An Interview with Pelican by Mike Hill of Tombs
by Michael Hill
For over a decade, Pelican have been navigating the changing tides of a musical movement that they, along with one-time label mates Isis, helped to create. Where most bands tended toward hyperbole in their song structures, Pelican's music has a sense of immediacy that set them apart from the legion of carbon-copy bands that favored the "loud-soft-loud-crescendo" formula. Pelican added a more apocalyptic sensibility to the epic musings.
A few years ago, my band Tombs had the opportunity to tour with them. We unanimously thought this was a good thing because Pelican, aside from gaining a high standing with critics, had also garnered a very devoted following. It was one of the easiest tours I've ever done; everyone was cool, professional and totally about the music, but it was at a Denny's in San Antonio that we solidified our friendship. Or was it the white-knuckle drive across the Midwest during a freak snow storm that we did together that made us road-brothers. Either way, I feel honored to call them my friends.
Call it synchronicity, but Trevor de Brauw would be in Los Angeles on the same weekend that Tombs was scheduled to play with Exhumed as part of a Scion / Relapse showcase. I met up with Trevor and drummer Larry Herweg after our set to discuss the forthcoming EP Ataraxia / Taraxis (due via Southern Lord on 4/10), the creative process, working in a band with members living in two cities and the normal jack-assery that results when three friends get together on a warm Saturday afternoon...
Pelican at Power of The Riff (more by Sarah Coulter)
Mike Hill: Who handled the production duties on Ataraxia / Taraxia?
Trevor de Brauw: It's sort of complicated. Since the band is no longer located in one city we have to fly by night, we have limited time at our disposal. What we ended up doing for these songs was split up the recording. Larry tracked his drums with Aaron Harris (Isis drummer) in L.A. for two of the songs and then sent us the drum tracks. We recorded the rest of the material in Chicago at Engine Studios with Sanford Parker (Nachtmystium, Gates of Slumber, Leviathan). ...Brian and I did a couple of home recordings, one of which ended up on the record mostly untouched at the next studio, but one of which was an acoustic number that Brian and I had worked on that we sent to Larry, that he recorded his drums with Kemble Walters out here. And then when we got to the studio with Sanford to finish the first couple of songs and everything else, then we added the other drum session in as well. It's kind of complicated.
There are basically three engineers involved: Aaron Harris, Sanford Parker, Kemble Walters, who's Larry's bandmate in ÆGES. What is this ÆGES band all about?
Larry Herweg: It's all L.A. guys. I've been doing the band for about a year and a half. We Just finished our new record; it comes out in April on Mylene Sheath.
Kemble is the singer/guitar player. He's also an engineer. He's done a bunch of L.A. stuff; he's pretty legit. But yeah, to play off what Trevor was saying, basically that acoustic song wasn't ready when I was in the studio with Harris. And if I remember, I think we were originally going to do the EP, it was going to just be two songs. You guys had more material so then it got stretched out to become a four-song EP rather than two. But the two initial ones were the ones that I did with Aaron. So anyways, the acoustic song came later and I just played off the tracks they sent me from Chicago.
So all three of these engineers are people that you have existing relationships with? They're all basically friends.
LH: Sanford goes way back to the early Pelican demo, the first Pelican full-length Australasia.
TdB: He tried out for the band at one time; in the very early days, we messed around with the idea of having keyboards and electronics. I think he came to two practices or something? We just realized we were too guitar-oriented to make it work.
LH: I think we were writing Australasia and Trevor was getting really more prominent with writing and the material was getting more melodic. Stanford was doing really harsh electronic stuff and it was clashing. We felt that I clashed. Then he was trying to do third guitar stuff too, if I remember correctly.
TdB: The interplay of Laurent and I playing was already so dense at that point and a third voice didn't make sense in that frequency range.
LH: Second show Pelican ever played was with Isis in Chicago, and that's where we met all those guys and Aaron Turner which led to us working with Hydrahead.
