Days of Being Wild: ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead Reflects on Source Tags & Codes
Twenty years after its release, the band and producer look back ... while always looking forward
We were bold and life was great
But as time went on
I wondered what went wrong
Maybe there's a reason why ecstasy is the young person's synthetic molecule of choice. MDMA's cocktail of psychoactive integrants works together to heighten momentary sensation even as it slurs the overarching crawl of existence. The seconds glimmer and dance in your eyes for entire lifetimes while the hours drain out like gas canisters – silent behind your back.
Maybe an eternal "now" only appeals to those who haven't yet wasted their life.
Conrad Keely learned how to freeze time in 2000 – the year of his first great success. The band he'd founded six years earlier, ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, was on its first European tour. As far as the 28-year-old was concerned, it could have been their first tour, period.
"America was nothing. Comparatively speaking, the crowds in Europe were insane," recalled Keely. "Back home, we were just another band."
In fairness, Trail's instrument-demolishing live show had notched them a whispery stateside reputation, at least among adventurous concertgoers. But at the peak of nü metal and Eminem, many months before Relationship of Command broke down major label walls for post-hardcore, there wasn't yet an obvious commercial foothold for the group's art-damaged noise-punk. Trail may very well have remained an indie concern forever had legendary BBC tastemaker DJ John Peel not started spinning an import copy of 1999's Madonna – the group's Merge-issued sophomore. Fatefully catching the ear of Mogwai, Peel's radio play earned the band a performance invite to Sussex for the Scottish post-rockers inaugural All Tomorrow's Parties festival in April. A small clutch of other foreign dates were scheduled to bracket the costly expedition.
Word of mouth took hold. In less than a month, Domino records had snagged Madonna for a UK release deal. As Trail's music spread across the island (motored by the same overzealous British music journalism that would prove decisive in breaking future Trail opener the Strokes), so too did the throbbing trance of Britannia's youth culture imprint itself on Keely.
"Mogwai introduced us to ecstasy, electronic raves – that whole English party vibe," said Keely. "It was kind of like awaking as a second possible person, apart from everything."
Upon returning to Texas as hometown heroes, Trail snapped back into a familiar nightly crawl: benefit shows, Eighties goth nights at Elysium, and free drinks courtesy of their friends at the Red River Emo's (any money that could be spared went in the tip jar). But Keely couldn't keep his mind off the liberating disassociation he'd experienced abroad. Being young in Austin was a glorious, exhilarating blur. If only Keely could capture each moment before it escaped – the way he did alone at day, slaving over his intricate, byzantine paintings. He could exist forever in the vibrant tapestry spun from a single blissful night.
Finally, the musician's yearnings came to their poetic head. On his mind was a girl he'd frequently see at happenings around town. Though always longing to speak with her, the nights would inevitably end with Keely failing to make contact and wondering if he'd ever get another chance. Fantasizing about doing ecstasy together, isolated in "time and mind" from the roaring party around them, he began writing some lyrics.
A year later, the world was introduced to "It Was There That I Saw You" – the opening track to Trail of Dead's Interscope debut. Listeners expecting labelmates Smash Mouth are afforded a few calm seconds of radio-wave interference and gentle strumming. Then, off of a single bass note that drops immediately to the pit of the stomach and then stays there – lingering like an omen unheeded – the song empties itself completely. A rampaging wall of guitars explodes from nothing, as though someone has dropped the bottle containing the entire unwritten history of punk rock.
Keely begins singing to the girl, asking her to let him hold her in his arms, but it's already too late. The drums are far ahead. He's running in vain. When the tempo slows down to meet him – one of Trail's signature middle eight changeups – only a single, funeral guitar line remains standing. It's as though Keely's song is mournfully surveying the devastation it has itself brought him. The entire dream of eternal youth has crumbled, and you are only 75 seconds into Trail of Dead's towering 2002 masterpiece, Source Tags & Codes.
I circle for decades
Only to find obscurity
My life is haunted by
"ST&C is my favorite album of all time. Trail does not like this album."
I am unable to think anything else.
Keely sits across from me outside Cosmic Coffee. As he fastidiously rolls a cigarette, my mind floods with every interview where the frontman expresses frustration with ST&C. Why is it that the incredible acclaim he continues to receive for LP No. 3 is not shared with the seven that followed it? Aren't they more sonically sophisticated? More compositionally complex?
After all, Keely's band has done the impossible. Persisting past the Bush era buzz, they've withstood three decades of shifting indie trends to instead develop an aesthetic – merging old-world opulence and roughhewn, urbanist-punk passion – that remains theirs alone. And here I am, another journalist asking them to reduce their ongoing legacy to a single album.
Conrad asks if I have a lighter. I do not.
We are waiting for Jason Reece to return from inside the shop. Reece is the childhood friend with whom Conrad co-founded the band – the only fellow member remaining from the ST&C days. Conforming to his public reputation as the band's brash, hard-rocking center, Reece began our interview telling me he has limited time and then immediately leaving to go order food.
