…And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead
Every Gun Makes Its Own Tune…
…And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead Score a Solid X
“One of our last shows was in London, before everything went topsy-turvy,” says …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead co-frontman/drummer/guitarist Jason Reece, describing how the band’s tour for their latest album, X: The Godless Void and Other Stories, came to an abrupt end thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. “The general feeling in London was that something intense was going to happen.”
Reece says that the band were able to fly back to the United States mere days before the travel ban went into effect. While he’s grateful to be self-isolating at home in Austin, Texas, instead of being stranded overseas, now there’s a whole new worry about what this situation will do to the band’s long-term prospects, particularly when it comes to the U.S. tour dates that were postponed until the summer. (As of this writing, they are set to play The Masquerade on July 21).
“For us, we do this as a job. To survive, we have to tour,” Reece says. “So it’s definitely one of those things where you’re like, ‘Wow, what’s next? What can we do?’ We’re hoping for the best and definitely trying to do what we can and hope that we are going to be playing shows in July. It just seems so uncertain at the moment.”
Many musicians are in this difficult position now, but Reece says his band and crew know that they’re lucky they got in many tour dates before the shutdown happened, at least. “We got to see how the music translated live for the new album, so that was definitely a good thing.”
Even if they’ve been more fortunate than the bands that didn’t get to do any of their planned tour dates, this shutdown seems like an especially unfortunate setback for Trail of Dead, who were just now reemerging after a long break (their last studio album, IX, came out in 2014). When X: The Godless Void and Other Stories was released in January, it got favorable reviews from media and fans alike. “There seemed to be this real welcoming feel to us being back as a band,” Reece says, adding that this fan loyalty happens because “people know that when we make records, we put a lot of thought and care into them. We’re not going to put out a record that’s mediocre.”
In a strange way, Trail of Dead’s long break is apparently what enabled the band to stay together. “I feel like we had stepped back for a little while, just to put a reset button on a lot of internal things that were going on, just a lot of different things all compiled into making it not enjoyable to be part of music. So we did a self-imposed hiatus, but not really telling the world,” Reece says.
During this time off, co-frontman Conrad Keely (who, like Reece, alternates between vocals, guitar, and drums) moved to Cambodia. The band also used the time to reconfigure their management team. But by 2018, Reece says they felt revitalized and ready to get Trail of Dead underway again.
“Conrad moved back to Austin two years ago, and we were at a point where the creative process was becoming fruitful and more organic,” Reece says. “Making a record just felt right. We had something to say and we were going to make something that we believed in. It was a great opportunity to start again.
“With this new album, we started out completely from zero, from having nothing, and sitting around and making a bunch of noise for hours and hours and recording it and taking that as inspiration to actually write a song.” Reece laughs and adds, “I think we have hours of unreleasable jams that would be embarrassing for people to hear! But it’s a writing process.”
As the songs evolved, Reece says, “More and more, we realized that a lot of the album is about loss. It’s something that everybody can relate to. Everybody’s had some form of loss in their life.” As on all of their ten studio albums, these latest songs blend alternative rock with an epic, cinematic quality, which has become something of a signature sound for the band since they formed 25 years ago.
Reece and Keely met when they were growing up in Hawaii, but at that time, it certainly didn’t seem likely that they’d form a successful band one day. “We did meet in high school but we didn’t really play music together [then]. I had this period where I thought Conrad’s music, what he was writing at the time, was pretty shitty!” Reece says with a laugh.
Their home state was also a problematic place to start a music career, Reece says: “Hawaii is definitely beautiful. But the music in Hawaii is either super Top 40 pop or [a] reggae-Hawaiian sort of fusion. And you can’t just say, ‘We’re going to start a band, put out a records, and go on tour.’ You’d have to buy thousands of dollars of tickets to leave the island. There’s a lot of limitations in that sense. I didn’t want to be stuck on an island.”
After high school, Reece and Keely both moved to Olympia, Washington, though they still weren’t in synch musically – Reece played in hardcore bands, while Keely still favored prog rock. But one more location change finally put them on the right track to form Trail of Dead: “When we moved to Austin, we met more in the middle about what we wanted to do musically, and it made more sense,” Reece says. Their initial vision, he says, was that “We wanted to make Pink Floyd meets the Sex Pistols, My Bloody Valentine, Public Enemy, and Kate Bush.”
Reece says that those influences are not as disparate as they may seem at first. “All those groups have a lot in common because they make these albums that are all very thematic. They don’t just make one or two songs that are ‘stand alone.’ They have these conceptual ideas behind their albums. So I think that was what we were shooting for, the idea of making an album more of a bigger piece.”
They also picked one of the most startling band names in rock. Reece chuckles when asked about how, exactly, “…And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead” came to be their choice. “There’s people that have thought we were a black metal band. Or people hear that name and they’re like, ‘Whoa, that’s really dark!’ Or they think it’s too long. There’s so many different impressions that are made by that name.”
Throughout the years, they have offered various outlandish explanations for the name. When pressed for the truth, Reece says, “We were just thinking of spaghetti westerns, like [Sergio Leone’s 1966 film] The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Something a little more literary, like it could be the title of a book. We had some names floating around and that one made us laugh because it was so long. And we added ellipses in the beginning, to add more ridiculousness to it. We thought it was funny!”
Another unusual thing about the band, right from the start, were Reece and Keely’s interchangeable positions, where they often switch between singing and various instruments. “Our agreement was, whoever wrote the song, sings the song. So we’ve always had that idea that the roles are open for interpretation.”
Initially, Trail of Dead was a duo, and while Reece and Keely have firmly remained the core of the band, they finally have brought in other musicians to help them on records and tours, which Reece says has gone well. “All the people that are playing with us seem to add to the band. These last couple of tours, we feel like the new version of the band is actually really amazing. And so playing these new songs hasn’t been as challenging as I thought it would be.”
Reece says he looks forward to the day when the pandemic eases and they can get back out on the road. Until then, perhaps Trail of Dead’s music will give their fans a way, at least mentally, to escape this lockdown. “The reason that we started this band was to make records that we thought were going to be like road trips that you would take,” he says. “Each record would be like throwing it on in your car and you’re taking a road trip across America or wherever. To me, it has always been important that we make these stories.”
Photo by Krystal Morris.