This past May, Alkaline Trio/TheHELL singer and guitarist Matt Skiba released Babylon, an album under his most recent (and definitely not last) artistic moniker of Matt Skiba and the Sekrets. While described as a solo project, Skiba's joined by a very notable backing band that includes Hunter Burgan from AFI on bass and Jarrod Alexander from My Chemical Romance on drums.
At the time of this interview, a haggard-sounding, but talkative Skiba was slowly recovering from a late show the night before, at Punk Rock Bowling in Las Vegas where he was joined on stage by Laura Grace of Against Me!
From his home in Los Angeles (and two weeks before the infamous Chicago show), Skiba openly spoke to Punknews interviewer Gen Handley about some recent turbulence in his life, what the idea of hell means to him and what he sees on his tombstone when death comes a'knocking.
How was Punk Rock Bowling?
Great times. I did an acoustic show up there. It was billed as Matt Skiba and Friends and luckily Against Me! was in town opening for The Cult, so I wrangled Laura from Against Me! and she made a debut in front of the punk kids in downtown Vegas - she's doing really, really good. It was one of the most amazing fucking shows I've ever been to - it was really something else.
And aside from that, we partied and had fun. I'm usually not a Vegas guy, but when you have all your friends there and the punks take over Vegas, it's a horse of a different colour - and the horse is usually blue or green (laughs).
I'm really enjoying Babylon. That album is my running/drinking music right now.
Great. That's what it's there for - working out and getting wasted to.
Is this album Matt Skiba in a nutshell?
Nobody's asked me that before, but it's a really good question. You know, Alkaline Trio's me, Dan (Andriano) and Derek (Grant) and for the Sekrets, I brought in some serious ringers to play on it (Hunter Burgan, Jarrod Alexander). But yeah, if I were just making rock records, (Babylon) is what they would sound like.
It's cool with the Trio because we take simple ideas - Dan will bring his idea, Derek will bring his idea or I'll bring my idea and we'll rip it apart, then rebuild it into something that we all have an influence on. With the Sekrets, I didn't do that. I made all of the decisions as far as the song writing goes. So yeah, it's definitely a big representation of my influences and the way I would write a song without any help.
There are a number of songs from your last solo album, Demos, that appeared on the Sekrets album. Was Demos the literal demos for Babylon?
Yeah, in a way. It's a funny question and I want to come up with some profound answer, but I don't have one. (Demos) started when we were going on Warped Tour and I was going through a really expensive, painful divorce and I just did it all on my laptop - it was something for me and the fans. I've always felt this way, especially since we started doing studio work, that it would be cool to hear the infant stages of a song. Even as unlistenable as they may seem, you see where they start.
So I needed to make some money, I had all of these demos and Mike (Park) from Asian Man (Records) said, "Why don't we do a demos record?" It was really easy to do and someone from Asian Man did the artwork. There's people who think that it sucks and in a way, sonically, it sounds terrible, but if you're die-hard, it's kind of a cool thing to have, I think.
I liked the grittiness of that record and how bare bones it was…
Right on - thank you. Obviously I did it really quickly and as shitty as it may sound, one thing that I can say about it is that it's honest - I did it in my living room with a set of headphones and a MacBook.
The first artwork I ever saw for the Sekrets album was of you wearing that crazy headdress. Where did the inspiration for that come from?
I love playing in Alkaline Trio and when we initially started the band, we kind of had these uniforms. If you remember, we wore these funerary black suits with red ties. People were saying, "Oh they're Satanists" and whatever. But we were really into The Damned, primarily (lead singer) Dave Vanian, and we really liked these bands that had the uniforms - Rocket from the Crypt being one of them and even Social Distortion. It's like giving a band an identity and brand, having the logo and the uniform. Over the years, I think the three of us went in different directions aesthetically and Derek was having trouble playing in a suit and Dan was sick of doing it and I wasn't into it either. Green Day and My Chem(ical Romance) are really good friends of ours and are a couple of our favourite bands, but they started doing something similar so we thought, "They're getting really big and people are going to look at us and think we're taking it from them." So we needed to do something new and this got diluted into us just being our own person on stage, which I think some people appreciated - they were over the whole uniform thing.
