Conrad Keely balances the Trail of Dead with Sci-Fi Fantasy
Story by Christopher T. Spargo / Photography by Victoria Stevens
Conrad Keely does not travel lightly these days. Meeting him downtown at a Soho lounge on an unseasonably warm afternoon, he enters carrying a large leather case. One would assume the …And You Will Know Us by the Trail Of The Dead singer and guitarist would have one of his instruments in tow, but not this time. Rather, Keely has a large black satchel containing sketches and paintings from the last 20 years— because Keely is now an artist.
This, of course, will come as no surprise to fans of the Austin-based band referred to in short as, Trail of the Dead. Keely has been designing album covers for the band’s six albums all along, as well as showcasing his work at the group’s shows. What may be a surprise is just how good he is. The works, ranging from early blue ink sketches to more recent acrylic pieces, show an incredible talent and attention to detail. This is clearly no vanity project.
Much like a modern day Carmen Sandiego—Keely’s life has taken him across the world. In fact, when asked to name where he considers home, he pauses and seems to grapple with the question. Born in England of Irish and Thai descent, he has lived in Hawaii (twice), Austin, Washington, and, for the past few years, Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The success of the band he founded with pal Jason Reece over 10 years ago has not helped in laying down roots either with their constant tour schedule. Even now, his schedule involves frequent trips back to Austin where the band is currently at work on a seventh album. This may then be followed by a brief European tour. As he speaks of it, it’s clear Keely still loves the band but it seems he wants to start devoting as much time to exploring his art.
Keely’s first memories of this fondness for art come at a young age. “I was three years old when I first started drawing,” he says. “I remember pretty clearly my first drawings. My mom has always been extremely supportive too. She always called me an artist, even as soon as I started.” This all culminated in high school when Keely’s pieces first began to get noticed. “I won a few awards and then, when I was a junior, a piece of mine went to auction at a Sci-Fi Fantasy Convention.”
While most of Keely’s works fall in to the realm of science fiction and fantasy, it is not where he draws all his influence from, nor what he remembers most from growing up. “I mean, I obviously liked Lord of the Rings and Narnia, but so much influence was from album covers. Led Zeppelin, YES, Roger Dean, Pink Floyd. Then of course there were the comic artists. When I was 13 I wanted to be a comic artist.” This love for comics would seemingly end after a fire destroyed almost his entire collection. “I haven’t been a comic collector since I was 20 and my house burned down. I just moved on.” That does not seem to be entirely true, however.
The early work he shows me is entirely blue ballpoint—and all remarkably intricate. There seems to be a clear hero theme in all of it, and a few of these works have found their way on to the group’s album covers. The best example is likely his piece “Alchemical Table,” which is the cover for the band’s last album, Century of Self. In it, a young boy who seems to be of Victorian origin looks around a room adorned with ancient artifacts, exploration tools, a lone owl and books titled for the band’s previous albums. This, it seems, is part of a larger project for Keely. “I am going to do my own comic, something in the steampunk genre.” So the comic love, in part, lives on.
For those who don’t know, steampunk is a combination of science fiction and fantasy elements often set in Victorian England—an era where steam power was prevalent. The most mainstream example is likely Hayao Miyazaki’s 2004 film Howl’s Moving Castle, though some of his earlier works seemingly embrace the sub-genre more. Keely hopes to center his steampunk comic around his piece “Festival Thyme,” which features a large airborne ship powered by—what else—steam, adrift in the sky. “This [Alchemical Table] is one of the rooms in the work, and that’s what I want the comic to be. It will be exploring each of the different rooms on the ship and there will be repeated elements. If you look at the book in the room next to the boy, there is a drawing of the ship so it all kind of comes full circle,” Keely explains. The comic appears to be a large undertaking, but as he speaks of it it’s clear that Keely’s excitement usurps any sort of hesitation about the commitment. “I just want to take my time and really make the best comic possible.”
As if the recording, touring, comic planning and general day-to-day responsibilities of his life weren’t enough, Keely also recently begun using acrylics in his work. The few prints he has to show display what a remarkably quick learn he is, though he’s quick to shoot down any suggestion of that notion. He points to one of a woman attired in fantasy garb, “Protector,” to illustrate his learning curve. “I started painting at the top, and you can see that by the time I got to the bottom, I was better at shading, better at using my colors,” he says. Both top and bottom in fact look remarkably well painted and seemingly perfect.
A short while later Conrad heads back out on to the streets of New York; he will leave in a few days for a recording session in Austin on the new album. About five minutes pass and someone buzzes up to the office. It is Conrad. “Hey man, I forgot to give you this,” he says. “I want you to have it.” It is my very own print of “Protector.” There is little doubt that in time I will be able to brag that I got one of Keely’s early prints.