“I have some questions,” says Conrad Keely. During our conversation via Zoom, Keely clocks my selection of …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead art work. A 2002 tour poster from the band’s US jaunt with The (International) Noise Conspiracy. Then there’s Keely’s stunning work which adorned the cover of the band’s 2009 LP, The Century of Self. Keely smiles brightly at that one.
Then there’s a drawing dubbed the “angel wing”, which hasn’t yet found a home. Keely playfully suggests I should get down to IKEA. No, he’s works are too precious.
“There was a funny story about that drawing,” he begins. “I did that when… I think I must have been around 17 or so. And when I was like 20 something my mom was cleaning out a bunch of boxes with like old bills and stuff, just throwing all the shit away. And she just happened to come across that thing that was in this box.”
Stories like is are standard fare in the journey of …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead fandom. We’re all a bit mad. Slightly obsessive, even. Undoubtedly, they are a band many of their fans have been with since the beginning and, as we all grow older, it’s not only apparent that …Trail of Dead’s music has left an indelible mark; it’s a mark that has been etched for over half a lifetime. Yes, it’s been a trip and long may it continue.
Alongside fellow Dead, Jason Reece, Keely has been the constant protagonist in the …Trail of Dead story. Today Keely is in a jovial mood, and why shouldn’t he be? It’s the eve of the release of the band’s eleventh album, XI: Bleed Here Now: the 21 song epic which is the band’s longest to date.
Mixed in quadrophonic sound, XI: Bleed Here Now captures all the finest elements of …Trail of Dead. An album presenting a united front. There’s the beauty (Growing Divide, featuring Spoon’s Britt Daniel); the grandeur (Water Tower); the epic (Taken by the Hand); the searing heat (Kill Everyone); and, quite frankly, the incredible (Millennium Actress, featuring Amanda Palmer).
With a new six-piece line-up, Keely and Reece are joined by Alec Padron (bass), AJ Vincent (keyboards), Ben Redman (guitar) and John Dowey (drums), and XI: Bleed Here Now is all the better for it – an album that kicks against everything. Its length, its range, its vibe. XI: Bleed Here Now is an album in every sense, and yet another defining moment for a band that has been shifting creative boundaries since the era-defining masterpieces, Madonna, and Source Tags & Codes.
With XI: Bleed Here Now’s listening party having taken place the night before in Berlin, Keely looks surprisingly fresh and ready to hit the streets for more partying. First, though, there’s the small matter of a new album to talk about, along with the band’s history, art work and more.
Sun 13: How much of an influence were the surroundings in which you recorded the album? Am I right in saying it was a barn in Texas?
Conrad Keely: “Barn is kind of a misnomer. I don’t know if it was used for animals or hay. But it was an old outer… maybe it would have been used for wagons back in the day. You definitely got the idea that it’s been around for 100 years, but it’s hard to know what the original purpose of the building was.
“Our friends have been developing a recording studio and rehearsal space, but it had been used for jamming with bands ever since the ’70s. We were asking, like, ‘What’s the history of this building?’ and they said that some hippie bands used to jam there in the ’70s. So it’s got a vibe to it, and I think that was the most important thing. And when you play and there is this wooden structure, it just has a resonance to it. Which our producer [Charles Godfrey] wasn’t very happy about, because apparently there was a low decibel vibration underneath the floor that he could not get rid of. They would had to have filled it with sand or foam. Despite that, I think that it added so much to the atmosphere of recording the record, for sure.”
S13: The record feels like all the best bits of …Trail of Dead rolled into an album. I don’t know what you think about that?
CK: “I mean, that’s kind what we try to do with every album. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. And sometimes the headspace behind the record affects it. We talked about how fun it was making this record, whereas the two previous ones were definitely birthed out of certain sadness and (pause) times of crisis, rather. Whereas this one, even though it was recorded during a time of global crisis, it was recorded at a time of great domestic bliss.” (laughs)
S13: That’s funny, because I was going to ask about the two previous records. There seems to be a new emotional intensity throughout your own songwriting, but I still find that here with tracks like Growing Divide, Field Songs and Taken by the Hand. It feels like you couldn’t have written those back in the early days of the …Trail of Dead.
