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Matt Skiba Talks To Us About Art, Creativity And Music Ahead Of His New Exhibition

His latest exhibition is as part of a travelling group show called Punk Rock And Paintbrushes which opens in Los Angeles today.

Matt Skiba is best known for being the founding member of dark Chicago punks Alkaline Trio, as well as Tom DeLonge’s replacement in blink-182. But the 41 year-old is also an avid painter, and over the last few years has begun to show and sell his work more regularly, documenting his process on Instagram as he goes. 

His latest exhibition is as part of a travelling group show called Punk Rock And Paintbrushes which opens in Los Angeles today and which also features art by, among others, Flogging Molly’s Matt Hensley, AFI’s Hunter Burgan, The Vandals’ Warren Fitzgerald and Jesse Hughes from Eagles Of Death Metal. We caught up with Skiba to get the lowdown on his art and influences as well as the incredible story that inspired his latest painting.

Hi Matt! How long have you been painting?
Well, I went to design school for a year and I’m dating myself now, but when I went to design school it was all pen to paper. It was all analogue and all of a sudden computers started appearing in the classrooms. I had already done some odd jobs where I had to stare at a computer screen for hours on end which would give me the worst headaches, so I knew that I didn’t want to work in front of the computer, especially doing something that I already loved. But now I’ve been showing my stuff and I’m really excited about this. We’ve done several shows with all these pieces and I just finished an additional one just for LA which feels good. It’s nice to paint when you don’t have to, but when you want to. It generally works out better that way.

It seems like you’re devoting a lot more of your time to art now than you were in the past.
Yeah, being a musician – as corny LA guy as this might sound – you could very easily through friendly acquaintances make a cameo in a film or jump ship artwise. But just because you can doesn’t mean that you should, in my opinion. Some people can do it – Jared Leto is an amazing actor who’s wildly talented and it’s rare to be able to see someone be able to pull off both. And obviously we’re not talking about acting, but painting is something I’ve always loved as a kid and, like I said, I went to school for it, but when things went digital I dropped out but I never stopped painting. And then a few years ago I met Emily from Romantic Rock. I’d call her my art dealer but she does so much more – she sets up these shows and works tirelessly to make sure the proceeds go to the right places. All the shows we do are for a benefit, generally for battered women.

Does that free you up to be more creative with it? You’re not doing this to make ends meet – it’s a pure hobby.
I guess by definition it is a hobby but to me it’s no less important – even if the painting might be kind of silly or whatever, it’s no less an expression of myself than a song.

What does art give you that music doesn’t?
I make art all alone and apart from maybe sketching a loose idea there’s no pre-production. There’s no middleman, there’s no counsel – it’s just you and the medium you’re working with and that’s a hugely different experience. It’s physically a very different medium, but when the juices are really flowing it can be very cathartic. And there’s at least one Easter egg in all of my paintings, whether it’s my own blood or something – there’s always some hidden message.

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When Harry Met The Fire Princess

The one you just finished for this exhibition is an homage to a portrait of Harry Crosby based on a painting by Polia Chenthoff…
As a side note, that’s another thing I really love about art versus music – and this interview is a perfect example – you talk about the actual art and the things involved with it. It’s such a different thing to talk about. If it’s a good interview I love talking about music, but talking about art is relatively new for me and it’s exciting to do. Polia Chenthoff was a Russian painter that the Crosbys became a friend of. They held a place in the arts district of Paris and she came over and painted – Harry commissioned a piece to have Polia paint [Harry’s wife] Caresse. They loved it so much they had her do a painting of Harry Crosby, who eventually killed himself with his lover. Not his wife. So ultimately they commissioned her to paint them both separately. 

It was the early 1900s and Harry was a very flamboyant, odd duck, which is why I’m so entranced by him. The painting of Caresse still exists, but the painting that she did of Harry is one of the creepiest paintings that I’ve ever seen and there’s no blood or gore. There’s a violence to it but it’s a soft violence, which, to me, is the best/worst kind. When he killed himself, it took on this whole new, very morose, almost corpse-like depiction of the guy and she burned it. So the new piece that I have for this show is of Harry and it involves that story. I mean, don’t even get me started! It’s fascinating.

The tally marks on his face represent the age when he died, right?
Yeah, that’s correct. If I’m doing my math right, he shot himself when he was 31, so that’s implied in the painting.

And what’s the significance of the word ‘sun’?
A poem he did was called Black Sun. He was all about symbology and the placement of words, of course, but he took his poetry very literally. It wasn’t a metaphor. It was basically one long suicide note. And one of his poems just said “black black black black black” all lowercase, and then right in the middle of the poem it just says ‘SUN’ in all caps. So what I did was write ‘black’ a bunch of times in oil marker and then put shellac over it, so when you see it in person you can see it says ‘black’ – which is in white – and then ‘SUN’ is written in black. 

