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In The Flesh

Cover Story: Alkaline Trio • Urgent Energy

| January 31, 2024

 

Alkaline Trio is no stranger to the macabre. The Chicago punk outfit doesn’t shy away from talking about heavy topics like loss, addiction, and depression. But even when they’re talking about how everything sucks, they do it with a wink and nod. Their wry lyrical wit paired with punchy high energy music makes their brand of bleak catchy and fun. It’s why fans find them so endearing, even nearly 30 years later. It’s not hard for frontman Matt Skiba to tap into the dark side. He just has to look around to find it. And with the gun violence, political unrest, unabashed racism, and the threat of AI, the darkness is looming around every corner.

Skiba often writes from a personal place, but on the new album Blood, Hair, and Eyeballs, he shifts his gaze outward to look at how ugly everyday life has become. If the title didn’t give it away, the album gets grim. The chaotic state of the world and the constant barrage of bad news inspired Skiba to write an album that looks at life’s horrors and comes to the realization that things are downright apocalyptic. Pulling from real-world events, along with personal experiences, the album takes listeners on a dark journey, yet it doesn’t leave you hopeless. Rather, it pumps you up, and gives you the energy to keep moving. To keep on fighting.

This, being their 10th album, also marks new beginnings and endings for the band. It’s their first release on their new label, Rise Records, and their last with drummer Derek Grant. Still, **Blood, Hair, And Eyeballs sees Alkaline Trio revitalized, and Skiba is eager to dive into the new era. Before the release of the new album, Skiba sat down with IE to dig into the record, the secret behind his writing process, and how he finds light in the darkness.

Illinois Entertainer: The new Alkaline Trio album, Blood, Hair, and Eyeballs, is out later this week. Tell me about the making of it. When did you start working on it? Was this while you were in blink-182?

Matt Skiba: This was post, with the exception of one of [bassist] Dan [Andriano’s] songs. Most of the songs we wrote well after Tom [DeLonge] came back to blink, and I left. Most of the writing for this record – the three of us live in different cities. So, over the past two decades, we’ve lived in separate towns, and we’d send each other demos. We’d be writing in our off time and sending each other songs. We’d learn them a little bit, then get together and turn them into Alkaline Trio songs. That worked for us for a long time. It may work again, but this time around, with it being our 10th album, we thought, let’s do something different. We used to write our records in the same room, the three of us. And that’s how we wrote this record. We got back in a room together out here in Los Angeles and started writing and recording it.

We worked at a couple of different studios. We did the writing and the rhythm tracks at Studio 606, Dave Grohl’s studio in the Valley. We did all the bass and drum tracking on his Neve board. Then I did all the guitars, and we did the rest of the instrumentation and the vocals. We did the majority of the writing at a studio called Spitfire, which is two houses away from where I live. Actually, we were the last act to do anything there. We recorded the album, and then they tore the house down. So it’s not there anymore, but we had a great time. I’ve worked in that studio a bunch. It being so close to home was really cool. I’d wake up in the morning to have coffee and fruit. I’d just walk up the street. Literally five houses up from me. We wrote and recorded the album pretty quickly, but I spent almost two months writing lyrics and playing guitar.

IE: You guys got together in the studio and built the songs from the ground up. How did being in the same space together change the recording experience?

MS: It’s not dissimilar from how we made our last record [2018’s  Is This Thing Cursed?]. On that record, we just had some really rough ideas, but we had a bunch of ideas we worked out in the studio as well. For that record, we came in and sent each other demos ahead of time. This time, you know, it definitely made the work a little more rigorous. It was a little more intense and a little more immediate, but it was really fun. Writing an idea and then recording it like that, it’s inspiring. It’s daunting and lengthened the time it took to record. We did all the rhythm tracks and wrote and recorded everything in two weeks, but we hadn’t any guitar parts written. We didn’t have any lyrics written either. That I spent longer on than I ever have. So, it took a long time to make the record, but I think it was worth it.

IE: It sounds challenging, but every now and then, you need to challenge yourself so you can grow and learn from it. That can be rewarding also. If anything, it keeps you on your toes.

