...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead are four fine gentlemen
from Austin, Texas who have been subjecting audiences to their special
form of "Richter Scale Madness" for a few years now. Their
just-released 2nd album, "Madonna" (on Merge Records), shows a huge
artistic progression from last year's eponomously-titled Trance Records
debut. The new record is anthemic, melodically dissonant and
thoroughly entertaining... basically, my favorite rock record of the year.
Oh, to describe! The needless need to compare: Of course their guitar
pyrotechnics take cues from art/noise rockers like Sonic Youth, but
...Trail Of Dead rocks much harder than Sonic Youth ever did because
they back up their art guitar splatter with a pummeling, propulsive
heavy rock rhythm section. Perhaps the results are something akin to the
Dustdevils crossed with Husker Du (circa '83) crossed with Motorhead.
Who knows. I planned a normal interview with Conrad Keely (guitarist /
vocalist / drummer), but got too busy to properly prepare. I decided to
just improvise and we staged the following conversation on a rainy
Fred: Well... I've been thinking of questions to ask you guys... I mean
probably the best thing to do would be to tell people to go to your
website, but I don't think that all the readers will do that. And I
haven't even read everything on there yet. So I guess the obvious
startup questions would be: How long has ...And You Will Know Us By The
Trail Of Dead existed? How did you guys meet, get together?
Conrad: Umm... we've been around about four years and I met Jason in Hawaii
when we were in high school. Then we moved together to Olympia and then to
Texas in 1994.
Did ...Trail of Dead exist while you were in Olympia?
No, It didn't. We started right when we got to Austin and we actually
played together as a two-piece for about a year before we got Kevin. We
invited him to play guitar for us for, it was actually just one show to
see if it would work out, and it kinda just stuck. At the time we had
been playing as a two piece for awhile and it was good because it was
very easy to improvise as a two-piece.
Yeah... you don't get that war of guitarists where it's, "You're too
loud!", "No, You're louder"
Well, beyond just the volume, it was just something like there were more
parts that we heard to the songs that we were playing that we couldn't
play ourselves... especially when we were dancing around and trying to
entertain people. So... Kevin was perfect for that because he is such a
stabilizing guitarist... I don't know... if you ever see us live he's
kinda like the one person in the band that doesn't really move and he
holds the song together. We knew Neil for awhile... he was the lead
singer for another band and he played gtr in that band. They broke
up... the drummer accepted an invitation to play with Sixteen Deluxe.
So he moved over there and Neil, being left without a band, started to
help us out at shows by... He didn't really play with us, but what he'd
do was play tapes during the times that we were busy tuning our
guitars. You know, to take up the kind of lag that we had during tuning
breaks. He'd play sampled stuff. Eventually it got quite elaborate
where he'd bring a couple of fourtracks, sometimes even lights and stuff
to kind of engage the crowd while there was nothing going on. I'm not
exactly sure when it was, but at one point we decided to play a show
with him on the bass. Just to have a bass for one show and it worked
out, so it stuck.
Is this new record more collaborative songwriting wise? Is there a
specific person that writes the songs or do the songs evolve out of
Alot of the songs are definitely written for the band by one of us. We
all write songs. When we bring it to practice it becomes more of a
group thing. It evolves from that point. So, when we give songwriting
credits on our records, we never say written by so and so because it
really is something we consider a group effort. I wouldn't say that any
of the songs sound like they did when they were first brought to
practice because the group has a lot of say in the arrangement.
Does the person that came up with the original riffs or chord
progression usually end up singing on it?
Um... generally that is the case, although we have been doing more
doubling of vocals as we get more aquainted with the songs.
So... You're going to tour with Superchunk.
Yeah, [laughing] hopefully... If they pay us.
What percentage, would you guess, of Superchunk's audience would be
interested in what you guys do? [Laughing]
Um.. 100% [Laughter]
No... I don't know. Superchunk's audience, I don't know what kind of
cross-section that is of the general audience that attends shows. I
mean, most people that I know seem to kind of just go out to shows. I
mean, they see a large variety of bands. I'm sure that people that go
to see Superchunk don't just listen to Superchunk.
You have to admit there is a large, specifically "indie rock" audience.
