The world of progressive music’s gain is cinema’s loss when it comes to the new album from much-loved Texan art rock noiseniks ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead. Simply titled IX, the swooping, swooning tracks you’ll find on it were originally intended to remain instrumental pieces destined for film and television soundtracks. The band were sure of that. But thanks to the psychically creative chemistry of core Dead duo Jason Reece and Conrad Keely, the music took on a life of its own and became something else entirely – something much bigger and more meaningful.
“The basic idea was to make a bunch of instrumental pieces that we could give to movies,” says Reece. “The idea was to show off that side of ourselves, but then we wrote a bunch of songs instead! There are a couple of instrumentals on the record that are reflective of that side of ourselves – we are wanting to score a film, just because it’s something different and not a typical rock thing to do. I don’t think a lot of people do it, so there is room for a band like ours to compete in that kind of world.”
Long-time fans won’t be surprised by this, because the band have always stretched themselves beyond genre boundaries. Everything from their constant shape‑shifting between the harsh but hypnotic art-punk sonic violence of their heavier side to the intense, layered, emotional beauty of their lush prog side, to the intricate hand-painted artwork Keely provides with each album suggests a band testing their own creative and intellectual gifts. This time around the sound is fittingly widescreen and technicolour, pulsing with unpredictable melodic power. It was recorded at the Sonic Ranch studio in west Texas, right in the middle of the desert on the Mexican border. The vast, desolate, sun-parched beauty of their surroundings seems to have seeped into the music they were making.
“You’re in this crazy little world and I think some of the record reflects that,” says Reece. “You can’t help but write like that. You get that influence of the desert, the Mexican influence. It’s also kinda harsh in a way. You could die out there, of thirst, or you could get bitten by a rattlesnake. Kind of like nature rules and you are just another part of the food chain! There are big spiders and snakes. You don’t really have control of the nature. So that’s always kinda fun.
“But we recorded in New York City when we were recording for The Century Of Self  – we were stuck in this basement and it was really dark. Our hours were from 4pm till seven in the morning, and you’d walk out into the city and it’s bustling with activity. I started to feel like a vampire!”
The record also seems to have brought out an emotional honesty in the two men that was previously hidden under layers of metaphor and literary influences (2011’s Tao Of The Dead took classical Chinese text Tao Te Ching as its inspirational springboard). It’s a development that seems to have taken even Reece by surprise, although he’s still not keen on talking about the meanings behind the songs.
“We have an album that seems to be more personal and more about personal things we’re going through,” he says. “Which is probably because we’re not really that type of band who writes very personal music. Maybe some of the earlier songs are, but lately a lot of our music has been inspired by books and films and stuff that we were into, or things that we had witnessed, or world events. This time around it seems to be more about what we are experiencing. This album’s more emo, bro!
“I think that we were writing something that’s more personal but trying to present it as unclichéd as possible,” he continues. “So it’s a little bit cryptic to people on the outside, but to us it might have more of a deeper meaning.”
Musically, IX picks up where _Tao Of The Dead _ended, although it’s not strictly a sequel. Parts one and two of Tao were on that album, but part three was released as an EP via PledgeMusic last December. The band are considering a special edition of IX with the Tao Of The Dead III EP included in order to complete the story. But if IX builds on the Tao world, where does that leave Lost Songs, the 2012 album that shared more in common with their harsher breakthrough album Madonna than with the lush prog of recent years?
“We were trying to write a really aggressive record with Lost Songs,” Reece explains. “We wanted to have that aggressive energy. It was one of those things where we were overanalysing things. It just seemed natural that they were coming out that way. This time around we were kind of getting into more of the expansive part, the larger, broader picture, the big wide lens. Lost Songs is like the 8mm video camcorder film.”
Change is certainly not something that scares …Trail Of Dead. Reece and Keely are childhood friends who met in Hawaii, and they’ve been on a quest to find new ways of musical expression since their self-titled debut in 1998. But their adventurous nature extends way beyond sonic experimentation: they’re ready to explore the whole world. Keely, disillusioned with American society, has relocated to Cambodia, and spends his life there when he’s off the road, while Reece remains in Austin, Texas. Where other bands would crumble at the physical distance between members, Reece is unconcerned.
“You know, he lives in Cambodia and he does what he wants to do, and then we all get back together in Austin, Texas, we find a way to write a bunch of music,” he shrugs. “It seems like time has really flown by. It’s not like he goes away and we stop playing music for six or seven months and then we get back together and it’s like, ‘This is really difficult because you seem like a totally different person.’ That’s not the case at all. We have everything lined up and we plan it. You make plans for all of it to happen and you can actually write music and have band members from all over the place. I think the only issue is money. Money fucks everything up!”
Above all else, …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead ought to be proud of themselves, not just for their longevity – they’ve outlived countless scenes and they’ll outlive many more to come – but because they have neatly avoided fitting into any of those genres, working away in a colour-saturated world of their own invention. It’s a beautiful thing to have witnessed.
“We’ve always been the stepchild of every fad,” says Reece with a laugh. “We’ve always thought of ourselves as too arty for the punks, too punk for the art kids. That was how it was when we first started. We’d play a hardcore show, and all the hardcore punk kids thought we were weird art kids. And we’d play at something more indie or arty or whatever and they’d think it was too aggressive, too brutal. Then when we started getting more into the prog rock side of our music, that was just too heavy for some prog people. We’ve never been part of a movement – we’ve been on our own. That’s fine by me! We’ve never been in a box.”
There are certainly no plans to be hemmed in any time soon. They’ve recently been touring fan-favourite album Source Tags & Codes, and they plan to bring that show to the UK for a London concert. But most of all they’re looking to the future_ _with IX, which may well be the catalyst for that dreamed-of soundtrack work. It’s certainly dramatic enough.
But whatever happens next, expect the unexpected. Nothing you hear today from the band is set in stone, and they’re just as likely to switch direction again when you’re least expecting it, slippery as eels. And frankly, we wouldn’t want them any other way.
“With a band that’s been around for this long, to repeat yourself is very boring and tiresome. We’d feel like, ‘Why are we doing this?’” says Reece, with an air of contentment. “I think the point is to try and be as creative as possible and find a way to do something new and different. Everybody wants to try that with their band or what they’re doing, to have longevity. I guess that’s kinda the goal. Whether you obtain the goal is another story.”
Who knows what the story of the Dead will reveal? We’re certainly in no rush to reach the end. All we do know is that its chapters are sure to have plenty more twists and turns along the way.
IX is out now on Superball Music. See realtrailofdead.tumblr.com for more information.