Keeping a band alive for 10 years in an industry as skittish, fickle and trend-thirsty as the music biz is an act of heroism.
Maintaining the same project 20 years is downright legendary.
Doing it for 25 years — all the while honing a sound that harnesses the opposing forces of prog and punk (and under a moniker that features an ellipses and 10 words)? That’s straight up crazy.
Yet somehow, Conrad Keely knew that when he and longtime bandmate Jason Reece started …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead back in 1995, they would still be playing music together, some two and a half decades later.
“We always thought we were going to be musicians for life,” Keely says. “Whether that meant being two old dudes playing in front of a few people at a bar or being part of a successful band, we didn’t know. We just figured that this is what we would be doing, in one form or another.”
This was supposed to be a year filled with milestones for Trail of Dead. Along with celebrating a quarter-century of existence, the group released its 10th album, X: The Godless Void and Other Stories (maintaining their penchant for ridiculously over-the-top titles.) Trail of Dead had ambitious ideas to tour both Europe and America in 2020 in support of the album, but like everything else in the world, those plans are on hold indefinitely due to the pandemic.
Instead, Keely and Reece are ensconced in their hometown of Austin, Texas, working to entertain their fans from afar through a series of livestream shows, which will benefit the pairs favorite clubs and independent record stores around the country.
The first of those shows will take place at 6 p.m. on Friday, July 31. Among the beneficiaries: San Francisco’s legendary Bottom of the Hill (the best place to see live music in the world, in this writer’s opinion.) The show will be broadcast from the Safehouse in Austin, a venue that specializes in virtual performances. Tickets for the show are available at trailofdead.com/livestream, and 20 percent of the proceeds will go to the select music clubs.
The band has another show scheduled for August 7 at Safehouse aimed at European audiences, before closing the three-week stint with an August 14 gig from the Mosaic Sound Collective, a studio in Austin where the group recorded their latest album. Portions from that final show will benefit all 34 of the record shops in the Coalition of Independent Music Stores and all gigs can be viewed on the Trail of Dead livestream page.
“I think we are nervous about the future of some of these clubs and record stores, and just want to do our small part to help out,” said Keely.
Keely said the band — which now features Alec Padron on bass, Ben Redman on guitar and drums and AJ Vincent on keyboards — is still figuring out the kinks of playing a safe, socially-distanced performance. Even though Mosaic offers plenty of room for the gig on August 14, Vincent will be manning the keys from outside the studio, just to be extra cautious.
“It’s definitely going to be interesting, but we are all really looking forward to these shows,” Keely says. “I think sometimes when you’re playing in front of a crowd, you feed off their energy, and you’re so focused on firing them up. In this case, we can concentrate almost entirely on playing, and just making each song sound really good.”
Keely says the band will perform a unique collection of rarities and favorites from their 25-year career, with no repeat performances and some tunes being played for the first time in decades. Fans of the band will be treated to the group’s trademark beguiling blend of sounds, which range from multi-suite operatic anthems to visceral bursts of raw energy.
Keely, the main songwriter in the group, said he grew up listening to various prog-rock artists and ambitious ’70s bands like Pink Floyd, while later being drawn to the rebellious, anti-establishment screeds being voiced by punk musicians. The result is a band that has somehow managed to thread the needle between brevity and bombast.
Through it all, Trail of Dead has also managed to nail down an uncanny knack for pop accessibility. No one would ever mistake these guys for Shawn Mendes (he’s someone, right?) or Ed Sheeran — not with Keely frequently pushing the vocal range to laryngitis-inducing levels — but there are memorable hooks and melodies in just about every Trail of Dead song.
“I have a deep love for pop music, whether it is Elton John or the Beatles or even someone like Barry Manilow,” Keely says. “I always said that I write songs to sound like pop music, but only if I had a choice to say what should be on the radio.”
Whether it will be songs from the latest album — a relatively subdued record filled with themes of farewell, resignation, and acceptance inspired by Keely’s recent departure from a six-year stint in Cambodia — or from the band’s hallowed discography, the livestreaming shows are certain to be memorable. And Keely said the fact that it will help support a venue like Bottom of the Hill is incredibly meaningful to him and Reece.
“We played our first show ever in San Francisco at Bottom of the Hill, and we played our most recent SF show there as well,” Keely says. “It’s a very special place and we have so many amazing memories from there.”
It’s no surprise that Keely has an outsized source of fond memories about Bottom of the Hill — those tend to accumulate when you’ve been in one band for your entire adult life. And even with 25 years under his belt, he has no plans to slow down. While the pandemic has ruined the band’s touring schedule, Keely has taken advantage of that unexpected downtime to write songs for Trail of Dead’s 11th album.
“One of the obvious keys to our longevity is that Jason and I have a real love and respect for one another,” Keely says. “I mean, we enjoy the same kind of music, which helps. But we could never be one of those bands that sticks around, even though the members all hate each other.”
When live music returns, the landscape will surely look vastly different — whether it be new revenue models, social-distant settings or mandatory health screenings. But whenever this strange new world emerges, one thing will be certain?…And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead will be a part of it, just like they have been for the past 25 years
.…And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead, Friday, July 31, 6 p.m., Friday, August 7, 1 p.m., Friday August 14, 6 p.m. $5 – $9. trailofdead.com/livestream