When I did the Sekrets, I was reading a book called Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, a really awesome book, and I was watching a lot of footage of Bowie as Ziggy and of Adam Ant. When you put something like that on, as daunting as it may seem, it's also somewhat empowering. So yeah, I wanted to do something that was different and weird and something people weren't expecting. I got really into the Southern Gothic movement and reading Blood Meridian and got really into feathers and war paint. Back in the day, Native Americans would scalp the Dutch and the English, and they would take their coats and make them their own - they'd hang bones on the coats. So the look has this historic slash artistic influence-vibe to it.
It's absolutely eye-catching…
Yeah, that was the point. Even if people think it looks bizarre or silly or whatever, I wanted to do something that they would either love or hate. I think we pulled it off.
Do you find some solace in the bizarre and weird?
Absolutely. I find boredom in the normal - there's absolute boredom in normality. That's the reason why I got turned onto punk rock - it was something that made people somewhat uncomfortable and caught people's attention. I don't see that so much anymore. But I also don't go into coffee shops with my chest popped out, trying to get attention. In my normal life, with all of my tattoos and how I dress in a lot of black, I get people's attention anyway.
After not only reading the lyrics off Babylon, but just paying attention to all of your lyrics over the years, it seems like you've been through your fair share of heartache. In particular, there's a common trend to equate hell with heartache. Can you talk about that?
Usually I try to equate the archetype. I don't know where your beliefs lay, but to me, the Bible and heaven and hell is all a metaphor. You do bad things, bad things are going to happen to you and you're going to live a wretched life. You try to be the best man or the best woman that you can and your life becomes heavenly.
There are lines in Trio songs like, "I was bored of heaven" and lines that usually equate hell with a party. When I'm talking about heartache or if I'm in a rough place, whether it be losing a friend or losing a friend in a relationship, there are times when hell comes into play. I try to steer away from the whole cliché of I'm-in-hell-without-you-vibe, but I'm not impervious to it.
Do you think you've experienced more heartache than the average person?
I can't say and I think it's unfair to say that - it's all relative and I just try to put things into perspective. When I'm in my darkest hour, I think about people whogot that phone call after 9-11 and it's almost like clockwork that when I'm really down, somebody in a wheelchair comes rolling by and it reminds me that I have really good problems.
I think we all have heartache. Something that's really important to me is at shows when people come up to me and say, "You've gotten me through the worst times of my life" or I meet soldiers that have gotten back from Afghanistan doing God-knows-what, telling us that our music helped them get through something like that. Hearing those stories takes the sting out of my heartache quite a bit.
Have you always worn your heart on your sleeve? Even as a kid?
Yeah I have, no matter what. Whether it's a matter of the heart or it's a matter of anger or an issue with someone, I'm proud to say that I don't pull punches. If I have a problem, I tell people. If something hurts, I talk about it or I sing about it - it's cathartic. I've always been like that.
Where do you think that comes from?
I think it comes from me being really bad at hiding my emotions. It really does. Like, I'm not going to be able to pull this off anyways so sometimes I can come off as a complete dick when something's bothering me. Being passive aggressive's one of my pet peeves. If you're heartbroken and walking around pouting with a sad look on your face, for me, that's pathetic and I don't wear it well.
Of all of the projects you're involved with - The Hell, the Sekrets and Alkaline Trio - what do you get from each band that's unique to each one?
Well, I never want to do the same thing twice. When I write a song, it's still my voice, it's still my cadence, it's still in the way I approach song writing, so there's this underlying threat of continuity and I try to approach it in different ways. With The Hell, we recorded that record in three days. With the Trio, we've taken three months to make a record. So it's case-sensitive. Rule number one is that you never want to make the same record twice.
Where does that intense work ethic come from?
I think it mostly comes from my father. He was the kind of guy, growing up, that was busy with work, but whenever he wasn't at work he had to be doing something - he did a lot of gardening. He couldn't sit still and I kind of inherited that. Luckily, I didn't have to take up gardening, although I'd probably be really good at it. He just couldn't sit there and do nothing. He doesn't watch TV and nor do I. I might zone out to Conan or Family Guy or whatever, but I'm more of a movie guy.
