Pelican is a four piece, instrumental “post-metal” (for lack of a better genre) band, officially from Chicago, Illinois. In the main, their songs are down tuned, down tempo, fuzzed out, and heavy. They released their sixth full length studio album Nighttime Stories in June of this year. The band is comprised of Trevor De Brauw (guitar), Bryan Herweg (bass), Larry Herweg (drums), and Dallas Thomas (guitar). If you have not initiated yourself to the world of heavy instrumental music, you may be surprised at how accessible it can be.
I caught up with Trevor De Brauw in advance of their show this Friday at the Loose Cobra to discuss the new album, and the liberating nature of writing without a singer.
Smile Politely: So, you guys are going to playing at the Loose Cobra in Tolono. How did that come about?
Trevor De Brauw: Well, that show came through our buddies who do shows down there — the folks behind PYGMALION. We were looking at a couple of options in the Champaign-Urbana area, and I think it was their idea first to push it over to Tolono. We do have a history with Matt [Talbott, owner of Loose Cobra, Earth Analog, and vocalist/guitarist of bands HUM and Centaur], but it’s a little bit more adjacent. We haven’t had a whole lot of direct communication with him. When our initial EP came out, his band, Centaur, were the headlining act for the EP release show. We had selected them because HUM are obviously a huge touch point for what we have been doing over the years. We have a more metal, or aggressive take on it, but they have definitely been a touch stone band for us. So when that suggestion was made it was obviously, for us, it was a huge fit.
SP: The Loose Cobra is kind of an unassuming venue. It’s unabashedly a dive bar, but the sound tends to be pretty great. They put on some great shows down there.
De Brauw: Yeah, we have had some friends play there, and the reviews across the board have been that we should really try to fit it in. So we were really excited when that option was presented. From my understanding, this show is going to be put on outside, in the parking lot. We’re excited. We’re stoked.
SP: Awesome. So you just put out a new record, Nighttime Stories. Have you been playing that material live much? How has that been received?
De Brauw: Yeah, so we’ve actually been playing this stuff live quite a bit for a number of years now. It was a span of six years between albums for us, which is much longer than we are more or less accustomed to, but part of the process was just — all of us have day jobs now, three of us have kids, two of us live in LA, two of us live here in Chicago, so a variety of factors held us at bay from finishing the album.
Every time we would get together would be for a tour, and we wouldn’t have a whole lot of extra time to work on new material. I guess we didn’t prioritize as much as we should have [laughs]. But as soon as songs were written, we would start integrating them into our set list, so we have been playing songs from the album for pretty much four years at this point. We have pretty much played all of it live. We went out in June, when the record came out, and did a proper East coast tour, so the songs are really road worn. This iteration of the band — this is the first album that we’ve written with our guitar player Dallas [Thomas], who joined shortly before the recording of our last record, but was less integrated as a writing partner. Really, this lineup of the band came to fruition as a live act, so really it was important for us to compose songs that captured the same live energy when were playing the older stuff with this new lineup. It has been exciting watching these songs evolve over the years.
SP: What is the writing process like for you guys?
De Brauw: Generally speaking, the songs that have proven to be the easiest or most successful to write have been the ones where we come to it with the least amount of stuff ready. So, in the past, with previous Pelican records, the songs would be written in pairs, so two people would get together and work out a song structure, and then we’d bring it to the full band, and sort of edit it down, and work it out into a band arrangement from there. With this one, some would come in with one or two or riffs, and we would sort of jam on it, and see where it went from there. We were writing as a full unit, in a room together, which is less common for us. That just seemed to be where we were, at this point, having played live together so much, but not having written together so much, that was sort of the environment that we were in.
SP: How has the process changed, bringing in Dallas?
De Brauw: Yeah, just sort of that way — it seems like the stuff that, like — if we are sound checking, and someone starts messing around and comes up with something cool, we’ll all start playing, and then it’s a frantic scamble to try and record what’s happening in the moment, so that nobody forgets it, and then to branch something out from there. It’s a lot less of bringing complete songs to the table and trying to teach it to other people, and more writing together as a unit.
SP: So you guys have been together for almost 20 years now — is that right?
De Brauw: Yes, next year will be our 20th anniversary. [laughs]
SP: Wow. That is awesome. I feel like there has been a proliferation of instrumental, heavy bands in recent years. Do you think that’s true? Have you observed that over the long life of your band?
De Brauw: I... I don’t know. I feel like I’ve seen it come in waves. When we first started there were certainly a number of bands that were doing it. 5ive, from Boston, and… I don’t know. I’m struggling to remember on the spot, but it seemed like there was a wave of bands who did it back then, and then it sort of went into remission, and now, yeah, indeed, it seems like it is coming back around again. It seems like there is more of an audience for it now than there was 10 years ago.
