“We’re not just a band,” Conrad Keely stated rather matter-of-factly. Conrad is one-fourth of the now Austin-based and long-monikered …And You Will Us By The Trail Of Dead. He wasn’t trying to sound pretentious. I was probing him about the band’s dabbling in other forms of expression, specifically his own forays into the visual arts.
“I was originally in the visual arts. I was going to be a comic artist when I grew up. When I was a wee boy of 12, I was really into the X-Men.” Has this interest carried over into his involvement with music? Indeed it has. “One of the great things about music these days is that there’s so much emphasis placed on multimedia. And even if you’re just a visual artist, I think that there’s a lot to be gained from doing a lot of multimedia. And music seems to be like the pinnacle of multimedia where you’ve got a lot of pop stars doing these great installations on stage and they’ve also got websites and stuff like that. Entertainment on that level really runs the whole spectrum of communication: television, video, visual arts, costume design… We generally feel like everything – even the album cover art – is as much a part of the band as any of the songwriting.”
I made the mistake here of mentioning that Jackson Pollock once said that he was trying to paint what music sounded like. Or something to that effect.
“Well, I hate Pollock,” Conrad quickly retorted, “… but that almost gives me an appreciation for his stuff!”
“What was he listening to?” added Jason Reece, friend and band member.
Sonically, The Trail of Dead (as their cumbersome name is often shortened to for convenience) explore the darkest regions of emotion. As evidenced on their two full-length releases, Madonna (Merge, 1999) and their self-titled debut (Trance Syndicate, 1998), theirs is a heavy stack of despair, rage, regret and melancholy crumbling and falling like so many monoliths neglected and decaying. Taj told me that while he lived in Austin, he saw these guys play live five or so times and that they were completely different everytime: at once noisy and chaotic, another very orchestrated, another quite electronic-based and yet another straight-out punk rock. The shit is catchy though. Contagious even. It gets under your skin, burrows and festers until you can’t leave it alone. And they’re not really so sad.
In fact, they’re a bunch of jokers. Attempt any inquiries into the history of this foursome, and you will then know them by the trail of bullshit.
“We started in Plano, Texas,” began a smirking, unable-to-maintain-eye-conact Jason Reece. “A town about 75 miles away from Austin. It’s a small town with like one church and one general store, two bars and one decreped old movie theater… Basically we met in this church youth group and we had a youth minister who helped guide us. With his help, we managed to play music for the church for a while. It was like Christian rock with uplifting chord changes and modulations, but for some reason we started getting a hold of dangerous books and music and that seeped into our music and it created a darker sound. We started changing too. We started getting more and more corrupt. I guess to them we were going to the Dark Side. So we were cast out of our church and exiled to Austin and that’s where the Trail of Dead really got its start…”
“What was the question?” Conrad joined in, returning from getting himself a drink.
“I was asking about the history of the Trail of Dead and Jason here was giving me a line of crap,” I said to clarify the situation.
“Oh,” Conrad said laughing, “That’s what he’s good for.”
“Somebody asked me the other day where we got our name from, and I made up something about it being the last warning Boadicea gave the Roman generals,” Conrad added laughing (Boadicea was an ancient British queen where, upon annexation of her kingdom by Rome, she led a ferocious revolt before finally being crushed by the Roman army).
The truth, as far as I’ve been able to discern, holds that Conrad and Jason met in Hawaii, moved to Olympia (where Reece was an explosive member of the notorious Mukilteo Fairies) and finally to Austin where the Trail of Dead proper was formed. When and where Neil Busch and Kevin Allen came into play is still a mystery. Like so many other things about the Trail of Dead. Reader beware though. Truth is relative with these guys.
As a final case-in-point, Jason closed our talk with, “This is my last interview because I’m dying soon.”
…And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead is indeed not just a band. It’s a multi-layered, nonlinear, sonic enigma. It is everywhere. And it exists because.
[The Trail of Dead live at The Casbah in San Diego.]
[Copper Press, 2000]
[photos by Jessica Raetzke]