James Mills

10:22 5th December 2006

Trail of Dead

When recalling Trail of Dead's unscheduled extra day in New Orleans volunteering for the Red Cross during the band's current North American tour, Jason Reece sounds almost embarrassed by the fact that one of his own songs sound-tracked his experience of the still pervasive desolation caused by Hurricane Katrina 15 months ago. "'Swept away but oh, not lost," croaks the Trail of Dead songwriter/multi-instrumentalist, as we catch up with him in Phoenix, Arizona before laughing at himself and apparently at the absurdity that a song can come close to embodying the tragedy he witnessed and the unsettling brew of emotions it stirred up in him.
"We went through miles and miles of desolation," says Reece. "And New Orleans is a place where we hung out a lot - it's only eight hours away from (Trail of Dead's hometown) Austin - and you can tell that it's lost maybe one tenth of the previous population. You can just feel it. I didn't see any street performers this time, I didn't see any of the people who used to hang out and read tarot decks and stuff like that. A lot of the culture that made New Orleans what it is, is gone. Sure, the most annoying aspects of it still remain, I mean you still get drunk frat boys driving in from Houston to come and drink in the French quarter - they're still there. But where are those Dixieland bands that used to walk down the street and just set up on the side walk?" 

His friends in the New Orleans band, Quintron and Ms Pussycat, struggled to deal with the devastation and provided an all-too-familiar small-scale picture of a band having to re-evaluate themselves in the aftermath of hardship. "They had their basement flooded, they had this whole compound that they used to work out of, it was almost like an art collective.  And that's definitely having to be returned to its previous state.  I think it's going to be interesting. When you wipe the slate clean like that, when mother nature does, we're given the opportunity to remodel and create.  When people undergo this type of adversity, sometimes it serves more to strengthen their resolve than to wreck their spirit." 

By this point in the conversation Reece's personal experience in Trail of Dead is becoming an increasingly clear subtext to his discussion of adversity.  In fact, he may as well be talking about the depression and insecurity the band experienced after their fourth album, ‘World's Apart’ sold barely half what their breakthrough album, ‘Sources Tags & Codes’ sold.  World's Apart was an ambitious, and often overwhelming call for political and cultural change, and when it became clear that few people cared, the band couldn't help taking it personally. "We were trying very hard when we made that record," Reece says.  "And when you try hard and don't succeed, you feel a kind of futility in putting that much effort into something again." 

The frustrating imbalance between effort and reward is starkly apparent in Reece's disenchantment with all but a few aspects of touring.  "I don't know if you've ever taken a road trip across America," he says, "but it's easily one of the most boring countries you'd ever have to travel through - it's homogenous, it all looks the same, and it's not particularly culturally rich either. (Touring) can be exciting and it can be enjoyable, but I mean, come on - when you turn thirty and you've been doing it forever, you're reminded of the fact that it's kind of like camping in the boy scouts. It's not something that you think you're going to spend your adulthood doing." 

As much as his dissatisfaction has you instinctively reaching for the world's smallest violin, it becomes clear that behind the gruff exterior there's a more vulnerable appreciation for the kind of life where road trips and camping count as negative analogies. In fact, the travelling-around-with-your-mates aspect of the tour is paradoxically what Reece finds most refreshing.  Both socially and musically, the Trail of Dead, the Blood Brothers, the Brothers and Sisters, and the Celebration, according to Reece, have bonded to the point where they inspire each other and that seems to go a long way in soothing any existential gloom. "This tour specifically is going to breed a lot of ideas," he enthuses. "What the music from the next record could be like, could definitely be inspired by having played with [those three bands]." 

Trail of Dead

Describing how the onstage interaction works, he says, "Mark the drummer of the Blood Brothers, and David the drummer of Celebration just sometimes jump on stage while we're playing and they join in with percussion. Lily and Will who sing in the Brothers and Sisters have been singing a couple of songs with us, because of course they do a lot of the backup vocals on our record.  I've been playing piano with them, Mark has been playing with the Celebration, and visa versa."

As much as the tour sounds like an egalitarian collective of likeminded musicians, Reece, aged 35, feels the isolation of seniority that comes from being part of the oldest band on tour.  He's wistfully observant of younger bands with the wherewithal to get it right in areas where he feels Trail of Dead could have done better. "All the kids in the Blood Brothers are around 24, and that's the age we were when we started Trail of Dead. But they seem very down to earth people, they're very adult-like, they're pretty astute when it comes to understanding what it means to be a musical professional. I mean, when I was twenty four I had my head up my ass. At that age I didn't think of music as a profession at all, I thought of it as some kind of weird political statement, I was totally idealistic. I had no idea what the real nuts and bolts of touring and running it as a business meant at all. And that didn't come until just recently, and I still struggle with the idea of thinking of music as a business.  I think that's one of our weakest points." 

Clearly, this just scratches the surface of what must be the product of a great deal of soul-searching and brooding over what could have been. For a deeper glimpse into the abyss, ‘So Divided's lyrics are infused with the same dark state of mind.  The song ‘Life’, for example, with lyrics like, "Another failed and hopeless year / Of wasted life and wasted time", is a bleakly literal window into the psyche of Trail of Dead. Discussing the theme of broken dreams in “Life", Reece says, "When we started off as a band we were really ambitious, we really wanted to be massive. And for whatever reasons, whether it was our fault, or our laziness..." he trails off for a moment before snapping, "Who knows, whatever. We're not playing stadiums or anything like that." 

The bitterness, the impulse to give up are still issues the band has yet to overcome, but paradoxically, without them we probably wouldn't have So Divided. As Reece says, "when we approached [So Divided]. We [decided that we] weren't going to necessarily try that hard, not give it our all, and actually it was really liberating and it was a nice way to approach the record, I thought. Not feeling that you're trying to change the world, or create fuckin' ‘Sgt Pepper’ or something. But to just go in there and try to make something that is good but that you're not so emotionally married to."

While the lyrics may reflect deep inner turmoil, the whimsical approach they took with the album goes a long way in explaining why, for the most part, the album seems to either lilt blissfully, or bounce with the kind of studied exuberance that seems to say, "Move along, no meaning or painfully frank account of personal crisis to see here." It's a mysterious fusion of vulnerability and guardedness that is uniquely Trail of Dead, and is sometimes captivating, sometimes downright weird - most of the time both. But in the mind of Jason Reece it all fits together perfectly as a craftily subtle form of therapy: "It's those things that you wouldn't even say to your best friend, that you can get away with saying in a song. Cause at the end of the day, it's just a song." And he laughs, no doubt at the absurdity that it might actually be so much more than that.