To hear—really hear—the newest album from the long-running (and possibly longest-named) Austin rock band . . . And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, you’ll need the right audio setup.
XI: Bleed Here Now, which drops June 10, was mixed in quadraphonic sound. “Quad” is not new technology. It’s been around since the seventies, when audiophiles would arrange four separate speakers around a room, each playing an isolated signal that allows you to hear a piano over here, a backing vocal over there. But quadraphonic never quite broke out of that niche appeal. Most modern recording artists have never bothered with it.
But Trail of Dead cofounder Conrad Keely insists, “Once you check out all this quad stuff and you go back to stereo, it’s like looking at a black-and-white television.”
Keely, along with the band’s other cofounder, Jason Reece, recently invited me to Keely’s East Austin home studio so I could experience the album as they intended. I can’t speak to your listening habits, but I will say that XI: Bleed Here Now truly fills those wide-screen spaces. The album opens with a chorus of speaking voices, intoning the band’s name in a panoply of foreign tongues that ping-pong around the room. This is followed by the surge of a symphonic choir backed by the Tosca String Quartet, all before squalls of feedback and dueling drum kits finally come crashing in. There are huge, cresting chords that suddenly give way to isolated jangles of tambourine, math-y guitar runs that chase each other across three speakers. Trail of Dead’s music has frequently been described in terms akin to a Jerry Bruckheimer movie: “Epic.” “Explosive.” “Bombastic.” But rarely has that cacophony been so precisely rendered.
“The last couple of records, we didn’t think about them as much before we did them,” Reece says, but here the coronavirus lockdowns gave band members plenty of time to plan. They first started meeting about it in November 2020, beginning with talking about some of the albums they’d love to emulate, now that they had the luxury of time. In the spring of 2021, the band—these days a full-blown six-piece—relocated to South Austin’s Wolfshield Studio, set on a bucolic patch of land that’s complete with archery range and soccer pitch. For three months, they wrote and recorded at a leisurely pace in between barbecues and bows and arrows. “Like a summer camp,” Reece says.
That rowdy, convivial atmosphere is evident on XI: Bleed Here Now, which features an impressive roster of guest stars—a Trail of Dead tradition—including Amanda Palmer and Spoon’s Britt Daniel. They even found room for “Kiss Guy,” a.k.a. Yayo Sanchez, the Austin-based musician who became a viral legend in 2018 after shredding with the Foo Fighters. (“A f—ing maniac,” Reece says.) Sanchez, along with John Dowey of Austin’s Think No Think, provided one of the album’s many blistering guitar solos, which unfurl with unironic pomposity across songs that volley between pummeling hardcore and full-bore seventies prog.
Did I mention that XI: Bleed Here Now is also a double album? Well, technically, as Keely says, it’s about ten minutes shy. But at a sprawling seventy minutes (“double vinyl,” Keely notes wryly), it’s easily Trail of Dead’s longest record. It might also be its most grandiose, even for a band that’s released albums divided into “movements” and drawn songwriting inspiration from the Tao Te Ching. The album title is sort of an “in-joke,” Keely explains, riffing on the Beatles’ Let It Be, the Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed, and Oasis’s Be Here Now—all records that were released by iconic bands at the zenith of their globe-straddling hubris. But it also nods to Ram Dass’s 1971 yogic manifesto, Be Here Now, even borrowing the mandala from Dass’s book for the record’s cover art, whose layout also pays homage to the album LIVE: Quadraphonic from electronic music pioneer Suzanne Ciani.
It’s a lot, and audaciously so, with lyrics that play to that magnitude. On “Penny Candle,” Keely shouts down from the mountaintop at our collective pandemic fatigue, bemoaning the weeks spent “Counting off the days / And banging on our cages.” On “No Confidence,” he wages a sweeping, mythological battle against “the gods” who banished us here; it may be the first rock song to make judicious use of the word “feldspar.” And on “The Growing Divide,” he harmonizes with Spoon’s Daniel over a delicate, fingerpicked guitar that’s backed by ocean sounds, both of them pleading with a fractious world not to give up on humanity and our last hope at averting environmental catastrophe. “I was thinking about dedicating that one to Greta Thunberg,” Keely says.
