Trail of Dead Discuss Apathy, Fantasy and Seeing the World – Exclusive Interview
While it’s true that . . . And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead is a band, singer Conrad Keely envisions the group as an outlet for more than music. He’s also a visual artist, and a special edition of the band’s new album, ‘Lost Songs,’ includes two chapters from a fantasy novel he’s writing.
“I don’t think of these things as separate at all,” Keely tells Diffuser.fm, shortly after returning from a gig in Taiwan. “I think of the music and the art and the writing as part of one big project.”
He spent much of the past year in Cambodia working on the book, before joining his bandmates in Germany to record the album, Trail of Dead’s eighth LP. It’s a collection of pointed songs that Keely says in the liner notes were “partly inspired by the apathy to real-world events that has plagued the independent music now for over a decade.”
We inquire as to what he means by that, hear about his travels in Asia and find out how he’s coming with the book project.
You just got back from Asia. How does touring there differ from the U.S. or Europe?
It’s definitely different. I’ve been living in Asia for a year now, so I’m kind of switched over to that mentality, I suppose. But just like states in America, each of those Asian countries is pretty different. The contrast between Cambodia and Thailand is pretty different; they’re not the same listening audiences at all, so it’s kind of interesting to compare the ways different ones are developing. For the most part, despite the fact that they have a huge domestic market, and K-pop is probably the most popular thing going on with them, they’re still really receptive to rock music and it’s obvious that there’s a demand for that over there.
You’ve been living in Cambodia. What drew you there?
My father is Thai, so I had spent time growing up in Bangkok and had gone there with the family pretty regularly. But I had never traveled around southeast Asia at all, so my plan was to travel with my dad throughout Laos and Vietnam, but the weather stopped us from going that direction. We went south instead to Siem Reap, where Angkor Wat is – it’s just one of those things, when you connect with a place, it just happens immediately, and that’s kind of how I felt, especially coming from Thailand, a country that I’ve known and seen change, and not necessarily in ways that I was happy with. It was amazing to see a place like Cambodia that had retained so much of its own culture. In my words, I guess I’d say it hadn’t sold out. Yet. [Laughs]
How does that tie into the new album?
Travel, I guess, is a big theme. In my experiences with it have kind of changed my global outlook, and it’s something I really want to encourage, especially young people, to just get out of their country and see this world that’s becoming a global community. That’s what the song ‘Awestruck’ is about.
You write in the liner notes about apathy in the independent music scene. Can you elaborate?
It comes down to lyrical content. I really wonder what a lot of bands these days are really talking about. It seems vacuous to me, but I grew up in a time when we were used to Fugazi and Bikini Kill, extremely political and outspoken bands that felt like they had something to say and were going to say it. These days, I worry that young kids have lost that sense. Just speaking to people around here in Austin, they do have that sense of powerlessness and almost defeatism, and they kind of remedy that through a more escapist mentality, and not literary escapism, but more of a just “party it up and let the world go to hell” type of attitude. I think that’s a dangerous attitude to have, especially at this time when the global economic-political situation is so volatile. It’s the most important time to be informed and act upon it.
How has your political consciousness grown during the band’s career?
It’s always been a part of us lyrically, and I don’t know that we’ve spoken about it in the past, but looking back at our previous albums, I just see that. It was never as outspoken, it was more snide and I wouldn’t say cynical, but underhanded. The lyrics to a song like 'Worlds Apart,' for example, were extremely political. But our politics have always been on a global perspective. I don’t take part in the bipartisan politics of America, for instance.
So you didn’t vote in the election?
I’m not a citizen.
What’s your nationality?
I’m an Irish national.
What role do you think music can play in changing people’s minds?
Think of what role music has played, think of its role in the ’60s and its role in the ’80s with the punk movement. It’s extremely powerful, and I know the powers that be acknowledge this power, and they do worry about it. It concerns them. I think it’s been one of their objects to placate and sedate the public with this overabundance of media distractions and entertainment. It’s really a thing where the artist community has to retain its focus at a time like this and retain its center and not be so cynical and jaded.
Do you see that happening?
I do. I see that happening in myself, so it’s easy to see that happening in the world around me. I wish it would happen more in America. I see things happening overseas, especially in places where they have a lot to speak out again.
The title track on ‘Lost Songs’ wonders whether there's too much music in the world. Is there a degree of irony there?
That’s something I’ve always thought about. We got a really bad review of our fourth album from Pitchfork, but there was something they said that they said that I thought was really poignant, that they meant pejoratively, but I took it too heart. It hit the nail on the head. They said something like, “Trail of Dead is a band that is so much into music history that all they’ve done is see their own insignificance.” I think that’s very true, but we don’t only see our insignificance, but we see it in a whole spectrum of things. I don’t think of what we do as some massive watershed as much as I see it as part of this ongoing development of art, this slow evolution that’s gone back for centuries. I don’t mind that. It’s not my desire to raise some kind of monument here, but rather to be part of this evolution.
A special edition of the new album comes with two chapters of a book you’re writing. How do they relate?
There’s definitely a connection, with the music on the last album, as well. A lot of plot devices are used as song names, like 'The Fairlight Pendant' and 'The Ship Impossible.' One of the songs, 'Awestruck,' on this album talks about one of the characters in the book, Meriam. A couple of the songs refer to Adsel, who’s another main character.
What’s the book about?
It was inspired so much by touring, but it takes place on a science-fiction fantasy world that I started working on when I was really young. I’d been world-building since the age of 9 or 10, and by the time I was 30, I had so much background and history and maps and all the things that go into all that nerdy world-building stuff that the writing started to get really easy. I found that I was able to live in this world, to immerse myself in it. It’s allegorical, of our travels as a band and types of people we’ve met and being on the road. Travel is a major theme, and one of the other themes that’s emerging is tyranny and the struggle against tyranny.