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Stage Fright

Austin's ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead (corpses not pictured).

There is something both chilling and beautiful about chaos and destruction, like watching a 21-story building implode. In a live setting, the Austin, TX-based foursome, ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, live by this notion: The band takes the established order and structure and pulverizes it into a rubble of exhaustion and sweat, broken bottles and instruments.

"A drum set will last us about a tour," says vocalist/drummer/guitarist Conrad Keely of the relatively abbreviated lifespan of Trail of Dead equipment. "They just seem to get broken all the time. Accidents do happen."

Broken drums are usually not the only casualty left in the wake of Trail of Dead performances, spectacles that have earned the band a reputation as both an outstanding and volatile live act throughout the six years of its life. As the lore goes, the band has been personally escorted off stages (some of which Trail of Dead has left partially destroyed) and out of towns by police. The players have been known to throw Flying V guitars across congested rooms -- narrowly missing the night's patrons, an act that usually renders the guitars useless and the crowd both fearful and intrigued. It is not uncommon to see one of the bandmembers dive headfirst into a crowd, if only to steal a drink from an unsuspecting audience member. Sometimes the players hurl beer bottles at each other on stage; if the audience is not paying attention, occasionally they'll hurl them into the crowd.

As might be expected, sometimes things can get a little out of hand. Like the time guitarist Kevin Allen sustained a gaping wound on his leg after a particularly rowdy show in San Antonio.

"I didn't know if the crowd liked us or hated us, but they started throwing bottles, and things began to get a little crazy," says Allen. "So I jumped over the drum set and ended up in the emergency room because I had a high-hat stand in the back of my calf."

The sensible person might ask: What's the point of this madness? According to Keely -- who leads the band to a "Zen-like collective consciousness, beginning with a group prayer to both Jesus and Satan" as part of a pre-show ritual -- it lies somewhere between a slightly warped performance ethic and a supernatural phenomenon. Despite the aggressiveness that audiences have come to expect from the foursome, its live performances are not riddled with anger or the machismo of steroid rock; to say they extract some primordial energy and presence when on stage may not be too far off.

"When we perform, we try to break down the barriers between us as musicians -- who are there to perform -- and the audience, who think they're there to see a show," Keely says. "Enthusiasm is contagious, because when you allow yourself to shed your inhibitions, you can break down the wall between the audience and the performer. We know sometimes we may sound completely awful live, but the experience is visceral for us and the audience."

"Some weird things happen on stage," Keely adds. "I've had an out-of-body experience that reminds me of voodoo trances when a body goes into a convulsive state. You get these spasms that make you feel like you're no longer at the helm of your own body or spirit. This is the most addictive thing about playing live -- when you get off stage, it's like you're coming off a really strong drug."

Musically, Trail of Dead (composed of Keely, co-guitarist/drummer/vocalist Jason Reece, bassist/sampler Neil Busch and Allen) relies on a formula that is more sexual than chemical, but no less intoxicating. Reminiscent of noise artists like Glenn Branca, Bardo Pond and Sister-era Sonic Youth, the band woos a listener with soothing melodies and pop hooks, then unleashes a blitzkrieg of anguished guitars and climactic, self-propelled drums. The cover art of Madonna, the band's latest full-length recording, offers an indication of Trail of Dead's aesthetic; the band uses an image of Kali -- a multifaceted Hindu goddess viewed in some sects as a destroyer, a threat to order, an instigator of chaos -- as a figurative, if not spiritual, symbol of their music and live performance. Throughout its thirteen songs, Madonna demonstrates Trail of Dead's tendency to build in order to destroy, to imbue its music with structure only to smash it violently just as the foundation is starting to settle.

