"The more scientific a record gets, the more it loses that fire within the band for me and that very subliminal chaos" - Matt Skiba
There's a YouTube clip of Alkaline Trio's Matt Skiba playing an acoustic guitar and half-joking with the crowd that "all our songs are comprised of the same three chords." For such a basic formula, it's lasted the band a hell of a long time.
Fifteen years after debuting with "Goddamnit," the Trio are still releasing some of the most eminently singable punk music that more or less demands you crack into a six-pack as you press play. "My Shame Is True," released through Epitaph Records, is the feistiest, most electrified version of Alkaline Trio we've heard in a decade. Those three chords have really, really held on.
"To make something good you need boundaries," Skiba tells Billboard of the simple approach. "'Here I Go Again' by Whitesnake is the same song as 'The Sweater Song' by Weezer, which is also the same song as 'Louie Louie,' which is the same song as tons of Alkaline Trio songs, tons of Ramones and Misfits songs — it's that three-chord box. But they're all different songs, they're all their own thing."
Skiba is happy his band has created opportunities to wiggle outside punk's confines through their years, "but I also am also careful to stay the course with what's at the heart of this project, and how do we not lose that, while still trying to do something that's hopefully not ever the same record twice."
Hence another record littered with arm-numbing punk riffs and sinister imagery, yet characterized by new experiences like cameos from fellow punkers (Rise Against's Tim McIlrath, Brendan Kelly of the Lawrence Arms) and brutally vulnerable lyrics. After 2011's "Damnesia," a collection of fan favorites re-recorded in an unplugged format, and 2010's "This Addiction" — a record Skiba now finds himself not so fond of — the Trio had some things they needed to work through.
"At this point we know, we've come to terms with the fact, that we're never gonna please everybody, and that's fine," says bassist Dan Andriano. "We just have to satisfy ourselves, musically and emotionally, which is the reason the band started, really. And I absolutely did that this time. I can't really speak for Matt, but I can comfortably say he got a lot off his chest with this record, a lot more so than in the past few years."
"My Shame Is True," the band's ninth studio album, is a tip of the hat to Elvis Costello's "My Aim Is True," but holds its own meaning. "There's just this underlying theme of shame in the album," Skiba says. He wrote his portion of the record — eight of the twelve songs — for one person, a girlfriend he split with shortly beforehand. "I wrote them as if no one but her was going to hear them," he says. "That's kind of the way I used to write our original records because I didn't think anyone was gonna hear them." Skiba and the ex remain friends. "She's on the goddamn cover of the record," in fact.
The recording process sounds positive, hearing Skiba and Andriano discuss it, and doubly so when listening to the final result. The band holed up at the Blasting Room in Fort Collins, Colorado, with drummer/producer Bill Stevenson of the Descendents and Black Flag taking the helm for six weeks. "I would wake up and pick up a guitar, wake up and start singing, then work until we were all tired and fall asleep right there," Andriano says.
"I could feel that thing again, and I don't feel it every time we make a record," Skiba adds. "The more scientific a record gets, the more it loses that fire within the band for me and that very subliminal chaos. When things get too under-the-microscope, you lose that."
Skiba calls Stevenson a sharp taskmaster. "He doesn't fuck around at all. You can't go in trying to make something great having an ego, thinking you shit ice cream. You have to be ready to get beat up a little bit, and that's how you get something good out of it. It's really exciting it turned out as well as it did — and it's exciting I'm talking to this guy from Billboard magazine about my band. It's still like, 'This is what I'm doing with my life? This doesn't suck.' I'm incredibly proud."
Though Skiba and Andriano still write the bones of their own songs separately, there hasn't been a slide toward a late Beatles creative severance situation. The singers continue getting together with drummer Derek Grant and taking the songs to the final stages as a group. "Otherwise I think a lot of my songs would sound the same, and a lot of Matt's, too," Andriano says. He's glad for the connection the three continue to share. "It's rare that you quote-unquote work with people you consider your family. In a band that's really what it becomes, especially when you're able to stick it out for as long as we have."
"My Shame Is True" hits at the same time as a four-song EP. The tracks will be available in the usual deluxe edition, bonus song formats, but there was also a conscious decision to put out a separate product. "We always look at it as, 'What makes the best complete album?'" Andriano says. "We all grew up listening to whole records, and I like to think about the opener and the closer and what's gonna be the first song when you flip the record over." The LP was sequenced and four songs were still kicking around. Enter the "Broken Wing" EP.
With the punkers approaching 40, will there be a segue into dad-rock any time soon? "I don't personally feel that I've lost my fire," Skiba says. "There is a difference between the young, angry, fuck-everything, who-cares kid that had no responsibilities, versus…well, I'm still not that far off from that, fortunately, and I don't want to be anything but that. But I'm more of a man about the things I need to be a man about -- relationships, my family, I have children in my life now, none of which are mine, thankfully."
Skiba often has guests over his house; they call him a maniac before the night's out, something he appreciates. "Hopefully the new record captures some of that still."
Beginning in late April, Alkaline Trio will tour the U.S. for two months with Bayside. The Trio's heavy nostalgia factor with fans keeps the band distinctly in tune with their drunken origins even as they plow forward.
"We could go out on tour without a new record, and as long as we play those old songs, people would be stoked. And I love that," Skiba says. "It gives us the opportunity to keep going back into the studio. And we'll never write another 'Goddammit,' we'll never write another 'Maybe I'll Catch Fire,' but we don't want to. We're doing this not only for people to listen to, but primarily for ourselves. It's not a selfless act -- we love what we do and if that nostalgia's what keeps us going, then bring it."