MS: Exactly. Yeah, and I think you want to sound like you’re on your toes. Whether we accomplished it or not is in the “ear of the beholder,” but I feel like the reason we approached the record like we did was to get that immediacy and get that urgent kind of energy in the songs.

IE: The thought of going into the studio with no lyrics and writing them on the spot sounds intimidating. In a sense, you’re walking in with a blank slate, and suddenly, the pressure’s on to crank out some good songs. Was it stressful going into this record without any lyrics prepared?

MS: It wasn’t for me. I mean, it was a decision. You know, the amount of stress and the amount of pressure only comes from ourselves. I knew it was going to be a lot to do, having never really done it in this way, and certainly not for a long time. I mean, we’ve never had the time or money to just take our time and do it this way. So, it’s different than ever before. I think there were times when it was stressful for my bandmates because I just had the idea that it was going to be fine. We’re going to work on this, and we’re going to make our best record. Everything’s going to be fine. There were definitely days when it seemed like I was the only one who felt that way. It was labor intensive, but it wasn’t especially stressful. We presented ourselves with a challenge, and, you know, we rose up to that challenge. It was a great deal of fun more than stress. I like a challenge. Otherwise, it’s boring. If it’s not challenging and it doesn’t push us, then what’s the point?

IE: Especially when you’re hitting album number 10. At that point, it’s easy to stick with what you know and stay within your comfort zone. But challenging yourself helps keep things fun for you and fresh for the fans.

MS: Well, yeah, that’s the whole point. I mean, Dan and I said if Alkaline Trio ever stopped being fun, we would quit. That’s the whole reason behind the band. Somebody asked me what I hope fans get from this record or what they get from an Alkaline Trio show. And I said, ultimately, our job is to show people a good time. We’re already having a good time. We’re doing something we would do in the shadows with nobody watching. Luckily, that’s not the case; it’s become a “career” now. It’s all about fun. Even if something is sad or disturbing, or tragic, it can still be fun. It can be something that people sing along and dance to.

IE: That darkness can be a unifying force for people. It’s something they can relate to. And speaking of darkness, it’s all over this record. We get into some really grim, gritty stuff; you get it right from the album title, which you said you kind of took from your mom from her days of working in an ER during Vietnam. And you kick things off with the lead single, “Bad Time,” which references the phone call you took while there was an active shooter in the area.

MS: Well, “Bad Time” was one of the songs I wrote while I was still in blink. The other was “Broken Down in a Time Machine.” Those were the last two songs we recorded for the album because we wanted to do something entirely new. I wrote “Bad Time” because of that day and the impact it had on me in realizing even when there’s an active shooter and bullets flying, I still want to hear this girl’s voice. So, you know, I didn’t have the complete song written, but I had a journal. I was writing about that day and wrote down some little anecdotes and side notes that later became the lyrics for the song. But we’re always writing. Anytime I have an idea, I pick up a guitar. I didn’t know if it was an Alkaline Trio song or if it was something else.

IE: How about the other songs on the album? Where were you pulling inspiration from when it came to writing the rest of the album?

MS: Memory and from journal entries. Each song is about something specific; each song is about something different. So, it’s case sensitive to the song, like where I was and what I had written. It all came from ideas we were building. I was really inspired by this documentary series I saw called **Turning Point about the 9/11 attacks. Things in that docuseries definitely made their way into the lyrics, at least my perceptions of them.

There’s a song in particular called “Meet Me,” the second song on the record, that was inspired by a call I heard on the 9/11 attack tapes where somebody was calling a loved one and saying goodbye before the plane hit the tower. That voice recording inspired the song. So, each song is about different things and occurrences I had nothing to do with. Some of them were very personal; some were world-changing events. And that was one of them. I don’t want to go through each song and tell you what they’re all about, but that’s how it works. It’s just an accumulation of inspiration, however horrible it is. And however inspiring it is. That phone call was hugely inspiring. The love, strength, and courage in that woman’s voice were very powerful. It wasn’t just tragic. It was very moving.

IE: That’s some heavy shit. Yet, you were still able to pull something out of that. You found it empowering, which is hard because you hear something like that, and you just think of the horrible aftermath.

