ARTS

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May 2, 2003

The men, the myth, the Trail of Dead

...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead. With a name like that, it's kind of hard to keep a low profile. On second thought, with a name like that, you're just praying that you get noticed, which is exactly what the band with the long name wants. It has standards, though, of course; its ambition might outweigh its eventual output, but that's the only thing it will allow itself to shoot for, no matter how absurd it might seem.

"We've only just scratched the surface of all the things we really want to do," says Conrad Keely, vocalist/guitarist/drummer for the band also known simply as Trail of Dead. Some of the things that the Austin, Texas quartet really want to do are, in the words of Keely, branch into film and literature. This is a band that also claims to have derived its name from a Mayan glyph, and whose latest LP "reflects upon the loss of agrarian innocence in a world preoccupied with numbers and record-keeping."

Ah, by this point I'm sure your bullshit meter is going off the charts. Well, you're probably pretty astute. But isn't rock all about myth anyway? For Trail of Dead, at least, an image shrouded in mystery and art rock pretense is half of what makes it what it is. The other half, of course, is its distinctive sound: part gorgeous melody, part guitar ferocity, all epic soundscape. And I haven't even mentioned the explosions that occur in its live shows.

"When we perform, we are making a statement," says Keely. This statement is both loud and clear, a direct response to what Keely terms the "jaded" disaffectedness that marked the Grunge '90s. Not that bands like Pearl Jam or Soundgarden weren't loud, they were just without sincere passion for the music. With Keely and fellow vocalist/guitarist/drummer Jason Reece constantly trading instruments, each delivering searing vocals and beats with equal bravado, and Neil Busch tearing into his bass riffs, guitarist Kevin Allen almost seems like a John Entwistle character, acting as the Ox in the eye of the storm.

The storm can get pretty rough, too, as the band is known for getting rambunctious to the point of violence, and having the freedom to destroy its instruments, thanks to its major-label money courtesy of Interscope. Although the April 24 show at Metro was fairly calm in comparison to past shows of legend, the crowd did erupt into a centrally located mosh pit by the second song. This violence in the crowd, though not entirely unexpected, is also a reflection of Trail of Dead's aesthetic, which is perhaps best described as arty punk rock, or something of that nature. I remember thinking, "Why are all these indie kids moshing?" It is all part of the Trail of Dead mystique.

Believe what you will, but the band's official bio says that the four boys grew up in the cattle-ranching town of Planoe (not Plano), Texas. They grew up singing in church choirs, eventually leaving their little town for their respective colleges, and then reuniting at the University of Texas in Austin. There, under the tutelage of recording guru and producer Mike McCarthy, the four boys undertook an experiment that they hoped would ultimately transform them into an "entity which would express, in some ways, the theory of anthropological unity." Right. Anyway, the experiment appears to have succeeded, as the band has now released three LP's on three labels, each refining the previous record's sound, and earning increasingly louder calls of praise from both fans and critics alike, culminating in last year's fawned-over Source Tags and Codes. In April, the band released The Secret of Elena's Tomb EP, which should tide over ravenous audiophiles until the next full-length comes out.

Right now, the band has just finished up its mini-U.S. tour, and is no doubt recording before it embarks on some summer gigs in June. Or, at least the band is attempting to record. "I write well under pressure," says Keely, who is no doubt amid a flurry of lyric snatches, recording equipment, and, just maybe, Mayan artifacts somewhere in Austin. The question to be asking now is: where will the band go next? Judging by the diverse songs on the new EP, the band could go in any number of directions, or maybe many at once.

Based on my conversation with Keely, who can talk with equal courtesy and ease about The Simpsons or pre-Raphaelite art, one thing seems certain about the future of Trail of Dead: the group will continue to make rock music of the highest standard, inflecting it with the literacy, complexity, and passion that its fans have come to expect from it, and have come to expect from itself. It will continue to expand its horizons, perhaps continuing to direct its own music videos, maybe even venturing into other diverse media. Oh yeah-before I forget, Conrad wanted me to mention that he has an article on 19th-century European art coming up in Filter magazine. But who really knows?t