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ALKALINE TRIO: Complete Control, Complete Honesty

by Deborah J. Draisin

Alkaline Trio is founding member Matt Skiba on lead vocals and guitar, Dan Andriano (replacing original member Rob Doran) on bass and backup vocals, and Derek Grant (replacing Mike Felumlee) on drums. The 12-year old Chicago punk unit, currently signed to Epic Records, are touring machines whose shows always sell out seconds after their presales commence. Skiba's sardonically humorous and angrily emotional lyrics, showcased against a melodic wall of sound, have truly resonated with a fan base rife with fellow musicians and industry moguls, as well as of punkers, headbangers and classic rockers alike.

Alkaline Trio is been a band I've loved for a while now, so I was pretty stoked when Derek was kind enough to honor me with a kickass telephone interview. Here's what he had to say:

Q: Hi, Derek, how are you this afternoon? This is Deb from Jersey Beat.

Derek: I'm good! How are you doing today?

Q: Oh, wonderful. You are in Denver right now; how are your allergies holding up?

Derek: I am doing actually really well. We had the day off here yesterday, so we were able to acclimate a little bit, which is good. I think the altitude is more of a concern than anything.

Q: Oh yeah, I have the same problem - my ears always pop. Earlier in the year, Matt had mentioned that you guys are looking to work on some new material this year: how many song ideas have you tossed around so far?

Derek: I would say that, collectively, we probably have about nine songs together at this time - three of which we've been playing live and a few more which we've actually had the opportunity to run over as a band. Just sitting around on the tour bus with some acoustic guitars, we've been able to work out a couple of other ideas.

Q: That's a new way of doing things for you guys; usually you're doing this by IM, right?

Derek: Yeah, we record stuff at our homes and then e-mail ideas back and forth. This time around, we've been spending a lot of time on the road, so we've been using that time as best we can.

Q: Are you finding that's a better way to do it - is the writing going faster now?

Derek: Yeah, it seems to be a little bit more swift, I guess, this way. It's definitely more fun to just throw around ideas, but ultimately I think it's going to be about the same.

Q: And how's the crowd responding to the new material so far?

Derek: Good! It's a little weird, you know, obviously, these being new songs, people aren't familiar with the lyrics, so they just kind of stand there.

Q: (laughing) They stare at you.

Derek: Yeah, instead of jumping around and singing along.

Q: That is an awkward break in the momentum, isn't it?

Derek: Yeah, but I really think it's beneficial to play the songs live before we go into the studio, you know?

Q: I'm excited! Yeah, get a little groundwork laid out so that when you go practice it again, you kind of know where you want the songs to head. Has there been any discussion at all about maybe having Matt do a drum line this round, or someday? He used to play drums, right?

Derek: Yeah, I mean we all play different instruments, and that's certainly comes into play to some extent when we're throwing ideas around; any one of us could come up with a drum or guitar part - we definitely have sort of a unique advantage in that regard. As far as like recording anything, I don't think we've ever really talked about it, but you know, it might be fun to one day do something where Matt plays drums.

Q: Absolutely! What would you then pick up if Matt played drums? Would you back him up, or would you pick something else up?

Derek: I would probably just play bass or sing.

Q: That would be cool!

Derek: Yeah! Yeah, it could be something different.

Q: Absolutely! I've always wanted to ask a drummer this question: why do you think some drummers are opposed to working with a metronome?

Derek: They could be just afraid; a lot of drummers have really bad meters. Any time you play to a click track or metronome, you know, it's just going to show how bad your meter is (laughing.)

Q: (laughing along) Oh, is that what it is?

Derek: I think that could be part of it; other times it's just a matter of wanting the song to breathe a little bit. If it's too strictly regimented, I think a lot of people are afraid it's going to lose the life. I've found over the years that I'm able to play with a metronome without following it too strictly. I can sort of wander off and still be on track, so there are definitely ways to do it.


Q: You actually were sort of looking for that type of regimented sound with "Crimson;" trying to do the opposite of what you had done with "Mourning." Were you happier trying something new again for "Agony?" Did you like that result?

Derek: Yeah, as far as drum performance is concerned, "Agony and Irony" is my favorite one. Everything from the set that I used to the way that we mic'd it, the way that it sounds to the way it was performed is satisfactory.

Q: Do you have any thoughts about putting the next album out "DYI" style, seeing as how Epic is currently undergoing surgery?

Derek: Well, that's probably what's going to happen.

Q: Excellent!

Derek: Yeah, essentially we've parted ways with Epic, and rather than go and look for another label, we feel that it's probably best that we just go and do things ourselves.

