The 405 meets ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead
Fondly referred to by some as 'the band that won't die', Austin post-hardcore veterans …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead are approaching the release of their eighth studio album, Lost Songs. Having toned down their initial reputation as a bunch of bowl-cut whipping Texans clad in all black everything who, at the end of their shows, massacre their instruments in sacrifice to Thurston Moore, Trail of Dead have increasingly become an all-encompassing creative geyser; with each record since 2009's Century of Self tying in with a novel-in-motion penned (and illustrated) by singer and vessel of one of contemporary music's most extravagant imaginations, Conrad Keely.
It's an uncharacteristically sunny September afternoon in Camden and - in ironic contrast to the foundations of Lost Songs, stated on the band's website as "partly inspired by the apathy to real world events that has plagued the independent music scene for over a decade" - hungover bodies are sprawled on the banks of the lock, feebly clutching to the tail coats of a fleeting summer with one hand and awkwardly trying to navigate noodles into their mouths with the other. Three stories up within the office of Century Media Records, a few hours before he is scheduled to play an intimate acoustic session at Rattlesnake with creative counterpart Jason Reece, Conrad is collapsed in the swivel-chair of some absent PR person, pining for a beer to rescue him from jet-lag and wearing 'Free Pussy Riot' t-shirt with 'Putin You Cunt' printed at the bottom. He donated some of his time to discuss the new album, political inspiration and the shape of art to come.
How has London been treating you so far?
Conrad: I got in yesterday at one in the morning. The hotel we're at is like two blocks from the British Museum and I don't even get chance to go visit this time. I haven't been there in about five years. My favourite museum is the V&A though, it's amazing there.
On the subject of art - yours is very strongly integrated with your music, resulting in a vivid visual element to your albums, particularly with the later releases. For example, Tao of the Dead came with a media book that included a large portion of your illustrations. How would you describe the relationship between the two, for you?
Conrad: They seem like two aspects of the same creative expression for me. I don't really try to separate them anymore. Now that I've got the prose aspect also - there's a 180 page book that's coming out with the album which is also intertwined with the artwork and the music - it feels like this threefold thing that's all one central concept and three different ways of expressing it.
Do you feel like you are able to explore one concept more thoroughly by approaching it through different mediums?
Conrad:Yeah. It's almost like they compliment each other. I mean obviously if I'm working on a character sketch it definitely helps to literally sketch out that character, and also sometimes the music that we are working on and writing is kind of, for me, the soundtrack to the landscapes that I'm conjuring up, so another way of visualising the world I'm creating is through music.
Considering that, for Trail of Dead, the artwork is integral to the albums, how do you feel about digital downloading and the fact that for many people (if they choose to access it that way), the actual physical artwork is removed from the musical experience?
Conrad:It is removed, but in some ways it still gives people an introduction to something that they might not otherwise have been able to get hold of. I subscribe to magazines through my iPad because I'm not always at a news stand able to pick up a copy of National Geographic, but it's great to have it there. I think that digital downloading is a really integral and important part of modern technology. It's something that's here to stay, and the more that we can embrace it and adapt what we do as artists to that format, the better.
Direct interaction seems to be an increasing interest for artists. For example Lady Gaga is set to release her albums as an app, which is also something Bjork has done in the past. Do you think that's a good way forward for the industry?
Conrad: Absolutely. I mean it is the way forward. I can definitely see there being more of that. iPads have changed that we have made music. We did a lot of the demos for this album on the iPad - some of the parts were written directly on it. I've always embraced technology. To me, whatever advancement that is coming out is pointing the way to the shape of art to come, and it's always been like that, historically.
What's inspiring you at the moment, artistically?
Conrad: Where I live has been inspiring. I just moved to Cambodia and I find a lot of inspiration there, especially because of the contrast in poverty - what people have and what they don't have. You really get to reassess your values and what's important. Technology is always a constant source of inspiration to me and I love seeing what the new generation of artists are doing - especially visual artists - it's really fascinating. I guess I'm always inspired by the news, not necessarily in a positive way, obviously there's a not of bad news going on, but it's that sense of urgency that we're living in a very dynamic time and we have to work twice as hard to make sure that things go in the right direction.
"We're living in a world in the balance, so I feel now more than ever I am affected by these things and I do want to say something"
Some of your earlier material, particularly on Madonna, has a Rites of Spring edge to it. Were they a band that influenced you much when you first started out? How have your influences changed since then?
Conrad:It's not so much that they have changed, but they have expanded. I haven't stopped being into any of the bands I was into as a kid, but you accumulate inspiration, so I'm always looking to hear what's new, but that whole era of Dischord music, especially when Rites of Spring and Minor Threat came together to become Fugazi, has been a huge influence on us. Not just musically, but also in their ethics and how they never separated that from their music. We're not anywhere near as political as Fugazi have been, but in a way I look towards them for inspiration and I hope that young bands these days will also try to make their message matter as much as their music.
