“I Still Have A Violent Streak In Me… It Feels Like There’s Always A Lightning Storm In There”
In the spring of 1997, Alkaline Trio released their first single, Sundials. Of the three members on that recording, only guitarist/vocalist Matt Skiba remains – bassist/co-vocalist Dan Andriano joined later that year and, after a slew of drummers, Derek Grant completed the fold in 2001. Doused in alcohol, regret and raw emotion, Matt channelled his inner demons and self-destructive tendencies – as well as his love of the Misfits and the macabre – into raw, visceral, melodic punk rock. Little by little, the band from McHenry, Illinois grew bigger and bigger, breaking through to a more mainstream audience thanks in large part to Stupid Kid, the lead single from the band’s third album, 2001’s From Here To Infirmary.
Seventeen years and another five albums later, Alkaline Trio are back. Most recently, Matt – who, among other side projects, has also released an album of solo demos, and a couple of records with his backing band The Sekrets – has been busy as Tom DeLonge’s replacement in pop-punk pioneers blink-182, since early 2015. At first he was just filling in for a couple of shows, but he later became an official member and helped write their seventh album, California.
On the other end of the phone in LA, he’s in a particularly philosophical mood when talking about his life and career in music so far. “I know a lot of people claim, ‘If I wasn’t a musician I’d be dead or I’d be a serial killer,’” he says in a surprisingly cheerful tone, “and it’s like, ‘Yeah, okay. But you’re not.’ And maybe serial killers have the wherewithal to either do music on the side or serial killing on the side, but I consider myself an artist. I didn’t say ‘good artist’. But there are things outside of music that I do to hopefully better myself,” he says. “It’s always a work in progress. You’re never fully enlightened, you’re always only ever attaining enlightenment.”
Let’s start right at the beginning, then. What was Matt Skiba like as a child?
I was born with fire-engine red hair. I came out of the womb with this blazing bright-red hair that then fell out and came back blond, like, a month later. When I began to walk
I spent the first two years with braces on my legs. I was bow-legged like crazy, so they put braces on my legs to pull them straight and straighten my posture. Then, when I was 15 I grew, like, 10 feet and girls started talking to me. Before that I was just a little kid like everybody else, nothing special.
Alkaline Trio, Is This Thing Cursed?
Were you a rebel child?
Oh yeah. I drove my parents fucking crazy.
Were they generally supportive of your later career choice?
Yeah, they were cool. When I dropped out of school and started bike messengering it was a hard time for them. They didn’t understand what I was doing, but I understood what I was doing. I wanted to succeed, not to prove them wrong, but to make them proud. I’ve always been real tight with my folks even when we aren’t speaking, or I was setting the garage on fire, or I was doing idiotic kid stuff that was really fun at the time. But they’ve always been very proud of Alkaline Trio and saw how driven I was. I’m lucky to have found my calling in life. It’s definitely a blessing.
Your earlier years in Alkaline Trio were pretty hedonistic – if not also somewhat nihilistic – with a lot of heavy drinking and self-destruction involved. What changed?
I think as you get older… I still have a violent streak in me and it makes me who I am. Not necessarily physical violence, but a violent mind, like how a storm is violent. I don’t mean I’m thinking about killing someone or punching someone, but it feels like there’s always a lightning storm in there. And I think through personal growth you learn to harness those things and use them to your advantage.
A lot of that recklessness was brought about by difficult or failed relationships. Would you rather have kept the girl or written the songs?
Well, the girl doesn’t pay the rent. And the music doesn’t get jealous or hold things against you that didn’t even happen. I’m not a religious person, but music is for me what I’m guessing God is to a religious person. I’ve heard the word ‘divorce’ all throughout my life and as I was growing up, but until it happens to you, until you go through it, that word looks, sounds and means something completely different. Breakups are a motherfucker. People kill themselves over them and there’s a reason why it can be really painful, but the good news is we have songs to write about that!
Were you actually as unhappy as you sound in some of your early songs?
The songs are all based on the truth – or on something that really happened – but I’m turning them into a more interesting metaphor. It’s not so much that it’s fiction, but that it’s hopefully more poetic or metaphorical. So yeah, the struggle is real. Art imitates life, as the old cliché goes, and so you’re getting a bit of a true story, because you’re getting the idea from somewhere. Even if I’ve used a book like [Mark Z Danielewski novel] House Of Leaves or poetry from Harry Crosby as influences, it’s my perception and my experience as to why I identify with something so fucked. You’re still making it personal and honest. I guess my point is I never try to write anything that’s dishonest – it’s not like telling a lie, it’s telling a story.
Heavens, Patent Pending
Your divorce ultimately inspired a lot of the 2010 album This Addiction. Was the catharsis of writing that record any different to, say, a ‘normal’ breakup?
No, because all marriage is a fucking piece of paper. Our wedding was the best wedding I’ve ever been to. It was fucking beautiful and not your typical wedding. It was one of the best times I ever had, but when money and the ‘this is mine and this is yours’ garbage come into play, you’re writing from a place of anger rather than hurt, because somebody is bleeding you dry – whether it’s monetarily or emotionally or, in my case, both. It’s a different kind of pain, but by the time it gets to paper and through a guitar and on to a tape it’s pretty much the same thing. Pain is pain.
You mentioned you weren’t religious earlier, but when 2005 record Crimson came out, a lot was made of the fact that you’re a card-carrying member of the Church of Satan. Do you think people misunderstood what that actually meant?
