With the corpse of last years’ astounding Tao Of The Dead barely cold, And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead are already back with their latest album, Lost Songs.
True to its name, the record sounds as if it could be forgotten tracks from the band’s early career, recalling the instant thrill of their knuckle dusting self-titled debut and the spitted vitriol of Madonna. Recorded in Hanover, Germany in a studio used previously by metal bands like Celtic Frost and the Scorpions, it leaves the “strings, bells, whistles, and ukuleles” of their more sonically dense repertoire for straight-up balls-to-the-wall noise. However, the record's not some sentimental glance to the past. Its heart is firmly rooted in the present as the band use their musical muscle to take square aim at today’s cultural and political climate.
Before the album’s release we skyped one-half of Trail Of Dead's core nucleus, guitarist Jason Reece. In a loud Austin drawl that pleasantly reverberates around your skull, Jason talked us through the place of politics in music today, what recording in Germany was like and why eight albums and 13 years down the line Trail Of Dead are not even close to splitting up.
You previewed ‘Catatonic’ on Rolling Stone yesterday saying that it’s a track about catatonic youth with the lyric ‘Catatonic/ always looking for something new'. Do you think we’re in quite apathetic times?
Yeah, it’s about that general attitude of, ‘Hey! Let’s party like rock stars, do a bunch of cocaine all night’. Acting like you’re in a band and doing something creative but you’re really not doing anything - just pretty much being a narcissistic asshole. That gets a little tiring after a while, so I think we were a little more reactionary in the writing in so far as where we should take it.
At the same time, it’s not something where we were trying to become Rage Against The Machine and have this heavy political album, I just think we’re making observations and reflections of our environment. In America right now there’s a lot of craziness with the elections coming up and I feel that a lot of young people don’t feel like they have a say, so there’s a tendency to not do anything.
You mentioned Rage Against The Machine, what place do you think politics has in music now? In the early nineties there was the Rock The Vote campaign and even with these elections there’s artists like St Vincent taking part in campaigns encouraging people to register to vote...
I think there’s space for politics in music right now, because no-one’s really singing or talking about it. In the nineties, Fugazi were a band I’d go and watch and they were venting and expressing this music of protest. There seemed like there was this sort of movement [waiting] to evolve and now it seems like we’re devolving. Maybe it’s always been that way, maybe pop music has its world and where I’m from I’ve always been outside of that and I feel that world is shallow and so I tend to critique it. I’m coming from a place where I grew-up with bands like Bikini Kill, Public Enemy and Tribe Called Quest, where there was a sense of awareness of what was going on.
I feel at the moment we live in austere times both economically and politically and no-one is saying anything about it culturally. Everyone’s treating it like a party.
Right, there’s a tendency to have all this dance-y music that’s helping people forget their problems - it’s fun and there’s a place and time for that sort of thing - I don’t want to be this old rocker speaking out against electronic music, but I think for me and for our band what we’re trying to focus on and where the music is taking us is expressing something a little deeper than the trivial love songs that are being shoved down our throats on a daily basis.
‘Up To Infinity’, the first track streamed from the album, is about the Syrian Civil War. How did you address your other political interests on the album? That track in itself is quite direct. Is that reflective of the album?
Obviously not every song is going to be about the Syrian war! I think with that song there’s a lot of references to the Arab Spring, the whole uprising and the fact there are so many people dying from this government repressing its people. For us that was kind of fuel for the fire for the inspiration for that song. I feel like we cover a lot of different topical things, a lot of it is what interests us, so ‘Open Door’ is the idea of when you open one door and you step into your future there’s always what’s back there in the past. I guess it’s like a ‘don’t forget where you come from’ vibe to the song. The song ‘Lost Songs’ is more about saying is it futile to be singing songs about things that mean something to you. Is it one of these things where we’re going to get lost in the shuffle?
We’re hoping this album has a general urgency to it, much like for me, The Clash’s London Calling. For me, if we were going to shoot for some sort of album that mixes politics with social politics and life that would be one of the albums I’d get inspiration from.
The press release for ‘Up To Infinity’ was dedicated to Pussy Riot and Conrad [Keely, singer] was wearing a Pussy Riot t-shirt at your acoustic shows in London in September. What does their imprisonment mean to you as a band?
I think for one thing it shows there is a chance that you could get thrown in prison for expressing yourself artistically and that is scary. I think for a band like that to scare the government, that’s pretty amazing. It’s intense that the idea of protest is still alive and that’s very inspirational. It’s just sad that they’re going to prison for it. I guess our job is to raise awareness of what is happening to them and how art could easily be squashed by a government. Expression could be easily squashed and we have to be on our toes, aware, and fight for your freedom. I know in America we take it for granted because everybody can do whatever they want, but then at the same time that’s what they want you to believe.
When you watch the Pussy Riot video they’re doing something that you’d not get into the remotest bit of trouble for in England or America - it’s a group having fun and making a point at the same time.
It’s ridiculous, right? I know that there are a lot of other musicians that are talking about this, which is great. For us, we even covered one of their songs and we’re going to get a band called The Coathangers to sing on the track and hopefully we can put it out as way to benefit Pussy Riot.
I think that’s important as there’s a lot of artists supporting them with their own music, but there’s not much in the way of people promoting their material. What would you like to see happen with Pussy Riot and in Russia as a whole?
