With The Century of Self, Conrad Keely and …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead are feeling revitalized. After years of feeling increasingly isolated musically, changes of scenery―to their own imprint for the band and to Brooklyn for Keely―have breathed new life into the music. And Keely’s excitement over his favorite bands, recording methods and the future of Trail of Dead shows. Just don’t make him tour with another fake band.
What went into the decision to switch back to recording live from multitracking?
Conrad Keely: Well it actually had a lot to do with a technique I’ve been developing using Logic Studio. The whole point of using click tracks in the first place had to do with Logic. Since we were getting into samples and I was learning about MIDI, it was important for me to have some kind of grid where I could have the samples synced up and stuff. So that was why on the previous two records we were doing things a lot more by the book, so that we could be syncing up all that stuff. But on this new record I developed a totally new technique where I take a live track and then I create a MIDI template that goes along with that. In other words it slows down and speeds up just with the live track. So I’m still able to sync all the arpeggios and things we like to lay over them, but it doesn’t need to be on a grid anymore.
Was that part of any sort of goals you had artistically for the album, going back to the sounds of playing live?
Not just for the sake of making it sound live. I’ve never been the type that was like I want to make a live-sounding record. Even in the day when we did make live-sounding records, I was wanting us to make produced-sounding records. But a lot of the music I was listening to around the time that I was doing it and live performances I was seeing kind of had me lose my fear about things being a little off. A lot of that has to do with playing with Jason [Reece] who’s such an emotive drummer. He speeds up when he’s excited and slows down and I guess I’m the opposite, more the perfectionist technocrat. I need people like him around. What really had a lot to do with it was the tour we did in 2007. It was the worst tour we’ve ever had in the United States, playing with Dethklok. They’re kind of a band, but they’re more like a cartoon. It was so bad, the audiences were so hostile to us, that we just started playing these very aggressive but improvisatory shows where we didn’t care what the audience was thinking. We were just playing space jams. It was from that that I got some of the starting ideas for this record, and I knew that we’d have to record them live.
What kind of music were you drawing from while you were working on the record?
Well, there’s a lot of Brooklyn bands that I was just getting turned onto when I moved here. Yeasayer, School of Seven Bells, Dirty Projectors and then a couple of other bands. I heard Fleet Foxes before it came out and was really anticipating it because I’d already been hearing those tracks. Black Mountain. Those being the bands that are current, but there are a lot of bands outside that scene too like the Warsaw Village Band. They’re from Warsaw, and they play traditional-style Polish folk music with a pretty varied arrangement of things like samplers and violas and violins. I wasn’t really expanding my horizons because this was kind of a continuation of music I was interested in, but with the bands that are local it was really comforting to finally hear music that I felt peerage with.
Hearing this music around here was just really inspirational. I felt the need to at least do something worthy of it. Finally there was something that made me feel like I had to write something that was competitive with what I was hearing.
How collaborative is the recording process?
For my stuff, I try to get it as complete as I can, but it’s never 100% complete. Those parts that are empty are the parts that I ask for suggestions or we’ll improvise something or I’ll tell everyone to go home and think about it and we’ll try something out the next day. But a lot of my stuff does come out fully formed. Jason is the one that tends to have an idea for a song but no arrangement for it, and that takes place in rehearsal.
In the lyrics of the album, live recording and shows with the original lineup of just you and Jason you seem to be kind of looking back at the past. Was that a conscious thing? What do you see when you look back?
Well, I see a string of records, you know? Each of them are full of experiments, some which worked and some which didn’t work. But there’re also a lot of unfinished experiments. The ones that we’ve continued to kind of work toward. When I started writing the songs for this record, I actually made a point of going back and listening chronologically to our discography and reminding myself of all the different tail ends of ideas that I’d been thinking about when I’d worked on them and ideas I might’ve forgotten about that I wanted to continue. I guess I reminded myself of the things I really liked about all of the records. So, yeah, it was a conscious thing that this record was going to be very self-referential.
What’d you take away from your time with Interscope? How do you think it helped the band grow?
