Pelican Tell Us Some Nighttime Stories
Trevor Shelley de Brauw is a pretty busy guy. In addition to being the guitarist in Pelican and RLYR — and releasing an excellent solo album, Uptown, in 2017 — he’s also a father and works full-time as a music publicist. (Full disclosure: de Brauw did press for my band United Nations’ last full-length in 2014.) That said, de Brauw insists that the six-year gap between Pelican full-lengths had less to do with outside obligations than the fact that it’s the first Pelican album recorded front-to-back with guitarist Dallas Thomas, who replaced founding member Laurent Schroeder-Lebec in 2012. “We had to learn to write songs all over again and that’s kind of [been] consistent for the last few records,” he explains.
“When Laurent left the band in 2012 and the onus of responsibility for writing an album fell on [bassist] Bryan [Herweg] and myself, we didn’t know how to start or what a songwriting process looked like in that iteration of the band,” de Brauw continues. “[2013’s] Forever Becoming ended up taking four years because we kind of had to start from square one almost as a new band, and I think that was sort of similar this time, too. We needed to figure out what this iteration of the band was before we knew how to move it forward, and the chemistry of this particular lineup came together just touring and playing live. Dallas started playing with us in 2011 as a fill-in for Laurent, so he was an integral part of our live lineup and that’s where we learned to play together.”
Aside from the geographic challenge of getting in the practice space together — half the band are still in Chicago while drummer Larry Herweg and his brother Bryan live in Los Angeles — there’s the perfectionist nature and varied influences of the band’s members, which means the songs on Nighttime Stories are as influenced by doom metal as they are the Dischord Records catalog. From the melodic metal glory of “Midnight And Mescaline” to the crushing syncopation of the title track, there’s no question that Nighttime Stories sounds absolutely crushing. However maybe more impressive is the fact that after nearly two decades together, they’re still redefining their sound to somehow make Pelican even more difficult to categorize.
Nighttime Stories doesn’t come out until 6/7 but you can stream the seven-minute-long, atmospheric opus “Cold Hope” right now exclusively on Stereogum. You’re welcome.
STEREOGUM: How do you feel like the dynamic of Pelican has changed over the years?
DE BRAUW: We rehearsed for a year before we played our first show, so the makeup of Pelican’s original formation was something that was made in the practice space. During that period we had to learn how to be a live band, [but] this version of Pelican is the opposite. I think we’ve played way more times onstage than we’ve ever rehearsed with this lineup just because that’s the nature of the beast. We taught Dallas how to play the songs and then we started touring, so that was the energy of this lineup. We started to see how the Forever Becoming songs were evolving on the road, not in the sense that we were improvising but the songs took on a different energy. I think tapping into how to recreate that feeling was part of the learning curve of trying to create this album.
STEREOGUM: Even more mellow songs like “It Stared At Me” really work in the context of the album, even if they’re different than what people might expect from the band.
DE BRAUW: “It Stared At Me” was a very strange one to try to finish, I’ll be honest with you. That was a riff Dallas wrote at a soundcheck and one of the guys told him to remember it because I guess we were all jamming it together. Then when we were listening back to it, [Dallas] was like, “here’s this thing that we were working on” and none of us remembered it. We couldn’t figure out what it was; that’s one of the growing pains of writing an album for six years. So then he and I worked on it at my house and we built a demo: I put keyboards on it and he had these shredding guitar solos — it was kind of like AC/DC meets John Carpenter — and we sent to the guys and they were like, “no.” But I was determined to find an arrangement of the song that would work for the album, and we ended up just making it in the studio. We were all seeing the song differently: Larry wasn’t seeing it as this hyper-charged AC/DC thing, he wanted it to be slow and laid back but he didn’t really know how to get there. So then [producer] Sanford [Parker] and Dallas coached that slower performance out of him and Bryan came up with a bass line and I was like, “OK, well I’ve got to redo what I was doing.” So I came up with the slide guitar and electric piano and I was like, “oh my God, this song is almost better than the songs we spent six years writing.”
STEREOGUM: Were there any songs on the album you worked on consistently for six years?
