by joseph m. pence (notaninja) - Apr 01, 2005
...Trail of Dead - Interview with Conrad Keely
An edited version of this interview originally appeared in The Hub's April 21st, 2005 issue. Please visit www.thehubweekly.com for more information on that publication.
The Austin band ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead are just as well-known for their cataclysmic, destructive onstage personalities as they are for the spiralling, melodically triumphant songs they write. Tonight, the band brings both these assets to town in support of Worlds Apart, their ambitious followup to their landmark album Source Tags & Codes. We had a chance to speak with Conrad Keely, the band's oftentimes songwriter, vocalist, guitarist, and visual artist; who gave us some insight on the band's philosophy - past, present, and future.
JP: My first question here is, could you give some of our readers the background of the band... I know you and Jason were choirboys, what denomination were you in and how long were you guys playing before you wound up on Interscope?
CK: The choirboys thing was a LIE!
JP: Who propogated that lie?
CK: We all did. We all thought it would be funny. We're not associated with churches. Jason's parents were both involved in churches, so there's some truth to that... but we're not choirboys.
JP: So it was just something thrown out to the press then?
CK: We used to really enjoy just any lie that we could really think of. Well, you know, 'we're all from Plano,' that was a lie. That 'the name came from some Mayan thing,' was a lie. But see I consider us as entertainers, when we lie, we're not really trying to hurt anyone, we're actually just trying to entertainment, I would like to think of our stories like Garrison Keeler's "Lake Woebegone," you know. People like to be entertained, they like to hear stories.
JP: So I guess the story gets spread and eventually becomes it's own truth?
CK: Sure, sure.
JP: How long were you guys playing before you wound up on Interscope?
CK: Well, for years, uh... I mean I started playing piano when I was twelve, and then I quickly learned guitar, Jason was playing the bands... see I was a little more methodical... see Jason would go out there and play in a band, play in a band, he must have been in ten or twelve bands by the time we started Trail of Dead. I was more, thinking and scheming what would be the band I would want to be in. It definitely took moving to Austin and having the freedom, by not really knowing anybody and not having anybody to really impress, that allowed us to do what we do.
JP: I've got some friends who are playing in Austin right now and they tell me it's like no place else in the United States.
CK: That is about the truth.
JP: I've got a question about the new album, Worlds Apart. I was reading some different press on it and they kept describing it as a concept album, I mean, what exactly is that concept about? From what I've heard, I may be completely wrong, but it sounds like it's about how we how take the world around us for granted in the modern age?
CK: That is one of the concepts -- but to me a concept album would entail that it has a narrative, and to me, this isn't a concept album because it doesn't have a narrative to it. And there is no single unifying theme: they're just like weird snips and segments. The marriage of old and new, you know, in music and musical technology. War is definitely a theme. Human conflict. I was thinking about human conflict and whether it was an innate part of our nature, and that was something that Leo Tolstoy brought up at the very end of "War & Peace." In fact, at that point the narrative of "War & Peace" basically was done, and for the last ten chapters or so he basically went on his theories on conflict and migrations of populations and about the causes of war. And so one of the things I was thinking of was whether conflict was something that was so innately human. That even when we are a highly advanced, starfaring civilization, are we're going to bring war with us, into the heavens, just because it's part of what we are, of what makes us up? I think that was really the idea behind the album art, you know.
JP: That's kind of what I gathered from the song "The Rest Will Follow" in that it seemed like it was almost this sort of spiritualism in that it's part of human nature to go against other people? I dunno, create situations that are just going to mess people up...
CK: Well, having said that, once we are aware of our nature, we can only change, you know?
JP: Mhmm. [pauses]
JP: Another question I have about most of the new album is, you have tympanis, you have strings -- when I listen to the opening of "The Rest Will Follow," I get this image of the heralds leading me into an imperial court or something. Why now? Why such a grandiose album?
CK: At this point in time? I think we've always wanted to grandiose records, even from the very beginning. This is just the first time we've actually been able to afford to do it. Definitely building our own studio helped a lot because we were able to, instead of spending money on studio time, we're spending it on collecting all these things, typamis, adding string sections, and having that all arranged.
JP: My next question is about the title track, "Worlds Apart," it just seems defiant, an outburst. I'm curious to know what was the moment, what was the news that inspired it?
CK: It was a reality show!
JP: [laughs] Which one specifically?
CK: "World's Apart." It was on the National Geographic Channel.
JP: Could you explain a little bit?
CK: What they did was take an American family, usually from the suburbs or middle America, often it was an upper middle-class family. For ten days they would have to live with in a remote part of the world, with natives from that area, either natives or nomads, and they would have to abide by their customs. And it was shocking -- It was shocking to see the attitudes that these Americans would bring into these cultures. One of my favorite quotes was this teenaged girl who lived with these nomads in Africa, said, "I hope this whole culture dies, along with their sheep!"
