"Keeping that youthful fire blazing, it’s not something you can do - it’s there, or it’s not. I’m very happy that it’s still here" - Matt Skiba
On the 24th of May, 15 years will have passed since Alkaline Trio released their incredible fifth album ‘Crimson’, and the band remain a unique force to be reckoned with.
We caught up with vocalist and guitarist Matt Skiba to look back on the making of that classic record, and also get a sense of where they’re at now: from this year’s ‘E.P.’ to keeping their creative fires burning as strong as ever.
Looking back now, how would you describe your mindset and approach going into ‘Crimson’? It’s this fascinating, layered and dark record, and also quite a polished one...
“We definitely spent the most time both writing and recording that record, more than we ever had before. There were a lot of hours put into writing and rehearsing the songs, taking them apart and rebuilding them. We did pre-production with Jerry Finn, and I believe that was in Chicago on ‘Crimson’, two weeks with him, and then we went into the studio with a pretty good idea of what we wanted. The three of us have always had varying tastes, but with a lot of parallels: we have a lot of love for the same music, but different tastes as well. Everyone’s singular tastes were brought into that record. We had Roger Joseph Manning Jr. playing this big piano intro, and it turned into this quasi-concept record. That wasn’t really our intention, but the record is more conceptual that anything we’d done then, or that we’ve done since. Something that was paramount to me was that my vocal performance would be as good as possible.
"On the record prior to that [‘Good Mourning’], I’d had struggles pretty intensely with throat and voice problems. I really didn’t have a good time in the studio, especially when I was singing, I was in a rough place with my personal life, and because of that I had some physical ailments. Even though people seemed to love that record, it was important to me that I’d be happy with the vocals on ‘Crimson’. There wasn’t a stone left unturned. I think we put a lot of layering on that record, but I don’t think it was too much. One of Jerry’s concerns was the grandiose theme we had and if it would be too much - like it would be this big wall of sound. We wanted to always be able to hear all the instruments, the strings, and have it sound large without being muddled or lost. We ended up with this incredible, crisp recording of these ideas that we’d started with.”
What were you drawing on for the record’s concept, in particular?
“I was actually listening to the record the other day, because I have a terrible gauge of time and can’t believe it was 15 years ago! One of the first songs that I wrote for ‘Crimson’ was ‘Dethbed’, and then ‘Prevent This Tragedy’. And I realised that everything, no matter what the song specifically was about, all related to a young person’s mortality. Primarily, it was the West Memphis Three. They were such a huge influence on that album particularly, but also everything we did for a good 10 or 12 years. We dedicated as much time and money as we could to getting the West Memphis Three out of prison. I was corresponding with Damien Echols and every year we were involved in something called the West Memphis Three Awareness day. That was something that we, and myself in particular, were driven and influenced by. Especially Damien’s situation, because he was facing the death sentence. He was on his third and last appeal, and then they were going to kill him. It was a personal statement about someone who was facing imminent death as a young person.”
When you look back on the studio experience with ‘Crimson’, are there any memories that you’re especially fond of?
"Yeah, the one thing that I had a really good time with was vocals. It was the record that changed the way I look at recording. It was the first time I had a really good time in the studio and wasn’t worried about my voice. I felt more confident about my abilities, just in general. I started to learn how to run stuff like Pro Tools, but there were all kinds of moving parts going on behind the scenes, all the programming and the textures. It’s something that you feel more than hear, oftentimes. A lot of it was layering and rhythmic undercurrents. I felt confident and in control of my abilities, but not overconfident. It didn’t feel like I’d cracked the code, there’s always mystery in creating something. As a writer, anyone who does anything in the arts, you hope for the best and when you really get a slam dunk, it surpasses and becomes something greater than you, there’s a certain magic to it that you can’t plan for. I learned a lot from that record, as it was the first time I truly enjoyed every step of the process. I was taking much better care of myself too. I remember driving to the studio and being so excited to get there, for the first time since we started recording. It was a special record in many regards.”
Did reflecting on the experiences you’d been through on ‘Good Mourning’, through writing ‘Crimson’, help draw a line under it all and move on, in a way?
