This August, Alkaline Trio released their ninth album, Is This Thing Cursed?, which was recorded in secret after five years of relative silence from the band.
“No one knew we were making a record,” says bassist and co-vocalist Dan Andriano, who joined guitarist and lead vocalist Matt Skiba in the Trio shortly after it was formed in 1996. They have been joined most recently by former My Chemical Romance drummer Jarrod Alexander, after it was announced in August that longtime drummer Derek Grant would not be touring due to medical reasons. “We were sort of in a weird position, since we hadn’t done anything in a studio in a long time, and Matt’s been touring with Blink-182. But getting in the studio together, once we began, it was awesome,” says Andriano. “We just started working, and it started going really well.”
The album opens with the title track, a song that begins with rumbling organ, contemplative piano, and (for the first time on an album opener) Andriano’s voice. Then, just before the minute mark, the song explodes. Drums, guitars, and vocal harmonies suddenly propel the song forward, as Andriano and Skiba trade verses all the way up to its final, lingering question: is this thing cursed?
It’s one of the band’s best songs in years, and also a deeply personal one for Andriano.
“That song, really it’s about depression,” he says. “It’s about being in that place where you just don’t feel like anything is going right, and you’re not thinking rationally, you’re not trying to get to the root of the problem, which is usually something you’re doing yourself.”
The album’s cover features a blood red phone, its receiver levitating off the hook with the titular question floating between. Coupled with Andriano’s description, the image suggests that depression is always on the other end of the line, waiting for you to answer its call.
Over the course of their career, Trio has had plenty of time to consider real curses. There have been car crashes, canceled shows, drunken nights, arrests, band member departures, even tabloid-style coverage. But Andriano says that during that time, none of it mattered. It wasn’t until later, when he began to seriously struggle with depression (he was formally diagnosed only a few years ago) that he began to wonder about curses.
“When actual stuff was going on with me I wasn’t really that depressed, I was just like, ‘oh man, this is going to be like a $200 ticket to get out of,’ and then on to the next show, on to the next party, on to the next whatever. But that’s what’s scary about depression: you lose sight of all that, and you make these irrational thoughts,” he says.
It was two decades ago now that Andriano was sitting at a Chicago bar commiserating with his friend Skiba. At the time, Alkaline Trio had just lost their bass player to the number-one leading cause of band member departure: college.
“I was in a band called Tuesday that was sort of in the same boat,” Andriano says. “Two of my bandmates had just decided that they were going back to college for real this time. So I was bumming, and Matt was talking about how all he wants to do is go on the road. And then he just kind of looked at me and said: ‘You should be in this band.’ And I said, ‘All right.’ And we kept drinking.”
In 1998, they released the For Your Lungs Only EP, and then their first full-length, the era-defining Goddamnit. With those two releases, Alkaline Trio immediately staked their claim on punk rock, forgoing the poppier sound and faux-British accents of Green Day for songs that were grittier, more emotionally raw. The world they charted was visceral, full of head wounds and shriveled lungs. And for a generation, the way Skiba and Andriano sung about addiction, desire, and damnation was pure catharsis, and a breath of fresh air.
Sirens and devils have always populated Alkaline Trio’s songs—whether in the form of intoxicating crushes, or malevolent spirits—but this time the demons are personal. Is This Thing Cursed? is less creature feature and more Faust. The demons the band conjures this time are the ones we all face, the ones that grow in the darkness of the soul. And as the late, great philosopher Derrida points out, the act of conjuring is also an act of conjuring away.
“I’ve been saying lately that I just want to be in the light.,” Andriano says. “I’ve been in the darkness a very long time. I just want to be in the light.”
Alkaline Trio plays at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 18, at the Catalyst, 1011 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. $28/adv, $32/door. 423-1338.