Very catchy songs about going through some very rough shit.
Over its twenty-plus year history, Alkaline Trio’s lifeblood has hardly wavered. But as a living, breathing entity, the Chicago-bred punk band has survived early-career lineup upheaval, illness, addiction, and a core member’s recent-career brush with stardom that could’ve broken a weaker unit.
In 2015, two years after Alkaline Trio released its most recent studio album, 2013’s My Shame Is True, vocalist-guitarist Matt Skiba jumped at the sort of job opening that seldom comes around: replacing Tom DeLonge as guitarist in Blink-182. He went on to trade vocals with Mark Hoppus on Blink’s very commercially successful comeback album, all the while insisting that Alkaline Trio wasn’t going anywhere. Turns out he was telling the truth: Last Friday (Aug. 31) the band’s ninth studio album, Is This Thing Cursed?, arrived on Epitaph Records. The group had announced the LP barely a month prior, at a time when a new Blink-with-Skiba album seemed much more likely to materialize. Instead, we get Skiba singing about Blink pulling out of Fyre Festival on an Alkaline Trio song.
The band’s other (and equally vital) singer-songwriter, bassist Dan Andriano, spent the time off deep in collaboration, too. He released a hearty, ambitious solo album, 2015’s Party Adjacent, which was produced by DIY-punk cult hero Jeff Rosenstock and released through old friend Mike Park’s Asian Man Records, the same imprint that released Trio’s first two LPs. And with the Falcon — a Chicago punk supergroup that, in addition to Andriano, also features two thirds of The Lawrence Arms — he finally followed up the band’s rip-roarin’ 2006 debut, Unicornography, with 2016’s equally-exuberating Gather Up the Chaps.
All this saw him through a period in which he sought treatment for depression, which he’s dealt with for most of his life and which has popped up in both subtle and not so subtle terms across Trio’s catalog. On Is This Thing Cursed?’s title track, he explores this more compellingly than ever with lyrics about accepting it and transcending it in one fell swoop.
And then there’s drummer Derek Grant. He joined Trio in 2001 — their third drummer in as many years — but now it’s tough to imagine them without him. Aside from being indomitable at his craft, his religious views (or lack thereof) fundamentally shaped the Trio’s mascara-lined, upside-down-cross aesthetic through its commercial breakthrough years (three incrementally successful LPs with Vagrant, followed by one with Epic). This May, Grant publicly revealed his battle with what he described as an “aggressive form” of bipolar disorder. His presence remains strong — he drummed on the entirety of the new album — but he hasn’t yet been able to join them on tour.
Over the past two weeks, Billboard chatted with Skiba and, later, Andriano about the darkness that led them to call their new album Is This Thing Cursed?, the positivity that’s seen them through and other fun stuff — like Blink-182, Jeff Rosenstock and the Church of Satan.
How’s the tour been going? How have you adapted to playing without Derek?
Matt Skiba: We have a friend, Jarrod Alexander, filling in on drums for this tour. Derek Grant played drums on the album, but he fell ill and wasn’t able to do this tour, so we had Jarrod quickly learn a bunch of songs.
How’s Derek doing?
MS: He’s doing okay. He’s back in Detroit with his mom, helping her out with some stuff as he heals.
Dan Andriano: Derek’s irreplaceable. We’re all very hopeful for the future.
Do you have any idea about when he’ll be back?
MS: I don’t.
I understand not being able to share much. I’m just concerned as a fan of the band.
DA: I appreciate it. It was hard to be on tour without him for the first time in a very long time. Answering questions about it is difficult. Obviously we miss him, and we’re all hopeful. I’m sure at some point you’ll probably get a chance to talk to him.
Matt, you joined Blink-182 in 2015 and also played Alkaline Trio’s entire 93-song catalog across the Past Live tour around that same period. What’s it been like learning and re-learning so much music in a short amount of time?
MS: It was really exciting and so worth it but not without its stresses, that’s for damn sure. Music is a lot like writing — the same kind of writing that you do — it’s just that you have to memorize it. A lot of it is muscle memory. A lot of it is like word association or color association. There are different ways to compartmentalize different parts.
Let’s say you had Derek back — would you three be able to play a whole show of impromptu requests covering Trio’s entire catalog?