CK: “We did for Taken by the Hand.”
CK: “Actually, that was written before …Trail of Dead. That was written when I was 19. So that was written in 1990, I think.”
CK: “Yeah. I have early demos of that when I’m 19 years old, singing it. My voice sounds really young and thin and high pitched, but the song has not changed at all. That’s the only exception. The other songs were from now, but that one song had been kicking about for many years, and I was always trying to figure out where it would fit. I even remembered we made a demo for it as far back as Worlds Apart and it just didn’t work. But then when we came to making this record, that was actually the first song that we started with, so it kind of set the tone in a way for the what would come afterwards.”
S13: It feels like a Shakespearean kind of tragedy or something.
CK: (Laughs) “I like that description.”
S13: I don’t know, there’s a street level sadness to it.
CK: “Definitely. I think it shows our Grateful Dead influence, especially the middle part, the fields of dawn light. To me that was kind of a nod to Grateful Dead’s St. Stephen, which is one of my favourite songs.”
S13: Do you find the last three albums linked in any way? I mean, it could be open to interpretation.
CK: “I thought that this was kind of the third of a trilogy, which would have started at IX, and it kind of showed an evolution of what we’re doing. More like a studio band and what we’re trying to develop when we’re making records and how we work on them in the studio. I think the three records together kind of had that in common; our approach to making these semi-cohesive listening experiences.
“But even before we started working on this record, I kind of felt that it was going to surpass our previous attempts, just because we were more deliberate about this album. Whereas the last ones where, you know, there are certain times in your life where you feel like you’re not in control of what’s going on. You’re kind of drifting, and you’re just letting things happen to you, and you’re just being buffeted about by the winds. I think that’s what the last two records felt like, for me, creatively. Whereas this one was more like, ’Okay, now we’re steering this ship, and we know what we want, and we know where we’re going, and you know we have a destination type of thing’.”
S13: Sure. With Godless, you could definitely feel that what you’re saying, but that’s what I loved about that record. There was this cathartic feeling about it. Talking about the composition of the band and you guys haven’t had two drummers since The Century of Self days, right?
CK: “No, we hadn’t done that much. And even when we’d already planned to do that for this record, before we decided to do the quadraphonic mix, and when our friend Conrom suggested that we do the quadraphonic mix, it made sense. Like ‘Oh, that would be cool because we’re doing this to drummer thing, so it’ll make it sound so great when you’re able to separate them when you hear it in surround’.
“I don’t know how many people have listened to it in surround yet, but it’s definitely how it’s meant to be heard, so I hope that you get a chance to check it out. The next thing I’m going to be trying to work on is a tutorial video on how people can set this up at home without having to buy some expensive surround sound player. If you happen to have an extra pair of speakers and, ideally, if you are a musician or recording artists and you have an audio interface of any kind, then you can set up a quad thing in your house with not too much trouble.”
S13: There’s always been imagery in your songs. With Penny Candle, it feels like there’s a lineage to the characters in your artwork. Do you consider those two art forms linked?
CK: “Do you mean the visual and the musical?”
CK: “Yeah, absolutely. I think that they’re inseparable. Obviously music is my oeuvre, or idiom, or whatever. But when it comes to being a visual artist, although I don’t have an audience for my art really, other than the people that listen to my music, it’s still something that I couldn’t imagine not doing, and they feed into each other so much. A lot of my musical ideas come when I’m drawing. I’ll be working on art, and that’s often times why I don’t listen to music much when I’m at home. I do play the classical station, or whatever, but when I’m working on art, I tend to either watch a show or a lecture, something like that. I don’t listen to music because I like to keep that space open for songs in my head, because that’s when musical ideas will come.”
S13: The artwork for the album is very different, too. What was the thinking behind this?
