…And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead: “Bells of Creation”[audio:http://alarm-magazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/Trail-of-Dead-Bells-of-Creation.mp3|titles=And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead: “Bells of Creation”]
It’s the day prior to Conrad Keely’s art-show opening, and the frontman of …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead is talking art. Melissa Auf der Maur’s photos will have one side of the Lower East Side gallery, he tells me, and he will have the other. The intensely intricate blue-ballpoint drawings he’s showing are cover-art candidates for his band’s upcoming album [later revealed to be Century of Self], which he claims is still a mystery even though the record’s final edits took place weeks ago.
“Are you just messing with people now? Do you have a name for the album and you’re just being secretive and seductive?” I challenge, knowing how Keely and longtime bandmate Jason Reece like to fuck with people. Like the time that they told interviewers that they knew each other as choirboys? False. Both Reece’s father and Keely’s stepfather were church ministers, but choirboys they weren’t. Or like the time that they claimed that their band’s name came from an ancient Mayan chant? Also fabricated.
The same likely goes for the dubious tales Keely tells me that all of the instrumental breaks on the band’s 2002 album, Source Tags and Codes, came from a form of dream therapy he’s been implementing. “The guitar chimes in ‘Another Morning Stoner,’ the melodic line in ‘How Near How Far,’ those were usually the blank parts where it cracked us,” Keely says, adding that he often sleeps with his guitar next to him when this happens and taps the notes in a half-awake state. I’m mulling that one over, because, let’s face it, Keely’s self-acknowledged eccentricity works both ways: one minute he’s scholarly and esoteric, the next his responses border on impish.
Yet on the phone from Manhattan, where he now lives, the former Austinite seems full of long pauses and thoughtful soliloquies that verge on the beatific, particularly when discussing all theories related to the new album and how spirituality plays a role in it. He is reticent to talk about this aspect, he says, because he and Reece are often mistaken for espousing Christian values, but the themes in their music have more to do with theological interests and how that ties into music scholarship.
“I’ve always been interested in the Pythagorean view of music being vaguely spiritual — not just strictly in a religious sense, but also in a geometric sense,” Keely says after a long pause, adding, “there’s some strange way that music applies to geometry — I guess the Greeks called it sacred geometry — so much that when you study music, you realize that you’re actually studying universal law.”
He ruminates on this theory before continuing, “It’s the concept that if music works like that on this planet — in the ways that the geometric ratios of music are related to one another — then you would assume that music works like that on other planets as well. So it makes me leap to the idea: What does alien music sound like? It probably is diatonic. They’ve probably discovered all of the different developments of music in the same way that we have. The idea that music is this universal, grand thing makes you beg the question: Well, what does heavenly music sound like?”
A self-described sci-fi geek, avid PBS watcher, and lifetime student of music, art, and history — he’s particularly keen on religions and wars — Keely comes across like the man who fell to Earth, a lad who knows too much for his own good. The new album, for instance, is not just about advanced principles of abstract music theory and childhood memories, but about detachment from the ego, a theme with which the 36-year-old has been lately wrestling, though he doesn’t phrase it that way.
“There’s some strange way that music applies to geometry — I guess the Greeks called it sacred geometry — so much that when you study music, you realize that you’re actually studying universal law.”
“The idea of the inland sea is one I originally meant as a metaphor for the subconscious,” Keely says, referring to a track both on the upcoming album and on the Festival Thyme EP that the band released in October 2008.
“The idea of that song was meant to be about leaving meditation. My parents used to take me to a New Age church — this was back before they coined the term ‘New Age’; this is like 1977 — where they did a rainbow bridge meditation. And always at the end of the meditation, you’d put your palms on your eyes, and then you’d rub them together, and place them over your eyes, so waking from a deep meditative state would be the theme there.”
On the upcoming album, images of the sea collide with songs about childhood memories growing up in Hawaii. And though the oceanic themes will be familiar to Trail of Dead fans, the point of view may not be. This album, Keely explains, feels more detached, though its focus is clearly more intimate.
“It’s not so worldly as some of the other things that I’ve written,” he says. “It’s more about trying to look at life from within. There’s definitely evolution there in that sense. And I’m sure that has to do with age.”
Lyrics like the ones in “Bells of Creation,” where Keely sings, “I was standing in the midst of the great company / Listening to the voices in ecstasy / And I watched as all creation was sang into being / It kept changing / It was changing,” point to an artist not as intent on taking over the music world, as the So Divided Keely professed on the group’s 2006 album, but more focused on taking over his own impulses and reconnecting with a more nuanced sense of creativity, beginning from his earliest memories.
“There are a lot of images from childhood, and they’re expressed pretty blatantly in the lyrics,” Keely says.
“There’s one song called ‘Pictures of an Only Child’ that is about me looking through my photo album. Each line is describing certain pictures: there’s me standing with Eric, who is my step-dad, and my mom outside of Taj Mahal, and there’s a picture of my dad, and I’m wearing a Mickey Mouse hat at Disneyland. So one of the themes that we were working with was our childhood. There was one where Jason and I collaborated on his song ‘Descending,’ because that was really about our teenhood in Hawaii growing up on this island, and this sense of being — not in prison — but definitely stuck. You can’t get off the island. I can’t describe it — unless you’ve grown up on an island — what that feels like. For angsty teens, you want to get out and try to escape the boundaries of your environment, so that was another theme.”
One of the ways that Keely got off the island was through his songs and stories. From the age of 15, he shyly tells me, he’s been working on an evolving sci-fi story (located on a fictional planet that he’s named Cyfus) that he hopes to one day use in his songs. “In this paradigm that I’ve created, there is a small galaxy and a globular cluster that has a universal community that is interactive,” Keely says.
And as he continues to detail the story, the extended metaphor that he uses to describe the planet is eerily similar to a portrait of the artist, himself, though he doesn’t encourage such simplistic deductions. “I guess the one thing that I can describe it to,” Keely continues, “is Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where there is a galactic alien community, but it’s not necessarily a utopian one. It’s one fraught with all the problems and the issues of our planetary community. It’s one that’s still struggling to figure things out — the big questions and the issues of power — but now it’s doing it on a massive scale, a massive space-opera scale.”
Ultimately, he says, the story is a love story that Keely will continue to work on in some way or another, whether or not he uses it in his songwriting. Elements of the story already appear in his drawings, and the self-professed sci-fi buff says that he’s always thinking about the time when aliens will land and how they will perceive Earth.
“Will they see a happy unified globe or a bunch of warring nations?” Keely asks. “I always think in those terms.” Playing devil’s advocate once again, I tell him that it will be exactly like the Time Machine’s Eloi and Morlock struggle, a dark future riddled with the problems of the haves and have-nots. But Keely, keeping with his new artistic approach, is surprisingly optimistic in his response.
“I see the potential for a very dark future,” he says. “I just know that there’s one that I want to work towards. It’s important to know the future that you want to happen and work towards that — to fight that good fight, to fight the potential of a dark future.”
Another long pause follows before Keely adds, “I do believe in an ultimate destiny — not just mankind, because that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom — a great destiny for the experiment of life. Whatever created life, whatever engineered it to work the way that it does — so beautifully complex and simple at the same time — had an idea for it, had a goal for it to reach. I believe in that. And if we, as a human species, are part of that, then I do think that there is an ultimate destiny for it.”