"My mom forced me and my sister to play piano for three years when we were like six or seven years old, maybe a little older," he says. "Yeah, I played piano before guitar. But I first started playing guitar because my mom would play acoustic and I'd try to bang around and play on her guitar a little."
As the seed of punk rock was just starting to germinate in the young Skiba, he learned that guitar lessons weren't for him either.
"I took one-and-a-half guitar lessons and my music teacher was this total dick," he recalls, "And he was trying to show me scales and all this technical stuff and I was like, 'I don't need this to play "Richard Hung Himself" by D.I.' I just wanted to learn how to play punk songs, which you can do at home and figure out on your own so I opted for that."
After flying back home to L.A. from New York where he had collaborated on an art exhibition with friend and artist Heather Gabel (who designed the Alkaline Trio heart-and-skull logo), Skiba spoke to Punknews interviewer Gen Handley about his musical roots, as well as the story behind the song "Radio" and how Dave Grohl's Studio 606 lost its virginity to the HELL.
So you're heading out on the road with New Found Glory and H2O in a couple of weeks [Editor Note: This tour is currently in progress]. That's a nice balance of hardcore and pop punk…
Yeah, hopefully people coming to shows will really dig it and for us it's gonna be a blast because all three bands are very good friends, which is how this tour happened.
We've toured with New Found and H2O on Warped Tour and stuff – we toured with them with Blink-182 way back when and we've always been really close with both bands so it's going to be a lot of fun. And yeah, a great mix of music for the fans as well.
How do you feel about all those sub-labels in punk these days? Do you think it's a bit silly? A bit tedious sometimes?
Well, I think it's oftentimes accurate even if people don't want to be pigeonholed – it is what it is, you know? I think music, unless it's really groundbreaking, is going to get filed into a category. I remember people were really bummed about the word emo, or whatever, for a long time. Whatever man... It's either good or it isn't, it's either fun or it isn't. I think we're in good company and that's all I have to say.
What category would Alkaline Trio be filed under?
You know, people ask me what kind of music it is – people that aren't familiar with the band – and I just tell them it's punk rock and roll. I tell people we're generally singers versus screamers. I personally don't like being screamed at – I like some really aggressive screamers, but I also really like singers.
It's a weird thing, and this is generally talking about people outside of punk rock, they may disagree (Alkaline Trio's) punk, but that's where it came from - we all grew up on punk rock music and is the reason we started our band and were inspired by it.
Do you remember the first time you picked up a guitar?
Yeah. I played drums and bass in bands before I played guitar and sang, but I was always writing the songs for the bands I was in. But yeah, I remember at a very young age picking out my very first drum set and I remember my first guitar – I still have it. So yeah, it's pretty amazing that something you've always done for fun becomes your career… It's definitely pretty amazing.
How old were you when you started playing music?
My mom forced me and my sister to play piano for three years when we were like six or seven years old, maybe a little older. Yeah, I played piano before guitar. But I first started playing guitar because my mom would play acoustic and I'd try to bang around and play on her guitar a little.
I took one-and-a-half guitar lessons and my music teacher was this total dick. And he was trying to show me scales and all this technical stuff and I was like, "I don't need this to play Richard Hung Himself by D.I." I just wanted to learn how to play punk songs, which you can do at home and figure out on your own so I opted for that.
So the Trio's been together for 17 years now. Is reaching 20 a big milestone for you guys?
Yeah, that would be pretty amazing. I'm fortunate to be in a band that while touring, our whole crew, we all tour as one, big, happy, crazy family. They're all of my best friends and this band is something that has become our lives. These 17 years have gone by so quickly, I can't see anything happening the next three… Knock on wood [laughs]. But it would be a big milestone because 20 years is a long time doing anything and is more amazing because it's something you love. We have amazing fans who have stuck with us and they have kids who have become fans and it's insane to watch. I don't mind getting older because I like what I do and it's amazing to do it for so long, for 20 years. Sorry, I say amazing a lot.
Would you ever do a 20-year anniversary tour for Goddamnit?
