But I’m getting ahead of myself - today’s interview is a double header, and Keely’s time with Drowned In Sound is preceded by Jason Reece’s good half-hour in the spotlight. Well, I say spotlight; we’re sat and stood outside the back entrance of tonight’s venue, The Electric Ballroom, in the very heart of London’s own puss-filled blemish, Camden Town. What follows is the transcription of both interviews, as they happened. Whatever was said, is here. Call me lazy - I won’t disagree - but when facing this duo of powerhouses, who later in the same evening lay siege to the senses with a set of aggressive, grandiose and genuinely progressive rock and roll music, all one can do is press record and roll with the proverbial punches. That, and this way I can’t be accused of misquoting, thus inciting the wrath of two already pretty intimidating individuals! So, cue Jason...
Stocky, tattooed and resplendent in sun glasses that stay put no matter how close the darkness of night encroaches upon the two of us, Jason Reece is this DiS writer’s brand new rock hero, not least of all because he knows this website well (always a bonus). A bottle of continental lager held loosely between two fingers, the singer-cum-guitarist-cum-drummer in ...Trail Of Dead looks the absolute nuts, and settles on what appear to be a set of steps leading up to nothing more than an impenetrable wall. No door, no window, no nothing. Pausing only to expel some wind - no doubt lager fuelled - he faces the microphone and we begin.
Your latest album, Worlds Apart, wasn’t exactly universally acclaimed. How did you react to that, bearing in mind that the record’s predecessor Source Tags & Codes was hailed as an immediate classic?
I guess you could look at it... I guess in one way we had people dis’ it - like NME and Pitchfork, who were both all over Source Tags & Codes, celebrating it - and I found it kind of interesting that they had this kind of like totally... well, that they just didn’t like it! But we don’t write for anyone else - we just write for ourselves - so you can’t worry about things like that. You can’t let bad press freak you out, critics or whatever. Usually it comes down to the people like the kids on the street... people like my friends and my family have been really supportive, and they wouldn’t lie to me.
Is the mixed reaction perhaps a sign that you have managed to significantly progress as a band? Maybe those that disliked the record weren’t prepared for change, or even expecting it whatsoever?
Yeah... I mean, I guess it’s like the mixed reaction is a good sign, for me, that we’re stirring up the water and shaking things up within ourselves, y’know, musically. We’re moving forward in our minds, and there’s no reason to sound like what ...Trail Of Dead sounded like in ’95 or ’97 or whatever. We do look at music like a progression, y’know? When you want to progress as a person, you just have to let go of a lot of restrictions that you have in your mind. Like, I remember when I was younger I was really, really punk rock, and I had a real narrow-minded view of music. But the more I exposed myself to other forms of music, the better of a musician I became and the more beauty came out of that experience. I think that the people that don’t like the new record are purists - maybe they just like the aggressive side of our band - but when I listen to the record I definitely think it is us all the way. It stinks of us! You know what I mean? It reeks of us! That’s our sound, that’s our expression, that’s us. There’s no doubt about it. And I think it’s a very original-sounding record.
So did you approach the writing and recording of Worlds Apart with a completely clean slate? Was all that had come before forgotten? Well, perhaps not forgotten entirely, but not referred to in a way that would produce Source Tags & Codes part two?
Yeah, totally. We started with nothing, because we toured and had songs...
And you put out that stopgap EP...
The EP was something that would be nice for people to have, as the songs were a little different sounding. But, in the end we really did start over (for Worlds Apart), and redefined our band. We have more members now, which has opened up so much. There’s more freedom now, and it’s just a bigger sound. What we had in the past was cool, but now it’s like we’ve almost rediscovered music, and it’s really refreshing. I really enjoy who we’re playing with, and it’s kind of becoming more orchestral and symphonic, which we’ve always been trying to go for. There have always been hints of that. People who liked the past record but not this record - if they couldn’t see that happening, then I feel sorry for them.
So earlier records did serve as blueprints of sorts for this one?
Yeah. I mean we were always very ambitious, even early on. Everything that we tried to do, we wanted the bigger things that were in our minds.
Does that mean that, if you could, you would maybe re-record certain earlier songs? That you’d maybe flesh out parts of Madonna a little more?
