Interview: Pelican Guitarist Trevor de Brauw
By Jon Graef in Arts & Entertainment on Nov 9, 2013 7:00PM
Four years is a long time between full-lengths, but the time off has seem to done a lot of good for Chicago/Los Angeles-based post-metal pioneers Pelican.
Their recently released album, Forever Becoming, is their best since the quartet first emerged back in the early 2000s. The album is the band's first without founding member Laurent Schroeder-Lebec, who left Pelican amicably in 2012. He was replaced by guitarist Dallas Thomas, who also plays in The Swan King.
With a personnel change like that, regaining creative footing may be a challenge. But Pelican show on tracks like dirge-y opener "Terminal" and propulsive first single "Deny The Absolute" that they've hardly miss a beat.
Ahead of Pelican's Nov. 13 record release show at the Bottom Lounge, Chicagoist spoke with Pelican guitarist Trevor de Brauw, a solo artist in his own right, and member of experimental drone outfit Chord, about the band's creative process and philosophical inspirations for the band's album. (As well as Katy Perry, believe it or not.)
Chicagoist: I just wanted to congratulate you on the new record. It's excellent, I enjoy it a lot. How do you feel about the record now that it's been out a week-and-a-half?
Trevor de Brauw: Very relieved. (Laughs.) The process of making this record took a lot of time and a lot of attention. It feels like we put a lot into it, and we didn't know how anybody was going to take it. But the response has been overwhelmingly positive, and we feel really fortunate about it, overall.
C: When you say a lot of time and attention, what do you mean?
de Brauw: A big part of it was just that we went on hiatus throughout 2010, and most of 2011. It took awhile before we were A) we were able to seriously reconsider investing ourselves in the process of writing stuff and then B) figuring out a way to do it.
File-sharing played into it, for sure. The EP we did in 2011 [Ataraxia/Taraxis] gave us a sense of how we were going to work our way forward from there. But, then, that was also around the time we lost Laurent as a contributing writer to the band, which meant that there was a lot more work cut out for myself and Bryan [Herweg, bassist].
We contributed actively as writers in the past, but never on the scale of us being responsible for writing the bulk of the material for an album.
C: How did you and Bryan get the confidence then to step up?
de Brauw: We were both responsible for a lot of the stuff on the last few records. I started to step down a little bit after [2007's] City of Echoes and I was more helping Laurent craft his songs than bringing my own songs to the plate.
But with the EP--that was when Bryan and I started to meet regularly. We were both interested in meeting up, and practicing and working on ideas. We didn't know Laurent was going to step away from the band.
[Bryan] and I were interested in getting stuff going with again. Many of the ideas for the EP came from those early meet-ups. He and I were a lot more present in the studio than Laurent was, too. He and I spent a day-and-a-half there before Laurent showed up, and Laurent kind of just played his way through his parts.
Not to downplay his role at all, but the disinterest was starting to form there. He was less invested in it. But Bryan and I started to gel in terms of creative collaboration. And so, I think, we felt a certain electricity or excitement that was brewing, and we just tapped into that. We were able to turn it into something bigger
C: So what was the first thing you guys wrote for the EP?
de Brauw: The last song, "Taraxis." That was a complete Bryan-Trevor collaboration.
C: What is it like collaborating with him?
de Brauw: You know, Pelican has always written in these small teams: I'll have an idea, and then I'll get together with Laurent, or I'll get together with Larry. Or Laurent would get together with Larry or Bryan, and Bryan would have ideas and get together with...we've always had a part in completing each others' song ideas, helping to flesh them out before tackling them as a group.
But, for whatever reason, Bryan and I never...when we collaborated, it was at the point where the song was being introduced to the full band. There's nothing different about collaborating with Bryan--we've been playing alongside each other in this band for a really long time.
We understand each others' creative sensibilities really well, but, for whatever reason, he and I were not a songwriting team before. We knew each other as performers and as writers really well, even though there was a sense of trying to develop a new vocabulary. We both knew the letters of the alphabet that we were trying to bring to the table, if that makes any sense.
