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The van’s agent reeked of afire oil aback the Trail of Dead chock-full alfresco Winnie on the balmy bounce afternoon this year that inaugurated the band’s aboriginal apple tour—a adventure that would eventually booty the Austin aggregation as far as Oslo, Norway, but which seemed in danger, at that actual moment, of catastrophe in the switchgrass of East Texas. The accumulation was already active backward for its aboriginal appearance in New Orleans, so afterwards a few apathetic glances beneath the awning and adjoin bigger judgment, Neil Busch, Conrad Keely, Jason Reece, and Kevin Allen accumulated aback into the van and hit the road. But about an hour later, as atramentous was clearing over Southern Louisiana, the agent gave out at a alone gas base forth the atomic bound of Lake Charles. The affairs were grim: The alone passersby were a alone man affairs baseborn watches and a gold-toothed blackmailer in a lowrider Cadillac who stared at the four musicians, all cutting jet-black mod haircuts and thrift-store clothes, as if he had spotted an exoteric activity form. Jason leaned adjoin the van and surveyed the afflictive scene. “This,” he said with a acrimonious grin, “is the bedrock and cycle lifestyle.”
Such is the absoluteness of a bandage that, admitting badly accepted in both the Texas underground music arena and abroad, will best acceptable never accommodated with bartering success. The Trail of Dead—whose bulky abounding name is . . . And You Will Apperceive Us by the Trail of Dead—instead has a added abstruse appeal, its music abundantly relegated to the apple of academy radio stations and jailbait bedrock clubs and purveyors of vinyl. The abridgement of boilerplate acceptance is not for abridgement of talent, though, aback few added disturbing Texas bands accept acclimatized such analytical acclaim: The Trail of Dead has already been dubbed the “mutant progeny” of such Texas music mavericks as Roky Erickson and the Butthole Surfers, and Spin and Rolling Stone accept accounting rave, admitting brief, reviews. The group’s additional album, Madonna, was alleged one of the best annal of 1999 by England’s arch music magazine, New Agreeable Express. “We apprehend from admirers in places like Greece, Turkey, Russia, Germany, and Norway,” said Conrad. “We get lots of agog e-mails from them adage things like ‘You accomplish big adolescence noise.’” Several of the band’s burst guitars accept alike appeared on the online bargain abode eBay.
But because the Trail of Dead does not address the array of addictive pop songs that get boilerplate radio play, it lacks the abetment of a aloft almanac company. Instead, the bandage is active to a baby absolute label, Merge, and charge accounts about every aspect of its work—from recording to activity on tour—with adopted money from the label, abbreviate profits from shows, and whatever additional change day jobs ability provide. “We should absolutely be alleged ‘ . . . And You Will Apperceive Us by the Trail of Debt,’” Conrad quipped in March. “We almost accept abundant money to get to England.” This, in animosity of the actuality that the bandage was appointed to comedy a anniversary in Sussex, En-gland, in alone two weeks in advanced of a army of thousands, aperture for conceivably the best admired bandage in the indie bedrock world, Sonic Youth. Merge would accommodate their alike tickets out of New York, Conrad explained, and the bandage would accomplish the blow of the banknote it bare arena shows as it collection up the East Coast. But at that moment, the bandage associates were still alone in Lake Charles—with alone a account of friends’ buzz numbers, beneath than a hundred dollars to their name, and a aged van that wouldn’t budge.
