And You Will Know Us By The Trail of The Dead

...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead
by Alexander Laurence

I heard about this band in summer 2001. I was looking forward to seeing them at CMJ in September. But that plan was changed by 9/11. It was cancelled. Six months later they released their first album on Interscope. I missed them perform during most of that year although I had most of their records by this time. I found out that finally they were playing All Tomorrow's Parties in June 2003. A few weeks before that festival, that show was cancelled too. A week later I found out they were going to play the show with Mogwai anyway.

...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead was formed in late 1994 by long-time friends Jason Reece and Conrad Keely (pictured). Together they found themselves in Austin, TX, where the duo played their first shows, recruiting guitarist Kevin Allen and bassist/sampler Neil Busch. The group was already legendary in indie circles for their anarchic concert sets. Jason showed me a gash on his arm from the previous night's performance. His parents were there for this night's show, so he has only a few minutes to talk with me.
They released their self-titled full-length debut on Trance Syndicate in early 1998. Following the label's collapse, the band moved on to Merge records to issue Madonna in the fall of 1999. After years of playing, they built up quite a following. That led to major label interest. Source Tags & Codes came out in 2002. In 2003, they released an EP called The Secret of Elena's Tomb. They played a few short tours in 2003, but spent most of the year writing new material. Conrad had published an article in the new Filter Magazine that month that received much attention.
I interviewed Jason Reece and Conrad Keely right before their gig in Hollywood.
AL: Your album, Source Tags & Codes, came out in April 2002. How many shows have you played since then?
Jason: Probably close to three hundred shows.
AL: Have things changed since the early days?
Jason: Yeah it has changed. We have noticed that younger people come out to the shows. It's not so much a college crowd but high school kids who are into us now. That's a good thing. Having an older crowd is cool to a degree, but I would rather have a bunch of kids who have never heard of Sonic Youth or Fugazi. Those are the bands were our roots lie.
AL: Do you think that younger people are interested in the band because they saw your video on MTV? They see you and think there's this weird band and there's something else besides pop music.
Jason: Yeah. The goal for us is to reach those kids more than people know a bunch of cool bands already. In New York or Los Angeles it's so readily available and cool music is easily found. In the Midwest and these smaller cities they get their Walmarts and very few choices. For us to be on MTV is a good thing because they would have to play the same old new metal bands. I would like our video go up against Staind and abolish them. It's futile. Those bands with always exist.
AL: What bands did you like when you were that younger age?
Jason: Bands like Fugazi and Bikini Kill. Um. I would watch bands like Jesus Lizard and Butthole Surfers. I liked a band called Crust. They were a really scary Butthole Surfer influenced band that would bang on all these metal objects. I used to like Crash Worship. They covered everyone with animal blood at one show. It was wild. When you are exposed to music like that is in your face, or controversial, or thought provoking, it is great. It's not like a normal punk band like Green Day. It's like taking the rock medium and ruining it and redefining rock music. With that as our diet, we became this.
AL: You have songs like "Homage" that are like hardcore punk. That reminds me of Black Flag.
Jason: Black Flag is something we would want to pay tribute to. At the same time we love anything that is beautiful and pretty and grandiose. We also like things that are visceral. It's almost like broken bones, and the bones are sticking out of the skin, and blood is everywhere. It's like watching a corpse rotting. At the same you want to watch a beautiful rose growing out of the soil.
AL: You have certain songs that have quiet parts. You are not sure what is coming next, because most of the songs are standard songs.
Jason: I guess it is that freedom that we have allowed ourselves to do things. We haven't worried about trivial things like genres. We fit in the rock and roll genre, but at the same time why not try to manipulate the rock music? Sometimes we fail at it. It's never contrived.
AL: What is the process of writing songs like in the band?
Jason: The process who be like sitting at home and write the basic structure of a song and then present it to the other three members of the band. They are obviously going to interpret it in a different way. That morphs into something different than what it was. When we get together with the producer Michael McCarthy, he would challenge us to make it just a little bit more unique. We add a lot of layers to the sound. I like the idea of when you hear something, there are always little sounds that you pick out and you don't know exactly what those sounds are. It keeps you interested in the music.
AL: You have one song that has a political rant going on in the background. I didn't hear it really till I listen to the song a few times.
Jason: Milan Kundera inspired that song. It was the idea of some form of protest. It was like being catch up in a world where you could express your freedoms. These kids were living in France in the 1960s. They would spray paint the words "Life is elsewhere." It was sort of a nihilistic book.
