Q&A with Conrad Keely of ... And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead
Conrad Keely, frontman for the indie-rock vets in ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, is among the most articulate and opinionated figures in music. He earns this reputation anew it in the following Q&A, conducted for our profile of the band, "...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead Cuts Its Own Path," which was published in advance of the band's Monday, March 9 gig at the Bluebird Theater.
Keely is a noted pen-and-ink illustrator whose work can be seen on Trail of Dead albums such as The Century of Self, the outfit's latest. It makes perfect sense, then, that he was en route to the National Gallery of the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. during our conversation. I've omitted dialogue about who would pay for the taxi and so forth -- but everything else can be found below, including some opening exchanges about Keely's current preference for figurative art, as opposed to the wholly abstract kind. After that, the topic turns to music, with Keely weighing in on the production of Self, and the impact (or lack thereof) of the band's departure from the very major Interscope imprint prior to its recording; his recent move to Brooklyn, and the response to it by scenesters in Austin, where the act has long been based; the positive aspects of a disastrous 2007 tour with Dethklok, the real-life version of a cartoon group; his original goals upon signing with Interscope, and how they fell apart in succeeding years; his notorious online announcement that the band and the label were parting ways; his comments about watching the downward spiral of the music industry as a whole; his eagerness to sign up combos to Richter Scale Records, recently founded by the band; and the chemistry that's got him excited about traversing the Trail of Dead again.
Conrad Keely: We're getting cabs to go to the Smithsonian...
Westword (Michael Roberts): Which one are you going to visit?
CK: Probably the old art.
WW: You prefer that to modern art these days?
CK: Well, it's kind of strange, because I consider myself a modern artist. But I've been to the contemporary-art museum, and for the most part, abstract expressionism and conceptual art and those kinds of installation pieces don't really move me emotionally. And I think art is something that is very important, and you have to be moved by it on an emotional level. And I think one of the problems with some of the newer stuff is that it's not telling a story. However, there's a new movement of modern art that's kind of having a revival, and I think it's a lot more founded in the traditions of classical painting. In other words, people actually being able to draw, and draftsmanship and things like that.
WW: In other words, more pictorial and figurative, and maybe even narrative?
CK: Narrative, definitely. Iconographic, using symbolism. Ironically, this new movement is actually labeled Lowbrow. So that's kind of funny in a way.
WW: I understand that you're a fan of artistic styles that have been seen as lowbrow in the old-fashioned sense of the term. Like comics, for example.
CK: Yeah. And a lot of these emerging great artists did come from the comics tradition. But, you know, the thing about comics is, they teach you how to draw. I went to an alternative college, Evergreen State College, and there, the emphasis in art was about expression and not about craftsmanship. So I feel there's this whole generation of 20th century art students who lost something because of that. Of course, nothing's ever lost. People are able to teach themselves things if they want to learn. But I think there were a lot of students who were missing out on education, because they were being taught by teachers who came out of that abstract revolution.
WW: And yet, all of the abstract painters from the beginning of the movement had the sort of draftsmanship background you were talking about...
CK: Anybody who studies art history knows that all of those people were capable of drawing, yes. They all studied traditional art.
WW: True. But I'm afraid if we keep talking about art, we'll never get to the music.
CK: (Laughs) You're right, you're right.
WW: You guys have always made big, ambitious recordings - and some of your fans may have feared that leaving Interscope might have forced you to retrench in the studio. But The Century of Self strikes me as being as big and ambitious as ever. Are we at a point technologically where you can make records independently that are every bit as expansive as ones you can make in a big studio where the meter's running ever second?
CK: Have you heard the Yeasayer record All Hour Cymbals?
WW: I have...
CK: Well, I was talking to them about making that record, and they told me that sometimes for reverb, they were just yelling into pots and pans. And to me, that's one of the greatest works of production that I've heard recently, as well as Fleet Foxes' stuff. And I know that the Fleet Foxes were not in a thousand-dollar-a-day studio. So the answer is, "Absolutely."
WW: One of the most overused phrases you hear these days is, "Doing more with less." Did that concept even come into play when you were recording the new album? Or were you able to do pretty much you wanted to do the way you wanted to do it?
CK: Yeah, because my mantra's always been, "More is more." And with the state of digital recording these days, there's almost an overabundance of things you can do. There's so many toys and gadgets and plug-ins to play with now that there's no sense of limitation. There's almost a sense of being slightly overwhelmed, and not having enough time.
WW: At times, do you have to tell yourself, "I'm not going to experiment with this or that," because it can take you completely off the track?
CK: No, we always had a very strong on what we were doing. If anything, I was more likely to get frustrated if I wasn't able to find exactly what I wanted right then and there. I usually know what sound I'm going for, and my challenge is to try and find it.
WW: Are there times when you don't find the exact sound you're looking for, but you find something better in the course of the search?
CK: Not necessarily better, but maybe something that I hadn't expected. More often than not, it's something that's not as good as what was in my head, but it'll have to do because we're running out of time (laughs).
