How Big Can a Trio Get?
The cover of From Here to Infirmary, the new album by the Alkaline Trio, looks like a still from Children of the Damned. In the blank, boyish faces of the three band members, the eyes are whited out, the pupils barely visible through a milky skin. The lyric sheet is pretty grim too: on “Private Eye,” the first song on the album, guitarist Matt Skiba sings, “I dragged this lake looking for corpses / Dusted for prints, pried up the floorboards.” But when the band opened the first of two sold-out Metro shows earlier this week with that same song, all traces of darkness or danger were dissolved in a wash of warm fuzzy feelings. The teenage throngs embraced the band’s music–a solid if thoroughly unoriginal strain of head-bobbing pop punk–their singing frequently drowning out Skiba’s, and throughout the night the band sweetly thanked them over and over again for their devotion.
In the wake of Green Day punk is hardly the subversive threat it was two and a half decades ago. It’s a business–and so far it’s treated the Alkaline Trio pretty well. From Here to Infirmary is the local group’s fourth full-length, but it’s their first for the high-profile indie label Vagrant, which is also home to the Get Up Kids, Face to Face, and Rocket From the Crypt and in January signed a manufacturing and distribution deal with corporate indie TVT.
“This is what we’ve always wanted,” Skiba told me a few days before the Metro shows. “I’m really psyched that so many people are paying attention to us, and I’d be lying if I said we didn’t want to see how big our band could get.” With the Trio’s first video in production, negotiations under way to release their records in Europe through Epitaph, and constant touring planned through the fall–including a short stint next month with the Top 40 pop-punk band Blink-182–it would seem he’s about to find out.
Skiba, who’s 25, grew up in McHenry, where he played in a handful of bands, including Jerkwater and the Traitors, and drew inspiration from suburban pop-punk sensations the Smoking Popes. “They were selling out the Metro once a month, and I think everybody wanted to do what they were doing,” Skiba says. “They were from Crystal Lake, the middle of nowhere, and they got really big.” He moved into the city in 1995 to study design at Columbia College, but after a year he changed his plans.
“I dropped out to pursue a career in music,” he says. “Everybody, including my folks, told me that I had to stay in school, but I didn’t give a shit about any of it. It was a waste of money and it was a waste of time.” In 1996 he began working as a bike messenger and put together the Alkaline Trio with drummer Glenn Porter, who also played in 88 Fingers Louie, and former Jerkwater bassist Rob Doran. They wasted no time in releasing a single on the local Johann’s Face label, and when Dan Andriano replaced Doran the following year he connected the young band with the small northern California label Asian Man, which had released music by his old ska band, Slapstick. In 1997 they landed an opening slot on a tour with All and Less Than Jake, and suddenly found themselves playing to 800 people a night.
“We were completely green,” says Skiba. “Playing at Phyllis’ for all of your messenger buddies–nobody gives a shit. You don’t have to play well, and you don’t really care if you sound good, but then you get up in front of 800 people and you’ve got to throw down, or at least try to. We were awful, and I can’t believe that people came back to see us again.”
The band has toured relentlessly since–averaging 250 or 300 shows annually in recent years–and sure enough people did come back. By 1999 the Trio were supporting themselves without day jobs, and at this point, Skiba estimates that the three Asian Man albums have each sold between 10,000 and 15,000 copies.
But this moderate success wasn’t without its price. A schism developed between Porter and the other members, who thought he was letting it go to his head. When Porter mailed a padded envelope full of his own excrement to Jets to Brazil bassist Jeremy Chatelain, who was dating his ex-girlfriend Heather Hannoura–who was and still is the Trio’s tour manager–Skiba and Andriano decided they’d had enough. “It was embarrassing and awful,” says Skiba. “It was the last straw.” Skiba’s old idols the Smoking Popes had broken up earlier that year, so Skiba called drummer Mike Felumlee to see if he might be interested in joining the band. When Felumlee said yes, the band gave Porter his walking papers. The new lineup opened for the Blue Meanies at Metro just five days later, on December 23, 1999.
Before the personnel change, Vagrant owner Rich Egan had offered the band a supporting slot on a Face to Face tour and then a record deal. They had already promised their third album, Maybe I’ll Catch Fire, to Asian Man, but they knew it would be the final release on the label, because owner Mike Park, who runs the business out of his parents’ garage, wasn’t interested in upsizing in accordance with the Trio’s popularity. Still, they initially told Vagrant no.
But over the next year or so they built a rapport with Egan and other Vagrant staffers, and in late 2000 they changed their answer. “We decided that no label was going to care more about putting out our record and no one was going to do a better job than Vagrant,” says Skiba. “We don’t like to work with people we don’t know and trust. I’m sure there are lots of nice A and R people that work for major labels, but the people that actually pay for your records never hear them. That scares me.” He says Felumlee’s firsthand experience with Capitol, which signed the Smoking Popes in the mid-90s and then buried them alive, only reinforces his fear.
The band recorded From Here to Infirmary late last year at Pachyderm studios in Minneapolis with their longtime producer, Matt Allison, but punk engineer Jerry Finn, who’s worked with Green Day and Rancid and produced the Popes’ final Capitol album, was hired to mix it. It sounds bigger than the band’s previous stuff, but otherwise there are no real surprises. Skiba says neither he nor Andriano (who writes and sings about a quarter of the songs) has any desire to change the group’s high-octane sound–and judging by the response to the Metro gigs, there’s no reason they should.
From Here to Infirmary arrived in stores on Tuesday, April 3; the Alkaline Trio plays the Riviera with Blink-182 on Wednesday, May 9.
“The Art of Club,” the current lecture series presented by the Visiting Artists Program at the School of the Art Institute, focuses on folks who blur the line between high and low culture. Among the upcoming speakers are composer Robert Ashley (April 9), Fugazi documentarian Jem Cohen (April 16), and Charlie Ahearn, director of the 1982 hip-hop movie Wild Style (April 30). Call 312-443-3711 or visit www.artic.edu/
saic/art/vap for details.
Send gripes, leads, and love letters to Peter Margasak at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marty Perez.