Conrad Keely is predominantly known as the front-man of the alternative Austin rock band And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead. Starting in 1994 the band have released nine critically acclaimed albums to date. In addition to being an accomplished musician, Conrad is also a writer, composer, illustrator and artist, designing and creating the album covers, inserts and liner notes that grace the recordings with his art book sketches, paintings and prints.
Born in Nuneaton, UK and living the first part of his life in Bedworth, Conrad’s family relocated to the USA when he was a child, he attended high school in Oahu, Hawaii where he formed a friendship with future bandmate, Jason Reece. As a teenager he attended college in Washington to study art but quit to pursue a musical career, playing in bands as part of the Olympia underground music scene, eventually resulting in the move to Austin followed up some years later with a relocation to New York. It is while residing in New York’s urban metropolis that Conrad became ”fed up with American life” and following the 9/11 terror attacks made the decision to relocate to Cambodia. It is here, in Phnom Penh to be precise, that Conrad has settled for the time being. A country with an abundance of tradition, temples, chanting, spectacular scenery, strange sounds and exotic chaos. Ultimately, a country where a creative mind is free to absorb the foreign language and national customs in an unconventional and unrestricted way.
During his time here, Conrad released his debut solo album, Original Machines, via Superball Music in 2016, drawing inspiration from his travels and his immersion into the Cambodian cultural exchange where he has become an active participant in the local artistic community.
What came first, the desire to create art or music?
The first thing I remember was art, learning to draw around age three. The desire to play music didn’t follow for another few years, I’m pretty sure it coincided with my growing love for attention. Even after I realised that I wanted very much to play music, I didn’t own any instruments until I was twelve, and that’s really when you start to learn an instrument, once you have the chance to play it for hours every day.
What inspires your creativity the most?
Women, right? Haha. I’m quoting Man Ray. I think one easy source of inspiration (apart from that obvious one) when I’m feeling devoid of creative motivation, is cinema. Something about how film combines all the art forms – the visual, the musical, the story narrative, acting. You might say the only stimulus films don’t provide is food and physical contact, you have to supply that yourself. But in all other respects, cinema is a fully immersive experience, and films conjure our emotions quite easily. Since inspiration is so closely linked with what we feel, watching different genres of film allows us to sort of scroll through an emotional menu and select the type that fits what we want to create. My default watching is a good supernatural horror, for some reason that always gets me in the mood to write.
Do your album cover designs take inspiration from the lyrical content of the songs?
Usually the cover is something I imagine well ahead of making the record. I usually have an initial colour scheme in mind, that tends to be fairly monochromatic – blue, orange, red, black and white, etc. The colour is somehow related to the idea of the album in some abstract, intangible way. From there I start to evolve an image in my head. Lyrics tend to come much later in the process, they’re typically the last thing I write on an album, and it’s far more likely that they are informed by the artwork I’ve been creating rather than vice versa.
How has moving to Cambodia influenced your artistic expression?
I think the first thing any musician who moves here discovers is Cambodia’s rich musical heritage – the so-called “Golden Age” of Khmer psych rock stands out in particular. Once you’ve spent enough time here the legendary voices of Sin Sisamuth, Ros Sereysothea and Pan Ron become a ubiquitous part of your musical landscape. Then the folk songs like Arapia and Cashew start trickling in, tumbled alongside the modern sounds of Khmer hip hop and karaoke-style pop music. The presence of music here is everywhere – blared from wedding tents, echoing from temples, strains of the troh played by the blind man being led down the road. It’s inescapable, and powerful.
But then apart from the music itself, is the approach to playing that can be enjoyed much more informally here. Since audiences are generally small anyway, music isn’t something you have to plan a night of, or book tickets to in advance. Sometimes bars and guest houses will have a guitar and will encourage people to play. That’s something I miss in the West, because music always has to be a planned event, and the opportunities for making music spontaneously tend to be few.
If you could choose one, what would be your favourite piece of art that you have created and the story behind it?
It always seems strange to pick a favourite out of work you’ve created, it would be like picking a favourite child. But I admit I’m very fond of my blue ball point pen illustration for the cover of our band’s Century of Self album, the Alchemical Room. I don’t really remember the initial inspiration, I might have had the Moody Blues cover for Every Good Boy Deserves Favour in mind. I just recall the image clear in my head of a boy looking at a human skull on a table. I think why this piece is so special to me is because no other single artwork of mind has ever gone on to inspire so much of a story. Asking myself who the boy in the picture was went on to inspire the graphic story that would be the art for Tao of the Dead, and his name is mentioned in the lyrics on our next album Lost Songs. Although I’ve not completed my science fiction novel yet (a continuing work in progress), it is the story of the boy in this picture.
Do you exhibit your work?
I’ve done a few exhibits while touring on the road, when I’ve been able to. The most difficult thing for me is filling space, because my work tends to be rather small and detailed, rather than large canvases. But when I’m back in Austin I’m thinking of buying several large canvases and throwing buckets of paint on them, just to see if maybe these would sell for more.
What is your preferred media?
Currently my preferred media is an iPad Pro and an Apple pencil. I like the app Sketchpad Pro, that one feels the most realistic to me (for iPad owners I highly recommend a matt screen protector, this makes it feel less like drawing on glass). But of course, I always keep my sketchbook handy, with pencils and erasers. My default medium has recently been acrylic paint, because it’s immediate, and I’m a very impatient artist. I’ve tried my hand at oils, God knows I’ve tried. But one day my dream is to cast a bronze sculpture of something from my book.
What musicians and artists do you admire?
Well, you might say if you’re a band or an artist, I’m immediately inclined to admire you. Or at least I’m grateful for your company and your output, in a world where so many others are busy consuming rather than creating. But of course, that makes for a very long list, so perhaps I might mention just a few recent ones I’ve liked.
Recently I’ve been in much admiration of the modern composers of our era, folks like Vangelis, Mark Streitenfield (Prometheus), Cliff Martinez, Mike Oldfield, Phillip Glass, Hughes de Courson. Composers who create works, rather than write songs. I suppose we’re always inclined to admire people who can do something we can’t do or wished we could do ourselves, and for me more symphonic works would be something I’d love to create. But my all-time musical “god”, the composer I most admire and will always admire, is J.S. Bach.
As for artists, again it’s such a huge list, and I love what is happening in art currently just as much as I love historic influences. But I suppose because I consider myself an illustrator rather than a painter per se, I always fall back on the great illustrators from the golden age of illustration (seems there’s a golden age for everything) – Maxfield Parrish, Norman Rockwell, Howard Pyle, Arthur Rackham, J.C. Leyendecker just to name a few.
What are you artistic and musical plans for the future?
Currently I’m working on my second solo album. This involves me hanging out in my studio room here all day for hours, catching songs that fly past in the air. I’m planning an art exhibit some time in Austin in the near future, and the band will soon be reconvening to work on our tenth studio effort so I’m preparing myself for that. This time I plan to have some things written before hand, because our last experiment involved showing up with nothing pre-written and seeing what we could come up with on the spot, and although, all things considered, it didn’t turn out too badly, I’d rather not repeat that experience.