Break Away

The glass flew everywhere as the bystanders' jaws dropped to the floor. It was vandalism, nihilism, primal punk rage and, most important, absolute desecration. Imagine: to smash Stevie Ray Vaughan's guitar out of its display case at the new Hard Rock Café in Austin to try a quick plug 'n' play. It was a bizarre crossfire of Austin musical spirits: the ghost of Stevie Ray meets the ghost of the Trail of Dead.

Only, for once, Austin's infamous stage-smashing quartet was actually out of town during South by Southwest, the biggest week of the year for Austin, its musicians and for many borderline artists from around the world. ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead was once all of these things: always in Austin, and often borderline musically, not to mention compulsively destructive. The band finally graduated from SXSW on the five-year plan last year, its diploma watermarked after throwing its bass drum off the ledge of the Red Eyed Fly stage and into the creek below. With the Trail of Dead busy this year ripping apart the East Coast, including two packed houses at NYC's Bowery Ballroom, the SXSW antics of Friday the 15th were left up to L.A. punks The Icarus Line and their singer Joe Cardamone.

Green punk rockers can still get away with silly things like smashing glass. The sage Trail of Dead, though, now dwell a step beyond SXSW, as the band attempts to harness the newfound melodicism of its major-label debut, Source Tags & Codes, which came out February 26 on Interscope Records. It's their onstage anarchy that made them stars in England, but now they're all business, toting the stunning new album that has people murmuring comparisons to Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation in reverent tones.

"It doesn't always happen at the best shows," says Neil Busch, the band's bassist, tape collagist and third voice onstage, referring to the frequent onstage outbursts. "It's not always something that's necessary. It usually only happens when the crowd isn't bringing the same sort of energy into the show that we are, and we get frustrated."

As the trail of believers grows here on the home front, that could mean less Hulk-smash violence onstage. Yet anyone who's seen Jason Reece's wildman antics or the spontaneous combustion of "A Perfect Teenhood" won't believe that anymore than they believe the shiny, new Trail of Dead one-sheet bio, courtesy of the fine folks at Interscope. U2's grand shepherds will have us know that these new American heartthrobs met in the church choir in a small Texas town (somewhere called "Planoe"--Oh, Plano?), later moving to Austin and studying anthropology, then naming their band after a recurring set of glyphs discovered in diverse ancient civilizations.

For the record, it's more like this: Reece and Conrad Keely meet in Hawaii, start playing music in Olympia, Washington, then drive to Austin in late 1994, blaring My Bloody Valentine's Loveless the entire way. After a couple of years as a kinda-sloppy two-piece, they enlist Busch and guitarist Kevin Allen and begin a stratospheric musical ascent.

...And you will know them by the trail of half-truths, untruths and broken myths.

"It's not like we're friends with U2 or anything," Busch says, when pressed to recount his band's brushes with fame along a road that has wound through the Reading Festival, a post-Sonic Youth All Tomorrow's Parties set that killed their idols and a now-notorious performance on USA's Not friends? Trail of Dead not only shared the stage with U2 on Farmclub, Bono was even shown giving advice to the upstart Austinites during a televised segment.

"They were actually pretty cool guys," Busch concedes. "For being just about the biggest band on the planet right now, they're really down-to-earth."

For having the same sense of humor as one of those smart-ass classmates you always want to punch out, the Trail of Dead are really pretty sincere, heartfelt guys. They're out there nightly patronizing those same Austin clubs that they're tearing to pieces when they're onstage, and championing the same Texas bands they're so faux-holier-than-thou about during their onstage banter and on their oft-updated Web site.

Reece told a not-quite-packed Austin record-store crowd on the day of the Source Tags release: "This song is off the Relative Ways EP, and it's available on the import-only American version, much to the chagrin of all our fans in Europe."

Busch puts his spin on the band's hogwash-feeding habits: "When you're doing 12 interviews a day, there's only so many things you can say in the exact same way over and over again. It's a way to keep ourselves entertained." Another way might be to spray-paint Trail of Dead graffiti all over the front door of the Austin Chronicle. It might also be a way to sabotage your local press coverage.

Not that it matters anymore. Interscope's new Live & Unreleased From compilation splashes across its cover in big print names like Eminem, Limp Bizkit, Nelly, Staind and Nickelback, as well as ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead. Fortunately, it takes more than just a big-budget press campaign to win over fans. A bona fide masterpiece record like Source Tags & Codes certainly doesn't hurt.

Opener "It Was There That I Saw You" immediately takes any preconceptions and pummels them into a thousand white-hot shards. Keely belts out a heartfelt Brit-pop melody and is quickly joined by a barrage of soaring sonic rapture in a marriage that wouldn't be unlike MBV mastermind Kevin Shields jamming with Blur on "Song 2." The string-laden rainy-day aftermath bumps up against Busch's taut, sneering "Baudelaire" and explodes into Reece's punk-rock "Homage."

The album has no single grand mal spasm like "A Perfect Teenhood" off 1999's Madonna (released on Merge Records), but it does have an incomparable holy trinity of songs by dreamtime tunesmith Keely and, most important, that elusive sense of flow and totality that separates the great albums from the merely good ones. Like their not-quite-as-punk patron saints Sonic Youth, they thrive on three distinct voices, as well as a penchant for tense, whisper-to-a-scream dynamics and rich, off-kilter guitar tones.

"That's one of our biggest assets, having guys who are into so much different stuff and able to do so many different things," says Busch. "It gives us a number of ways to color our sound just the way we want."

Another boon is the Interscope budget, which oddly enough doesn't blank-check the band's equipment expenditures, but does give it studio versatility.

"I think our other records might sound more like this if we had the same ability to make them sound just the way we want," Busch posits. "If we needed a piano tuner, there was one there. If we wanted to add a string section, we could do that, too."

Huh. Stevie Ray didn't go around using string sections. Does that make him more punk than the Trail of Dead, or less punk than the Trail of Dead?