CK: “The name of the album, Bleed Here Now is pun on Be Here Now which is a Ram Dass book, and the Mandala; from that it was a reference to that book. I was always sitting around my house when I was a kid because my parents were of that generation of later hippies: the ’70s hippies. More like New Age people. So it was kind of an inside joke, because The Beatles made Let It Be, then The Rolling Stones made Let It Bleed. And then Oasis had an album called Be Here Now, a fuckin’ shitty album…”
S13: That’s what hit me. I thought, ‘these guys are taking the piss out of Oasis and it’s great’!”
CK: “Yeah, we’re taking the fucking piss!”
CK: “But whatever. Because they made What’s the Story Morning Glory, so they can do no wrong. I don’t care if they make however many whatever albums. That’s one of my favourite records of all time.” (laughs)
S13: So the artwork…
CK: “Oh, the artwork? Yes! (laughs) It’s funny, because I feel like I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve done this so many times with records and making art for albums that I can do it pretty fast now. If I had to, I could have made the whole production thing for the record in a couple days. Back in the day, this would have taken months. I would just want to work so hard on it. But now it’s like, 11 albums, and however many EPs and singles later, I feel like I’ve gotten to the point where I can just kick it out. It’s not that hard. So it’s kind of nice to feel like you’ve reached this point where it doesn’t cause you the pain and the suffering that it did.
“I remember the first few records, I spent so much time on the art. I don’t even know if it shows. Even Source Tags, when I look back on that I’m like, ‘Man, that booklet is pretty raw, that looks pretty fucking amateurish’. But at the time, I was learning how to do all this layering and Photoshop and scanning in handwritten lyrics and stuff; it took so long. And the artwork that I did for this record, I think is more cohesive and more consistent, but it was easy. It came quickly, so that was nice.”
S13: I think the song Millennium Actress really encapsulates what the band are. I was interested as it’s the third last song on the record.
CK: “Interesting. It was great to have Amanda do that. She was in New Zealand at the time, and she was just like, ‘Hell yeah, I’ll do this’. She loved the song. And I was able to put the video of her actually performing it in the video for the song. I spent a lot of time on that. A lot of animation, me and our keyboard player, AJ, animated parts of that as well.
“It was funny because we did the listening party last night. And, you know, it’s a long album, it’s like 70 minutes and Millennium Actress is third to the last song. So you’ve already listened to the length of an album by the time you get to that song. All these people in the party started doing this weird ballet dancing, like waltzing around the room. I was like, ‘Whoa, that’s a really weird reaction’. (laughs) I made a video of it, there were a few girls that were just sashaying around the room to that song. But hey, whatever works.
“I’m curious to know what was it about it that resonated?”
S13: The melodies. There’s like a grandiose drama that you’ve always had, but you never play on that. It’s just bubbling underneath. What ..Trail of Dead are to me, essentially, is a punk band.
CK: “Okay, cool! Have you seen the movie?”
S13: No, I haven’t.
CK: “Oh, check it out. It’ll definitely bring to life what that song is about, because it’s about that movie. It’s a really sweet story. When AJ and his girlfriend watched it for the first time when he was making the animations for it, he said that they both cried. (laughs) It’s an animated movie, but it’s not about robots and monsters and people with superpowers. It’s about the golden age of Japanese film and it’s more like a real story based on a real actress.”
S13: Talking about AJ there. Obviously, yourself and Jason have been the chief operators in the band. With the revolving cast of musicians over the years, do you see that as an idea to keep things fresh? And by extension, does that maintain the band’s longevity?
CK: “The longevity of the band has to do with the fact that we’re not dead yet. (laughs) As long as we’re alive, I’m sure we’ll probably be working on something. (laughs) But it definitely is changed. It’s made a big difference. One of the things that I love about the current line-up when you get everyone in a room together, it’s like they’re total clowns. These people, they’re fucking funny. I mean, Jason and I can be funny at times, but get AJ, John Dowey, Alec and Ben in a room and it’s just like… you sometimes have to tell him to shut up, man! It’s very fun to work with them. That’s definitely one of the things that’s made this line-up a really fun experience.
