published: 25 /
Texas group ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead have developed a reputation for both their ferocious live shows and interest in abstract art. Dominic Simpson talks to band member Conrad Keely about their new album, 'Worlds Apart'
It’s funny how venues look so much smaller when no-one’s there. We’re standing onstage at the Brixton Academy, about five minutes after the doors have opened. There’s been a long queue since at least five in the afternoon, and there’s a slow trickle of fans arriving through the double doors and staring at us curiously, many of them with Audioslave T-shirts – the name of the headlining band. Earlier, the primary members of Austin, Texas’s…And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead – singers/guitarists Conrad Keely and Jason Reece, plus drummer Kevin Allen - had converged in their dressing room to discuss their plans for the set, which is why Conrad had insisted that we do the interview onstage. As we – Conrad, me, and the record label PR - walk onstage after negotiating through labyrinth corridors backstage, and I turn my dictaphone onstage, Conrad comments, “You know what I hate about this place? The shitty fucking Bob Marley music!”
While ‘One Love’ blares out of the tannoy, I look out to the crowd; with only a smattering of an audience so far, the venue looks nowhere near as big as when I’ve been in the audience watching bands. What a different a sold-out crowd makes.
How have the other two nights been here, I enquire?
You don’t like the venue?
“The crowd is shitty”, he scowls, turning his back to prod a keyboard that will be used in their set. It omits some farty synth noises. “It sucks and the chicks are ugly.”
Though accusations of pretentiousness are incorrect, Trail of Dead have never been an easy band to pin down, and this extends to the way in which they’ve always flirted with visual art and literature in their work, from the strange, incredibly detailed baroque paintings that adorn their front covers, to the obsessions in their songs with painters and gothic imagery (which extends to much of their song titles and their moniker – even their appearance, though they’re no goth band). Conrad has put a number of articles on their website about "abstract art" and such like, and looks surprised that I remember. One track on a previous album is entitled 'Baudelaire' after the great French poet, while another, 'Days of Being Wild', is based on the works of Czech novelist Milan Kundera.
“Yesterday we went to the Tate”, he remembers, warming to the subject.
The Tate Modern on Bankside?
“The Tate Britain near Pimlico station”, he corrects me, referring to the one located on Millbank. “There’s a lot of Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Edward Burne-Jones, Everett Mill, Joan Waterhouse.”
Apart from painters, is there any other kind of art that you have a deep interest in?
“This book [he motions the paperback he’s reading] is about one of the physicists who worked with Einstein...It’s pretty funny. I like really lowbrow films. 'Finding Nemo'. The Pixar movies, like 'House Party'. Teen movies. I don’t like those pretentious films”.
He goes back to prodding the keyboard again, oblivious to us. Not the easiest interview subject I’ve had so far.
‘Worlds Apart’ is …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead’s fourth album. It’s an album that sees them at something of a crossroads, even though it operates as a continuation of their sound - from the lo-fi, Sonic Youth-meets-Jesus Lizard sonic attack of their first, self-titled album; through to the dynamics of their second, ‘Madonna’, their post-hardcore masterpiece and breakthrough; followed by ‘Source Tags and Codes’, an epic, broader album, voted 10.0 by one website (yes, they’re that precise that they need the extra digit), and their first for a major label. An extended EP, ‘The Secret of Elena’s Tomb’ - on which one track, 'Intelligence', sounded more like a Nine Inch Nails track than any of Trail of Dead’s usual signature sound -followed this, illustrating the band’s versatility.
And then finally we have the new LP. ‘Worlds Apart’ continues the trend of ‘Source Tags and Codes' by broadening their sound further still and moving away from their earlier lo-fi rumblings on some tracks and into territory that touches on Pink Floyd, Mercury Rev, the Smashing Pumpkins, even Queen. This doesn’t mean they have abandoned the all-out attack of much of their early work, nor have they abandoned that ferocious live energy which has made their shows the stuff of legend, propelling them from playing bars in Austin to headlining the London Astoria and beyond.
The new LP still has an echo of both, but it’s also a palpably clearer and more expansive release than previously. The opener, 'Ode to Isis', is a sturm-und-drang full-on apocalyptic classical belter with some gothic choral arrangements and an orchestra reaching crescendo. On 'To Russia My Homeland' they’ve incorporated Eastern European Slavic folk music (a result of Conrad’s interest in Russian composers), while 'The City of Lost Souls' sounds like something Prince could have come up with. Meanwhile, the sound is less muggy and makes use of keyboards on the likes of 'The Summer of ‘91', one of their most accessible tracks yet. It’s still recognizably Trail of Dead, though, and the album’s middle section in particular very much bears their hallmarks. Of course, they were never a straight-ahead rock band anyway, and even on the first album there was a grand vision, a kind of desire to reach out and expand (particularly on that album’s eight-minute 'Novena Without Faith') that’s always marked them out from others who are content to regurgitate the same formula again and again.
