Thursday, June 7, 2001
Being part of an almost-famous punk rock group is no easy task, even for bands looking to venture into the limelight.
As Alkaline Trio singer/guitarist Matt Skiba sits in his Berkeley, Calif., apartment staring at his image in the current issue of Rolling Stone, he shudders as he ponders the ramifications of mainstream success.
"It's little bit scary," he says. "A lot of it's scary."
Formed in Chicago in the mid-'90s, Alkaline Trio (currently Skiba, bassist Daniel Andriano and drummer Mike Felumlee) spent its infancy playing Windy City dives and house parties. The band inked a deal with Asian Man Records and quickly found an audience through early works like "For Your Lungs Only" and "Goddamnit."
"It's really co-operative," Skiba says of the Chicago music scene. "Everyone's really supportive of each other's bands. Everyone goes out and hangs out. It's a really cool community. As far as bands go and the shows, the Chicago punk scene is definitely really thriving. It's just a little less violent, now. There was a super, mega-huge skinhead scene in Chicago over the years and it was hard to go to shows, especially when you were 13-years-old. I saw some people get gnarled at Naked Raygun shows."
In 1999, Alkaline has issued its second full-length, "Maybe I'll Catch Fire," and spent most of the next 18 months on the road. Fortunately, its shows were relatively injury-free affairs, though the band didn't go out of its way to discourage violence. In fact, it took the opposite approach.
"We're always trying to get everyone to fight," Skiba laughs. "And nobody wants to listen to us. We're like, 'What the (expletive)! Why isn't anyone beating any (expletive) ass!' So everyone kind of looks at us funny. We're not pulling any Ian McKaye crap or anything."
Besides, the stigma associated with punk shows and mosh pits has all but gone away according to Skiba.
"Once kids started bringing guns to school, the rock thing was no longer a problem," he says.
Proving winter cruel
The trio spent two weeks in a rural Minnesota studio last winter recording and mixing its latest effort, the Vagrant Records-issued "From Here To Infirmary." For Skiba, it was about a week and a half too much.
"I need the city near me," he says. "I need culture and to be able to get away from the studio, and there it was impossible to do. So it was a little bit intense for me because I don't like being secluded. I feel like there's no escape or something."
Rural hell or not, the finished product seems like a can't-miss, blending the intelligent pop sensibilities of Elvis Costello with the raw power of the Stooges and production that makes "The Wall" sound like "Bleach." Chock full of snappy Hubba-Bubba punk and supercharged rock, "Infirmary" sounds radio-ready and poised for hugeness. That the effort was mixed by Jerry Finn ï¿½ producer of punk chart-toppers by Rancid, Blink 182 and others ï¿½ isn't hurting the album's chances either. In fact, Finn passed a copy on to his Blink 182 buds and before you know it, Alkaline Trio was tapped to open for the superstar act on part of this summer's tour.
"I guess they really liked our band so they asked us to go on tour with them, and we said absolutely," Skiba says. "You don't get much bigger gigs than that. It's like 30,000 people every night, it should be interesting. I've never done it before; none of us have."
Alkaline also opened for the platinum punks on a short stint in April, playing 3,000-seaters to warm up for the larger arena tour in the summer. So far the members of Blink are taking their success in stride, according to Skiba, who witnessed firsthand the trials and tribulations of being embraced by the TRL generation.
"They seem to be pretty level-headed about it, pretty down-to-earth guys," he says. "It's one of those things where you either sink or swim. They got really huge really fast; they're humongous superstars. They've kind of given their lives away in a way. They can't go get their own groceries anymore. They have people at their homes, scaling the back fences. It's weird to see it ï¿½ these kids at the shows just freaking out, girls screaming and crying, trying to rip their clothes off. But they seem to be happy and having a good time, so good for them."
Would Skiba ever want to get to the point where he couldn't purchase produce in public?
"I don't know," he says. "The perverted curiosity in me says yes but logically no. I like being able to walk down the street and not have people attack me."
Skiba finds it amusing that punk has become so popular, given its decidedly non-mainstream roots.
"Punk has become cool," he laughs. "I never thought I would see the day. The thing I used to get beat up for is now commendable."
Perhaps more ironic that the same people that used to beat Skiba up might be in the audience this summer.
"I think most of the people that used to beat me up are in prison right now," he says. "They don't get to hear Blink 182 because they're behind bars."
Currently, Skiba and company have relocated to Berkeley, Calif., giving the band an opportunity to make further inroads into the land of mainstream punk. Though Skiba has nothing but good things to say about life out west, it didn't take him long to figure out that San Francisco and Chicago offer two distinctly different musical environments.
"People out here are a little more competitive as far as people in bands or whatever," he says. "It's not like anyone beating each other up over it, but I sense a little bit of animosity between people in bands. All the old Lookout (Records) stuff is kind of what I grew up with. They're my neighbors, so I go over and help out at the label."
Alkaline Trio's relationship with Lookout seems to be warming. The band just issued a 7" under the label and future works are being planned.
"We'll probably continue to do stuff with them," Skiba explains. "Our next couple of records for sure will be on Vagrant, but you never know. Never say never. But we're stoked (about Vagrant). We're gonna be with Vagrant probably beyond three records if we're still a band."
Does Skiba seriously think Alkaline Trio won't be around three albums from now?
"I can't predict the future," he muses. "A piano could fall on my head tomorrow or something."