Conrad Keely chats to BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM about Trail of Dead’s latest album, The Century of Self, before the band touch down in New Zealand for two dates in early June.

THERE IS little about Austin, Texas band …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead that isn’t done big. Everything from their title to their brilliant music to their incendiary live shows, is pitched at a grandiose, symphonic level. The band, more affectionately known as Trail of Dead, have been exploding around the world with their hard-to-pin down melange of metal, punk, indie and intellectualism. Conrad Keely, singer/guitarist/drummer, agrees with the “big” label. “It’s definitely one of those things that was part of the grand scheme I think. I have always been into symphonies, that largesse to do something really big.” Formed in 1994 as a two-piece Trail of Dead released their debut self-titled album in 1998 with an augmented band. Their first (self-titled) album was a rough as guts lo-fi recording, but featured considerable verve and passion. The 1999 follow-up Madonna featured a richer sound but their big breakthrough was their 2002 album Source Tags and Codes. While their next two albums weren’t as commercially or critically successful as they deserved to be, the band have persevered and their latest release, The Century of Self, continues the band’s unpredictable proggy assault.

The Century of Self was released on a new label created by the band themselves – Richter Scale Records, which shares a name with the first track of the band’s debut album. However, Keely is quick to say that this is not a return back to the beginning. “No never, always forward. Never going back. It’s always built on the last record. This record had everything to do with the last one we made.” Having been on a major label prior to forming the label, this move was nothing to do with trying to get creative freedom either. “That was never a question. We’ve always had creative freedom. Creative freedom is whatever you give yourself. You don’t have to listen to anybody telling you what to do. Interscope never told us what to do. We had an abundance of creative freedom on Interscope.” The label was instead set up because “in Austin, Texas, there was kind of a vacuum that was left when Trance [Syndicate] Records stopped putting out records back in the ‘90s. We just thought in an ideal world it’d be really nice for us to be able to give smaller bands the opportunity that we’ve been given. Hopefully in the future we’ll be able to do that, just to give smaller bands a start.”

The album is named after the acclaimed BBC documentary series about the 20th Century’s growing obsession with the self (specifically through the development of psychology, psychoanalysis and late capitalism). “I kind of saw the rise of the consumer society had everything to do with I suppose a lot of the problems that are facing the world today. It was one of the themes of the song ‘Insatiable’. I guess it was the poignancy of that that made me want to reference the documentary.” Keely says however, that “I think as far as this record goes, it’s a lot more introspective. I think a lot of our other records have been about things that are going on around the world, but this has a lot more to do with the inner self. Songs like ‘Inland Sea’ are about transcendental meditation.”

Spirituality has been a major theme throughout a lot of Trail of Dead’s work, though the band is frequently critical of religion, and examines how people use religion to explain the modern world. Keely says “my step-father was a minister, and my parents raised me with an idea of believing all religions contain some modicum of truth. But in some ways, I see religion as one of the ways of holding back society at this point. I’m kinda anti-religious, but I do believe in a higher purpose. I think a lot of that has to do with being an artist, being a musician. You’ve always got a sense of something much greater than yourself.” I ask if art is a substitute for spirituality and Keely laughs “not a substitute, but they go great together. Definitely, I do think a lot is not real worshipping, whatever is the great creative force.”

The album was also made in the midst of Keely moving to New York (the rest of the band has remained in Austin). “I still consider Texas home. For me, New York had a lot to do with me wanting to do more with visual art. And also, be inspired by other things that are going on. We recorded part of the record in New York, and that lent to it a sense of collaboration with other people that were in and around the town. We had a studio that we were working at and there was another studio next door, and all these people kept walking by our studio. We’d invite them over to listen in, and let us know what they were doing. New York is great for that, it’s one of the strengths of the city.” A song like ‘Halcyon Days’ “had everything to do with moving from Texas to New York” and incorporates a reference to Prokofiev’s famous Montague and Capulet Theme with a piece he had written in high school.

