Alkaline Trio Biography
Last updated: 05/07/2012 12:00:00 PM
Follow me here: Punk rock is like Joan Rivers. In an ongoing quest for eternal youth, it continually tears at the flesh of its own face, pushing and prodding and tightening and twisting until what emerges is a boring old monster that, somehow, everyone is OK with looking at. And this far down the line, punk rock has been reshaped so many times it sometimes looks like a busload of 70-something sun-bunnies in coastal Florida, face lifted into an army of look-a-likes. Somewhere along the ride, its mean spirit left the tuneful bands for hardcore and metal, and punk rock filled with melody became nice. And funny. And safe. And dull as shit.
Enter Alkaline Trio, circa 1997. Right out of the gate, the kids realized that while this may still be loosely categorized as "pop-punk," it’s a full step beyond. There’s a dark side to this band, a world-weariness, and some honest-to-whoever honesty all balled up into a completely kinetic force. Even the jaded fucks can’t help but sing along to those two different-but-perfectly-complementary voices, singer/guitarist Matt Skiba’s triumphant rasp and singer/bassist Dan Andriano’s more measured, sweet croon as they combine to completely wreck audiences with bittersweet songs about love and loss, drugs and drink,God and Satan, happiness and pain. All of this comes from three young guys, about as many chords, and a healthy supply of beer, cigarettes, and heartbreak.
"There’s definitely a reason we play the kind of music that we do," says Skiba. "We offer kids a little darker slice of punk rock. Hopefully it separates us from bands that sing about going to the mall and chewing bubblegum." Two albums, both recorded on a shoestring for indie label Asian Man, delivered on the promise of Alkaline Trio’s early live shows: As fucked-up as they are wonderful, both 1998’s Goddamnit and 1999’s Maybe I’ll Catch Fire breathed new life into a music world rife with second-stringers and gonna-bes that thought (and continue to think) that looks and guitar tones were more important than feelings and smarts. The audience-band connection was both immediate and binding.
More and more kids started showing up, and watching them all simultaneously sing "I'd love to rub your back" along with Matt was pure magic every time. Vagrant Records showed up, too, in time to plunk the band into Minnesota’s semi-legendary Pachyderm Studios and release 2001’s set, From Here To Infirmary, produced by longtime Trio associate Matt Allison and expertly mixed by Jerry Finn, a man who’s made similarly minded bands (Jawbreaker, Green Day, and Blink 182, among others) sound extra fine. Then came 18 months of non-stop action: Warped Tour, Plea For Peace Tour, Vagrant America Tour, Blink-182 Tour. Is your city on the map? Alkaline Trio played there once or twice. A great looking video (for "Stupid Kid") hit the airwaves. Somewhere in there, drummer Mike Felumlee departed, and in stepped Derek Grant, an old friend of Andriano’s. The two met at legendary Chicago punk palace the Fireside Bowl. Grant was a perfect fit, and the new Trio started writing songs together almost immediately after he arrived. Says Skiba: "I feel like there’s three members of the band again for the first time in a while." Grant concurs, "The minute I sat down behind the drums with these guys, it felt right. There was no doubt that this was where I wanted to be." he says. Which leads us to where these record company bios always do: The New Album. Everything the Alkaline Trio has done has been gut-punchingly great and Good Mourning can sit proudly next to those other albums without having to hover above them. Let's talk about the songs, shall we? That’s why we’re all here.
In keeping with its title, Good Mourning reveals and reinforces a peculiar Skiba trait: He rarely sounds more alive than when he’s singing about death, whether it’s the death of a relationship, or in the case of Good Mourning’s "This Could Be Love," his own demise. On it, he cheerily describes how someone might kidnap and murder him ("Step one, slit my throat / Step two, play in my blood") and in the same thought gives shout-outs to his various hometowns. "Continental" tackles the subject from a more serious angle, distilling the frustration of losing someone to addiction into a charged rock song with a new wavey breakdown. On the hyper-speed "Fatally Yours", he gets whacked by the end of a relationship. The deliciously titled "Donner Party (All Night)" posits "I guess it’s for the better if you just can’t feel a fucking thing / fall asleep and die. It was a dark year, explains Skiba. "With the band it was great, but I definitely had some things to write about. It feels good to get some of those things off your chest rather than have them swimming around in your head all the time. Aside from playing music with my friends and traveling with my friends, getting those kind of things out has become necessary for me."
Then there’s the deep and dark "All On Black," a blasphemous stab at redemption and the song that Skiba describes as "the most personal and specific on the record." Oddly enough, it may contain the most triumphant and cheeky pro-Satanic message in the history of rock, culminating in the line, "What's upside down, coated in silver? / This crucifix, my four-leaf clover." Alkaline Trio has always employed sinister imagery to push buttons, something the singer relishes: "If it offends people who are afraid to question their own faith, then it’s a good thing. We were on the list of records that a church wanted a certain record store to pull off the shelves. I was pretty happy about that. I don’t actually believe that there is a Satan or a hell or all that kind of stuff, but the imagery more than anything is exciting and challenging. But if it’s gonna piss somebody off for me to say I’m a Satanist, I’d be happy about that." Dan is happy for more direct reasons, and he’s not afraid to let it out. On "100 Stories" he finds out that hell is actually pretty cold and that hurting yourself isn’t all its cracked up to be. We find out once again that he’s got the melancholy spark of a young Elvis Costello, and the voice to provide a perfect counterpoint. He’s always brought that balance, and he provides Good Mourning’s bits of sunshine with a pair of love songs: "Every Thug Needs A Lady" (yes, you can assume he’s being silly with the title, but not the song itself) and "Blue Carolina."
"The music I’ve been listening to probably has something to do with it, and where I’m at now. I’m feeling better about things but Matt’s still evil," laughs Andriano. "I’m happy that Dan’s happy," says Skiba. "More than ever, it’s definitely a pretty huge difference between where we’re at in our lives. It makes it kind of different, but hopefully it’ll be something that people appreciate more than something that doesn’t make any sense. I think Dan’s songs are great, some of the best he’s ever written ˜they’re definitely the happiest he’s ever written. We like to have a little hope at the end of the tunnel. We don’t want somebody to listen to the record and wanna go jump off a bridge or something." The album ends with the touching, solo / acoustic "Blue In The Face," which despite its complete lack of rock, manages to encapsulate both Good Mourning and Alkaline Trio perfectly. Though weary, drained, and dejected, it manages to bear something funny, touching, and believable in one simple line: "Your coffin or mine?" After an album this strong, that question sounds not only inviting but almost inevitable."We’ve already gotten leaps and bounds beyond anything I would’ve imagined with this band," says Skiba. "Hopefully this doesn’t scare anybody away, and hopefully it invites some new friends."
Photo: Jay Blakesberg