MS: Yeah, it’s all about life and that person’s voice before it’s erased, but the recording lived on. It definitely touched me somewhere very deeply. Like anybody who remembers that day – it’s like when I would hear our parents talking about the JFK assassination, and this is obviously 3000 times worse. Not to compare our country’s tragedies, but it was just one of those things that changed everything more so than the JFK assassination. It’s yeah, it’s something I think about daily. Those are things that inspired me that I just happened to be listening to. The non-personal aspects of how world events have shaped us are definitely all over the world all over the record.

IE: You’re someone who isn’t afraid to get personal in your songs. You’ve written about your difficult moments and struggles. Thinking about those songs and where you are now in your life, do you find it challenging to access that part of your brain when it comes to writing songs?

MS: It isn’t. I mean, it’s the only thing I know. Songwriting is easy. Writing a good song is hard, but writing songs, just write them until they’re good. You flesh out the idea and then tailor it to fit whatever it is you’re building and whatever kind of song it is. And that’s a great deal of fun. It’s challenging, but it’s a blast. I’m not really having fun unless I’m being challenged.

IE: You spent the past seven years filling in for Tom DeLonge in blink-182. You even made two albums with them, 2016’s California and 2019’s Nine. Was there anything you learned or took away from your time in blink that you brought over to Alkaline Trio?

MS: Yeah, the way we went about recording was the way blink recorded the two records I did with them. We almost had a whole other record of songs. We wrote a whole record when COVID was happening. We started to anyway, it was right before COVID happened, but we were doing it from separate studios. Who knows if they’ll ever come out; I’m guessing probably not. But I approached the new Trio record the way I recorded the albums I did with blink. I learned a lot from working with those guys, from how it carried over to how we recorded this new Alkaline Trio record. I was reminded, you know, of aspects of writing something when everyone in the band is in the same room. It’s just a lot more effective. It’s a lot quicker when everybody is contributing. So, I’m glad I was able to take that and use it with Trio.

IE: In some ways, this new album represents a new beginning and an end for Alkaline Trio. The record features the final contributions of drummer Derek Grant, but it’s the start of the band’s next chapter with new drummer Atom Willard. Was it bittersweet getting ready to start the next era of the band, but knowing Derek wouldn’t be a part of it?

MS: No, it wasn’t bittersweet. We finished the album. Derek quit. Then we called Atom to fill in for some shows. He’s been in the band ever since. It was a long time coming. We both came to the conclusion that some things had to change. We couldn’t keep doing things the way we were doing them. And Derek, you know, had some issues he needed to deal with. He’s spoken pretty publicly about that. So, it was a parting of the ways, but it was meant to be. I feel really good about it. You know, I wish him the best, but there isn’t a whole lot bittersweet about it to me.

IE: At least everything ended amicably, and the band is still going strong. After the album drops, you guys will start touring in February, and of course, you’ll swing through Chicago to play the Aragon Ballroom. Being from Chicago, you’re familiar with its prominent punk rock scene.  had and still has a very prominent punk rock scene. What was it about the punk scene that grabbed you at a young age?

MS: Well, honestly, it was the punk rock scene itself. Everything about the Chicago punk rock scene. I mean, if I was in Los Angeles, it would have been the LA punk scene. If I had been in New York – you get what I’m getting at. I’m very thankful to say where I was born and raised. I’m fortunate that the punk rock scene was booming long before I got there. Bands like Pegboy and Naked Raygun – going to those shows; that’s where I got my cut my punk teeth. And it’s had a huge impact. Those bands are still in my top five favorites and my biggest inspirations.

IE: Finally, you’ve got the album coming out. You guys are going to go on tour. Thinking about the big picture, Alkaline Trio has accomplished so much. What’s next? Is there anything that’s still on your bucket list you want to check off?

MS: Oh, the bucket list has been checked. We built that thing a long time ago. So now it’s – you know, I’m when I get off the phone with you, I’m going to practice, we’re going to practice for the next two days then we play Jimmy Kimmel [Live!]. Then after the record comes out, we go on tour. It’s all that I know – right now. And, honestly, I’m grateful to be telling you that.

– Ashley Perez – Hollingworth

Appearing March 16 at Aragon Ballroom, Chicago

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