Obviously I want them released! I guess we’ve played there before and I could see that it’s a place that’s driven by money, craziness and chaos. I obviously want the idea of freedom of expression, what we are lucky to have, to be preserved and for them to have that. I guess in the end it’s an example of what could happen when your music becomes a threat to the government and it’s a very concerning thing in one way. I also love the general attitude of the band - it’s very confrontational and there’s a sense of anger and it’s built on real anger not some contrived bullshit from suburbia.
In the statement by Conrad that accompanied the release it says that: “The music was inspired by the apathy to real world events that has plagued the independent music scene now for over a decade.” What events is he referring to?
It obviously comes down to the bands that are out there and not really saying anything, and there are a lot of indie bands that are somewhat arty or nice or pleasant or sound like adult contemporary rock, but do they stand for anything? What do they mean? What’s the point of their existence? I understand that it’s their own form of expression, but it kind of gets real tiring after a while. That’s why I’ve been listening to this band called Off from California, total punk rock band, and I just love their attitude – the writing is just amazing and it’s refreshing. Maybe it’s just a preferential thing, but I just see it as a trend right now in music.
Lost Songs is the first album you and Conrad have written separately as you were back in Austin and he was living in Cambodia. Was it liberating or restricting that you weren’t writing together?
Well, that’s not exactly true. What happened was Conrad was in Cambodia and he came over to Austin and we rented a house for the band to live in. I live here so I had my own spot and then we would meet up and work at a space for about a month and that’s where the album really started coming alive. There were a bunch of songs that Conrad wrote in Cambodia but they didn’t necessarily fit the attitude of where we were going so we started from scratch. It was really amazing how fast we worked and how many ideas were coming in such a short period of time.
The turnaround itself, considering Tao Of The Dead was only out last year, seems quite fast in comparison to the standard two year wait in-between albums. Do you feel like you’re in an artistically prolific period?
Yeah, more so now than ever partly because of the chemistry of the new line-up - we have with Autry Fulbright and Jamie [Miller]. We sort of simplified the band as a four piece and we feel like we’re more in-tune with what we want. I guess we’re more prolific which is a good thing as there’s been times in our life span where we haven’t been prolific, where we’ve waited two years to make an album and it’s depressing when that happens because you feel like you’re hanging out and becoming stagnant. For us to tour and get back in the studio is sort of our deal now.
You’ve been together for 18 years and 8 albums. What’s kept you going?
Yeah, we’re fucking old! It’s really hard to answer a question like that because we’ve been going for so long and there must be something that keeps us together and I think it’s the music, y’know? That’s really what we do it for, I know it sounds cheesy and stupid, and with this new album we’re really happy with it and it’s one of those things where you want to get out and play it and you want to be a band and you want to keep going.
You’ve been through a few members during your life as a band. What do Autry and Jamie bring to you as a band? Why have you hung onto them?
I think it’s because they get where Conrad and I are coming from musically and the chemistry is there. The thing is, this band has always been about friends and the people that have joined the band are usually our friends first and they somehow get into the family of Trail Of Dead. It’s weird because the people that have moved on and done other things, they’re still our friends. We’ve been through some band members and it sucks, but we’ve been a band for 18 years - that’s what happens I guess.
You recorded the album in Hanover in Germany at the recommendation of the label. What effect did that have on you considering it’s been such an influential place for other artists?
Well you know obviously we were thinking of David Bowie and Nick Cave and the legendary ‘you go to Berlin you and make your crazy, cold, krautrock album’. But, when we went to Hanover we experienced the opposite. The studio we were using was a studio that was used a lot for metal there was a metal history there, so we didn’t go the experimental krautrock route we kinda went more with the expressive punk rock route.
Tao Of The Dead was done as two parts and you had the long 16 minute track as part 2. How have you put together this album?
There’s one album version where all the songs are separate and there’s another version where they’re all linked together as a continuous piece. It reminds me of our past albums, Madonna or Source Tags, where we sort of link the songs together.
Whenever you have an album out critics always say, ‘it’s a return to Source Tags And Codes’. Do you ever get tired of people referencing that album?
Conrad does. He fucking gets all like, ‘Man! There’s more albums than that’. But you know, you can’t fault people for liking that album. I don’t think we’re trying to return to anything. I think we were trying to play with the guitars and drums - that definitely was the attitude of this new album. There’s hardy any piano, keyboards, strings... there’s nothing like that - we pretty much stripped down to the bare essentials. On Source Tags there’s fucking strings, bells, whistles, ukuleles... so this is more stripped down and might even harken back to our first record.
Tao Of The Dead was produced by Chris Frenchie Smith and Chris Coady. Who produced the album this time?
With Frenchie again, Chris Frenchie. He did our first record and Chris has been around us for a long time – he’s grown and we’ve grown – I think he’s definitely become quite the producer now.
Tao Of The Dead was released alongside a comic book by Conrad. Will you be doing something similar this time?
No, he actually did more of a novel that comes with the deluxe edition. It’s more like 168 pages; it’s like a short novel.
What’s it about?
It’s about this world he’s been working on since he was a kid, it’s a fantasy slash Joseph Campbell-eqsue tale, haha. It’s probably something you should read whilst you’re stoned.
Lost Songs is out now via Superball Music / EMI.