Maybe, yeah. Madonna is a strong album, but I always think of our first (eponymous) record as the one I want to redo, because we didn’t really know what we were doing back then. We did it quickly, in five days, and there was a certain amount of ambition to get so much done in that short space of time.
I suppose in one way this (Worlds Apart) is a natural progression. You have to succumb to it and embrace it, and always try to find new things. That’s just how our philosophy is.
There’s a DVD included with the new record, which documents a lot of the recording process. Was this the longest amount of time you’ve ever spent making a record?
Actually, Madonna took just as long, but in a different way. We would work our jobs and then go in whenever we could and work for a few hours ‘cause Mike McCarthy (regular ...Trail Of Dead producer) had this studio that ZZ Top owned. So we were sneaking into the studio whenever we could, so Madonna took forever to make. We were frustrated back then, too. But the studio you see on the DVD, we put that studio together. It was a little hip-hop studio. We moved in a lot of old equipment that we bought through eBay, and we also got ripped off through eBay. There was a $2,000 thing that we got ripped off on, which was pretty wild and fuckin’ sucked. It was an MPC... it’s like a sequencer/sampler.
Obviously Neil (Busch, ...Trail Of Dead bassist until his departure last year) is on the DVD. Did you know he was going to leave the band whilst you were recording, or did his announcement come once the new record was finished?
I don’t think his heart was quite into this music, which was sad. But it was one of these things, where if you’re not going to be 100 per cent into what you’re doing, then don’t do it. Why be half-assed about it? He decided that he didn’t want to do it anymore, and there are no hard feelings, y’know...
It does seem that you’re quite a close group anyway. I guess your friends first and band mates second...?
Friendship seems to be a very important factor - we try to communicate the best that we can. I think us like a family, like we’re brothers. You try to work out the minor details - you let things roll off your back when you can. Otherwise we would kill each other all the time. Believe me, we’ve had our moments - that DVD doesn’t show some of the angrier, depressing moments. We’d be filming, and then someone would start fighting, or squabbling about something, and you’re like: “Turn that fucking video camera off and stop fucking recording this shit!”
(It’s worth noting Jason’s laugh at this point, which sounds like a 60-a-day hyena with its nuts under a tractor tyre. If it could be transcribed, I would do it.)
But at the same time there are a couple of incidents that we did get on tape, which are just hilarious.
Most of it does look like a lot of fun though...
Yeah, that’s what a friend told me, too.
Be fair, now that you’re doing this full time, it must be the best job in the world, right?
It is, but it’s not a sure thing. It’s never a sure thing. You’re constantly taking chances, and constantly living as a vagabond. You’re a vagabond, a gypsy - you don’t know what’s going to happen. So I guess we live for the moment, some of the time, but we also try to think of the future. We care about what we give out to people, and the idea is to be as honest as possible with our art and try to get it out. We’re being upfront: we’re not here to make money, we’re here to bring people together and communicate.
And do you get that sense at gigs? That you’re bringing people together?
I don’t know... You start as a band playing to your friends, and they don’t really take you seriously. So when you do start seeing people who believe in what you do, and singing along, it’s definitely the best feeling in the world. That is why playing live is so much more rewarding. Making records is rewarding in a different way, but it’s hard work. That is pure, hard work - it can be really miserable at times, ‘cause you’re trying to reach something that you don’t quite understand. You don’t known whether it’s going to be the worst thing you’ve ever written, and you’re constantly unsure about yourself. But when you play live, and things are coming together and you see that people are into it, you realise that it all makes sense now. You’re like, “Okay, it all makes sense now.” It all kind of falls into place.
And can bad sets still be ‘good’ in any way?
(Laughs again, like above) We had a couple of them on this tour. In Milan, the crowd was just shit. Nice city, but we might as well have slit our wrists and bled all over them. I really don’t know what the problem was, but I was hanging out with them afterwards and they were so nice. They were like, “We loved the show!” But they didn’t move, at all! I guess it’s cultural expression, which I found ironic ‘cause Italians are meant to be so expressive. So yeah, when you have your sucky moments, you just plough through it. We’re pretty resilient - we don’t cancel shows and we’ve never stormed off stage. You know what I mean?
Well, tonight could be the night...
Argh! Tonight could be the night, I know. Fuck! I dunno... I guess that’s our punk rock attitude. We learnt that...