I don't spend more than an hour writing a song. I may come back and do lyrics, and I don't mean to gloat, but songwriting comes easy to me. Whether the song is good or not, it's fun to dig. It's something I've always done and always will. If I was an investment banker and had a jobby job, I would still come home every night and play guitar. Luckily, I'm able to play music as a career and given that gift and opportunity, I feel like it would go to waste if I wasn't spending most of my time doing it.
Speaking of the writing, how do you document all those ideas? Do you carry around a notebook?
Well, I have a notebook where I jot ideas down. I'm not very computer-savvy or technologically inclined, but I usually use TextEdit if an idea pops in my head and I'm really forgetful so I have files and files of a line from a song or an idea for a song that can quite possibly pop out of my head at any second. I also have a journal that I carry with me for that purpose. I use my laptop for my all demos and use the internal mic just to get a sketch down, which isn't useable most of the time, but at least it's there.
Do you remember what you were doing or where you were when you wrote your songs?
There are certain songs that I remember exactly where I was and what inspired it. The first song that comes to mind is an Alkaline Trio song call "Ninety-Seven" and I remember I was a bike messenger for four years in Chicago and in 1996 I got arrested. I was sitting on the front steps of some office building and I had my little notebook with me and just started writing down the words of "Ninety-Seven." If I sat long and hard enough, I could think the different places and times and reasons why the songs were inspired. Every song has a meaning. Sometimes I use some incorrect English to make things rhyme - I haven't done that in years and I've written some stuff that's pretty cringe-worthy - but every song is a story and is about something that really happened.
Is it true that Alkaline Trio will be recording in the fall?
That is true. I don't have any song names yet, but we all are writing now and will try to get going in the fall.
From three separate parts of the country…
Yeah. I'm in LA, Derek's in Minnesota and Danny's in Florida. Luckily we have computers and we just send each other ideas and we start to get a rhythm for what kind of record it'll be. There's some slower numbers on it, but for This Addiction we went back to our roots in the sense of how we made that record - if it took longer than half an hour to write the song then we scrapped it. We approached the writing thinking, "Nobody's going to hear this." That's how we made Goddamit. and I think that's a lot of people's favourite Trio record.
This time around, I'm not sure what we're going to do. With Crimson, we wanted to do a more grandiose rock record. Some people were bummed about that, but it's still comes from the core, it's still us. We just take different approaches to production and it depends on who we do the record with as well.
What is the core of the Alkaline Trio?
Well, me and Dan always said to each other that if it stops being fun, we would quit. It's been 15 years and it hasn't stopped being fun. I see bands that get together, that just go through the motions and it's cheating people, I think. For us, and I can't speak for anybody else, it has to be fun and it has to be honest. That's our core, that's our starting point.
When I spoke to Dan last year, he said he hoped that the Trio hadn't hit its creative peak yet. Do you think you have?
I certainly haven't. Nothing against Dan, but I don't think so at all. I think we inspire each other and that's the glue of the band. I'll always write songs, whether they're good or not, and as long you love it and as long as it's fun, I don't think there is a peak.
We do have somewhat of a box we need to stay in because people who like our band, like it for a certain reason and we can't just go Mach three on it and make a jazz record - even if that's what we want to do. I feel like we can do what we want to do, creatively, but we still have to be Alkaline Trio. There's no doubt in my mind that we still have a lot of good songs to write.
I follow you on Twitter and see you posting on there quite regularly. Is it important for you to have that online connection with fans and other artists?
Most of my tweets are about a show or something that's going to happen last minute or if a record comes out, I use it for self-promotion - in this day and age, I don't know where people are looking for new albums. Twitter for me is fun, it's more of a platform for comedy. I don't take myself seriously and I'm never like, "These avocados are so fresh" or whatever (laughs) - I at least shoot for something that's funny or mildly offensive. But yeah, it's about staying connected with the fans and people who follow me.
Last week, I read one your tweets in that you were apologizing to Chuck Ragan about something that happened during Revival Tour in LA. What happened?
