When I dig a band from jump street, I stay on board for awhile. So it has been with the awesomely named …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead. Since it’s arty noise dropped in the late ’90s, I haven’t been able to stay away. So for the band’s latest effort The Century of Self, I went on the blitz for Wired, Metromix and Filter.
Conrad Keeley, apocalyptic guitarist and vocalist for art-rock band And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, is also a knockout illustrator who’s writing a sci-fi novel and pores over comics in his spare time.
Now, after 15 years of delivering thunderous, conscientious riffage for indies and majors alike, his deafening band is finally on its own label, Richter Scale Records, and the multitalented Keeley says he’s plenty happy about the artistic freedom that comes from calling the shots.
“It is a very important time to be independent,” he told Wired.com in an e-mail interview. “In some ways it is a continuing struggle against the homogeneity of rock music.”
Trail of Dead’s latest effort, The Century of Self, spits in the face of uniformity. Released Feb. 17, the new record goes loud and soft in equal measure without losing any of the band’s epic sonics or lyricism.
From tunes about the ravages of the coal industry to fever dreams about Egyptian goddess Isis, Keeley and his band mates cast their eyes on ugly scenes both real and imagined. Keeley gets help from Trail of Dead co-founder Jason Reece, who splits time between drums, vocals and guitar, and the group’s supertight rhythm section (guitarist Kevin Allen, bass player Jay Lee Phillips, drummer Aaron Ford and pianist Clay Morris).
Keeley, a self-taught illustrator whose intricate artwork graces all the band’s releases, is considering adapting his bleak sci-fi novel-in-progress as a comic book — his other favorite medium.
Wired.com caught up with the 36-year-old New York resident to chat about Trail of Dead’s newfound independence and continuing defiance, as well as the end of material entertainment and his five favorite comics of all time. You can catch up with the band on its mammoth world tour, currently under way.
You Should Already Know: …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead
Since its self-titled debut dropped over a decade ago, Conrad Keely and Jason Reece’s …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead has soundtracked the apocalypse without apology. Armed with a grip-load of deafening, epic releases like Madonna, Source Tags & Codes, Worlds Apart and So Divided—all emblazoned with destabilizing Boschian artwork courtesy of Keely—the ear-splitting unit has tackled vacuous pop culture, climate crisis and more (executing the full-frontal assaults from the indies to the majors and back again). The group recently parted ways with big shot label Interscope and signed to the smaller Richter Scale/Justice Records for the release of its latest effort, The Century of Self, marking a new era of independence for a band that has happily defied classification.
“Going indie requires that we’re more involved with the execution and creative outlook of the record,” explains Reece. “Interscope tried to understand us, but never got there. The label was too busy with more simplistic pop bands, and we’ve never been that type. We’ve always been outside the mainstream.”
That sentiment applies not just to …Trail of Dead’s biblical noise, but also to its weighty subject matter. It has always been exceedingly easy to get lost in the band’s surround-sound rock, but at the same time, extremely difficult to get its concerns and worries out of your head once they’ve burrowed into your psyche.
“There is a lot out there that is scary,” Reece argues, “including the argument that we are heading toward mass extinction. The Century of Self was inspired by Adam Curtis’ 2002 documentary of the same name, which is about consumerism and identity, and how branding governs how we view ourselves. I wouldn’t say that we are on a heavy sociopolitical mission, but our job is to expose people to new and progressive ideas. We’ve always been the anti-idiots, always hated the musicians we ran into who were like, ‘Let’s just get fucked up!’”
Like its 1999 masterpiece Madonna, …Trail of Dead’s sixth full-length interrogates spirituality and brutality in equal measure. But Bible-thumpers looking for converts are going to have to look elsewhere. Reece and Keely are erecting rhetorical and theoretical explorations, not hunting for monotheistic cop-outs.
“I think the new album is a lot more allegorical,” confesses Keely. “My parents were both into transcendental meditation, which is what our new song ‘Inland Sea’ is about, and studying all religions equally. ‘Isis Unveiled’ is an ominous story about different gods during the time of Jesus, about the continual cycle of upheaval on the heavenly scale and how it affects Earth. I don’t necessarily believe in that, but my lyrical content is usually dictated by the tone of the music.”
“There are personal moments too,” adds Reece. “It’s not all an apocalyptic mess.”
But it wouldn’t be …Trail of Dead if it didn’t sound at least partially like the breaking of the seventh seal. After all, Reece and Keely grew up in Hawaii, an island birthed by tumultuous volcanism and blessed with life-giving natural resources, and they have nurtured the band in Austin’s breakneck local scene, absorbing cultures, histories and concerns along the way… “like sponges,” as Reece explains it. Musical and intellectual evolution is similarly coded into …Trail of Dead’s genes, and it doesn’t plan on waiting around for the rest of humankind to catch up to its uncertain future. It wants the world and it wants it now.
“I think we continue to learn,” Keely concludes. “We have seen as many changes in the world as inside our band, but we’ve always relied on our intuition…and we always will.”
Critics are hailing “The Century of Self” as a return to Trail of Dead’s pre-majors mode, but it’s more like a well-balanced mixture of their skill set. Trail’s brilliant, rough-hewed distortion is in fine form on crunchy epics like “Isis Unveiled,” “Halcyon Days” and “Ascending.” But their later love of the piano is equally well-represented. The two parts of “Insatiable” waltz majestically forward on ebony and ivory, separated in the middle by the ambient orchestration of “An August Theme.” When the two get together in Wagnerian noise, as on “Far Pavillions” and “Inland Sea,” well, it’s beautiful music.