Emerging out of the fertile musical hub of Austin, Texas, in 1995 …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead married the intensity of post-hardcore to sweeping bombastic elements more redolent of progressive rock - creating a labyrinthine amalgam that came alive during frenetic live shows and allowed room for nuance and exploration on early releases such as their self-titled debut and follow-up LP Madonna.
By the time they arrived at their career-defining third LP Source Tags & Codes the band truly erupted, both creatively and in terms of audience awareness, with the album receiving rapturous critical acclaim and strong sales worldwide. Ambitious follow-up Worlds Apart was more divisive, but the band's live shows continued to be a thing of raw beauty as they crisscrossed the globe in support of a succession of continuingly experimental releases, such as 2011’s towering Tao of the Dead.
2015 marks the 20th year of their storied history, and the band will be bringing their anniversary tour to Australia in support of 2014’s ninth LP, the appropriately titled IX. Collide caught up with singer, guitarist, multi-instrumentalist and artist Conrad Keely on the bumpy trail to the Cambodian town of Campot, as he enunciated in a languid drawl about the new LP, tour and 20 years of razing a trail of dead…
You’re here in Australia to support the release of the new album IX, can you tell us a little about the writing and recording of the album, and the processes that led to its inception?
Well we wrote it improvisationally, meaning that when we showed up to record we hadn’t written anything prior to that. It was just an experiment that we’d all agreed to try and that put us all under a lot of pressure to make the record on the spot, but I think that was a good learning experience.
It’s been said that the record seems to encompass the entirety of your career and the various styles and motifs you’ve touched upon along the way. Do you think this is something that perhaps happened organically due to the improvisational nature of the recording?
You know, it’s funny... I think that the word ‘organic’ gets thrown around a lot when it comes to describing making music and I think it's supposed to imply some kind of natural process, like organic food as opposed to processed food. But I don’t think that it was a word that was ever meant to describe the artistic process. The artistic process is a process, like processed food. It’s hard to make! It’s very hard and it requires attention and a lot of work. There’s nothing easy or organic or free about it, but that doesn’t mean the product can’t feel that way. That’s the whole illusion isn’t it?
So there isn’t a lot of jamming involved? Each piece is quite meticulously planned?
Well anytime musicians are jamming or improvising with one another there is oftentimes a goal, even if that goal is as simple as just trying to find a common language. For example, if you’re playing and improvising with people you don’t know, then that improvisation is often just a process of looking for commonality. When you're jamming with people that you do know, it can be about trying to find a sound that, four people, as it were in this case, can create together and feel comfortable in and happy with. So even in that sense there is a process and there are unspoken rules to that process that are hard to articulate.
So you guys are on break at the moment before kicking off the next leg of the tour in Australia. How have the shows been so far, any highlights?
Well these days a stand out moment on tour involves a day off (laughs). This last leg we’ve had some really beautiful ones where we just had time to explore. None of us had ever been to Venice, so to explore it together and all be complete strangers to it, that kind of new experience was really special.
You’ve been living in Cambodia for a while now yeah? What was it that drew you to Cambodia? I was there for only a short time and fell in love with the country - what was the lure for you?
Well initially it would have been the music, especially here in Campot. When I first arrived in Campot I fell in with a bunch of folk musicians and we began playing nightly. There wasn’t any gig or anything, we would just fall up and play music, and that lifestyle is so unlike anything that I’d ever experienced musically. It wasn’t like in the west where we book a show or a tour and then we drag the guitar into the practice space and we rehearse in anticipation of playing a show. Instead it was playing music everynight and it was always fresh and exciting and that to me was completely new. So that’s really what I fell in love with.
Do you think that experience filtered back into the way you approach music with Trail of Dead?
It did, it had a massive impact. In fact that was probably one of the main reasons behind my suggestion that we improvise the composition of the record, but it’s also kind of changed the way I feel about music as a performer. I was probably a lot more self-conscious before.