DE BRAUW: Yeah, actually “Arteries Of Blacktop.” The first riff of that song was one of the first riffs we wrote, and we “finished it” maybe six weeks before we made the record. Then I think we still changed it in the studio once we heard how it was going down on tape.
STEREOGUM: How did you know that now was the time to record Nighttime Stories?
DE BRAUW: We were piecemeal writing the record for years, and then around the end of 2017, Dallas said, “we’ve got to finish writing this record, don’t book any more shows,” and I said, “OK, no problem.” Then Migration Fest hit me up and asked if we wanted to play and I was like, “goddammit, I really want to do Migration Fest.” So I wrote the guys and said, “can we do Migration Fest and nothing else?” And Dallas wrote back and said, “no shows until we finish the record.” So then I went back to the calendar and figured out when everyone was free and said, “we’re doing a one-week writing session here, a weekend writing session here, and another writing session here.” Then I went back to Dallas and I said, “if we do all those writing sessions and finish the record can I book Migration Fest?” And he said “Yes.” [Laughs.] So we just booked the writing sessions and I booked the tour and that was it. If Dallas hadn’t done that, we probably would still be writing the record.
STEREOGUM: Nighttime Stories was originally a title intended for Tusk. How did it get appropriated for this album?
DE BRAUW: Around the time we started writing this album, Jody Minnoch, who was the singer of Tusk, passed away unexpectedly. There was no indication that this would happen, so it caught all of us really by surprise. Larry and I in particular started to go through our archives to preserve some of the stuff, especially live shows. Larry had tons of camcorder and VHS tapes of old live sets, and we tried to digitize those and get them online. I’m not a terribly nostalgic or retrospective-type person, but that period put me in a sort of a retrospective mode in a way where I was really thinking back to the Tusk stuff. We were sort of going through this period of uncertainty of where we were going to go with Pelican [at the time] and I think that period rubbed off on me in a sense and that’s when I wrote the first couple of riffs for [the song] “Nighttime Stories.” When we worked on that song together, I think Larry tapped into that too and got the sense that this had a lineage to that sonic world, so he suggested naming the song “Nighttime Stories” as an homage to Jody.
As we started getting further into the songwriting process, I think we started feeling that some of the elements of Tusk — I don’t think the music sounds like Tusk I should make that caveat — but I feel like some of the thematic backbone of what made Tusk what it was started surfacing in a musical way in the new [Pelican] material. So Larry had the further suggestion that we start pulling other song ideas from some of the ideas Jody had floated for the album back when he first brought it to us, and that’s where we pulled, I think, seven of nine song titles. The last Tusk album [Resisting The Dreamer] came out in 2007 and Jody didn’t actually sing on that one, we wrote all the music and sent it to him and he couldn’t figure out how to contribute to it, so we ended up getting [Young Widows’] Evan Patterson and [Kayo Dot’s] Toby Driver to sing on it. So we kind of thought Tusk was over.
STEREOGUM: Then what happened?
DE BRAUW: In 2009 or 2010, both Larry and I received these packages [from Minnoch] that were page upon page of rambling writing and photocopies of weird artistic images that he had pulled from the library. I remember that he sent a list of songs he was into and he said, “I don’t know if anything would ever come of this, but I had this idea for this album Nighttime Stories. As you can see it’s kind of a garbled mess of stuff but if this sparks any ideas, I’d love to make this record with you guys.” It was one of those life things where we were interested but at that point, Laurent, who was in Tusk and Pelican as well as Larry and myself, were all really burnt out on Pelican and probably burnt out on each other and we were looking to get into other aspects of our lives rather than creating more albums. I was always really intrigued by this stuff Jody and had sent and interested in pursuing it, but there was just nowhere to fit it in. So it was something that was always sitting in the back of our heads until he passed away.
STEREOGUM: It’s nice that it gets a second life in this way.
DE BRAUW: Yeah. I’m also hesitant to say this is the Nighttime Stories album that he envisioned because it’s not, and also this record isn’t specifically an homage to Jody, it’s just sort of like we were able to share some of his ideas and his vision with the world in some small sense, and it makes up some small part of this record in a way.
