They’ve been banned from every venue in their hometown, alienated the alt-rock underground by signing to a major label, and confused audiences the world over with their destructive live show. But …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead still want to be as big as the Rolling Stones…
IT WAS A NIGHT of pointless violence and haywire mayhem. Four young men of fierce intelligence and fiercer passion, making a beautifully futile and self-destructive gesture against the forces they feared were smothering their rock ‘n’ roll.
You join us at 2001’s South By Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas. Just before midnight, …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead gathered themselves by the stage of hilltop venue Red Eyed Fly. Previous hometown shows had been tumultuous, but tonight’s would become legendary. They’d just signed with Interscope Records, and were itching to debut new songs and flaunt their new-found success at local music industry bods who’d previously disdained them. And the beer poster-ads blanketing the room represented the encroaching commercialisation of the festival, giving them something to rage against.
“The promoter tried to get us to pose with beers for photos before the show,” sighs guitarist/bassist Kevin Allen today, shaking his head incredulously.
“We’d planned to trash our gear at the end of the set,” smiles vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Jason Reece. “But then I saw the boys from Mogwai at the lip of the stage, smirking at us. I knew then we were in trouble. I reckon we were sabotaged.”
Minutes into the first song, Jason’s bass-drum pedal snapped. The band paused their set and waited for assistance from the sound crew. None was forthcoming. Effectively unable to continue their set the band chose to fast-forward to their grand finale.
What followed was a glorious ballet of destruction, with …Trail Of Dead trashing anything and everything they could get their giddy hands on. Cheered on by the audience, they fought a pitched battle with bouncers and tore down all the Coors banners. By way of a climax, a crazed Jason hurled his bass drum through the window, into the teeming street two storeys below (it was spotted all over Austin’s main strip for the remainder of the festival).
The morning after, a bruised and aching …Trail Of Dead reflected on the previous night’s carnage. Not only had they failed to play a single note of their new material, they were now banned from South By Southwest and most of Austin’s venues.
It was, they reflected, a pretty good night.
“I… NEED… MY… HEROIN!!!” Half-naked in his bunk on …TOD’s tour bus —currently parked outside Nottingham’s Boat Club, the venue for tonight’s show — Jason Reece rubs his bleary eyes and braces himself for a day which has, typically, arrived too soon. The howling for opiates is nothing more than clowning for Kerrang!‘s benefit — the …Trail Of Dead roadshow is conspicuously absent of hoary Hammer Of The Gods-style escapades. No, these boys save all their energies for the spectacles they wreak onstage.
The night before, at Brighton’s Pavilion Theatre, is a case in point. Almost a year on from the glorious anti-climax of the Austin debacle, …Trail Of Dead have reigned in their destructive tendencies just enough to make sure the brilliant, blazing music of their forthcoming album, Source Tags & Codes, reached the baying audience intact. The shows on this, their first UK tour since signing to Interscope, have been revelatory exhibitions of the rock art: raucous, driven celebrations of …Trail Of Dead’s overdriven art-rock genius. Which doesn’t mean …TOD have lost any of their intensity in the transition. No, the band still swap instruments throughout, a blur of chaos; co-vocalist/guitarist/sometime-drummer Conrad Keely still spits acid-flecked rants like ‘Perfect Teenhood’ with eyes screwed tight, all righteous disgust; Jason still shudders with passion like he’s just tongue-kissed a power cable. And, somehow, people still get injured.
“The thing is, you never realise until hours afterwards how bad you’re hurting, once the adrenaline-rush wears off,” winces bassist/sampler man Neil Busch, rubbing his kneecap. “Last night, I landed on a nail. I didn’t notice it when it happened. It hurts now, though. A lot.”
With his dry wit, his black V-Neck sweater and his ringed fingers, Neil resembles nothing more than some laconic, distinguished Professor Of Rock. He’s slumped on a sofa at the front of the bus beside Conrad. The duo are trying to dissect just exactly what feed-back-fuelled fury descends upon …Trail Of Dead whenever they hit the stage.
