Alkaline Trio: 18 Years, Eight Albums, Four Nights, and a Fuckton of Heart Skull Tattoos
A look at the band's long career through four sold out nights in New York.
A 36-year-old man who either has the best luck in the world or who had done a bit of internet stalking approached three men hanging out on a Brooklyn street one afternoon. They motioned towards the Alkaline Trio heart skull logo on the chest of his black hoodie and gave him a nod of solidarity. There was a hint of embarrassment on his face because the men nodding were Matt Skiba, Dan Andriano, and Derek Grant, collectively known as Alkaline Trio. “My name’s Eric. I came all the way from Austin to see you this week,” he told them. Eric grabbed a photo with the guys, told them he was excited for that night’s show, and walked off. “We slipped that guy 50 bucks to do that,” Andriano deadpanned. “Did it make us look cool?”
The Trio was in town for Past Live, a run of four dates at Music Hall of Williamsburg where the long-running band would play all eight of their albums in full. The band, now in its eighteenth year, had brought the residency tour to Los Angeles, their hometown of Chicago, and now New York. “Everyone was like, ‘Why didn't you wait until 20 years?’” Skiba explained to me. “Well, because then we’d have nine records. I like even numbers. Odd numbers make me fucking crazy.” Eighteen years does seem like a fairly odd and arbitrary number to celebrate, but then again, Alkaline Trio is a fairly odd band.
In a sea of punk look-alikes in the late 90s and early 2000s, ALK3 managed to cut themselves from a unique enough black cloth to stand out, filling the lyrical poeticism void left after Jawbreaker’s break-up, combined with the macabre imagery originally introduced into punk rock by The Misfits (and which earned the band the “goth” label that, for better or worse, would follow them around for years to come) and it was all wrapped up by the simple-chorded punk rock formula pulled straight from the golden era of Lookout Records. They walked the fringes of various genres to become famous as the most emo pop-punk band. Or the most pop-punk emo band, depending on how you look at it.
“It’s a cult thing and I think that’s what’s attractive about it and what’s kept the band relevant for so long,” said Skiba of his fanbase. “We never became a household name but are just big enough that we make a killer living off of it, something we’d never imagined and for this long. The fact that it’s never become commercially viable has kept it special.”
Live photos by Rebecca Reed
When asked what made the band catch on among fans so intimately early on, Andriano, without hesitation, cites Skiba’s lyrics. And it’s hard to argue with that. For years, ALK3 dominated the AIM away message game among angsty young punks, with Skiba’s clever metaphors and turns of phrase providing the feels. Lyrics like “Crack my head open on your kitchen floor, prove to you that I have brains” became the go-to heart-on-sleeve anthems that spoke to a generation of depressives, or at very least, the broken-hearted. What fans might not realize was that many of the beloved lyrics came about purely serendipitously. “Like that lyric, for example, there was something that happened with me and an ex-girlfriend and our kitchen floor,” said Skiba. “There are a lot of literal references that come off as metaphor that weren’t intentional.” But intentional or not, the band caught on. And they caught on for a long time.
Being a band for nearly two decades is tough, though. And for a beloved band, it’s even tougher, with the added elements of expectations and fans’ preferences. “After eight records, inevitably, there are gonna be some that people like more than others,” says Andriano. “We’re doing [Past Live] in a way that everybody gets to hear something they like and that they’re excited about.” And so, the band was vague about which albums would be played each night, with tickets selling out without the lineups even being announced. It was a crapshoot that forced many fans to attend multiple nights, some attending all four.
On Past Live, Alkaline Trio swung their discography across the week like a pendulum, with the first night dedicated to their first and eighth albums, the next night featuring their second and seventh, then third and sixth, and finally winding down to their fourth and fifth.
Past Live would cover it all—18 years, eight albums, 93 songs, four nights, and a fuckton of heart skull tattoos.