TdB: It might've been back in 2000 because we recorded the EP in 2001. I remember they all wanted a recording and when we didn't have anything at that time. They said "Send us a demo when you have one". That's what led to us getting signed. But yeah, we recorded the demo in 2001 so that show might've been 2000.
Larry of Pelican at Power of The Riff (more by Taylor Keahey)
How does recording with close friends affect the process of making a record?
LH: For me, I've always looked up to Aaron (Harris) as a drummer, and he's gotten a lot busier being an engineer as of late. He's working on records all the time now and I just feel like he's a good person to have in the studio with me; he's such a mellow guy and he's easy to talk to. He calms my nerves. The studio can always be kind of a stressful situation, kind of uptight. He can offer good insight. I remember there was a couple of fills I was doing on the second song of the EP and he was like "Yeah why don't you pull back a little, hold back on those fills." He does offer really good insight. Made the songs better in the end. He made it more of a comfortable experience. I'm in a band with Kimble. He's a drummer too; he was the same way. You know he's kind of like, if I did something that was kind of weird, he'd say "Oh, why don't you try this instead?" And I'd say, "I didn't think of it that way." Both guys were really good influences on me; made it pretty smooth. As far as Sanford goes, I wasn't there time, but recording with Sanford is always awesome. When I was in Lair of the Minotaur we did our records with Sanford.
TdB: It's a similar thing. He offers ideas and he's a good friend and everything is comfortable and mellow. You know, he's a creative guy so sometimes he has creative ideas and sometimes we like them, and sometimes we don't. And everything's cool whether you shoot it down or not. And the same goes for what were doing. It's just easier to communicate with people that you're friends with. And I think that's a running theme for our band too. When we recorded the EP with Sanford, we recorded with him because he was somebody that we knew. He's somebody we were friendly with and we carried it over and recorded with Greg Norman for our next album. The only exception is Andrew Schneider, which a really good experience too. I mean, even last record with Chris Commons. It's just easier to work with friends and we're lucky to be gifted with a network of friends that are really talented and skilled in their fields.
Originally, all members of the band lived in Chicago. And then now there's a portion of the band that lives here in Los Angeles and a portion of the band that remains in Chicago. How does that affect the creative process?
LH: It slows it down. Obviously were not all meeting once a week or twice a week, you know, spending hours in the rehearsal space like we used to. But I think when me and Brian moved initially, it was 2006?
That was when we were full-throttle, touring half the year. We were so busy it didn't matter. Cause me and Brian were going back to Chicago every two months, it felt like, and we were just super productive, you know. And then after the tour we decided to stay for a few weeks and just keep working on material. But then when things started to slow down two years ago, it made things a little bit harder. But I mean for me personally, I think, with file sharing, it's made it a lot easier. You know, these guys will have ideas and record a track and send it to me. I can kind of get a game plan of what I want to do so that when we are together we're a little bit more, we're all on the same page right away. It's not like starting from scratch: "Oh I have this riff, what do I do?" I've already have this song for two months in my brain, I can kind of get a layout of what I want to do when we're together. I can bang it out really quick.
Pelican at Power of The Riff (more by Sarah Coulter)
So you take advantage of technology with writing?
LH: Yeah and I think it gives me, personally, drumming-wise, more time to just be by myself and sit with it and not feel the pressure of being with three guys staring at me like, "Do something, hurry up!" It's like I can really just pay attention to what I'm doing.
TdB: That's kind of a process for us too that dates back to writing the last album, We All Come to Need. We started the file-sharing thing as far back as when they moved to L.A. and probably from 2007 and on. And I think what is exciting about the new EP and what's different about it is that there's material on it that we never have played as a band, and that's where the technology really pushed us to do something new and innovative and kind of open-ended, like new avenues of possibility for sound going forward.
You've been a band for over a decade and have regularly released EP's, a series of splits, LP's, etc. As creators of the music, do you feel that things have changed or progressed with the band?
