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Alkaline Trio: Recording with Bill Stevenson was a dream come true

Alkaline Trio: Recording with Bill Stevenson was a dream come true
Courtesy of the Artist

Originally hailing from the Second City, pop-punk world-beaters Alkaline Trio are quickly approaching two decades in a scene that isn't known for aging gracefully. Weathering the ebb-and-flow of their style's popularity, the Trio have stayed the course and continued to deliver incredibly catchy, emotive punk tinted with melancholy over their eight albums. Recently settling down with indie powerhouse Epitaph records, Matt Skiba, Dan Adriano, and Derek Grant have finally begun to enjoy the fruits of their labor, dialing back their breakneck touring and dabbling in solo projects.

Guitarist and lead vocalist Skiba got in touch with Gimme Noise to discuss their new album, My Shame is True, and his fascination with a 19th century serial killer.

Gimme Noise: So, your upcoming show at First Avenue in Minneapolis is an all-ages gig. After 17 years in the biz, you're still playing shows for the kids. What does that mean to y'all?

Matt Skiba: I had a fake ID when I was a kid to see 21 and over shows, because a lot of the bands that I liked growing up, bands like Jawbox or Helmet, stuff like that, they would play at 21 and over venues. Luckily I had that fake ID, but I remember a lot of my friends being really bummed that they couldn't see the show, so I knew, being a fan, what it was like to maybe not get into shows. So it's definitely nice to know that everybody of any age can come to the show.

We've been a band so long that many of our fans are now married with children, or divorced with children, whatever. But they have kids that are now Alkaline Trio fans, so they're able to bring their kids to shows and I think that makes it pretty special. A lot of times we're unable to do all-ages shows because of the laws of various states or depending on where the bar is. If it was up to us, we'd always play all-ages shows. It definitely makes the show special when the next generation is there.

You guys have really stuck to your guns over the years despite label and lineup challenges that might have changed other bands. How has you and Dan's writing process evolved over the years, or is it still the same?

Not really, and that's part of the reason things haven't changed. Generally when I go and do other musical projects, they're more studio productions. Where as with the Trio, it kind of starts of like it always has, with me and Dan coming up with these songs, generally on an acoustic guitar, and sending a really simple demo to the other guys in the band, and together we make it an Alkaline Trio song. That formula's always worked with us, but of course we tried incorporating different instrumentation into the records and stuff, but the actual process has not really changed at all, to be honest. Except for the fact that now we all live in different states and email the mp3s to each other.

Has that distance made things a little more difficult?

There was a time where all three band members, we lived together but we were also touring 326 days out of the year. Our touring schedule is about half that now. Once you become fortunate enough to be an established band that does very well, you don't have to tour as much. Plus, for a band like us to tour that much, fans would be like "Why would I pay this money now when I can see them again in 6 months?"

We don't tour like we used to, and we all kind of have our own lives outside of work. On the road, we're together all the time. Me, Dan and Derek and all of our crew, and we're one big happy family, but when we get home Dan has a daughter and a wife, and Derek just bought some land in Vermont with his girl, and I'm with mine in Los Angeles. I think even if we all lived in the same city I think we'd see about as much of each other.

Your last album, This Addiction, somehow got saddled with the expectation that it was going to be a reboot of the Goddamnit era sound of your debut album. Did you guys ever see it that way, or was that just press?

Well, no. Some of our records, production wise, get a little crazy and that's what we meant when we said we were gonna go back to the way we did Goddamnit. We were gonna save the first take, just kind of rawer and a little less polished. I mean, that record sounds really good, and of course it is polished, but it was more akin to the way we did Goddamnit, in that we did it in kind of a vaccum, without thinking about the listeners, just to make something fun. When made Goddamnit, we didn't think anyone was going to hear it.

So didn't go into it saying "we're going to remake that record," it was more of the approach to it, I guess. As time's gone on, we've had more money to make records, we made Goddamnit in 9 days for less than $1,000, and that's not quite the case anymore. So we didn't make it for 900 bucks, but the recording was pretty quick.

 

So did that process change at all for the new album? It seems like My Shame really draws together a lot of the ideas you guys have tried on previous records and makes a cohesive package out of them. Was there an overall vision for this one?

