'Trail of Dead' geeky -- and proud of it


April 22, 2005


"It would be so very easy to sneer at ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead," England's New Musical Express wrote after the group's recent performance in London. "They're a bunch of Dungeons & Dragons-playing nerds who sing about art and opera, sneaking poncey words like 'diatonically' into their highbrow lo-fi songs."

The NME proceeded to note that the band's primary vocalist and guitarist, Conrad Keeley, "has a slight overbite, an elfin face and a penchant for sketching scenes right out of 'Conan the Barbarian' in their album artwork. He's even writing a fantasy book, ferchrissakes."

The insinuation that the members of ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead are closet progressive-rock geeks doesn't bother Keeley and his bandmates in the least; they readily grant that they are.

"I grew up with 'Close to the Edge' [by Yes] and 'The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway' [by Genesis], and I didn't get into punk until much later in high school," Keeley says. "By that point, I had already had quite a musical upbringing. I feel more of an affinity for the music of the '70s than I do to punk music."



  • 6:30 tonight
  • Metro, 3730 N. Clark
  • Tickets, $16
  • (773) 549-0203

  • Nevertheless, there's as much punk fury in the band's mix as there is art-rock ambition, and the musicians are renowned for their frantic high-energy stage shows as much as their sprawling and conceptual albums, including their latest, "Worlds Apart."

    Childhood friend in Hawaii, Keeley and Jason Reece formed ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead in late 1994 before relocating to Olympia, Wash., and finally settling in Austin, Texas. There they started to build a reputation during shows as a duo sharing duties on drums, guitar and vocals. The core band is now a trio with guitarist Kevin Allen, though it expands to a quintet onstage with the addition of a second drummer, Doni Schroader, and a keyboardist.

    The group released its self-titled debut in 1998, following up with an album cheekily titled "Madonna" in 1999. In 2002, it graduated to the majors, and "Source Tags & Codes" (2002) and the "Secrets of Elena's Tomb" (2003) followed on Interscope.

    Through these discs, the band straddled a line between emo-punk and experimental noise-rock such as Sonic Youth. With "Worlds Apart," it moves even further toward art-rock, decorating songs such as "Will You Smile Again?" (which muses on whether Brian Wilson will ever top the achievements of "Smile"), "A Classic Arts Showcase" and "To Russia My Homeland" with cello, violin, grand piano and a choir.

    Some fans have condemned the disc for sinking under its progressive-rock pretension, but it retains the band's powerful aggression and infectious way with a hook, and for my money, it's the group's finest moment.

    "Worlds Apart" was recorded in the band's new home studio, which they purchased from a hip-hop producer. "A lot of it came together in the studio, and we wanted to have that luxury this time," Keeley says.

    While the musician grants that the album features several recurring themes -- including war and a sad view of the colonization of his native Hawaii -- he says it isn't really a concept album. "I don't think of a concept album as a pejorative by any means, but I don't know if there is a narrative. I'm not saying that we wouldn't do that or we couldn't do that, but our emphasis was on the songs and on having a blank slate where if we wanted to have a string solo, we could do that."

    Indeed, the album is a headphones-lover's delight. "The sound that you hear through 'Smile Again' is an accidental sample," Keeley says with obvious pride. "I threw my car keys on the timpani when I was leaving and then we hit the timpani, and that is the sound you hear. What's funny is that while it would be easier to use the sample, we carry a timpani with us now, and when we play the song live, Doni throws his car keys on the timpani."

    It's this kind of imagination and attitude toward experimentation that sets the band apart, along with its willingness to revel in the nerdy. As for that fantasy novel the Brits sarcastically mocked, Keeley says, "It's definitely on the back burner now. I think of the craft of writing as taking many years to find your voice. It's not that I'm not writing right now, but I'm also absorbing a lot of things, and also the rock thing is happening.

    "I think of the creative urge as like a raw ore, and there are so many ways you can choose to use it: painting, cooking, writing, music. Obviously, I love the energy of the crowd, and you don't get that by writing or painting, but I don't think of any of them as exclusive of one another. And after I've had a career in the music industry, I think I'll have a lot to draw from when I do turn to my writing."



    For the last 15 years, Harvard-educated Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang have been a cultural double-threat, recording and performing as the consistently rewarding folk-rock duo Damon & Naomi, and running an independent publishing company, Exact Change Books (www.exactchange.com), devoted to new editions of classics of left-field literature.

    Among the psychedelic, surrealist or just plain weird tomes that Damon (the editor) and Naomi (the designer) have resurrected are Composition in Retrospect by John Cage; Oui: The Paranoid Critical Revolution by Salvador Dali; Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll by Alfred Jarry, and Watchfiends and Rack Screams by Antonin Artaud. That reading list -- as much as their pedigree as the drummer and bassist for the influential '80s indie-rock trio Galaxie 500 -- offers some insight into what the pair have been doing musically on wonderful discs such as "More Sad Hits" (1992), their 2000 collaboration with the Japanese art-rock band Ghost, and their latest release, "The Earth Is Blue," issued on their new 20/20/20 label.

    "Basically, we're really good at finding ways to lose money -- independent publishing, independent records, you name it," Krukowski joked.

    The duo is touring with Ghost guitarist Michio Kurihara, performing their new tunes and (with luck) their exquisite covers of George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and Caetano Veloso's "Araca Azul." They stop at Schubas, 3159 N. Southport, at 10 tonight, topping a strong triple bill that also includes local art-rockers Orso and Lindsay Anderson of L'altra. Tickets, $12. Call (773) 525-2508