"Claire de Lune," a track from Madonna, typifies this style. Beginning with a strong melodic intro, the sound quickly moves into the kind of catchy riffs that make even the meek nod their heads in time. By the time the song reaches its chorus, with Keely singing in an exasperated tone, the arrangement has been elevated to a sophisticated but teasing sound that weaves in and out, like a boxer who dances rhythmically but never quite takes a hit. The crescendo passes like a wave, or a crying fit, and all that remains is the sound of subtle feedback -- white noise that's frighteningly similar to the sound of electronic crickets. "Totally Natural" begins with a soothing and sanitary melody, then moves to a tribal-like chant that builds higher and higher, only to be destroyed by a monsoon force of guitars.  

Like its live shows, a Trail of Dead recording is at once dramatic, unpredictable and full of contrasts. Yet, in many ways, to see the band in a live setting and in the studio is to encounter two very different animals. When on stage, the band taps an almost reckless energy; in the studio, the players adopt a precise methodology to record the perfect sounds. "I like to approach music as a timeless tradition and evaluate how our music would compare to all the songs that have ever been written. We adhere to the belief that you should never try to play live what you record in the studio," says Reece. "The studio is a completely different palette for stuff you can never do live."

In both studio and live settings, Keely and Reece alternate on guitar, drum and vocal duties. Each player's multi-instrumental abilities proved helpful throughout the early years of their artistic partnership -- something that began when they met as high school students in Oahu, Hawaii -- as the pair was convinced that they'd never find other players who were interested in making their kind of aggressive, experimental music. A later move to misty Olympia, Washington -- in a pursuit of the muse of the Great Northwest that begat such acts as Six Finger Satellite, Fitz of Depression and the K Records contingent -- only cemented this belief. They discovered that the smug attitude of the Northwest embraced hipness more than it did music.

"We found that the people there weren't interested in seeing a band," says Keely. "There was no interaction. Simply, the attitude there is that 'We are just too cool to enjoy or participate in the scene.'"

Soon after, Reece and Keely migrated to the musical promised land of Austin, where they happened to meet Allen and Busch at what Allen describes as a "punk-rock soccer game" that takes place every weekend on the sun-drenched field of an Austin city park. Strangers to one other, Allen and Busch seemed to share Keely and Reece's commitment to the ideal that punk and rock and roll needed to be retrieved from the standoffish nature of their then-present state.

"There was a turning point in the punk scene that was a backlash of the machoistic aggressiveness of punk music where people weren't enthusiastic," says Keely. "The scene lost a lot at that point. So we're trying to put the enthusiasm back into it."

After a short time of playing locally, the dark soufflé of guitar-drenched, driving melodies with merciless drumming caught the attention of the Butthole Surfers' King Coffey, who signed them to his label, Trance Syndicate Records, in 1997. For good or bad, soon after their first self-titled release was issued, Coffey reportedly lost the passion necessary to run a label and promote bands, leaving Trail of Dead in search of another label. Things continued to decline for the foursome: Shortly after being dropped by Coffey, their van and $10,000 worth of instruments were stolen. Despite this setback, Trail of Dead forged ahead.

"It was actually a good thing, because we had nothing to do," says Allen. "We had tours planned, but without equipment, a van or a label, it's hard to tour." The band enlisted the help of guitarist Chris Smith of 16 Deluxe, who helped secure the band some free recording time for the production of Madonna. ("We had to sneak in and out of the studio to record this one, but we had plenty of time," says Allen.) The eventual result of that intermittent effort was released in 1999, after Trail of Dead was picked up by Chapel Hill, North Carolina's indie heavyweight Merge Records.

Considering the bipolar intensity of Madonna -- and the fact that Trail of Dead is continuing to take its anarchistic live show on the road -- it may come as some surprise to hear Reece outline the band's goals for the future: "I'd like to compose a musical book," he says with all seriousness. "Essentially, it would be a lavishly illustrated children's book. From when the needle hits the first groove to the last groove it would take you through themes, climax, post-climax. It would make you feel like you've been somewhere. That you haven't been sitting in a room listening to a record -- you would be able to engage it like a live performance."  

Which may sound like a lofty goal. But don't let the members of Trail of Dead catch you snickering. They'd probably throw a bottle at you.


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