…And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead got its start in Austin in the mid-’90s as a duo: Conrad Keely and Jason Reece both played guitar and drums and would switch back and forth as they unveiled their idiosyncratic original songs, which ranged from post-punk personal tunes to more abstract ramblings. Remembers Chris “Frenchie” Smith, who wound up co-producing both Trail of Dead’s 1998 eponymous debut album and their newest, Tao of the Dead, “I was playing full-time in a local band called Sixteen Deluxe, and my main competition of cool in town was this little upstart band; these two guys. I loved them! Their psychoses were audible,” he laughs.
By the time Smith went into Chris Cline’s Stardog Studios in Austin to record Trail of Dead for Trance Syndicate (a local label founded by Butthole Surfers drummer King Coffey), they’d become a quartet and developed a slightly more conventional approach to their music. That album earned the group a substantial underground following, and beginning with their next outing, Madonna, they established a long working relationship with producer/engineer Mike McCarthy (who had also helped out on the first disc).
Over the course of several ambitious albums, Trail of Dead became purveyors of a dense, layered, eclectic brand of rock ’n’ roll that had punk, hard rock and even British prog-rock antecedents. They did not shy away from complex, even theatrical, production ideas involving walls of guitars and vocals, deep reverbs, and anything that suited the song, from horns to strings. Trail of Dead was never really a “hit” band, but they accrued a fanatical following in parts of the U.S. and Europe for their sophisticated, but still rockin’ sound, and lyrics that encompassed social and personal issues in fascinating ways. Some of Tao of the Dead is also tied loosely into a comic book created by Keely (who also designs the group’s album covers).
During the making of 2009’s The Century of Self, the group split from McCarthy, whose style of provoking the band and, in Reece’s words, “pushing our buttons” had grown wearying after so many years together, and they finished the album with Chris Coaty (TV on the Radio) and their old Austin buddy Frenchie Smith, who hadn’t worked with the band in about ten years. When it came time to make Tao of the Dead, Keely, Reece, and relatively recent additions Aaron Ford (drums, mostly) and Autry Fulbright (bass) started out by recording an epic, multi-part composition called “The Ship Impossible” with Coaty at a rural studio near Woodstock, NY. Then they went back to Austin with a plan for the rest of the album, in which all the songs would connect with short musical interludes in the manner of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, or works by the likes of Genesis, Yes, and King Crimson. They spent a week rehearsing in Frenchie Smith’s Austin studio, known as The Bubble, then ten days recording most of the album at a studio outside of El Paso called Sonic Ranch. “That’s one of the best studios I’ve worked at,” Smith says. “It’s a giant recording space with a mega Neve 8078 console and everything you could want in terms of outboard and other equipment.” More guitar and vocal overdubs came later back at The Bubble. At both studios, Jason Buntz was the primary engineer.
“We don’t usually work up demos, but this time we did,” says Keely from Brooklyn, where he’s lived for the past four years. “It was actually the first time we made a pretty clear roadmap, and it helped because we knew the time was limited. What we were trying to go for with this album was to be more stripped-down than our previous records. We weren’t going to do as much layering. We wanted the songs to have what they needed to get the idea across, but to not go overboard.”
This isn’t to say this is a simple album, by any means. There are still stacks of acoustic and electric guitars, vocals, and interesting sonic touches throughout, including the transitional material, much of which is dominated by old and new synths, particularly a Moog Voyager and Alesis Andromeda A6. Keely used just a few guitars, such as a Fender Jazzmaster, a Gretsch Country Classic, and what Smith calls “a kick-ass Mexican Fender Jaguar,” usually through an Orange Tiny Terror amp head and a Fender Twin. Reece, who played more lead guitar on this album than previously, admits he was enthralled by multiple guitars, amps, and pedals—“Oh, I tried a lot of them,” he says with a chuckle. “I was experimenting with this crazy Italian amp from the late ’50s or early ’60s; I don’t even know what it was. But it sounded amazing until it would get too hot and shut down!” Reece also used a Marshall Bluesbreaker and a Vox AC30, in keeping with Smith’s and the band’s preference for British sonics.
Keely credits Smith with making the album such a pleasure to make. “We were used to taking up to nine months to make an album, but we went in and banged this one out and it was also painless,” he says. “Frenchie was such a positive force. Whenever things got difficult, he was always there to be our life coach and get the mood back up.”
For his part, Smith calls Trail of the Dead “the greatest band in the world” and he couldn’t be more delighted to be back working with the band: “I hope I get to work with them on every album they ever make!”
Tao of the Dead was mixed in Pro Tools at The Bubble, utilizing Neve 8816 summing mixers. Smith notes, “I had a few of those upstairs with my RADAR rig and we were tracking to stereo sums of whatever the most updated rough mix of the Pro Tools sessions we had were.” Adds Reece, “The Bubble turned into this crazy dual-studio situation, where someone might be working on guitar and vocal overdubs upstairs while Jason [Buntz] was mixing a song downstairs.”
“It’s amazing how well it all fell together,” Keely concludes. “We wanted to make something that was different for us but still showed our roots in classic rock and also really sounded like a band. And this way of working let us do that.”