In August of last year, Chicago’s Still Alive released their latest record, Choices. We recently spoke with singer/guitarist Dan Alfonsi and talked about what recording the album was like. We also discussed some of the record’s lyrics and its general theme. In addition, we conversed about how the band has continued to progress its unique sound, which integrates genres like metal, ska, hardcore and more. While Still Alive may defy easy classifications, they’re certainly a band deserving of increased attention. They’ve got a lot planned for the year ahead, and with any luck their persistent work ethic will result in an expanded audience.
Bill – You guys recorded Choices at Atlas Studios with Justin Yates. How would you describe your time in the studio?
Dan – Atlas is our favorite place to record. We’ve actually done most of our work there, including our first full-length Trials and our follow-up EP My Own Hell. From the start, working with Justin has been more fun than work. Minus having all the lyrics ready to go, everything we’ve recorded has been pretty finalized and sorted out before we even enter. It took us about two weeks to record Choices. We would go in, work all day and then hang out and drink beers until it’s time to go home and go to sleep. I wish I could enjoy a hard day’s work that way every day, but I guess that’s the fun of recording. Those guys (Justin, Dan Tinkler and Matt Allison) put a lot of work into the studio itself and the music they work on. It’s an awesome place with awesome people.
Bill – When you listen to the album now, what are some of the things that you like best about how the recording turned out?
Dan – I don’t listen to it very often. I don’t know why, but I go through a weird period for a couple years before I want to go back and analyze it. I’m still blown away by how well Justin made everything sound in mixing. We definitely messed around with some different effects and pedals for Choices, so it was fun to hear them recorded as opposed to live recordings or videos. Once we had a good mix we had Collin Jordan at Boiler Room Studios do the mastering. Everyone involved did an awesome job and I couldn’t have asked for a better result.
Bill – You guys teamed with Jump Start Records for the album’s release. How did you go about partnering with them and what’s it been like working with the label so far?
Dan – We ended up falling into contact with Jeremy Myers at Jump Start through our mutual friend Jeff Dean. Jeff plays in a bunch of awesome bands, (All Eyes West, Dead Ending and The Bomb, to name a few) and he mentioned wanting to record us. We ended up doing a couple tunes with Jeff at Million Yen Studios. We had an awesome time and he did a great job. It’s a super-cool Chicago studio. Once we were finished he mentioned forwarding the tunes to Jump Start. With those songs we released the United by Defiance EP and the rest is history. Shortly following the release, we got an email from Jeremy and we agreed to do Choices with them. Working with Jeremy and his business partner Kevin Day has been really cool. Those guys are really into the punk scene and they also are involved in a great brewery called Neshaminy Creek just outside of Philly.
Bill – Compared to your previous material, how would you describe Choices?
Dan – I think Choices was a good next step for us. We experimented with some different ideas both musically and lyrically. I’m happy with how it turned out, but I also think it made us reflect on how we want move forward for future endeavors. Overall, compared to our previous work it had less ska and it certainly got heavier. It was a really fun record to make because of how diverse it was. We tried a little bit of everything, ranging from blast beats to Latin beats, and I feel like that helped show us what else is possible moving forward.
Bill – “Suffocating” is one of the most personal songs on the record, but also one of the most powerful. What inspired its lyrics?
Dan – I wasn’t even sure if we should include “Suffocating” on the record, but I’m glad we did. The song is about my uncle who passed away of AIDS in 1994. He was the coolest guy, truly a person others loved to be around. He could make you laugh, he was so kind and generous and also super-creative and artistic. I really looked up to him. He also happened to be gay. My grandparents were super-religious and they, along with other family members, couldn’t accept that. It was such a sad thing to think about. Until the day he died and even in his last days, they pleaded with him to repent. To this day they still think he was wrong and it still makes me sick. At the end of the day, it’s a song about something that was upsetting, but also a song remembering someone really special.
Bill – Wow. Thanks for sharing such a personal story. Another track that deals with loss is “Along the Way.” What made you want to write this song?
Dan – “Along the Way” is about a past relationship that ended pretty painfully. We were young and after the relationship ended I think we were both doing things to retaliate and make each other feel shitty. After a while, I realized life is too short to hold grudges with someone I once got along with so well. It was easy to get angry when thinking about the end of the relationship, but as time passed I started to remember the good times. I was going through a rough time in my life and without their help I don’t think I would’ve made it. It was too much work to stay angry. I don’t see or have contact with that person, but if they heard the song I’d like to think they feel the same.
Bill – Would you say there’s an overall theme with the album’s lyrics?
Dan – The overall message is pretty rooted in negatives, but I think there’s a lot of positive reinforcement. Here’s the problem, but here’s a possible solution. Many songs have a political message, shinning a light on things that people may not even realize are happening. I think there’s a big element of control in government that is being financed and ordered by corporate ties. The noose just seems to get tighter. Other songs deal with personal struggles like depression and anxiety. The remaining songs are songs about my own personal feelings. For example “Take Aim” is about hunting. I have a hard time calling that a sport. The idea behind the tune is how would the hunter enjoy being hunted? I don’t think they would.
Bill – The record is named after the final track, “Choices.” Why did you choose this as the title?
Dan – When we initially started working on the record I was dealing with a lot of decisions in my life. I was seeing many friends making moves; some big, some small and some good, some bad. People in my life were passing away from drugs and alcohol. I suppose the theme that can be found pretty often on the record is cause and effect. I adopted more patience in my life since Choices, but at the time I was really focused on the outcome of every single action in my life. Choices was a good title for the record because the song is about the choices we make in our personal lives. I thought that was a good place to start because after all, the only decisions we can make in this life are our own. The best thing we can do for ourselves is to stay informed and educated.
Bill – You guys incorporate an array of influences, everything from ska to hardcore to punk and metal. How exactly would you describe your sound?
Dan – From the beginning, it was the plan to incorporate ska and reggae into a punk/hardcore sound. We were all playing in dying bands that already were experimenting with a heavier ska sound. I guess we just combined what we did from our previous bands with some progression and Still Alive is the product. Bands like Suicide Machines, LOC and Folly showed us it was possible to combine heavy and ska, we just wanted to take it further our own way. Over the years we’ve played around with different genres, but when it comes up I tell people we’re a punk/hardcore band with some ska and reggae blended in.
Bill – Kuma’s recently named a burger after your band. How did that happen and what do you think of the burger?
Dan – It was a funny thing. My brother Anthony works at Kuma’s Too and he joked around about making a Still Alive burger. I thought he was kidding when he mentioned it a year ago, but when December hit I was quite surprised. Growing up, me and Anthony liked a lot of the same bands and it’s really cool to see him sticking with the scene in his own way. He also made the very tasty La Armada burger and for February he is responsible for the Hellmouth. I really enjoyed the Still Alive burger. I went and had it four times, once with the entire band. It was a delicious burger smothered in two kinds of cheese on a garlic bread bun. My favorite part was the little pentagram branded on the cheese.
Bill – What sort of plans has Still Alive made for 2016?
Dan – 2016 is going to be a writing year for sure. I plan on having a new set of songs to work on with the guys by summer and to start recording them in November. We have some cool shows planned out. April 29th we’re playing with a band that has had a lot of influence on us, Comeback Kid from Winnipeg. That one is at Brauer House in Lombard. Prior to recording, (early fall) we’re going to hit the road out east for a couple weeks of tour. We’ve been out east twice now, but there are a lot of spots we haven’t hit and others we want to revisit. It’s always an awesome time to hit the road and meet some new friends and bands. It’s gonna be a fun year!