In that these are kids whose starting point for listening to underground
music is like Superchunk or Polvo, or you know, not a particulary noisy
or aggressive rock band. Where you guys, live even moreso than on
record are assaultive. Loud + Aggressive. I mean, Superchunk for all
their wanting to be a punk rock band are still relatively catchy and
accessible. Whereas your new record is catchy and I was really suprised
when I listened to it because live it was more of an all out noise-fest.
[Laughter] Yeah, people have brought that up several times.
Live, there is more of just a wash of guitar and on record you can more
easily discern the parts.
I guess that's a pretty accurate example or description of our live
sound. I guess we have a different approach to our studio material than
we do for the live thing. When we go into the studio, our intention is
to create a work of studio "art". Not to just capture the live sound. I
mean, if we wanted to put out a live record, then we would definitely
record it live. Our idea of going into the studio would be more like
creating a work... because there are so many things that you can do in
the studio that you can't do live and we love to take advantage of
that... Like vari-speeding and overdubbing and bringing in session
musicians. Splicing, putting parts together from various takes... I
mean, all of that is just kinda fun. It's kindof like creating a work
Did you guys have much more of an opportunity to work on the production
on "Madonna" than you did on the first record?
Yeah, much more. So much so that the first one took a week to record
and this one took six months. That gave us a lot of time to play around
with the sounds on the tape and the kind of refining process. And I
don't think we even got to the point where we thought we were finished.
It was just once we had the deadline, we had to finish it. We probably
could have continued to work on those forever.
Yeah... that's always the way... especially the records I've worked on.
You end up with so many tracks and then you're like, "Oh my god, the
options are endless." I mean... did you work on an automated mixer?
No... we did manual mixing.
Yeah... I mean, that opens up a whole other can of worms. Like when I
did some recording for Storm and Stress and those guys wanted to use
moving microphones. So they had people running around with microphones
while they were recording.
Wow... how'd that come out?
Uhh.... [Laughter] Well... I mean it was just a mess. You know, the
microphones, even with a shock mount would still rumble and stuff like
And the sound of footsteps.
Yeah, there was that, but mostly it just created such infinite
possibilities that they finally decided that we would be unable to do
any mixing because we didn't have an automated mixer and we wouldn't be
able too back and make subtle changes. That coupled with the fact that
their songs lack any specific time structure made it impossible to make
With this project I think one big factor that was there to kind of
balance us out was just the presence of the producer, Mike. He had alot
to do with the record. I think to the point where, by the end, it
definitely was more like having a fifth band member than having an
engineer. A lot of the ideas that we came up that if they were just too
out there or too crazy, he wouldn't mince words... You know, telling us
that "That can't be done" or "That idea is ridiculous." That was kind
of challenging, but it was also really good for us -- to work with
someone whose opinions we respected and not just someone who was there
to record us and then get the hell out. He had a lot of say in every
step of the process right down to the mastering. Which, to me, is
fine. I don't think any of us in the band apart from maybe Kevin. As
far as producers and stuff... we would probably prefer to stay on the
creative side and let someone else take care of the technical. Of
course, in a 24-track studio.. the board is a complete alien to me.
Uhh... (stalling) I'm trying to think of some good questions.
You don't have them all written down? I've given you a week to prepare!
OK, There's obviously a concept behind the band and maybe I'm off the
mark saying this... I mean of course your music stands by itself, but
then there's this concept that I think is intriguing, interesting and
funny at the same point, sort of tongue in cheek... Sort of a theme
based on the rock star as a cult leader or, inparticular, a death cult
leader. You know... in your lyrics there are multiple references to
suicide and pact suicide. So... could you elaborate on that conceptual
aspect to the band. Is that your concept? I know you do alot of the
writing on the website.
Well, as far as the death stuff, well I don't see death necessarily
portrayed in anything that we do as something negative or heavy as much
as it is just another part of the cycle of birth and rebirth.
(laughter) Not to sound overly pretentious. (laughter)
As far as tongue in cheek... Alot of people tend to think of us
sometimes as being overly frivolous and I think that's because of, maybe
some of the times, the way we act on stage. Which is funny, because I
think we take our music very seriously. Sometimes almost too seriously
for our own good. But we do take take the music very seriously,
spending a lot of time on it.