I love the art and the fashion and the aesthetic of the Church Of Satan. That’s what always drew me to it. I have a lot of books about black magic and demonology, and I err on the side of that being real, but I wasn’t putting curses on people. And there was a time when I would say I was a Satanist. Me and Derek bought each other Church of Satan membership cards for Christmas because we didn’t want to pay the $300 or whatever it was to join, so that kind of shows you how loyal a member I am. For me, it was all aesthetics, and my interests were solely on the black arts. Then a friend of mine gave me a book that I have on my coffee table to this day. She introduced more of what a witch would call white magic – or, as I’ll put it, positivity, kindness, beauty. You also keep revenge and all the seven deadly sins in your pocket because they’re good to have, but you need balance. Before that good juju came into my life, there were a lot of kids who really loved it, but somebody said to me recently, ‘Your band probably would have been a lot bigger had you not had the satanic imagery,’ and my answer to that was, ‘Good!’ I feel people made a bigger deal of it than it actually is. I’m still a fan of black magic, but I’ve also learned such a lot in the last 20 years that that little black-magic kid seems like a different person to me now. I mean, I have crystals at my house that I meditate with. I’m such a fucking hippy. But it works for me and if you were me you’d do it, too. You’d try fucking anything.
How long did you have to think about the decision to join blink-182 when you were offered the chance in 2015?
What does blink-182 give you that Alkaline Trio doesn’t? Presumably you’re dealing with a whole other level of fame right now that you never had before?
I’ve been around really, really famous people – legitimately where you walk down the street and people start screaming and stuff – and that doesn’t look like any fun to me. A lot more people know who I am, but I feel like fame isn’t a real thing. It’s an idea of something. I think you can chase fame and you can inflate it or you can shy away from it. I think it’s a lot easier for men, because they make women sex symbols when somebody becomes really famous. But people are always pretty nice to me and I’m friends with the same people I was before. It’s all about how you treat it. I think the one thing that blink does that Alkaline Trio didn’t is… my parents have always been very supportive, but now that I play in blink, all of my parents’ friends are so jazzed that it makes my folks excited. From the outside looking in, it is a huge new step – it’s definitely a point in my life that will always stand out. It’s been fucking wild. But I haven’t really let fame into my little weird world.
blink-182, Home Is Such A Lonely Place
How has being in blink-182 changed the dynamics of your relationship with Trio members Dan and Derek?
Derek and Danny are my brothers. That’s my family right there. Doing blink has put Trio on pause for now, but nothing more. It didn’t pause our friendship – Danny would come out to blink shows and I would go to his solo shows. It’s weird to have that put on pause, but we’ve been so transparent with each other.
You’ve been painting and exhibiting a lot recently. Do you ever paint when you’re out on tour?
I don’t do a whole lot of painting on the road. I’ve tried and it’s too hard. I have a room in my place that’s dedicated to painting because cleaning up, putting everything away and cleaning brushes while you have a soundcheck and a show that night is too much hassle. It’s nice when you’re in the groove and maybe have a day off, but I ended up getting hotel bills for destroying carpets. So I save the art for when I’m at home. Art is something that’s always been there, but now I’ve just been making more time to paint.
Does making art with an audience in mind change the intention at all?
Hopefully not. I try to paint something that I myself dig. It’s just like a song – I feel like
I have this weird way of filtering what’s good and what’s not – although making music is a really different medium. With painting you make all the decisions yourself, but the bare bones of a song and painting are pretty similar things. I make them for me first. The song should write itself in a way and the painting should paint itself in a way, and when it’s done you should be able to sit back and feel good about it all. Even if it’s simple or silly, it still has to be good and hit a certain personal standard.
Is there anything left for you to achieve on a professional level?
No, there really isn’t. I’m really happy to say that everything that happens now just kind of, like, blows my mind. We’re still relevant, we’re still important to people and the things that we’ve done in our career and the things that we have left to do, there’s a surprise around every corner and I would like to keep it that way. There’s no set thing of, ‘If I can do this then my life would be complete.’ Now, to just enjoy the longevity that we’ve had is the goal.
Matt Skiba And The Sekrets, Voices
And how has your personal philosophy towards life changed over the years?
I didn’t think I’d be taking such good care of myself at the age that I’m at now. I think that alcohol and drugs can bring out things, that maybe they can be useful tools to a poet. I’m not one of those people who say that art is better when you’re tortured. I think there is some truth to that sometimes, but I think you can find the torture without being fucked up. If I’m in a really dark place, the guitar weighs too much.
Do you still speak to original trio members Rob Doran or Glenn Porter?
Not really. Glenn comes out to shows here and there, but I haven’t seen them in years. We don’t really keep in touch.
Does that make you sad?
It’s a different part of my life now. If it made me sad or if I regretted it at all, I would make a phone call and rectify the situation.
Looking back on your life and career so far, is there anything you regret? Do you wish you’d had kids or anything?
No. That’s like going to the doctor and saying, ‘Doc, it hurts when
I do this,’ and then the doctor says, ‘Well, don’t do that.’ If I wanted to do that I would go do that, but I have no regrets, I’m very happy to say.
But do you want to find ‘the one’, settle down with somebody and fall in love properly?
I think I may already have. I’m not in love right now, but I’m in love with my life. I’m in love with my career and extremely thankful for it. I’ve been travelling with blink for the past – shit – three years or something, and now that I’m home, I do date. It’s not at the top of my to-do list or anything, but if it happened I wouldn’t shy away from it…
You’re in your 40s now and you’ve said before that you never thought you’d live to be this age. How do you reconcile the fact that you’re still here and doing what you do and have survived this life that you’ve led?
I guess a good answer to that is, ‘Date really beautiful younger women!’ They keep you young. And there are a lot of beautiful women living in LA. It’s like being a part of a really pretty zoo sometimes, although my idea of a beautiful woman and the average Hollywood douchebag’s taste in women is probably quite a bit different…
Words: Mischa Pearlman
Alkaline Trio digitally release new album Is This Thing Cursed? through Epitaph Records on August 31.