Trail of Death forging a legend
Seventeen years, eight albums and countless trashed instruments later, an American indie rock institution are ready to take on Asia, writes David Frazier
The Austin, Texas, band …And You Shall Know Us by the Trail of Dead can drop guitar distortion on an audience as if they are carpet-bombing. They also have a weirdly literary edge, a way of carving real songs out of all their noisiness, and a reputation for trashing instruments at the end of their shows.
A decade ago, all of this helped push Trail of Dead into the clubhouse of America's best indie rock bands, an informal pantheon defined by college radio playlists, festival lore and a few well-placed thumbs-ups from magazines such as Rolling Stone. In August, they released a new album, Lost Songs.
These are certainly good reasons to see the group on their first appearance in Hong Kong, when they play Grappa's Cellar on October 28. Another reason is that the band see their debut Southeast Asia tour - which also includes Cambodia, Bangkok and Taiwan - as both a part of their continuing evolution and a chance to recapture the energy of first contact.
"This is being done in the hopes of making Asia just as regular a stop as Europe. And hopefully more regular than America, because I'm f****** sick of touring America," says Conrad Keely, Trail of Dead's vocalist and guitarist. "As we get older, I feel we become more rebellious and edgier, but what the young kids are doing seems to be more complacent and safe, which is counterintuitive to what I would have expected." He is referring to crowds in the US.
Keely is speaking by phone from Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where he has been living for most of the past year and, surprisingly, has spent very little time writing music for his band. Instead, he's working on a Jules Verne-esque graphic novel.
Keely is half Thai and spent much of his childhood in Bangkok. In the early 1990s, he went to college in one of the crucibles of grunge, Olympia, Washington, and then a few years later moved on to one of America's most famous towns for indie music, Austin, Texas. There, he formed Trail of Dead with Jason Reece in 1995.
From the name alone, Trail of Dead almost seemed destined for a cult following. In early interviews, band members claimed the name was borrowed from a Mayan myth, though now, Keely wryly admits: "We made up that whole thing."
"I was working at University of Texas Press at the time, and they published a lot of books on the Maya. So I'd been reading the [Maya] Codices and wanted to work that into the idea of a mythology. At the time, we kind of got off on telling lies to the press, just to make up interesting stories. But the name Trail of Dead - we invented it. It's not a reference to anything," he says.
While Keely read up on Mayan mythology the band plugged away on the US indie circuit for seven years, before finally hitting it big with their breakout album, 2002's Source Tags & Codes. On the tours that followed, the band swelled to six members, including two drummers. The sound was rapturous and overpowering, and reports came back from shows of a band that dared to be epic and pulled it off.
They harnessed the loud, fuzzy and sometimes droning sound of America's post-Sonic Youth indie scene, but instead of shoe-gazing and internalising it like so many other bands, they projected the intensity outwards.
During the past two years, the band have slimmed down to just four members: Keely, Reece, bass player Autry Fullbright II and drummer Jamie Miller, with most of them playing multiple instruments at live shows.
Keely and Reece are now hitting their early 40s, and Keely's literary interests are stronger than ever. This shouldn't be a surprise. Looking through the band's songbook - which stretches back 17 years and eight albums - the density of literary references is considerable.
To name just a few examples, the song Far Pavilions takes its title from the novel by M.M. Kaye, Baudelaire from the 19th-century French poet, and The Betrayal of Roger Casement and the Irish Brigade is about a controversial figure in British colonial history. Much of the band's previous album, Tao of the Dead, was inspired by the ideas of Joseph Campbell, a scholar who analysed the most basic elements of myths and fiction. Keely is interested in Campbell's notion of a universal mythological hero, "the hero with a thousand faces".
But for the new album, Lost Songs, Keely is referencing his own stories instead of those by others. And in the process, he's turning the band into one big meta-narrative. "On past albums, there has always been a song or a book, and I could say, that song is about a specific book. But on this album, the songs are actually about the book I'm writing," he says.
Keely's graphic novel is a chronicle of an airship that has square sails, propellers, tethered zeppelins and Flash Gordon-style rockets. Her name is the Festival Thyme, and a drawing of the ship served as the cover to the band's 2008 EP of the same name.
Ever since Festival Thyme, each release has added further to the narrative. Cover art has all come from the story, songs have been named after characters and plot elements, and the deluxe editions of Lost Songs and the album before it, Tao of the Dead, included printed chapters of the graphic novel.
"It's science fiction. I guess you could call it steampunk. It's actually based on something that I've been working on since I was nine years old," says Keely.
"The setting is based on a world I started building when I was so young. I started coming up with time lines and genealogies - all the stuff that goes into world building. By now, the world is already pretty well developed," he says.
"It's also based upon travelling and experiences I've had while touring. Many of the characters are thinly veiled caricatures of people I've met while in the band."
It's been a journeyman's life for sure, and even though it has separated Keely from his bandmates, bringing him back to Asia while they continue to live in the US, he seems to be enjoying himself as much as ever. In Phnom Penh, aside from penning his graphic novel, he plays music with a local expatriate group called the Kampot Playboys.
And the future of Trail of Dead? "As a band, I feel we're pretty isolated. I don't feel that we have any peers," says Keely. He pauses a moment to reflect, then continues, "That used to bother me a lot, but now I don't mind it at all. We realise it's just part of what we do and who we are. So the idea of quitting or retiring, it's not even something I really stop to think about. This is what I do. This is my idiom. This is how I express myself. And you know, right now I'm totally fine with that."
… And You Shall Know Us by the Trail of Dead, Oct 28, 8pm, Grappa's Cellar, B/F Jardine House, 1 Connaught Place, Central, HK$280 (advance), HK$320 (door). Inquiries: 2521 2322