Before the imminent release of their corking new album The Century of Self, we made some time for a chat with art-noise supremo Conrad Keely from the band, and got to hear his views on art, science, religion, musical inspiration, the joys of relocating to Brooklyn and much more.
Hi there Conrad. How are you?
Hello. Yes, I’m good.
What time of day is it over there?
It’s 1.30pm here in Brooklyn.
So, I saw your band at All Tomorrow’s Parties last May. How was the festival for you?
I’ve always enjoyed those festivals. We’ve done four. Three in the UK, and then this year was the first time that we did it in America. Although the audiences here in America were a little bit older than the average age of the British audiences, it’s one of those festivals that I think is very unique in its ability to have the audiences and the performers really kinda come together, just hang out together. You don’t really get that from a Reading or Leeds! That’s why we wrote a song about it: ‘Festival Thyme’, the song that’s on the E.P.
Am I right in thinking that you have some family over here in the UK?
My mother’s family: three aunts and an uncle, and cousins.
So do you spend quite a bit of time over here? Are you a regular visitor?
Only in so much as because of the touring that we do. I get to see my family: my cousins and my aunts and uncle come out to see the shows. I was born in the UK, in Nuneaton and we moved back there when I was 8 years old for three years, so I definitely have that connection there.
So, the new album then. People are saying that it is right up there with the best stuff the band has ever done. How do you rate it? Are you one of these artists that is bored with an album once they’ve finished making it?
There’s definitely a part of me that’s thinking about the next record already. But I’m definitely by no means tired of this record. We haven’t even gotten to play some of these songs live yet, so we’re excited with interpreting them for live performance. Our songs always have continued to grow on me. That’s one of the reasons that we still play songs from the first record: for us they still embody statements that we want to make as performers.
Do you have favourite tracks, or parts of the album?
I have favourite parts, I don’t necessarily have favourite songs. The middle part of ‘Halcyon Days’ is something I was really fond of, that I’d written back in my first band, in college. I had always liked it, so I finally used it for something in a recording. Also ‘Insatiable’: I’m really into how the lyrics came out on that. And all the instrumental parts of the record: that was something that I really enjoyed doing.
I read that ‘Insatiable’ was originally written as the score for a film, but wasn’t then used. What film was that?
Oh, it never came out. The film was never produced. It was called ‘Insatiable’ and I never saw it, but I heard that it was really bad . When I first was told about it, all I was told was that it was a vampire movie, and so the song that I wrote was supposed to be deliberately vampire-esque. The irony was that the music that I think they wanted for that movie was something that sounded more like nu-metal.
Can you tell me a bit about the collaborations on the album: I think you worked with Yeasayer?
Yeah. We did the final tracking for the record in New York, which has a very collaborative atmosphere. Our producer had known the Yeasayer people for a long time, and called them in. But also there was an artist called Brenda Ratney, who sings the female vocals in the middle section of ‘Halcyon Days’. She just happened to be recording next door. The studios were in a basement, and there were two studios side-by-side, so there would always be people walking past us. She would go in to the next studio, and Jason is probably ten times more social than I am, and loves to talk with strangers, so we formed these friendships. People would check out what we were doing, and we would play each other our tracks and stuff. There was definitely a great collaborative feel going into this record.
That’s interesting, because I thought there would have been more of a “community” of musicians back in Austin (Texas) – where you used to be based – but it sounds like you’ve found something like that where you are now, as well.
Well, the thing about Austin is that although there are a lot of musicians, it’s not necessarily as collaborative. Also in New York the quality and calibre of musicians that you run into up here is usually pretty high. Like, Brenda Radney – the girl that was recording next door – had been signed to Justin Timberlake’s label, and she had come second in some international singing competition. She was spot on, flawless. So that’s one major advantage with New York. Any session musician that you would hire out here is going to be top of their game.
‘Fields of Coal’ appears to be a song about a reluctance to perform, or go on stage. Do you suffer from actual stage fright, or is it more about a lack of enthusiasm for performing?
The funny thing about that song is that it’s the only song that I’ve ever written on tour. I actually wrote it before I was about to get on stage at a festival. On the bus. It’s not stage fright, I don’t think I’ve ever had that, but it is that fear of… when you’re about to do something that’s really strenuous, not just physically but emotionally strenuous. After weeks of doing this it can be very draining: emotionally draining and mentally draining. You almost feel like you’re disembodied.
So in an ideal world would you prefer to do shorter tours?
I think in an ideal world I would never to play the same place twice. There are so many places that I would love to play in the world, and just continue to travel. But I don’t mind touring, I love touring. For me, one of the greatest things about it is travel. I’ve travelled since I was a young child, and travelling to new places has always been on the top of my career considerations. If anything, I just hope that I improve on my tour stamina, and how much I’m capable of doing it.
A lot of what you write about and sing about seems to cover if not religious then certainly “spiritual” and quasi-religious themes – like ‘Isis Unveiled’ on the new album for example. What are your personal beliefs?