WW: You've talked a lot about your move to Brooklyn. Is the whole band living in the area now, or is there a geographical split?
CK: I'm the only one there, actually. Jason [Reece] and Kevin [Allen] are still in Austin, and we still use Austin as our base, because all of our equipment is there, and our label is there, and when we practice, it's a lot more convenient.
WW: Has the move had any impact on how the album was put together? Did you have to come up with new approaches? Or did you simply get together physically in the same location and did what you've always done?
CK: Exactly. Because even when we were Austin, it wasn't like we ever spent time rehearsing. We usually only got together when we had to, in other words. We're not very compulsive in that way. We probably would put out more records if we were (laughs).
WW: You've talked so much about Brooklyn that I could imagine some people from Austin thinking that you had soured on that city. I didn't interpret them that way. But have you had any people say, "I thought you liked Austin..."
CK: No, not at all. I can't think of anything negative that I've ever said about Austin. It's the only place that I've ever lived and loved, and I still consider it my home. I don't think I'll ever move away from Austin. I'm still there every two months, and I'll probably buy a house there. But it doesn't mean I have to be there all the time. It's not that type of home for me. It's comforting, but I don't necessarily have to live there, if it makes any sense.
WW: At the same time, though, Brooklyn did bring you a fresh perspective?
CK: Well, you can't help but get one when you move to New York from anywhere, because it's such a challenge. I think it's a difficult place to live. But adversity always stimulates creativity. I don't run from challenges. I tend to actually take on too many.
WW: You've talked about the influence of Brooklyn artists on the new album, but it still sounds very much like a Trail of Dead record to me. Was it important for you to maintain that connection with what you've done in the past, so that the music's more of an evolution than a radical change?
CK: That's the way I think of all of our records, whether people see that or not. People think of the last record [2006's So Divided] as a radical change, but I thought of it as just another logical step. With this album, too, we were kind of taking an overview of our entire recording career, and in a way almost being deliberately self-referential. But, to answer your question, I think of every album we do as a logical step - kind of an episodic journey. And for that reason, the things we didn't do on this record - the things we wanted to do - are going to be the starting point for the new songs on the next record, which I'm trying to develop now.
WW: I came upon an interview in which you talked about how your 2007 tour with Dethklok had an unexpected influence on this album... and I wanted to ask you about that, because I interviewed Brandon Smalls from Dethklok last year, and he talked about the tour a little bit.
CK: Oh my gosh. What did he say?
WW: He described you guys as very nice, but he said that as soon as he heard about this pairing, he thought it was going to be terrible for you. He said they'd wanted a metal band on the tour, but they were told it was going to be Trail of Dead instead. And he thought you might have been chosen because the girlfriend of somebody in charge liked you. Had you heard anything like that?
CK: No, not at all. I think we all ended up on that tour wondering what the hell we were doing there. But I believe in taking the positive out of the negative. That tour had everything to do with the way this album came out sounding. One of the reasons is that the hostility we experienced is something we'd never had in America. Now, we've played for hostile audiences. In Europe, we'd done a couple tours with major bands like the Foo Fighters and Audioslave, and we experienced a lot of hostility in the U.K. In fact, there's a song on the last record about that, called "Eight Day Hell." It was just something to be expected, because whenever you have these football hooligan fans, they're going to cheer for their team and boo the other team. That's kind of how it works in the U.K. (laughs).
In America, people are a lot more polite. It's a surprisingly polite society. When you see a band you don't like, chances are, you're going to clap anyway, just to kind of be supportive. But that wasn't happening on the Dethklok tour. It was almost like we were playing for an old breed of punters. If it wasn't death metal, they didn't want anything to do with it, and that kind of took us all by surprise. But what that allowed us to do was, it gave us this complete freedom to do whatever we wanted. We didn't care about the audience and we didn't care about our songs. We could actually deconstruct them into these abstract noise experiments.
WW: You felt like, they were going to boo you anyway, so you might as well stretch out as much as you wanted?
CK: Yeah. And I haven't heard of many bands doing that. Sonic Youth had that Neil Young tour they always talk about, and sometimes it's that type of hostility that kind of allows you to reach down into yourself. When everybody's telling you that you're worthless, you have to look at yourself and go, "What is it about us that's of value?" It's a good assessment.
WW: Did this tour happen when you were still on Interscope? Or was it after you'd left?
CK: It happened after we left. We already knew it was kind of over.
WW: So this wasn't something you could blame on them?
CK: Oh, no. I would never blame Interscope for... well, I guess I could blame them for sending us on tour with Queens of the Stone Age. But for the most part, they stayed out of our touring schedule.
WW: The signing with Interscope seemed unusual to a lot of people in the first place, since you clearly cared more about art than commerce...
