To be fair, …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead never really seemed like the sort of band you’d find on a major label–and we mean that as a compliment. But after the band’s steady ascent from their Austin, Texas, beginnings to underground indie royalty, Trail Of Dead found themselves sharing a label with the likes of U2 and Gwen Stefani at Interscope. The arrangement would lead to three increasingly ambitious and complex full-length albums–2002’s Source Tags & Codes, 2005’s Worlds Apart and 2006’s So Divided–but also to a fair amount of disillusionment within the band. Late in 2007, Trail Of Dead abandoned their major label backing in favor of a future they could control. In 2008, they began recording The Century Of Self with producer Chris Coady (TV On The Radio, Yeah Yeah Yeahs) and without a label before creating Richter Scale, their own imprint on Justice Records. Tim Karan recently spoke with guitarist/vocalist Jason Reece about life after Interscope–and a little bit about pigs’ blood.
How did it feel going into this album without a label or any real financial backing?
In one way, we went away from Interscope and kind of jumped into the dark and decided we’d be best if we were on our own. But we had a feeling that we’d find somebody to help the recording process. Justice Records held interest in what we do, but they aren’t necessarily our aesthetic, so we asked them if we could start our own label through them. And they were up for it. It worked out for the best. It just feels a lot better. With Interscope, they just have so many bands they have to deal with that you get lost in the shuffle. They always promised us that wouldn’t happen, but it’s the same old story with major labels: If the band doesn’t hit top 10 on the Billboard chart, they start losing interest. It’s a numbers game with them; I don’t think it’s about the music. And a lot of people who were believers in our band all got fired or moved onto other things. It’s kinda hard when you’re stuck on a label that doesn’t really care much about you.
Were you guys concerned that might happen going in?
We were pretty aware that anything could happen. We had a contract with them that would have at least four albums with them, which is good. Some people just get those one-album contracts and get thrown in the machine and don’t do so well and then get chucked out. But we kind of used the contract like we were taking a loan out from a bank. We ended up buying a lot of equipment that would help us record and make records in the future without needing a label. We tried to think of it more as a 10-year plan as opposed to living in the present.
Bells Of Creation – And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead
So the plan was always to get in and get out?
You hope you could be on that label forever and be best buddies and you could put out your arty rock records and the label would be like, “Oh yeah, those guys are crazy so let’s keep ‘em around.” Like, there are a lot of people who’ve been funded just for being who they are–like Patti Smith and Sonic Youth. Even the Flaming Lips–they’re kind of an anomaly. They’re on Warner Bros. but they continue to push their art forward.
So how did life after Interscope change the band?
It was really liberating. We’ve now hired our own publicist and marketing people and they’ll be on board because they like the music. At least they seem to like it. [Laughs.]
The last two albums were pretty tied to click tracks and overdubs, but this time around, you guys took a different approach, right?
Yeah, we kind of threw the conventional studio band thing out the door and decided to play live and sit in a room and really make everything happen on tape and then work with that. A lot of the basic tracks were very energetic and noisy since it was just us in a room together, and I think that’s what people tend to gravitate toward. They can feel the actual presence of people playing together. It kind of sounds silly, but you notice it subconsciously.
What brought that on?
We just decided that it fit what we were writing at the time and we wanted more guitars to come out. We wanted to bring a record that encompasses everything that we’re about from the start of the band through the present and hoping to gather all the different changes in one record. We also wanted to be a little more cohesive. On the last record, we just put songs together but we didn’t look at them as a whole. Whereas on this record, we definitely wanted a cohesive piece of music that would hit you. It would be like reading a book or watching a movie–you just sit down and take it all in. It’s very ambitious in this day and age to record that way because the way people view music is very song-oriented. Everyone listens to one or two songs on their iTunes and moves on. But some of my favorite albums are the ones where you take a long car trip and drive through west Texas or something–it’s a soundtrack that goes with the terrain.
So what kind of terrain is this album suited for?
