Album review: Alkaline Trio – Blood, Hair, And Eyeballs
Chicago alt. punk legends Alkaline Trio get back to their ghoulish best on X-rated 10th album Blood, Hair, And Eyeballs...
The bullets flew so close that Matt Skiba heard them whizzing all around him. This was back in the ’90s, in the earliest days of his band Alkaline Trio. High on magic mushrooms, he and his roommate Bobby were walking from their apartment on the West Side of Chicago to buy cigarettes from a liquor store across the way. The pair made their way across a parking lot populated by members of Latin King, a local gang that claimed the neighbourhood as their own, with whom Matt happened to be on good terms. No problem there. But at that very moment, the sight of a van carrying members of a rival crew heralded the start of a drive-by shooting.
“They shot about 12 kids,” he recalls. “A bunch of people were hit, a few kids died, and that happened right as we were walking out the parking lot. And it happened 30 feet from where we were standing.”
Welcome to Chicago, the hometown of Alkaline Trio. Violent, cold, sick and beautiful. Never mind that these days guitarist and vocalist Matt Skiba and bassist and vocalist Dan Andriano live elsewhere – in Los Angeles and St Augustine, Florida, respectively – the truth is, one never really leaves their hometown. Certainly, few bands have made better use their immediate surroundings as grist for songs that separate them from the chasing pack. Whereas other hopefuls who emerged into the anything-is-possible post-Dookie punk rock landscape sang about the adolescent ephemera of American life, Alkaline Trio found morality in mayhem.
Mining a seam of seemingly inexhaustible darkness, the group’s new album, the sparkling and layered Blood, Hair, And Eyeballs, continues the trend. Not only does the group that both men refer as “Trio” view every glass as being half-empty, but what liquid remains looks a lot like blood. On Bad Time, Matt recalls that day when he was high and might have died. 'I’m being stalked by Latin royalty and me and Bobby just ate ’shrooms, it’s a bad time,' he sings. On the LP’s title-track, the listener is told how, 'I got nightmares up and down my walls… [I] walk like a zombie up and down these halls.’ Make no mistake, whatever this band are selling, it sure ain’t sunshine.
“It has a lot to do with the state of the world,” is how Dan Andriano accounts for the turbulent skies, under which the narrators and characters populating Alkaline Trio’s songs labour to stay alive. “It’s not just here in the States, either, it seems like it’s everywhere. It just seems very much like we’re living in the apocalypse. It’s end-of-days stuff out there. It’s just so sad, really. I do like to think there’s a little bit of hope involved with the record, although that wasn’t intentional… but there’s definitely a dark and maybe a tinged theme that ties the whole thing together.”
Matt Skiba and Dan Andriano’s world of musical turmoil came together over drinks at a bar called the Empty Bottle on the West Side of Chicago in the closing months of 1997. Matt, who had founded Alkaline Trio a year earlier, was in the market for a bass player willing to commit to a life of touring America’s vast terrain in an Ecoline van that would at night be parked outside the homes of strangers on whose floors they would sleep following gigs, at least at first, in the smallest venues in each city. For Dan, whose own prospects had been frustrated by musicians who only wanted to rock’n’roll on a part-time basis, such a life seemed perfect. It still does, as it goes. During this time, he went to see the indie rock band Superchunk play to 500 people at Lounge Acts, a club in Lincoln Park, on the city’s North Side. 'This is it,' he thought, 'this is the dream.'
“That’s a great level to get to, but at the same time we didn’t set our sights very high,” Dan says today. “There are bigger places than Lounge Acts in every city. But we were content. We would have done it in every city at that level if we could. But life throws you curveballs and obviously as I got older and started a family, you want to move on and do bigger and better things. But [even back then] I would have said that I could easily see us doing this forever.”
Well, so far so good. With the band’s 30th anniversary slowly hovering into view, the front-cover artwork for Blood, Hair, And Eyeballs features a strident-looking X, a Roman numeral denoting that this is in fact their 10th album. In the 21st century at least, few are the bands who reach this point, certainly in the field of punk rock. Green Day have managed it, as have Bad Religion, but, really, there aren’t many. And don’t be fooled by a resignation that turned the union, briefly, into Alkaline Duo, either. (The replacement for long-term drummer Derek Grant – who resigned after 21 years following the recording of his parts for his now ex-band’s new album – is former Rocket From The Crypt and Offspring man Atom Willard.) It happens. But while such fractures are the stuff of life for almost all bands, the idea that Dan Andriano and Matt Skiba were approaching the end of their own reign in blood is an idea quickly dismissed.
