Conrad Keeley reveals all about the bands return...
Laura Davies

11:17 11th February 2009

...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead return to your ears later this month courtesy of 'The Century of Self'. Not so much a return to form – 'So Divided' was primarily meant to be a studio album after all, leaving the racuous live performances on hold for a minute – but more a ‘what do we do best? - rock your fucking balls off return. Few bands live up to the Trail of Dead mold. Now on to their sixth record, Trail have survived almost fifteen years of line-up changes, city moves, stage annihilations and alleged Guitar Hero tantrums.

Latest line-up du jour are founders frontman Conrad Keely, drummer Jason Reece and guitarist Kevin Allen, second drummer Aaron Ford, bassist Jay Phillips and guitarist Clay Morris. The current dream team have produced a record, already receiving rave reviews, that is as riotous, carnal and thoughtful as fellow Texanites At the Drive-In’s ‘Relationship of Command’. 'The Century of Self’s opening track, ‘Giants Causeway’, is just as apocalyptic as previous efforts, drawing the listener in to the onslaught that lies in wait. “I love symphonic overtures from my time studying classical music,” explains Conrad Keely.“Some of my favourite records open with a dramatic instrumental that sets the scene. From the opening overture of Jesus Christ Superstar, Tommy by The Who, or even The Dark Side of the Moon.”

Any criticism for 2006’s 'So Divided' is instantly forgotten as the track unravels. “When we were writing ‘The Century of Self’ we knew we were going to have fun with it live, which is the total opposite of the last record,” says Keely. “‘So Divided’ [the fifth LP] was intended to be a studio album, I didn’t even think about playing those songs live. When it came to having to tour the record, because that’s what we’re supposed to do, it was difficult. They are very challenging songs.”

The challenging past for Trail is long gone, though. A not entirely acrimonious split from Interscope Records has given the band the freedom to branch out on their own terms. After partnering with Texan country label Justice Records – home to Willie Nelson – they started their own label Richter Scale Records. “We have more control over the budget and the spending. We enforce ourselves to be frugal which gives us a new found sense of purpose.” A world away from the time spent with Interscope. “There’s a lot of extravagant dinners and unnecessary limosine rides that you don’t really get told about at a big label,” explains Keely. “You don’t realise that it’s all coming out of your own pocket.” And it’s not just champagne and limosines that Trail were adverse to. The passion evident in small labels and publicists is an overwhelming change for the better for Keely: “When you work with a big label, sometimes you end up working with people that seem pretty clueless about what is going on. They didn’t really understand the music.”

‘The Century of Self’ understands the music. Coming about by in part, Keely’s move to New York City, a fascination with new recording technology and a whole lot of fire off the back of the 'So Divided' experiment.  “Recording an album is a lot like going to war. There’s a lot of waiting around. I’ve read a lot about wars. They’re one of my favourite topics,” says Keely. “You’re waiting to crack. Then you crack for 15 minutes. And then you wait again.”

Technological advancements in recording a sixth album play as much a role as the band members, in some cases replacing them. “There’s a whole new aspect that didn’t even exist 15 years ago,” explains Keely.  In some cases new computer programmes can replace real instruments, saving on unreliable and often exorbutant instruments. “The studio can be a real dangerous place to have an antique instrument. Even if I had my own harpsichord I probably wouldn’t bring it in to the studio. I’d probably make my own recording sample of it. Its safe.”

Keely has upped sticks from his second home of Austin, Texas, living there since 1994, to the Big Apple, via England (he was born in Nuneaten), Hawaii, Thailand and Olympia, Washington (where he first met fellow Trail founder Reece).  “There’s a musical community that goes on in New York that I want us to be more a part of. The city has exposed me to a lot of new bands that have got me excited. Two of the members of Yeasayer sang on new track ‘Insatiable’. I also really like Dirty Protectors and The School of Seven Bells – their music actually inspired the ‘Bells of Creation’.”

It’s not just the band scene that attracted Keely to New York City. He is an established artist, most recently showing with fellow muso/artiste Melissa Auf der Mar. “I want to bridge the gap between art and music. I think people see them as separate things but I see them as two sides of the same coin.” Art is not just to pass the time. Keely has drawn, painted, scribbled and montaged all of Trail’s artwork. When asked which creative is his preference, Keely is truly stumped: “The reason that I do both of them is a matter of compulsion. The idea of giving them up is the same idea as giving up life.”

So what have Trail been up to in their three year hiatus? Well if reports are to be believed, usually restrained guitarist Allen has been trashing the hell out of bars after losing at Guitar Hero and Keely and Reece have been making history with a show stopping performance at the last night of London’s Astoria.  And how did Trail’s founders prepare for a historic night not seen since CBGBs shut in 2006? “We were in the pub all day. We weren’t even supposed to play. It just kind of happened. Backstage everyone had their own stories – it was pretty emotional.”

Infamous trailblazing antics have seen the band embroiled in many a fracas, normally involving their instruments, themselves and a rock-hard floor. Not knowing how much this carnal instinct has cost over the years, Keely does ponder the guitar graveyard he’s dug.  “I’ve always wondered what a roomful of all the guitars that I’ve broken would look like. It would have to be a pretty big room.”

The instrument annihilation is integral to the genius of Trail. But it’s not money down the drain. Just snares.  “I always hunt out cheap guitars in porn shops,” explains Keely. “For us the guitar is just a tool, like a hammer or a chisel. The guitars we take on tour, there job is to create the spectacle of a live show, if that means being – compromised – then that’s just part of its purpose.”

So, the guitar is just a hammer, instruments are compromised, they don’t do limos and somehow find themselves ensnared in historic nights of music, Trail are unlike any other band out there. And thank God for them. Miss the April tour at your peril – just remember, dodge the flying cymbals.