Alkaline Trio are less of a band these days than they are a punk rock institution. Over the past 17 years, the act have cultivated a rabid following of hardcore fans who often get the band's skull-and-heart logo permanently inked onto their bodies . . . and they were sure to pick up a new crop of them with the release of their ninth full-length My Shame is True. (Sadly the pun-happy band decided not to go with the title The Rhythm Is Gonna Get You Killed.)
We caught up with Alkaline Trio's co-frontman Matt Skiba to talk about what it was like recording with legendary producer/Descendents member Bill Stevenson, what inspired the intensely personal nature of My Shame is True and how some of your favorite Alkaline Trio songs may not actually be about what you think they're about. Don't worry though—as long as you're listening the band encourage you to form your own interpretations of their power-chord confessionals.
PureVolume: It's hard to believe this is the first record you've recorded with Bill Stevenson. Have you wanted to work with him for a while?
Matt Skiba: Definitely. I've been friends with Bill for years from touring with Descendents and ALL. We became really good friends with all those guys and of course they're heroes of ours, too—Black Flag, who doesn't love Black Flag? We've been talking about doing a record with Bill for several years and we were going to possibly do This Addiction with him but at the the time we were going back and forth and Bill had this grapefruit-sized brain tumor that almost took his life and no one really knew what was wrong. We were having conversations about the record where one day he was onboard and the next day he wasn't. It was odd and it wasn't his fault because this thing in his head was causing it; he was still making records and still functioning but not on all four cylinders. I'm happy how it worked out because Bill's healthy and happy again and back to being the Bill we all know and love.
Lyrically, do you feel like My Shame is True is a more personal and less cloaked in metaphor than Alkaline Trio's previous releases?
Yeah. I mean all of my songs for the most part, with the exception of "The Temptation Of St. Anthony," are basically a love/apology letter to my ex-girlfriend who is on the cover of the album. We're still really close but it was pretty rough for a while there and I wrote it during those rough periods. There's very little metaphor, which has always been something we used. It's still on the record but it's pretty obvious what the songs are about and I'm happy with it. I think that's the way we wrote our early songs and some of the lyrics are pretty cringeworthy but it's honest. So it is for me an extremely personal record but it had a very solid purpose.
Did you have [The Lawrence Arms'] Brendan [Kelly] and [Rise Against's] Tim [McIIrath] specifically in mind when you wrote the songs that they're featured on?
We absolutely did. Dan wrote that song "I, Pessimist" thinking, "Tim has to sing on this" and Tim is a really close friend from way back. Similarly, Brendan Kelly's voice has that shredded Blake Schwarzenbach kind of vibe I thought was perfect for the call-and-response part of "I Wanna Be a Warhol," so I wrote it with him in mind and it turned out really cool. We all grew up in Chicago—those guys still live there and are still really busy with music and it worked out really well.
It still seems important to you to represent Chicago despite the fact that you live in Los Angeles these days. Do you think the Windy City will always be a big part of the band?
Oh, absolutely. When people ask me where I'm from or where the band is from, I say Chicago without a doubt. I was born and bred there and there's a lot of Chicago people out here in Los Angeles. People have this idea of shitty LA and how phony everything is, and it's like any city: It is what you make it and there's assholes and beautiful people everywhere, just don't run with douchebags and you're good. The weather here is amazing and that was the main draw for me coming out here. I already had a career, I'm not out here trying to be a movie star and I don't have to get into porn any time soon.
What's "I Wanna Be A Warhol" about? Because on the surface it seems like maybe you're pondering the band's legacy after doing this for almost two decades.
That song is actually not about that at all and it's not unintentional. I wanted people to kind of think that it's about that, which to me is kind of crass in the sense of it's sort of like saying, "I want to be famous." The song is one of the few metaphors on the record and it's about the fact that in relationships the things that attract you to someone initially become the very things you despise about them when the going gets tough.
I'm a huge fan of Andy Warhol and a Warhol piece is something that every day increases in value and never changes. That song is about being that to this person that you love and care about and having this one person look at you as this beautiful important thing that is valuable and should be kept safe and will never let you down. It really has nothing to do with the band or legacy or being famous or any of that shit.
That's a really beautiful sentiment and I hope you didn't take my interpretation in an offensive way.
No, no, no. I like talking about that and it's funny to me to have people think that's what it's about. I'm not offended in any way shape or form—I love that question, so thank you.
That exchange is a perfect example of how it can be difficult to tell what's direct and what's metaphor when it comes to Alkaline Trio. Do you like having that ambiguity in there so that everyone takes something away from the music, even if it might not be exactly what you intended?
Oh, absolutely. That's the whole point and I think there should always be a tongue planted firmly in cheek especially when you're singing about something that was pretty dreadful for you because you're not shooting strangers in the desert in Iraq. I have good problems but they're still problems and they still affect me and I'm going to write about them. But I think you have to be careful how seriously you take yourself and metaphor can be a really good ally [when it comes to that.]
We have a song called "97" which sounds like a love song, but it's actually about me being on probation and not being allowed to smoke weed for a year. I wrote this in 1996 and as I was writing it, i was kind of chuckling to myself because I knew people were going to think it's about a girl and I wanted them to believe that. It's been long enough that I can say to people that's not what it's about at all. It's the same thing with "I Wanna Be A Warhol." It's fun to not only trick people but write something that people can apply to their own lives and have it be meaningful to them.