Last week instrumental metal gods Pelican returned from a four year trip to the abyss with the remarkable Forever Becoming, a punishing bruiser of deep low-chord love as technically precise as it is heavy. They also happened to be in town, trucking down from Chicago for a mini-tour that saw them play back-to-back sold out shows at Saint Vitus in conjunction with metal site Invisible Oranges. We were there the first sweaty night, and the long wait between albums and shows was well worth it. Pelican delivered. Shortly after the show we bellied up to the bar with Pelican guitarist Trevor de Brauw (crooning above, far left) and talked to him about all and sundry. We were too drunk to remember any of it, so we hit him up again via email the other day to repeat ourselves. He was kind enough to not be too annoyed (we think) about it all. Here now, some sober questions for Pelican about the time off, how it feels to be back, and what they think about the term “nerd metal.”
Forever Becoming is Pelican’s first album in four years. Where the hell have you been and what have you been up to in the meantime?
After the promotion cycle for our last album we’d run out of steam in terms of the full time touring lifestyle. We knew we needed to reconfigure our lives and the band if we wanted to avoid burning out completely. So we hung up our touring shoes, got jobs, and started developing home lives with the intent to get back to the band when we figured out how to run it as a part time enterprise; a matter mildly complicated by the fact that [drummer] Larry [Herweg] lives in LA and the rest of us are in Chicago. The wheels basically spun down until late 2011 when we recorded the Ataraxia/Taraxis EP, which came out last year. Half the EP was holdovers from the previous album, the other half were some song ideas that Bryan and I worked on as home recordings that were then fleshed out as a band in the studio. The whole thing was an experiment in sending files back and forth and building songs in the studio environment, which gave us a template for a method to work the band long distance. Just as we felt like the momentum and impetus for writing a record was building, our founding guitarist Laurent [Schroeder-Lebec] made the decision that he wanted to step down — he wasn’t feeling inspired to write, but didn’t want to hold us back, either. He had been a very active writer in the band up to that point, so it was yet another major roadblock, but recording the EP had felt exciting after the long break, so we muscled through and wrote the record as a three piece. We enlisted Dallas Thomas as Laurent’s replacement a few months before heading into the studio to help us put the finishing touches in place.
What did you miss most about being in the band while you all were away.
Speakers pushing air. There’s something extremely cathartic about playing music at high volumes and there were a lot of points in those years where I could have used that. There’s also a very peculiar and intense interpersonal connection that bandmates develop — stepping away from that on a daily basis and not knowing if or when it would ever be the same was hard. But it is, it’s like riding a bike.
Pelican is a very precise, technically astute band. Did it take awhile to knock the dust off when you all started playing again? How did that feel?
I think one of the things that made sense about the timing of when we went on hiatus is that we’d toured and played so much together that we’re very locked in with one another’s playing styles. When we meet up for stuff now there’s generally one practice that feels rusty and by the second session we’re right back where we were. That first practice is always a headfuck — like, “I thought we were a real band, but I’m not convinced this sounds much better than my high school band.” Then it all locks in and nothing feels better.
I know your drummer Larry was in Aeges for a bit. Anyone else in Pelican pursue music elsewhere while away?
Everyone, pretty much. Larry also drums in San Angelus with Kim who used to be in Sparkmarker. Dallas sings and plays guitar in The Swan King. Bryan plays with a producer friend of his and provides him with a bunch of sample fodder. I have a variety of shit going on — a long running ambient group called Chord, a noisy pop band called Let’s Pet, and I’ve done a number of solo performances as well.
The new album is great, and has been in pretty steady rotation here at the HQ. What are some of the things you’re most proud of on the album?
Usually we come in just under the wire and the final album is, in a way, just a batch of songs. We had a very decent amount of time in the studio this go round, so we had a couple of extra days at the end to really tweak the actual flow of the album. There was definitely a sequence in mind for the songs since the intent is for the album to start dark and gnarly and eventually resolve somewhere more melodic, and we were really able to fine tune it in those final days. We ended up shifting a couple of songs, cutting one song, and recording a segue or two to enhance the sense of trajectory and make it feel cohesive overall.
One thing I’m always impressed with in regards to Pelican is that the song titles seem to fit so well, even though there are no words. “The Tundra” actually evokes a tundra, etc. How did you guys get so good at that, and do you come up with the song titles after a song is finished or before? Is it “This song feels like it should be called “Deny The Absolute”” or “Let’s write a song that feels like it should be called “Vestiges””?
Haha, thanks. The song titles always come last and they tend to play into whatever conceptual theme the record is. Generally we’ll get to the mid-point of writing the album and figure out what themes or feelings unify the material. Once we have that figured out it gives us a framework with which to title the songs and an idea of where to go next in terms of finishing the album. The new record is about learning to accept one’s mortality and the songs chart a path from denial, to acceptance, to embracing the beauty of death’s role in the cycle of life. The song titles play into that and help inform that journey.
Your day job is as a music publicist for Biz 3. Give me the pitch you’d give to sell someone on Pelican.
I mostly pitched the record to people I know really well and/or to people who I know have been supportive of the band in the past so I wouldn’t have to go too deep. Pitching yourself is naturally really awkward since it implies an inflated sense of self-worth, so I stuck with people that are already aware of my disproportionate ego.
How long have you been with Biz?
I interned on and off from 2007-2009 whenever I wasn’t on tour. I started working there in earnest in late 2009. I’ve been full time ever since and have run album campaigns for a ton of great bands: Black Lips, OM, Justice, OFF!, Young Widows, Coliseum, Hundred Waters, Zammuto, Holy Sons, and so, so many more.
There must be a few things you know now about being in a band/getting press/how the machine works that you didn’t before working as a publicist. Does knowing how the sausage is made make it harder or easier to be in a band? What have you learned you wish you had early on in the band’s existence?
I wish I’d been more aware of what was going on when we were having our “moment” – in 2005 we suddenly grew rapidly and received an admirable amount of press. At the time I didn’t follow things like press very carefully and as a result I took a lot of what was going on for granted. It was an exciting time, but I didn’t realize how fleeting it would be. If anything I wish I had been more self-aware at the time because it would have given me more perspective when I was getting going on this as a career. Inversely the perspective I’ve gleaned as a publicist has reinforced that music press is mostly geared around new artists, young blood. Being faced with that on a daily basis can sometimes be a little demoralizing — like, I’m all too aware of how much harder it is to get noticed at this point in our career. The campaign for this album has gone far beyond my expectations. The good thing about that is that this time I am older, wiser, and am not taking it for granted how fortunate we are.
The day of your first show at Vitus, I mentioned to a fairly diverse mix of peers that I was going. Some of them, naturally, had never heard of you, and someone said, “It’s nerd metal” by way of shorthand explanation. How do you feel about that term? Would you say it’s accurate?
Insofar as I don’t really give a shit what people call us, I think it’s fine. I’m of the mentality that it is useless and pointless to try to impose one’s own perspective on how one’s art is understood or interpreted. Once you record your music or step foot on a stage the music becomes the audiences’ as much as it is yours — maybe more even, because they have the capacity to internalize and interpret it from a subjective perspective. It’s tempting to want to control how people label or perceive the band, but it’s utterly and completely futile. If that person thinks we’re “nerd metal” it’s totally valid.