“I never read music journalism. I don’t read Rolling Stone, I don’t read Spin Magazine, I don’t read anything. Reading about bands in order to think about how I’m supposed to think about something? I listen to bands that I either see live, or that my friends tell me about, or through word of mouth. It has nothing to do with reading reviews.”

Keely has long been a fan of film music, and has explored the geometry of music in his work. Keely suggests that he conceives music as not simply an aural thing. “As far as film scores, it’s the visual aspect. I think that music has to create a strong visual image, and it’s got to have a narrative. To me that’s one of the beauties of film, it’s got this sense where music is narrating the action. That comes straight from opera, it’s such an operatic thing. As a writer, turning towards that highly emotionally charged interludes that happens in film, is something that we try to approach in our work.” The visual aspect isn’t surprising given Keely’s art ambitions too: he does all the album work for the band and has released his own artwork. In fact, our interview was interrupted while Keely was trying to deal with some Aussie sellers. “I want to bring some stuff to New Zealand as well. Hopefully they’re not all sold out in Australia, but there’s a chance that they might. So I’m going to ensure I’ve got enough.”

The band have never been afraid to mix their music with esoteric musings on the world, music or themselves. Keely also doesn’t see music and intellectualising as particularly mutually exclusive. “You’d think so because I think people try to separate the two and make them seem mutually exclusive. But no, not at all, not at all. There is space enough for both. Music does have to be emotional. But I also think we’re living at a time where music ought to say something. We as artists are living in a world that is in a crisis. I feel a responsibility to make our music poignant and to communicate something. We came out of a very frivolous decade – the nineties – the economy was great, it was drunken parties until 1999, and then parties been stomped out a bit, and now we’re facing all environmental challenges and disasters and things. To not address that is almost criminal.”

Trail of Dead have been subjected to both the crushing highs and lows of hype – as previous releases (particularly Source Tags and Codes) gained scarcely believable blog and indie media coverage. This also meant the inevitable backlash met the band, particularly in the two albums which preceded Source Tags and Codes (World Apart and So Divided). Keely says this whole process is “very hard to deal with. In a way, it’s something you have to learn not to take personally, because a lot of criticism can be very personal. It’s also something that’s also completely out of the realm of your control. You cannot force people to like or dislike anything that you do. But, it’s also something that’s so predictable in a way, with the way that journalism – especially British journalism – is towards music. It’s kind of like, the celebration of the novel, new, whatever is the flavour of the week or the month, and then there’s a lot of talent and aspirations that get stomped on because they don’t really fall into step with whatever they’ve done in the past. In the end, that stuff doesn’t really matter, you are going to continue your work. If you feel like your work is a lifetime achievement which I think for us, that’s how we feel about what we do. It’s something we hope to be doing when we’re ninety.” Particularly infamous was a 10.0 rating the band received from influential website Pitchfork Media for Source Tags and Codes, a rating which has never been given since for a new album. “I just laugh at that, because I don’t even think that was ever a ten. I would never have given that record a ten, or any of our records a ten. I don’t think of any of them as perfect albums. I think of Dark Side of the Moon as a perfect album, maybe. Just the fact they are attaching a ridiculous number to a work of art, that’s not how I appreciate music.”

Keely’s also not a particularly big fan of music journalism as a whole. “I never read music journalism. I don’t read Rolling Stone, I don’t read Spin Magazine, I don’t read anything. Reading about bands in order to think about how I’m supposed to think about something? I listen to bands that I either see live, or that my friends tell me about, or through word of mouth. It has nothing to do with reading reviews. I don’t understand reviews personally. I don’t see why anyone would pick up a record, form their own opinion about it and then try to cross-reference it with what Rolling Stone had to say about it.” All that being said, this music journalist will heartily recommend the fact that Trail of Dead are playing two shows in New Zealand in early June at the tail-end of their gigantic world tour, and that their live show will definitely be worth checking out. And, this music journalist, contrary to what Keely might say, reckons The Century of Self is, like their other releases, another excellent Trail of Dead album.