Three of Hearts
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.”
This type of dichotomy between darkness and hope is best illustrated in the band’s easily recognizable heart and skull logo, which was created by the Alkaline Trio’s longtime merch designer (and Against Me! frontman Tom Gabel’s wife), Heather Gabel. The image is inked on all three of the band members as well as on tons of fans. “I love it [when fans get tattoos of our logo] and I always take pictures of them,” Skiba says. “It really means something to me when people say that they dig what you do, and I take that to heart. But [fans with Alkaline Trio tattoos] are taking that to the grave and wearing it proudly on their flesh and it never gets old seeing that. It’s like we’re all one big friendly gang.”
Speaking of gangs, Andriano recently made his tattooing debut when he inked the initials “NWA” on the left wrist of one of his bandmates while they were in the South. “We were in Texas recently, and Oliver Peck came out with his mobile tattoo studio and met us at a show and tattooed a bunch of stuff. Then we gave him some money and he gave us a machine and clean needles and Dan tattooed me,” Skiba recounts, adding that Peck said Andriano had a heavy but steady hand. “I was really intoxicated so they didn’t let me tattoo them at all, but Dan did my tattoo freehand—and he did a really good job, actually.”
Skiba himself got the tattoo bug early, inking himself with a sewing needle when he was just 12. “The first tattoo I gave to myself was a Youth of Today tattoo, which is funny because it was when I was very, very young and wasn’t clear what straight edge meant,” he explains, speaking of the iconic fist with a giant X stenciled on it. “I thought it was a really cool design, but I didn’t realize it stood for the straight edge movement. At the time I was already taking a lot of LSD and drinking and doing all kinds of stuff, so it was a little bit silly.” Thankfully Skiba only got as far as the fist before abandoning the tattoo, although he maintains that he doesn’t regret his decision.
“I did a lot of things when I was a kid without thinking, tattooing myself being one of them,” he admits. “I still have some tattoos from that era that look like complete shit but I’m very proud of them.” These days Skiba’s forearms, legs, and ribs are covered in ink, most of which was done by Peck and Thomas Yosenick, who currently works at Fine Line Tattoo in Dallas. Skiba says the most meaningful pieces are the pair of scissors on his leg—a tribute to his seamstress grandmother—and the phrase “Love Song,” which graces his knuckles.
“There’s a Cure song titled ‘Lovesong,’ which is a beautiful song, and then there’s also a song by The Damned called ‘Love Song,’ which is all about punching somebody out,” Skiba says about the two-pronged significance of this tattoo. “It has a dual purpose, having that on my knuckles. Not that I go around duking people who are looking for a fight or anything,” he says. “I’m not a violent person, but, no pun intended, the knuckles come in handy when it’s necessary.”
Despite Skiba’s wiry frame, there’s no question that his knuckle ink is more intimidating than Andriano’s first tattoo: the Walt Disney character Tinker Bell. “I got that tattoo when I was 17 and it related to the whole idea of never getting old, but as I grew up I started to realize that I wasn’t a kid anymore so I finally got it covered up,” Andriano says, explaining that he had Peck ink over it last year with an image of the state of Illinois surrounded by leaves of the white oak tree. “I was born and raised in Chicago and lived there for years, but now I live on the beach in Florida so it’s kind of a dedication to my roots.”
One of the main reasons Andriano decided to relocate was the birth of his daughter, whose name he has inked on his chest alongside his wife’s. “I think those are the most meaningful tattoos I have, so if I have some more kids I’ll probably add to that one,” says Andriano, who also sports a bonsai tree on his left biceps that represents perseverance, and the heart and skull logo on his heart. And despite his recent experience inking his bandmate, he insists that he’s probably not going to embark on a tattooing career anytime soon. “I’m not going to go dipping any needles into ink and doing any prison-style stuff. But if I was in the right, clean environment I would do whatever anybody wanted,” he says. “It’s not on me, you know what I mean?”
Even if Andriano wanted to switch careers, it would be impossible for Alkaline Trio to slow down—especially now that they’re about to embark on another seemingly endless tour. And though the band now travels in a luxurious bus instead of a sweat-soaked van, they’re still that same group of guys who made a name for themselves by working hard on the road when there was no payoff in sight. “We started out playing in basements, coffee shops, and bars for five people and just trying to do everything we could to stay on the road. We started to develop this connection with people, and it was magical to us that they were interested in what we were doing,” he remembers.
“I never thought we’d have a fresh start after this much time together, but I can say that I honestly don’t feel like we’ve been in a band for well over a decade,” Andriano says. “We just want to keep doing this and we hope that all of the people that have followed us for this long continue to do so and come hang out with us. … That never gets old.”