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Rock Sound Classic Features: Alkaline Trio

Tim Newbound
Tim Newbound 5 July 2011 at 13.17

Controversy and calm discussed and dissected with Alkaline Trio!

In July 2008 Rock Sound sat down with Alkaline Trio to try and find out whether they had finally found their inner-calm for album number six, the fantastic 'Agony & Irony'.

The band release of new/old album 'Damnesia' on Monday (July 11), consider this a reminder of how unbelievably brilliant they are...

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It’s the latest in a sequence of baking hot days in London as Rock Sound meets the members of Alkaline Trio, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that maybe the sunshine has followed the band into Britain, since they arrived several days ago.

“We switched,” smiles frontman Matt Skiba. “I live in Los Angeles and I talked to my wife and she was like, ‘Yeah it’s pissing down with rain and cold here’. I was like, ‘Well, I’m in London, I’m wearing a T-shirt and the sun’s out’. It’s beautiful, I love it.”

The singer was up until gone 4am last night a little worse for wear, but you certainly wouldn’t know it from his general demeanour. Articulate and effervescent, he holds a brief council with his press agent about how smart his outfit for our photoshoot should be – settling on a kind of schoolboy ensemble, complete with black armband – before striking endless poses for Rock Sound’s snapper, pulling daft faces and gesticulating without direction or coercion. The singer has never appeared to be the retiring type when put in front of a camera, but nonetheless he now seems to carry an air of inner-calm and positivity that’s particularly rare. You see, one year ago, Matt began practising transcendental meditation, and unlocked a whole new spiritual belief system.

“Some people call it God, but I think it’s an element. I think it’s an element that’s like water and earth and fire. It’s almost like a fifth element,” he tells Rock Sound. “There’s an energy that is just not visible to us. It doesn’t have a name, scientists haven’t been able to harness it and give a name to it, but I can feel it. I feel like I’m at least tuned into that station in some way or another for the first time in my life – I found that through transcendental meditation. The song ‘I Found A Way’ on our record is very much about that.”

Given this is the man who around the last album, ‘Crimson’, did countless interviews speaking about how he and drummer Derek Grant had bought each other memberships to the Church Of Satan – someone who has previously declared himself an atheist – this comes as something of a surprise. Would he even call himself as an atheist these days?

“No, I wouldn’t,” he declares. “I mean, I don’t call myself a Satanist, that was something we really shot ourselves in the foot with. Derek [Grant, drums] and I got each other those memberships just for fun, but then everybody really focused on it and it sounds pretty horrible if you don’t really understand it.”

He continues: “You know, I would join the church of [cult filmmaker] John Waters if there was one, so it’s like, I never really consider myself anything – I don’t want to say, ‘I’m an atheist’, because I feel like a fairly spiritual person just in being on the Earth. I can’t really say what it is that I believe in. I guess I’m a bit of an agnostic, but the old religions like the original pagans and the earthly religions, I think I pull a lot from those as far as my beliefs go – that God and heaven and hell and everything is sorta right here, in front of you.”

Yeah, but does that membership to the Church Of Satan ever expire?
“No, you pay once and then that’s it, you’re in for life, and if you try and leave they kill you, so I’m actually quite terrified right now.”

Skiba began meditating after reading ‘Catching The Big Fish’, a book about the power of meditation and creativity penned by Twin Peaks co-creator David Lynch.
Says Matt: “I wanted to learn how to do it after reading the book and I called the friend of mine that recommended it to me and asked, ‘How do I learn to do this?’ He gave me a woman’s number, named Nancy Cook De Herrera; she was with The Beatles when they learnt to meditate with the Maharishi in India in the 60s. She is one of the most incredible women I have ever met. She taught me TM and my life has not been the same since.”

Aside from the “deeper connection with the universe” that this new-found practice has given him, Skiba says he now feels fitter and happier than ever before. Anxiety and stress have become almost alien concepts to the frontman, who says that now, even on a bad day, he feels “85 per cent better” after meditating. He even says it helps him dull-out pain; take a cursory scoot around YouTube and you can find footage of Matt on the tattooing lifestyle programme ‘LA Ink’ getting the Spinal Tap motif, ‘Good Evening Cleveland’, tattooed across his ribcage, all the while barely breaking into a grimace.

“Physical pain, when I’m not feeling well, I think has a lot to do with the meditation,” he says. “It’s hard to describe, but it wasn’t until I started doing it that I could talk to other meditators, and we could say it without sounding like… well, people are probably like, ‘Wow, this guy’s totally lost it’, but I’ve never been more together. Pain and stress and everything become much easier to deal with – I definitely think that has a great deal to do with why it was so painless to get tattooed.”

‘Agony And Irony’, the band’s sixth full-length, finds the members of Alkaline Trio all in their early 30s, all married, settled and contented. Spread across the US in their respective homes (Matt lives in LA, Derek in Indianapolis and vocalist / bassist Dan Andriano in St Augustine, Florida), the album arrives 10 years on from debut ‘Goddamnit’, and is billed on their press release as the record that finds the members of our favourite three reaching “the light at the end of the tunnel”. It’s an album that often screams positivity – both in musical tone and lyrically – but that’s not to say the three-piece have reinvented themselves, lost their dark edge, and started writing about kittens and bunnies. One recurring theme, for example, is suicide. In particular, the song ‘Over And Out’ provides a narrative for several different characters in their final moments of life.