Well it took us from how many people had known about us before to how many people knew about us after. Unfortunately it didn’t grow with us, or we didn’t grow with Interscope. But I think when we signed with Interscope it was the perfect time to sign. If I were to ask what I’d take back or what I’d do differently, I don’t know if we’d left the label maybe one album before or if we had started on the label with our own label. It might’ve been cool to have our own imprint right from the very beginning so there was some sort of distance between us and everything else that was going on. But I don’t believe in regretting things, and I don’t believe that you do really truly make mistakes. I believe that what appear to be mistakes or regrets—not to quote my own song—in your career are really learning processes. I know that when we got on the label we had no idea how it would turn out. We just figured we might as well find out rather than wonder for the rest of our life what would’ve happened.
Your band seems to inspire really strong opinions on both sides, and the things that resonate with some people are often the exact same things that are criticized by the others. What do you think of that?
I probably try to ignore the people for us as much as I do the people who don’t like us. The last thing I want is to be drowned in praise over this and that because nothing’s perfect. There’s always imperfections in everything. If I had been working for Pitchfork, I wouldn’t have given Source Tags and Codes a ten. I don’t think it’s a ten record. Maybe a seven or eight, but I mean a perfect record… Maybe Dark Side of the Moon is a ten, okay, but very few records to me and certainly not that one. I mean, when I listen to it, I hear all sorts of problems. The attention we pay to what other people is very little compared to our own personal demands on our work.
Early on, was there a conscious decision to put so much into your live performances?
Jason and I were always very emotive performers. We had been in our previous bands, and in this band it just kind of lent itself to exploding when we played together. And from show number one, which was about a month after we started the band, we knew that this was going to be a band where we were rolling around on the floor with our equipment and throwing it into the audience and letting people play on our equipment because that’s what we enjoy doing and it’s fun. So anyone who joined the band after that just fell into that. Kevin [Allen], who had always been a very reserved performer and still is, started his very first show with us by putting his guitar through his amp, an amp that he’d had for years. We didn’t ask him to, we didn’t expect him to, but when he saw what we were doing, he did that and it was very natural. I don’t like when it gets too obnoxious or too predictable or anything. More and more often these days, we’re focused more on playing the songs and making it sound good, and in some ways almost acting counter to our being overly energetic.
What’s the best experience you’ve had onstage.
I’ll always think the best times are when there’s no wall between us and the crowd. That’s difficult to achieve. Not just a mental wall, but really a physical wall.
But it’s unpredictable, and you can’t do that every night, so I just kind of look forward to those shows when they happen. We played this show in England where we were playing a large room, about 1,000 capacity, but we couldn’t fill it. So they put us in the smaller room. Of course we were all disappointed and bummed out and complaining, but they said no. We played this tiny, tiny room and it was packed, totally sold out, couldn’t fit any more people in there and the stage was falling apart and the audience was going crazy. And that never would’ve happened had we played the larger room. So, I guess those types of moments are the best. I wouldn’t trade that experience for playing in front of 20,000 people at Reading where the sound is shit and you can’t see anybody in the crowd because they’re 50 meters away from you.
Do you prefer recording or touring?
They just seem like opposite ends of the spectrum, and I love them both, but they cannot be more night and day. Recording is something that you could spend several months where you only interact with the same five people and sometimes down to maybe two or three people every day. It’s really isolated and mental. Touring’s the opposite. You’re around tons of people all the time, and it’s very social.
They’re both great, and they’re both very painful. Touring is very painful physically. Very hard. Especially the way we tour and the way we perform, it’s just exhausting. And recording is very painful emotionally. It’s so scarring to have to dig deep into all those really hard emotions that you feel to turn them into 40 minutes of music.
Going forward, do you see the band start focusing more on one or the other?
When we do play, I’d like to make more events around them. Where it’s not just us doing a tour of shitty clubs in the Midwest—no offense to any of the people in those clubs because some of them are great—but, for instance, we had an idea about touring with an art gallery or some kind of interactive installment. This is actually one of the positives that we got out of that Dethklok tour, because they did this. They had an interactive sort of gallery, but they had it full of Guitar Hero games. But I thought we could do something similar where he had it full of art, not just our art but anyone touring with us and the local art scene.
I’d like for the time when we’re touring constantly to be recording things on the bus or in between tours. I know other bands do and are good at it, but we’ve never really done that. On this album, I had a little bit of success writing a song on tour, which I’d never been able to do before. It’s really hard to find some downtime to just sit and write and relax. But “Fields of Coal” was written on the bus before getting onstage at the Pukkelpop Festival. That was, to me, an affirmation that I am capable of doing it.