“When did you guys become such hippies?” I say, half-joking.
“We always were,” Keely deadpans.
True, Keely’s hair is much longer than when I last saw him, and it’s swept back into a pandemic-grayed ponytail that’s made him look more and more like the fifty years he’ll turn in the spring. Inside a cramped room that’s stuffed with racks of synthesizers and broken shards of guitars and violins pinned to the walls, relics of tours past, our conversation is soundtracked by the tinkle of wind chimes just outside the window. At one point Keely rolls a spliff and steps onto his balcony, where he bemoans the sorry state of his snake plant.
All that said, I don’t know if “hippie” is the right word to describe him. Keely is a studious, intensely focused type who, for the length of our entire two-hour interview, almost never stops sketching one of his intricately crosshatched ballpoint pen portraits, of the kind that adorns so many Trail of Dead albums. And the word definitely doesn’t apply to Reece, who turned fifty last summer but still brims with the barely coiled energy of an inveterate punk bruiser.
But most unhippie-like is their unabashed ambition. Go back and read any Trail of Dead interview conducted over the past twenty years, and you’ll inevitably find the group name-dropping Pink Floyd and the Beach Boys, or talking about their overarching desire to make a big, classic record like U2’s The Unforgettable Fire or Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet. In 2002, the band’s former bassist Neil Busch gave away the game, saying, “I don’t know if it sounds corny or not, but I really think we’re trying to create a new classic rock.”
That attitude was always a far cry from that of other bands who came up in the late nineties and early aughts, who at most wanted to be Fugazi or Gang of Four or Lou Reed. Back then, a lot of people probably thought Trail of Dead’s whole “classic rock” thing was a put-on, an attempt to gas up naive bloggers with a bit of sarcastic, clickbait pomposity. The idea of Trail of Dead as deadly serious studio musicians was hard to square with that of a group that famously ended its shows by smashing all of its instruments, leaving behind a bricolage of broken guitars and beer slicks. That band was going to make the next Pet Sounds?
Outgrowing that perception has proved to be a career-long onus for Trail of Dead. (As Reece once sang, in a line that now seems prophetic, “My life is haunted / By young devilry.”) Even now, Reece says, they’re still known as “the band that trashes everything.” Keely agrees: “I don’t think our reputation has always been that great. We’ve had kind of a bad rap.”
Sometimes that reputation has been justified. Like when Reece got Trail of Dead banned from the Austin City Limits Festival, after he went backstage during a fundraiser thrown by C3 Presents founder Charles Attal, then destroyed a guitar that had been autographed by Lance Armstrong and Sheryl Crow in an impromptu “sword fight.” (After the band’s manager wrote a formal apology letter, ACL agreed to book it anyway—although the agreement included a provision stating that if it broke any equipment, it would be swiftly and mercilessly sued.)
But while Trail of Dead is still known to trash its equipment after a show if the mood strikes, it’s also found that the lingering notoriety from its “total party monster” days has sometimes prevented the group from being allowed to evolve. For instance, Keely and Reece tell me, they’d love to get into movie scores. But they haven’t been offered the same opportunities as more, let’s say, PBS-friendly bands like Explosions in the Sky. “It’s annoying as f—,” Reece says. “We know we’re good enough to do that. We just haven’t had the right person come by.”
They did catch a break once, when HBO’s Game of Thrones came asking for an instrumental version of a track from 2005’s Worlds Apart. But then Universal claimed it couldn’t find the master recording. Only a decade later did the band—along with hundreds of other artists—learn that the studio had been covering up the fact that their masters had all been burned up in the devastating 2008 fire that had claimed so many others’ work. “You know . . .” Keely sighs. “What do you do about that?”
