For much of last week, thousands of musicians, label personnel and journalists gathered in Austin, Texas, for South By Southwest, a convention showcasing the biggest and brightest new music acts. Austin's ... And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead weren't one of them, because the group was banned from the event after completely trashing the Red Eye Fly club at last year's festivities.
It wasn't just a case of guitarist Kevin Allen smashing his instrument Nirvana-style, which he frequently does. After their second song, the bass drum head broke, so the bandmembers tried replacing it with a tom-tom. That didn't work, however, and none of the other musicians on the bill would lend them another bass drum, so ... Trail of Dead decided to leave a trail of destruction. Not only did they smash all their gear to pieces while Conrad Keely half-attempted to keep singing, they threw shards of instruments out of the club and into the street and tore apart beer banners that hung throughout the venue. When the club's owners tried to interfere, the destructive frenzy only intensified.
"We didn't have any preconceived idea to go in and terrorize and destroy the place," said bassist/multi-instrumentalist Neil Busch. "It's just that everything went wrong, so we hit self-destruct and annihilated the club, ourselves, our bodies, everything."
"I like the fact that we can totally fall apart," added drummer/guitarist/bassist Jason Reece. "One minute we might be playing in tune and hitting every note right, but the next minute the guitar might be in pieces."
Source Tags & Codes, the band's third record and first for a major label, epitomizes such instability. The songs build and shift from ambient, droning atmospheres to volcanic punk rock, often sounding like they could splinter into shambles with the crash of a cymbal. Unlike those artists whose songs express complete ideas, ... Trail of Dead are more interested in the slivers of illumination between concrete thoughts. Their music is sprawling, evocative and a little ominous, evolving slowly and vividly in a way reminiscent to Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation.
"I hope people will look at this record as a whole piece, like a book or a movie, and they'll consume it at once instead of thinking it has to have a single that gets played on the radio," Reece said.
"I think of us as a band like Led Zeppelin who just toured constantly and weren't really accepted by radio or the press," Busch added. "But they garnered a fanbase and it just snowballed. They kept rolling down the hill gathering more snow until they were so huge they couldn't be ignored. I think you should just play music for the kids and keep doing it until there's so many kids you can't muffle their cries."
Like many dark records created in dark times, Source Tags & Codes references chaos, disaster and the apocalypse, but ... Trail of Dead insist their music is ultimately optimistic.
"I think cynicism is the worst destroyer of culture and ambition," Busch said. "Things happened in the '60s because everyone was really optimistic about changing the world with civil rights and other things, so a lot of great music came out of that time. Then we entered into a period of cynicism in the '80s and not so much happened, except in the underground scene like in D.C., which had bands like Minor Threat and Rites of Spring that were really optimistic about changing and doing everything themselves. So we're trying to stay optimistic in a chaotic time, and I think that's important because only when you believe you can change something can you actually do something."
Because of the emotional conviction in the band's music, some have labeled ... Trail of Dead "emo," aligning them with the likes of Dashboard Confessional, the Promise Ring and Saves the Day. Such comparisons can nearly trigger a mid-afternoon bout of destruction from Reece and Busch.
"We're about as emo as your mama!" Reece snapped. "Man, emo is such an old thing to us. It started in the '80s with bands like Rites of Spring and Embrace, so it seems like the term people are using is for a totally different kind of music. What they're calling emo is totally pop-oriented to me, whereas the emo of '88 was very emotional. It deserved the name emo because it was young, angry kids getting it out through blood and six strings."
"Now it seems these so-called emo groups are just white kids from upper-middle-class backgrounds singing about girl problems, and it's worthless to me," Busch added. "We all come from working-class backgrounds and we have more important things to sing about."
Even if ... Trail of Dead did identify with today's emo acts they'd be loathe to admit it, as their MO is to stand far outside of what's easily defined.
"Most everything that's considered rock right now and is in the mainstream just seems so pre-packaged and perfect," Reece explained. "It would be nice to know that people think of us as a band that's actual flesh and blood ... "
"... and sometimes we spill it all over the stage," said Busch.