I guess that stems from the attitudes of the bands you grew up with. Also, whilst you don’t make records for other people, when it’s live you are responsible for other people. Some kid tonight might have saved for weeks for this show; another might hail it in years to come as a formative experience...
We are trying to reach them. That’s our goal. I was talking to Wayne Coyne, from The Flaming Lips, and he said: “Man, we’re just here trying to get everyone to go home and have sex.” He was basically saying that they were there to bring people together, and to have them walk away feeling good. I mean, they’ve spent hard-earned money, so you’ve got to give them all your love. Which, as hippie as that sounds, is fucking true.
You fuckin’ hippie fuck... Anyway, Britain: you’re here quite a bit, or so it seems to me. I guess you enjoy touring here, and enjoy sizable crowds, or that you actually like the food, or something. Do explain...
Well, Conrad is Irish. Well, it’s weird - he’s got family here; his mum’s Irish and his dad’s Thai. He gets to see them - his uncle came by and gave us some potato wine. No, not wine, um, but some kind of strong whiskey or shit. But I think we have a lot of friends here, Mogwai, y’know, being the one of the number one reasons why we came here. The only reason why we came over here is because Mogwai were in love with Madonna, and that was the start of it all. the birth of it. And the kids were digging it! I don’t know... I enjoy the crowds here - I think they’re passionate. I think American crowds should be more like British crowds, although you know that German crowds are pretty crazy too, which is weird. Norway is the same way, which I find weird, but then I thought about it, and the opening to our new record ( ‘Ode To Isis’) is so fucking Viking - dum dum dum dum dum. We actually have Vikings in our new video! The video for our new single, ‘The Rest Will Follow’, is finished and should be out soon.
That’s on a limited picture disc, right?
Is it? Cool. Anyway, ‘The Rest Will Follow’ is the new video and it’s so fucking weird.
How do you guys find making videos anyway?
I think ‘Another Morning Stoner’ was a really good video, and we made it with this guy, Bruce Dickson. I thought that was a very successful video. We made ‘Relative Ways’ ourselves...
(Conrad wanders over: “You gonna have some questions for me after you’ve talked to this guy? So I can contradict everything he says?” I say: “I can do, if you’re happy to.” Jason laughs, again. Imagine sitting in a cinema next to this guy whilst the funniest film ever plays - you wouldn’t hear a thing but his cackling.)
...So I think this new video is very fucking beautifully shot. It’s weird, but it looks like a million dollars. I mean, it’s not a million dollars - it didn’t cost a million dollars to make! - but it’s really animated and weird. It’s basically about an empire oppressing the people, the proletarians...
I bet you get pissed off with people talking about concept albums, but I guess you must have had a few people ask about the themes of Worlds Apart? I’m sure I’ve read things about war being a theme, for example...
Well, this album is more about us reflecting on what we’re experiencing, and human conflict appears to be a theme. But I don’t think we’re obsessed with war - it’s more about human struggle...
(A pause... and then a belch. And a laugh.)
...You can quote me on that. So, um, you’ll trip out on that video.
Well, I would, but I’d have to get Sky or something. I doubt they’ll be showing it on Popworld...
But if you’ve not been on Popworld, get on Popworld. Seriously, you’d love it...
Pam! (Shouting at passing PR) We wanna get on Popworld!
Yeah, talk to Pam about it and fix it up.
So, you’re gonna go talk to Conrad now?
Into the backstage area we - I - go. Conrad is with friends - bandmates, other bands playing this evening and an entourage of other tour types - playing a viola. A guy sat opposite him strums an acoustic guitar. “Is that King Of The Hill?” he asks, when aforementioned six-stringer plays exactly that. Almost immediately, Conrad joins in the impromptu cover session, which cumulates with the A-Team theme tune. He turns: “You wanna do this?” I look at my freshly opened Guinness, handed to me by Jason “middle name Patrick” Reece (it is St Patrick’s Day, after all), and the tiny amount of tape left on my knackered Dictaphone. “Sure thing,” I say, unconvincingly. My obvious initial reluctance to continue interviewing in the presence of open alcohol, doing nothing to moisten the spread of dryness, is such that things don’t exactly get off on the right foot...
Jason says you’re really good at these...