Night One: My Shame Is True and Goddamnit
Opening the first of four nights with the band’s most recent album, My Shame Is True, was a difficult way to kick off the celebration of the band’s catalog—for both the audience and the band. This was a post-break-up album that Skiba tells me he wrote for an ex who he was trying to win back. She is pictured riding a motorcycle on the album’s cover. The two remain friends and exchanged messages earlier in the day. So it’s a bit of an emotionally draining album for him to perform. And for the audience, it wasn’t exactly an enthusiastic reception, being an album that’s only been out for a year. It wasn’t boredom, but more of a, let’s say, quiet anticipation. They treated it with the polite reverence an opening band would get. Or picture the crowd vibe when a headliner tries out a new song for the first time—but for 40 straight minutes.
Really though, the only thing preventing My Shame Is True from having a raucous crowd reaction is time. Goddamnit, an album fans have had almost two decades to internalize, was minutes away from setting the room into a blur of stagedivers and fingerpointing. Had My Shame Is True been released in 1999, the audience would be bouncing off the walls for it as well. But because we have a tendency to glorify the past, preferring the music we grew up with, the audience patiently waited for Goddamnit to start.
Immediately following their latest record with their first and much beloved record, Goddamnit, created even more of a disparity in the crowd. “It’s like watching Wilco and Minor Threat,” laughed Skiba, who wrote Goddamnit when he was barely in his 20s. “Not saying the Wilco part of the set is bad. People sing along, but when we break into those old songs that I at one point found kind of cringeworthy, people go fucking batshit. So there’s something to that.”
Alkaline Trio barely even let the last chord on My Shame Is True fully ring out before kicking off “Cringe,” the first song on Goddamnit and the crowd immediately and predictably went from zero to 60, wide-eyed, knee-deep in well, not surprise, but excitement. ”It’s the easiest fucking record to play. And people go the craziest for it,” Skiba told me. “It’s just a walk in the park. That record is the reason it all happened.”
As an encore, the band played “Warbrain,” a b-side that originally appeared on the Rock Against Bush compilation, which was unsuccessful in getting George W. Bush out of office, resulting in four more years of sending American soldiers off to pointlessly die in foreign countries, but hey, at least we got this song out of it.
Night Two: This Addiction and Maybe I’ll Catch Fire
Like the previous night, the packed house politely nodded along to the opening album, This Addiction, on night two without raising the energy level too high. There was some light moshing—maybe a courtesy mosh, and a few people singing along here and there. But also like the previous night, the second album stole the show. As This Addiction concluded, Skiba, who knew exactly what people paid money for, asked the audience, “You guys wanna hear an older album?” which was of course met with people audibly shitting themselves. “We made this album about 15 years ago for maybe a thousand bucks. It's called Maybe I’ll Catch Fire.”
As the band broke into the first song, “Keep ‘Em Coming,” the stagedivers immediately rushed the stage, as they are wont to do. A lot has been made lately about how stagediving is the last resort of the simpleton, but what often gets forgotten is that the pre-dive dance people do on stage is the saddest display of the human body that Earth has to offer. Many skanked and convulse-danced their way across the stage before hurling themselves or getting thrown off. One guy made a point of showing his heart skull tattoo off to the audience. In fairness to him, it is probably the only one like it in the world. When do you ever see ALK3 tattoos at punk shows? Never. Not once.
The set ended with the album’s closer “Radio,” a fan favorite due to what is arguably the band’s most famous lyric: “Shaking like a dog shitting razor blades.” It’s another lyric that accidentally stuck. “I didn’t make that up,” explained Skiba, whose parents are both veterans. “A friend of mine was telling ‘nam stories and said that in passing—when a GI is shellshocked and just shaking. So that was Vietnam slang I’d never heard. Any of those lyrics that are embarrassing or borderline potty humor... I’d write some metaphor that I didn’t think was very good but just stuck. And people fucking loved it for some reason.”
After an encore of “My Friend Peter,” fans took to the bar downstairs to exchange punk rock war stories, most of which beginning with “I remember seeing Alkaline Trio in 1998 in a tiiiiny bar that…”
Night Three: Agony & Irony and From Here to Infirmary
“I don’t know if it came across on the first two nights,” Skiba said as he sat on the leather couch in the band’s dressing room and laced up his shoes for the third night’s performance, “but I was fucking stressed out.”