If the new album doesn’t quite match up to the pinnacles of some of their previous work, it’s still fantastic for all that, and cements their tendency with every subsequent release to experiment further with marrying their early brawn with new elements. They’re still an important force, a statement of intent that rock n roll can – needs to be – an incendiary force. And live, they’re an electrifying proposition, a furious riot of musical fireworks and broken equipment that overwhelms and never lets go.
“You know, we never really think about those things”, Conrad replies when I venture as to the changes and progressions that have taken places in the bands sound over the four albums. “It’s not something that you try and be conscious about…you leave it as open as possible.”
Has signing to a major label been any kind of mitigating factor in your sound?
“Not at all”, he shakes his head, and leaves it at that.
The move was from the indie label Merge to Interscope, and preceded a change in the line-up, as original bassist Neil Busch left to become an investment banker (“he didn’t want to do music anymore – he’s sick of it...I don’t blame him!”) and the band not only recruited a replacement on bass but two other extra members as well who double on drums and keyboards. Yes, that right – in a Spinal Tap-esque move that only Japanese noise nutters the Boredoms have matched, they will be playing tonight with THREE drummers, as long-time drummer Kevin Allen is still very much in the fold (though the band have a propensity to switch instruments during the middle of their set). That’s some extra power added to the sound, to say the least, with their live sound reaching juggernaut proportions. Danny Wood, Doni Schroader, and David Longoria, welcome to the fold.
What were the band’s influences during the making of ‘Worlds Apart’?
“A lot of soundtracks – Jesus Christ Superstar, Handgun, Hero, the Polydor soundtrack for Conan The Barbarian”, he replies. “Kate Bush influences. Peter Gabriel. I mean, basically just anything that comes across our table, we somehow work it in there. Even stuff we don’t like – that’s the truth about it when you writing. Everything that influences you, even stuff that influences you negatively – there’s a lot of influences on this record of a lot of music I hate. Like Hoobastank. Like Staind. Like Limp Bizkit (laughs)… I like McClusky. Usually I listen to a lot of world music, like Africondo and a lot of stuff from Senegal. I like a lot of Django Rinehart. Steve Cappelli – he’s a violinist. I like Early Jazz and Bepop. I like early Country and Western music from the 1930’s.”
Led Zeppelin is another name that comes up, partly for their extraordinary energy but also because of their versatile tendency to shift their sound from full-out rock energy to raga drone pieces to the tender acoustic-influenced folk madrigals that can be found on 'The Battle of Evermore' and much of the second side of 'Led Zeppelin 3'. The louder, charging side to Zeppelin can certainly be heard on ‘Worlds Apart’s standout track, 'Will You Smile for Me Again', a roaring 7-minute epic with pounding drums (in 5/4 time!) and urgent guitars that sums up exactly just how inspiring Trail of Dead can be when they are truly in their prime. The stunning blast of double-drum kit power brings to mind John Bonham’s tendency to record in churches so as to get the right acoustics on his kit. He would have been proud of 'Will You Smile for Me Again'. Conrad muses, “I like the fact that they weren’t, you know, typified by one song. I mean, everyone thinks 'Stairway to Heaven' but I think they were quite diverse…they went from Zeppelin 2 to Zeppelin 3.”
While Trail of Dead’s lyrics have previously couched themselves in metaphor and alluded obliquely, on ‘Worlds Apart’ the title track is unusually direct and shorn of any metaphor, as Conrad castigates simultaneously the hollow vacuity of the pop star lifestyle and the brain dead attitudes that prevailed after 9/11: “Look at these cunts on MTV, with cars and cribs and shit / Is that what being a celebrity really means?…How they laugh as we shovel the ashes of the Twin Towers/Blood and death as we pay back the debt of this candy store of ours.” Released as a single, perhaps unsurprisingly it didn’t exactly get heavy rotation on MTV and radio.
Do you see yourselves as like a kind of saviour of rock n roll, or is it just a general criticism of the scene?
“Either rock doesn’t need being saved or it’s beyond being saved, I’m not sure which”, he replies.