“Oh absolutely. For us when we make music, it’s cathartic. Especially when you’re out of the woods! With ‘Crimson’, there’s a lot of very dark subject matter, but a lot of it’s either in retrospect or about things outside of the band. A lot of it felt like a triumph. It’s especially nostalgic and important to me because it was the last record we did with Jerry. I’m really happy that our last project together is one that all three of us are very proud of.”
When the album was released and you were promoting it, especially in the press, it felt like you had a bit of fun messing with people’s perceptions - especially when it came to the Satanic element to the lyrics, and how tongue-in-cheek or otherwise that all was.
“Yeah, even with the album title itself. There are different shades and hues of red, but ‘Crimson’ doesn’t get used very often. When I think of it, it has a very Luciferian, Satanic quality to it. I was and still am a big fan of Anton LeVey, and was obsessed with him ever since I was a kid. I was off sick from school when they had him on a talk show, alongside people from the Southern Baptist Right, from the Bible Belt. I’m sure there are plenty of beautiful people down there, but there’s also a whole contingent of people who picket funerals and are really hateful, un-Christian, as far as being ‘Christ-like’ goes. So, our whole thing was that, a lot of people thought we were devil worshippers or Satanists, and LeVeyan Satanism is more of a response, at least for us, to the evils or organised religion, than it is being anti-Jesus. It’s almost a contradiction, but a purposeful one.
"I can only speak for myself, but especially people who believe in God and the Devil think we’re playing with something very dangerous. And it’s not real, there isn’t a fiery place where the bad kids go and there’s a guy with horns, it’s ridiculous! I would never want to make fun of or discount anyone’s faith, whatever gets you through the day. But I’ve always been a fan of the antihero and the adversary. It’s Satan in more of a classical sense, like Faust or Dante… more Lucifer than Satan. We were never serious Satanists. Derek and I got each other a membership to The Church Of Satan for Christmas when he joined the band, so if that isn’t tongue-in-cheek, I don’t know what is! We played with that a lot! You have to believe in the Devil to worship it, and I don’t have the time to worship imaginary friends! But the imagery and the idea of it is very powerful, and that’s what we’ve used in a tongue-in-cheek way, but also with an undercurrent of disdain for all the atrocities the Vatican has been responsible for. Faith is one thing and religion is another, and my issue is not with people’s faith.”
Looking back, it feels like the touring on ‘Crimson’ was incredibly full-on, and also put you in front of so many different audiences - from headlining with Against Me! and The Lawrence Arms to supporting My Chemical Romance...
“There’s a lot of blur, but also those tours that stand out. Like, a little later we did a tour with Cursive, and we always tried to tour with bands who have those different audiences. Even with My Chem, I guess you could say we were in the same genre, but we had very different followings. Especially as, that band exploded and became the huge band that they are.
I remember one of my favourite stories from the time of ‘Crimson’, which was when I had started taking better care of myself. We’d been on Warped Tour with My Chem, and years prior to that we’d taken them on tour as the first of three bands opening. Back then Gerard was drinking heavily, and he’s always been the greatest guy, such a sweetheart, a gentleman and intelligent, warm person. But he was a fucking mess, and so was I. We definitely confided in each other and a really strong friendship grew from that. Then when we were on Warped Tour together, later on, My Chem was playing the side stage, to smaller crowds of 200 people going absolutely bananas, versus the mainstage where there were 10,000 people who were into it… but not like that. It was a frenzy. And I just knew that there was something very special happening with them.
There’s a picture of me and Gerard where I have my head on his shoulders, and we were in the state of Washington at this amazing venue called The Gorge. It’s better seen than described, the most gorgeous place to play, alongside Red Rocks. Nature’s beauty is in abundance at those venues. I remember sitting up there and talking - it sounds cheesy I know - the sun was going down and we were talking and drinking. I saw them play earlier, the energy was amazing, the band were great but it sounded like someone threw a jar of spoons down the stairs, a fucking bloody mess! I remember telling Gerard, ‘Clean up your act. You’re a handsome motherfucker, you’re incredibly talented. If you clean up and tighten it up, you’ll take over, I promise you’. We were doing Warped Tour together, but were also doing a lot of tours together with them opening. And I said, ‘In a year from now, if you do X Y and Z, we’ll be opening for you’. He kind of shrugged it off, but I could tell that he believed me, because it was true. And that’s what he did, cleaned up his act and took over the world. I’m definitely patting myself on the back a little bit, but it’s something that he did, it was all him - I was just a fan who saw the ability and the energy, the small following they had, and could see the whole world being involved with that. I like being right about things like that! Gerard kept his word, and we opened for My Chem several times after that. We still talk about that day now. I think he knew already somewhere in his psyche, but it’s definitely a very cool memory.”