C: I follow ya. So how did that partnership continue with the full-length?
de Brauw: In the early stages of writing, we were meeting once every week or once every two weeks. He would bring half a song, or I would bring half a song, and we would just work on it together. Mostly, we would finish an idea, or get an idea together, and then commit to a demo recording and then send it to Larry so he could work on his own ideas in L.A.
Larry came to town about three or four times over the course of writing the album. We would have a block of songs that Bryan and I knew fairly well, and we would work on it as a three piece. Larry's creative asset is that he is a meticulous editor and he knows how to make a song flow. So I will have 15 minutes worth of song that have these extremely jarring changes and he'll turn it into a seven-minute song that flows all the way through.
We met a few times, and then we'd have these marathon writing sessions. Then Larry would go home and record his drum parts and send them back to us.
We'd go back to a home recording environment -- sort of like we did with the last EP -- and build recordings on top of those drum tracks, just to make sure the arrangements made sense and all of the pieces were interlocking. That's more or less how we were able to write songs that had the dual guitar dynamics we were known for on our older material.
C: So, when Dallas joined the band, how did the creative dynamic of the band change? What was it like working with him on the new material?
de Brauw: It was really, really good. This was a rapport that was developed over time, but a much shorter period of time. We toured with Dallas in 2011 when we decided that we wanted to start touring again. Laurent was reticent about getting back on the road. He didn't want to tour, but he didn't want to leave the band, so he suggested us going out with an replacement.
We toured with him for two weeks that year, and then we went to Europe with him in early 2012. So we had a real connection with him right away. The only reason why we didn't have him join right away when Laurent stepped down was that we had this sense that, if we replaced Laurent, the change would be much more drastic from one record to the next. [In other words] taking a creative voice out of the mix would be much less disruptive than replacing one.
So we wrote for the bulk of 2012 as a three piece, and then, at the very beginning of 2013, we had Dallas join the band. We were about three or four months away from recording the record when he joined the band. At that point most of the songs were finished, with the exceptions being, I think, "The Cliff" and "The Tundra." And, with those songs, he had a more active role in terms of adding guitar parts or finishing songs structurally.
With the rest of the stuff, I would hand him demos, or we would hand him demos, with the guitar parts already set up. Even with those, he had an active role in figuring stuff out. I'm not a very detail-oriented guitar player--usually, I'm still figuring stuff out when I get to the studio.
Dallas is the opposite. He's very meticulous, and he maps stuff out. He understands things like music theory and all of this stuff that I've heard about, but I don't really know what it is. (Laughs.) He knows when things are working, and when things are not working. He'll say, "you know that this doesn't actually work here, right?" [And I'll say] "Well, I didn't know that, but now that you pointed it out, we can definitely change that." He's really good at ironing out the details.
C: You mentioned that Larry is also a meticulous editor. Did those two -- Dallas and Larry -- ever clash? Or does their mutual meticulousness compliment one another?
de Brauw: I think it restored balance, because Laurent was also a meticulous person. If anything, I think Larry was struggling against Bryan and my freewheeling tendencies, and then when Dallas came into the mix, it was, "we have restored balance." We have half meticulous people and half free-wheelers. (laughs.)
C: To prepare for this interview, I re-read the article Miles Raymer wrote for the Chicago Reader about Pelican back in 2010. You talked about how touring was hard for you guys, so I wondered what made you get back in the saddle again, and if you have the same trepidations about going on the road for this record?
de Brauw: What's different about us now is that we are not pursuing the band as a career. We're pursuing it as our passion. We're going out on the road, but the tour is only ten days long. (Laughs.) That's a big change, and it's the change that manifested itself during the wake of what we were talking about in that article.
There was no way that we were able to do this on scale where we could make a comfortable living from it. It was just a matter of restructuring the band and restructuring our lives in a way that we were able to pursue this as our passion, but not depend on it for any kind of well-being. It can't do that for us.
And there are some people who have the personality where they are wired to tour all of the time. But that's not our personality types. We all thrive on structure and security. Maybe that makes us less "rock and roll" or something (laughs) but we're comfortable with that.