AL: You switch instruments often on the record?
Jason: Yeah. Some of us aren't musically trained on all these instruments. But when it comes down to playing music, it's one of those things when as long as you pick it up and as long as you feel you can make it sound good. You don't have to go to school for twenty years to play a violin. If it doesn't hurt your ears and actually compliments the music, then you put it in. I barely know how to play piano, but I have done piano and keyboard overdubs. Neil and Kevin have taken samplers and played around with sound.
AL: We are here at this gig with Mogwai now because the original All Tomorrow's Parties festival was canceled. You have played this festival before. I read that you blew Mogwai and Sonic Youth off the stage. Can you talk about that?
Jason: It was a lucky break we had. Maybe it was the right moment? That was at a special festival. It was properly planned. It was in an area where all the music was in one place. People had their own cabins. People had their own apartments. Four or five people could be in each apartment. It was like a beautiful party. It was a complete drug orgy with music to keep everyone fueled. This Los Angeles one is more problematic because it's a big city. It's seems like Coachella is a more successful idea.
(Jason has to leave. A few minutes later I am introduced to Conrad)
AL: Have you had some time off?
Conrad: We haven't really been off. We recorded and toured with the Elena's Tomb EP. We have been writing material for the next record. The bulk of it has yet to be written and done. After we finish these few dates with Mogwai we will get back and finish it. We are doing more co-writing and sharing ideas this time. That should be interesting.
AL: Will that make it different?
Conrad: I don't how that will change things. I don't know how the songs will take shape. I am using a lot more elements now.
AL: Do you write all the lyrics?
Conrad: No. Usually whoever is singing the song is the one who wrote the lyrics. I would find it hard to sing someone else's lyrics with any conviction.
AL: Some songs like "Baudelaire" and "Monsoon" sound very heroic, like they take places in the throes of battle. They are like marching songs.
Conrad: well, Led Zeppelin influences us. I just love that new DVD that they came out with. That gave me a lot of perspective on how shitty we are.
AL: Led Zeppelin was really influenced by Blues. Your bands seems like you are more into punk and avant-garde noise?
Conrad: It's true. I think that we have a lot influences from classical rock. For me, I would say that I am more into classical rock than punk rock. Punk rock was just something that happened when I was a teenager. It changed how I looked at music and things. But it certainly didn't change my life for that long. I look at the whole history of music as being influential.
AL: If people heard "Homage" or "Days of Being Wild" they would think that you were this hardcore punk band.
Conrad: Those are Jason's songs. Jason grew up with punk rock being a big influence. When we met, I was the one who turned him on for the first time to things like Rush and Pink Floyd. Music back then was more album-oriented. It wasn't so self-conscious either. It wasn't like they thought, "We have to seem tough." They could write whatever the hell they wanted to. I liked it too because it seemed smart and brainy. Some people think rock music has to be stupid and I don't agree.
AL: Do you like garage rock?
Conrad: I like the stuff that was played in the 1950s and 1960s. I don't know why people are still playing it now thirty years later. Time is going forward. Why is music going backwards?
AL: I think people go back to their record collections and try to sound like those records. They have given up on trying to sound like an original band.
Conrad: I appreciate that. I glad that people are trying to keep rock music current because it is being threatened in many ways. But at least I think, with whatever I imagine, I see music going forward, and I see things progressing. I see things that haven't been done before in rock music. I think that Mogwai are an impressive rock band. People call them "post-rock" but they are still rock.
AL: Who does all the artwork for the band?
Conrad: I do a lot of it. I did all the art on the Elena's Tomb EP.
AL: Did you study art in school?
Conrad: I did but I didn't learn anything in college. I was drawing since I was age two. Art is something that I have always done. I had an agent when I was seventeen. I was showing art at science fiction conventions. But I quit to do music. I only quit art symbolically because you can never quit a part of yourself like that. That will always be a part of who I am. A band should be an outlet for every creative expression.
AL: Have you all been writing a book?
Conrad: I have been writing a science fiction novel for a long time. If it does come out, I don't think it will come out under my name. Actually Filter Magazine just published one of my articles. It's called "Abstract Art is Shit." It is art criticism.
AL: What period of art are you talking about?
