Thursday, September 1, 2011
When Simone Felice’s daughter Pearle came into the world during a thunder storm last year, he looked at his child for the first time and wondered whether she’d come from a better place. At 33 years old the man, a native of the mountains of New York State, had endured a level of suffering and personal tragedy to rival most lifetimes. His pain is reflected in his music, through his writing with groups The Felice Brothers and The Duke & The King, and further explored in his first novel Black Jesus. The story paints a bleak depiction of small-town USA, the disconnectedness of societal elements and the US war machine; and tests the depths of desperation and depravity experienced in our modern world. Yet there exists, as with his music, a thread of light – a music of chance occurrences – that alleviates the gravity of the work.
“I feel like humanity is teetering on the brink of complete degradation and collapse, but you know, at the same time I am hopeful,” he drawls from his Mountain barn/recording studio where he works. “In some ways I have to be because I have a brand new baby who’s one year old. She’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, so I have to look on the bright side and realise that we have love and the sun still shines and there’s food on the table and fire in the stove. I have a great task laid out before me now and that is to try to make her world as light and as good as it can possibly be.”
Declared legally dead for seven minutes as a 12 year old, Felice survived an aneurism but had to re-learn all basic motor skills. The same condition struck him another blow last year when a series of fainting episodes revealed an irreversible calcification of his aortic valve, which led to emergency open-heart surgery. Heartbroken by the loss of an unborn child in 2009, the arrival of his first child has, as any parent will tell you, altered Felice’s outlook of the world and forced him to pay greater heed to the beauty the exists in the day-to-day.
“When I was a kid there was always the shadow of the cold war and nuclear destruction at any moment,” he continues. “There’s always been war and famine and hatred and rape and bigotry and greed but there’s also always been love and laughter and smiles and babies born and songs and art and so I feel like it’s a scale, like in an old market. The scale sits this way or that and it always seems to be sort of in balance, although you could argue that it tips to the dark side more often than not, but like I said, I have a new way of lookin’ at life. So when my baby was born and I looked at her, I thought I can learn something from her and we can learn from the wisdom and the innocence and the wonder that the children have in their eyes.”
It’s interesting then that Black Jesus paints such a grim picture of humanity? “Have you ever read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road?” he queries. “Well, that’s a spot more grim than this book and he won the Pulitzer Prize for it and Oprah had him on her book club [laughs]. My book is like a children’s story compared to that. I don’t think there should be too much controversy about it.”
Where Black Jesus goes further than The Road is that it names names. Black Jesus is not only a grim depiction of the lows that humans can reach, but it deliberately points the finger at the US government and armed forces for their crimes against the world while infiltrating big business and the mechanisms of fame in the same downward spiral. Overall, however, you’d have to call it a human story – a story centred on some very insignificant people from a very small town.
“I hope that people will be able to relate to it because it tells the story of regular people, the common folk,” he continues. “I wanted to tell a story about people that are on the fringes of society, these are the people that I grew up around. That little town Gay Paris is basically the town I grew up in just with a different name. So a lot of those stories and a lot of those characters are based on people I knew growing up.
“I think it’s important as a writer to write what you know, to tell the truth. I’m so happy that this book is out and that people can read it. It feels like a real gift to me because I’ve been writing stories for a long time and poetry a long time so to have it out there now is a really special feeling for me. This is the first of a handful of interviews I’m doing and it’s kinda hard to believe. I mean, I’ve put a lot of records out and done a lot of stuff and played for a lot of people and hopefully moved people through my work, but it’s another thing to have a book in print for people to hold in their hand and take on the train with them.”
Dredging these stories from the same realm of personal experience, it’s no wonder there are similarities in aesthetic and thematics between his prose and musical output. “I think that they overlap thematically sometimes because the characters and stories kind of spring from the same well. But to bring a song to life for instance or prose to life, they are completely different disciplines. I think that they are branches of the same tree, but the fruit is different.”
These differences in process extend far beyond the constructs of musical collaboration. The editorial process especially required Felice to completely remove ego from the equation in order to ‘dance’ with the editorial knife for the sake of the vision of the work. “I wrote the first few lines of that story in 2005,” he continues. “I had a friend that went to Iraq and fought there and came back with injuries, though they’re the kind that you can’t really see... you know what I mean. So I wanted to tell a story about the traumas of war and I wanted to tell a story about how love can save your life and how we can see in different ways than with our eyes. I got a really great editor in London, who believed in my story and really encouraged me and helped me, and I’ve found over the past two years I put it down on paper and I hope people like it.
“It’s like with music, a good producer will illuminate the great parts of your song and help you shed the dead skin of the other parts. That process was really great. It’s interesting to trust someone to put a knife to your creation. But if it’s the right person and you can trust them then you have to surrender to the knife. And if you let them in, then you do the dance together.”
