And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead: When Smart People Turn Violent

And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead

And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead

… Or How They Learned To Both Create And Destroy

Conrad Keely is explaining with some enthusiasm how he just got one over on Apple Computers.

“I just smashed my iPod,” says the vocalist/guitarist for noise terrors And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead. “It didn’t work so I just punched it. And then I took it home and I whacked it.

“I went to the Apple store and they gave me a new one! I gave them this broken iPod. I lied. They said, ‘Where did this dent come from?’ I said, ‘This dent’s always been there. It just stopped working the other day.’ And they said, ‘I’ll see if we have any others in stock.’ ‘There you go.’ Brand new iPod.”

That a Trail Of Dead member — notorious as much for destroying their instruments in chaotic onstage rock orgies as they are for their actual music — would mortally wound an MP3 player is really no shock. What’s more difficult to grasp is how such gestures reflect against the content of the Trail’s fourth, and newest record, Worlds Apart.

On the album, moments of sheer savage guitar are spliced with classical waltzes, hollers of “Hey, fuck you, man!” are met with children laughing and thunderous drums filter in and out against cracked, slight vocals and outright screams. It’s the definitive snapshot of when liberal, educated, alternative art rock finds itself cornered in an alley and turns around and starts lashing out at everything in front of it as it hopes to find its way again. It’s wild, erratic and dangerous.

It’s also an angst that came easily for Keely. When recording the album he’d purposefully listen to an hour of contemporary rock radio (Staind, Saliva, Nickelback, etc) before heading into the studio each day.

“That was a lot of the inspiration for the song ‘December Of ’91’ because I was thinking, ‘God, y’know, these people haven’t progressed past Nirvana,'” Keely says, palpable contempt dripping in his voice. “They haven’t thought of the world without Nirvana. They just don’t seem to be able to conceive of anything beyond Kurt Cobain.

“And it just gave me this sense of disgust because Nirvana, when it came out, was such a revelation to me. In a sense that I thought… the message can change. And now 10 years later the only thing the people have gleaned from that lesson was that you have to sing in this stupid fucking accent with that annoying voice. And every song had to be about your own personal pain.”

Keely pauses for a split-second before continuing:

“And these are, like, white middle-class North Americans? And I’m like, ‘What the fuck are you complaining about?’ How dare you whine? How dare you waste our time whining about your pathetic life when the world is in such a horrible state and all you can think about is your misery. Just get a life.”

The Worlds Apart title was inspired by a reality TV show of the same name on the National Geographic Channel. In that show, American families are plopped into strange cultures around the world and filmed as unintended hilarity ensues. Think of it as a new spin on Rick Mercer’s Talking To Americans. It’s only when Keely explains how inspiring the TV show was to him that the whole worldview of Trail Of Dead starts to make any sense.

“It’s very powerful and one of the things you realize is just how clueless Americans are about the reality of what other people live through and stuff,” he says. “And after 9/11 and all that, all the hype that went along with 9/11 — and I don’t think you can call it anything less than hype — was that it seemed like nothing changed as far as American attitudes, as far as people on MTV. Y’know, and here are these people who are bombing this country because of their disgust for this society. Yet, you’ve got these bands on MTV who are still flaunting their wealth, flaunting their materialism. And you’re thinking, ‘These are our musicians. These are the people who are supposed to be a little bit enlightened.’ Our artists.

“And it just filled me with disgust that that was the way that they’d represent these things,” he says. “And you wonder why the rest of the world hates us? It’s probably as much because of them as it is of George Bush.”

This scathing rebuke is most musically reflected in the album’s title track. Laced with images of the twin towers burning as television screens flash-flicker MTV in the background, what the Trail Of Dead seem to be worrying about is what the hell should they actually be doing in all this mess? Should the artist protest or profit? Or does it even really matter at all in the end? Keely’s still wrestling with those questions.

“I guess I was just thinking about whether it’s human nature to ruin everything or destroy?” he says. “I think that’s something that people have been philosophically contemplating for years. Is war part of human nature? Is murder and death as much a part of human nature as creating art, as creating beauty is?”

Then, recalling the little white jukebox he so recently mangled, he finds some simple clarity.

“Apparently we do both.”

This story was originally published in Chart Magazine’s Feb. 2005 issue, #163.

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