The Importance of Being “Dead”

...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead
Tao of the Dead

There’s a rather Darwinian way to survive in any bad economy: relocate to where the jobs are. Though the relocations have been a mix of coincidence and necessity, …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead have picked up stakes more often than most hope to over the last several years. The band has hung its hat in Olympia, then Austin, and finally Brooklyn, their home of the last five years. Though what the moves have to do with the band’s success is debatable, the willingness to adapt is just on more demonstration of Conrad Keely and Jason Reece knowing — or at least learning — how to keep their heads above water in a music industry that’s getting increasingly complicated for everyone concerned.

After 15 years as a band, seven albums and a record label of their own to boot, the members of Trail of Dead have proven themselves anything but predictable. After releasing back-to-back critical darlings in Madonna and Source Tags & Codes, the band embraced their full progressive tendencies on Worlds Apart before veering onto a more pop influenced trajectory on So Divided. That album gained the band a new set of fans while simultaneously alienating some members of their original fan base — a sure sign that you’ve “made it” if ever there was one. In 2007, the band left Interscope and two years later, released The Century Self on their own label, Richter Scale.

Their latest album, Tao of the Dead, isn’t a “return to form” album, as Trail of Dead has well since moved on from the band that made Madonna and Source Tags & Codes. Taking their cues from the late ’70s era albums from Rush and Yes, Tao of the Dead is an album with a definitive ‘Side A’ and ‘Side B’. Tao of the Dead also found the band reuniting with producer Chris “Frenchie” Smith, who produced the band’s self-titled album in 1998.

PopMatters caught up with Keely as he was battling a head cold at his home in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

The band has had a lot of different home bases over the years. How do you like living in Brooklyn?

I like it just fine. I just feel very productive here. And although I would never say I like living in Brooklyn more than I do Austin … if it was just quality of life, I’m sure I would rather live in Austin, but for me it’s more important to be able to work.

Has living in Brooklyn influenced your work?

In terms of sheer output, absolutely. As far as this record is concerned …, we did a lot of the writing for this record outside of our comfort zone. We spent a few days up in Connecticut working on the arrangement of this record. It was a very quite little town, it was cool.

How did you end up choosing Milford to compose the album?

We played a show there (at Daniel Street), and the entire upstairs storage space was the dressing room, and it had a big organ and a xylophone and while we were there, waiting to go onstage, we were upstairs recording and I just loved the environment.

Tao of Dead was recorded in ten days. Did you impose that strict deadline or did it happen organically?

We didn’t want to spend that long on it. The basic tracks were done in ten days at the Sonic Ranch (in El Paso). There were no hiccups, no drama involved in the making this record. Having made several dramatic records, this was a breath of fresh air.

Dramatic as in internal drama or the themes covered in your other albums?

The internal tension of making a record. I used to believe that was part of the process. I used to think that was necessary. It was a foolish and naïve belief. Maybe it took me this long to decide that was an idiotic idea and that you could actually enjoy making a record if you wanted to. We made a conscious decision to enjoy making this record. I’m so glad we did.

What are some albums that fit that tortured environment?

Rumours, the Sex Pistols entire career. I just think that it was healthier for us to find a better model than that.

How did you get back in touch with Chris Smith?

We never lost touch with him. He’s a permanent fixture of the Austin music scene. It was more like watching him develop over those years. When we worked with him, it was the first record he ever recorded. And now, he’s become quite a tour de force.

How do the two recording environments for your first album and your latest release compare?

I barely remember the first session. I remember it was very fast and very under the gun and done with no budget. And we were young and inexperienced and knew absolutely nothing about the recording studio. 15 years later and six records later, we’ve learned a lot.

Smith said he was going to be remixing your debut album this year, correct?

He’s already remixed that. I don’t know how much different it sounds to me, I can’t tell (laughs). Maybe I shouldn’t say that. I wanted to rerecord the vocals, but I was discouraged from taking it that far.

The album includes a preview for a graphic novella you created. What came first, the music or the story?

What came first was the world (of the graphic novella), which I’ve been working on since I was nine. That’s when I started making maps and world building. The background came next. This is the first time that I’ve actually revealed any of it. But the way it ties into the album … it was a smooth transition.

Can you talk briefly about this world you created?

To speak briefly about it is very difficult. It’s science fiction. I would compare it to steampunk, because of the Victorian atmosphere.

You cited Nell Brinkley as an artist that influenced you.

I wasn’t exposed to her until last year. I found her book at Forbidden Planet. The thing that I wanted to borrow was her style of telling a story with one strong visual image. She would have a main illustration taking up a page, and then there would be a lot of text. And I thought this was a neat way to do it as opposed to typical comics that have a lot of panels and a little bit of text. The thing that I’m trying to do is a lot more text-heavy and a lot more expository with the illustration as an accompaniment.

Is the comic self-published, or is it being published by a distributor.

I don’t know. I’m talking to people. It will be self-published if it’s not picked up — I would certainly not turn down an offer.

You’re set to do a tour of Europe in March. Any certain spots you want to hit over there?

My mother’s family, most of them live in the UK, so it’s always kind of a big deal for me to see them. Germany, I feel, is a country that actually understands our music and our band and what we’re about, so obviously I love going back there. And then there’s parts of Europe I love going to because of the towns and scenery.

The concept album has enjoyed a bit of a resurgence, but Tao of the Dead is slightly different, where each side of the album is meant to exist as a separate element. How did you go about achieving that effect?

It’s been something we’ve wanted to do for a while. I’ve always wanted to do it ever since I was a kid because that was the type of album I liked to listen to. The simple thing was it just came down to recording the record we wanted to listen to. Those are the types of records I realized as times go by, they still resonate with me and they seem to grow in their significance. And they are always the ones I go back to when I’m referencing sounds in the studio.

It seems like critics tend to focus on one particular album for a group. For your group, that album seems to be Source Tags & Codes. Is there any album of yours that you felt didn’t receive its due critically?

I was pretty disappointed at how Worlds Apart was received. But looking back now, I can see how ambitious we were trying to be and how that might have been difficult to achieve. But I can’t say I really dwell on that type of thing. For me, it’s always important to look ahead to the next record. So even now with this record, although I will be asked questions about this record, in my mind, I feel like I’ve already moved on to the next project.

And that project would be?

Our eighth record.