The van’s engine reeked of burning oil when the Trail of Dead stopped outside Winnie on the warm spring afternoon this year that inaugurated the band’s first world tour—a journey that would eventually take the Austin foursome as far as Oslo, Norway, but which seemed in danger, at that very moment, of ending in the switchgrass of East Texas. The group was already running late for its first show in New Orleans, so after a few perfunctory glances under the hood and against better judgment, Neil Busch, Conrad Keely, Jason Reece, and Kevin Allen piled back into the van and hit the road. But about an hour later, as darkness was settling over Southern Louisiana, the engine gave out at a run-down gas station along the poorest fringes of Lake Charles. The prospects were grim: The only passersby were a homeless man selling stolen watches and a gold-toothed thug in a lowrider Cadillac who stared at the four musicians, all wearing jet-black mod haircuts and thrift-store clothes, as if he had spotted an extraterrestrial life form. Jason leaned against the van and surveyed the dismal scene. “This,” he said with a sardonic grin, “is the rock and roll lifestyle.”
Such is the reality of a band that, though hugely popular in both the Texas underground music scene and abroad, will most likely never meet with commercial success. The Trail of Dead—whose unwieldy full name is … And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead—instead has a more obscure appeal, its music largely relegated to the world of college radio stations and punk rock clubs and purveyors of vinyl. The lack of mainstream recognition is not for lack of talent, though, since few other struggling Texas bands have received such critical acclaim: The Trail of Dead has already been dubbed the “mutant progeny” of such Texas music mavericks as Roky Erickson and the Butthole Surfers, and Spin and Rolling Stone have written rave, albeit brief, reviews. The group’s second album, Madonna, was named one of the best records of 1999 by England’s premier music magazine, New Musical Express. “We hear from fans in places like Greece, Turkey, Russia, Germany, and Norway,” said Conrad. “We get lots of enthusiastic e-mails from them saying things like ‘You make big youth noise.’” Several of the band’s smashed guitars have even appeared on the online auction house eBay.
But because the Trail of Dead does not write the sort of catchy pop songs that get mainstream radio play, it lacks the backing of a major record company. Instead, the band is signed to a small independent label, Merge, and must finance nearly every aspect of its work—from recording to going on tour—with borrowed money from the label, slim profits from shows, and whatever spare change day jobs might provide. “We should really be called ‘ … And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Debt,’” Conrad quipped in March. “We barely have enough money to get to England.” This, in spite of the fact that the band was scheduled to play a festival in Sussex, En-gland, in only two weeks in front of a crowd of thousands, opening for perhaps the most revered band in the indie rock world, Sonic Youth. Merge would provide their plane tickets out of New York, Conrad explained, and the band would make the rest of the cash it needed playing shows as it drove up the East Coast. But at that moment, the band members were still stranded in Lake Charles—with only a list of friends’ phone numbers, less than a hundred dollars to their name, and a broken-down van that wouldn’t budge.
I decided to spend a few days on tour with the Trail of Dead after seeing its knockout performance at this year’s South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin—the only band, out of 987, whose show ended with a train wreck. The group is known for its spectacularly chaotic, crash-and-burn theatrics, which have earned comparisons to the Who and the Stooges and even inspired one critic to recall Jimi Hendrix setting his guitar on fire at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. The South by Southwest show was similarly enthralling, ending in a squall of feedback and distorted guitars, the stage strewn with beer bottles and fallen mike stands and broken drumsticks, the scene so riotous that the club’s management eventually cut first the sound and then the lights. As if on cue, as the crowd fumbled around in the dark, a train passing behind the club frantically sounded its horn—someone had abandoned a pickup on the tracks—and then applied its brakes. It was too late: There was a prolonged, hideous sound of metal impacting metal. “Man, they really know how to put on a show,” the guy standing behind me marveled.
Less than a week later, the Trail of Dead, along with me and photographer Judy Walgren, squeezed into a battered 1994 Dodge Ram and hit the road. It was a tight fit since the band members had packed the van with everything they might possibly need for a seven-week tour, a stockpile that included a can of air freshener, an issue of Penthouse, a bottle of sake, a shrine to the rap group Public Enemy, copies of Paradise Lost and Siddhartha, a sketchbook, a toolbox, one Texas flag, two pea coats, four sleeping bags, four suitcases, eight guitars, two amplifiers, a bass cabinet, a drum set, an effects rack, a spare tire, and an I Love Jesus tag that hung from the rearview mirror. (“To ward off the cops,” Conrad explained.) He and Neil slouched in the back seat, while Jason reclined above them in a makeshift loft. Kevin, the most fresh-faced of the four musicians, who are all in their mid-twenties, took the wheel.
Though the group was formed just five years ago, this trip marked the Trail of Dead’s seventh tour. Conrad and Jason, childhood friends who grew up together in Hawaii, moved to Austin in 1995 to start a band.