And you will know them, also, by their trail of excess.
When Jason Reece and Conrad Keely fled Olympia, Wash., for Austin, Texas, back in the '90s, they were hoping to find a music scene as adventurous and ambitious as the sound they would soon create on their own.
That didn't happen.
"We hated all the music here," says Reece of the "Live Music Capital of the World." "Everything seemed mediocre. And so our reaction was to be violent and fuck shit up."
Reece, who shares vocal, drum and guitar duties with Keely in ... And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, says the duo had chosen to relocate on the recommendation of an Austin-based friend.
"My life just sucked, it was horrible and I had nothing going on," says Reece in regard to his Olympia days, which were highlighted by a two-year stint in the queercore group Mukilteo Fairies. "I took some mushrooms and had an epiphany and realized that I needed to do something different. Austin just sounded better to me than the Northwest, where it was raining all the time and everybody was hooked on heroin."
Fear of a bloody valentine
From its beginnings, Trail of Dead was, well, different. After finding like-minded musicians and an unwieldy name, the group recorded a couple of indie albums and then signed to Interscope Records. Even in its earliest and thrashiest years, the band set its sights high.
"We were inspired by super-intricate layered albums, like Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet and My Bloody Valentine's Loveless," says Reece. "We were always looking to expand the sound somehow."
The band did all that and more, delivering a series of increasingly esoteric and downright arty albums. Unembarrassed by their prog-rock inclinations, they even released a cover of "Back in New York City" by the Peter Gabriel incarnation of Genesis. ("It's very punk rock sounding to me," says Reece of the original. "Who'd have thunk it?")
The Interscope run culminated in 2006's So Divided, an album so experimental that Reece himself says "it sounded like a bunch of songs from several different bands."
"You know, I could talk shit about [Interscope founder] Jimmy Iovine, but he has his reasons to do what he does, and it's obviously paid off for him. I think when he signed us, he probably had great intentions; he pretty much said that we could do whatever we wanted. But it just started getting to that point where there was no one at Interscope that really liked or understood our music, so it was like, why sit in limbo and be frustrated about our situation?"
Trail of Dead's first album on its own Richter Scale Records (funded by Austin-based Justice Records, home to Willie Nelson) fulfills an ambition that would have sent major-label execs scrambling for the Vicodin.
"We tried our best to make it feel as if you're going on a road trip and watching the end of the world as it's happening in front of your eyes," says Reece in regard to The Century of Self, which was released a few weeks ago. "We're so obsessed with bombastic, apocalyptic ideas that we kind of get, you know, melodramatic like that."
From the opening synth-scapes of "Giant's Causeway" and exhilarating pop thrills of "Isis Unveiled" to the waltz-time "Insatiable (Two)" and incendiary "Ascending" (which, apart from its Spanish-language coda, sounds like Mission of Burma on amphetamines), the new album may nevertheless be the band's most accessible.
Back in New York City
By 2007, Keely had moved to New York City (home to most of Reece's gospel-influenced side project, Midnight Masses, which is also on this tour). It was there that Trail of Dead recorded The Century of Self. Working with producer Chris Coady, the band took advantage of an array of vintage synths, avoiding the tyranny of click tracks by recording much of the record live.
Coady also turned the group onto music software that meets its human counterparts more than halfway. "The funny thing is you can synch them up to your music even if it's out of time. It fluctuates up and down in time with you I mean, isn't it crazy that you can do that?" says Reece.
In spite of the geographic and label dislocations, Trail of Dead seems to have plenty of life left.
"It's more about logistics than anything else," says Reece, noting how e-mailing GarageBand files collapses the distance. "I think Conrad wasn't really growing in Austin, so he wanted to challenge himself by going to New York. And it's proved to be fruitful up there."
After their stateside dates, the band will tour England, where Reece says their music has always translated well. Except maybe for that one guy in the U.K. who started an Anti-Jason Reece Club MySpace page, accusing him of everything from forgetting lyrics to dressing up as a monkey and smoking PCP.
For the record, Reece says most of the claims are untrue.
"Except for that weird shit about me giving birth to puppies. That was pretty true, right?"