Bringing things up to date with this year’s ‘E.P.’, how did that come together? It feels like this blast of spontaneous energy, and kind of like a palette cleanser before whatever comes next?
“We were just itching to get into the studio. I didn’t have any songs written - I try to write a little every day, even if it’s just creative writing or journaling, but when I really get into the groove I try to write a song a day. And they’re not necessarily good, but they’re ideas: sometimes a finished song, sometimes just a riff. I’ll have all these voice memos of different guitar parts or melody ideas, just different little bits and bobs. Mostly it’s just guitar riffs. I was scrolling through that when we got into the studio. We basically just went in there for the fun of it. We didn’t have to do it, the label wasn’t expecting anything, we just wanted to record a couple new songs and have fun in the studio as the three of us.
"We worked with Cameron Webb, who’s like our fourth member now. Nobody can replace Jerry Finn, and at the same time nobody could replace Cameron: we’re lucky that we’ve found a soulmate in him. He’s somebody that has become a great friend and ally to the band. He definitely brings the best out of us. But we went in and it was a very spontaneous thing. It’s important that we just write and record in the way we choose to, in a vacuum. The first Alkaline Trio album, ‘Goddamnit’, we did in nine days for $900. And you can kind of tell! I remember Dan [Andriano, bass and vocals] did his back-up vocals first because he had to go on a Tuesday tour, it was crazy. But we didn’t think anyone was ever going to hear it, did what we did without concern for fans that didn’t exist at the time. We wanted to go back in and do something like that, and I think we’ve done a good job of always keeping that spirit alive when we go into the studio. But this was less serious, no pressure. I scrolled through my memos and found the riff that is now ‘Minds Like Minefields’, Dan had a more complete version of some other stuff.
"It was also really important to me that we would put out a 7”. We haven’t put one out since we worked with Lookout! Records, so 16 years ago or something, right before ‘Crimson’. It was something that back in the day, was really important to release when you’re putting out your own stuff. Getting back to those basic feelings, ideas and circumstances was a great deal of fun, and it’s nice to hear you say you can hear the spontaneity in the music, because that was paramount to the recording.”
The comparison between relationships and bands is obviously a laboured one, but one of the things they do have in common is, when you pass a certain point, it’s like there’s no plan or ‘narrative’ for you anymore. And that can be kind of scary, but also liberating. Does it feel like, for you guys now, you’re at a point where all that matters is being the band you are?
“Yeah, one thing that I always think is, it is like a relationship. Rather than fucking, we’re making music! People can say whatever they want, but generally, for the most part, people are interested in each other because they want to fuck each other. Being in a band, of course we want to fuck each other, every band does! I’m just kidding. But maybe I’m not!
Anyway… yeah, songwriting is a very intimate thing. It could be an amazing experience or an incredibly awkward one, and I liken our relationship as a band to a successful marriage. It’s not always roses, but it’s usually roses. Although it can be hard to find a healthy marriage or a healthy band relationship, we’re lucky to have that. We’re blessed that we’ve all grown as people, our friendships have grown and matured and strengthened. We’re very lucky that we have a very successful and beautiful relationship as a band.”
For you personally, do you think the same things, the same kind of energy, is driving you to create music as back when you first started out?
“I don’t feel that I’ve ever grown up. I still feel like a kid. We all have work to do, one should always be growing and learning, but there’s no effort in keeping that spirit alive because it’s who we are. Speaking for myself, and I think my bandmates would probably say the same thing, I’ve never had to grow up. I’ve done labour and worked hard to get where I’m at, and before Alkaline Trio was even a sparkle in our eyes, I knew what it was like to do a job you hate. There was no way in hell that I was going to let that happen, even as a young kid. Being blessed with a career where you don’t have to grow up will definitely keep the fire that you once had in your belly, and for me, it’s still there. It only grows stronger with confidence in one’s abilities, and the knowledge of one’s weaknesses and strong points. Keeping that youthful fire blazing, it’s not something you can do - it’s there, or it’s not. I’m very happy that it’s still here.”
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