Q: That's a really good approach, and you probably could control the leaks better that way!

Derek: Control is a huge factor. I mean, we've always been fortunate with whatever label we worked with in retaining quite a bit of control over our music and the artwork and whatnot, but there's always somebody else that, you know, puts their two cents in. This way, we will have absolute control over every aspect

Q: Yeah, I think everybody's looking to go back to basics, especially in the punk world. For you, I know you said you like "Agony" best as far as your drum work goes, but what overall contribution are you most proud of to date, maybe musically or otherwise?

Derek: I don't know, I mean; I feel like "Agony and Irony" was the most collaborative work. The first record that I played on was "Good Mourning" and at that point, I was a little hesitant to throw too many ideas out, because I didn't want to change the formula of the band.

Q: Is that difficult, to walk into an established situation like that? I know you had known one another for years, but is it awkward at first?

Derek: It's a little strange. I'd spent a lot of time filling in for different bands, so I'd become accustomed to learning somebody else's drum parts and just sort of improvising off of that while not getting involved in the creative process. So, there was a period of adjustment when I first joined the band, figuring out where I fit in creatively. It turns out that I tend to be a pretty good moderator between Matt and Dan when it comes to a lot of the songs.

Q: I read a quote from Matt awhile back that the band didn't feel complete until you got there.

Derek: And that's flattering, to think that that's the case. Over the past, let's see, it's been about eight years now, we've learned how we all figure into the big picture.

Q: Mm-hm. You had had some struggles with arthritis a while back, is it being managed? How do you manage it when you're on the road?

Derek: Well, it comes and it goes. It's never been diagnosed; I never went to see a doctor or a specialist about it. I've been playing drums since I was about two or three years old; over that amount of time, it's going to have an effect on the body. I got into doing yoga and stretching, you know, just trying to do whatever I can to condition my body.

Q: Does Tiger Balm help at all?

Derek: I'm sure it would; I've never used it. I tend to stay away from things like pain medication and stuff like that.



Q: That's actually just menthol and aloe. (editor's note: it's actually menthol, camphor and eucalyptus.) It's a lotion; like an icy hot in without the pad.

Derek: Oh, okay! Well, I know we have some with us; one of the guys in the crew has been using it - I can always borrow his.

Q: There you go; a good suggestion for you! So, you started playing drums really young - do you have drummers in the family?

Derek: Yeah, my father was a drummer.

Q: There you go! So you were playing on his kit when you were a kid.

Derek: Yeah! In fact, I started out by simply hitting whatever I could hit, and then by the time I was three or four years old, I was sitting on his lap playing drums.

Q: That's excellent!

Derek: Before I knew it, I had inherited his old drum set (he had gotten a new one) and I was sitting in with his band at bars, and, you know, the rest was history.

Q: He must've been so psyched!

Derek: Oh absolutely! I loved performing from an early age; my family would have yard sales like once a summer; we would sort of clean house. Obviously, people would come over to look at and buy stuff - and I would set up and perform for them. So, some of my earliest performances were at like garage sales.

Q: (giggling) So, somewhere, somebody remembers you sitting out on the lawn with a drum kit.

Derek: Yeah, that's possible!

Q: You should find that old footage; that'd be fun to see (Derek chuckles.) What's the most flattering thing you can recall a fan (maybe a professional fan or a regular, everyday fan) ever having said to any of you?

Derek: Without a doubt, the most flattering thing that somebody can ever to say to you is that your music saved their life. We've been told that on a number of occasions, and it's always very flattering and very humbling. People are pretty excited about sharing their life stories with us and we're always listening with open ears. I think it's amazing that people want to share that type of stuff with us. For all of us, growing up, music helped us get through some tough times: to think that something that we've created has able to do that same thing for another individual is one of the most powerful things.

Q: Absolutely! Have you had that experience on the other side? Have you gotten to encounter a hero of yours and just had your mind blown?

Derek: Sure, I mean: I've definitely met most of my idols. Unfortunately, some of those meetings were sort of disappointing, you know? You find out that somebody wrote a song that really spoke to you, and then, when you talk to them about it, they're like "Oh, yeah."

Q: I was wasted.

Derek: Yeah, yeah, or it didn't mean what you thought it meant, or something. There's definitely been some disappointing encounters over the years, but hopefully people don't feel that way about us

Q: I don't think they do; about you guys, I'm always reading good things - how nice you are to the fans, how accommodating you are. It seems that bands nowadays make a lot more of an effort than the bands did maybe twenty years ago - they were pretty untouchable. Derek: Sure, sure; I think it's just that you've got to sort of change with the times. I feel like people nowadays, especially with the internet, everybody's sort of connected to everyone else; it's more, like, immediate. I think it really goes a really long way to be personable and be approachable.




