Photo: Chapman Baehler
From the earlier raucous work of their self-titled debut and Madonna to the more accessible apocalyptic noise of Source Tags and Codes and their newest album Worlds Apart, ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead have consistently specialized in soundtracking the breaking of the seventh seal. For those of you less schooled in scripture, that means they make music fit for the end of the world, whether it be an interior existence troubled by nightmares and doubt or an exterior reality continually plagued by environmental disaster, neo-colonialism, and unending Wars on Whatever. And that may sound as if they manufacture the unlistenable, but it is indeed quite the opposite. Trail of Dead affairs, whether on disc or onstage, are notoriously addictive, exploratory, and jarring experiences, ones that you are unlikely to forget. More important, the brainchild of Hawaiian island childhood pals Conrad Keely and Jason Reece isn’t simply interested in sound, but also sight, which is why the visual component of their body of work is as engaging as its auditory vehicle. It’s about the art, baby, and Trail of Dead know better than most that the game isn’t over when the tracks are laid down. Bands that last are the ones that provide a rewarding sensorium to their listeners, and as students of history, art, and music, Keely and Reece are more than aware of their duties to their public and their own refined sense of creativity. Which is why MTV, bling culture, and global materialism are attacked in Worlds Apart with unrestrained ardor and cacophony. PopMatters caught up with Keely by phone to discuss the new joint, George W., natural catastrophe, Star Trek, sellouts and, of course, Antonio Salieri.
PopMatters: Every time I listen to your band I think of apocalypse. Is this an organic thing?
Conrad Keely: I think there is some conscious effort on our part to sound apocalyptic. One of our preoccupations is the idea of an apocalypse. It certainly is on my mind when I turn on the news and see what’s going on in the world. I’m a fan of history and it seems that history is intent on reaching a crazy climax that is going to play itself out in our lifetime. So I am curious to see what it is.
PM: How much of the new album is a response to what’s been happening in the world over the last four or five years?
CK: It’s absolutely a response. We’ve been very affected by it. I’m not someone who feels disaffected; everything I think is a product of what’s going on in the world around me. Especially since we’ve had an opportunity to travel and not just see how they live but also hear their opinions on the United States. It’s given me a unique perspective to write from.
PM: Do they give you trouble for being American?
CK: No, I guess I lucked out. But I have an Irish passport.
PM: So what are your thoughts on what’s going down right now? As a student of history, do you get the feeling that we are watching history repeat itself, especially as it pertains to America’s imperalist incursions into other parts of the world?
CK: Well, in some ways I think our political climate is distracting us from the issues that are more pressing. I think the environmental issues the world faces are far more important, but it’s easy to lose sight of that, because George Bush and others are taking up our time. But there are predictions that Kilmanjaro is going to lose all of its snow within the next 10 to 15 years. Those are the things that I find to be jarring. Politics have a way of balancing eventually, inevitably. And since most of us are basing our opinions only on what we hear in the media, we are all uneducated to an extent about what’s going on. I try to catch the news from other countries to get additional perspective, but in the great expanse of history, Bush is a speck. When you are talking about our planet, it is, in the end, all that we have.
PM: It reminds of the lyrics from Worlds Apart: “Look at these cunts on MTV / With their cars and cribs and rings and shit / Is that what being a celebrity means? /Look boys and girls here’s BBC / See corpses, rapes and amputees / What do you think now of the American Dream?”
CK: I am sort of disturbed by the fact that there haven’t been a lot of celebrities and artists addressing that stuff. When I do watch TV, everyone seems preoccupied with partying, getting laid, materialism, and the rest, and I can’t help but think of the band playing on the Titanic as the ship is sinking. I sometimes think that’s what is happening in our culture. We’re basically being medicated and distracted while the world collapses around us. The Discovery Channel is far more terrifying, and I don’t know why [no one] is doing something about it. The last environmentally aware band was REM, and they haven’t talked about this kind of thing since Green.
PM: Right, even though this tsunami killed almost as many people that have died in the entire Iraqmire in a single week or two.
CK: Yeah, I’m trying to think about the kind of world we are going to leave our children and ... it’ll be interesting. I mean, I’m not a complete pessimist; I don’t think humans were put on the planet for the express purpose of destroying it. I certainly don’t think that humanity is innately evil at all. I do think that there is hope.
PM: What do you think the general problem is then? Why are we fascinated with all this materialsm when it is so utterly destructive?
CK: Obviously, you could say that it is greed, but it is really hard to say whether or not there has been some wheel set in motion that is impossible to stop. If you look at the way humanity has technologically evolved in the last few hundred years, from the Industrial Revolution to the present, no one really has shown the power to halt that progress, even though we’ve seen protests then and now. This is just one of those times that humanity is just going to have to get through to attain the next level. I mean, I’m a utopian idealist: I look at Star Trek and think that would be the ultimate future.
PM: You’re a Trekkie!
CK: (Laughs) I’m a Trekkie.
CK: But in order to get to that point, we’re going to have to abandon much of what we cling to for comfort. Things like religion and materialism, stuff like that. And it’s going to be a painful process, but nothing good comes without some pain and suffering.
