Possibly 4th Street 27: Trail of Dead

Rob Trucks's "Possibly 4th Street" expositions, in which he invites musicians to perform live and impromptu somewhere in New York City, run intermittently here at Sound of the City.

Trail of Dead headlines the Music Hall of Williamsburg on Friday, February 27 [tix] and Bowery Ballroom on Saturday, February 28 [tix] .

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Rob Trucks
Trail of Dead in the Niagara basement

Possibly 4th Street
Number 27 (Part One)
. . . And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead

by Rob Trucks

Just six days before the release of their sixth full-length, The Century of Self, ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead hold a press day in New York City. Which is a lot easier now that founding members Conrad Keely and Jason Reece call Williamsburg, rather than Austin, home.

But February in the city often means snow one day followed by a balmy sixty degrees the next. And these things have to be, you know, planned in advance. Besides, Conrad's keyboard needs electricity. So on a warm Wednesday afternoon in the East Village, three AYWKUBTTOD members, enthusiastically primed with Blood Marys, perform two songs (or three Century of Self album tracks) within Niagara's starkly bright back room. Meanwhile, across the street in Tompkins Square, a makeshift religious service solicits sinners in unseasonable shirt sleeves.

Trail of Dead perform "Bells of Creation"

Possibly 4th Street
Number 27 (Part Two)
Trail of Dead

Who:

Conrad Keely of ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead

When:

Wednesday afternoon, February 11, 2009

Where:

In the soon-to-be remodeled basement of Niagara (at the corner of 7th and Avenue A)

CK: Oh wow. They had a whole drum set down here. We should've incorporated that.

Tell me something you've never ever done in your life.

I've never been to the moon. You mean something I want to do?

No. Just something . . . Never been to the moon is an absolutely acceptable answer. Wonderful answer. Anything other than 'I've never been skydiving' is the right answer.

Oh really.

Skydiving is like been there, done that. Old, tired answer.

Because that would've been my second answer. I would've said I've never been on a shark dive. And I've always wanted to be on a shark dive.

Rhymes with skydiving, but not skydiving. Still a great answer.

The only irrational fear I have is one of sharks.

Really?

I don't even know how irrational that is.

Yeah, I was about to say, I don't know that that's necessarily irrational.

Well no, when I was young I used to have a fear of sharks when I was in the swimming pool, so that's pretty irrational.

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Rob Trucks
Conrad Keely

Yeah, that's kind of irrational. Was it Jaws?

When I was 3 years old my mom took me to see Jaws for the first time. It had just come out. And it was traumatic. Although we lived in Hawaii. You know, I grew up in Hawaii a block away from the beach, and I was always at the beach, but I would never venture past where I couldn't, you know, feel the bottom. And as I grew older and got to learn about sharks and got to be really fascinated and respect sharks, I really just want to dive into chum-filled water and see them. Just kind of, you know, face my primal fear. [pause] [laughs] You don't relate?

No.

You know, to me it seems like it would divorcing myself from myself. It's not even about me. It's more like just paying my ultimate respect to nature, and the shark being a symbol, one of the great forces of nature. That it's so old and that it's really threatened, you know, and it just seems like we owe it so much, and yet we've disrespected it in so many ways, and a lot of the reasons being for the movie Jaws, you know, which started my fear in the first place.

Outside of sharks, what's the closest you've come to facing your fear? No stage fright or anything like that?

Not really.

It's sharks and only sharks.

Pretty much. I mean, I love high-speed automobiles [laughs]. I love heights, tarantulas. I mean, there are things I hate. You know, I hate authority. I hate, you know, police. Unless they're protecting me [laughs]. No, I love them. I love the police.

Tell me something you've done once and one time only.

I've only once driven a car on the Autobahn and been able to, you know, take it up to 130 miles an hour. I've only done that once. I would love to do that every day. That would be a thrill.

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Rob Trucks
Trail of Dead's Jason Reece

The name of a book that you've read at least twice.

There have been several. I don't want to say The Lord of the Rings because that would be such a cliché at this point. Everyone's read The Lord of the Rings seven times. And I want to pick a book that when I read it twice, it really meant something to read it twice because I would've gotten things out of it that I didn't get the first time. Actually a good one, I think, is Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything. I read that twice. It's one of those books that you can kind of read over and over and over again. There's so many facts. It's an amazing compendium of like human knowledge that you want to read it more than once just to memorize some of those numbers just to kind of like get those statistics in your head.

Okay. The name of a movie you've seen at least three times.

