Q&A with Conrad Keely of ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead

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The past two years have served as a period of transition for ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of the Dead. After splitting with Interscope Records in 2008, the Austin-based sextet started their own label and drew on its own funds to record and release its latest effort, Century of Self, which boasts a decidedly rougher and edgier feel than the group's earlier material. We caught up with Trail of Dead frontman Conrad Keely to discuss the band's new directions, his recent move to Brooklyn from Austin and his creative output with a ball-point pen.

Westword (A.H. Goldstein): It seems like the band has had some breathing room since the last official release - it's been about eight months since Century of Self came out. Have you had time to work on any new music, or has the fall tour featured mainly featured material that has already been released?

Conrad Keely: We work on music constantly. Today, Clay and I were experimenting in the back lounge of the bus with some new Electro-Harmonix pedals we've been collecting, playing my violin through the vocoder and running that through a Nord Lead. I think being a song writer or composer is not just about those times you're sitting in your room in front of your piano in acts of deliberate composition, but also those times when you're just making music and noise for fun, and anticipating how you might use your most abstract ideas in upcoming compositions.

WW: It's been more than a year since the band left Interscope and struck out on its own. How has the departure from a mainstream label affected your creative process?

CK: I don't think our creative process ever really had much to do with what label we were on.  Maybe what drugs we're on, maybe what book we're reading, or what movie we saw recently, but never what label we're on.

WW: Related to that, what have been some of the challenges in launching your own label, Richter Scale Records?

CK: Launching a project is never really the challenge, is it? It's more like finding land after months of being at sea that's the challenge. Just like any business venture, we're still in the outset stages of developing our vision and a concept for later potential. The challenge for us will be to create something that has a lasting significance.

WW: The recording process that led up to Self seemed unorthodox, in the sense that you entered the studio without a label and that you drew on your own funds to finance the record. Do you think the fact that the band had such a large role in the production and promotion of Self impacted the sound of the record?

CK: Again, no, not really. Finances and promotion are usually the last thing I'm thinking of when I'm working on a record. The inspiration for the record had much more to do with our personal lives and what we were experiencing. For me, I was feeding off my excitement of playing with a new rhythm section, namely Aaron Ford and Jay Phillips, and trying as much as possible to put onto tape a new type of improvisational style that we had recently developed playing live on tour.

WW: The band also drew on the YouTube to offer fans live clips and previews of the tunes on Self before they were released. Have you continued to use the web to get the word out about your current tour and any new material?

CK: Yes, not just about upcoming tours and material, but also day to day stuff. For instance, I just jumped on the Twitter bandwagon, and that's been entertaining. I don't think we've ever been the type to glamorize or make fictitious our tour lives. I think the reality of touring for me is far more exciting than some mystified Almost Famous stereotype of what touring was like back in the '70s. No it's not all about sex and drugs like it once was, but for myself it's about visiting museums, going on bike rides, making camp fires on our days off, and I'm fine with that. The only thing I hope to bring back are arena-stadium concerts.

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WW: Self stands out from the band's two previous releases, So Divided and Worlds Apart, in its rougher and more immediate sound. Is the departure from overdubs and studio effects something that you guys will pursue on future recordings?

CK: Well, I don't really think of Century of Self as a departure of any kind, there are hundreds of overdubs and studio effects all over it.  If anything, we're only just diving deeper and deeper into the technology of ever-evolving recording techniques. But I would agree with you that it is rougher, almost bellicose, and that was deliberate on our part. It's almost as if we had to ask ourselves the question, "With all these gadgets and slick computers to make it sound perfect, what do we have to do to make it sound really fucked up again?"

WW: I know that you and Jason Reece switch off on drums, guitar and vocals during live performances. How you do you guys decide who will take which instrument for any given song?

CK: I don't really do the drums much live any more; I have to protect my hands now! But in the past the rule we used was simply whoever wrote the song would sing it.  Even that now we've overturned, because with Aaron playing drums, Jason and I can play guitar and sing on the same song, which we've been doing more and more, with ever-increasing serendipity.  

WW: The band has moved from Austin to Brooklyn; has the geographical change and the shift in scenes impacted the group in any big way?

CK: Not really. It's just me in Brooklyn, Jason and Kevin still live in Austin so Austin is still the band's home base, and where all our gear and equipment is. However, musically speaking I can say that being in Brooklyn has inspired me in all sorts of ways. On this record probably the most evident would be the song "Halcyon Days", which is basically a song about leaving Austin and living in Brooklyn, although put slightly more poetically. For me it was important to shift environments in order to find new, creative pastures.

WW: Your drawings serve as the album artwork for Self. It's a pretty intricate design, especially considering that you drew it all with a Bic ballpoint pen. How long did that take?

CK: About one and a half years, but we were recording that entire time, so it all sort of blended in. I was working on drawings even while we were mixing in the studio.

WW: Speaking of which, how much time do you get to draw when you're dealing with the demands of touring?

CK: Definitely not as much as I would like, and with the bus moving I can't really paint or do anything very exact.  But I still have to draw, it's just a compulsion. I have my artbox with me all the time, and sketch books often litter the back lounge. On this particular tour I made a ball point portrait of Drew Barrymore on canvas, that I'm really very proud of, and my first paint-pen painting.

...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, with Mumiy Troll and Future of the Left, 8 p.m. Tuesday, October 20, Bluebird Theater, 3317 E. Colfax, $16.25 - $18.00, 303-830-8497.

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