I absitively to absorb a few canicule on bout with the Trail of Dead afterwards seeing its knockout achievement at this year’s South by Southwest Music Anniversary in Austin—the alone band, out of 987, whose appearance concluded with a alternation wreck. The accumulation is accepted for its spectacularly chaotic, crash-and-burn theatrics, which accept becoming comparisons to the Who and the Stooges and alike aggressive one analyzer to anamnesis Jimi Hendrix ambience his guitar on blaze at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. The South by Southwest appearance was analogously enthralling, catastrophe in a squall of acknowledgment and adulterated guitars, the date broadcast with beer bottles and burst mike stands and burst drumsticks, the arena so bouncy that the club’s administration eventually cut aboriginal the complete and afresh the lights. As if on cue, as the army fumbled about in the dark, a alternation casual abaft the club aimlessly articulate its horn—someone had alone a auto on the tracks—and afresh activated its brakes. It was too late: There was a prolonged, abominable complete of metal impacting metal. “Man, they absolutely apperceive how to put on a show,” the guy continuing abaft me marveled.
Less than a anniversary later, the Trail of Dead, forth with me and columnist Judy Walgren, awkward into a aged 1994 Dodge Ram and hit the road. It was a bound fit aback the bandage associates had arranged the van with aggregate they ability possibly charge for a seven-week tour, a accrue that included a can of air freshener, an affair of Penthouse, a canteen of sake, a altar to the rap accumulation Public Enemy, copies of Paradise Absent and Siddhartha, a sketchbook, a toolbox, one Texas flag, two pea coats, four sleeping bags, four suitcases, eight guitars, two amplifiers, a bass cabinet, a boom set, an furnishings rack, a additional tire, and an I Adulation Jesus tag that afraid from the rearview mirror. (“To area off the cops,” Conrad explained.) He and Neil slouched in the aback seat, while Jason reclined aloft them in a makeshift loft. Kevin, the best fresh-faced of the four musicians, who are all in their mid-twenties, took the wheel.
Though the accumulation was formed aloof bristles years ago, this cruise apparent the Trail of Dead’s seventh tour. Conrad and Jason, adolescence accompany who grew up calm in Hawaii, confused to Austin in 1995 to alpha a band. They acclimatized on the name “. . . And They Will Apperceive Us by the Trail of Dead” because it seemed abundantly epic. “It articulate like a spaghetti western, like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and we’re big Sergio Leone fans,” Jason said. “We acclimated to spell out the name in alehouse letters, for a affectionate of bandito look.” The band’s aboriginal music was capricious and berserk fast, generally defective any apparent melody, with Conrad and Jason anniversary flailing their instruments and their limbs about in hopes of afflictive a acknowledgment from the audience—a “theater of spectacle,” as Jason remembered it. “We had a abominable guitar, a abominable amp, a altered boom kit. Whoever was boot sat on a milk crate.” The duo was afterwards abutting by Kevin Allen, a guitarist from Academy Station, and bassist Neil Busch, who hailed from Houston.
To accomplish a name for themselves in the saturated Austin music scene, the Trail of Dead put on shows that were awfully rowdy: Cheap guitars were commonly burst to pieces, stages were larboard ravaged and sometimes destroyed. “People generally aberration our activity for aggression,” Conrad said with a smile. The accumulation was banned, at one time or another, from every jailbait bedrock club in Austin—no baby accomplishment in a boondocks acclimatized to agreeable extravagances—and wore its adopted cachet as a brand of honor. The bandage was appropriately assertive on the road: In Minneapolis it was kicked out of a club for lighting fireworks during a show, and in Columbus, Ohio, the accumulation was paid $100 to leave a club afterwards bouncy onstage. In San Antonio, afterwards afresh actionable a complete ordinance, the bandage was escorted to the burghal banned by the police. “The cops said, ‘You boys get out of boondocks and don’t appear back,’” Neil proudly recalled. “It was like aback Ozzy pissed on the Alamo.”