“We’re like antennae, drawing all this energy in, channelling it, sending it back out there,” explains Neil, breathlessly. “The interchange between us and the audience keeps building and building until it reaches an ecstatic point where it’s impossible to contain. We get so excited we lose our footing and fall down, or we start throwing things, or having to jump up and down.”
“When we play live, we just tap into whatever it is about that part of the human mind which is capable of transcending the body, I suppose,” adds Conrad. Similarly decked out in the uniform black duds, Conrad’s a spiky but loveable jumble of enthusiasm and encyclopaedic knowledge who will hold forth on many different subjects of art, literature and spirituality with very little prompting.
“A lot of artists have spoken about it,” he continues. “Not just musicians but also painters and architects and writers. Opening up a certain part of your mind that’s a receptor for unusual signals…”
“You gotta squeegee your third eye, maaaaaan!” interrupts Neil, in a hilarious hippie voice.
“It’s an important feeling, but a pretty scary one,” adds Conrad soberly. “When it takes over and you’re no longer in control of your body.”
DESPITE JASON’S winking promise that we’d see just how wild the boys get offstage after the Brighton show, things got no racier than dancing to a German-language funk cover of ‘Paranoid’ in some Brighton Northern Soul club. Forget red snappers and hotel destruction, forget sex and forget drugs, it’s …Trail Of Dead’s rock ‘n’ roll that’ll make them legends.
Especially live. If you catch the …Dead in concert (and you really should) you’re unlikely to hear all your favourite tunes played perfect and note for note. But what you will taste is the hungry, restless spirit of the records. Sure, they have their tune-heavy anthems (like ‘Mistakes And Regrets’ off their breakthrough second album, Madonna), but the best …TOD tracks are songs like ‘Totally Natural’ and ‘Perfect Teenhood’, where the riffage is only ever seconds from collapsing into furious, electrifying chaos. That’s what you get from …TOD live, pure and uncut. Careful, it’s dangerous stuff.
“We played SXSW in 2000,” remembers Neil. “We were trashing our gear at the end of our set, causing all this mayhem. And in some weird twist of synchronicity at that exact moment just outside, a speeding train crashed into a truck that’d gotten stuck on the railroad-tracks,” he looks cowed for a second, and then adds almost guiltily, “that was a good moment.”
Such moments come unnaturally easily to Trail Of Dead, it seems. Like the time a clash with venue security turned so ugly the band were lucky to escape with their lives, if not their equipment.
“We were playing, right? Not too loud, a good volume, right? And the owner told us to turn down…”
When Jason Reece tells stories, he’s like a mischievous child, careful to underscore his own continued innocence with a butter-wouldn’t-melt expression glued to his mug, while impetuously revelling in his misbehaviour.
“The room was full of people who’d paid to see us,” he continues. “They didn’t want us to turn down. Conrad turned his guitar up, and some goon snuck onstage and whacked him with a mag-lite torch. Those things are heavy. So Conrad’s lying on the floor, concussed, and everything gets real ugly. A riot kicks off, and the audience are on our side, fighting with the venue people. And we’re fighting these guys off with our gear, it’s ail getting broken, and then the police arrive. They ended up escorting us to the city limits, they said (adopts Deep South cop-voice) “We better not see you round these parts again, boys’.”
Just what is it about …Trail Of Dead that seems to rub so many people up the wrong way?
“I think people misinterpret our enthusiasm as some kind of affront or violence,” reasons Conrad, coolly. “They assume we’re trying to be aggressive, that our destruction is just pure thoughtless antics on our part.”
“We’re not knocking over our mike stands because our daddies didn’t love us,” qualifies Neil. “It’s because there’s so much energy onstage we can’t control it.”
Jason Reece, however, isn’t convinced. “We’re just art-rock fags, y’know?” he grins, half-seriously. “We’re never gonna fit in.”
IF YOU CAN’T join ’em, beat ’em. Just over a year ago,…Trail Of Dead signed to Interscope Records, home to Limp Bizkit and the belly of the Beast. Reaction was pretty evenly split between those who thought Interscope were crazy to sign up these auto-destructive enfants terribles and those who thought …TOD were crazy to sell their souls to the faceless corporate record label which would likely fuck them over at every opportunity.