That makes Conrad the artsy one. The one who painted a portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach to hang in his home studio. Searching for a place where we can start without excluding Reece, I ask Keely what bands were inspiring him around Y2K. The Pitchfork writer who gave ST&C its famous 10.0 score had told me that critics tended to view Modest Mouse as the band's chief contemporary in ambitious indie rock (he also said he hasn't listened to Trail in a decade, though I don't mention that).
Keely looks me dead on. "I've never listened to Modest Mouse."
Sealing his cigarette with saliva, he turns as his musical soulmate strides toward him holding tacos and lattes. "I was inspired by the music around me in Austin. We all were. It set the tone."
The rivers are running red
With our blood
"We didn't care about fucking seeing like, Nine Inch Nails," Reece said. "It was all about which of our friends was playing Emo's."
"The city was still a special place for bands then – a tight scene with a lot of support and creativity," recalled bassist Neil Busch. "Each of us could really say we had 30ish close pals. That's unusual for adults."
Reece, Busch, and guitarist Kevin Allen lived separately from Keely, lodging together on the south side while he stayed with "punk rock dudes" Downtown. Even so, each member's post-Madonna songwriting drew from a shared well of whirlwind youth. Righteous hardcore anthem "Homage" was penned by Reece in tribute to absent friends "driving in vans from town to town, just hoping to make it to the next gig." Busch's seething "Baudelaire" drew from the titular French poet's embrace of hedonism and disgust for boredom – man's "ultimate sin." Even "designated introvert" Allen benefited from Austin's robust social life. With his housemates always out, he was free to spend his nights developing guitar parts on his beloved four track recorder.
All four were happy simply being enfolded within their local scene. But across the Atlantic, the English weeklies still covered Trail as though they were the only band in Texas. Recapping an October 2000 San Antonio show where a fight has wrecked Trail's equipment, NME writes of the band's knack for chaos with fetishistic awe (even as it mourns that the destruction has postponed their return to the UK).
"These esoteric punk guys? With Beatles haircuts? It was so exotic," Madonna producer Mike McCarthy said, describing the band's improbable European appeal. "They looked like they were from the Middle East or something."
A notorious sonic perfectionist, the elder McCarthy was the closest thing Trail had to a manager. At first, the band had rebuked his offer to "develop them," choosing instead to rush-record their self-titled 1998 debut. When that album released to little fanfare, sounding like shit, Trail sheepishly returned to the producer seeking his analog wizardry and industry smarts.
"My goal was always to capture the energy of the live show. If that meant 30 takes, so be it." he recalled. "But I was never concerned with breaking them in Austin. I was thinking national, worldwide."
It was McCarthy who received the call in 2001 that Interscope wanted Trail. Jimmy Iovine was aghast that learning about this exciting American band had required his flipping through an import NME at a bookstore. The band and their producer were invited to the label impresario's California mansion for a night of West Coast leisure and luxury. Promised minimal creative interference, the band was instructed to put together a new album posthaste.
"We knew that we wanted the advance and a real recording budget, but we didn't sign 'cause we cared about major labels or radio play or critics," said Keely. "The goal was always to make a huge, cinematic album. Having a captive audience didn't suddenly kick-start our urgency."
Instead, all pressure fell on McCarthy. Recording the album in Austin, as the band desired, would mean according to a looming deadline. The only ideal recording plant, Brooklyn Bridge, was poised for imminent shutdown – having existed purely to generate revenue for its owner to open his dream studio in New York. Though some sessions were completed in time, McCarthy was searching for a new location from the get-go. His ultimate decision would decisively define ST&C's tone.
"These guys were wild. If we'd gone to L.A., New York, I'd have been a feral cat herder. They would have had the time of their lives blowing the money they'd have to live off for the next two years," the producer recalled. "But it couldn't be total fucking nowhere. We needed a big-sounding record."
When first choice Electrical Audio proved unavailable – booked by the Breeders – Steve Albini suggested that McCarthy look into Prairie Sun. Nestled within the balmy wilds of California's northern coast, the studio could claim legendarily vast works by Melvins and Tom Waits to its acoustical résumé. It was also a functioning chicken farm, with the studios themselves housed in a refurbished barn at the center of a 10-acre complex. Cotati, the only neighboring town – the smallest community in all of Sonoma County – wasn't much for young people. Its population was dominated instead by aging hippie biker types, presumably priced out of San Francisco town houses.
"Mike suggests California and we're pretty hesitant," said Reece. "Our lives were so social, the thought of being away from our friends was kind of a big deal."
Though a vast change from Madonna – recorded guerrilla-style across nine months of nights and weekends – the band ultimately acquiesced to a monthlong residency. Upon arrival, the first shock was the nature of their accommodations – alternatively described as "shacks" and "decrepit bungalows."
"There was no insulation," said Busch. "We were basically sleeping outside."
Checking out the local amusements, the young city-slickers were made to feel no more welcome. Cotati's one significant bar catered exclusively to its beer-swilling, country-music pumping inhabitants. When the band attempted to play a game of pool among themselves, the regular patrons began to wander over and shove their cues.
"I think Trail were pretty freaked out, because that first week nothing got done," recalled McCarthy. "There was no energy, everybody was on their own little schedules. We blew $7,500 recording garbage."