Well, I don't quite remember. This is far from any excuse and I take full responsibility for it, but I went through a divorce for several years that drained me of many things - emotionally and monetarily. I also went through a break-up after two years, post-marriage obviously, and I went into a really dark place where I was drinking a lot of whiskey and taking Xanax and doing a lot of bullshit - just self-medicating, really. Chuck called me the morning of the show and I had just broken up with my girlfriend the night before. I wasn't sleeping and was doing bad things to myself - dangerous things. I wasn't trying kill myself or anything like that, but I pussed out and was taking all this shit to make myself feel better. So by the time I made it to the show, I was so out of my tree that I didn't know what the fuck I was doing.
What Chuck and the Revival Tour does is something I respect immensely and I went up there and made a mockery of it, unintentionally. Some people thought it was funny, but Chuck was really bummed and that's all I really cared about. All the guys on that tour work their asses off and I came in like this wasted tornado. I really felt like an asshole. It wasn't my show and it's out of character for me to do something like that. I had started doing that more and more, showing up and inadvertently trying to steal the show or acting like a total, complete asshole and blacking out. Like, at the Asian Man Records show, I got up on stage and was saying offensive things to people. Finally, I was like, "Ok, enough of this bullshit. Deal with the pain and get through it." And that's where I'm at now.
The Revival Tour was the breaking point for me to be like, "Get your shit together, you're 36 years old and nobody appreciates this"-especially the people who I really love and care about. I really want them to have the best show they can have and not get someone like me to come in and lay waste to it in a bad way. It was shitty form. It felt better to apologize for it and own it a couple of weeks later so it wasn't just a shame-over from drinking too much the night before. I sobered up and really thought about it and that's when I made the apology because it was sincere.
You're ok now?
I'm doing better now, yeah. I'm doing much better.
Did you do doing a lot writing to help get through it?
That's the thing too - while I was busy taking drugs and drinking, I could have been writing. When I'm not it haze of drugs, the songs just pour out of me. Drugs slowly take your life and your brain turns to mush and I can't afford that. I owe it to the people that love our band to be on point - at least somewhat. When I party, I want it to be a celebration not escapism.
Are you still meditating a lot?
Yeah I am. Even through all of that, believe it or not, I was still meditating at least once a day and it still makes the biggest difference in the world.
After the last time we spoke, I picked up Catching the Big Fish (by David Lynch), which you recommended. It's a really great book.
I'm glad you picked it up - that's the book that got me into transcendental meditation. Before, I always thought meditation was some hippy-cult thing, but David Lynch is one of my heroes and he's been mediating for over 30 years - he did it when he made Blue Velvet. I love meditating, but it's not going to make you start singing about the sun and the flowers, which I love, but there's no room for that in Alkaline Trio (laughs). If you have an edge, it sharpens it and it helps you find your best, when you're writing or doing anything. It's not that I've attained that, but I'm working towards it.
You had mentioned that meditation has allowed you to become less fearful of death. How has your relationship with death evolved over the years? Has it become almost a joke?
I wouldn't call it a joke at all, but it's definitely not something I'm afraid of. It's sort of like, and I'll probably offend some people by saying this and I have no problem with people's faith, but religion is a business and I think they make much of their money off people who live lives that they are not content with and who hope for something better when they die. Religion sells people that idea. Meditation has taught me that heaven and hell is right here and everything that you do can outlive you - regardless if it's good or bad. There's far worse things in this life that can happen to you than death. Living a wretched life, living an unhappy existence - that's hell to me. I'm blessed to say that I've had a really good run and I hope to continue to.When I die, I don't want to have any regrets and I want to go out knowing I lived a fruitful life.
When you do go out, what do you hope your loved ones engrave on your tombstone?
Well first of all, I think it's up to me what goes on there. Nothing against anyone and I don't speak ill of the dead, but we've already taken up enough space as human beings on this planet so I'd like to be cremated and dropped into the ocean.
But it's a good question. I guess I'd want it to say, "Here lies Matt Skiba. If you see him, then shoot him" because I guarantee there'll be a zombie attack at some point.
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