...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead Biography
That may sound as if this band manufactures the unlistenable, but it's quite the opposite. Trail of Dead affairs, whether on disc or onstage, are notoriously addictive, exploratory and jarring experiences, ones that you are unlikely to forget. More importantly, the brainchild of Hawaiian island childhood pals Conrad Keely and Jason Reece isn't simply interested in sound, but also sight, which is why the visual component of their body of work is as engaging as its auditory vehicle. It's about the art, baby, and Trail of Dead know better than most that the game isn't over when the tracks are laid down. Bands that last are the ones that provide a rewarding sensorium to their listeners, and as students of history, art and music, Keely and Reece are more than aware of their duties to their public and their own refined sense of creativity. Which is why MTV, bling culture and global materialism are attacked in Worlds Apart with unrestrained ardor and cacophony.
Scott Thill of Morphizm.com caught up with Keely by phone to discuss the new joint, George W., natural catastrophe, Star Trek, sellouts and, of course, Antonio Salieri.
Every time I listen to your band I think of Apocalypse. Is this an organic thing?
I think there is some conscious effort on our part to sound apocalyptic. One of our preoccupations is the idea of an apocalypse. It certainly is on my mind when I turn on the news and see what's going on in the world. I'm a fan of history and it seems that history is intent on reaching a crazy climax that is going to play itself out in our lifetime. So I am curious to see what it is.
How much of the new album is a response to what's been happening in the world over the last four or five years?
It's absolutely a response. We've been very affected by it. I'm not someone who feels disaffected; everything I think is a product of what's going on in the world around me. Especially since we've had an opportunity to travel and not just see how they live [outside America] but also hear their opinions on the United States. It's given me a unique perspective to write from.
Do they give you trouble for being American?
No, I guess I lucked out. But I have an Irish passport.
So what are your thoughts on what's going down right now? Do you get the feeling that we are watching history repeat itself, especially as it pertains to America's imperialist incursions into other parts of the world?
Well, in some ways I think our political climate is distracting us from the issues that are more pressing. I think the environmental issues the world faces are far more important, but it's easy to lose sight of that, because George Bush and others are taking up our time. But there are predictions that Kilmanjaro is going to lose all of its snow within the next 10 to 15 years. Those are the things that I find to be jarring. Politics have a way of balancing eventually, inevitably. And since most of us are basing our opinions only on what we hear in the media, we are all uneducated to an extent about what's going on. I try to catch the news from other countries to get additional perspective, but in the great expanse of history, Bush is a speck. When you are talking about our planet, it is, in the end, all that we have.
It reminds of the lyrics from "Worlds Apart: "Look at these c*nts on MTV/With their cars and cribs and rings and shit/Is that what being a celebrity means?/Look boys and girls here's BBC/See corpses, rapes and amputees/What do you think now of the American Dream?"
I am sort of disturbed by the fact that there haven't been a lot of celebrities and artists addressing that stuff. When I do watch TV, everyone seems preoccupied with partying, getting laid, materialism and the rest, and I can't help but think of the band playing on the Titanic as the ship is sinking. I sometimes think that's what is happening in our culture. We're basically being medicated and distracted while the world collapses around us. The Discovery Channel is far more terrifying, and I don't know why anyone isn't doing something about it. The last environmentally aware band was REM, and they haven't talked about this kind of thing since Green.
Right, even though this tsunami killed almost as many people that have died in the entire Iraqmire in a single week or two.
Yeah, I'm trying to think about the kind of world we are going to leave our children and...it'll be interesting. I mean, I'm not a complete pessimist; I don't think humans were put on the planet for the express purpose of destroying it. I certainly don't think that humanity is innately evil at all. I do think that there is hope.
What do you think the general problem is then? Why are we fascinated with all this materialism when it is so utterly destructive?
Obviously, you could say that it is greed, but it is really hard to say whether or not there has been some wheel set in motion that is impossible to stop. If you look at the way humanity has technologically evolved in the last few hundred years, from the Industrial Revolution to the present, no one really has shown the power to halt that progress, even though we've seen protests then and now. This is just one of those times that humanity is just going to have to get through to attain the next level. I mean, I'm a utopian idealist: I look at Star Trek and think that would be the ultimate future.
You're a Trekkie!
(laughs) I'm a Trekkie.
But in order to get to that point, we're going to have to abandon much of what we cling to for comfort. Things like religion and materialism, stuff like that. And it's going to be a painful process, but nothing good comes without some pain and suffering.
Which seems to be something your band is comfortable with, stacked as it is with apocalyptic imagery and music, even down to the album art. Then I hear you call yourself a utopian idealist, and go, "Huh?" I think it's cool that Trail of Dead can embody such contradiction.
I suppose I wouldn't call it contradiction. I think of our art more as observation than any kind of statement. When I write lyrics, they aren't so much opinion as they are observations.
What are your thoughts on the new album, especially how it measures up to Madonna and Source Tags and Codes?
Well, every time we finish an album, I'm already thinking about the next one. And I don't know that we ever have been pleased with anything that we have done. As soon as we complete a record, we immediately see the flaws in it, see what we had hoped to achieve and how we fell short of it. That's exactly how I feel about this record. There are things I was hoping and wanting to do on this record, and I'm already thinking about how I'm going to achieve them on the next one. Assuming of course that we're allowed to make another record! (laughs)
But I wouldn't want it to be any other way. If it came to the point where we were completely satisfied with everything we've done, where would I go from there? My whole writing process has changed so much from when I was younger. When I started composing, I was the type of writer who would create hundreds of songs, but only four or five of them would be any good. I would write just for the sake of writing. But I'm not that type of composer anymore. Now I only write when I need to, only when I have to. Everything I compose now is written with complete deliberation. It's not like we have any outtakes from Worlds Apart; everything written for this record is on it. There are no excess songs.
Yeah, I noticed that none of the songs from the Elena's Tomb EP are on Worlds Apart, which is great because the EP can stand on its own. When bands usually put out EPs, they are mostly full of songs that you'll have to pay for again when the full-length comes out a year later or so. I remember reading somewhere that there were suspicions that Trail of Dead would do that with Elena's Tomb, but nothing in my experience with the band told me that would be the case. Maybe it was the jump to a major-label that kick-started that nonsense.
Yeah, I don't know. The whole [anti]-major-label thing is a backlash from the punk revolution, but I have to admit that, when I was growing up, all of my favorite bands -- including the punks, like The Clash and The Sex Pistols -- were on major labels. It's an irony to me, especially the whole idea of selling out. People have to remind themselves that when The Beatles moved to London, their fans in Liverpool accused them of selling out. People are very possessive about their bands, and they want them to stay in this bubble where they can control and contain them, even though the band may have higher aspirations that that. I don't think we write music for minorities and subcultures; we write music for humanity. I've always thought that. I don't see the point of writing for a small group when there are six billion people on the planet. I'll never understand that mentality. Maybe I'll have to sit down with someone who thinks that way, and have them explain it to me. Because artists that have wallowed in obscurity aren't the ones you find out about in the history books. Would you rather be Salieri or Mozart?
Click here to buy Trail of Dead's new album, Worlds Apart.