FEATURE: Alkaline Trio’s ‘Past Live’ Shows Acknowledge a Timeless Discography

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Alkaline Trio. Photo by Anthony Glaser.
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This October, Alkaline Trio played 75 unique songs over four nights in Brooklyn, initially concluding a stretch of shows called “Past Live” that may be better remembered as a multipart event. Six years ago, the band celebrated the 10th anniversary of its beloved debut, Goddamnit. This most recent tour recognized the much broader relevance of the entire Alkaline Trio discography, which encompasses seven additional full-lengths and two collections of b-sides. Alkaline Trio played every note of the eight full-lengths, and then added a few b-sides for good measure.

The tour, it turns out, was the first leg of an even larger effort, and on Dec. 12, Alkaline Trio announced new four-night stays in eight additional cities across the United States.

Back in Brooklyn, the band took the stage every night to Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle.” While the posthumous 1973 single capped Croce’s career with foreboding themes of immortality, Alkaline Trio borrowed the song to underscore their own permanence.

From Here to the Practice Space

The amount of consideration that went into Past Live speaks volumes. The band memorized nearly an entire discography, sharing the painstaking endeavor with New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago (Prior to the first shows, guitarist Matt Skiba humorously uploaded an Instagram photo of several Alkaline Trio CDs, captioning it, “Homework.”).

“We knew that it was a big undertaking, and so we tried to allot enough time to make it good,” says drummer Derek Grant. “We didn’t want to go out there and fall flat on our faces.”

Prior to Past Live, the band rehearsed for eight days, as opposed to the two days of rehearsal that usually precede any ordinary tour. Meanwhile, Grant, Skiba, and bassist Dan Andriano separately brushed up on Alkaline Trio’s back catalog. That was particularly challenging for Grant, who had adopted three full-lengths on which he was not a member.

“Stylistically, it was a journey for me, playing those shows,” says Grant. “Three of those nights, half of the set was me playing somebody else’s drum parts. And I’ve always tried to play those as faithfully as possible. I have a huge amount of respect for [former Alkaline Trio drummers] Glenn [Porter] and Mike [Felumlee].”

Alkaline Trio could have kept the shows exclusive to their hometown, but they visited both coasts as well. And they could have played the run chronologically or randomly, but instead they found the ideal middle ground of complementing new material with old material. The pattern went as follows: For the first show, the newest album preceded the oldest. For the second, the second newest album preceded the second oldest. And so on. Three cities, 12 shows, and eight albums are as much a gift as any audience can ever hope to receive from a band. And sure, every show sold out in minutes. All the same, numerous fans attended multiple dates.

FEATURE: Alkaline Trio's 'Past Live' Shows Acknowledge a Timeless Discography
Photo by Anthony Glaser.

At one point during a set, Skiba congratulated himself on having made only two mistakes, which prompted a short onstage discussion about the band’s accuracy. The otherwise reserved Grant chimed in from behind his drum kit, “Flawless back here.” The band might’ve missed a note or two or transposed a lyric here or there, but they were undoubtedly prepared.

Different Stages

Of course, celebratory shows marking the anniversary of a fan favorite are not a new trend. (Even this year’s Riot Fest organizers took part, convincing 10 of its acts to each fit an “essential album” into its set.) From 2006 to 2008, Alkaline Trio devoted itself to the band’s (then almost 10-year-old) debut full-length Goddamnit, which included not only the extensive “Occult Roots” tour in which the band played the entire record every night, but also a thorough reissue on Asian Man Records. Matt Allison, Goddamnit’s original engineer, remastered the re-release as well, along with the band’s 1996 demo, which was tacked on at the end. The reissue coupled the music with Original Sin: The Story of Goddamnit, a comprehensive documentary detailing the band’s early days: writing songs in a cramped apartment, building a network of friends and supporters, drinking too much, bombing Goddamnit’s record release show in support of Jets to Brazil, but ultimately triumphing on the heels of a destined classic.
FEATURE: Alkaline Trio's 'Past Live' Shows Acknowledge a Timeless Discography
Photo by Anthony Glaser.
Still, Goddamnit was the first chapter of an unending odyssey. Alkaline Trio released seven more over the course of 15 years. But they’ve also never been very distant from these releases that, for better or worse, defined them. 2008’s deluxe edition of Agony & Irony contained an acoustic rendition of “Maybe I’ll Catch Fire,” a song written nine years earlier. 2010’s This Addiction was a transparent throwback to the band’s nascent years, right down to the Chicago studio in which it was recorded (with Matt Allison, no less). Then the 2011 compilation Damnesia reworked songs spanning their entire discography. Having alternate versions of revered material wasn’t essential, but it was a nostalgic gesture intended for longtime listeners.

Alkaline Trio never treaded old ground for lack of vision; their creative ambition, not their first two albums, has been crucial to their identity. Good Mourning drew from darker, often macabre imagery. Maybe I’ll Catch Fire and From Here to Infirmary did as well, to an extent, but it was the band’s fourth album that fully conveyed the transition from lighthearted punk rock band with songs about death to gloomy punk rock band fascinated with goth. With the late Jerry Finn added to the equation, the band had all of the components needed to present theatrical ideas with cleaner production. Along came Crimson in 2005, the sprawling, string and synth-laden opus that touched on the West Memphis Three, the Charles Manson murders, hell, and vampires. The darkest era ended there, though, as the band returned three years later with a major label debut built on a foundation of straightforward rock.