Does he? What does he know.
He also says that you all like Mogwai...
And that you hate British food...
That’s not true. I’m a proponent of British food. I like fried bread, that’s my thing.
(A beer is requested from next door. In French. I’m starting to feel intellectually bettered and we’re only three ‘questions’ in...)
Okay, ask me a good question now...
You played All Tomorrow’s Parties just before Christmas - the Chapman brothers-curated event. Did you get to meet them at all? Did they speak to you at all, or was the booking all down to other people?
The Chapman brothers? I don’t even know who they are.
Jake and Dinos Chapman. Really? They’re artists. I’d have thought as an artist yourself (Conrad’s paintings feature on the band’s album covers) that you’d want to speak to them.
Yeah, they did that famous piece Hell, that recently melted in a fire over in the East End...
I didn’t see that, or hear about that. Cool.
I just thought that maybe you’d have known of them...
Oh really? Have you met Hunter S Thompson? No? Oh really? ‘Cause you’re a journalist so I thought you might have met him.
Well, that’s right. (I mutter something about Thompson being dead but move on sharpish.) Okay, musical progression... Jason touched upon it, but I want to know your opinion. If people can’t progress in their work - be it music, art or whatever - do you think maybe they should just stop altogether, thus not soiling what’s come before?
People should what? Well, I don’t know - that’s a really personal decision, whether you need to stop making art. Why? Because you suck? Because you can’t progress? Maybe... but if you keep at it you’re going to progress. If you keep doing art, you’re going to progress. Progression is inevitable. You’re going to change, you’re going to evolve, you’re going to mature; there’s no such thing as a stop to progression if you continue. That question doesn’t mean anything.
And was the progression on this album a smooth process? I know it took nine months...
No, not at all. It was a big pain in the ass. I would say that this record was the biggest pain in the ass I’ve encountered in all my life. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, so I hope it's good because if it sucks then it means I’ve wasted all that hard effort and blood for nothing.
How happy are you with the end product?
I’m never ever happy with the final product - the only things that I can hear are all the things that I did wrong, or rather that I didn’t get to do. There is more stuff that I would have added, but you’ve got to put it out sometime. I don’t really work on our projects in order to be pleased with them, I work on them so that everyone else will be pleased with them. I’m the one that’s our biggest critic.
But you must be happy with how the album turned out to some point?
I’m happy that it’s done - in that sense I’m pleased with it. It’s an interesting record, but I’m already thinking about the next one.
Is that how the band works then - that you’re always thinking a step ahead? Have you now become more comfortable in studio surroundings, so much so that you can make these moves forward a lot easier?
Well, you know we’re still growing in that sense - we’re still learning a lot about the studio. This time was the first that I’ve learnt a lot about technology, which is nice because whilst we’re using all these acoustic instruments - like the viola - we’re also using the most up-to-date softwares and synthesisers. It’s a nice blend of the old and new coming together to create something, and I’m sure the next record is going to be more like that.
So is this studio essentially yours now?
Yeah. Well, now we’re using it as a rehearsal space.
So could you, theoretically, produce an album in its entirety, from start to finish?
Maybe at some point. It’s not a goal - my goals are musical, not technological or geared towards creating a record all by myself, or with efficiency or money. I will spend as much time as possible and go through all sorts of pain to get just a certain concept of a musical sound, and if that means recording the record in the fuckin’ Great Pyramid Of Giza, or Berlin, which we’re talking about, then so be it. I’ll do it wherever I think we can get the result that we’re looking for, musically. If the studio in Austin doesn’t work for us, we’re not going to work there.
It’s quite refreshing in a way to hear that - that you’ll almost sacrifice your needs for those of others or the record itself...
Well, the love of accomplishing something is definitely for myself. That’s me being selfish. However, obviously the things that I’m doing are for other people. It’s like building a piece of furniture, or making a guitar - the personal pleasure you get out of the accomplishment is purely for yourself, but the object is something for someone else to enjoy, and that’s how I feel about our albums. I work only through my own love of work - I’m a workaholic when it comes to art - but obviously they’re not for me. I don’t sit there listening to my own albums - I put them out there for other people to listen to.
But do you have your own paintings at home?