DA: Once we’re in the flow of a tour, it’s like, “Yeah, call it out!” We’ve done it before. I’m not saying we’d get an A on every song, but we’d be at a B-minus average. There’d be some flubs, but that’s to be expected.
MS: It might take us a minute, and it might not sound the greatest, but we can play almost anything. If a kid at the show got there early and said, “Hey, could you play this tonight,” and it’s not on the set list, we could probably check and play it that night.
Dan, what was life like for you in the years between this album and Trio’s previous one?
DA: It was a little bit of a hustle. There was some anxiety involved… Obviously Matt and I were talking. We knew [Alkaline Trio] wasn’t going anywhere. A lot of people were speculating. There are always people saying this or that. He and I knew we weren’t going anywhere. It was just gonna take time.
It worked out very fortuitously. When Matt told me he was gonna do stuff with Blink, I was in the middle of making [2015 solo album] Party Adjacent. I was in San Jose with [producer] Jeff Rosenstock and Mike Park [who released the album on his label, Asian Man Records]. I did some full-band stuff in the U.K. and some solo stuff over here. I tried a couple different lineups of musicians. That part of it was really exciting. When I went to tour Party Adjacent in England, I called my friend Sam Russo, who’s a really talented singer-songwriter over there. I just said, “Hey, you wanna play guitar in my band, and also find me a drummer, a keyboard player, and a bass player?” He was a little surprised, but he really came through, and I wound up meeting some awesome people… That’s something I probably would have never done otherwise.
Around the same time, I started talking to [Lawrence Arms co-frontman] Brendan Kelly about doing some Falcon songs after doing a show at the Red Scare Records 10th anniversary a few years back. I spent a few days up in Chicago. We had a lot of fun recording [The Falcon’s 2016 LP Gather Up the Chaps]. We toured on that pretty good.
This might be a sensitive topic, but did writing songs for this album provide relief for the personal issues you’ve talked about going through in the past?
DA: Absolutely. That’s what it does for us. Matt and I both, I would say. It’s a pretty cathartic process. We both consider ourselves people that like fun, but we’re also people that are maybe more affected by some of the darker things. Usually it helps if I’m able to write about it.
I suppose the newer avenue I was exploring — now, this is more of a life choice — [was] I was tired of being in the dark. I just want to have fun. I don’t want drama. I don’t want people dying around me. It’s just too hard to deal with. I need everyone to get on the same page: Let’s all get out of the dark together and start having fun. I don’t mean that religiously. I’ve been trying to evolve and make better choices: Be a better friend, a better husband, a better father. When I get bogged down, I tend to get selfish. I’m only thinking about myself. I don’t want to be depressed.
That’s where “Is This Thing Cursed?” comes from. That song was written about being in the ebbs and flows of depression. When you’re in that funk, it’s easy to look around and blame all these other people and circumstances around you and not look inward, for the root of the problem. At the end of the song, what I’m getting at is, this body of mine, is this thing cursed? Obviously that’s irrational.
MS: When we recorded that song in the studio, I was like, “This should be the first song on the record, and we should call the record that.” It worked on many levels.
I’m proud of Dan — his struggle with clinical depression and rising above that, being able to acknowledge it not as a weakness, but as a strength. It shows an immense amount of strength and bravery on his part, which can only make somebody a better songwriter, a better bandmate, a better friend.
Dan, you’ve been very frank about dealing with pain in your songs for so long — older ones like “I Lied My Face Off” and “Take Lots With Alcohol” come to mind. How do you think you’ve developed over time in writing about what you go through?
DA: I’m trying to be more responsible. Like, I probably wouldn’t write a song called “Take Lots With Alcohol” right now. I don’t mean I would take that song back, just [that] there are things I’ve said that I don’t want to be part of anymore. We’ve written about addiction openly, and we’ve written about alcoholism openly, but I don’t think ever from a place of glorifying it.
It seems like we’re a party band. People come to shows; they wanna get down. They wanna drink with us. I haven’t had a drink in over two years. I tell people that, and sometimes they don’t know how to respond. I’ve drank enough. I’m good. I’ve drank enough in the past 25 years for a lifetime. I never made any declarative statements. I don’t think I ever told anyone I’ve stopped drinking. I don’t say I’m sober, but I haven’t had a sip of booze… and I’m not saying I won’t. I love wine. I love drinking. But maybe that’s why I needed a break, you know?
