...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead's Conrad Keely

...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead's Conrad Keely
Austin, TX six-piece …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead have lived many lives. The band entered the world of indie rock with a penchant for wild live shows and sprawling, almost symphonic songs. After releasing their first two albums — 1998’s self-titled and 1999’s Madonna — on independent labels Trance Syndicate and Merge, the group hit pay-dirt via a recording contract with Interscope Records in 2001 and glowing reviews for their third and fourth LPs, Source Tags & Codes and World’s Apart, respectively. After a lukewarm reception for their fifth LP, So Divided, and a reshuffling of band members, Trail Of Dead are back with a new LP, a teaser EP titled Festival Thyme, their own record imprint and a well-rounded look at the world as musicians, inside and outside the studio.

Exclaim! caught up with Trail of Dead guitarist/vocalist/drummer/ songwriter/arranger/artist Conrad Keely to discuss his band’s new EP and LP, life after Interscope Records and Jason Reece’s dwindling role as a songwriter.

The new EP is out now and you’ve finished recording the new LP.
We finished about a month ago and now we have to do a couple of recalls of things that didn’t work out. We’re not entirely finished but for the most part, everything is recorded.

I see that there are a few songs that will appear on both the EP and LP – "Bells of Creation,” "The Betrayal of Roger Casement and the Irish Brigade.” Is there anything that you recorded specifically for the EP?
Yes, "Festival Thyme.” That song was really about the All Tomorrow’s Parties Festival. About the first ATP festival that we were invited to, which was curated by Mogwai. I guess it’s really about the nature of on-the-road friendships. Five-minute festival friendships, people that you feel very close to for a short period of time and then never see again.

The song actually has a sunny, optimistic feel to it.
I think that comes from the actual music itself, an upbeat feel. It kind of made me imagine a circus. But the lyrics have a sentimental undertone to them, almost regretful.

Can you talk a little bit more about the recording of the EP and LP? Was there anything out of the ordinary recording-wise, this time around?
Not really, except for the recording of the Replacements song ["Within Your Reach” from Hootenanny] that’s on the vinyl version of the EP. The recording of that song was the most difficult; I only wanted to include it on the vinyl because it was a pain in the ass. I love the Replacements but I don’t think I chose my favourite Replacements song. In fact, that song was chosen because it’s one of the few Replacements songs that hadn’t been covered already. And we also thought it would be easy, but figuring the arrangement ended up being hard. We theorized that Paul Westerberg wrote it on a whim. It has that feel to it.

Did it give you a different perspective on songwriting?
No, I do a lot of song analysis, so it wasn’t out of the ordinary, harmonically speaking. For that, there’s no one more surprising than Brian Wilson. To learn a Beach Boys song off of Pet Sounds or Smile, you don’t even know what you’re getting yourself into. As far as a flow of an arrangement goes, it reminded me of the way Bob Pollard writes. I’ve written a lot of songs like this before, where you hit record and you just start playing, using the spontaneity of the moment.

Do you write that way often?
I don’t do that very often; I’ve done that for a couple songs. I sometimes write that way in order to get myself out of writer’s block, but there’s a lot of deliberation when I’m composing.

Are you handling the album art for the EP and LP once again?
Yes, I am, I’m actually debuting it at an art show that I’m having tomorrow with Melissa Auf der Maur and Thurston Moore.

Was there a specific theme or inspiration you were focusing on when you created the album covers?
The art I’m creating for the LP will all be done in blue ballpoint pen. The overall feel and look of the album is going to be monochromatic blue. There are a lot of stories in the artwork that I tie into the album idea, there’s a strange narrative going on, that art is also used on the EP.

Is there a connection between the artwork of the other Trail of Dead albums and the music?
Yeah, that’s just the way that I think. Music and visual art, I see them telling the same story. I guess I’m telling the same story with two different idioms.

So, when does the story end? Does it continue into your live show and T-shirt art and music videos?
A little bit, we’re not that strict about it; we don’t even have visuals when we play live. Ultimately it would be nice to explore to the point where we have that strict narrative, maybe we’ll get to that point where we will have a real concept album.

It took a little less than a year to complete the new LP, does spending that much time with an album make you view the songs differently by the end of the recording?
As far as songs go, I change things every opportunity I get. It’s hard for me to even listen to my old records because there are things that I want to change.