Well yeah, but through lack of anywhere else to have them. I don’t really sell them, because by the time I’ve finished a painting I’m so emotionally wrapped up in it that for me to part with it, it’d have to be something that I really didn’t care about.
Is that a different attitude then to the music?
Well, not necessarily because I do let people see the reproductions of my work, so I do them for other people. They’re on the CDs, but there’s nothing outside of that yet. It’d be nice to have the option to take some time out and just do art for a little bit. I was drawing when I was three years old, so art came really naturally - music was the challenge. That’s why I did music. By the time I was 18 I had an agent who was selling my art at conventions and stuff...
And were you comfortable with that? You’ve already said you feel very attached to it...
The guy just approached me, and I only did it for a year before taking all my work back and deciding that I didn’t want to do art. It was so important to me to challenge myself with the music - the art came easy, but music was something I really struggled to learn.
But you seem to be able to play almost anything now...
Once you’ve developed a musical ear you can apply it to any instrument. I’ve not figured out yet how to make the bagpipe chanters and the drones work simultaneously effectively. That’s a challenge that I’m trying to overcome. I’ve got two sets of bagpipes. You constantly blow into them, it’s a circular air technique. I’m still working on it - bagpipes are the hardest instrument I’ve ever tried. Then again, maybe I just have a bad set; I need a Highland set. I want to stand on a street corner and play them, that would really turn heads. Bagpipes are actually from the Middle East - they weren’t introduced into Scotland until the late Middle Ages, so they’re not an old Scottish instrument at all. Scottish bagpipes are an adaptation.
You seem to like learning not only how to play these instruments, but the history surrounding them, and that of music itself...
The answer to that question is that I simply don’t relate to people that don’t like learning. That doesn’t make any sense to me. Learning, to me, is as much pleasure as what some people get out of watching sports, which I don’t find any pleasure in.
Presumably that doesn’t apply to those playing sports, who are doing so to learn how to be better at it...? I don’t know about that, but anyway: I love learning. For me, learning is an actual, physical pleasure that I feel. The band is a learning experience too. I also listen to a lot of books on tape, so when I have dead time on tour I listen to audio lectures or whatever.
Do you ever get to a point on a tour that you just grow tired of it? Where you’re not into the idea of going out on stage - again - and doing something that you’ve done a hundred times before?
Usually it happens every four or five days. When you’re out for that long drinking and being out late every night in a row, it gets tired. We’re a very physical band - it’s very strenuous what we do.
There’s usually an aggressive end to your sets - what does that feel like? What’s going on in your head when it’s curtain down; when instruments are flying about the place - whatever - and there’s this massive, physical end to the set?
What’s it feel like? It feels silly. Nah - in the best-case scenarios I’m not thinking about anything at all. In the worst-case scenario I’m very distracted, but no two nights are ever the same. No two nights are the same for both us and the audience - sometimes I think we do really great and the audience is really shitty, and other times I think we are horrible and the audience just loves it. There’s no standard - it’s just like sex: sometimes you’re enjoying it more than your partner, and sometimes they’re more into it. Unless you don’t give a fuck if they’re enjoying it or not.
Do you ever think of the audience that way?
Yeah. Sometimes I feel like I’m really enjoying it but they’re not, so I’m like, “Fuck ‘em, man”. Usually it makes me want to fuck them up more. It definitely provokes me. It makes me want to smash their fucking teeth in and shit down their throat and grab their intestines and pull out their oesophagus. Then I’ll mount their heart on a stake and defecate on it... it’s awesome. And then I’d call the guys from the NME... Hey dude! Are you rolling a fucking spliff?
Indeed, she is. Recently returned PA offers Conrad a smoke and it’s interview over. That said, we talk a little longer - I apologise for my poor opening to proceedings, and Conrad says I’ll have no appreciation of art until I visit Paris. He may well be right. A few hours later and it’s business as unusual on the Ballroom stage (read a review here). A guitar is smashed early on, but front-row teeth remain intact. Fear, nine times out of ten, prompts one of two reactions: fight or flee. As much as I would have liked to flee from Conrad two minutes into our time together, sticking it out was a whole lot more rewarding. So, call this lazy if you will - again, I won’t wholeheartedly disagree - but I call this progression. Fears are conquered, nerves scarred but relatively intact, so who’s next? Anyone got Thom Yorke’s number...?