The Austin-ish band ... And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead’s newest album, "X: The Godless Void and Other Stories" (Dine Alone), is their first in five and a half years. It’s also their catchiest and most tuneful in forever, an obvious highlight of their now-25-year career.
And one says "Austin-ish" because while the band started in Austin and flourished in Austin and is associated with a certain time and place in Austin, Trail founders Conrad Keely and Jason Reece have been very good, over the years, at staying out of each other’s way.
Reece has been an Austin fixture for decades; Keely, not so much. Perhaps that is why they are still a creative entity.
The two moved to Austin from Olympia, Wash., (then an underground rock capital where they both played in bands far less famous than their scene peers) in 1994 and started the band the next year, playing shows as a chaotic duo.
"We played this cafe that no longer exists called Cafe Solaire, next to the Paramount Theatre on Congress," Keely says. "Our second show was the Blue Flamingo, and then maybe the third show was, like, Hole in the Wall or something."
"We were making our way to Emo's, block by block," Reece says.
Soon, they pulled in guitarist Kevin Allen and bass player Neil Busch.
Related: 16 years later: Austin’s ... Trail of Dead on that defining record
After two independent albums in the late 1990s, a debut for the Austin label Trance Syndicate and the other the decade-end classic "Madonna (Merge, 1999), the band made three albums for Interscope.
While the 2002 record "Source Tags and Codes" was a critical and (comparative) commercial hit (got a 10.0 on Pitchfork and everything), the follow-up "Worlds Apart" (that one got a 4.0) and "So Divided" didn’t fare as well, even as a handful of those songs became live staples.
"Being on a major for us meant, ‘Take the money and run,’" Keely says. "Just get what you can out of a budget and just do whatever you can with it."
Their major label stint ended in 2006, around the same time Keely moved to New York. Reece kept busy as a part owner of the Beauty Bar when that was around and played with various outfits here and there.
No longer a full-time prospect in the way that a young band making the scene can be, Trail continued with only Reece and Keely as constant members. Bush departed in 2004, while Allen stayed until 2009. Sidemen have rotated in and out ever since.
Trail of Dead kept playing shows and making albums for smaller labels — "The Century of Self" (Justice Records, 2009) and "Tao of the Dead" (Superball Records, 2011) — but their social lives remained separate.
In late 2011, Keely headed for Cambodia and Trail of Dead became a REALLY long distance concern. "Lost Songs" arrived in 2012 and "IX" in 2014, both for Superball Records.
By 2015, they wrapped up their 20th-anniversary tour, and then … almost nothing. The band played all of four shows in the next two years.
Keely made a solo album in 2016 and quietly returned to Austin in 2017.
This, perhaps, is how you stay creative for a good 25 years: nice, big chunks of leaving each other alone.
The punchline, of course, is that it took about two years to make "X: The Godless Void." Though it’s not like they were working the whole time.
"We had breaks in between (time writing and recording)," Reece says. "We were doing little tours and stuff. It wasn't like just sitting there two years in one spot."
"We knew that it would take some time to come up with the new material," Keely says. "I moved back to Austin and we didn't have a deadline, so we just kind of kept working on it and working on it until we felt it was ready."
Writing and recording "X: The Godless Void," the founders stripped the band to its core.
"We had a few guests here and there, but it was mainly me, Jason, and (producer) Charles Godfrey working on the record," Keely says.
"We met Charles at Sonic Ranch, this crazy oasis of studios in the middle of desert in Tornillo, when we were working on ‘IX,’" Reece says.
Speaking of "IX," Keely describes the process for that as "very intense," the opposite of how "X: The Godless Void" was made.
"We always have these challenges that we set up for ourselves before a record," he says. "For (‘Lost Songs’), we were like, ‘OK, we're going to record this in Germany.’ And then the next record, ‘IX,’ we said, ‘OK, we're not going to write any of these songs before we come to start recording the record. We're just going to get there and we're going to write these songs.’
"There was a lot of hubris in retrospect, I noticed, but it worked and it came out. And so I think the challenge with us this time was like, ’We're not going to have any deadline. We're just going to keep working and working on the album until it's done.’"
A few of the songs started in Cambodia, but most of "X: The Godless Void" was worked up in the studio. "We spent a couple of months just jamming on ideas," Reece says, "and didn’t use any of them. We are not, in fact, a jam band."
As the album progressed, the band played some 20th anniversary of "Madonna" shows; you can hear that album’s big-hooks-played-heavy style in "Godless" tunes such as "All Who Wander" (which sounds a bit like the world’s noisiest Oasis song) and the thunderous title track. They had played a few whole-album shows for "Source Tags and Codes" as well.
"When we played those albums," Keely says, "it actually got me thinking about how we used to write and how we used to approach music, so the new one was probably influenced by that as well."
Trail has also released records from every conceivable angle: on an indie label with ties to well-known bands (Trance Syndicate was started by the Butthole Surfers’ King Coffey, Merge by two folks in Superchunk), an actual major (Interscope) and indie labels without a particularly hip focus (Superball, Dine Alone, Century Media).
"In the past, we would allow either the manager or the producer to dictate how to spend our recording budgets," Keely says. "Then we got to a point where we're just like, ‘No, we're in charge and we're going to say how it gets spent.’"
As for their live incarnation, they are going out as a quintet for the first time, including bassist, second guitarist/drummer and keyboards.
Will there be chaos? Maybe: Trail of Dead was once known for instrument destruction, on-stage catharsis. Now? Well, everyone is a little older, including the fanbase.
"The audiences are not like they used to be back in the day," Keely says. "I don't know what it is about media these days, but audience numbers have shrunk, and it becomes harder to tour. Kids just stay home on their iPads or whatever."
As the skyline can tell you, Austin is not quite the same place it was 25 years ago.
"In Austin," Reece says, "shows are either, it's real packed, or it's just a handful of people. One or the other. And it used to be where you go to Emo's in the '90s and it would be packed every night, or at least there'd be a good amount of people. Austin changes. It ebbs and flows. It could change tomorrow, so it's not something that I'm holding onto or anything."
Keely chimes in: "It's scheduled to change tomorrow, they say."