it’s about lifting up.
It should be everyone’s approach. Exactly.
Then you had Damnesia, which was acoustic. So what does acoustic do for you that hard and loud doesn’t do?
It’s more airy. There’s more breath in it. I like the urgency of the palm muted stuff or just the big choruses, and I think you can achieve the same sort of tension and release with acoustic that you can with electrical equipment. With an acoustic guitar you’re just communicating it in a different way. Look at Against Me, or Jeff Ott, or Ani DiFranco; people who start out with just an acoustic guitar, and it’s just as powerful as anything they do plugged in. It’s just a different kind of powerful.
You’ve been doing this for 17 years, and your shows are just as high energy as they were then. Is that harder to do now?
(Laughs) No, especially now, we’re all running a sort of healthier game. When we were younger, even not so long ago, I went through some gnarly shit and dealt with it pretty badly. I was self-medicating, doing pills and drinking. Kids, do not do that. It will fucking kill you. We just lost a good friend to that. I was running that game for a long time. Luckily, I’m still here and I learned from it. I feel I’m a stronger person for it now. When we were younger we would just get shit-faced drunk and go out and play and it was just part of the charm. Now, being 37-years-old, it’s fucking sad. You have to go out there and throw it down. So being a little bit older, I think if we were doing the same shit we were doing before it would be way harder, but I feel as young as I ever have. I have arthritis in every one of my limbs now (laughs), but it was well worth it.
Do you look back at any of those old shows and cringe?
I don’t spend a lot of time looking back, and I don’t want to look forward too much either. The goal in my life is to be present. So every night, every show I play on this tour I will very much be there.