SP: Yeah, it seems that way. I love instrumental music, and have always loved it. I feel like singers can be super divisive — frequently it seems like I’ll like everything about a band except for the singer, and the whole thing is ruined.
De Brauw: Yeah, for sure. My bandmates would not be happy with me saying this, but that’s what ruins Led Zeppelin for me.
SP: Well... I mean... I’m not sure that would be an example for me, personally but... [both laugh]
De Brauw: They’re not an example of that for many people, but for some reason that’s a real stumbling block for me. [laughs]
SP: Right! Well, that’s exactly it. So you have all of that extra space, when you’re writing. What are you thinking about in terms of scale, and tones, and space — are you consciously working with Dallas to say, you know, “I’m taking the lower register in this section,” or what? Is that a conscious effort, or just something that you fall into?
De Brauw: You know, that might be one reason why this record took longer than previous records. I think Dallas sort of had to learn — to an extent — our vocabulary and our methods, and I think for us, and definitely for me as a guitar player, my playing style has evolved over the course of doing something like this for 20 years. It has become an intuitive playing style. Even though I would hesitate to call myself a “busy” player, because I’m not proficient to a virtuoso degree or anything like that, but I feel like my writing style is to be pretty dense, and to take up a lot of space, that maybe otherwise a vocalist would take up. So when I hear a part, I sort of have a natural sense of how to fill the space.
Dallas also had a very dense playing style, but it was different from what we were doing. He was in a really rad band before called The Swan King, that he sang in, and it was like, fucking Robert Fripp playing in a hardcore band, or something like that. But we have never had a discussion about how to fill space in the way that you’re talking about — it’s always been an intuitive thing for me, and like, now, over the course of the last six years of writing this record, Dallas and I have come across a shared vocabulary to evolve a song, and fill that space.
SP: Along those same lines, without a vocalist, your guitar tone is more “on display.” Is that liberating, where you feel that you can really get weird with it, or does it actually push the other way, where your tones have to be more... I don’t know... buttoned up, because that’s where all the focus is, all the time?
De Brauw: Like I was saying about filling up the space, that has to do with the frequency range that each instrument fills. So there is a sense that there is a prescribed range where things need to operate in. But with it being instrumental, and with there being two guitars, that does free up some space for there to be some really fucking weird stuff. Which is a joy for me. I definitely like chasing distinctive sounds with my instrument whenever I can.
SP: Any particular moments that you are proud of as like a, “That was so weird, but we nailed it and I love it,” kind of a thing?
De Brauw: The title track of Nighttime Stories, I don’t think that it sounds that peculiar, necessarily, but there is definitely some very peculiar guitar playing in it, and it harkens back to some of the stuff that Larry [Herweg] and I used to do in our band Tusk, back in the day. It was a joy to rediscover that playing style, which is wilfully discordant, and sort of, hinting at psychedelia in a dark, weird way. Also, I really enjoy this song on the record called, “Cold Hope.” The main riff of that song is just two notes, and Dallas and I spent a lot of time figuring out how to really get the guitars “out there” while Larry and Bryan can lock into a groove. We had a lot of fun jamming that out, and letting it take shape of its own.
SP: That’s great. I will relisten to those songs with renewed perspective. It’s great to get a glimpse into the writer’s perspective. Your catalog spans 20 years — primarily instrumental — some of it, much of it, really, feels very “narrative.” Is there a narrative approach when you’re writing, where you’re thinking, I don’t know — ”This is the rising action of the album, — I apologize, I’m asking a ton of questions about your writing process, and you’re like, “STOP! I’ve told you! It’s organic!” [both laugh]
De Brauw: In an instrumental band, there’s not that much else to talk about!
SP: Right! But yeah — when you’re writing, are you thinking, “This one is a sad song about heartbreak,” or whatever — that’s a bad example — but do you have some sense of narrative when you’re writing, or a sense of intentionally pacing out the album, or…
De Brauw: Like I said, there is a process that has evolved, just being an instrumental band for so long, and I do think that something that we latched onto early on was a sense of narrative, but there is not a specific narrative for any song that we discuss, or really think about. It’s more intuitive. One of the things that is so interesting and compelling about music is that it speaks to an emotional truth that maybe people don’t have the vocabulary to express. It’s sort of its own set of emotional vocabulary. So I think that our songs, in a sense, carry more of an emotional narrative, than a linguistic narrative. In a lot of ways, I think this band is our outlet for expressing these deeper emotional truths that we don’t have capacity to express in our daily lives, or the language to express it in some other way. When you’re turning a corner in a song, or in a song’s narrative, there might be a sense that we know where it’s going to go next, on an emotional level, but I don’t think it’s ever expressed, explicitly, between us, or anything like that. we can feel where it’s going, or where it wants to go, and that is just the path that we chase.
SP: Awesome. That was very well put. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk — I’m really looking forward to catching your set!
Photos by Marfa Capodanno