STEREOGUM: Pelican gets lumped in as a “metal band,” but I hear stuff like Polvo and all these things you might not expect in Pelican’s music. Do you feel like you brought in more varied reference points here, or is it a continuation of what you’ve always done with the band?
DE BRAUW: I think part of going back to the past and getting in touch with the roots of Tusk was figuring out the common ground between Dallas and myself, and Dallas and all of us. Because we had to sort of restart the band in a way with this new lineup, this is square one all over again. I think in a sense a lot of the music has its roots in this specific era of hardcore that we all kind of came up in, because that’s really a shared focal point, influence-wise: that period of the late ’90s/early ’00s, where underground metal started to influence hardcore and there was an emphasis put on controlled chaos and dissonance. I think one of the things that’s so attractive about hardcore is how the hardcore scene is that — for all its failings — it’s ultimately a positive outlet. It’s a place where people who have more anger than they know what to do with find this positive outlet for it, and I feel like that’s the energy we were trying to tap into with this album.
STEREOGUM: I can hear that, but I also feel like there can be a level of ignorance in that scene that’s not present here, despite those reference points. It feels much more evolved…
DE BRAUW: Well, sure, yeah, because we’re fucking 40 and we’re a little more philosophical than we were when we were teenagers. [Laughs.] There’s some quote I read a long time ago about “the articulate expression of emotion versus the emotional expression of inarticulateness.” I can’t attribute that quote, but I feel like the hardcore that we were a part of when we were teenagers was the emotional expression of inarticulateness, whereas we’re trying to tap into that same energy but be the reverse, the articulate expression of emotion. It’s the same central thesis in a way but expressed very differently.
STEREOGUM: Pelican have been a band for almost 20 years and it seems like there are a lot more bands like Pelican today. What’s it like seeing more instrumental heavy bands come along the way, and how does that feel going into this era of the band?
DE BRAUW: I guess I don’t know. [Laughs.] Next year is going to be our 20th year, and it seems really surreal to me, because when I was getting into punk, the records I thought were old came out like 10 years prior. The scale is so different. I just feel a lot of gratitude that people care about our band when do stuff and don’t think we’re fogies or something. But I think the music scene in general has changed, and music seems to be really supportive of these long career arcs in a way that it perhaps didn’t use to be when we were younger. It seems like bands were much more “make a few albums then flame out,” so I feel really fortunate to have been a part of a scene for so long and to be part of that evolution.
STEREOGUM: Do you still get people who contact you and are like, “I saw you with the Deftones on the Taste Of Chaos Tour in 2006?”
DE BRAUW: The one that keeps coming up lately is, “I got into you guys because I beat Dead Space 3 and you were over the end credits.” You know, that’s cool, too. [Laughs.] That’s not something that I would have associated with a band of our scale 20 years ago.
STEREOGUM: Speaking of the band’s longevity, what keeps you going, with everything else that you have going on in your life?
DE BRAUW: I think for me — and I’m sure for everybody else in the band — it’s that we’re driven by a compulsion and it’s probably unhealthy and there’s something really wrong with us. [Laughs.] Theoretically someone who likes playing music should feel totally satisfied sitting at home and strumming a guitar; the compulsion to do it in front of an audience and receive applause in exchange for it, that’s some sort of deep-seated ego damage that probably all of us suffer from to some degree. For us, I think the experience and emotional catharsis of discovering the energy in these songs that can’t be tapped into in the practice space or in the studio or in private, it’s very addictive because it makes you feel like you’re communing with something that’s beyond yourself. The experience of playing music in front of an audience, especially if you’re able to lose yourself in the moment, you’re tapping into something that goes beyond yourself to the inspiration that creates music itself. I don’t know if it makes any sense when you talk about it in words if you can’t just experience how it feels like I can’t picture a life where I’m not doing that because it just feels so necessary. It feels very much the fiber of what makes me who I am to try to tap into myself and try to lose myself and achieve this transcendence that I can’t achieve any other way. It makes the songs mean what they mean.
Nighttime Stories is out 6/7 via Southern Lord. Pre-order it here.