So, how often do things change between the time you write a song and the time you master the song?
It’s not usually things in the writing that I want to change, its more things in the actual recording. I feel like, "I could have sung that better,” "there should have been more of that guitar.” I usually don’t say, "we should have added another chorus.” In the end, I feel that our listener is not listening to the same type of things that I’m listening to. They take the song at face value.

Can you talk a bit about leaving Interscope Records to record for your own label, Richter Scale Records?
It was an idea presented to us by a label out of New York called World’s Fair, who said, "You could start a label and we could run it for you.” We didn’t actually end up going through them, but the idea was there. I think that the way the music industry has been moving and seeing how other bands we know, like the Dandy Warhols and Secret Machines, doing that. The way that the industry is changing is forcing major labels to go back to the sort of thing where more emphasis will be put on making money for the masses rather than taking smaller bands and trying to build them up. I don’t think it will always be that way but I see how bands are doing more things themselves; I see that as indicative of the future. It would be great to see that.

What do you think Interscope expected from Trail of Dead?
Well, when they signed us, things were a lot different. They were making a lot more money. They had the backing to experiment. I think when [Interscope Record chairman] Jimmy Iovine saw us, I think he genuinely liked what we were doing. But I think he misjudged where things were going by thinking experimental art rock would have more of a place when, really it was bubblegum pop that was dominating the charts. It went from trying to promote bands like us and Yeah Yeah Yeahs to spending all of their time with the Pussycat Dolls. I don’t blame them for that, when you work for a corporation, you have to think about music in those terms. I’ve noticed that over the last few albums that Jason Reece’s songwriting output has dwindled.
Yeah, tell me about it.

Okay, so it’s something that you’re comfortable talking about.
Oh man, yeah… I wish you’d tell him. We’ve done everything we can.

So, it’s something you’ve spoken with him about?
Hell yeah. He wrote two songs for this record and I was like, "Jason, you should be writing five good songs, your stuff is good.” It’s not that he’s lazy, it’s more like he’s got A.D.D. He’s like Brian Wilson; you have to sit him at the piano, put a cheeseburger in one hand and say, and "Okay, write a song.” It’s questionable if you should push people like that or let them do their own thing.

I take it that you and Jason write independently.
We write together when we’re together. I live in New York now and the rest of the band lives in Austin. Whenever Jason has a song idea I like to help him come out with it. I ask him those questions: "What are you trying to say in this song?” "Where do you see this going?” And try to build on those ideas. For example, on World’s Apart, when he wrote "Caterwaul,” it gave me the opportunity to throw in that refrain, "What was I to say? How was I to know? Was it your soft voice that said so?” It was a thing that I had written and I didn’t know what to do with it. So, in that sense, we co-write. But when I write a song, I tend to write the whole song. I usually arrange it, but generally that’s how I work. It’s not a force thing.

Your band is known for having wild live shows. Do you ever feel pressure to keep up that sort of animated on-stage presence, as not to disappoint fans?
No, I think that the only disappointment I ever feel is the crowd not entertaining me. And usually that’s when we’re more animated is when the crowd is boring. If I ever decide that I want to stop jumping around on stage, I’ll just stop. I don’t think a career is balanced upon how crazy you play. There’s nothing contrived about how we act on stage, it’s fun and a release. It’s music and it’s ritual. It harkens back to rites of spring and tribal mentality, the idea that sound and rhythm and a decent amount of alcohol will create mental states of a connection between musicians with each other and with the crowd. Since I was a kid, I felt that energy that crowds of people getting together have. That to me is what a live show is trying to capture. If I’m seeing a band and that’s not there, I go right to the bar.

I’m going to give you one last question, something that has been sort of a minor side note on the band. Do you feel that your third LP, Source Tags & Codes getting a perfect 10.0 on Pitchforkmedia raised expectations with the band a little unfairly?
I don’t really think about that. I don’t read Pitchfork or any music reviews. One of my favourite music professors, Robert Greenberg who teaches at Berkley, said "A critic is only remembered by saying the wrong thing about the right people.” So, the way I see music criticism is that, if it’s a bad one, I’ll get upset. But if it’s a good one, I don’t really care. There’s so much more to talk about in music than who got what score in what publication. For only the funniest reasons would you read the reviews that Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major got when it was debuted for the first time. Everyone in the classical world worships that concerto and to read the reviews it got is laughable. In many ways, the worst reviews are always going to be the most accurate. But I do have to say that I am very fond of Source Tags. It was very indicative of a time when we were all working as one mind. It definitely captured that point in our youth. You never go back to that, you just work on the next incarnation.