Interview: ...And You will Know Us By the Trail of Dead

It’s a warm, sunny day at Oxford’s O2 Academy2 and Conrad Keely has just been for a bike ride. The …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead – AYWKUBTTOD or TOD for, er, short – singer/guitarist/artist seems invigorated from a trip around the university on a pack-away bicycle brought in Ireland.

...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead Certainly Conrad is focussed enough during the interview to simultaneously draw a beautiful picture of a Chinese peasant girl, which is to be given away to one lucky Bearded reader. With regards his art, Keely is “not an Ansel Adams type person. I don’t usually look at a landscape and feel like ‘Oh my God I really need to paint this landscape, I’m never going to see it again!’ It’s usually more like ‘this person is really interesting’ and ‘what are they expressing through their face?’ and ‘what is their story?’ I’m really interested in stories, the human story.” He also reassures that “drawing is an almost subconscious act” and that it shouldn’t stop his answering questions (“ask away!”).

Well, TOD have recently released, and are touring, their seventh album, Tao of the Dead; what was recording process like? “One of the priorities of this record was to have a good time. We really enjoyed the process and it was the first time I’d ever done so… I tortured myself whenever it came to recording, but not this time, this time I was like ‘screw that, I’m gonna really enjoy this!’ and we did.” A less oppressive recording process was aided by the fact that “on this album one of the things we did for the first time was to record demos” before hitting the studio.

The result is a two-part affair, with the second part a 16 minute track while the first 11 songs are shorter but flow seamlessly. It’s an expansive, ambitious project and the influences are very much progressively minded, with Keely citing Rush and Pink Floyd. However, Keely feels that ‘prog’ is a bad word to use: “I mean I don’t think people think Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love as a progressive album, but I do. Rock isn’t something that should be codified. It should be moved forward, or otherwise it dies…what people call prog rock now, it’s just what I listened to as a kid. My parents listened to that. They didn’t say it was prog rock, they just said it was rocking music, pop. I mean, The Wall was a pop hit in America – Pink Floyd was a top 40 band!” Progression and experimentation are key for Keely, as he declares that “we won’t stop experimenting; once we stop experimenting, we stop progressing!”

But this progressive mind-set hasn’t always stood Trail of Dead well with critics. After American hipster bible Pitchfork granted their third album Source Tags and Codes a hallowed 10.0 out of 10.0 on its in-no-way-completely-ludicrous rating system, was the negative reaction to future Trail of Dead records emblematic of greater failings in music journalism? Or is there an unhealthy quest for novelty over quality in all modern life? “It’s not a modern symptom”, Keely muses, “it’s always been like that. There was this professor of classical music at Berkeley, Robert Greenberg, and one of the things he said was that journalists are only remembered for writing the wrong thing about the right person. People only usually remember the bad reviews of great artists, like the review of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto that was so scathing that he almost killed himself. It’s always been like that, and the problem is that journalism is built around the idea of novelty and selling copies but doesn’t really have anything to do with the necessity of longevity. So in the end we don’t really worry about that, it’s not really our concern, our concern is with our own self-indulgent quest to make the music we want to make and the art we want to accompany it… We’ve set ourselves up for that and it’s hardly surprising we’d get a backlash for doing that, it comes with the territory.”

Keely is right when he defends Worlds Apart, the sometimes-derided follow up to Source Tags and Codes. After all, it is that record’s epic ‘Will You Smile Again?’ that is the stand-out moment of the band’s set later that night. A blistering intro and coda to the song serve to distract from the fact that nothing really happens for the middle third, save for a relentless metronomic drum beat and the odd guitar squeal. Against this sparse backdrop, Conrad Keely seizes control and runs a vocal gamut from pleading to accusatory to scornful and back again, all the while supreme in exploiting well-timed silences with absolute command. It is utterly mesmerising.

Not content with forging progressively minded music and drawing captivating artwork to accompany it, Keely is also in the process of releasing a graphic novel framed around his fantasy inspired artwork and music: “Ideally I want to release it as a kind of serial…it will be on-going. I’ve been working on this backstory since I was a kid, and although I think our music is grounded on planet earth and this story is more of a fantastic story taking place on another planet, they are interconnected…but it isn’t something I’d want to over explain and I’d rather the readers make the connections themselves.”

His multidisciplinary talents always make him seem on the cusp of another grand project. Indeed, when asked about the possibility of a new album he responds: “We’re going to start pretty soon actually…I’m in a pretty creative mode right now and I’m ready to just go back into the studio. What we’re probably going to do this year is to cut the touring short, unless it’s in Europe or Asia.” These aren’t the words you expect from someone supposed to be promoting an album released only a few months earlier. But while they may alarm their label’s executives, they should excite their fans.