JP: [laughing] That's... that's horrendous!
CK: Isn't it? Isn't it a wonderful illustration of the American teen? The funny thing was it was the older people that had the hardest time coping. The children acclimated almost immediately. It was beautiful to watch these seven-year-olds, eight-year-olds, they didn't bat an eye at the change, they just went with it. But it was the teenagers that would complain about not having their privacy, not having their cellphones, they always hated it. But then by the seventh day, there was almost this spiritual kind of turn-around these people would have, and that's definitely when their attitudes started to change.
JP: You stated that the song "Smile Again" was loosely based on Brian Wilson completing his work on his "Smile" project. Are there songs of that you or the band have that are along the same lines, songs you feel like you won't be able to properly approach until, I don't know, say, late middle age?
CK: Well, definitely that song. That song was about the pain of the writing process, and thinking about Brian Wilson was encouraging to me because I was having a really tough time writing it.
JP: Kind of a different question, I wanted to know more about Neil's departure, I guess more specifically about Danny Wood from The Rise joining the group, how you guys wound up meeting him? Because it was like a one-two punch, I got into The Rise and maybe a month or a month and a half later, he was part of your band.
CK: They broke up...[laughs] Well, they didn't break up --
JP: Well, I mean because I knew there was kind of like a bit of a lull between their first album and -- what is it? The Reclamation Process.
CK: Well, those people are all over the world right now. One of them is in Southeast Asia or something. Ummm... we met Danny on tour with another band, he just kind of came along for the ride, and so, that was something we just, uh, we liked his personality even before we knew if he could play bass or not. But we've always picked our bandmates that way. It was just nice that he combined talent with the right personality type.
JP: This one kind of goes along the same lines but could you tell how the songs from the new album are incorporated into the live set? I haven't seen any shows from the new tour, what made the cut in terms of instruments and how you're performing it? I'm not sure if you're doing this in live performances, but for the record, I really dig the multiple percussionists, I think it's a thing of beauty.
CK: Yeah, yeah, we do. Umm, it's been a challenge, we haven't played all the songs right now. I'm really enjoying listened to "Best" right now, it's been fun.
JP: Guero?... I'm sorry? I'm sorry -- did you say Beck?
CK: "Best," one of the songs on the album. Nononono, not Beck. No, I've never, ever been a Beck fan. But my respect for him has really plummeted after I found out he was a Scientologist. What a weak-willed, weak-minded individual. Anyway, but, umm, as far as performing we have a keyboard player, we have an extra percussionist, and it allows us alot more a field to play.
JP: I was wondering what the chart on the back of Worlds Apart is, it's kind of an obscure question, but I was wondering what it is that has the "Impulse of Spirit," "Mercury," and "Gabriel" listed on it.
CK: Yeah, that's a diagram of Pythagoras's theorums of musical theory.
CK: Yes. Oh, the circular one above is the "Chart of the Heavens" from a book called "The Secret Teachings of All Ages." And then the bottom one is Pythagoras's diagram of music theory. He had some really interesting ideas about it, he actually singlehandedly invented music theory.
JP: A long time ago, I read in an interview that the song "Heart in the Hand of the Matter" was based on the Cantonese film Fallen Angels, and based on that interview, I went and saw it. Kind of along the same reasons someone goes to see Un Chien Andelou based on "Debaser" or something like that. I was just curious if there were any other films are that you would espouse are the source or related to of any of your other songs and if so, which?
CK: Well you know the part where the woman is screaming "Don't go!" at the end of "The Best"? At the end of the record? That was based on a specific scene, the last scene of Heavenly Creatures, Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures.
JP: Oh yeah! I loved that movie.
CK: It also has a corollary in the movie Hero, where Zhang Ziyi's character is screaming for the death of her master, but I just love the sound of the wailing of a young girl, I just thought it was very eery and frightening, I had to try and duplicate it. Movies have always been a big inspiration. "Clair de Lune" was actually based off of Starship Troopers.
JP: [laughing] How did that come about?
CK: Well, it was actually about a girl but originally I didn't have any subject matter, so I wrote it about this movie I just saw and loved, but I fought with this girl, we had just broken up, and so she became the subject for the song. But it started with the idea of going to see Starship Troopers.
JP: You mention a lot your influence from The Who, Pink Floyd, Hunky Dory. I was wondering, you can tell in something like "All White," I don't know, I think "To Russia My Homeland" and "All White" are kind of like together almost...
CK: Great! I'm glad you think that, I kind of think of them as the same thing too.