“It’s about four different people. I had a family member who came back from World War II that killed himself. He slept with a .45 under his pillow for many years and then finally used it against himself. He just couldn’t deal with the horrors that he had witnessed and had a part in,” explains Skiba. “Both of my parents were in Vietnam, my wife’s father was in Vietnam. You come back from war carrying an incredible amount of baggage and guilt, I don’t even pretend to understand, but I just hear about it. There are people in my life, like my grandmother, which one of those verses in that song refers to, that went out a happy woman – she had her struggles and painful things that she went through, but she died a happy woman with a lot of people that loved her. There are references to lots of people that I know and even to myself at one point in the song. I think people are automatically assuming that our songs are very dark – there’s definitely dark subject matter, and obviously painful subject matter, throughout the record, but there’s also hope involved in there. I think this is one of our darkest records but also one of our brightest records.”

Lead single ‘Help Me’ deals quite specifically with the plight of people who feel the only way out is to end it all, and is inspired by Anton Corbijn’s Joy Division drama ‘Control’, which documents the tragic demise of the band’s frontman Ian Curtis. Such states of desperation have gripped Skiba in his current contented mindset, not least after watching the documentary ‘The Bridge’, directed by Eric Steel, which captured the suicides of 19 people – and detailed one remarkable survival story – as they jumped off San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge in 2004.

“‘The Bridge’ is such a great movie, it’s very heavy and really sad, but it’s also – for the first time that I’ve witnessed – really documented suicide and the reasons for it, in a way that… I’ve heard that people say, ‘Suicide is the easy way out’, and what a horrible thing to say. I believe that you’re not to speak ill of the dead, I just think it’s bad karma to do so, and I just think it’s even worse when someone takes their own life. To call them weak is like… you have no idea what that person has been through, how they feel inside and how desperate they must have been to do something so drastic. I had a friend of mine when I was very young take his own life; people that I love have had friends take their own lives quite deliberately, and I have had some close calls with people that are close to me that have tried. I’ve had desperate times in my life, but I don’t understand what that is like, and I sympathise with it.”

He adds: “I certainly don’t think that it is weak or cowardly, it’s something that I can’t understand or pretend to know about, but I just have sympathy for what they must have gone through – and for what their families have gone through. So I think you have to respect their decision, as painful as it may be.”
Given that we live in a country where the Daily Mail (to quote Mark Thomas: “A tree died for that shit.”) is repeatedly allowed to print scandalous articles about harmless rock bands like My Chemical Romance, randomly blaming them for teenage suicides with absolutely nothing in the way of reason, it’s perhaps important to stress that Skiba in no way believes that killing yourself is a good idea if you reach such depths.

“Absolutely not,” he says. “It definitely isn’t saying it in a positive way or giving anyone any sort of instruction, but in the record [sleevenotes] we included the 1-800 suicide hotline in the US – I think it can be reached worldwide. So if you’re feeling like you don’t have anyone to talk to and you’re feeling like you want to die then you can call this number and someone’s there to talk to you. We have that in the record just to clarify that there’s help if you need it. Don’t kill yourself, it’s a bad idea.”

Right down to the album’s title, ‘Agony And Irony’ is about conflicting concepts.
Says Matt: “The term ‘ebony and ivory’ is a reference to the piano keys, the black and the white, and there’s definitely a contrast on the record between the light and the dark side of everybody’s personality, and I think the duality of every person. I think that is kind of an ongoing theme throughout the record. It was an appropriate title.”
It’s also the ’Trio’s most carefully considered record to date. After the release of ‘Crimson’ the band left Vagrant to sign for V2 in America. When the label promptly collapsed, they were left in a short period of stasis before the very same A&R snapped them up to Epic Records (for the US release), making this the ol’ ‘major label debut’. The protracted industry shenanigans meant the band were writing for the album for a full two years – but by no means taking it easy on a big cash advance.
“We were all going broke,” bassist Dan Andriano tells Rock Sound. “I mean, if I’m being totally honest, having that much time off, it’s not like you just make money from doing nothing… But it definitely wasn’t like, ‘Oh great, we’re on Epic and they’re giving us all this money to live on whilst we write’. It wasn’t like that at all.”
The band have already gone on record as saying that they’re glad to have had the extra time that they got to make the album they really wanted to make. Given their geographical disparity, it was not only the longest writing period in the ’Trio’s history, but also a totally new experience in terms of approach, sending each other MP3s and meeting intermittently to work on new material in person and make changes.

Says drummer Derek: “A lot of these songs went through a lot of changes over the past couple of years, from where the original demo was to what was actually recorded – they had been worked over, played backwards, new choruses written, lyrics taken out. I think everyone was open to criticism and we wanted to make the best record that we could possibly make, and one of the ways that you achieve that is by just being honest with each other. We want to be honest with the listeners. We didn’t want things to be too contrived overall, so hence the reason that we spent less time recording this record than we had on previous records. It was a much more organic process of rewriting parts in the studio and, you know, I would record a drum part and then Matt would do a guitar part and then we’d move onto another song – it wasn’t a linear process at all. It was just trying to fill in each gap and trying to make the songs the best we could.”

It’s most certainly been worth the wait, and as the ’Trio set about touring the world, they do so not only with great optimism, but also as a rare entity – a long-established, famous band that apply their maturity to get better and better, rather than petering out and losing their edge. In short, these three men couldn’t be more positive and united – so much so that it seems the sunshine really is following them. The day after they leave London it’s pissing it down with rain again.

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