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Mar 25, 2009

Returning to their indie roots, these Austin-based art rockers are creating epic soundscapes on a recession-era budget.

By Michael Tedder

Perhaps it’s a Texas thing, but …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead (Trail of Dead for short) has two modes: gigantic and more gigantic.
Like drunk art students manhandling the Led Zeppelin catalogue, the long-running sextet has been mixing classic rock bombast with complex arrangements and feedback-drenched punk attitude since 1994. Their lyrics tackle weighty themes from generation-wide disappointment to the life of French poet Charles Baudelaire, and include tongue-in-cheek shout outs to Isis, Horus and Ra.
Live, the band’s multiple drummers help create a heart-stopping wall of noise, and shows often culminate in piles of broken instruments. But like everyone else these days, Trail of Dead is adjusting to leaner times. 
In addition to cutting down on the guitar-smashing, their recently released sixth album, The Century of Self, is the group’s first recording on an independent label since their three-album stint on Interscope Records. That time with the corporate giant found them (in their opinion) increasingly ignored and under-promoted.
In a voice pregnant with contempt, singer, guitarist and occasional drummer Conrad Keely recalls that “most of the people there were marketers that didn’t really know how to market us. I guess they were still trying to sell us as some kind of mainstream rock act.”
After a pair late ’90s indie albums, the group released their major label debut, the acclaimed Source Tags & Codes, in 2002. The follow-ups, 2005’s Worlds Apart and 2006’s So Divided, received mixed reviews, with some critics accusing the band of favoring excessive bluster over songwriting.
For The Century of Self, their tightest and most cohesive recording in years, Trail of Dead formed their own imprint, Richter Scale Records, in association with Texas-based indie label, Justice Records.
They then teamed up with long-time producer Mike McCarthy to cut the album “for a sixth of the budget of our previous record,” Keely says. “So when you’re given a limited budget, and you have to cut corners, you’re suddenly forced to come up with creative solutions to your problem. It’s far more stimulating from an artistic point of view.”
Jason Reece, Trail of Dead’s co-songwriter, frontman and occasional drummer, says that during sessions in Austin and New York, “people would stay on couches and at friend’s houses, instead of having hotels every night. And that’s not a big deal. You do what you got to do.”
In addition, Trail of Dead (which also includes rotating instrumentalists Kevin Allen, Aaron Ford, Clay Morris and Jay Phillips) toned down the extensive overdubs and studio engineering of their two previous albums. They instead recorded much of The Century of Self live in the studio.
“The live energy of actually having the six of us track the song all together in the same room with the bass and the guitar and the keyboards and two drums for certain songs, three drums on certain songs,” notes Keely, his voice trailing off before Reece adds “I think it adds a real human quality to it.”
Major label mishandling, line-up changes and critical backlash are enough to kill most bands’ careers, but Keely considers Trail of Dead to be more than just a band. He calls it a compulsion—or, perhaps, therapy. It’s his way “of communicating [his] identity to the world,” and above all else, a challenge.
“We’ve achieved a lot of things. We’ve achieved six records of this concept. But there’s still all these musical ideas that are in development,” he says. “I have a strong sense that we have something to prove. Not necessarily to anyone else other than to ourselves. But we’re striving for something, and we haven’t achieved it yet.”

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