Probably like a really mountainous, rocky terrain. It’s got that rocky mountain high. [Laughs.]
There’s something very classic-rock sounding about the album. Was that intentional?
Definitely. Classic rock has always been a part of us as a band. Like, you listen to the whole Led Zeppelin II record–not just a song. I don’t think we’ll ever be as great as a band like Zeppelin, but one can try. [Laughs.] But those type of records are definitely an influence. It’s one of those things where you’re working on the music and you think about all of the great bands that have impacted your life, and you try to attain that goal of being a part of that club. That’s insanely hard. If any band right now can put out an album that will be considered a classic, that’s amazing. Right now, it’s sort of like a famine when you’re looking for that huge breakthrough record that blows everyone’s mind away.
Speaking of classic bands, you guys cover the Replacements’ “Within Your Reach” on the Festival Thyme EP that preceded The Century Of Self. How did that song end up in your catalog?
When we were first starting out as a band, we’d do covers at house parties, and it’d be almost a whole set of a particular band’s repertoire. We always played Replacements songs for some reason just because they were sort of sentimental party rock. They were really one of the first bands that Conrad [Keely, vocals] and I got into. Sometimes your favorite bands from your childhood are still your favorite. To this day, I’ll still listen to Minor Threat’s Out Of Step or Fugazi’s 13 Songs probably until I’m 80 years old.
Inland Sea – And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead
With the increasing complexity of Worlds Apart and So Divided, was it getting difficult to recreate those songs live?
Yeah, I’d say especially with So Divided that we didn’t really feel like we were able to play those well live. This time around, we were like, “Let’s have a bunch of songs that we can play on tour and truly know they’ll sound great.” And that’s exciting. So Divided and Worlds Apart had a lot of studio trickery, which is fine because we never want to shy away from the idea of experimenting and doing things in the studio that you couldn’t pull off live unless you had a ton of people working for you. But with this approach, it’ll easily transfer to the live element.
On a song like “Far Pavilions,” where there are overlapping vocals, does that mean you and Conrad were recording at the same time?
No, but that’s what we were going for. [Laughs.] That song makes you go, “This rocks.” It’s bombastic and what I want to play in a show. That’s a song we wrote at the end of recording, too, and it just came out. We were like, “We should’ve written this song years ago.”
Your press release actually says this is a return to the band’s “indie roots.” Do you agree with that?
[Laughs.] Nah, that’s a little pretentious. It’s not like we woke up one day and said, “We’ve gotta return to our indie roots.” It’s not that at all. It’s what is here for us now. It feels genuine and for the most part was made without any sort of career decisions. [Laughs.] A lot of bands say it, but we wanted to make a record that would represent us. So yeah, that whole indie thing–I don’t know. The good thing about us is we don’t know how to write our own press releases. [Laughs.]
The opening track “Giants Causeway” is just a huge-sounding song. What is it with you guys and epic album openers?
[Laughs.] We wanna draw you into our fucked up world.
It seems like your world this time has a few recurring environmental themes-like the “Garden World” and water seems to play a part. Where does that come from?
The thing about Conrad and I is that we lived in Texas for a long time but we also lived in Hawaii. There’s something very natural about Hawaii, where you’re surrounded by volcanic activity and huge waves, that’s going to influence your writing. Also, I grew up in a rain forest without electricity until I was 16 or 17 years old living this strange Survivorman lifestyle, and Conrad’s stepdad is like a Hawaiian Sovereignty member. Maybe those leak into your influences. Also, I watch a lot of fuckin’ Discovery Channel. [Laughs.]
Do you ever think about going back to live in the wild?
Sometimes. But part of me is just like everyone else and I just want some excitement and to go out and see some rock bands. You go to Hawaii and you hang out in the middle of the jungle and there’s nothing to do. [Laughs.] I guess you could build a bunch of crazy things and run around the jungle covered in pigs’blood…
But that gets old.
[Laughs.] But that gets old. alt