Thursday, February 17, 2011
[spinner.com] ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead stripped down to a quartet and spent just 10 days in the studio for their seventh record, 'Tao of the Dead.'
The album is presented in two parts, with each performed in a single tuning. Everything from the wordplay and interlinked motifs to the intricate artwork, done by singer and multi-instrumentalist Conrad Keely, harkens back to the days of the great concept albums.
Spinner recently spoke with drummer, guitarist and co-founder Jason Reece about the new record and its self-referential title, the lack of punk-rock ethos in modern music and why the band's current sound owes as much to Public Enemy as it does to prog rock.
'Tao of the Dead' feels very intentional and unified. What influenced that?
We just wanted to connect the album together somehow, make it feel like a soundtrack. I was thinking of 'Fear of a Black Planet' by Public Enemy and how all those songs fit so tightly together. We were really influenced by the conceptual thing going on in that record. We're not hip-hop so obviously we went in a different direction. We wanted to do a punk-rock Pink Floyd version.
Did you turn to any other records or artists for inspiration?
'Close to the Edge' [by Yes], Kraftwerk, Joy Division -- there were a bunch of bands from the past we were very inspired by. Mostly it seems like what all those people have in common -- and what we have in common -- is the idea of finding new sounds on guitars and making unique noisier moments, and finding some way to make them sound beautiful.
Was it challenging work to knit the songs together?
For us, the challenges were about getting to a place where we were all very comfortable with sitting in a room and playing loudly and playing as a band. Once that happened all the ideas were very free-flowing. The producers [Chris "Frenchie" Smith and Chris Coady] didn't make us feel inferior. In the past, there was a tendency to be in a room with a producer who made you feel like you were grasping at straws. We didn't have that this time around. Everyone was so excited about making this record work. There was a lot of positive reinforcement. You don't want to walk into making a record feeling like you're completely frayed to the bone. This time around we were rejuvenated.
Why were you rejuvenated?
We got rid of all the negative people that brought everything down and started from scratch and did what really matters, which is making music. We had a lot of negative forces affecting us and we had to cut them loose. Once that happened there was a whole group of people that were on the same page. We just made a couple of rules, the first part, it's all in D, the second part is all in F, but there were no real rules after that. We'd see what came out of those tunings and where we went with the music.
Was the record influenced by a sense of place?
Lyrically. We were down in San Antonio, Texas near the Mexican-American border, basically a mile away from the border. There was this ominous fence that you could walk up to; it was this huge statement: This is where the two countries are divided, this is how it stands, you can't cross over this fence. There was just such a darkness about that. There's a massive drug war going on right over that fence -- we're talking two or three miles away, a town where people are getting gunned down every couple weeks, an insane amount of chaos happening right there, right next to America. I'm not saying we were all down in the dumps, but it seeps in somehow, a subconscious subject matter that reaches you.
Where did you come up with the record title?
It's kind of an impolite joke. We had a Tao Te Ching at the studio and used it as a lyrical reference tool. I said, "Why don't we call the record 'Tao of the Dead'?" It sounds like we're a bunch of pompous a------s. "Oh yes, we're going to give you the meaning of life here." Which is really not true at all. On a serious note, the Taoist philosophies have been definitely useful in day-to-day life. We're not Taoists by any means but it's really nice to use some of the text as daily inspirational things to live by. But we read everything. So the 'Tao' is just as meaningful as Henry Miller's 'Tropic of Cancer,' which is probably just as Taoist, just with a little more sex.
Digital music distribution has placed so much emphasis on the single. Were you worried about how a record like 'Tao' would be received?
We came to the conclusion, "Let's not worry about it." When we worried about it so much in the past it just caused major disappointment. You have all these personal expectations of what your band means, but you can't worry about it too much because someone out there is either going to give a damn about what you're doing or they're not. You have to take more of a callous stance against what's going on around you. You can't let it get to you.
How do you want people to listen to the record?
We went into [making the record] as a way against the idea of a single or a one-track way to ingest music. We looked at it in an old-fashioned way. You put the vinyl on and place the needle on the vinyl and you let it play out. It's very old-school, very Luddite. At the same time, we were trying to find ways to make the music sound fresh and like something that's not being done right now.
One of your songs, 'Pure Radio Cosplay,' proclaims that rock radio is dead. What influenced those lyrics?
There are parts of the record that talk about rock 'n' roll. It doesn't seem like it's really relevant, and what Trail of the Dead is doing is almost like this outdated mode of being ... In the '50s and '60s, there was more of a tendency for people to be outrageous and strange and make strange music and have it be mainstream. Like Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, or even Pink Floyd. A lot of that stuff is punk rock in a way.
Is rock radio dead?
It's really hard to sum it up in a song. It's more of a statement. Maybe it's this knee-jerk reaction statement in the end. Is rock radio dead? Yes, it is dead. But every once in a while, there's somebody who gets through to the people in the spirit of punk rock, like the Sex Pistols or Nirvana. Right now [popular music] seems like it's all dress-up. Everybody has their roles to play. There's not a lot of inner angst that's honest. There's a kind of safeness about the music. Everything feels so tame right now.
You've been at this for close to 15 years now. To use the word you said earlier, how do you stay rejuvenated?
You just take time off and let yourself breathe. Watch movies and read books and try not to think about music as much. Then you reach that point where you feel a song coming on, and you write a song and it doesn't feel that forced. I'm not saying get lazy -- just take a break. We've done some long tours and after a tour the last thing you want to think about is music. But you know, the true love for it always comes back. It's what I've always been into, ever since I was 11 or 12 years old. I've always been inspired by four people on stage playing really loudly.
Posted by Dan Goldin at 10:45 PM