Alkaline Trio

No band has coaxed as many different emotions out of me over the course of 15 years as Alkaline Trio—my first and longest musical obsession. When you fall in love with a band, your affections are unalloyed. But even if you don’t know it yet, your passion will be tested. After following any artist for long enough, adulation is bound to shift, leading you anywhere from disinterest to frustration to disdain. The band changes, you change.

Having discovered Alkaline Trio shortly after the release of its first album—1998’s Chicago-punk classic Goddamnit—I followed the band with religious devotion. I acquired all the records I could find (if you happen to have a copy of the “Sundials” seven-inch, let me know), and I pored over the music and lyrics as if they were textbooks. When singer-guitarist Matt Skiba offered the line, “Remember last April / When we saw U.S. Maple? / Somehow the singer showed The Fireside exactly how I feel” in “Goodbye Forever,” I wasn’t content to simply memorize the song’s lyrics. I had to learn exactly what these references meant. Before long, I’d attempt to wrap my head around the art-damaged noise of U.S. Maple, and I begged my mom to take me to shows at Chicago’s all-ages punk club, The Fireside Bowl.

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For years, Alkaline Trio was my band. I turned friends onto them, and I bought every record the day it came out, holding each one in the highest regard until just after the release of 2005’s Crimson—a good but poorly sequenced effort. During that early period, Alkaline Trio served as an emotional outlet for my teenage self. After I lost a close friend to suicide, the band’s songs about loss played on an endless loop in my head. “You’re Dead,” an overlooked track from 2001’s From Here To Infirmary, put death into perspective. When Skiba said, “And I became nothing when I found out you were dead / When I found out I’d never see you again,” my adolescent brain realized someone else had experienced this kind of loss, and that relating to another human being, even if it was through music, was reason enough to keep going. Beyond my personal “they spoke to me” moments, this was the band that I saw play in dingy venues–like the aforementioned Fireside Bowl–and who convinced me that music was something intimate. You could participate in it and not just observe it from the nosebleeds in a lifeless stadium. This intimacy brought me closer to the band, leading me to believe that if the music meant so much for me now, of course it would stay that way forever.

Then things changed. The band signed to Epic Records—which, even years after the punk bubble burst thanks to major labels infiltrating the underground, was still cause for alarm. The band released a middling power-pop album, and though Agony & Irony was technically fine, it no longer felt like the Alkaline Trio I had fallen for. Gone were the start-stops that made the songs come alive, always teetering on the edge of unfurling thanks to the band’s combustive energy. The parts that called for impassioned shouts in concert were distilled into choruses made for rock radio. A small yet vocal backlash ensued, and the band touted its next record as a return to form. Sadly, This Addiction was over-simple, suggesting that if it just increased the tempo all would be forgiven. This struggle to reignite its old spark continued, resulting in last year’s half-baked My Shame Is True.

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But, as the band was changing, so was I. Alkaline Trio was my gateway into the world of punk, and as I started my own bands, put on my own shows, and engaged with music on an almost daily basis, Alkaline Trio no longer had such an outsized presence in my life. It wasn’t the new, cool punk group to me anymore. As I immersed myself in the world of basement shows and D.I.Y. ethics, it became harder to figure out how the band fit into my life. It left behind the grimy parts of punk long ago, as I embraced them all the more.

When I was 17, I had the band’s iconic heart-skull logo tattooed on my left bicep. It was my first tattoo, one that was meant not only to show my Alkaline Trio devotion, but also to remind me of the friend I had lost. We had seen the band together and bonded over the songs, routinely putting “Radio” on repeat and listening ad nauseam, until he was gone. The mournful songs of Skiba and bassist-singer Dan Andriano made their life experiences feel shared, something I could use as motivation as I grappled with a loss of my own.

But the quality dip of the band’s later albums colored my love with a bit of shame. When they’d come up in conversation, I’d crack a joke about the band as a defense mechanism, making fun of myself as much as I was commenting on them. I even got a small addendum to the tattoo, a thought-bubble coming off of the band’s logo that almost gleefully states “Whoops!” I never wanted to cover the original tattoo up—and I still don’t—but after a few years of disappointment I felt the need to beat everyone to the punch. I still loved the band, but as I aged, I didn’t know if the music could ever mean the same thing that it once did.

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When the band announced it would be playing its entire catalog over four nights in Chicago, performing two of its eight studio albums each night, I was conflicted. I hadn’t seen Alkaline Trio live in some time, and while I was excited at the prospect of seeing some of my favorite albums played in full, I figured standing through those later albums would feel like a chore. The schedule wasn’t revealed in advance, meaning fans had no clue what the band would play each night, but they rolled the dice and snapped up tickets all the same. When it became clear that each night the band would play a newer album followed by an older one, it seemed like a tacit acknowledgment that the older stuff was the reason these shows sold out.

Night one paired newest and oldest, My Shame Is True and Goddamnit; night two was This Addiction and Maybe I’ll Catch Fire, albums seven and two, respectively. On that first night I found a comfortable place near the side of the club, prepared to take in the band’s most recent work—present but not really present. As they kicked into My Shame Is True, I was surprised by my own excitement. For all its flaws as an album, “She Lied To The F.B.I.” and “I Wanna Be A Warhol” are strong openers, with sing-along choruses that chunks of the crowd participated in gleefully.

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This initial burst didn’t last, though. After the next couple songs, I was counting down to the end of the My Shame Is True set. I didn’t know if even a loving rendition of Goddamnit could save my night. But the moment the first chords of the album’s opener “Cringe” rang out, everything changed. A full beer whizzed past my face, hitting another attendee in the back of the head. Undaunted, he kept singing along. Without realizing it, I migrated from the side of the crowd toward the middle of the floor, screaming every word. Across the next four nights I repeated this process, waiting for a record I grew up loving to start and then immediately giving myself over to it. Maybe I’ll Catch Fire deep cuts “Sleepyhead” and “5-3-10-4”—which I had never seen the band play live—turned me back into the 12-year-old Alkaline Trio fanatic who would rush to the front of the crowd and throw his fist in the air.

By the weekend’s end I realized how flawed my fandom had always been—and how being this devoted to a single band is both damaging and life-affirming. I had spent 15 years internalizing Alkaline Trio’s songs as if they were my own, and though I had no hand in creating them, they were so indelible in my own life that it felt like my fingerprints had been on them all along. But, as much as the band changed in that stretch, I did too. I wasn’t the same kid who needed that band as desperately as I once did, and that’s part of what made Alkaline Trio’s decline (in my eyes) so difficult. When Skiba, et al. couldn’t reach a bar I set improbably high, I was disappointed, and I reacted by condemning them for their creative wanderings.

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What I learned spending a weekend with Alkaline Trio is that a shift in fandom isn’t cause for alarm but an opportunity for introspection. Fandom is naive and simple at first, untainted by disappointment. With time, it becomes complex. Throughout all of this both the fan and creator give and take from one another: A band gives its music, a fan gives its support. But they can just as easily shift away from one another, for reasons both musical and personal. New songs may not hit fans the same way, and their inclination to rush the stage and sing along is replaced by nods of contentment from the back of the room. The two sides of the artist-fan relationship may always be in flux, but it’s not these moments of disconnection that matter, it’s the uplifting synchronicity. And sometimes, if you’re lucky, you get to experience both in a weekend.