He ran the Black Sun Press and the biography I read on him was called Black Sun. He was a pagan and a sun worshipper. And a heathen and a drunk. He was a poet, a total slut and he lived really hard and really fast. He was the nephew of JP Morgan, who ran a little bank called Chase. He came from all this fortune and opportunity, but something in him said ‘Fuck this’ and he enlisted in the French ambulance corps and drove an ambulance to the front lines during World War One where he was shelled. They think he was already a reckless soul, but after he was shelled and witnessed all that death he just became lawless and really intriguing.

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Do you see something of yourself in him, if maybe not to the same extent?
I do, very much. In almost kind of a chilling way. There are some things about him that are rather unsavoury that I’m glad we have a difference in, but I think as far as the way I lived the first part of my life, I didn’t think I would be alive today. And I wasn’t morose, I was just drinking like a fish and partying like an asshole and making a spectacle of myself. They say alcohol and drugs can broaden your mind when you’re creating art and for me you’re inhibited, so you can get to an even more sharp focussed zone – the one you’re shooting for with booze or drugs – but you can actually get there without it and actually apply it.

So you don’t imbibe when you’re painting?
Well, there was a time when I first started painting and showing that I loved to drink red wine and smoke joints the whole time I was painting. And I would finish a painting, and sometimes I’d just drunkenly do something really stupid and destroy it. But I was doing that all around – I was messing up shows, I was making a spectacle of myself and it was not cute anymore. It became shameful. So I no longer drink at all, really, especially when I’m not painting. It used to be such a ritual to have that wine.

Speaking of rituals, there’s a pentagram on the floor where you paint. Tell me about that.
I consider myself a pagan, and in April there’s a Pagan ritual from the days of lore, a holiday called Walpurgisnacht  and basically you make a ritual of it to your own liking. That’s the beauty of being pagan – people don’t know what that term really means – but Walpurgisnacht is a really big day. It honours the women and the feminine powers within your life and giving thanks to that. So those are the initials of my grandmother, my sisters and my mom, and my dear friend Asia [Argento]. And I lit a candle at the five points of that pentangle and just meditated as the candles burned, giving thanks to the women in my life. So it was ritualistic – but I also just like it there.

Asia was so instrumental in helping expose the whole Harvey Weinstein scandal, and the triptych of her seems to be the focus of this show. Do you see that as a political statement to the powers that be about how they’re abusing their position?
Asia has become one of my nearest and dearest friends and is such a powerful young woman and such a kid at heart that what’s happening to her – the Italian media apparently viciously misogynistic and are tearing her limb from limb in the press, so she’s fighting through that. Luckily, she has a lot of people, myself included, that are here for her and that love her, that support her – and our gang is stronger than your gang and luckily, someone as rich and powerful as Harvey Weinstein is exiled. That guy’s a piece of shit. 

Just as the allegations came out, he got on his private jet and headed over to Germany or wherever the fuck he was going. Which was a smart move, because I would have found out where he lived and who knows what. But Asia was one of the first to come out and I really admire her strength. I painted that triptych of her just a couple of weeks – maybe a month – before all of that came out. It already meant something dear to me and now it even holds more power for more people, I think.

You wrote on an Instagram post that that you were listening to Wagner while you were making the Harry Crosby painting. Do you always listen to music? And is it always classical?
It depends. A lot of the time I’ll listen to a Nick Cave lecture that he did at a university that I love to listen to about theory and art and life from years ago. Or maybe there’s an audiobook that I don’t want to sit down and read. I love music, but I’ve been touring for so long that I’m giving my ears a little bit of a break. But when I do want music, especially when painting, I love classical because it’s similar in feel to painting – there’s these crescendos and beautiful parts and you need those some sort of things in a painting. And it’s relaxing. Wagner can be really wild, but it’s really beautiful. I posted that Pantera’s next, and I had every intention of putting on Pantera, but I stuck with Wagner until I finished the painting.

Where do you see your art going?
The beauty of it is it’s already gotten more attention than I ever expected. Which I’m very grateful for. When I’m sitting in front of a canvas and I’m in the process, sometimes I catch myself and sometimes I’ll Instagram the floor or whatever, and capture this moment of pure joy that is rare for me, and for a lot of people in general. To be able to feel that, to feel that you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be, doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing. I’ve been doing gallery shows for a long time, largely because of my friend Heather Gabel who lives up in the Bay Area. We used to live together and she had a show and she invited me to be a partner in it and we would do pieces together and she got me into a lot of really galleries. And that’s a real honour and I can’t fucking believe it. It brings me a great deal of joy and I just want to get better and evolve and always – just like putting out songs – put out good paintings. 

Words: Mischa Pearlman

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