Underneath the corybantic misbehavior, however, was a bandage that was bearing some decidedly acceptable music. King Coffey, the bagman for the Butthole Surfers, active the accumulation to his Austin-based characterization Trance Syndicate Annal in 1997 and put out its self-titled anthology the afterwards year. That accomplishment affronted heads: David Fricke accepted the Trail of Dead’s “glorious affectation of shattered-glass guitar tonalities and migraine-beat precision” in Rolling Stone in 1998, and Detour annual arrive the bandage to New York for a photo shoot. All was activity able-bodied until that fall, aback the Trail of Dead approved to barrage a bout that was declared to booty it to 29 cities about the country. The bandage had met with adversity on the alley before, accession at an El Paso appearance pulled by a tow truck, accident several guitars in a New York Burghal heist, and putting out a blaze that started in its old Ford Econoline alfresco Waco. But all of that paled in allegory to the calamity that struck, alone one day into the band’s aboriginal aloft tour, in 1998, aback its van was baseborn in New Orleans.
“It had aggregate in it that we had calm aback we were teenagers,” said Neil with a sigh. “A customized Les Paul, a Flying V, a bass chiffonier that had gone on bout with AC/DC . . .”
“We were absolutely devastated,” Kevin said.
Everyone nodded and afresh decrepit in unison, “Devastated.”
The bandage associates scrapped the tour, admitting not afore they adopted guitars and a girlfriend’s car, collection 36 hours beeline to New York, and played the Academy Music Journal anniversary several canicule later. Trance Syndicate bankrupt anon afterward, and the group—faced with breaking up or persevering—decided to stick it out and headed aback to the studio. A bandage of its asperous mixes acquired indie bedrock stars Superchunk to booty notice, and the band, which owns Merge Records, asked the Trail of Dead to accompany its agenda aftermost year. Still, as the accord with Trance Syndicate demonstrated, a almanac accord doesn’t break all of a band’s problems. “People accept this delusion that things are accessible because we’re active to a label,” Jason said. “We’re accomplishing able-bodied for a jailbait bedrock band: We go out on the road, we tour, we play. This is the dream, but we’re still at the actual basal of the deal.”
“This is not a comfortable life,” added Neil. “You can’t assignment a appropriate job, your girlfriends are angry, your friendships abatement apart. You’re ashore in a van with three bathed guys all the time. But we’re best friends; we’re like brothers. We’ve all absent jobs and burst up relationships for this band, and we’re in it for the continued haul.”
The continued booty begin us bristles hours alfresco Austin with a van that banned to start. Neil tinkered with the agent until dusk, assuredly accepting it to run continued abundant for Kevin to beacon us to an auto genitalia store, area the two set to work. Touring is as abundant about cat-and-mouse around—for a complete analysis to end, for a club buyer to pay up—as it is about the few abrasive moments onstage, and the bandage seemed accommodated to actuality ashore in Lake Charles for absolutely a while. Conrad sat on the barrier sipping account and watching Neil analysis the atom plugs, every already in a while dryly singing a few curve of Bruce Springsteen: “You can’t alpha a blaze / You can’t alpha a blaze afterwards a atom . . .” The accumulation has become accomplished in acclimation such problems—once, in New Mexico, they angled guitar strings about a fluctuant muffler to ballast it to the van—and by eight o’clock, the agent was active again. “Let’s booty ass!” Kevin cried as he accursed it up, and we all took our places aback in the van, now broadcast with fast-food wrappers and abandoned Lone Star cans. We collection agilely accomplished towns alleged Evangeline and Iota and Mire, over the Atchafalaya River and the Mississippi, until we accomplished New Orleans, alone a few account afore they were appointed to play.
The club was aphotic and alone bisected full, and the bandage put on a blah appearance accepting absent the complete check. The headliners, a bounded metal act alleged Blackula, had already abounding the date with its equipment, and the Trail of Dead were larboard with little allowance to play, perching themselves abominably on the bend of the stage. But their loyal fans, mostly girls, didn’t assume to care: They amassed about them, riveted, and affected to the complete of Jason’s voice. At the end of the show, a appealing babe who had apparent the bandage comedy in Tampa Bay aftermost abatement and who now stars on MTV’s The Real World: New Orleans, approached Kevin, her camera aggregation in tow. “I adulation your band,” she gushed.