“In a musical sense, we’ve improved at being bandmates,” Matt explains. “Dan and I have always been really good friends, but over the years it’s become more like family. People grow apart but in the case of Dan and I we’ve only grown closer. Just when you think you couldn’t know someone better, or love a person any more, as corny as that may sound, we just get closer and closer as time goes on.”
And then Matt Skiba mentions something else for which he is known.
“I had a great time playing in blink-182 but my musical home is playing in Alkaline Trio,” he says. “And Dan is my wife in that.”
Ah, yes, the extra-marital affair. Or the bigamy, perhaps. As is known, following the departure (for the second time) of founding member Tom DeLonge, in 2015 Matt Skiba stepped into the line-up of blink-182 as the trio’s guitarist and co-vocalist. As originally envisaged, the arrangement was a patch-up job intended to last for only three concerts; but fact, the new line-up endured for a seven-year span that included two studio albums and numerous tours.
The end, when it came, seemed smooth. An announcement in October 2022 that Tom had re-joined the group for a third time – what is it with that guy? – was quickly followed by a classy encomium posted on social media thanking Matt for deputising a good deal more than ably during his long absence. ‘I wanted to take a minute away and say thank you for all that you have done to keep the band alive and thriving in my absence,’ was just one of the things Tom wrote, adding that blink-182 ‘would not even be here today if it were not for your ability to jump in and save the day’.
For his part, rather than feeling cuckolded by his bandmate’s decision to ride two horses, in 2015 Dan Andriano offered only support for what would inevitably become a complex arrangement.
“No, [the alignment with blink-182] didn’t really cause complications between me and Matt, that’s for sure,” the bassist explains. “It’s a weird situation. They’re such a different thing, a huge gigantic rock band. And so it only caused complications in the sense that everything they do is going to affect everything that we do. When you’re a big band, communication starts to lack. And I’m not saying it has anything to do with those guys, but I know they’re a big band, they’ve all got interests – like they’ve all got different companies – there’s so much going on. So their own decision-making process might take a long time. For them to decide what they’re doing is where the rub came in. But it was nothing to do with Matt being in a different band.”
Of course, extracurricular activities are the norm in the scene Alkaline Trio so ably represent. Certainly, it would have been fairly rich were Dan to have objected to Matt's pursuit given his own involvement with side-projects such as The Falcon, Ben Weasel And His Iron String Quartet, Dan Andriano In The Emergency Room, The Damned Things, Dan Andriano & The Bygones, not to mention – running out of breath here – guest appearances with New Found Glory and Stephen Egerton. Then again, while the principle is the same, the circumstances in which Matt found himself were vastly different from the norm. His busman’s holiday was no modest venture that bowed to the primacy of the mother ship Alkaline Trio. In this case, blink-182 were the larger vessel.
“The worlds between our two bands are really not that different,” Matt explains. “It was pretty slight. Obviously the private jets and police escorts were things that I never expected to have at my disposal, and that was fun, but it didn’t make or break the thing. What made it was playing with Mark and Travis and touring with our amazing crew. And let’s not take anything away from playing arenas and stadiums. It was a blast. But you know what, so too is playing big theatres with Alkaline Trio.”
It’s possible to drive oneself mad attempting to discern quite why, on visits to London, one group is able to perform two concerts at the 20,000-capacity The O2 – as Matt Skiba did with blink-182 – while another, ostensibly similar, plays the 5,000-capacity O2 Academy Brixton (the venue for Alkaline Trio’s most recent visit to the capital). Then again, in this case, perhaps the answer is simple. Perhaps it might just be that, for some, the latter’s liking for singing songs from the point of view of a lover tortured to death (This Could Be Love) or whose sublime melodies come barbed with lyrics such as 'I’ve got pages of dreams, they’re covered in piss' (The Poison) is the trickier proposition. For his part, from within the vessel, Matt Skiba’s enjoyment at being able to marvel at the baubles and trinkets of punk rock superstardom with blink-182 was not the same as being hoodwinked by the true reality of his surroundings. In other words, his real home was elsewhere.