I think that we probably will… It's something we discussed. Yeah, anything is possible.
Since Goddamnitcame out, what's changed in the band?
Um, hair-wise, we've definitely changed [laughs], but really not much. Like, we've been afforded luxuries we didn't have when we began, but at the same time we didn't know such things existed. Our goals were getting instruments, writing songs, getting practice space, getting a van, finding a floor to sleep on after the show we miraculously somehow booked ourselves – every little step of way was huge for us. It was always really exciting for us and fun. Me and Dan [Andriano, bassist] always said that if it ever stopped being fun that would be when we would stop being a band.
Now, we actually stay in hotels and have a bus with a driver. And even now, every time I get on the bus, I'm like, "A tour bus? Are you fucking serious?" So it's just gotten a bit more luxurious for lack of a better word, but the passion and the fun and everything that made us want to do it in the beginning is still very much there.
You've probably been asked this a lot, but I genuinely don't know the answer. Where did the band name come from?
Well, we were big fans of the first Clash record when they were a three-piece – I love all of the Clash records, but that one especially – and there were also other bands like Jawbreaker, the Buzzcocks with three members that influenced us to play. So we knew were going to keep it a three-piece and also, when there's three of you on the road, there's less mouths to feed and everyone gets to eat more. So it was a style thing and also an economical decision to be a three-piece. We knew we wanted to be "something" Trio because there weren't any bands doing the style of music we were doing that had "trio" in their name. Then, one day, we opened up a dictionary and didn't get too far – Alkaline Trio just had a good ring to it.
You just released another the HELL EP in September (Southern Medicine), which I loved by the way. What's the relationship like between you and Atom [Willard, drummer)]?
Thanks man. Well, Atom played with Alkaline Trio for one tour. He filled in for Derek [Grant, drummer] who had previously committed to another band for a bit… The Vandals, I think? So Atom came out and filled in for like two weeks of shows and we became really great friends. I'm a huge Rocket from the Crypt fan and I'm a huge fan of their album Scream, Dracula, Scream! and the drumming on it was some of my favourite ever. So we needed a drummer and the guy that ran Vagrant Records was like, "If you could have anyone play drums in your band, who would it be?" and I was like, "Atom from Rocket" and then boom, there he was. He turned out to be an amazing guy and we've been friends ever since.
We saw each other at a show one night in Los Angeles, he was in Angels and Airwaves at the time or maybe just leaving the band, and we were like it would be fun to do a punk-rock band and put it out ourselves and do anything we wanted – no pressure. So we did the first EP [Sauve Les Requins] ourselves and we just recorded the new one with Pat Smear (The Germs, Nirvana, Foo Fighters) playing bass and some guitar on it, making it beautifully weird and noisy and awesome. Having Pat in the mix definitely raised the bar for the songwriting and for the musicianship. All of the songs on both records are just one take. We just went up to the Foo Fighters' studio and recorded for like three days and it was done.
Dave Grohl's studio, right?
Yeah, for both records. Actually the first HELL EP was the first thing ever recorded when they moved the sound board over from Sound City Studio to Studio 606. So they were like bringing in pieces of the board as we were recording that first HELL EP; they were still putting it together, but we were using like six channels on it.
But yeah, that whole Foo Fighters camp are amazing guys – I became friends with them through Atom, he's known them forever, and they're all really beautiful humans. John, who recorded and produced both of the EPs, is the house engineer at Dave's place. It's a gorgeous studio and we're very thankful they let us use it.
Anymore Sekrets albums planned?
Yeah, actually once this New Found Glory tour finishes and after Alkaline Trio goes to Europe, we're talking about recording. I like to write on the road quite a bit, I usually have quite a bit of time to kill, and hopefully I spend it doing another Sekrets record and then we'll be touring on that. I really enjoy playing music so I try and stay busy with it.
Last time we spoke, you were having some issues, self-medication and drinking, how are you doing now?
