I first encountered ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead about 12 years ago when the Austin, Texas, band played Matt Pinfield's excellent but sadly short-lived television show 'Farm Club.' The band had just released their second album, 'Madonna,' but they played 'Richter Scale Madness' (video at bottom) from their eponymous debut album.
After a gonzo performance, things got even more gonzo as the band members took it upon themselves to completely trash the stage. Guitars were smashed and thrown into the air, and the drum kit was destroyed against a sonic backdrop of nasty noise and pummeling fuzz. It was violent and beautiful at the same damn time, and the scene has been stuck in my head ever since.
Trail Of Dead is back this week with their eighth studio album, 'Lost Songs,' co-released by Superball Records and the band's Richter Scale imprint. Although they might never surpass 2002's 'Source Tags & Codes' -- one of the best rock albums ever made -- Trail Of Dead still lives up to its name. 'Lost Songs' is a hard-hitting, ambitious album that shows the band reflecting on the complicated relationship between politics and music -- the subject of my conversation with Trail Of Dead's drummer Jason Reece.
I've been listening to Trail Of Dead since 2000's 'Madonna' album, and the music's always had a strong political sentiment, I think. But the politics feel much more urgent, and prioritized, on the new album.
Jason Reece: I think the main reason is just that it's something we've been really surrounded by for the past year or so. We were looking at all these events happening -- everything from Pussy Riot being sent to jail, to the Syrian conflict, to globalization -- and for us to not comment on those things would've meant we weren't living up to our duty.
As artists, we have a duty to write about what's going on; I think it's irresponsible not to do that. And it seems like everybody else is writing about their bling and getting it on, and we're going the opposite route. We don't sing about that stuff much. We don't have any sex-you-up songs. We have some nihilistic, fucked-up songs, but no bling tracks.
"We just want people to think outside of their world, and realize there's a lot going on. There's a lot more happening than this American suburban nightmare."
The record is, in part, dedicated to and inspired by Pussy Riot. As a musician, how does it make you feel to know that fellow musicians are going to jail for making music?
It's absurd. We were really blown away by it all. What they were doing is just so non-offensive, at least in America, where you could get away with what they did. Maybe you'd go to jail for the day or pay a fine for trespassing, but most people just wouldn't care. Their whole attitude has been amazing. The band started up to protest against Putin, and that protest is still happening now.
This idea of political music has always attracted me. In the '90s, there were more socially and politically charged bands, which isn't to say there wasn't a lot of shitty music, too. But I'm thinking of bands like Fugazi, and Public Enemy, and the whole Riot Grrrl scene. I grew up listening to punk rock, like Black Flag and Dead Kennedys, and lots of politically conscious hip-hop. Those bands shaped how I feel about how a musician should express themselves, and how mixing politics and music is not a futile thing.
When I see what Pussy Riot is doing, I realize that it's still possible for music to have an impact, and can change the way people feel about the world. The point of our record is a reflection on this.
We're not shoving our political agenda down anyone's throat. We just want people to think outside of their world, and realize there's a lot going on. There's a lot more happening than this American suburban nightmare.
What do you think happened to the political energy that American indie music once had?
I don't know. Maybe it's because everything is so accessible now. It's almost too easy now, and you don't have to really struggle to find or make music. We have the luxury now of just buying an iPad and buying every app known to mankind, and downloading any song we want. There's no struggle.
When I was a kid, we had to really dig deep to find music, by digging around for hours at a record store or something. And now anybody can put their music up on the Internet, and there's a real over-saturation of music.
It's a typical thing for these rich kids growing up in the suburbs to go to college and start a band that's just some sort of middle-class, white boy band. I could never relate to that. I was never a rich kid, and I never had things handed to me. I've always had to struggle, and that's how it was when this band started. We had to really struggle to get an album out.
"I don't want to be some elitist that excludes people for their beliefs, but I do hope that when people listen to our music they're searching and questing for some sort of truth. That's the ultimate goal."
Are there any new bands that you think are still making meaningful political music today?
Yeah, like Death Grips and OFF! and Fucked Up. There are a lot. In a strange way, I think Die Antwoord falls into this category, too. They can be wildly offensive, but they're political in the way that they show this other side of the world, and explore their own culture.
Their new video is just totally taking the piss out of Lady Gaga, and they're showing the streets of South Africa and saying "This is where we're coming from, and we're fucking broke." Ninja's a very intelligent dude. I've read about all their art projects since the beginning, and I became really obsessed with Die Antwoord for a while.
And I really love Death Grips. We were listening to their album 'The Money Store' a lot while we were making 'Lost Songs.' It reminded me how rap music used to be really dangerous and arty and political.
I don't even know if Death Grips is a political band necessarily, but what they're throwing out there is really intense. They're like the Sex Pistols right now or something. They probably won't really change the musical terrain, but there's a rock 'n' roll swindle moment happening with them.
When Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine heard about Paul Ryan, the Republican vice presidential candidate, liking the band, he basically came out and called Ryan an idiot. Would you do the same with one of your fans if they disagreed with your political views?
I think Morello was being a little harsh. I'm sure we have fans that don't share our politics, but I think there's something in the music that draws people together. I don't want to be some elitist that excludes people for their beliefs, but I do hope that when people listen to our music they're searching and questing for some sort of truth. That's the ultimate goal -- to not be complacent, but to broaden your horizons and find the answers to the complex questions of our world.
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