“But not just that, also their level of musicianship is way more than what we’ve been able to… we’re always growing as musicians. In fact, right now, I feel like I’m taking guitar more seriously than I’ve ever taken it. Which isn’t saying a lot, because I don’t think I ever really took it that seriously. I was like, ‘I play the guitar because I don’t want to play the piano, even though that’s my first instrument’. So we’re always developing as time goes by, but to have been in this band this long, and then be playing with musicians that are as proficient on their instruments as these guys are, it’s like, ‘Wow, we can really do a lot now that we’ve never been able to do’.
“One of the things that we’ve been working on with AJ, John and Ben have been harmonies. We were hoping that we could do that last night, but our German record label didn’t think that it was worth their while to fly out our other band mates to the party. Apparently Sony Music doesn’t have enough money in their budget to pay for two more tickets. But we’ve been doing these three part harmonies, and it sounds so cool to do harmonies for the first time. I love singing harmony. Sometimes I prefer to sing the harmony than I do to sing the lead, so I’ll give the lead to John or AJ. There’s just something about being able to blend the voices. Taking it back to bands that I grew up with and loved from The Beatles being obvious ones, but Grateful Dead as well. Grateful Dead harmonies are fucking fantastic.”
S13: I’ve always felt that the key hallmark for …Trail of Dead is that you’ve never really been reactive to anything outside of your own realm. You’ve always just being yourselves.
CK: “I felt like recently, it’s been really hard to find contemporaries that we want to be influenced by that we like what they’re doing. I mean, I’m not trying to dis my friends bands or anything, but I just feel isolated. I don’t know why, but I just feel like we’re not part of anything that’s ongoing, and that there hasn’t been a great record that’s come out in a long time that has blown me away. It’s sad to say. I’m not happy about having to say that. Maybe it’s a lull or something, but there has not been anything that has really moved me.
“It’s not from want of searching. I’m constantly looking and asking friends, and I always listen to people’s recommendations. But I think the last few times that I felt that there was this creative surge in music was around 2011. There was Beach House to come out with Teen Dream and shortly after Lower Dens came out with New Tropics. And then the Yeahsayer had that first album, All Our Symbols. There’s probably a couple other bands that I’m forgetting that I was really into. The War On Drugs had Slave Ambient.”
S13: Yeah, that was great.
CK: “These are albums that I still listen to, you know, to this day, I still love those records and I listened to them as entire records, from beginning to end. But I haven’t heard anything like that in a while, and I haven’t heard anything like those bands have done that took me out of myself the way that those records did.
“So when it comes to writing what we’re doing now, I think it’s almost like we’re trying to fill the void and trying to make an album that we want to listen to you, because there hasn’t been one! (laughs) I think that’s always been the approach. It just comes at a time where we feel like there’s just not much going on. What is going on these days, it’s like, man, to me it’s pretty questionable.
“There’s a blogger, a musician guy that I have a lot of respect for. His name’s Rick Beato. He’s like a YouTube personality, and he’s always giving guitar lessons. He did this one interesting thing, where he’s talking about the low information, we’re in the era of low information music. He’s analysing some Cardi B song, and he’s like, ‘There’s not even a fucking chord change in this song, you know, there’s no fucking chord change!’ And that’s kind of where it’s come to. It’s like, ‘Wow, the shit that the kids are listening to’. It doesn’t shock me in the way that when we were getting into punk rock. I can imagine that the people from the previous generation were listening to that and thinking, ‘Oh, man, kids these days are scary and stuff’. Well, I feel like the kids these days are boring, they’re not shocking me at all. I wish that they were, you know? I thought that I’d be getting old and the kids would be getting more revolutionary, but it feels the opposite. It feels like we’re the ones that are trying to be revolutionary and they’ve kind of sunk into this very bizarre complacence.
“So maybe what we do when we’re writing is trying to lead by, I wouldn’t say example, but maybe we’re just writing for ourselves at this point, you know? That’s the only people we can write for is just writing music to make us happy.”
XI: Bleed Here Now is out now via Dine Alone Records. Purchase from Bandcamp.