CK: Well, at the time, Interscope was doing really well, and the music industry was doing really well. There was a strong sense of optimism. And we were bolstered by the great response we were getting. But more importantly, I've always been an idealistic about music, and I had a vision about how it might be possible to change mainstream music, or influence it in a positive way. And when I look back on my record collection, most of my favorite artists were on major labels. They were mainstream: pop artists like the Beatles and Pink Floyd. And even the Sex Pistols were on a major label. So it felt important to me to be part of this tradition of, I guess, non-conformist, anti-establishment bands being funded and supported by wealthy patrons. I guess, for me, that goes all the way back to the Renaissance.
That's how I was thinking about the Interscope thing. I wasn't thinking about Eminem or Dr. Dre or No Doubt. Those were the last things in my mind.
WW: Was the problem, though, that it wasn't the last thing in their minds? Did they have any idea how to market you?
CK: No. And I don't blame them for that, because how could they. We aren't trying to be like anything else. We aren't trying to fit a mold. We aren't even trying to be commercial. There was a point when we were recording the last record where I was almost hoping it would get us dropped. I wanted people to listen to it and think, "How the hell did this come out on a major label?" Because it's not conventional in that sense. Which is strange because a lot of our fans thought it was poppy (laughs).
WW: When you left, you did it with quite a flourish. The message you left on the website: Was it spur of the moment? Or did you think it through?
CK: Not at all. That was meant just for our message board and our band. I had no idea that anyone else would see it other than our fans. I always post news to our message board. It was naïve of me to think no one else would hear about it, because it is the Internet. But I didn't mean it as a press statement at all. In the end, though, I thought it was kind of humorous. I don't have any bad feelings toward Jimmy Iovine. You know, ironically, I have a lot of respect for him, mainly because of the work done in the past. His work with John Lennon and Fleetwood Mac and U2: To me, they're small monuments in history.
WW: And yet your line in the note about John Lennon was pretty hilarious - about how John Lennon was dead and Phil Spector's murdered people since then...
CK: (Laughs) Oh my goodness. I hadn't thought about that in a long time...
WW: At any rate, once it became a cause celebre, it sounds like you took it with good humor.
CK: I think people take us the wrong way when they think we take ourselves so seriously. There's a lot of comedy involved in what we do, you know? And a lot of satire, I suppose. I think all of that is just part of the entertainment world. You can't take yourself too seriously, or any of this stuff too seriously. It's just all too ridiculous.
WW: Even so, do you feel in a way that your stretch at Interscope gave you a front-row seat to watch the death of the record industry as we know it?
CK: Well, it was really interesting. I was actually working in the office. They'd given me an office to work on the art in. Just a space when I'd moved to New York where I could come in and do artwork. That was really gracious of them. They didn't need to do that. It was really cool. But I got to see what was going on inside the label. I got to see and hear what was being played and stuff. And I think that's actually when I formed a lot of my opinions.
WW: Did you get a sense that things were spiraling downward and you needed to get out while you could?
CK: Let's put it this way. The entire time I was there, I didn't hear anybody, not one, single person, blasting a rock record from their rooms. All I ever heard was urban hip-hop and pop. But it was kind of funny: When I was in the office, I'd be blasting Vivaldi concertos at full blast.
WW: After leaving Interscope, I'm sure you guys had a chance to sign with an independent, or perhaps another major label. Why did you guys decide instead to start your own label?
CK: It was the hope that we might be able to do the same for another small band that the labels we'd started on had done for us. Trance Records didn't give us a big budget, but they gave us our first record, and it was the beginning of it. That's how it started. If I was able to do that with a band I believed in... I'm not talking about guiding their whole career or anything like that, but just give them that start and that first boost of recognition, then I'd feel we'd done something as worthwhile as possible.
We're not going out there on some crazy signing binge. We want to work with people we're inspired by, I suppose. There have been so many bands we've worked with in the last decade that if we'd started this label maybe ten years ago... I think that's one thing I would consider a regret, if there was such a thing: I wish with Interscope we could have come onto that label saying, "We want an imprint." Because when we got signed, Jimmy was willing to do anything we wanted. But this is a learning experience. Doing it now, it's better late than never. But there were so many bands along the way that we would have signed, and it would have been great. We would've had a hell of a roster by now (laughs).
WW: Do you feel this process you've gone through has reenergized the band?
CK: Well, you know, I think a lot of it has to do with the members we're playing with now. I think the chemistry is at a point where it feels like we're cooking with gas again. Doni Schroader was on our last couple of records and he's a great drummer, but he was almost trying to pull the brakes on the train when we were racing forward. Whereas Aaron [Ford], our current drummer, he's a lot more like Jason. It's full speed ahead with him. That, on a pure, concrete level, has been a big change, a big difference.
WW: I hear an enthusiasm in your tone of voice that's at a really high level...
CK: Oh yeah. It sometimes takes a long time to find good chemistry with bandmates. It can break up bands, drag bands behind. So when it's there, you want to strike while the iron is hot. And that's why I feel I'm ready to keep working on a new record. I don't want to slow this process down.