How Near How Far: 20 Years of Source Tags & Codes

The third LP from …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead bottled the band’s unstable but undeniable chemistry as they clawed upwards to their early 2000s peak

Celebrating 20 years of Source Tags & Codes, the third LP from …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead (Images: Interscope Records)

…And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead built their house upon dueling  penchants for meta and melodrama.

It’s right there in the very name they chose for themselves. Their third album, Source Tags & Codes, bottled the band’s unstable but undeniable chemistry as they clawed upwards to their early 2000s peak.

Trail of Dead were well aware of rock and roll mythology. They borrowed from the book of classic moves and knew the value of a little bit of mystery, but threading through this was also a determination to not be burdened by the past. Founding members Conrad Keely and Jason Reece had previously been involved in bands in Olympia, Washington, but in a 2002 interview with SPIN magazine, Reece reportedly denied they had any history in the home of the love rock revolution. “It doesn’t matter where we’re from,” Reece said in reference to Keely and himself. “It matters where the band comes from…the band is from Texas.” 

Back cover of Source Tags & Codes (Image: Interscope Records)

All relationships seemed to be love-hate relationships in the world of Trail of Dead. That may have carried over into how they felt about Austin, the band’s birthplace and another capital city like Olympia, albeit in a much different kind of state.

In those days, Austin was rising once again in the rock culture consciousness, its image as an enclave of cool solidifying in the general public perception. Source Tags & Codes was alleged to be at least partly inspired by this place where Trail of Dead saw themselves as outsider-insiders on their own turf.

“We were too arty for the punks, and too punk for the art people,” Reece recalled in an interview with the Austin American-Statesman a few years ago. “We didn’t fit in any of that stuff at the time.”

That may be a half-truth or another instance of the band’s own myth-making, but what would Trail of Dead’s rolling and pounding melodic post-hardcore be without conflict and indignation?

The keystone of their first two albums, the self-titled debut and the more accomplished Madonna, which came in quick succession at the end of the 1990s, was Madonna’s gate crashing “Mistakes & Regrets.” “If I could make a list of my mistakes and regrets/I’d put your name on top and every line after it,” came the embittered rallying cry. The sentiment was angry but also calculated, vulnerable but also removed. The guitars were continually crashing pillars, leveled and lifted back up by reckless and relentless drums. Before Source Tags & Codes came along, “Mistakes & Regrets” had been the band’s calling card.

 

VIDEO: …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead “Mistakes and Regrets”

Madonna made a jump to the majors possible for Trail of Dead, who moved from Merge to Interscope for Source Tags & Codes. Greater exposure did not tone down their by-then notorious penchant for smashing instruments at inappropriate times. On the Seattle stop of the Source Tags tour, for example, they waited all of three songs into their set before splitting a guitar on a support beam that stood in an admittedly inviting spot right off the front of the club’s stage. Wanton, almost casual gear abuse was one of their signature moves, and at times one had to wonder if they were feeling it one-hundred percent, or if it was already partly about playing a role that was expected of them.

“It’s done out of sheer reckless abandon,” former bassist Neil Busch told SPIN. “It’s not out of anger–we’re like a child who throws his toys around. He likes the toys, and he’s not upset. He’s just having a good time.”

Singer and guitarist Keely gave a more preposterous explanation for the practice in an interview with Billboard around the same time: “It allows us to really…stare into the ass of the instrument, as one might stare down the ass of death; see their cogs and machinations, its meshwork, its craquelure, its grain–the blueprint from which it sprang.”

Keely was more earnest in discussing his music’s evolving relationship with uncomfortable emotions. “When we started as a band, the early songs came from an intense anger…I would have a specific anger at one person, and that would inspire a song,” he said to the surprise of no one familiar with Trail of Dead’s early records. “But as the band progressed, I suddenly found out I wasn’t as angry anymore. I was feeling good about touring and playing–I was doing what I wanted.”

“Relative Ways,” initially released as the lead and title track of an EP months in advance of Source Tags & Codes, ties together those two different ideas that connected in Keely’s mind; his anger toward certain individuals and the release valve that being in an increasingly successful band presented him. In the verses, “Relative Ways” is an indie rock “Turn the Page,” a self-aware song about being a guy who plays songs for a living. “This electric guitar hanging to my knees/Got a couple of verses I can barely breathe/But it’s all right, it’s OK/It’s coming together in relative ways.” Then the chorus pivots dramatically: “It’s OK, I’m a saint/I forgave your mistakes.”

 

VIDEO: …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead “Relative Ways”

Instead of keeping a list of his own mistakes, now he’s ever so graciously absolving others of their transgressions. “Relative Ways” is, in spirit, the resolution of “Mistakes & Regrets.” 

The penultimate song on Source Tags & Codes is the album’s liberation, the point at which it finally sees the world through something other than a glower. It takes a lot of work to get there, though.   

Trail of Dead’s cynicism goes beyond the interpersonal and reaches an existential climax of sorts in the humid “Monsoon”: “Pray to God/But I doubt that he’s listening/This world is a gutter/That he likes to piss in.” Doubling as a colorful description of the rain storms from which the song takes its title, there’s no sugar coating these sour words for the man upstairs. “Heart in the Hand of the Matter” frames failures of love in apocalyptic terms, lamenting that “I’m so damned, I can’t win/With my heart in my hands again.”

That’s not to say that cracks of light don’t come through early. The standout second track “Another Morning Stoner” longs for the redemption to come on “Relative Ways” in its closing mantra. The words circle and close in on themselves, shouted until vocal cords give out: “What is forgiveness?/It’s just a dream/What is forgiveness?/It’s everything.” The dream is less hopeless than it first sounds.

…And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead Source Tags & Codes, Interscope Records 2002

Source Tags & Codes also makes room for reflections on art in “How Near How Far,” dangerous thrills in “Baudelaire,” and a song inspired by being spotted at a rave in Austin, “It Was There That I Saw You.” There are also diversions into new dynamics beyond what had been their usual full-throttle mode. The considerable credits listed in the CD booklet include string arrangements, trumpet and flugelhorn and saxophone, violins and cellos and viola. Discussing with the American-Statesman how the album captured the band at a specific point, Keely mentioned how around that time they had been touring Europe and met Mogwai, who became one influence. This is most obvious on “It Was There That I Saw You,” which inverts the quiet-to-loud pattern of post-rock. Instead, it runs out at full speed and maximum volume, collapses in the middle and builds itself back up, ending in the same maelstrom as it began. 

Come to think of it, the name …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead would have fit right in with the lengthy monikers of other post-rock groups who were starting to make waves back then. The band’s fashionable matching haircuts and rock postures in those years also now feel part of a certain time and place, but Source Tags & Codes avoided the too-specifics that would weigh down their next album, Worlds Apart (like the MTV Cribs reference in the title track). It’s a record for those who have been burned, and who hasn’t been burned before?

Source Tags & Codes is wild and wounded, ambitious but guarded, a road laid down for those who are ready to move on. 

 

 

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Ian King

Ian King is the author of Appetite for Definition: An A-Z Guide to Rock Genres (Harper Perennial, 2018), and his writing can be found at Stereogum, Louder, Under the Radar, KEXP.org and other places.

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