Well, this would be something that's pretty recent, and I just have so much admiration for, but it's Good Will Hunting. Yeah. I really love the screenplay and I'm just in such admiration of the fact that they wrote that when they were so young. I love going back and, you know, catching all that clever repartee that's very Bostonian. And in some ways I feel that the movie's actually about Boston more than it's about anything else. It's kind of like about the Boston attitude. But I also really love that speech that Robin Williams gives to Matt Damon under the tree. You know, he says, 'You tore my heart out and then I thought about it and then I didn't think about you a second after that, because I realize that you're just a kid and, you know, you've never even been to see the Sistine Chapel and you don't know what it's like to be vulnerable in front of a woman; and, you know, all these things. There's some really profound and mature statements made in that movie that for, you know, young 20-year-old screenwriters. It's mind-blowing that they pulled it off.

You mentioned the movie in some ways capturing Boston. How important is setting to your songwriting? Like, do you have to be in a certain place? Is there a room or a porch or a chair where you have to be to kind of get the best juices flowing?

I've got a small apartment in Williamsburg and I like to set my piano up facing the window so I can just kind of like look out and, you know, see the everyday life going on. I like to have the window open. We live next door to a fire department, so this kind of ambient, just noise is kind of part of my compositional process. But I have to admit that I also really like to be close to the television set. The TV is something that you can just click on and go to the History Channel or the Travel Channel and be transported, and that kind of will creep into the songwriting. It's not that the song is going to be about the documentary or something but just the fact that it might reference it in some way.

Whether as sound or subject matter, has the fire station crept into the songs at all?

Well, maybe it is in the sense that I always feel safe, because there's this kind of like comfort zone. If you live next door to a fire station you're never worried about your house burning down. But there is this aspect where, you know, we're trying to write rock music here, so one of the most important, I think, pillars of rock music is noise. There has to be noise. There has to be kind of something unpredictable going on, sort of something feeding back or, you know, a kettle going off. And that's what kind of gives it that edge and makes it feel like it's something that's happening on a day-to-day occurrence.

Trail of Dead Perform "Insatiable"

You just played "Insatiable," but on the record it's divided into two tracks. Compositionally was that two separate songs that were joined together? Did you write all of it and decide it was too long and break it down into two separate tracks? What did "Insatiable" look like when you first finished writing it?

Well, it was recorded as one song, but I definitely did write the lyrics for the first part first. And then coming up with the third verse and, I guess, the outro refrain. I'd always wanted to do a reprise on a song. My favorite record of all time would be Dark Side of the Moon and, you know, the beautiful and the beautiful way in which "Breathe" reprises. And I don't think we've come anywhere close to matching the perfection of that record, but just to use that as a kind of maybe rock tradition that we want to revisit, you know. And also to give it the sense that the record is something of a conceptual whole, that you're not supposed to listen to this as a track-by-track, but you're supposed to sit down with your headphones on, or with good speakers.

The group's received consistently strong reviews, but it seems most critics focus on Source Tags & Codes as like the pick of the litter. Is that an albatross in any way to have one album that people tend to compare all of your other work? Or is it just nice that everybody seems to be really, really fond of something you've created?

I think both. I mean, I wouldn't have given it a 10 if I had been rating it, you know. I mean, I think of each of our records as a step towards an ultimate goal which we have yet to achieve. I don't think of any of our records as perfect. In fact, I have a hard time listening to our records because all I hear are the mistakes and the imperfections, and Source Tags & Codes is full of them. You know, there's so many things I would've done differently. But sometimes what's going on behind the scenes in a band makes its way into the record, and that's what people really hear.

I think when we did Source Tags, everything was good. The band relationship was good. Our relationship with our producer was good. Everything was really optimistic. We'd just signed onto a major label. It was a great time to live in Austin. And that sense of optimism and enthusiasm found its way onto the record. And then the record after that, things deteriorated with our relationship with our bass player. And the record after that things were really tense within the band and, you know, those found their way into the record. Not just in the mood but, you know, if you read the lyrics to those records you see that the tensions are there. So I think that the discomfort that we felt made its way onto the record and I think that the people that listen to it probably shied away from them. They pick that up, you know, so it doesn't surprise me that the ebullience that we were experiencing while we were making Source Tags is something that can be empathized through listening to it.

But like I said, we haven't broken up as a band and all these records to me are just kind of like steps towards an initial vision that we had when we were young, you know, and we've not come close to that. And I kind of feel that all our records are just chapters towards this story. I think that as we continue along this path, people will look back at all our records a little bit differently. They will see how, say the last record, which was not well-received, was a step towards what we're doing now, and yet how what we're doing now is definitely informed by everything that we've done so far. It's kind of like a step-by-step thing. It's like the Harry Potter series.

Interview with Conrad Keely


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