No, things just kind of have a way, for us, of happening that way. Number one, we always want to want to be proud and happy with what we're putting out, we also do care about our fans, and we do care if they like it. We want to always stay progressing without completely changing the formula, or losing anyone. I think that helps us stay relevant. We're doing this because we love it, but now it's become a career which is a beautiful thing that we're really thankful for, and we have our fans to thank for that.

What was working with Bill Stevenson from the Descendents like? Were y'all friends before making this record together?

We were friends, yeah! We met Bill on a tour, one of the first big tours that Alkaline Trio did was with All. So it was us, All, and Discount. Allison Mosshart, who's now super-rock star lady but has always been a super cool girl, her band Discount is awesome. I also think the stuff she does with Jack White is really good too. Less Than Jake headlined that show... I'm just going on a tangent now thinking about how crazy long ago that was. But we met Bill on that tour, and he was really cool to us, and all the other guys. [All] was like The Descendents without [singer] Milo Aukerman, pretty much, so we were kind of starstruck but they were very disarming. Bill is not a rock star, he's a musician and an artist and a really fuckin' cool, funny, weird guy.

We didn't really stay in touch, but we'd see him at shows a lot, and we've been trying to make a record with him for a while now. Since [former producer] Jerry Finn passed away we've been trying different people, and we always had Bill as an idea, it's just timing-wise he would already be in the studio or we had already picked somebody.

When it finally worked out, it was a dream come true. Working with not only one of our heroes, since Bill is such an incredible musician and songwriter, but also to be working with one of our friends, it was just amazing, Hopefully not the last time we do that.

"Torture Doctor" is one of my favorite tracks on the record, and it mentions "The South Side," just curious if that was a reference to your old home of Chicago.

It is, it's actually a reference to a guy called H.H. Holmes, he had a lot of aliases but he as referred to as "America's first serial killer." When the World's Fair happened in the late 1800s in Chicago, he was "the pharmacist," "the doctor," "the barber," all these different names, and all these different lives. He had this one place where he lived, a hotel that he owned, and all the rooms were oddly shaped and unbeknownst to the guests, had these chutes that would lead down to the basement where he would dismember and eat his victims.

That was something that actually happened, and then I have a book about H.H. Holmes called The Torture Doctor. So that's what that song is about, and it's kind of a metaphor for living in Chicago and having the blues. Chicago is a really interesting place, and one of the best cities in the world apart from the weather. That's the only reason I left.

You've been doing solo albums and Dan's been doing acoustic stuff for the past few years away from the band. Is it tough to go back to the Trio after that kind of extracurricular work, or does it energize you?

Or it energizes me for sure, like I said before, there's only so much work that Alkaline Trio can do, as far as touring or recording. People these days are getting information about music so quickly that every time we put out a record, it has to be special, and if you start putting out too much stuff people lose track. I'm the same way with bands I love, I can't keep up with a lot of that stuff. I always think it's good to take a break, but I don't want to take a break from being creative, so there has to be other bands in the mix.

What's it like to be back on tour with New Found Glory? You've been brothers in arms for a while now, right?

That's right, and H20 is on the entire tour as well. Me and Chad [Gilbert], their guitarist hang out all the time, we train at the same fighting gym, we eat together and go to movies together, and then Toby [Morse], the singer for H20 is one of our best friends too. Both of those guys are straightedge, so it's good to have some healthy friends that are a good influence out here on the road.

It seems like you're getting comfortable at Epitaph, do you guys finally feel like you've found a label that's the right match for you?

Yeah, it's great. Brett Gurewitz is another hero-turned friend, and he owns Epitath. They say to keep friendships and business separate, but with Brett, I think it's a perfect match. If there's something he doesn't like or we don't like, we're very vocal about it, we know we're not going to hurt each other's feelings because we're all professionals, and we're all adults. Brett's incredible, everyone at Epitaph works really hard and he signs bands that he talks to everybody about and everybody's into. It also doesn't hurt to be labelmates with Weezer and Social Distortion, there's a reason that all these bands are going to Epitaph, it's a really great label.

Alkaline Trio will perform with New Found Glory and H20 at the First Avenue Mainroom, Tuesday, November 19.


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