Conrad Keely, one half of Texas’s ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead brains trust, seems pretty relaxed. When I catch up with him in his – spiritual at least – home in Austin, he’s recovering from a hangover (it’s about 9pm his time, must’ve been a pretty big one) and lamenting the mixture of tequila and beer. It’s OK though, because outside of his media commitments this evening he’s living in some kind of dream existence by the standards of many. At the moment, he informs, he’s putting the final touches on some visual art for an exhibition before heading into the studio at some indeterminate future time to work on what will be the eighth ...Trail Of Dead album in about sixteen years. All this means that his other, more recent, creative endeavour, a novel, will have to wait for a while as he negotiates the rigors of life as a multi-faceted renaissance-type man. Yet when explained he’s living the dream of millions he offers, “It’s nice to hear that because in some ways I feel like I’m the consummate slacker.” Bastard.
...Trail Of Dead was born out of Austin in the mid-‘90s. The product of the fusion of, for the most part, two young creative minds, Keely and Jason Reece erupted onto the scene and by the release of their third album in 2002, the Pitchfork perfect-scoring Source Tags & Codes, they had the medium to heavy rock world in a spin. Their sound melds elements of psychedelia, punk, Brit pop, even classic rock, and somehow manages to defy identification with regard to time and place. By Keely’s estimation, their sound resulted from the converging and alignment of two differing music pedigrees. “When we first met as kids our musical backgrounds were more contrary,” Keely says. “As soon as we established a common ground they’ve pretty much been parallel since then with the real exception that Jason’s been into ‘90s hip hop and I’ve been more into folk than he is. As far as common background, now it’s very complementary, but when we met, he was the hardcore punk rocker/skate punk; he turned me on to Dag Nasty, the Descendents, Fugazi and all that stuff. I was the ‘70s prog rocker, I turned him on to Pink Floyd and Rush and Genesis, the classic rock.”
There is a Britishness to ...Trail Of Dead that distinguished them from the US grunge and hardcore explosions of the mid- and late-‘90s and strangely brought them into line with much of the Brit pop of the same period. This different-ness, and the growing reputation of their wild stage shows, allowed ...Trail Of Dead to sidestep the attachment to any one ‘scene’ and develop their material on their own terms. “I was born in the UK, I’m an Irish citizen, maybe that’s where it all comes from,” Keely continues. “I’ve never thought of it in those terms, it’s something that we do almost subconsciously I guess. Other than that I don’t think that there’s any way for us to explain it. We’ve never really wanted to sound like our time period, to me we’ve always wanted to sound futuristic, that was always the goal. In a way it was our goal and personal mission to ourselves to create a type of music that we pictured being played in another time. It’s difficult to articulate but every album we’ve done has basically been a product of our environment at the time.”
For good and bad, the band have been able to push forward with each release without the constraints of actually writing for a particular audience. In doing so, they undoubtedly alienate listeners through a constantly morphing aesthetic. But, as Keely explains, it’s allowed the band to develop a continual narrative, of sorts, across and through all of their releases to date. “For me, every album is an experiment launched from the previous album,” he continues. “And although I’ve heard feedback that each album we do is drastically different, I don’t see them as being that drastically different at all. I see them all as being part of a continuous journey. I’m not strict about the narratives. I don’t tell the story of Tommy, the deaf dumb and blind kid you know? It’s more about leaving as much up to the listener as possible in terms of how they want to build that narrative.”
The novel Keely is writing centres on a character featured on the artwork (also by Keely) on the cover of this year’s release Tao Of The Dead. In fact, he reveals that the narrative is intertwined with Tao... and somehow the band’s music and the novel are interconnected. “The book that I’m working on is more of an accompaniment, [the record and the book] accompany one another,” he says. “I’ve been working on the book for years. When I did the artwork for Tao Of The Dead I introduced the character for the first time. It’s a sci-fi fantasy, steam punk in aesthetic, set in a future world where it surrounds the boy that’s been on the last two album covers, who’s a type of telepathic savant.
“I think it’s a great time for literature and books in general. There seems to be a lot of great stuff coming out now and a real sense of resurgence and interest, especially among the young adult crowd. Novel writing is very challenging; it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. When I’m in book mode, that’s all I’m doing that day. But at the moment it’s my art, there’s an exhibition coming up so I’m finishing a piece for that. Then there’s the record, so the book has to take a back seat, which is fair enough because the book is going to take longer than any of these other things and I don’t want to rush it.”
Thankfully ...Trail Of Dead have set aside a little time to pay a visit to Australia in September (only their third visit to date). We’re hoping their devastating live performance hasn’t slowed too dramatically, as their two previous visits have registered as entries in the rock mythology of the last decade. As far as Keely is concerned, the passion for creating music under the ...Trail Of Dead moniker is as alive as it’s ever been – they still have unrealised creative goals. “We try not to kill ourselves,” he says of touring. “We used to be far more aggressive about touring but not so much now. Jason’s got a kid, he’s raising his son, so he has to have time off which frees me up to work on the book. The thing that feels the best about it is knowing that we haven’t achieved our goals. There’s these musical and artistic goals and visions that we are still striving for, still searching for. Perfection eludes us and in some ways I don’t want to necessarily achieve it, I always want to be striving for it and as long as I still have that sense then I’ll always feel we have something to accomplish.”