TdB: I think it's always harder to gauge when you're inside of the creative process because a lot of people kind of, as listeners, put this perspective on it like each release is its own entity that has its own intricacies that are different from the things that proceeded it, whereas, to a band writings songs, each song is a progression on the song that came before it. So, while I do recognize that the new stuff has new elements to it, it's harder to track, I think, exactly, from inside the songwriting perspective how things have changed. I guess I would say, overall, the EP has a darker atmosphere than the last album, which I think was a little bit more hopeful in its tone, more or less. The new stuff is little bit more bleak, a little bit more hopeless, aggressive.
Trevor (right) with another project, Chord (photo by Michael Rhodes)
As an instrumental band, does a narrative ever come into play? Do you ever have a story to tell or some sort of emotional context, you know, context in the music?
TdB: I wouldn't say narrative in like a "telling a story"-kind of way but yeah, I think there's an emotional theme and sometimes we'll have kind of like, vague concepts behind things but they're never really explicit. They're never really laid out, as though you were telling a story. Like today I watched a band that explained, that was about to play an instrumental song and they explicitly told the audience that they wanted them to imagine a field of dead Vikings, and that after they left the field of dead Vikings that we were going to go back up to a castle that was surrounded by a moat of blood and we were going to dip our chalices in the blood and pull the chalices up and...
You know, it was very cool that they had the whole scenario laid out and they were able to explain it, but I wouldn't say any of our songs are remotely like that. I think we deliberately leave it a little bit vague cause we want that to be open to interpretation.
LH: I always feel that the song needs to go somewhere, there needs to be somewhat of a journey, for lack of a better term. And I always try and keep that in mind, with even just the drums, even the most subtle stuff with the cymbals, and how I'm playing certain parts. It's like: "Is it too much too soon? I gotta wait 'til later in the song." It's really laying out the dynamics and the subtleties; getting you to a specific place by like, you know, three minutes into the song. And how it all wraps up in the end.
TdB: In the early days I think we tried to tell a story by doing, by playing with dynamics in like a "quiet-to-loud, back-and-forth" kind of thing with a lot of climaxes and stuff like that, which is, I think what a lot of instrumental bands do. Over time, we try to figure out ways to do that with the music instead of doing it with the actual volume. We still play with different volumes, different textures, and levels of distortion and stuff but I think what we've tried to do is try to be less of a...
LH: Crescendo band. It's a played out thing at this point. You know, so many bands just have "the buildup, the climax, the buildup".
TbD: And I feel like bands can do that better than us too, because we come from more of a metal/hardcore background. I think our tendency is to do things that are a little bit more direct but still try to have an emotional impact and crescendo to our work.
One of the things that I relate to, in the creative process, is repetition and being inspired by repetition, by constant rehearsal. There's also the concept of "the muse", of some ephemeral thing that exists out there, that drops into your consciousness and give you the inspiration to create. Do those concepts play into Pelican's creative process?
TdB: I'd say quite a bit, because we'll hit spells where I don't feel creative very much at all and just nothing will come to me. In the past, I'd feel nervous about dry spells and creativity but now I've come to accept it as part of the creative process that these things come in, ebbs and flows and when the creativity comes you just have to be there to channel it.
LH: I understand that there's periods where maybe it's not as good as others but as I get older, and as I see how fast time moves on. With whatever free time I have, I just want to dedicate to music, and being creative because of "the muse". Getting in the live setting, for me that's always the most important thing: playing live. What it does to your mind and your body; there's just something about being in front of people, your adrenaline, that whole cathartic release that happens makes you feel alive basically. And that's what I live for.
Laurent of Pelican at Brooklyn Masonic Temple (more by Greg Cristman)
Do you feel that on some primal or instinctual level that there is some ritualistic connection between the people playing the music and the people witnessing the performance?
LH: I think so. I mean I can't really explain it but there's definitely something going on. You know, I think playing in a live setting, something just happens inside of you. You know, when you tour more you have the shows that don't really feel like that, but I think the majority of the time that's always what I'm seeking when I play shows. And just how you feel when you're done, when you get off stage, you feel like you get all your demons out, you know, just feel like it clears my head. I can't explain it.
