Matt Skiba leads us through his life as the vocalist of Alkaline Trio and his loves and losses that went into the creation of their latest album.
While Australia battens down the hatches in the midst of torrential rain, Mike Skiba was enjoy his last sprinkling of California sunshine before heading back out on tour. It’s not strange for interviews to start on the lighter side of things like the weather, but it is unusual for someone to tell you that they’ve been following your weather reports from the other side of the world. Especially when it’s from the vocalist of a punk rock band who formed in Middle America. “I read your surf reports all the time,” admits Skiba, who took up surfing when he moved to Los Angeles around 10 years ago and while he says he’s still not very good, he “god darn” tries.
This serenity found in a hectic life, lived mostly on the road, is something Skiba is reluctant to let go of. “I think the same that can be said for anyone. Anybody that surfs will feel better when they hit the water,” he says.
With My Shame Is Truth released earlier this year, Matt Skiba will soon be travelling and this calmness will be far behind him, much like the experience of making the album itself. It’s no secret that a great deal of Alkaline Trio’s work comes from a deeply personal place, based around their views, experiences and the world itself. For the eighth studio album, many of the experiences emoted come from the cathartic experience of letting go of a painful break up.
While Skiba says that, to him, it is almost cheating when he writes about something that is so personal that has happened to him, he also believes the “challenge is turning it into a story without the ‘poor me’ feel. Instead, it should be powerful, but also truthful.” The result of writing about his “gnarly breakup” is an album lacking any of the Taylor Swift moments or sentimentality that comes across as “corny or trite”. The rough, raw feeling comes through, resulting in an album that people can apply to their own lives and experiences, because let’s face it, everyone goes through heartbreak and loss. What Skiba hopes is that listeners “can make their own story about it” and use it to get through their own life events.
Skiba has always found a way to focus the negatives of life into positives. He is undeniably a workaholic. Aside from the band he helped form in 1996, he has launched various solo projects, formed various side bands and been guest vocalist for everyone from New Found Glory, Kill Hannah and Rise Against to working with Chuck Ragan and The Bouncing Souls. His work ethic is something that he believes comes from his father. “I think I inherited a lot of nervous energy from my father that I manage to harness… thankfully. I have a really close family, but my family is fairly neurotic.”
“My dad came from nothing. He grew up very poor and is now teaching oral surgery at the University of Chicago. He just really worked his arse off to get out of that dark place and out of the trailer park, and there is nothing wrong with trailer parks, but they were really poor and that’s where they lived. He is self-made.”
His dad worked to ensure his children would start off with a leg up and be able to find their own way, but Skiba says he chose to go against his father’s wishes and decided not to go to college, resulting in a few rough years between them. Skiba says: “He had worked really hard to give that to me and I didn’t want it. I want to go earn my own battle, not with daddy’s money. So when I didn’t go to school it was kind of rough for a couple of years, but now he couldn’t be prouder.” While he admits that he may have been a “total fuck up” back then, it’s obvious that there is a lot of respect for the achievements of each other, and even more love as Skiba talks of his family.
The decision to take on music as a career couldn’t have been too much of a shock to his family – Skiba played a variety of instruments from a young age, and at an even younger age, had set his goals on travelling the world. Around the age of five he dreamed of tour buses. Having never seen one, and not yet old enough to make friends with people that had travelled on them, this prediction of the future is something that he still reflects on when travelling between shows. He knew that his love of music would mean he had to spend time away from his family and on the road and this brought sadness to him even as a child. “Even as a little kid I would think ‘I would like to be a musician but then I’d have to be on a bus and never see my family and I would be homesick all the time’. That was my concern at an early age and it wasn’t like ‘if I choose to do that’ it was a matter of it’s something I have to do.”
Beyond the buses, a young Matt Skiba couldn’t have imagined the plane trips he would also be taking. Alkaline Trio’s members are based in three different states, which made putting together their latest release more difficult than most. As luck would have it Skiba’s inability to stay still means he burns that nervous energy through travelling to work and collaborate with people, and in order to catch up with his bandmates, it means much of the music is written while on the move. He has a love hate relationship with planes – one part aeronautical nerd and one part antsy flyer. When his focus isn’t on how these metal bird stay in the sky, he is reading or writing. “I do a lot of writing up there. I think it’s kind of romantic, being nowhere when you’re creating something.”
While creating in music has always been something that he’s been able to do wherever in the world, the journey he’s taken with his recent work, writing and co-directing the bands video clip ‘I Want to be a Warthog’, saw a relationship spark with co-director Rob Soucy, that has seen a new career path blossom for Skiba.
“We’re writing videos for other bands now and we only met a month ago. We hit it off and this magical thing just happened”, says Skiba. “I feel like I’ve known the dude forever – that we were separated at birth. We can read each other’s minds and when we were doing the video we would just give each other looks and we would just know what we were thinking. Which I think is very much like Alkaline Trio, which is a rarity. That chemistry. I’m excited to venture into screenwriting. I think it’s a lot of fun.” Believing that a great song with a great video is the best thing that a band can do, this rare find means that he’ll be helping propel even more bands into the eye of those hungry for more music.
For now, the band is continuing to lock in tour dates and preparing themselves for what will undoubtedly become an international tour. Having travelled the world, the band feeds off the energy from crowds, which fuels them on to the next leg of their tour.
European, American and Australian audiences project a very similar vibe. Skiba says, however, that for him one of his favourite reactions is in Japan. “The main difference is Japan because in between songs the Japanese don’t clap”, explains Skiba. “They think it’s rude. So when you finish, there is just silence. Utter and complete silence. And we’ve played in front of 20,000 people at a festival before and we’re in front of all these people and you can hear a fucking pin drop. It’s awesome. It’s powerful and it’s almost like the most intense applause.”
While talking of Australia and previous visits, Skiba say he promises to visit soon, and that on arrival he’ll show us his new full back piece. Something that he’s been in discussions with Dan Smith about over time, and which he describes as some crazy “Cape Fear style shit”. While this large real estate has been carefully planned, not all of Skiba’s pieces have had much thought. “I keep all my shitty tattoos. I love them. They’re like a moment in time that you have on you,” many of which are tour tattoos where the band decides to get something together. Like the emerald they all picked up in Austin Texas, or when icon tattooist and friend Oliver Peck joins them on the road and often lends them his machines so they can give each other “terrible, shitty tattoos”. No matter whether spur of the moment or planned, Matt Skiba’s body – much like his music – reflects his life: bumps, scratches and mistakes, all captured in time.
Words by: Vanessa Morgan