“[blink] was very much something that I felt a member of,” he says. “But it wasn’t my band. Alkaline Trio are my band. I didn’t get hired to play in Alkaline Trio, I started this. Those material things that [were] mentioned are bright and shiny, but those are really the only differences between the bands. And that’s not to say that I didn’t become great friends with my bandmates in blink, and the crew and everybody. It’s just a different family. But Alkaline Trio is what I’ve always known.”
For his interview with Kerrang!, Matt Skiba comes in any colour you like – just so long as it’s black. Staring at a phone or a computer screen during interviews on Zoom gives him a migraine, he explains, an eventuality that reduces his presence on a laptop to that of a disembodied voice. He sounds well, though. For his part, Dan Andriano both sounds and looks to be in premium fettle. On a rainy morning in Los Angeles, the sight of the bassist wearing a black adidas tracksuit and Wayfarer-style spectacles is beamed over to London on a windy and wet January evening. Out west, it’s 10am. Eight years ago, Dan gave up drinking.
“I had a moment where all of a sudden I felt like I was drinking, for the first time, for a different reason,” he says. "And maybe that it was starting to become a depressant. And that was perpetuating the cycle. I drank because I was depressed and then I became more depressed because I was drinking… and unfortunately all the other things that go along with it, the party favours [drugs] involved, they’ve gotten more and more dangerous. It’s terrifying. We used to get fairly wild and I never really worried about dying. And now I think that’s a serious concern if you’re getting wild. It’s just a different world out there, which worries me no end.”
Ah, yes, those party favours – the very things that did the characters in so many of Alkaline Trio’s songs no favours at all. There’s that guy who was found dead of an opioid overdose beneath a decorated spruce tree on Christmas morning (Heart Attacks), or the young man whose liking for 'breakfast in a spoon' saw him, too, lowered into the ground – both victims of the trouble trap that is city life in America as seen through the eyes of Dan and Matt.
There's no glorification in the pair’s telling of such stories, but there is a richness of detail, and of flavour, that is alchemic in its ability to turn squalor and tragedy into poetry and art. These are their streets, after all, and this is their neighbourhood. They know it well. Long before anyone outside of Illinois had heard a note of their music, Alkaline Trio rehearsed in the front room of an apartment next door to a crack den. The two households got along just fine. Matt was a customer who bought the softer drugs from the house menu, as it so happened. The band agreed to a request that each night practice would finish no later than 9pm. Even dealers have standards.
“The thing with Dan and I is that we used to do a lot of drugs, a lot of booze, and it was fun while it lasted,” is how Matt Skiba explains a change in his own circumstances similar to that of his bandmate. “But when it becomes something that’s sad, which it does for guys of a certain age, at that point I just got sick and tired of feeling sick and tired. That’s a cliché but it’s true. I just got sick of waking up feeling like shit every day. And that’s a young person’s game. When I was younger and partying like crazy, older friends of mine who had slowed down told me that what I was doing was going to hurt me after a while. They told me that I wouldn’t want to do it anymore. And thankfully that proved to be true… I want to be able to sing and play as best I can. And I’ve learned that cocaine and alcohol don’t lend themselves to that.”
But if these days Alkaline Trio’s engine purrs with purer fuel, the roads on which they drive remain pockmarked with the kind of horrors the band have so consistently transformed into magic. As well as recalling the incident on the West Chicago in which Matt Skiba’s life might easily have been ended by gunplay, the song Bad Time, from their new LP, also chronicles a more recent incident, from 2016, during which he found himself once again in the vicinity of an active shooter. He was in El Paso, in Texas, just across the border from Ciudad Juarez, a city beaten bloody by the relentless violence of the cocaine trade. That night, though, the trouble was more local – a lunatic letting loose with a gun in a shopping mall next door to the visitor’s own board and lodgings.
“I was on the balcony of my hotel room talking to a good friend of mine,” he says. “And as I was talking to her… I start hearing gunshots. I turned on the news as it was unfolding, and she turned on the news and she could see my hotel room from the outdoor mall where this asshole is shooting up the place with an AR-15… And my friend said to me, she was like, ‘Oh my God, do you need to go?’ And I was like, ‘No, I don’t. I’d rather keep talking to you.’”
In hearing the voice on the line provide a strange kind of reassurance during terrifying times, Matt Skiba came as close as is possible to understanding what it means to listen to Alkaline Trio.
Blood, Hair, And Eyeballs is out now
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Chicago alt. punk legends Alkaline Trio get back to their ghoulish best on X-rated 10th album Blood, Hair, And Eyeballs...
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