That night, like best nights on the road, Neil, Conrad, Jason, and Kevin relied aloft the affection of strangers, blockage with a bagman alleged Natalia they had met the aftermost time they anesthetized through New Orleans. They rarely break at hotels—even a distinct allowance at the Motel 6 is accounted lavish—since every penny spent added distances them from authoritative a profit. They will not acquire royalties until they accept acclimatized the aerial costs of touring, recording, and affairs with Merge. “The characterization is like a coffer you borrow from,” Jason explained. “They accord you name acceptance and publicity and administration for your records, but aggregate abroad you accept to pay back.” Aback Madonna’s absolution in October, beneath than 10,000 copies accept sold, of which the bandage receives alone 30 percent of the profits; its shows, which usually command $250 guarantees, are hardly money-makers already the amount of gas, food, van repairs, equipment, and the booking agent’s 15 percent cut are factored in. Unless the bandage assets a added audience, the affairs of its associates abandonment their day jobs—serving coffee and alive as temps—aren’t good. The best they can achievement for, Jason explained, is to become independent while on the road. And continued term? “To accept a cardinal one hit single,” he laughed.
Natalia threw a affair for the bandage that night that concluded abreast dawn, aback anybody burst assimilate her attic and approved to bolt a few hours’ sleep. Conrad and Jason adherent themselves amid the appliance in Natalia’s tiny active room, Neil comatose in the van, and Judy and I lay bottomward in the kitchen. About noon, anybody awoke bleary-eyed amid the charcoal of the festivities—spoiled sushi, abandoned beer cans, overflowing ashtrays—and joked about the night before; Conrad strummed his guitar as afternoon sunlight crept through the blinds. Kevin had bent a ride to Baton Rouge the night before, and afterwards behest Natalia good-bye, we headed his way, the van’s radio humming. The chat anon affronted to the cardinal of Austin groups that had burst by the wayside in contempo years, never able to construe hometown acceptance into a broader appeal. As if to prove us wrong, the hit song “The Way,” by the Austin bandage Fastball, came on the radio, afresh another, by Sixpence None the Richer, from adjacent New Braunfels. “It’s Austin agreeable night in Baton Rouge,” Conrad joked of the absurd song pairing. “Someday we’ll be bedrock stars too,” Jason said with a grin.
It takes a assertive adventurousness to advance it out in a abundantly alien jailbait bedrock band, but shows like the one the Trail of Dead played that night in Baton Rouge conceivably accomplish it all worthwhile. The venue, a bar alleged Spanish Moon that had been a atramentous amusing club during segregation, was arranged aback the Trail of Dead took the date that Saturday night. The bandage was in accomplished form, exploding with activity as it tore through its songs, the army dancing and addled and bouncing its fists. As the appearance anguish to a close, Neil, bass in hand, fell to his knees; Jason launched into a Pete Townsend windmill accepted and afresh confused into the crowd. Conrad kicked the boom kit beyond the stage, toppling a assemblage of amps, and Kevin approved to allure a melody out of his now mostly burst guitar strings. The bandage was bathed and ebullient, the admirers transported. They pulled aboriginal Jason and afresh Neil into the army and captivated them aloft—Jason still singing, Neil strumming the bass—while acknowledgment reverberated adjoin the club’s brick walls.
As the set came to an end, Jason regained his basement onstage and stared out into the crowd, animated in the spotlight. In seven weeks he would be aback in Austin confined coffee, but for now, this was his moment. “There’s not abundant larboard to comedy with,” he shouted to the crowd, motioning against the burst amps and disassembled boom kit. “I assumption we should aloof backpack up and arch home . . .” But the admirers screamed for more, and the bandage gave it to them, ablution into a baking encore. The date was glossy with agitated beer and burst glass, the army both bashed and exultant. “Rock and roll!” the babe abutting to me screamed. “Rock and roll!”
Essential ListeningMadonna (Merge)
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