Among the many other things that remain out of Trail of Dead’s control, however, perhaps none loom larger over its present than the continued legacy of a single album: 2002’s Source Tags and Codes, the band’s breakthrough major-label debut. I can’t invent a better metaphor to illustrate this than what actually happened during my visit. While we’re talking about the new album, Reece receives a text from an old friend linking him to a just-published Stereogum retrospective on Source Tags, which celebrated its twentieth anniversary in February. Even in an interview about the future, it seems, they can’t escape their past.
To be a classic-rock band, of course, you need to have made at least one “classic” record. And to many fans and casual onlookers alike—and to Keely and Reece’s constant chagrin—Source Tags and Codes is that record. From almost the moment it debuted, it was burdened with just that kind of lofty expectation. Source Tags was the sole guitar-rock record to be released that year on Interscope; the band was the unlikely pet project of label head Jimmy Iovine, who’d happened on Trail of Dead in a magazine and brought it into the fold alongside Eminem, Dr. Dre, and Limp Bizkit. By that point, Trail of Dead had amassed a strong cult following, particularly in the British press, on the basis of its chaotic live shows. Critics had widely praised Madonna, its 1999 album for Merge, and the band had just begun to graduate from the punk-rock dregs of driving busted vans to half-empty clubs to hobnobbing with Bono. But with Source Tags and Codes, Trail of Dead went from being a revered underground buzz act to, somehow, the last great hope for rock and roll.
And then came that review—the 10.0 score awarded by the then-burgeoning tastemaker Pitchfork, in a zealous, declamatory swing for which the website almost immediately began apologizing. The idea that Trail of Dead had made a quote-unquote perfect album quickly became both the band’s claim to fame and its albatross. Everything Trail of Dead has released since Source Tags has found itself compared with that increasingly distant album, even as the band has worked diligently to diversify its sound. Both 2005’s Worlds Apart and 2006’s So Divided introduced shades of arena rock balladry and baroque chamber-pop to the band’s repertoire, beginning a shift toward greater nuance and sophistication that’s continued to this day. And while Keely and Reece say those are the two Trail of Dead records people revere everywhere but America, plenty of critics here dressed the band down for what they saw as overreaching. Pitchfork, overcorrecting for its inflated Source Tags assessment, was particularly harsh. “On Worlds Apart, they called me ‘the worst singer in rock music’ or something,” Keely shrugs. “But whatever.”
Once the band finally left Interscope in 2007—publicly breaking up in a hilarious, Keely-written blog screed that, among other things, called out Iovine for dating one of the Pussycat Dolls—Trail of Dead embarked on a hot streak of independently released albums that toyed even more with genre: 2011’s Tao of the Dead, 2012’s Lost Songs, 2014’s IX, and 2020’s X: The Godless Void and Other Stories all received good to great reviews. Still, almost every one of them ended up putting the band’s latest in the context of Source Tags, whether calling the new record a “notable departure from” or a return to form. Even as the band has grown leaps and bounds in musicianship, the shadow of its members’ twentysomething selves remains inescapable.
Would Trail of Dead have been better off if that Pitchfork review had never happened? Or if its rating had been slightly more tempered, better reflecting that Source Tags and Codes was merely a really great album of art punk inspired by Sonic Youth and Unwound—and not necessarily the flag-bearer for an entire floundering genre?
“Who knows?” Keely says. “I don’t think that line of thinking is something worth pursuing. It’s like, what if this had happened in World War II? It’s not a shadow. It’s just a legacy. And in some ways we have to embrace that legacy, not run from it, because we’re so proud of that work and what we did, and how much of our lives we sacrificed to dedicate to this band. So I would never say that I want to pretend that it never happened. But we should just be proud that we’re still together making music, you know?”
That a band as volatile as . . . And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead survived being swallowed and spit out by a major label during those final, feverish years of the indie-rock gold rush, then continued to crank out albums as contented middle-aged men, is nothing short of astonishing. Those years are littered with similar groups, like El Paso’s At the Drive-In, which also signed to a major, released a similarly, massively praised album, then fatally succumbed to the hype.