It's going good. I just had something going on my life that, some personal issues that were out of my control that I let get the best of me… Trying to escape with drugs and booze. Luckily, those issues are a thing of the past. I'm no angel, but when your friend's ODing, it's kind of wake-up call that maybe things aren't that bad and you should quit fucking around. And when things start affecting shows, that kind of says you have a real problem. [Pauses] I'll take an embarrassing night on stage over a coffin any day. Luckily, those days are behind me.
Did any of that turmoil find its way onto My Shame Is True?
Yeah, it was a very cathartic album in that the person I wrote the record to, it kind of brought us back together. So things are good and it all worked out.
Trio albums tend to be a mix of angst and romance, but I felt like My Shame is True was more romance than angst…
Yeah, I sort of wrote the whole album for one person, and in doing so it almost makes it a pseudo-concept record. That wasn't really the goal – we just wanted to make a great punk rock and roll record that people would love listening to. I just always try to write about what I know, sometimes I write from the romantic path or more into the macabre or whatever. All of our songs are veiled in metaphor and whether it's a struggle or victory, it's always about something you know.
Speaking of the macabre and metaphors, is hell an actual place for you or is it just an inspiration for your music?
I think heaven and hell exist right here… In life. Sometimes it's by those choices you make or sometimes it's out of your control – you get dealt different hands or what some call an act of God. I think the best you can do is you make good decisions, try to be a good person, treat people the way you want to be treated and I think generally then good things will happen to you. I think hell is just living a life of misery.
Do I think there's a place after you die that exists for punishment? No, I think that's fucking ridiculous. But, I do think heaven and hell, good and evil, the devil… It's in every one of us. [Pauses] I think there are higher energies we don't know about, for sure. I don't know anything, I don't know fucking shit, but I don't think we can be defined that easily by heaven and hell and the devil and God – I think those are just archetypes, dualities that exist in all of us.
I have a lot of favorite Trio songs and one of them, especially lyrically, is "Radio." Where did the idea for that song come from?
The line, "shaking like a dog shitting razor blades" was not something I came up with, I wish I could take credit for it, but it was something people would say in Vietnam when they were being shelled or under fire. You know when people would get shell-shocked? Like that guy frozen in fear, like quivering, while people are ducking for cover or whatever. It might even go back before Vietnam, but "shaking like a dog shitting razorblades" was a term for shell shock.
Both of my parents are Vietnam veterans and my friend Dave, his father's a retired army colonial – he was in Vietnam – and he was telling us some war stories when I was up visiting them, years ago. He said that wherever the fuck they were, they were getting shot at and his buddy was shaking like a dog shitting razor blades so I wrote that down and used it.
[Laughs] But the story also goes that you hope somebody's listening to your radio and it's plugged in next to the bathtub so that it electrocutes them. It never goes as far to say that I hope it happens – it's just there, next to the water you're in. So not quite like wishing death upon somebody, but maybe thinking about it a little bit.
In our past conversations you mentioned possibly doing writing in other areas, like fiction. Are you still thinking about that?
I'm actually working on a screenplay right now - it's based on true events. It's based on a memoir actually… A friend of mine got the film rights and I have a friend in New York who's going to be directing – this thing is almost done. So basically I'm rewriting this very true, very fucked up story for the screen. I think it's a good way to start and learn the process and I've never done this before. Writing for the screen, there's a lot of things that need to be changed, a lot of steps that need to be filled in. There is a creative aspect to it, but it's not as daunting as taking this great idea I had in my head and trying to sell it to people. This story I'm working on is great and it's like the stranger-than-fiction thing. You can't make this shit up, even if you tried… It's fucking weird. It's been a lot of fun.
I enjoy just writing and I'm sure eventually… I always think of how great it would feel to publish a book. I have friends who are authors, or novelists as they prefer to be called, and I think it would be amazing if I could hone that skill.
Usually I try not to force things. If the time came and there was a strong idea, I'd try to write it down and put it out.
Yeah, there's usually a strong narrative in your songs…
I like to try and tell a story. So I hope storytelling is something that comes through in the songs and why not do it in a more literal sense. But yeah, I hope people hear a story in my songs.