PM: Which seems to be something your band is comfortable with, stacked as it is with apocalyptic imagery and music, even down to the album art. Then I hear you call yourself a utopian idealist, and go, “Huh?” I think it’s cool that Trail of Dead can embody such contradiction.
CK: I suppose I wouldn’t call it contradiction. I think of our art more as observation than any kind of statement. When I write lyrics, they aren’t so much opinion as they are observations.
PM: What are you thoughts on the new album, especially how it measures up to Madonna and Source Tags and Codes?
CK: Well, every time we finish an album, I’m already thinking about the next one. And I don’t know that we ever have been pleased with anything that we have done. As soon as we complete a record, we immediately see the flaws in it, see what we had hoped to achieve and how we feel short of it. That’s exactly how I feel about this record. There are things I was hoping and wanting to do on this record, and I’m already thinking about how I’m going to achieve them on the next one. Assuming of course that we’re allowed to make another record! (Laughs) But I wouldn’t want it to be any other way. If it came to the point where we were completely satisfied with everything we’ve done, where would I go from there? My whole writing process has changed so much from when I was younger. When I started composing, I was the type of writer who would create hundreds of songs, but only four or five of them would be any good. I would write just for the sake of writing. But I’m not that type of composer anymore. Now I only write when I need to, only when I have to. Everything I compose now is written with complete deliberation. It’s not like we have any outtakes from Worlds Apart; everything written for this record is on it. There are no excess songs.
PM: Yeah, I noticed that none of the songs from the Elena’s Tomb EP are on Worlds Apart, which is great because the EP can stand on its own. Usually when bands put out EPs, they are mostly full of songs that you’ll have to pay for again when the full-length comes out a year later or so. I remember reading somewhere that there were suspicions that Trail of Dead would do that with Elena’s Tomb, but nothing in my experience with the band told me that would be the case. Maybe it was the jump to a major-label that kick-started that nonsense.
CK: Yeah, I don’t know. The whole major-label thing is a backlash from the punk revolution, but I have to admit that, when I was growng up, all of my favorite bands—including the punks, like the Clash and the Sex Pistols—were on major labels. It’s an irony to me, especially the whole idea of selling out. People have to remind themselves that when the Beatles moved to London, their fans in Liverpool accused them of selling out. People are very possessive about their bands, and they want them to stay in this bubble where they can control and contain them, even though the band may have higher aspirations that that. I don’t think we write music for minorities and subcultures; we write music for humanity. I’ve always thought that. I don’t see the point of writing for a small group when there are six billion people on the planet. I’ll never understand that mentality. Maybe I’ll have to sit down with someone who thinks that way, and have them explain it to me. Because artists that have wallowed in obscurity aren’t the ones you find out about in the history books. Would you rather be Salieri or Mozart?
PM: (Laughs) Right! Wonderful analogy.
CK: Although Salieri is experiencing a minor revival right now.
PM: Let’s talk about the artwork, which is one of my favorite aspects of your band’s creative output. Trail of Dead is unique that way; your releases tend to attack all the senses, rather than just the ears. How does that process come together?
CK: Sometimes it’s accidental. During my free time, I draw and paint, and then think about how I can incorporate what I’ve done into the band. This release was a lot more specific, especially the cover. I spent a lot of time designing that collage, and when the record company told me that I had to cite and clear all the sources—much of which was stuff that I took myself in museums across the world—I figured there was no way I was going to be able to clear it all. I mean, I didn’t have any idea where some of it even came from, and I probably wasn’t going to get all the permissions I needed for clearance. So we had to get an illustrator to paint my design but tweak it somewhat. Before I even wanted to be a musician, my greatest aspiration in life was to be an artist for Marvel Comics. I grew up digging the X-Men and all that. So our music has a strong visual element to it. When we’re making it, I sometimes wonder what I’d like people to see while they close their eyes and listen to our songs.
PM: The cover reminds me of Bosch, but because there are so many artistic modes, styles and representations, it feels more like a clash of civilizations than the “Garden of Earthly Delights”, for example.
CK: Yeah, that was the idea. I wanted an allegory depicting the history of human conflict. I wanted everybody to be fighting, like in Marvel Comics’ Secret Wars, where all the superheroes are fighting each other. I actually wanted to sneak in one of the New Mutants.
PM: Talk about some of the artistic collaborations you have on Worlds Apart, like the painting for the title song that features a hand with a loaded gun coming out of the television screen at the head of a young boy.
CK: Yeah, that was a shocking one. The last painting—“Battle of Nu’uanu Pali,” by Herb Kane—has a lot of significance for us because the part of Hawaii depicted there is the exact place where Jason and I grew up, the windward side of the island. You can actually see where his parents’ house would be in that painting were it painted today. We have a strong connection with the islands, so it was cool for us to be able to incorporate that art into the album. I wasn’t sure that we were going to able to get it. Speaking of the one you like, Interscope wanted us to remove the hand and the gun. But our argument was basically, “Is controversy going to hurt us at all?”