Conrad: It's about why Abstract Expressionism and Cubism replaced 19th Century Realism and Romanticism. It's about why it happened. There was a reason. It wasn't an accident. I couldn't go into it in depth. I could write a thesis about it. It had a lot to do with the wars. But I like Surrealism. Salvador Dali is amazing. I was talking more about Abstract Expressionism. Don't get me wrong. I like all art and thank god that we have it. Painting has a history of a thousand years. Abstract art is just this new movement.
AL: Have you read any good books lately?
Conrad: I like Graham Hancock's excursions into archeology. He is trying to figure out where we came from and where civilization started.
AL: Do you have any spiritual beliefs?
Conrad: I think that there is a good chance that civilization has been around for tens of thousands of years, not only six thousand years, like they say in Christianity. Many things were built and invented by people who were a lot older than the Incas and the Egyptians. Those were later civilizations. For the "Separate Ways" video, we filmed a lot of that down in Mexico at some Mayan ruins. We went to University of Texas and they the biggest Mayan department in America. There is a good book by Balthazar Gracian called The Art of Worldly Wisdom. He was a 17th century Spanish Jesuit. It's a very good book.
AL: Any other authors you like?
Conrad: I like Umberto Eco and Tolstoy.
AL: What is Austin like?
Conrad: I am getting bored of Austin. I feel the urge for going overseas. We have spent much of the past two years there and I am getting used to it. America becomes so tiring for me. I need the stimulus of something foreign. I just got back from Thailand. That was a month ago. I feel like I have to go out again.
AL: Does anyone in the band have any non-musical or non-literary hobbies?
Conrad: None of us are race car drivers or carpenters. I am collecting string instruments and I am learning to play the viola. I have started using acrylic paint. I am making a new series of paintings. I just wrote a string quartet.
AL: The string section of the song "Source Tags & Codes" is lifted from the middle of the song "How Near How Far." That is a more orchestral tendency where you lift out motifs from different sections.
Conrad: Pink Floyd and even Public Enemy influence that. I like working with motifs. Andrew Lloyd Webber did a great job of that in Jesus Christ Superstar.
AL: What do Jason and Kevin do in their spare time?
Conrad: Jason is starting a new DJ night. I bought a crossbow recently. Music and art are my life.
AL: How is this next record going to be different?
Conrad: We will work with the same producer. The main difference is that we are going to build a new studio in Austin, so most of our ideas will happen there. We are going to work on our music on our own time. We won't be looking at the clock like we have in the past. I am pretty excited about that.
AL: The record company lets you do what you want?
Conrad: Pretty much. It's not that they don't care. They just know that were are that kind of band that doesn't take suggestions. I have respect for Jimmy Iovine. I'll take his suggestions. But even he made a suggestion on the last record and we didn't do it and it still got released. He said turn up the vocals on one of the songs.
AL: What is the Secret of Elena's Tomb?
Conrad: It is the story of a wacky eccentric guy who lived in Florida. He called himself a doctor but he wasn't a real doctor. He was a radiologist. He slept with a corpse for a number of years. It was discovered that it was the corpse of Elena, who was a young woman who died of tuberculosis. He had her body and exhumed it. By the time he was done with it, or when the authorities found out, there was nothing left of the body. It was falling apart and he was sewing parts on. They didn't charge him with anything. They just took the corpse away. He just wrote his memoirs which are called "The Secret of Elena's Tomb."
AL: What is the hardest thing about being in a band?
Conrad: Writing is the hardest thing. Writing is painful. It requires that you really get in touch with something about yourself within yourself. It's very scary place to go and it can be very terrifying. It's like the closest thing you can do to knowing God. It's like staring him in the face and saying "Here is my creation." Maybe I should maybe my writing a little less personal?
AL: What about these online diaries of people who use your picture and pretend to be you? That's not you on Friendster or whatever?
Conrad: What? You're kidding? Where did you see these?
AL: I can send you the information.
Conrad: Really? It sure is not me. Oh please! That's fucked up. Not that I care. I guess that I am flattered. I have barely enough time to write my own diaries and books.
AL: Do you have any advice for people who want to be in a band?
Conrad: Be prepared for a lot of pain. If you are not suffering for your art, then it's probably not good art. Sorry guys. We never sent out any demos. Our lives show was our solicitation. That's us.
AL: Do you like any other bands?
Conrad: I like Interpol's last record. I like what The Rapture is doing. We have played with both of those bands. I have always liked Mogwai, although I haven't heard their new album. I like a lot of Classical music. I like the soundtrack to The Red Violin. I like Gypsy music. I download a lot of music.