Alkaline Trio hasn’t always been acclaimed in the wake of its near-constant evolution. That’s never been more clear than when select members of a filled-to-capacity audience verbally (and loudly) counted down the number of songs left until Alkaline Trio finished playing the “lesser” of the night’s two planned albums.

Agony & Irony, in particular, met lukewarm reactions.

“It tends not to go over quite as well as some of the other records,” admits Grant. 2001’s From Here to Infirmary, on the other hand, always signaled a dramatic change in energy. “We were joking about it being almost like market research or a focus group: ‘Let’s play all of the records. We need the applause meter or whatever to gauge where to go with our career.'”

Agony & Irony was nonetheless a special entry in the band’s discography. Alkaline Trio had signed to Epic, a division of Sony. The record itself had a simplified classic rock approach to it, with influences ranging from Pat Benatar to Def Leppard. It also charted higher than previous Alkaline Trio albums — at 13 on the Billboard 200 — but neither the label nor the band’s fan base was particularly enthusiastic.

“We took some chances, and apparently it wasn’t what your average Alkaline Trio fan wanted to hear,” says Grant. “Maybe it was a little too big of a stretch.”

Photo courtesy of Epitaph Records.
Photo courtesy of Epitaph Records.

Alkaline Trio’s partnership with Epic was short-lived. In the beginning, the label granted the band full creative control of Agony & Irony, maintaining boundaries. Employees never insisted on overseeing recording, nor did they push a single. But eventual personnel changes at the label created a “precarious situation.”

“It was a pretty pleasant experience right until [Epic] started firing a bunch of people that we were working closely with,” says Grant. “That was the only unpleasant thing about it, the politics of the situation.”

Regardless of listener expectations, Alkaline Trio’s musical deviations separate them from a number of artists attempting to thrive on work they created a decade or so earlier. Up to last year’s slightly regressive My Shame is True, Alkaline Trio had a habit of advancing musically while pausing to reflect on previous work. In a 2009 interview for Myspace Transmissions, Skiba and Grant named Agony & Irony their favorite Alkaline Trio album, which was unsurprising given that it was the most recent at the time. But bassist Dan Andriano countered with his response, Goddamnit, based on the unfamiliarity of the experiences surrounding its release.

Skiba added, “I’m proud of the history that we have. I love every record for different reasons. “They kind of, for me, represent different stages in the band’s growth.”

Today, Alkaline Trio is at home on Epitaph Records, who developed an imprint for the band called Heart & Skull, a reference to the band’s iconic logo. The partnership is responsible for the release of Alkaline Trio’s two most recent full-lengths, and it remains strong.

“Epitaph’s this amazing record label and also this sort of anomaly in the music industry right now, because they’re growing and doing things differently than a lot of labels,” says Grant. “They’re actually expanding and seeing some growth, where a lot of labels are falling apart or going under. We’ve kind of always followed our gut instinct when it came to who we work with, and usually it pans out.”

FEATURE: Alkaline Trio's 'Past Live' Shows Acknowledge a Timeless Discography
Photo by Anthony Glaser.

Balanced on a Record Shelf

Alkaline Trio is a stable, consistent outfit. Skiba remains the only founding member, but Andriano joined for the 1998 EP For Your Lungs Only, which preceded the first Alkaline Trio full-length. Grant replaced drummer Mike Felumlee — who only appeared on From Here to Infirmary — in 2001. In the 18 years since its inception, the band itself has never broken up or gone on hiatus. And the longest period between full-lengths is just over three years. In that steady cycle, Alkaline Trio never leaned too heavily toward one direction of their trajectory. In other words, they balanced pride for the new with reverence for the old. The average setlist of recent years is neither a recitation of hits nor an unimaginative showcase of the newest album; it’s a collection of great songs spanning 18 years of material.

“You’ve only got however many songs that you can play live on any given night, so you’ve got to play the songs that people want to hear and find room for new songs,” says Grant. “On a tour supporting a new record, we never wanted to be the band that goes out and plays all new stuff and throws the audience a bone with one or two old songs.”

Additionally, Grant says that the band’s most recent full-lengths are more difficult to perform live, being that many of the songs were written in the studio or very shortly before being recorded. Much of that material was never revisited after recording.

Past Live, meanwhile, is one of the most complete recognitions of a band’s history ever conceived, where the greatest hits and the deepest cuts carry equal weight.

Alkaline Trio are no strangers to nostalgia, but they succeed at nostalgia because it isn’t the only thing that matters to them. Goddamnit is not embarrassingly fun to sing along to, despite it having been written in the late 90s by three guys in their early 20s. On the contrary, it remains a solid pop-punk full-length, full of poignancy, and with a unique shade to it. That same band aged 10 years and wrote Agony & Irony, arguably without having lost its keen sense of structure and sentiment (emphasis on “arguably”). Now, on the cusp of their 40s, Skiba, Andriano, and Grant’s most recent hallmark is a flawless EP called Broken Wing, released last yearAlkaline Trio didn’t play anything from it for Past Live, but don’t discount the possibility that it’ll someday resurface, as eight full-lengths did over four nights in Brooklyn.

FEATURE: Alkaline Trio's 'Past Live' Shows Acknowledge a Timeless Discography
Photo by Anthony Glaser.