The truth works out a little better in both sides’ favour. …TOD were signed by Interscope chairman Jimmy Iovine, which means they’re pretty much untouchable. Iovine has also given the band complete artistic control, and they’ve rewarded that trust with their best album yet. Focussing the raw power and dissonant art-rock of their earlier records, Source Codes & Tags allies the band’s experimental ambition with a confidence which could see these self-confessed “art-rock fags” easily crossover into the mainstream.
“Signing to Interscope was all about access to opportunity and resources,” adds Neil. “Taking what we do and amplifying it, so people can hear it.”
Ifs hard not to see …Trail Of Dead — all passion and intelligence and artfulness — as natural opponents to the chump-rock glut of labelmates Limp Bizkit. But the band are unwilling to badmouth other bands, or read the situation so simply.
“You have to remember the music industry is run by 12 to 14-year-old record buyers,” notes Conrad, dryly. “We’re not making bubblegum music.”
Are you sceptical about the possibility of winning those ears over?
“Hell, my favourite album when I was eight years old was Dark Side Of The Moon. I would never condescend to those kids, they know what’s up. Maybe they just haven’t been given the right options.” He clears his throat “We’ve always been called ‘pretentious art fags’; rather than see that as an insult we’re taking it as a compliment.”
Ambition is the key here. …Trail Of Dead are aware of what an opportunity they have laying in their laps right now.
“It’s a gamble,” explains Jason, wide-eyed. “You’ve gotta take that chance, put everything you have into it. Maybe it won’t work out but we can’t not try.”
And for all the alt-rock pigeon-holing the band receive; they’ve some pretty eye-opening role models.
“U2,” offers Jason. “They were an underground band who slipped into mainstream, fucked shit up from the inside. Look at the power and influence they have now. I’ll admit, I get excited thinking what a band like us could do in their position.”
He sits back in his bunk. The look of hunger in his eyes is more than a little unsettling.
A FEW HOURS later you find us sweat-drenched, not a little drunk and mildly concussed, at Nottingham Boat Club, as …Trail Of Dead wind down a suitably frantic set in a suitably ragged fashion. There’s been no reckless hurling of bass drums tonight, but that’s not to say it’s been even remotely a disappointment. So far, Conrad’s almost been swallowed by the swarming mosh-pit (which, as far as we can tell, stretches all the way to the entrance of this tiny backroom venue) and dedicated songs to Kerrang! snapper Fin Costello, while a sweat-drenched Jason has swapped sodden T-shirts with a member of the audience, declared his band “Bona Fide Art Fagsl”, and enjoyed a short bout of crowd- surfing after diving off the speaker stack.
Introducing the dosing ‘Perfect Teenhood’, Conrad dedicates the song to …Trail Of Dead’s fallen brothers, At The Drive-In (“They were an amazing band, and great friends,” explains Jason later. “We thought we’d be following their path into the mainstream. They should still be here”). Seconds later, the venue’s lighting rig has blown, so …TOD complete the song illuminated only by Fin’s strobing flashlight. In the darkness and confusion, the carnage is even more fearsome, more brutal, seen only in glimpses of Neil hammering his guitar into the ceiling, Conrad slashing away. When the house lights finally come up, the stage has been utterly decimated, and the band have crawled into the dressing room, the remaining punters recreating the chant which opens Madonna.
Some hours and some beers later, the band’s crew start lugging the splintered remains into the tour bus, ready for a short jaunt across Europe. Cradling a beer, Conrad looks on and smiles.
“When I started getting into punk rock, I got scared,” he explains. “Bands like Black Flag, spending their entire careers driving around in shoddy vans. Like there was some punk rock ghetto mentality, like the highest I could aspire to was remaining underground. Why can’t there be another Rolling Stones or The Who? A great band who break through, who make the mainstream theirs? It’s like there’s this glass ceiling in everyone’s minds,” he spits, “and great bands can only get so far.”
That’s the challenge …Trail Of Dead face. And, you sense, one they could easily meet if they can hold off on the ‘self-destruct’ button just long enough. That glass ceiling will join the rest of the debris laying in their wake.
© Stevie Chick, Kerrang!, 2 March 2002