I have spiritual beliefs, but I am against the idea of organised religion, and I see it for its flaws. I love it for its beauty and tradition, I’ve always loved religious art and even music, but I was raised by parents that studied all religions. In fact the book ‘Isis Unveiled’ was a book that my parents owned and had on the bookshelf. I grew up with that book, and it was an indictment of both religion and science, saying that they fall short of spirituality, but that freed of them we can achieve this higher spirituality. I have strong convictions, but not necessarily about some kind of personified godlike being, that people seem to feel they have to understand. Anything that created the thinking behind the science and the physics that I’ve studied and know about would be way beyond our meagre comprehension. So it’s not so much a desire to understand this thing as it is just a kind of letting go, and allowing it to work through you. I think this is the creative compositional process that I hear many writers talk about: feeling as if they are a conduit for something. Just the sense that they’re channelling in a creative power from somewhere else. Stravinsky said that he didn’t write The Rites of Spring, that it flowed from him.
Like the way that musicians often say that they woke up having dreamed a song or a lyric.
Yeah. Even beyond that, just the geometry behind the music, and the amazing mathematics of music which makes me think about things such as what music would be to alien races, based on the universal mathematical laws. Music that is outside of our terrestrial experience, but it may be strangely similar. That’s a theme that I played with in the song ‘Bells of Creation’.
Art is also clearly something that is significant and important to you. You did the cover of this album in biro, is that right?
Yeah, all the artwork on this record was done with a blue ballpoint. Blue “biro” .
One of the things that I miss, now that more and more music is in ‘download’ form rather than a physical item is the cover art and the whole feel for an album that you get from the artwork. How do you, as an artist and musician, feel about that?
Oh I definitely embrace the new technology. I didn’t even bring my vinyl collection with me to New York because it was just too big. But that hasn’t stopped me from appreciating the artwork that goes along with records, or even my desire to create artwork. When I was a young child the artwork was part of a record. I would sit there looking at Led Zeppelin 4 and looking at the inner sleeve. When I create my artwork I’m thinking about that young kid who has found this record among his parents’ collection, and while listening to the music is exploring the drawings that I make for the CD sleeve or the album sleeve. So although it does seem as if it’s something that has gone away, there are still bands out there that take it very seriously and consider that part of the album. One of the bands right now whose artwork I really enjoy is Mastodon, who put a lot into their covers. For me it’s something that definitely will always be intertwined with the music itself. To that end what we’re planning to do is tour the artwork with the album, we’re going to be setting up some exhibits on this next European tour, for as many of the gigs as we can. Eventually it would be nice to have a touring installation, but that’s probably going to be for the future – there’ll be some logistic challenges .
Didn’t you do an exhibition with Melissa Auf Der Mar recently?
Yes. She showed her photography and I showed my pen drawings.
What, at the moment, is inspiring you musically and artistically: what are you listening to, or reading, or…?
There are a lot of local Brooklyn bands that I was listening to when I was writing these songs - like we already mentioned, Yeasayer, and Dirty Projectors and a couple of other bands: Black Mountain, Fleet Foxes. Also, I’ve been listening to a lot of soundtracks. I always enjoy listening to soundtracks to movies, and I also find a lot of inspiration with movies themselves, because we try to have a cinematic quality to our records. We want the listener to be able to close their eyes and imagine scenes, or feel like they are being taken on a journey. So movies are something that we always fall back on for inspiration.
So do you mentally write your own soundtrack, while you’re watching a movie?
Oh no, I mean, usually I’ll listen to the soundtrack that’s there . But recently, No Country For Old Men came out, and that didn’t have any incidental music. There was no soundtrack music for it, but what an amazing soundtrack, it was so interesting. You really just heard the ambient noise of each scene. That was really special.
Do you read much? What kind of books and authors do you like?
I did go through the Cormac McCarthy books after watching that film . I do like a lot of non-fiction work, like Bill Bryson. I’ve always liked his writing. I read a book called ‘The Far Pavilions’ by M M Kaye before I wrote the song. That’s probably one of the best novels that I’ve read in a while.
That’s about Afghanistan?
Well, it takes place in Pakistan, I guess it was still India at the time, during the great game between Great Britain and Russia, but definitely set in the same contentious part of the world. It’s 150 years ago, but it did draw a lot of parallels in my mind. Interesting.
Do you read music magazines, and look at your own reviews? What music websites do you use?
To be honest I don’t read music magazines. I definitely don’t read them to find out what people have to say about other bands, unless they just happen to be there. For the most part I like to get my news from word of mouth and what I see when I go to a show. Occasionally I’ll read reviews that have been passed along to me, but for the most part I just have to try to remind myself that that is not really what’s important, that a review of the record, or even the press covering the record is not necessarily going to change anybody’s opinion. I think the listener is really foremost in my mind as the person whose opinion I’m worried about.
The only thing that I check out online – because I’ve been a member of it for a while – is eMusic. You get a membership and then you can download a certain amount of songs every month. I definitely steer far from their rock or alternative sections, and usually go for the folk or early jazz stuff. I can’t help that: I’ve been in a rock band for thirteen years so I’m kinda inundated with the alternative music scene, so I look elsewhere for a release.
Well, thank you very much for speaking with us.
Thank you, we’ll see you in the UK!