JP: I was just curious, I can tell that you have your feet planted in the theatrical moments of rock opera. I guess this is a difficult question, but what do you think is the likelihood of someone taking on a rock opera these days, do you think the album narrative as a conceptual artform has ran its course?
CK: Not at all. Didn't it just happen? Beyonce Knowles just had a hip-hop opera. 'Hiphopera.' Have you heard of it? I think it was Orpheus or Carmon or something. I think it was great. People just don't realize how deep into our culture opera is. They just don't see it. They don't realize that music videos are opera. Or the Superbowl Half Time Show. I had just taken a course by Peter Greenberg, it's one of the lectures of the Teaching Company, about opera, how to understand opera, and even the history of opera, and you really realize that we've never lost it and we never will.
JP: It became subconscious in our culture I think
CK: Well, it's so old, it's one of the oldest forms of entertainment. I'm not talking about Western opera which started in the 1600's. Greek play, Greek tragedy, in fact the idea of opera as supposed by Gallileo's father, Giocommo Gallileo was to sing text this way. That was the whole motivation behind the creation of opera.
JP: This is kind of related, do you think that our methodology for judging albums has changed? I mean now you can get one track of a album in an mp3. Do you think that album rock has moved on?
CK: That depends on whoever's making the album, it has nothing to do with the record. People can download a track off this record and it can stand alone if they want it to. But for the listener to hear what the artist had in mind, they would definitely have to listen to the whole record. And we have certainly never thought of our records as a collection of tracks, we always thought of one album as one work, you know? If it comes to pass that artists stop thinking of it that way then it'll move on, but as long as there's artists who think of albums as one thought, well then there you go.
JP: I kind of worry that our culture-- our attention span --has been reduced to the point where we're not listening to things for the parts of the greater whole.
CK: Let me assure you you have nothing to worry about.
JP: I have three more questions and then I'm done, this is really for you personally, your sketches are like really amazing, I was wondering if you really have a break compared to some bands when it comes to album design because of your background as an artist? Do you think it makes it more difficult or easier?
CK: Easier to what?
JP: I mean, you guys have some sort say in the album design?
CK: No one has say but us.
JP: Does it make it easier as an artist to say, "Well this looks really good," or is it something that you have a lot of trouble with because you're a perfectionist or something like that?
CK: Umm, I don't know, I try not to be too perfectionist with it because it's really too painful, I spent two months on the album art after the record was completed, which is actually why it got held back, it had nothing to do with other releases. Well, it had something to do with other releases, but alot of it had to do with the artwork that had to be done.
JP: Yeah, I read that and the DVD were still in stages of completion.
CK: Right, all that stuff was still in the making.
JP: I got the Deluxe Edition and I had to say I was really impressed with it and everything that came with it.
CK: Oh, wow, did you read the paper?
JP: Yes! [laughs] It was a little difficult on my DVD player, I don't really have that big of a screen.
CK: [laughs] Yeah, I didn't really know what format they were going to put that in. I don't know, I guess my background was just as an artist, music was just something that came much later in my life, I've been drawing since age two. I think of music as just this soundtrack to my artwork. I was raised on the great artwork of Roger Dean and the hypnosis covers, you know that stuff.
JP: I know of people who get deeply and profoundly upset by the destruction of musical instruments, what exactly is your response to these people?
CK: Yeah, I really sorry for those people, I mean really. I don't think they realize a musical instrument is a tool, say in the same way a hammer is a tool. There's a lot of people who try to put a spiritual type of personality to an instrument, a kind of sacredness to an instrument. And I can understand that if the instrument is 400 years old, some kind of Kremona, they might definitely have a personality. But I can guarantee you these generic guitars we are using don't have much of that. The music, the instrument itself has no intrinsic value, you can't hunt an animal with a violin bow, you can't do anything with a guitar in nature other than to burn it for a fire. The only value an instrument has is the music it creates, its ability to entertain people. When we smash a guitar that guitar is doing everything it was meant to do. It's serving its purpose. So I guess the answer to your question, I understand if someone is screaming at me if they're too poor to own a guitar and they see me smashing it, and there was a time when I was too poor to own a guitar too, and I still smashed it.
JP: [laughs] One last question: a lot of attention has been on the papacy right now, if you were elected pope, what would your first papal bull, your first papal edict be?
CK: ABOLISH CATHOLICSM... can a pope do that?
JP: I think you'd have to give up the hat.
CK: [laughs, adding reluctantly] I'm sure I'd probably do something nice, I don't know. I wouldn't want hurt anybody's feelings.
JP: Thanks a whole lot for the interview and looking forward to seeing you at the Canopy on the 21st!
CK: See you then!