C: in the Paste interview that was published, you talked about mortality being a theme on the record. You talked about specific songs, like "Terminal," but I was wondering how the theme of mortality extends to the other tracks and to the album title itself?
de Brauw: The album is more or less about coming to terms with one's own mortality, and the various stages in that process. The record is set up structurally to go on an emotional journey through the denial of your own mortality, through the acceptance of it, and then coming to terms with, and recognizing the beauty of, death's place in the cycle of life and death.
In the literal sense, things die, and they decompose into the earth and life springs from that same earth again, but also in the sense that, throughout our lives, we go through these phases and these phases die off and are re-born again. Every chapter of life comes to a close before other chapters begin. The album title is based around that concept. We're never in a state of life and death. We're always becoming something else.
C: Is there a religious philosophy, or something you drew from literature, that influenced those ideas?
de Brauw: No, not really drawn from anything other than observations about life.
C: That's valid in and of itself. Death is what makes life meaningful. If we were all vampires, then what point would there be?
de Brauw: (Laughs.) I think, for us, the thing that all of us had in common was that the band cycled down to a point where it seemed like it was going to stop. But then we were able to resuscitate it. That reflected things that were going on in our personal lives.
All of us had these cycles in our lives over the course of the past four years where something definitive, or a big part of our lives, came to an end. And then something else started up again.
It seemed like a pattern too big to ignore, that something happened in all of our individual lives as well. So it seemed to inform the emotional state of the material that we were writing. It seemed fitting to come up with a concept that tapped into that.
C: Just to lighten the mood a bit: I saw you tweeted about the new Katy Perry album?
de Brauw: (laughs). I was kinda disappointed with it.
tbh the new Katy Perry is pretty weak— Trevor de Brauw Ⓥ (@trevordebrauw) October 23, 2013
C: Are the rest of the Pelican guys into pop music too? Is Larry rocking Janelle Monae?
de Brauw: I don't get that impression. In fact, when it came up, and I was able to talk about the compositional strengths of Dr. Luke, there was a lot of head-scratching. (laughs.)
As I get into mainstream stuff, I'm less interested in authentic singer-songwriter stuff and more interested in pop as a sense of studio architecture. Which is what appeals to me about Dr. Luke and all of those people.
Those are not meant to be songs that tap into anything spiritual or human. It's more that they take bits that work in music and create a manufactured emotional reaction. They try to craft it into these perfect works of perfect structures. There's something that's really fascinating to me about that.
C: To jump to a random thing: What's Chord doing these days?
de Brauw: We recorded a record a little more than a month ago, and we've been talking to labels about what to do with it.
C: Awesome. What chord is it based around this time?
de Brauw: I struggle to remember what exact chord it was. The composition was more based around a sense of structure. I'm not a music theorist, so it would be difficult to explain without getting into some pretty nerdy stuff, but, basically it was about adding and subtracting notes from a chord so it gives a sense of motion throughout the piece. It's almost like a chord change. (Laughs.)
C: How did that differ from the past Chord records then?
de Brauw: The past Chord pieces kind of have peaks and valleys of loudness. For this one, the peaks and valleys didn't come from how loud we were playing. It was from things we were doing musically. In the past, generally, we were doing the same thing musically, but at different volumes. (Laughs.)
C: The release show is Nov. 13. What are you looking forward to the most about that show, and the tour in general?
de Brauw: For the tour in general, I'm really excited to be touring with Coliseum because they are a super fucking rad band.
We've crossed paths with them many times over the past ten years, but we've never toured with them so that will be a cool experience. They are not playing the Chicago show, though. The Chicago show, I'm looking forward to being home from tour. (Laughs.)
Also, it's gonna be really exciting to be playing the new stuff on the home turf. We seldom do things that are formal record release show. I think we did one for Australasia and we've never done a show since that we called our record release show. I think to play our first Chicago show after the record came out...there's a sense of, "the record's out, man." (Laughs.)
C: Is there anything else I haven't asked that you'd like to address?
de Brauw: I just had a moment if there was anything Chicago-specific that I should be talking about, but I can't think of anything other than complaining about the weather. (Laughs.) What else would you do if you weren't complaining about the weather? (Suddenly) Oh, Ventra! Where's my fucking Ventra card? I still don't have it! Hello? So publish this, and let those Ventra people know that I still don't have my fucking card. (Laughs.)