Matt Grayson (photographer),
Jonah Bayer (writer)
Don’t take it personally, but Matt Skiba doesn’t care what you think about him. “I adore our fans and I want them to be happy and excited when we put out a record, but as far as putting myself out there I couldn’t give a shit,” the Alkaline Trio guitarist and vocalist responds from his home in Los Angeles when asked if he thinks he’s made himself especially vulnerable on his band’s seventh album, This Addiction. “I don’t go to message boards and read people talking shit. I know they exist and I’m flattered by it because I don’t know who these people are and they’re taking time out of their day to try and insult me—and they’re getting the opposite reaction.”
Considering the roller-coaster ride that his band, which also features bassist-covocalist Dan Andriano and drummer Derek Grant, has endured over the past 14 years, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Skiba has this type of detached perspective. Started in Chicago in 1996, the group of former bike messengers scrapped their way from screen-printing their own shirts in a cramped apartment to putting out an album on Epic Records a little over a decade later—and having it debut at number 13 on the Billboard charts. Along the way they’ve had to deal with their share of punk purists who think the band will never live up to their 1998 debut, Goddamnit, or condemn them for their admittedly ill-fated cameo on The Hills. Despite all that, Skiba gets palpably animated when talking about the band’s new album, This Addiction, which is also their first release on their own label, Heart & Skull, a joint venture with Epitaph Records.
“When we initially started this band we did everything ourselves, from putting out a cassette that we sold at shows to booking our own tours,” Skiba responds when asked why he’s so excited to once again retain total control of the band. “I remember the first time we went on tour in Japan, we actually had to dress as tourists and sit separately on the plane because we didn’t have the proper visas,” he adds with a laugh.
Those DIY roots have never been more evident than on their latest album. The now bicoastal band (Grant is the only member currently living in Chicago) reunited in the Windy City to record with Matt Allison, who produced the band’s first three landmark albums. “We didn’t have to worry about pleasing anyone but ourselves this time around,” Andriano says via cell phone from the island oasis in Florida that he relocated to a couple of years ago. “We’ve always made records like that, but there was always some underlying pressure of ‘What would the label expect?’” he admits. “This one is just us, and there was no one else we were writing for, so we just got in there and started working on demos in the studio. And if we liked the way it sounded, we would just press Record and get it down.”
The result is an album that retains the kinetic energy of the band’s early material while featuring the inventive arrangements that have dominated the Alkaline Trio’s later output. From the anthemic opener to bouncy, horn-augmented “Lead Poisoning” and radio-friendly rockers like “Piss and Vinegar,” This Addiction is an album that fans have been clamoring for since the band left the tiny indie label Asian Man Records at the turn of the millennium. “We wrote our songs relatively quickly back in the day, and that’s exactly what we did this time around,” Skiba says. “We wanted to make a classic Alkaline Trio record that was fun to listen to but also hopefully had some depth to it. I think going back to our hometown with our original producer was a big thing,” he continues. “These days we’re communicating better than we ever have and can accomplish the things we set out to do a lot easier and efficiently than we had on the past few records.”
However, just because the band is in a positive state of mind doesn’t mean that the album doesn’t contain the same sense of melancholy that has endeared them to countless fans for years. And the personal milestones the band members have experienced since their last album are as unpredictable as the stock market. “All three of us have had some very life-altering things happen. I’m going through a divorce, the three of us had a good friend of ours die, and Dan had a baby,” Skiba says when asked for the inspiration behind seemingly morbid song titles such as “Dead on the Floor” and “Lead Poisoning.”
“It hasn’t all been negative but it’s been impactful—and the songs on this record were definitely influenced by the way that we were feeling at the time, which wasn’t always so hot,” Skiba says.
“I don’t think it’s more melancholy than our other albums, but it definitely has its ups and downs,” Andriano clarifies. “There are songs like ‘Dine, Dine My Darling,’ which is a darker song, but it’s also a happy way out,” he explains. “That song asks the question, ‘What’s the last thing you would want to say to the person you love if you knew you were going to die?’ Because a lot of people don’t know and don’t get the luxury of ever expressing the way they feel,” he says. “I guess as a band we’ve always been fairly dark, but [this album has] its bright spots,” he says before taking a moment to think of a specific example. “I guess they’re mostly dark spots, but they’re on there,” he adds with a laugh.
Those aforementioned morsels of positivity certainly aren’t present on the album’s standout track, “The American Scream,” which, despite its driving rhythms and infectious melody, is a serious commentary on a true story.
“That song was inspired by a story I read about a solider that came back and shot himself on his mother’s grave … it hit me like a ton of bricks,” says Skiba, adding that both of his parents served in the Vietnam War—as a dentist and head triage nurse—so he saw the effects of serving the country in a very visceral way growing up. “I mean, I’m glad that young man wasn’t in pain any longer, but I can’t imagine the things he must have seen to bring him to that point to where he wanted to join his mom in the ground.”