In August you released a track off Lost Songs, 'Up To Infinity', and dedicated to Pussy Riot. Do you feel like you're moving towards a more political position as a band?
Conrad:I actually used to feel that I wanted to be apolitical with our music and I didn't want to get involved in causes, but now I realise that we're living in this time where it's really important. There are things that are going on right now that really demand that we all have our voices heard and not feel that we're powerless to affect change. We're living in a world in the balance, so I feel now more than ever I am affected by these things and I do want to say something. I also think that living in Cambodia has helped because it's such a political place to live; you can see that corruption is on everybody's mind. Like, those are the things that you'll talk about when you go and hang out with your friends in coffee shops.
Will there be a lot of political, economic or social themes and imagery present on Lost Songs?
Conrad:There are some, but just like any of our records, each song is about a different thing, a different story. There isn't one essential theme that ties Lost Songs all together other than it's just all about what we're currently interested in.
'Up To Infinity' sounds a lot more evocative of your earlier material. With that in mind, where have you taken Lost Songs, sonically?
Conrad:We've never been a backward looking band. The things we've done in the past, we just leave there. Right now, it's more like our experiments are more in the aspects of how we collaborate together as a band. The writing has been a more collaborative effort this time, and we've also been challenged by how fast we can write. Since I'm dedicating so much time to the book, I really don't want to dedicate too much time to writing. I want writing to be spontaneous and free, quick and not over-thought, and this album was really an exercise in how fast we could get it done.
Do you feel like you have more creative room with the writing process now that you're not on a major label?
Conrad:That was never the type of pressure we felt on a major label. If anything, what helps us these days is, after eight albums, we're kind of craftsmen. We've learned this craft of doing things, and it's not a methodology by any means because we're always finding different methods, but we're learning how to construct songs quickly and how to arrange them, you know? That becomes second nature, and that's just something that's inevitable when you've been doing something over and over again.
Do you think the line-up changes you've gone through with the band have helped shape that direction?
Conrad:I don't know that the changes have helped, but I think that the current line-up is the one that I am the happiest with. The co-writing that we've done with Autry especially is something that is so integral to the band right now that I don't want to change.
Tao of the Dead was the first time that you recorded demo's before the actual album, and you've mentioned doing the same this time around. How do you think that has affected the overall outcome of Lost Songs?
Conrad:We're learning that it is important, especially if we do want to move fast. A lot of times, the demo's end up on the record. With this album there's one song at least that's been from the demo session, and it's the same with the last album. We have done demo's in the past, but usually just for specific songs. These days, the demo process was where I wrote all the lyrics. I came up with them all during that process, usually five minutes before I'd have to do a scratch vocal.
Did the recording process for Lost Songs differ much from previous releases?
Conrad: It did, and it had a lot to do with the fact that we were outside of our comfort zone. We went to Germany to record, and one of the reasons for doing that was to challenge ourselves, and especially our producer (Tony Doogan). Our producer is very at home in Austin, he has his studio there (Sonic Ranch), and one of his fears was that we wouldn't have certain things or be able to get this or that and I said "Yeah, exactly, we won't". We were going to just work with what we have outside of there and that's going to be part of the process of making this record - to work within the limitations of what we have and to under-produce rather than overproduce music.
You're about to embark on quite a long tour of the Europe and America. For a band with such a notoriously energetic live performance, do you find long tours draining? If so, how do you deal with that?
Conrad:They are draining, and the way we deal with that is that we don't tour as much as most bands do. There are other bands that tour way more than we do, and we just make time for the other things that we do and prioritise - Jason is has a family, I'm working on the novel. I can't write when we're touring, it's impossible, so I really need that time back to dedicate to writing.
I read that the only song you've written on tour was Fields of Coal. What was the inspiration behind that?
Conrad:That song is about stage exhaustion. For some reason, I get really, really tired before I go on stage. The sensation that I get before I go on stage is that I could sleep forever, but it disappears as soon as I get up there. As soon as the adrenaline hits me I go live again. I'm excited about the dates we're about to do because we get to go to Asia for the first time. We'll be going to Cambodia, Thailand, Hong Kong and then Taiwan. We're going back to Japan and we haven't been there in years and years so that's awesome.
Do you have a favourite piece of album artwork, either that you've done yourself or seen on another?
Conrad:I think for me the art that has meant the most was the art that I did for Century of Self - the blue ballpoint boy. That was the beginning of the ideas that set the story behind the book in motion, so I'm particularly fond of that. Right now one of my favourite artists that's in a band is John Baizley, the singer of Baroness, he also does artwork for other bands and he's great.
…And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead are currently on tour in the UK in support of Lost Songs, which is out on October 23rd via Richter Scale/ Superball Music.