I think the new record is great -- miles ahead of the first -- and I'm
kinda glad that you made this record because before I would play the
record for people and say, "Well, it's the live show, too." Where it is
now -- the record is an amazing work of art by itself and I don't have
to, well, (laughing) make excuses. Not that the first record is bad,
you know, but the new one is so much better and much more of a complete
Well I'm glad... I'm glad that came across. (Laughing) I think that the
first one might've been more what the new one is, if we'd had more
time. Of course, I think that for the time that we did it, it was a
pretty fair representation of where we were. As far as concepts... I
mean, that onstage craziness is just our take, approaching what we do
with some modicum of, I guess you'd say, "joi de vie." or just a
passion for something. I think one thing that mutually nauseates all of
us is seeing people or performs that tackle the whole live thing with
kind of this... almost a non-chalance or a blase jadeness to it. And
that's definitely, that must be a post-modern thing. I don't know.
Yeah, and that's very much an indie rock thing. Actually I was
discussing this with someone the other day... we were talking about the
coexistence of the emo/hardcore scene and the indie rock scenes in large
cities and how there are some listeners who don't cross over those
lines. I was saying that a lot of it has to do with the fact that emo
and hardcore bands are relatively straight-forward and passionate about
what they do. Whereas a lot of indie rock bands seem to think that it's
not "cool" to actually care about what they're doing. Sort of
When I saw Superchunk in Chicago, [ed. note - Trail of Dead had just
opened for Chicago a few weeks prior to this interview] it was the first
time I had ever seen them and I thought they were really into it.
No... I wasn't saying Superchunk.
On one the one hand there are those bands that affect this holier than
thou attitude on stage and then on the other extreme there is this,
Emo for the sake of being emo -- where it's a show. I mean, you guys
just go off on stage and it looks fun.
Yeah, alot of the evolution of emo-rock seems to have become so overly
political that it doesn't seem to be so much about the music or the art
of making music as much it is just about being this way or that way --
adhering to this set of politics or values and preaching them through
your music. I don't that's something that we've ever tried to do, but
we definitely grew out of the same traditions as alot of those bands. I
always considered that the definitive emo band would've been Fugazi.
Seeing them onstage, to me, is like a great experience. Not only have
they got a message, but they approach their music and their live show
with such an intense amount of passion. It's like, I would compare it
to the Who. It's every bit as a good as the best live Who show I've
seen, and every bit as engaging and electric. Did you see "Instrument?"
Yeah, I did see that.
What you think of that?
Oh, I thought it was amazing... the basketball goal footage, do you
Oh yeah, that was incredible! Yeah, we saw that on our tour... we saw
that in Pittsburgh. That movie, it just so totally moved me that it
really affected the way I played afterwards. Yeah I was really into
I thought that another great thing about it was the fact that it showed
that Fugazi are not totally stoic, serious people. I though that
probably the most revealing part was the part where Guy Piccioto says...
Well they're all talking about George Burns and how he is about to turn
100. And Guy Piccioto says, "Wouldn't it be funny if he died right
before he turned 100!" and then he's like, "Oh no, you got that on
tape", but then they're all laughing. It seemed funny to me that common
perception of Fugazi is that they are these ultimate sensitive,
politically correct guys and here we have them on tape laughing about
how funny it'd be if George Burns dies before he makes 100.
Well, they're obviously all very intelligent people and I think that
anyone with intelligence is going to have a sense of humor.
Yeah, exactly, but I think that a lot of the emo scene might miss out on
allowing themselves that. You know.
Yup, the kids.
So, what do you think of the re-formed Who?
I haven't seen anything about it, but I don't think I'd be that into
it. I still have a lot of respect for Townshend. I was just thinking
the other day that with the latest breakthroughs in medical technology,
he might even be able to afford having his hearing restored. You know,
they can rebuild the inner ear now. So maybe he'll be able to have his
full hearing again, which would be cool.
I saw the Who reunion in 80 something. They did Tommy and Billy Idol
played Cousin Kevin and Phil Collins played the Uncle. I thought that
was pretty good, Billy Idol was the perfect Cousin Kevin.
So, which do you think is better, Tommy or Quadrophenia?
