interview by RJ Cubarrubia
photos by Christopher Nelson
Longtime Austin (and Brooklyn, sort of) art-rockers …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead have always been one of the loudest bands in all the land, combining artistic and thoughtful indie rock with layers of orchestral creativity. After leaving their last label, Interscope, the band started their own imprint, Richter Scale records, and released their latest album, The Century of Self, on their brand new label. After their KEXP in-studio, co-frontman Conrad Keely invited me onto their tourbus where we talked about the new record, the new label, his move to Brooklyn, and some serious comic books.
I heard you guys did some different things with recording The Century of Self, with less overdubbing and tracking.
Well, we did overdub; we did tons of overdubs. See, in the past what we would do is we would track live and then we would overdub. And then we wanted to do all these things with samplers and experimenting with sequencing and stuff. So we would make a MIDI click track and then play along with that, which would help us synch anything we did later on with synthesizers and stuff. But then, on this album, I developed a way where we could actually play a live track and then I actually manually created a MIDI click track to go along with it, and that way we were able to synch up any of our samples and stuff like that. So anything like strings and horns, which of course, we didn’t have a budget for an entire string section, I would use a sampler.
I know you guys recently got off Interscope but you have a new imprint?
Yeah, we do; it’s called Richter Scale Records.
How was recording and working on this album different than with Interscope? More freedom?
Well, we had as much freedom as we wanted on Interscope; that wasn’t the problem with them. They never interfered with anything we wanted to do artistically. But at the same time, I guess the feeling of working for yourself is different. There’s something kind of more rewarding. We’re not doing this for some type of corporation or anything like that. Plus, the bureaucracy was gone, you know? Interscope was like 500 people. Sometimes you didn’t always get the sense that the people that were working with you really got what you were up to.
Where do you see yourself taking Richter Scale? Are you keeping it more for your purposes now or are you going to try to build it?
Our intention was always, if we could, to help out up and coming bands in the same way that we had been helped out, when we were starting, and that it would be kind of our way of giving back. Especially in Austin, we know how difficult it is for bands to get out of there. You’re really isolated and there’s nothing around you for hundreds of miles.
SXSW comes in there and then everyone’s out.
Yeah, and people don’t always come to see the local bands either.
Speaking of getting out of Austin, I hear you recently moved to Brooklyn. How is that treating you? How is it compared to Austin?
It’s weird; New York is one of those places that you get whatever you want out of it. Some people get really stressed out in New York but I find it really relaxing. I live next to a fire station and it’s kind of inspiring to hear the noises outside. There’re always people screaming outside and that lends itself to the type of music that I like to write, with the ambiance of the city. But, as far as being away from the band, it doesn’t seem to me like anything has changed that much. We still get together and we still work on ideas together. In a way, it’s just more condensed. Whenever we would meet, say 10 days, to work on album, it’s like we really compacted everything we did in such a short amount of time. It’s productive.
[Co-frontman] Jason [Reece] said he’s still in Austin. Do you think he’s going to make the move over to Brooklyn?
He talks about it so we’ll see. He’s about to have a kid so maybe he’ll raise a New York kid.
I really love your artwork and the work on The Century of Self is really cool. What’s the medium you used for that?
A Bic ball-point.
Wow, how long did it take you to come up with something that intricate?
Yeah, I don’t know. We were working on the record and I don’t know why that image came to me but I just saw the kid looking at a skull. Originally the candle was going to be on top of the skull melting. Sometimes when you get an idea like that, you don’t necessarily know the meaning at the time, but then you develop a meaning to it. I kind of came up with the allegory being that point in one’s childhood when you realize your own mortality, that you’re not going to be a child for the rest of your life but you’re actually going to grow up and age and eventually die, so that kid looking that the skull is having that realization for the first time. But all the artwork ties in together in this sort of narrative; for instance, there’s a ship diagram in the inlay and that ship is on the book behind the kid, and he’s supposed to be in one of the rooms with the ship, one of the towers.
There’s a lot of layers to that reality. I know you’re a huge comics fan. Who’s your favorite comic book character?
So you’re an X-Men guy?
Yeah, well, I was actually more into The New Mutants. My favorite artist, Bill Sienkiewicz, was doing their art.
Marvel or D.C.?
Definitely Marvel. I stopped collecting; I was actually living in Olympia when our house burned down and my entire collection went up in flames. That was the end of it for me. I mean, I had all the original Dark Knight first prints and all the Secret Wars and X-Men all the way back to #132, just straight up.
That’s painful. Have you caught Watchmen since you’ve been on tour?
These guys watched it the other day but at that point, all I’ve been wanting to do when we have a day off is just sleep and recover. But you know what? The other thing that these guys did without me is they went to a ComicCon, a comic convention, and they brought this picture of Jason posing with all these Klingons. I couldn’t believe that I missed it.
Thanks for your time, man. I appreciate it.
Sure thing, man. Thank you very much.
…And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead’s latest album, The Century of Self, is out now on Richter Scale Records. Visit their MySpace page for more information. Check out more of Christopher Nelson’s photos of the band here and download their performance on KEXP as part of our Live Performances podcast.