The producer declared an ultimatum at a band meeting on Thursday night: Everybody would wake up, eat breakfast at the same time, and hit the studios with purpose. What happened Friday morning has become ST&C's most legendary studio anecdote.
"Everything's ready, we're set up to record. Mike's like, 'Where's Conrad?'" Allen remembered. "'Oh, I think he's still at his cabin,' we say."
"I walk all the way across the farm, find homeboy, and he's just snoring." said McCarthy, "I'm like, I can't deal with this shit."
McCarthy filled a glass from the sink. He worried he might be picking a fight, but ultimately came to the conclusion: "We're making rock & roll." The producer splashed Keely in the face and scampered back to the studio to avoid his reflexive wrath. Minutes later, when the frontman finally "stomped" into the barn, he did so without a word. Instead, Keely sat down at the drums, let out a nonverbal scream, and began ferociously hammering the kit. Nearly an hour passed before he stopped to let recording begin.
"Conrad played the fucking shit out of the drums that day – hard parts too!" McCarthy said. "After that, boom, we started tearing shit up."
Noise to the tape
Comes like a shattered beast
One grueling take at a time, Trail was pounding out songs directly fueled by their young Austin lives, and each day the yearning to return intensified.
"Sometimes it just felt like torture," said Reece. "If you're not having fun on tour, being away for even a weekend was missing out."
"Due to the circumstances, it's our only record that fully sounds like the same band all the way through," admitted Keely. "Maybe that's why people like it."
Indeed, the stable habits formed at Prairie Sun manifested directly into ST&C's sonic consistency. McCarthy would gather eggs from the chicken coop for Keely to whip into omelets, and the team would file into the studio the same time each morning, where the band held every new creative contribution to ruthless consensus vote. Any idea that didn't impress everyone equally got immediately tossed out. Together, they subdivided the studio into three rooms: a central performance space, an adjacent "reverb chamber" where an additional microphone captured spillover sound, and a small room with equipment leftover from Waits' albums. It was here that Busch mixed the samples and field recordings he was capturing in his downtime, crafting ST&C's cinematic interludes.
"Why get bored watching someone do their 20th guitar part?" the bassist said. "Better to wander around, mic-ing creaky gates and pipes."
Sonoma's bucolic environs even began to win the band over. Driving around the countryside in their rental vehicle, they'd listen to rough tracks as evening shadows spread across the farmland. Still, as the month neared its end, Trail's own guiding sun was beginning to set.
"Recording had been very stressful and emotionally draining," said Keely. "The burnout ended up informing the last song I wrote for the album, which ultimately became the big single, 'Relative Ways.'"
It's one of the iconic indie rock songs of the decade, a stirring ode to surrendering oneself to the inevitable ebbing of time. Keely says his intention was even simpler – to send a "rallying cry" to his exhausted bandmates: "Hang in there. It'll work out."
And it's started to happen,
It's started to change
According to Trail, everything after is a blur. Another lonely month was spent at Nashville's Ocean Way – a massive studio built in an old, stone church – where orchestration was added and the record was ultimately mixed (but not before the band nearly jeopardized their residency, drunkenly attempting to break through the stained glass when they found themselves locked out one night).
Listening to the fruits of their labor, McCarthy and the band felt proud, but ultimately were more glad to just be "done with the thing." When the critical plaudits tumbled in months later, the band was appreciative if a little confused ("What's Pitchfork?" was a common question). That this was an album they'd spend the next 20 years measured against never occurred to them. What was more striking was the way their world had changed while they were on top of it.
"We finally had lines outside our American shows," said Reece. "But when we came back to Austin to write the next album things were ... different."
"I remember it almost feeling like a change overnight," said Keely. "After 2002, Austin didn't really belong to the musicians in quite the same way."
"After a few tours, we came back and there was just not much of the old scene left, the camaraderie sort of deteriorated," said Busch, who decisively fractured away from his bandmates in 2004. "You know, some bands achieve success and others don't. Trail probably achieved too much."
"Explain to me what's so perfect about that album."
Keely takes a pause from his painting and wanders over to the immersive speaker setup he's placed me at the center of. We're at his home studio, where I've been granted a sneak preview of Trail's forthcoming 11th album – mixed in state-of-the-art quadraphonic sound. From what I can tell, the record is Trail's most sweeping, epic, and progressive work to date. There's no world in which I will ever prefer it to ST&C.
I murmur something about how "that album" captured the band at the ideal intersection between their ambitions and their abilities, how it expressively channels the restless fury of youth, and, y'know, just generally riffs really hard. Keely smiles and returns to his canvas.
"Those are emotional songs for me, and over the years I've come to appreciate that they're emotional for our fans, too," says Keely. "But if I agree with everyone, 'Yeah, my artistry really peaked when I was 29,' that's the end, isn't it? Time keeps moving and I've got a lot more to say."
Conrad Keely picks up his brush.
It feels so wornbeing chained here to this life
I've been aroundand seen one hundred scenes
Where those who dare to tread the wheel
One day find out what's behind that hill