Skiba—as many, many (many) of my female friends will tell you—looks great. The 38-year-old singer/guitarist had something of a dark post-divorce period a few years back where he allowed substances to drag him down. And that’s not even mentioning his side project, Matt Skiba and the Sekrets, where he dressed like—as I affectionately describe it—goth Pocahontas. Or The Cereal Killers, the pop-punk for children project he started with Mark Hoppus for some reason. But chalk it up to sobriety, his vegetarian diet, or his meditation habits—whatever it is, he now seems clearer and more focused than ever and hardly even broke a sweat playing back-to-back albums. Part of Skiba’s cult appeal stems from his penchant for dark lyrics creating a persona as a tortured artist, but fans might be surprised to learn how warm and welcoming he comes off in person. He might not wear the eyeliner anymore, but his black fingernails and his hair’s naturally forming devilock still give him that trademark goth-hunk appeal.
Skiba was a bit apprehensive about playing Agony & Irony that night. “It’s not that I dislike the record, it’s just really fucking hard to remember,” he tells me. “There’s weird bridges, It’s a funky record.” Andriano, on the other hand, notes that he loves playing it. “It’s pretty clear to me through social media that Agony & Irony is everyone’s least favorite,” he says. “But it’s probably my favorite.”
After playing Agony & Irony “without fucking up too many times,” Skiba told the audience, “We did it!. And now we party.” Once again, he knew what the crowd was waiting to see and jumped into From Here to Infirmary.
Infirmary is a fan favorite and marked a shift in ALK3’s DNA in 2001. Andriano’s voice became more commonplace than on the band’s first two albums. The bassist stepped up as a songwriter as well, advancing the band from the spooky foundation Skiba’s lyrics had built their career on to more complex themes and song structures. His singing ability improved dramatically too. “Going back to learn the songs for this tour was really hard for me, because it’s just so bad,” he said of his vocal work on the band’s first record. “Now, I can do them the way they should’ve been done. I can do harmonies instead of you know, screaming behind Matt for no reason at weird times.”
And for an encore, they did “Hell Yes.”
Night Four: Crimson and Good Mourning
The band started this night’s set the same way they started the previous three: by walking on stage to Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle,” whose lyrics rang out: “If I could save time in a bottle/ The first thing that I'd like to do/ Is to save every day till eternity passes away/ Just to spend them with you.” [Insert your own desperate grasp at interpreting the symbolism behind those words in relation to the band’s career here.]
Crimson and Good Mourning, Alkaline Trio’s fourth and fifth LPs, represent the meaty middle of the band’s catalog, and a particularly meaningful period for drummer Derek Grant who joined the band around this time, making his debut on Good Mourning. “I didn’t know how to interject my own personality in it,” he remembered. “I knew I was gonna be the new guy that came in and fucked it up. People would think, ‘Now they’re wearing makeup and they’re all fucking goth because of this dude.’” (This prompted Andriano to proudly remind everyone that he “never wore makeup.”) But by the 2005 release of Crimson, Grant finally felt officially at home in Alkaline Trio and now it’s hard to imagine the band without him. One of the more personal moments of the week came in night three when he took the microphone before the band’s encore and had the audience wish his wife, who was standing up in the balcony, a happy birthday.
After finishing Good Mourning, the final album of the four-night run, the band had one more in 'em. Barely. They forewent the rigmarole that is the pointless encore tradition and instead of momentarily leaving the stage only to resurface minutes later, they simply instructed the audience to close their eyes and pretend they’d left the stage. When their eyes opened, the band was playing “‘97,” the first song they ever wrote and a proper, full-circle send off to nearly two decades of Alkaline Trio.
“Thank you,” Skiba told the audience as they finished. “From the bottom of my wretched little heart.”
As people cleared out, some grabbing one more drink, I spotted Eric, the Texan who happened to run into Alkaline Trio a few days prior. I told him to level with me: Was that really an extremely fortunate chance run-in with the band or had he tracked their whereabouts via Instagram? “Totally random!” he said. “I turned a corner and there they were. I don’t even know Instagram.” And I believed him. “Well did you get your money’s worth?” I asked. “Hell yeah!” he said. “I’d have paid double. But don’t tell anyone.”
Remember when Dan Ozzi said he loved you well, forget it, he takes it back. Follow him on Twitter - @danozzi