Granted, not everyone in that initial lineup of Trail of Dead made it through his own sudden celebrity unscathed: “It affected certain members of the band a lot, and we had to navigate through that storm,” Keely allows, alluding to the departures of Neil Busch in 2004 and, later, guitarist Kevin Allen. But that core idea of Trail of Dead endures, with Keely and Reece still making the kinds of records they want to hear—regardless of who else might be listening, and with zero deference to other people’s expectations.
That’s true even of my own. I was one of the many musicians and sundry hipsters who revolved around the band in Austin during the late nineties and early aughts; in fact, one of my first real gigs was in Reece’s synth-pop side project, A Roman Scandal. And as much as it embarrasses me to admit it now, back then, it was hard not to watch the band’s sudden ascent and expect its tide to lift all boats—to believe, for the umpteenth time, that Austin really was becoming the “new Seattle,” with Trail of Dead the Nirvana that would lead the way.
“That was not intentional,” Reece says when I tell him this. In fact, Reece says, he and Keely first moved to Austin from Olympia in the early nineties specifically to get away from that kind of scene piggybacking, which was already swarming the Pacific Northwest in Nirvana’s wake. “Coming to Austin, it was like, ‘Oh man, this is great. No one has any ambition here,’” Reece laughs.
And yet, particularly if you were another musician in Trail of Dead’s orbit, you couldn’t help but feel as though this was the beginning of something, as though the long-promised ideal of an “Austin scene” had finally started to coalesce. After all, Trail of Dead was the first band of our generation to really make it, in the old-fashioned sense. Sure, Spoon had played Letterman and landed a song on the soundtrack of The O.C., and Explosions in the Sky had earned some equally effusive critical acclaim. But only Trail of Dead had achieved the kind of fame where, in 2003, Pitchfork could run a gossip item, regurgitated in the local press, reporting that Keely had gotten engaged to the actress Juliette Lewis—and where I, who had never seen Keely with Juliette Lewis or any other celebrity, would actually believe it enough to congratulate him. (“I’ve never even met Juliette Lewis!” Keely scoffs now, just as he did back then.) At the very least, Trail of Dead had proved to us that it was possible to land a major record deal, get your videos on MTV, and be mentioned in the same breath as movie stars without leaving Austin, or ever missing eighties night at the Atomic Cafe.
But while I and others might have expected the band to become giant rock stars so we could bask in their reflected glory, the truth is, Trail of Dead never really cared about any of that. “We don’t want to be huge,” Reece told Pitchfork shortly after Source Tags came out. “We just want to maintain an existence of being a really good band—in a sea of s—. I think we just don’t want to get lost in the shuffle. The climate is about instant gratification.” And as Keely tells me now, “We were always more towards the idea of being Pink Floyd rather than Nirvana.” (See?) They have always been in it for the long game, wanting nothing more than to go on experimenting and innovating in search of that big, classic rock album they’ve been chasing forever.
Whether or not XI: Bleed Here Now is that record, at long last, seems almost immaterial. What matters is that it’s another Trail of Dead album, made by artists who have always been able to find their greatest joy in the doing—not the smashing. In many ways, XI: Bleed Here Now feels like a spiritual companion to Spoon’s recent Lucifer on the Sofa, a similarly reflective, contemplative record that found Britt Daniel suddenly donning a cowboy hat and name-dropping ZZ Top and Dale Watson in interviews. These are indie-rock upstarts turned lifers, guys who seem increasingly aware of their place in a much longer tradition of Texas music and at peace with who they are. (Maybe they are hippies.) Certainly Trail of Dead, like Spoon, is fortunate to have gotten just big enough, attaining enough fame and adulation to continue stretching themselves as artists, while also being allowed to play the game from a comparatively less stressful city like Austin, where you can pursue your craft unburdened by other people’s expectations. For instance, you could go and make a whole album in quadraphonic sound if you want to. This, in itself, seems like something to celebrate.