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16 years later: Austin's … Trail of Dead on that defining record

Chad Swiatecki/For American-Statesman

Released in 2002 on Interscope Records to immediate and overwhelming critical acclaim, “Source Tags & Codes” became the defining album for Austin art punks …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead before anyone in the band could really process what was happening to them.

Austin band …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead performs June 1 at Beerland. Katherine Fan for American-Statesman

Marked by constantly shifting soundscapes – languid and introspective one moment, aggressive and violently loud the next – it was an album that embraced a feeling of ambition and reach, and succeeded. It’s a record that felt capital-I important right from the drop. Although it hasn’t exactly overshadowed the rest of the band’s quality recorded output in the 16 years since, it’s the creative work they’ll be most quickly associated with for however long they remain an active unit.

Prepping for a string of international tour dates that start next week, the band called upon friends booking Beerland to throw a quickie tour prep show on Friday and used the occasion to perform their defining album in its entirety.

It’s an occasion that could have felt overly serious and grandiose, but with a mix of between-song levity from founding members Conrad Keely and Jason Reece throughout the night – lots of “Thanks for coming to our first show,” and “Here’s a new one”-type jokes – it instead felt like a celebration of a very specific time in Austin music.

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The live presentation of the album’s 10 core songs – interstitial “connective tissue” passages don’t translate live – reinforced how sturdy and well-composed a piece of work it is. This reviewer has long felt that the opening in leadoff track “It Was There That I Saw You” – a slowly building guitar figure interrupted by a single gigantic bass note, followed by an immediate cyclone of distorted guitars and thunderous drums – is pretty much the band’s best base components captured in just 20 seconds.

That was born out on Friday, with band friend and longtime Austin music compatriot Aaron Blount filling in on second guitar and fitting in seamlessly. More aggressive songs like “Homage” and “Days Of Being Wild” galloped even faster and louder than on record, but the restraint and tension of tracks like “Baudelaire” and “Heart In The Hand Of The Matter” were also on display throughout the nearly hour-long set.

In all it was verification that … Trail Of Dead circa 2018 is comfortable with their master work and more than capable of keeping the material fresh and vital for listeners old and new.

After the performance Reece and Keely sat down to talk about the album’s legacy and inspiration, and where they’re headed.

Austin360: How does it feel to kind of live in those songs 16 years after the record was released?

Jason Reece: For us it’s like going back in time. At the time we were very ambitious and thinking bigger picture. Not in a mainstream way, but we wanted to make an impression with an album that would go in a direction almost like what Public Enemy did with “Fear Of A Black Planet” or Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side Of The Moon.” The mentality was “Let’s make an album that is connected.” Tonight was weird because we didn’t have the segues between songs that were the connective tissue for the album that link everything together conceptually, like albums did often in the ’70s.

Revisiting the album this week, it struck how cinematic it felt, creating these vivid scenes and landscapes lyrically and with the music. Is that what you were trying for?

Reece: Of course. For us film is very important. Everybody in the band at that time was super into movies. The guitar player, Kevin Allen, worked at a video store before we got the “big money” from Interscope. Neil Busch was turning me onto these movies by (Rainer) Werner Fassbinder and we were weird arty punk rockers who were into film. Film was our common language and where we flourished. Lots of the songs were written off of inspiration from film and paintings.

The lyrics are absent any proper nouns or specific people and situations. Were you trying to make things more general and open?

Reece: We were trying to be egalitarian. At the same time we were in the Austin scene looked at as kind of a bunch of (expletive). At that time there was the Stevie Ray Vaughan blues rock, then a bunch of noisy experimental music, and then you had us and we were friends with lots of arty college students along with crusty punks. We didn’t fit in any of that stuff at the time. We were too arty for the punks, and too punk for the art people.

Conrad Keely: We played the “Source Tags” material for the first time at a house party opening for (blues punks) the Crack Pipes. We were still writing the songs at that point.

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When the record came out it had such a huge reception. Was there pressure from that?

Keely: The kiss of death. There was never outside pressure because we always demanded more of ourselves. We wanted to make it ambitious. Sometimes when you do that you fall on your face, but that was the only pressure we felt. When we were writing it we were part of the rock scene here but I personally was part of the rave scene, before they passed the law that closed all the parties. I would go to raves because no one I knew would be there. I had my secret place with rave friends. That’s what I was into, with lots of house music. There’s actually references to that in the album. “It Was There…” is actually about a rave and one of the original lyrics is “I saw you at the rave,” but I changed it. So there were influences on the record from all over.

It’s such a product of where you all were at a specific time. It’s kind of a lightning in a bottle thing, isn’t it?

Keely: Definitely. We’d been touring Europe and met the band Mogwai and that got in there. I’d have to say most of our influences were our friends’ bands here in Austin. I was friends with the Prima Donnas and I thought we were in direct competition with that band, and others like Knife In The Water. I loved the eclecticness of that time in Austin. I wasn’t listening to what was going on nationally because I was so focused on the music from around here.

This many years on, how do you feel about how the album represents you as a band?

Keely: At first I disliked that. I would say at times that it was my least favorite of our records. When we were first asked to perform an album version of it about five years ago, I fought over it. But when we performed it, it felt really cool and felt good about the songs. I gained an appreciation for it that I’d lost.

What’s going on with the band creatively now?

Keely: We’re working on our 10th album, doing it a little bit differently since I’ve got a home base studio and I’m working out at Mosaic Sound Collective and we’re doing it there. It’s coming together more in bits and pieces, which is sort of how we wrote (2005’s) “Worlds Apart.” I’m curious to see how it all comes together.