It seems like on this album there’s a palpable urgency to the lyrics that speak of alienation and dislike of much of the music scene in America, and of a desire to produce art on it’s own terms, not just as an extension of MTV or VH1. I’m thinking here of not just the usual targets in the mainstream but also the kind of dimwits you see posing on the Kerrang! Channel here in the UK with their brainless frat-boy 15 minutes of fame.
It reverberates not just with the title track but also with songs like 'And The Rest Will Follow' and the lyrics to 'Would You Smile Again For Me', where Jason spits out “And just how long will it take for you to understand?…Convince yourself to take control”. There’s a kind of much more direct criticism on the new album than there has been on previous records, where the lyrics were slightly more abstract.
“Well, I was thinking about the lyrics on the first record and not all of them really meant anything – a lot of them were just kind of vague, oblique references to films that I was catching at the time. But I think that there was a lot more things on this record that I actually wanted to say, and so I just went ahead and said them. And it was a reaction to a lot of things that I thought weren’t being said – I think now more than ever something needs to be said, for Christ’s sake!”
By who – the bands or the audience?
“By anybody; everybody…we have to carry on as a civilisation, and I’m not just talking about pop culture.”
What do you mean by that?
“It just seems like everybody’s kind of resigned to go to hell!” he says, getting animated.
When you say that, do you mean just in the US or the whole world?
“The whole world. Yeah. So I’m talking about these things and I can’t help but think that somehow I have to address it in some way.”
Do you think that coming from a vast, semi-autonomous state like Texas, where it can take hours to reach a nearby city, colours your outlook on life in some way?
“Not at all – well, yes, but in a positive degree – what, you mean like as if we have any affiliation with George Bush? You know, we feel a lot more closer in Texas to the outside, believe it or not – we’re really close to Mexico, it’s a few hours away from where we live. So the third world is right there at our doorstep. In some ways I feel like I’m not living in America at all – I feel like I’m kind of living in Mexico…”
Conrad looks out again at the audience and sneers, “These aren’t fans. Bunch of fucking autograph hunters”.
So if these gigs haven’t been among your favourites, which have been the best?
“Well, that’s impossible to say. We’ve had good and bad shows in the same town. Like, these shows in London have been horrible but we’ve also had good shows in London too.” And you’re favourite thing about touring Europe? “Scandinavian bitches”. Erm, right.
We contemplate the rapidly increasing audience, a sea of Audioslave and Rage Against The Machine T-shirts (three quarters of Audioslave previously played in Rage Against The Machine ). Maybe, I venture, Audioslave is all some of these fans know…
“ I know, and I was never into those bands...but anyway, it would make a lot more sense if we were opening up for someone like Radiohead or REM. How we managed to do this...it’s just the label!”
He shakes his head, amazed that people have been queuing for most of the afternoon – but not, most likely, to see Trail of Dead.
“I know, why do we even play? What would be really funny is to set up an easel on the front row and just kind of like draw them. But then, I know that if we sold out three nights in a row people would say the same thing about us.”
There’s a certain kind of insularity in sectors of the indie scene that would detest Franz Ferdinand for selling a million albums.
“I would more than happy for selling a million records. Can you put that in the interview?” he laughs, looking at me straight in the eye with his piercing brown eyes.
You not a fan of the 'NME', I take it (particularly now after they panned the new album)?
“Well, I don’t like the idea of a weekly piece of…” He searches for the words and try’s another way. “There is some good music magazines out there – I like 'Mojo'...the problem with the 'NME' is, the only way they can sell copy is to roll up a bunch of new bands and slag off a load of old bands. And so, it’s like this machine that they’re caught up in but it doesn’t really have anything to do with actual taste or whether their fans listen to that music – it’s just like, they’ve got to sell copy. They’ve got to stay in business and support the monster that they’ve created.”
What do you lot plan to do next after this tour?
“I’ve no clue. I think I’m going to go to New York and hook up with people there, and then I think we might start working on the next record. Maybe just about flying to…I don’t know….” He looks blank for a moment. As for where their sound might venture next, Conrad mumbles, “maybe we’ll really go hardcore” and then wanders dazed around the stage. He’s not paying attention anymore at this point, and with just 45 minutes to go before the band are due onstage, he’s got their set on his mind. We head back to the dressing room, where the rest of the band are psyched up and ready to play. I try to imagine three drummers onstage; as it turns out, I never get to see the gig as the gig is sold out and I don’t have a pass. I just have to take Conrad’s word on it. I leave Brixton Academy, contemplating that wherever Trail of Dead will go next is anyone’s guess. I suspect that the band don’t even know themselves.