Interview with multi-instrumentalist Conrad Keeley
You might not know it from their history, or even from poring over their complex yet exquisite art rock, but…And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead (henceforth Trail Of Dead) have been and continue to be immensely tied with modern technology. Looking at their thought-provoking artwork, or reading through their relatable yet philosophical lyrics, this connection to technology isn’t obvious. However, the Austin-based art rockers continue to stare into the Black Mirror and search for creative paths forward.
Now, 25 years into their storied career, Trail Of Dead have produced their ultimate mission statement and best record yet. X: The Godless Void and Other Stories, out on Jan. 17 via Dine Alone, is a gloriously unified work, brimming with new ideas and excellently executed story beats. Even those who think the band peaked at Madonna – because it’s a modern classic – will be surprised at how assured and breathtaking the band’s tenth record turned out.
The album is propelled by a series of impressive musical motifs that swell and bring a smile to the faces of careful listeners. This focused songwriting was an intentional experiment, notes multi-instrumentalist Conrad Keeley.
“One thing that was different about this album was the fact that I developed a musical theme that I wanted to repeat throughout the album,” he says. “This theme is referenced in the first piece, the opening crescendos, and then it is the chord progression for the second song, and then the theme gets passed around from each song in different parts of the songs. In ‘Don’t Look Down’, for instance, it’d be in the middle part… and then you’ll see this theme repeating [throughout]. So, that musical motif is something that is used throughout the entire album. I was experimenting with this. I wanted us to experiment with it, because I thought I wanted to see how I could lend a sense of unity to the piece, and in the same way, I was kind of inspired by Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.”
Not that fans should need a reason to keep poring through a new Trail Of Dead record, but these moments meld together to create a truly special listen when it all comes together.
So, to connect to previous interview plot points, how exactly does technology come into play here?
“We were exploring the idea of technology, and that’s something that has always been close to our music,” Keeley says. “Because we’re kind of… Our grand experiment, if you will, is to try to see how technology changes the way that we make art, and in order to do that, we use the latest versions of the technology that is at hand. For this record, I think a lot of the stuff that was done on the iPad was a big technical, technological revolution. And I’m not just talking about the music, I also mean the artwork. So, if you look at the artwork and the cover design, all that was done, drawn using my iPad. It allowed me to have this mobile freedom, a mobility, and I guess that’s really what mobile devices do, is they allow us to be mobile and do what we do.”
“So as a creative person,” he continues, “mobile devices allow us to be mobile and create at the same time, which means I can be traveling on a plane and be working on the album art – couldn’t have done that back in the day. I could be on the plane and be working on the songs and the mixes, and I definitely couldn’t have done that before. I just use the plane as an example because, obviously, I was having to fly back and forth at times [Kelley spent quite a few years in Cambodia before coming back to Austin] and creating a horrible carbon footprint. But long car rides, train rides, or even a walk in the park, these are opportunities where suddenly we’re allowed to use technology in places that we would not have in the past… for better or worse.”
“I’m not saying that you should turn every nature walk into a sit-down session with an iPad,” he laughs and continues. “But what do you create when you’re in an environment that is totally outside of the office space? Say you did take your iPad on a three-day trek into the outback – what are you going to come up with? Those are the questions that I find myself asking.”
In classic Trail Of Dead style, let’s dig a little deeper here.
“What do you end up creating,” Keeley ponders, “when you have these opportunities to create in unusual spaces, or at times you wouldn’t necessarily think of as a creative time? Hey, you’re sitting in a dentist’s office, waiting an hour to be seen, what are you going do? You can read a magazine, or you could work on a piece of music or a piece of art. So that, I suppose, was one of these themes that was explored on this record. So, as a result, some of these pieces of music and pieces of art were worked upon when we were in places that were outside of the studio.”
There we are. So, what did all that extra creative time and freedom result in for Keeley and company? If the results of the band’s tenth record are any indication, the next few years are Trail Of Dead’s brightest. That’s no small feat a quarter of a century in.