The Austin, Texas band … And They Shall Know Us By the Trail of Dead can drop guitar distortion on an audience like they are carpet bombing. They also have a way of carving solid songs out of those blocks of noise, a weirdly literary edge and a reputation for trashing instruments at the end of their shows.
A decade ago, all of this helped push Trail of Dead into the clubhouse of America’s best indie rock bands, an informal pantheon defined by college radio play lists, festival lore and positive reviews from magazines like Rolling Stone. In August, they just released a new album, Lost Songs. On Nov. 1, they’ll play in Taipei with Thurston Moore and Dinosaur Jr as part of a three-band showcase titled Don’t Look Back, Vol. 1.
When I reached Trail of Dead vocalist and guitarist Conrad Keely for an interview, I was surprised, first, that I was calling a cell phone number in Cambodia, and second, that he’s now devoting the majority of his time to writing a graphic novel.
Keely is half Thai and spent much of his childhood in Bangkok. In the early 1990s, he went to college in one of the crucibles of grunge, Olympia, Washington, and then a few years later moved on to one of America’s most famous towns for indie music, Austin, Texas. There, he formed Trail of Dead with Jason Reece in 1995.
The band has had a roller-coaster career that peaked with a pair of hit albums on Interscope Records six and seven years ago, followed by an adjustment to the Internet’s new free-music environment and three self-released albums. Last year Keely found himself traveling through southeast Asia with his father. He was struck by Phnom Phen, finding “an edginess that’s unique to Cambodia that I kind of thrive off of.” He left Austin and decided to make the city his new creative headquarters.
Keely’s graphic novel is a chronicle of an airship that has square sails, propellers, tethered zepplins and Flash Gordon-style rockets. Her name is the Festival Thyme, and a drawing of the ship served as the cover to the band’s 2008 EP of the same name.
There was no narrative to go with that first EP cover, but each Trail of Dead release since then has fleshed out a growing story. Cover art for 2009’s The Century of Self, 2011’s Tao of the Dead and this year’s Lost Songs are all illustrations to the tale, and deluxe editions of the last two albums have included printed chapters of the graphic novel. On Lost Songs, all the songs are about the characters and story.
“It’s science fiction. I guess you could call it steam-punk,” says Keely. “It’s actually based on something that I’ve been working on since I was nine-years-old.”
“The setting is based on a world that I started building when I was so young. I started coming up with time lines and genealogies — all the stuff that goes into world building. By now, the world is already pretty well developed.”
“It’s also based upon traveling and experiences I’ve had while touring,” Keely continues. “Many of the characters are thinly veiled caricatures of people that I’ve met while in the band. This is just kind of the life that I’ve been living put into a sci-fi world.”
If literary creation is new, myth-building has however always been part of Trail of Dead’s oeuvre. Early on, band members claimed the group’s name was lifted from a Mayan myth, though now, Keely wryly admits, “We made up that whole thing.”
“I was actually working at University of Texas Press at the time, and they published a lot of books on Maya. So I’d been reading the [Maya] Codices and just wanted to work that into the idea of a mythology. At the time, we kind of got off on telling lies to the press, just to make up interesting stories. But the name Trail of Dead — we invented it. It’s not a reference to anything,” he says.
While Keely read up on Mayan mythology — he doubts there will be an apocalypse when the Mayan calendar ends next month, in case you were wondering — Trail of Dead plugged away on the US indie circuit for seven years before finally hitting big with their breakout album of 2002, Source Tags & Codes. On the tours that followed, the band swelled to six members, including two drummers. The sound was rapturous and overpowering, and reports came back from shows of a band that dared to be epic and also pulled it off. They harnessed the loud, fuzzy and sometimes droning sound of America’s post-Sonic Youth indie scene, but instead of shoegazing and internalizing it like so many other bands, they projected the intensity outwards. Keely and Reece alternated on vocals, crooning plaintively or else savagely screaming out lyrics that were never without an edge — or a footnote.
Looking back through the band’s songbook — which stretches back 17 years and eight full albums — the density of references to literature and myth could easily merit its own bibliography. There are at least two songs named after the Egyptian goddess Isis, and several more from other world myths. There are songs named after novels (Far Pavilions), poets (“Baudelaire”) and historical figures (“The Betrayal of Roger Casement and the Irish Brigade”). Much of the last album, Tao of the Dead, was inspired by the ideas of Joseph Campbell, a Jungian scholar who proposed “the hero with a thousand faces” as a universal archetype for literature and myth.
But for the new album, Lost Songs, Keely is referencing his own stories instead of those by others. And in the process, he’s turning the band into one big meta-narrative.
“On past albums, there has always been a song or a book, and I could say, that song is about a specific book. But on this album, the songs are actually about the book I’m writing,” he says.
The current tour will take Trail of Dead to Phnom Phen, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Japan and Taiwan.
“All this is being done in the hopes of making Asia just as regular a stop as Europe,” says Keely.
Taiwanese fans will be glad to hear that.