Apart from music, you have a lot of strings to your bow, notably your artwork. The art accompanying your releases has been really evocative and seems to help contribute to the feel of the albums and the way I perceive them as individual statements. Can you tell us a little about that process and just how important the aesthetic side of the band is to you?
Well I consider myself an illustrator, and by that I mean that I guess my art usually has a story or a narrative behind it. I don’t usually paint emotions or things like that, I tend to paint a scene from something within a story. And so a lot of my art is kind of intertwined with the book that I’m currently working on, but you’ll also find there’s often a correlation within the lyrics, and a lot of this happens spontaneously and serendipitously. It’s kind of like that synchronicity ‘accident’ that Jung talks about.
Above: Tao of the Dead album artwork by Conrad Keely
As a lyricist and someone who is working on a book, who are your literary influences? Who first made you want to pick up the pen and conduct in prose?
I guess it all started by reading The Hobbit when I was nine years old, that really was the chain reaction that started me world building y’know? Making maps, inventing languages and alphabets and things like that. By the time I got a little older I was introduced to people like Frank Herbert with Dune, and I continue to be influenced by writers like Phillip Pullman and people that create worlds. I think that that’s just another compulsion, y’know? You’ve got this thing that you want to express, this story that you feel needs telling and that sometime music and art doesn’t contain enough to tell. It doesn’t have enough words, and the only way to describe it is through prose. Would you agree?
I would, and I’d also go so far as to say that at its best, that sense of a journey, the building of a world, or some kind of quest comes across very strongly in your music as well. The albums really do seem to be complete pieces, with the music, lyrics and artwork contributing to a very progressive journey. Would you say that’s fair?
Yeah, and I think that that was something that Jason and I have always thought of when putting together our albums, because we did want them to be pieces, not a collection of singles. When it came down to the mixing or sequencing, by which I mean the order that the songs appear on the album, we’ve always strived to convey a sense of movement, a sense of exploration and… a quest, yeah…absolutely.
What do you think were some of the influences musically on that more progressive element of the band?
The influences are quite varied and some might think quite unexpected. For instance De La Soul’s album De La Soul is Dead is a strange story but it is a continuous narrative throughout the whole album, that was a big influence. An album like Depeche Mode’s Violator, while the story is not clear and it’s not what you’d call a concept record, there is something very complete about that album that takes you through this…maybe it’s a journey of suffering or a journey of addiction or whatever they were going through at the time. I don't know, but you definitely start in someplace and end in another place entirely.
We seem to keep coming back to the idea of a journey, and 20 years as a band is a remarkable achievement. Amongst all the ups and downs, line-up changes and tangential shifts, to what do you credit your ongoing longevity?
Stubbornness! (laughs) Complete stubbornness. I think we never shook off the sense that we have something to prove, you know? We are yet to prove a point. It’s not a political point or a personal grudge against anybody, or even a need to prove something to anyone other than ourselves. We’ve never had to define it or write a manifesto, but there is that sense there that we have yet to get there.
In amongst that 20 year trip are there any standout moments or achievements that you’re proudest of or that you can point to as landmarks?
That’s a hard question because I’m probably guilty of not taking much pride, or at least not taking much time out to be proud. I tend to just keep my head to the grind, but I do appreciate it when somebody tells me that our music has helped them through difficult times. I think that that is probably the thing that touches me the most.
Finally, there are rumours and ongoing speculation about it but ‘…And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead’ is such an evocative name for a band. Can you put it to rest and reveal the origins of the name?
No (laughs). I cannot tell you, I'm sorry!
The mystery remains!
Tuesday, 11th August
Wednesday, 12th August
Rosemount Hotel, Perth
Thursday, 13th August
Corner Hotel, Melbourne
Tickets: Corner Hotel
Friday, 14th August
Manning Bar, Sydney
Tickets: Manning Bar
Saturday, 15th August
The Triffid, Brisbane