TdB: It's one of those things that doesn't need to be explained in a way. I mean, perhaps it does need to be explained to someone that doesn't experience it and they are trying to figure out why some young men would throw away a normal life to pursue this. At the end of the day, to the people that do this and pursue this lifestyle, it doesn't really matter if you can explain that because music has to speak for itself.
You know, not everyone experiences music that way. This subculture that we're involved with is marginal. A live setting means different things to different people.
TdB: Sure man, I mean, people go out to a show and they're just there to be entertained, or not even be entertained, just to hang out because that's a place that they know that they can go and be social with their friends. We're having life-altering experiences every time we play a show. It's like the most important part of our being.
LH: Yeah, the music's so moody; it covers so many different emotions. I think about the song "Specks of Light", you know, the first half is raging, angry gnarliness and then the second half goes into this big, open, blissed-out mood. It covers so many moods and emotions during a show.
So, the next obvious question has to do with "Entertainment vs. Art". How do you define the difference between entertainment and art? You know, some people look at music purely as entertainment; and some people look at it as art. So how would you differentiate that?
LH: I think we've always looked at it as art. All the bands we've done... even Tusk, you know. I don't know if that was really "entertainment", that was pure negativity.
TbD: Yeah, we weren't trying to entertain people at all. We were kind of trying to provoke a visceral reaction out of people.
LH: Yeah, for sure. Pelican kind of changed a little bit, when we saw people kind of latching on to what we were doing. But I don't know, I think with these bands it's always been about art for sure.
TdB: I guess as far as the audience is concerned, again, it's the kind of thing where it's sort of irrelevant because to us it's about that moment of creation and the records are a document of it but really it's about getting up on a stage and having that communion with each other. To us that's art; how it's perceived doesn't really matter that much.
Our interviewer, Mike Hill of Tombs at Union Pool (more by Di Lynn Ring)
The record will be coming out soon, what plans do you have to support the release?
LH: We're going to Europe for three weeks. I think one week in the UK, we do the Netherlands, then we do a couple shows with Tombs in Germany (editorial note: one of those dates is ROADBURN).
TdB: We're trying to go back to Australia, there's nothing confirmed yet. That'll be our second time to Australia.
How was touring Australia? Not a lot of bands on this level go there.
TdB: It was pretty awesome.
LH: Yeah, for me, it was one of the most memorable touring experiences. We worked with a guy named Dave Batty. He's a promoter over there that worked with like Isis and other bands. And he brought us over, and for the first two or three days we were just in beach town and he put us up in like a resort basically.
LH: And that's how we started the tour! We just kicked it, drank beer on the beach, and hung out. And then we played Sydney, Melbourne, and... Brisbane?
LH: And all the cities were flights. He gave us the treatment, he made it really comfortable. The shows were really well promoted, there was people there. People were psyched. Australia's beautiful. The standard of living is really high. Yeah, I can't wait to go back.
What about the States?
TdB: Yeah, we haven't really made any plans for the States. It's not out of disrespect, it's really that all of us have full-time jobs and we have a limited amount of time that we can dedicate to touring. We haven't been to Europe, in what? Four years?
LH: Oh yeah, it was 2008.
TdB: So Europe was priority for us. And if we can go to Australia, that too it's been well over four years. Whereas last year, you know, I know it wasn't a lot but we did some U.S. touring.... We did the west coast. And, you know, we'll do stuff in the States again at some point, it's just we need to do what we can with the time we have available.
LH: Definitely. Yeah, we never went to Europe on the last record. You know, it came out in '09, and we did the tour with you guys [Tombs], and then we supported the Isis tour. That's pretty much it right? We never left the States. So it's overdue, for sure.
Thanks to Mike Hill, Tombs, Larry Herweg, Trevor De Brauw, and Pelican