And in this corner . . .

The latest contender for the Band That Will Save Rock.

AND YOU WILL KNOW US BY THE TRAIL OF DEAD, BOBBY CON, GUESTS

Graceland, 381-3094, $10 adv. 9 p.m. Thurs., April 11

EVER HEAR Russell Crowe's titter? He only unleashes it during those cupcake interviews when he dives a little too deep in the "mate" persona, and out comes this glorious I'm-certifiably-fucking-bonkers-but-I-own-the-universe noise. Not a laugh, mind you. A titter.

Conrad Keely has exactly two things in common with Russell Crowe: (a) fronting a band that is unhealthily popular in Austin, Texas, and (b) the titter. What makes the latter charming is that Keely is sane and—if a half hour of small talk is a suitable indication—not remotely conceited. When he's on, this guy makes pigs in shit look suicidal.

Here's why: Keely plays—and routinely obliterates—guitar for And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead. Have no life? Plunk your ass down at any newsstand, give yourself 10 minutes, and try to find a magazine feature on Trail of Dead. Any scenester can attest that these guys are everywhere, primed to wrest the Band That Will Save Rock heavyweight belt from the (surely ready to concede) Strokes and White Stripes. And for that extra-special cherry on top, MTV2 recently debuted Trail of Dead's "Another Morning Stoner" clip at the onset of every hour for 24 straight hours, accompanied by breathless props from VJ Iann "Metal Cred" Robinson.

I unload the "Stoner" dirt on Keely, who has just polished off some Texas barbecue (ribs, brisket, and smoked turkey!) with his Dead "mates," preparing to abandon Austin for the rigors of road life. Surely this big-money slap on the back will prod the next Cobain/Lennon/ Dylan into a spasm of profundity.

"Wow," he deadpans. "I wonder if that's gonna affect record sales."

Cue the titter. Keely may be living a dream in which his writing, composition, and visual-art endeavors draw rapt attention from everyone that matters, but that's all a shrug. I wonder if the guy even realizes he's a star before I realize that . . . wait a second . . . he isn't one.

ME: "So, do you feel overexposed?"

KEELY: "Uh, no."

Clearly, Interscope's P.R. mafia isn't faxing SoundScan numbers to the taverns before every show.

"I guess we don't really immerse ourselves in that side of what we do," Keely elaborates. "The day-to-day-ness of touring occupies us more than enough."

I persist, lamely, suggesting that given the hoopla and exposure, Trail of Dead's already formidable audience could soon double; hell, if the video's a hit, maybe even before this tour ends.

"Wow," Keely replies, seriously this time. "I mean, that would be genuinely appreciated. We're people people, so we like crowds anyway. We get told that it's cool that we manage to stay in touch with fans, and (people) wonder if it's gonna remain that way. I don't know. . . . I hope so. I don't see why that would have to change when we become more popular.

"If we do . . . ," he qualifies.

These guys aren't clich魳pouting "we just play shows and it'll go where it goes" automatons. Size (apologies to, um, everyone) simply does not matter to Trail of Dead.

The Strokes have their vintage threads, White Stripes have their mock-incest back story, but Trail of Dead's only gimmick is a predilection for crushing their instruments in the heat of the moment. This is infinitely strange, because their latest LP, Source Tags and Codes, invokes the grandiose ambition of Smashing Pumpkins grounded by the gang sensibility of Murder City Devils. Like most of Dead's albums, Tags doesn't explode but rather sails along . . . albeit with turbulence.

"I hope that we're not the Wagners or the Rick Wakemans of indie rock," Keely jokes. "I think our approach to everything is to start with as grand a scheme as we can conceive of, and then reality usually trims it down. As much as people get out of it, I always feel like everything we've done always has fallen short of the original vision, you know? Like the albums we've released have been almost there—just not quite there."

Hmmmm. Kind of like their blossoming careers as the next Nir . . . oh, never mind.

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