Oh, I wouldn't even compare them. I like both of them and they're so
different. One is this all-out glam-y highly produced rock opera and
the other is a very bleak and engaging drama of British street life. I
think they're both really good.
You grew up in Britain, right?
I was born there and raised there from ages 8 to 11.
So you were too young to be involved in that whole mod/rocker
Well, believe it or not, British kids are very savvy. Coming from
America (where the kids I grew up with were just more or less into the
latest thing that was on TV), when I moved to Britain and not all the
kids even had TVs, they were way into fashion. When I was in England,
I got my first pair of Doc Martens when I was 9, because every kid in
class had them and I had to have them. There were mods in 4th grade
that had trench coats and Who jackets and there were kids with mohawks.
They're all very hip and into street fashion and the entire subculture.
In England, it's a very serious thing. There would be tiny -- not very
heavy, though we took them very seriously at the time -- street fights
between neighborhood schools. Which was kind of like gang culture or
the equivalent of gang culture in America. The street subculture in
...existed at that early an age?
Yes, at a very early age and it was taken very seriously. So, I did get
a taste of that. I lived outside of Coventry, which is where the
Specials are from. I was really into ska and Madness growing up. I was
into all that early new wave. Which was funny, because it wasn't until
much later when I moved back that people here started to get into it.
Years after I had been into Adam And The Ants and all that... people
here were like, "Who are these guys?"
There is one thing I wanted to ask you about from the record. I was
talking about this character of rock star as a cult leader and there is
one point between songs where Jason is going off. Was that done in the
studio or is taken from a live tape?
What are you talking about?
I'm not sure that it is Jason, but one of you guys is going off on a
rant and there is all this cheering -- I mean, it's obviously fake
audience that has been added, but I was wondering if that rambling was
done in the studio or taken from a live tape.
Actually, we can't tell you what that's from, because of the legal
complications that might arise. (laughter)
Uh-oh... Well, anyway... my initial reaction to hearing that was, "Wow,
this is almost like a Professor Griff rant from an early Public Enemy
(Laughter) So, I was wondering if any of you would admit to being the
Professor Griff of the band and how does that go over with Neil, who I
know feels very strongly about his Jewish heritage. I don't know if you
remember, but he was telling John Kaufman, Girl Scout-Heroin's drummer,
that he had to embrace his Jewish heritage. John claims he's German,
but Neil kept harrassing him, saying "Your relatives left Germany when?
Something tells me they didn't leave because they didn't like the
weather!" So... I didn't know if this entire Jewish/Professor Griff
thing would cause any conflict within the band.
Well, I don't know... I never really thought Professor Griff was a big
part of Public Enemy. I was into Terminator X.
Yeah and the production, Hank Shocklee...
And Chuck D. It's the immaculate production of It Takes A Nation Of
Millions... and Fear Of A Black Planet that blew me away.
Don't you think a lot of rap music these days, I don't follow it avidly
so I can't say for sure, but I think a lot of that is lost. Early on it
seemed like each rap band had a specific production style, whereas now
everything sounds kinda the same. Like Public Enemy had their sound and
then Eric B and Rakim had a different sound. I was a big fan of Follow
The Leader and most of the songs seemed to have this icy chill to the
production... almost sounded menacing and sinister. Nowadays I think
most of the stuff sounds relatively samey. But, like I said, I don't
follow rap actively so I can't say for sure.
Yeah, there was also a political activism prevalent in rap at the time
that, I don't think, is nearly as prevalent anymore. But, I think
that's because we're approaching the end of the millenium and everyone
is resigned to the fact that everything is going to hell. So no one
really cares about being politically active anymore. (laughter)
(Laughter) Uhh... OK.
You can print that if you want.
Oh, I'll print it all! (Laughter)
So what is the end goal of ...Trail Of Dead? Do you just want to get
bigger and bigger? What do you see for the future.
We'd like to change the way that people think of rock music. (laughter)
It's a very anti-rock time, I think. Not necessarily rock -- alot of
people go to see wimpy indie rock bands. I don't think those bands
"rock", though. When I think of rock, I think of bombastic, powerful
rock music and there's very few bands like that now.
We're here to bring rock into the new millenium, to carry it over.