There are songs on the record that deal with similar territory, but it’s obvious they come from a different light. On “Little Help?,” the first line is, “Does anybody know where I can go get high?” I’m not trying to glorify it, and it’s not autobiographical. It’s about a walking trainwreck of a person.
There are other songs — “Pale Blue Ribbon” and “Heart Attack” — about some of our very good friends dying because they took to many pills. It’s rough out there. People gotta be careful.
Matt, around the time Derek joined the band in the early 2000s, I remember you talking about joining the Church of Satan and how it really inspired you. Is that something you’re still into?
MS: Not so much. I feel like the real Church of Satan kinda died with [founder] Anton LaVey. I really liked what he represented as an antihero, in the same way that Marilyn Manson represents this adversarial evil as a character. A lot of it was showmanship and costumes. It had a lot to do with Alkaline Trio’s early aesthetic. And it still does.
Years ago, Derek and I bought each other Church of Satan memberships for Christmas. We’ve never taken it that seriously… People have faith, and I don’t think there is anything wrong with that, but the business of religion… A friend of mine who is Catholic recently said to me, half-jokingly: “If you wanna go round for round on who has the most blood on their hands, Catholics have Satanists beat by a million to one.” It’s absolutely true. You know how many people are killed in the name of Satan? Not so many. In the name of God? Fucking hell, there isn’t a number.
The Church of Satan kinda had a changing of the guard and turned into something that didn’t seem like a whole lot of fun. It was people jockeying for positions and titles; it didn’t seem like the old school LaVeyian Satanism was being represented anymore. I think there was a time when it was genuinely threatening and genuinely fun and scary to a lot of people, but I think those days are over.
Did being a member really rile people up?
MS: I mean, it riled the right people up. There are people that assume we’re going to some black mass and sacrificing animals. I haven’t eaten an animal in over twenty years! There are a lot of misconceptions from people making assumptions, and those are the kind of people we want away from us.
Matt, what can you share about Blink-182’s next album?
MS: We’ve been working in the studio. What is going to happen is sort of up for grabs — yet to be determined. As far as the studio stuff, we have a bunch of great stuff written with [producer and co-writer] John Feldmann that we’ve been working on. So I am not quite sure how or when we’re going to go about finishing that. [Drummer] Travis [Barker] has been dealing with blood clots in his arms, and I’ve been unable to play, so I think we’re gonna go out and play these [Blink-182] shows we have coming up [later in Sept. 2018]. We’ll see how that goes, and from there we’ll determine how we’ll go about finishing this album. [Editor’s note: Blink-182 has since been forced to cancel these performances due to Barker’s extended recovery.]
Do you have any idea when fans might hear new music?
MS: I don’t, honestly. If I did, I would’ve told ya.
Dan, I interviewed Jeff Rosenstock earlier this year, and he mentioned how much of a trip it was producing your solo album, as he’s been a fan of yours for so long. What was it like working with him?
DA: I really think Jeff is one of the most talented people I’ve ever met — creativity, ideas, songwriting, musicianship. And he’s just wildly entertaining to be around. So funny. So positive all the time. That’s very important in the studio; that’s what I need to be around. I want to be able to just work, think of music all day, listen to songs, test out amps and microphones. Jeff is down for all that. He never gets bogged down. But more importantly, he never lets you get bogged down. I got a feeling we’ll work together again, if he’ll have me… I gotta weasel my way into that Jeff Rosenstock group. I’ll do anything. I’ll play congas.
That’s key — meeting new people, getting inspired by different things. It gets me out of a funk. I like that. I don’t like being in funks. The last one, the  Revival Tour [with Brian Fallon and Chuck Ragan] kinda got me out of it. I’ve pretty much been good since then.
From knowing and making music with each other for so long, in what ways have you seen the other evolve?
DA: Matt is so good at writing lyrics. I feel like he just gets better at understanding songwriting. He took way more of a producer role on the record than I’ve ever seen him do before.
MS: Dan has always been a great guy and such a good friend. I mean, he’s always been like a brother to me. He’s come leaps and bounds as a songwriter. He’s gotten to be an incredible player. We’re always looking to nurture, improve our talents. Words are going to make this sound cheesy, but I think we’re doing things through clearer eyes and sounder minds these days. Some times are a little more obvious than others, but I know Dan feels better than he ever has in his life. He looks better than he ever has, and I think he’s a much stronger songwriter than he ever has been.