Q: I think so; I think it leaves a much better impression - and that person may only get to see you once.

Derek: Yeah, I think the sort of rock star posing of the.

Q: Eighties.

Derek: I think that served its purpose at the time - and it'll probably come around again. Everything kind of works in cycles, so.

Q: I hope not! There were some aspects of it that were really cool, but then there were a lot of aspects that were maybe not so good and had a backlash.

Derek: Sure.

Q: Speaking of the internet, are you guys on twitter? Everybody's on twitter!

Derek: I'm on twitter and I think Dan just got a twitter.

Q: Tell everybody how to get in touch with you!

Derek: Well, my twitter name (and I'm pretty new to it, so I don't really know all the ins and outs of it) is dgrantdotcom, all spelled out.

Q: Oh, that's cute!

Derek: I try to post once a day and maybe a picture from the show - maybe the marquee or the inside of the venue. If we go out to a bar afterwards, sometimes I'll post where we're hanging out at in the hopes that people will come and hang out.

Q: That's excellent; I think that's exactly what people want to see - and maybe random musings here and there.

Derek: Sure!

Q: Would you like to tell people once and for all what emo is, so that they'll stop incorrectly labeling everybody?

Derek: I've been wondering the same thing! When I was growing up, there was a band from DC called Rites of Spring and everybody talked about this band being "emo" - being this emotional indie rock, post-punk band or whatever. To me, the band didn't sound that much different than like Joy Division or any of the other sort of post-punk stuff that was coming out of the UK at the time. So, I really didn't understand what it meant, but all of a sudden, a lot of the local bands that grew up in Detroit started forming bands that were based on that sort of sound, but with more of a hardcore background. Before I knew it, everybody was in an emo band. Then the term sort of died off at some point - like I didn't hear it for years - and then the media got a hold of it and started labeling various bands as being emo. For me, when I think emo, I still think Rites of Spring, which, you know, they were a band for like two or three years at the most, and then two of the members went on to be in Fugazi. So, it's hard for me to think of any other bands as being emo - that term, for me, is sort of restricted to a very particular time and place. I can understand why the media or the masses would grab onto that term to sort of classify bands that.I don't know, I guess emote more than other bands? Or maybe talk more about personal heartache and scenarios than like your typical songs about girls and whatnot, you know?

Q: Mm-hm.

Derek: So yeah, I don't really understand it myself, as you can tell; because I'm struggling to identify it.

Q: I think the point that we're establishing is that emo is a specific type of music, and it has nothing to do with suicide attempts or crying and wearing black like they seem to think out there

Derek: No!

Q: It's become.

Derek: It's taken on a life of its own.

Q: Yeah, it has.

Derek: I just don't understand it because, again, the emo music that I grew up listening to is nothing like what people say is emo now.

Q: Right, and there's a big net that they're casting too; I've seen bands that I would consider hardcore or metal being thrown in there, and I'm like "What? That can't be right!"

Derek: There's a lot of confusion as to classifying or labeling bands these days in terms of what's indie rock, what's punk, what's hardcore.

Q: Nobody seems to know anymore! In fact, the younger generation are starting to say things like "Well, The Ramones were pop-punk" and I'm like "Gee, I don't think we had that term yet."

Derek: Right.

Q: So yep, there's definitely a lot of confusion and I wanted to see if I could get you clear it up a little bit. While we're on the subject of labels, why don't you make up your own? What would you call Alkaline? Do you call yourselves anything?

Derek: Any time somebody asks me what kind of music we play, I tell them: first and foremost, rock and roll. It's rock and roll, it's punk rock, it's alternative; whatever you would consider it to be, it's fine by me. Our influences are really wide-ranging, so it's hard for me to say that we only listen to punk bands, so the music that we make must be punk rock.

Q: Yeah, I don't think any musician worth their salt would only listen to one genre.

Derek: I would hope not!

Q: I would hope not, too. Do you have a term you like to use as a joke?

Derek: No, not really. I tend to be sort of ambiguous in responding to that.

Q: I think that's the way it should be. I think most bands think of themselves as rock bands.

Derek: Sure.

Q: So for those not yet in the know a bit about "The Purple Trilogy;" how you went about scoring a previously unreleased Prince track!

