Source Tags and Codes: How Trail of Dead created the blueprint for hard rock grandiosity

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...And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead | Photo by Courtney Chavanell
…And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead | Photo by Courtney Chavanell

When …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead take the stage at Underground Arts on Wednesday, it will be to commemorate the kind of rock music moment that is now all but impossible. This performance inaugurates a small tour around the country celebrating the 12th anniversary of their landmark major label debut full-length, 2002’s Source Tags and Codes.

Already, this is a sort of bizarre event – who does 12th anniversaries? Is this some uniquely significant moment that an already cryptic and idiosyncratic act (all of their albums share a near-anthropological fascination with Asian, Indian, and pre-Columbian philosophical traditions) would be more likely to celebrate? Are they making some self-referential commentary on the process of bands from their era doing reunion tours around supposedly-landmark records by going outside of the normative time frame?

According to singer/guitarist/drummer Jason Reece, the explanation’s a bit more innocuous. “We meant to do it two years ago, but we couldn’t get it together [laughs]. Better late than never, right?” he explains over a crackling cell phone line. He’s caught up in what he describes as some “South-by s***”, his nonchalance apparent when he laughs off the missed opportunity of a ten-year anniversary. His is an indifference that most bands can’t even pretend to afford – dropping opportunities like this means missing out on tremendous press retrospectives, renewed interest in the music, picking up new fans, and all the trappings that come with these near-obligatory “where are they now?” kinds of tours.

Maybe the 42-year-old Reece is a little bit cavalier about what his band has accomplished. From the get-go, they have been very irreverent about the kinds of heights they hit – heights they could only dream of reaching at the strange moment in music history from which Source Tags and Codes was born. This band was otherwise not meant to hit it big. Everything they did, from their incendiary live shows (complete with equipment desecration) to the rotating frontmen to the impossibly long name, seemed like a challenge to the rock establishment. Before the current era of supermassive pop acts putting out intentionally limit-pushing music (what up Yeezus), bands like Trail of Dead (the most common abbreviation of their full name) were the best bet for listeners looking for an intellectually-based sonic assault on the pop mainstream; they were utilizing every resource they had to stick something in people’s faces. Just check out this absurd interview and performance from the short-lived Farmclub television show – the incongruity of the band’s conscious unravelling and the calculated sleaziness of the show’s cool-factor posturing is laughable today, but few bands could have hoped to be so outright confrontational at that time.

Fortunately for Trail of Dead, Source Tags and Codes is an unparalleled masterpiece of its time, an unbloated orchestral record during a time when punk bands weren’t supposed to be so worldly or indulgent. The sound that they developed on their first two indie-released full-length albums, 1998’s self-titled album and 1999’s Madonna, was opened up into something grandiose, cathartic, and incendiary. From the opening static hum and ear-blasting drop of “It Was There That I Saw You” to the string quartet refrain at the end of the album’s closing title track  (structured around the refrain from “How Near How Far”), Source Tags and Codes was designed to push all boundaries. Trail of Dead established the template for punk to go prog and baroque in the service (not disservice) of righteous bombast; without Source Tags and Codes, bands as varied as Arcade Fire and My Chemical Romance might not been as popular as they are. Critics in the know were certainly paying attention, with Trail of Dead gaining one of early-era Pitchfork’s precious few perfect 10s and rave reviews from The Village Voice, Billboard, and the NME.

Perhaps characteristically, Reece acknowledges the impact that the album had on him and his bandmates while cautiously avoiding giving it too much of a broader importance. When making the album, he says, the band used the new tremendous budget from Interscope Records to their advantage. “It was a fun album to make, but it started turning into The Shining after a while, with everybody going crazy [laughs]. We were proud of the album, and it received a lot of critical acclaim, but it still did feel like another step, another door opening…whatever cliche you want to use,” he says. When asked if this atmosphere helped influence the album’s lyrics, walking a fine balance between broadly cryptic and introspectively emotive, he brushes off their poetic inclinations as “a little pretentious”.

He is serious, however, about the reaction that the album has gotten from fans, some of whom discovered Trail of Dead’s music through purchasing Source Tags and Codes or hearing singles “Another Morning Stoner and “Relative Ways” on MTV. “I’ve met people who’ve gone to Iraq and Afghanistan, saying that they were listening to us to get them through this terrible situation…Music has that power, and it’s nice to know that we’re one of those bands to people.”

Through the group’s rise to prominence, carried out incrementally over five more albums that expanded their fan base while achieving less acclaim than Source Tags, they also endured severe line-up changes. The Underground Arts show will feature a four-person line-up, after a decade of touring with supplemental musicians in a set-up that included two drummers and a keyboardist. The four-person set-up is a return to Source Tags form, with Reece and co-frontman Conrad Keely being the only original members through the bands various incarnations. Reece admits that their relationship, conceived during their shared childhood in Hawaii and carried over through residential stints in Olympia and Austin, has guided this structure.

Ultimately, Trail of Dead sit at a strange juncture of popular acclaim, a sort of no-man’s land where most artists (especially hard rock bands) don’t thrive so well. They’re not quite an indie band, having benefited greatly from the machinations that came with major label status (or, in the case of the above-linked video, gotten to do the weird crossover popstar things that only bands from the early-2000s can understand).

Even with that kind of capital and momentum, however, they haven’t quite reached the level of widespread awareness that other bands of their ilk – consistent and ever-interesting groups like former label mates and tourmates Queens of the Stone Age – manage to achieve. Like the Queens, they left the major label system once they stopped benefiting from it (after 2006’s comparatively-lambasted So Divided) and returned back to the altruistic punk aesthetics that make them beloved by rock purists around the world. For Reece, it’s a return to something that’s actually quite comfortable.
“There was a good group of [people at Interscope] that treated us with respect, and that kind of disappeared about 2005 to 2007. We sort of started losing all of these champions of the band on the label, so we asked “Why do we have this relationship?” It seemed kind of silly.” he says, adding “We come from the punk rock world, so we know how to live without the constraints of the major label system. That isn’t such a big deal. It mattered more, like 12 years ago, but now it’s so easy to get your music across…although it doesn’t mean people will pay for it [laughs],”

Fortunately for Reece and his bandmates, both past and present, Trail of Dead can afford to be a little dismissive of their success. Source Tags and Codes still proves testament to that strange era where a band could hop on a major label, utilize resources previously unavailable to make the album of their dreams, pick up enough fans that they won’t need that label’s resources anymore, and hold on to their anti-establishment credit until they start to become the establishment. The crumbling of major labels only put the band closer to the core of indie consciousness from which they originated, and they made it out far cleaner than the majority of other bands with unsustainable rabid acclaim (sorry, The Strokes). On Wednesday, Reece and Keely begin a much deserved victory lap. With luck, they’ll inspire even more acolytes, but after eight LPs of genre-defining gold, they certainly don’t need to.

Trail of Dead will play Source Tags and Codes, as well as other material from across their career, at Underground Arts on March 26th at 8 PM. La Femme and Midnight Masses open. Click here to purchase tickets.

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