Derek: I'm a big Prince fan, and through networks of people who trade Prince's music (live concerts and demos and whatnot) there's a huge demand for that out there. Consequently, Prince has made quite a reputation for himself in suing people for distributing that stuff and having websites taken down for promoting it. I had an interest in a particular period of Prince's career, like "Purple Rain" and earlier, and just striving to find more and more stuff to listen to, because I had gotten all of his albums and I've listened to them so many times that I just wanted to hear something that was new, but still from that same era. I came across this song that was originally intended for "Purple Rain" but never made the cut, and just thought it would be fun to sort of re-imagine the song and give it a proper recording. I actually reached out to two former members of his backing band for help with the track. They gave me some real basic guidance and encouraged me in the direction that I was taking certain things - certain sounds that I was getting, but it was still a fun project to do.

Q: Is he psyched? Have you heard from him?

Derek: Who knows?

Q: No comments from him?

Derek: I would assume that if he caught word of it, he would make me take it off the internet

Q: (chuckling) Probably come after you with a lawsuit.

Derek: Yeah; I've never met him before. I know people who are close to him and have great things to say about him, and I know other people who have nothing good to say about him. He's definitely an idol of mine that I would prefer not to meet.

Q: Just in case it's negative, right?

Derek: Yes, exactly.

Q: In true "Reaper" fashion, what would your twelve-year-old self say to you right now and what would you say to yourself?

Derek: I think my twelve-year-old self would be really pleased my thirty-two year old self. You know, I don't feel like I've changed that much; in some regards, I feel like I've come full circle. So yeah, I think we'd get along really well. Doing that project, "D Grant Meets the Reaper." I can't even explain how much fun it was for me to go back and listen to that stuff. How amazed I was at some of the pop sensibilities I had at such an early age! Some of those songs I think are so funny and clever and the melodies were good. I had recorded all the music myself and it was all recorded really poorly, which is why I decided to re-record that stuff, but I wanted to leave all the vocals intact. I didn't want to re-record the vocals and change lyrics around and interfere too much with that, because I think that was the beauty of it was this very pure intent. I had never played a show at that point in my life outside of sitting in with my father's band. I'd never had a band of my own, I'd never played a full set. I don't think I'd even been to a punk show at that point because of my age. So that was a completely. what's the word I'm looking for?

Q: Untainted?

Derek: A look into the naïve twelve year old brain and I think that's the beauty of it.

Q: Absolutely. What was your first punk show, by the way?

Derek: Hm, first punk show, that's a good question! Might've been Danzig; that was definitely like an extension of my Misfits fascination.

Q: That's a good first!

Derek: I saw Rocket From the Crypt. Prior to that, I'd been to a lot of rock shows like ZZ Top and Fastway and bands like that; classic rock stuff. Honestly, some of the first punk shows that I went to were just local bands in Detroit. There was a band called S.B.L.C. (Screaming Bloody Leper Children) that I loved and were definitely very influential to me. There was another band called Almighty Lumberjacks of Death, a band called The Scruffy Teraways - just these bands that never really made it out of Detroit were some of my earliest exposures to punk rock.

Q: What do you think they're doing right now? You should call them up!

Derek: A lot of the bands have actually reunited in recent years; I have been in touch with some of the guys over the past ten years or so. I've managed to reach out to a lot of those people and thank them for being so influential. I definitely want to give credit where credit is due, and those are sort of the unsung heroes of Detroit punk rock, so.

Q: It's really, really great of you to mention them - we find influences in the most unfamiliar places. What would you like to say to your fans?

Derek: I just want to thank everybody for supporting what we do and for continuing to come out to shows and hanging out with us more than anything. We all love meeting people and finding out what they're about, figuring out why they like what we do - what we can bring to their lives and what they can bring to ours.

Q: I'd say it's the honesty.

Derek: That's the greatest thing about what we do, is being able to travel around and meet new people and see old friends. Just thanks to everybody for their support, and we will hopefully see everybody on tour soon.

Q: Hopefully! I'm hoping you're coming back to my town soon; I missed it again.

Derek: Aw; yeah, we'll be back. We're putting out the record in July and hit the road after that.

Q: Ah, great! Have a great show tonight, Derek! Thanks for your time!

Derek: Thanks; take care!


READ UP, LISTEN UP, WATCH A VID:
http://www.alkalinetrio.com/
http://www.myspace.com/alkalinetrio

CHAT WITH THE BAND:
http://www.twitter.com/dgrantdotcom
http://twitter.com/danielandriano

DEREK'S SIDE PROJECTS:
http://www.myspace.com/dgrantdotcom

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