Pelican Tells Emotive “Nighttime Stories”: Getting Real with Trevor de Brauw and Dallas Thomas
Pelican have been at it for almost two decades -- this Chicago post-metal outfit has succeeded in that time at stirring audiences with their instrumental blend of emotive, lush, and postmodern jammage. Simultaneously relaxing and invigorating, the band's output evidences years of attention to detail and thorough collaboration; indeed, as you can read below, Pelican founding member Trevor de Brauw and guitarist Dallas Thomas (joined in 2013) intend to play the long game. Six years after the release of Forever Becoming, the band is back with Nighttime Stories, which you can stream now via NPR.
As a compliment to the new album (which is excellent, by the way), I took the time to chat with de Brauw and Thomas about what went into Nighttime Stories, the balance between life and music the writing process required, and the importance of the live experience.
We sat down in Metropolitan Brewery's taproom in Chicago with their bière de garde called Cold Hope brewed in collaboration with Pelican for the new album.
I wanted to start [when] Pelican started, you must've been in your early 20s when you started the band, how did that all come to be?
de Brauw: We were in a band -- Laurent [Scroeder-Lebec], Larry [Herweg], and I were all in a band called Tusk, kind of like a prog/grindcore band -- and Laurent played bass in that, and I played guitar, but Laurent was not a bass player by nature. He was just filling the role because we didn't have a bass player. And, he was itching to play guitar more, but his guitar writing style didn't really fit in that band… one night he was staying the night at Larry's place and he just started jamming and came up with the song "Mammoth." The next day, at Tusk practice, they were like, "do you want to try to play this song?" so I played it with them. We all agreed that it wasn't Tusk…
It was something…
de Brauw: Yeah, and we just started having practices on Saturdays, back-to-back band practices with Tusk and then Pelican for years. It sorta evolved into its own thing.
So Pelican was this sort-of side project that grew into something else?
de Brauw: It seemed essential to continue following that path that we were on.
When did you know that Pelican as a band would actually mean something to someone?
de Brauw: Our first show was opening for High on Fire at the Fireside Bowl on their first national tour, and we were very bad. We basically got the gig because Brian Peterson who booked there was like, "I heard you guys have a stoner metal side project, do you want to open for High on Fire?" and we were like… "fuck yeah!" We didn't even know that we were an instrumental band at that point, we'd been playing for almost a year and just didn't know what the band was.
Did you think you guys were stoner metal?
de Brauw: We had no idea what we were [laughs]. That show went really well for us, and I don't remember what our second show was, but our third show was opening for ISIS and that Swiss band Knut, and all the dudes from ISIS watched and Aaron Turner asked us to send him a demo, and we were like, "what the fuck is happening?" -- it didn't occur to us that anyone would like our shitty band outside our circle of friends, and that was what led to us getting signed to Hydra Head and everything happening.
As far as the differences between Tusk and Pelican at that time, were you like, Tusk first and Pelican second? Or was it what you felt like doing at whatever moment?
de Brauw: I think they answer to such completely different artistic impulses that they both felt necessary and important.
What artistic impulse does Pelican satisfy for you?
Thomas: It probably evolves, changes. It's changed in the eight years I've been playing with 'em. But it's a natural change, not a "we're going to do this" it's just kind of how it evolves.
You guys are a metal band…
de Brauw: I wouldn't have said that at the time, yeah, but I'm comfortable saying that now.
...and at the time, you guys weren't framed then by the idea that "we have to be a metal band," something heavy and intense but not "metal"in that kind of way.
de Brauw: Yeah, at the time, the venues were Fireside Bowl, or A-Zone, or DIY spaces, and I think, coming from my perspective, the scene we were playing in was the hardcore scene. So, I thought we were a hardcore band, just one that played slower and didn't have vocals [laughs]. It wasn't just metal people that liked it, or hardcore people that like it, but a bunch of Chicago indie rock people who probably would have liked metal but were turned off by the vocals… so it started to cross all these boundaries and turned into something much bigger any of us could've imagined.
[Guest question from former IO editor Jon Rosenthal] You brought up you feeling that you were a hardcore band, and that this style of music [you're playing now] came from that, do you still that kind of affinity even though you feel it's grown into something a little more?
de Brauw: Actually more so on the new album than previous to it. I think the new one is maybe more in line with our roots than our previous records, in a sense. I feel like there's a real lineage from the Kiss It Goodbye, Unwound… some of that stuff seems to have stepped back in, in a way. There seems to be a punk energy to the new stuff.
Very personal question: is this because you're having an over-the-hill crisis or something?
de Brauw: [laughs]
I had to ask [laughs]! Are these influences coming back because you're just remembering them now, or is it something natural?
Thomas: Natural, yeah, like those bands, say Unwound or even His Hero is Gone or those older DIY punk bands that, before I even knew [the Pelican guys], I listened to that stuff. After a while -- I still love it -- but you get burnt out on listening to that stuff all the time. I feel like it was a natural coming back to it after not listening to it in a while.
de Brauw: It's like when you start learning to play your instrument, it's the kind of stuff you're coming up on, it works your way into your DNA, its inescable that that stuff would somehow bubble up to the surface at some point.
Thomas: We'd would play a riff or write a riff, and it would take me back to an Unwound record I haven't listened to in ten years. Just bouncing ideas off [the band] would bring these back.
So nostalgia becomes a very good playing point for the album, so if [you felt] nostalgic about something, maybe there's something there?
de Brauw: I don't know that this record is nostalgic, though, if anything every record we make is a reflection of the emotions or the headspace we're occupying at the time we're writing it. And, if anything, trying to raise kids in a world that's as fucked up as the one we live in, I think it's naturally brought out a sense of anxiety and outrage and anger that is more aligned to where I was at when I was a teenage. Perhaps at that point I didn't have the language to articulate it, and I feel like now this same feeling… this same outrage is bubbling up again, and these tools are here at our disposal.
As far as the new record goes, is there any overt politics on there, or is there a subtle message?
Thomas: It could be interpreted. To not be too pessimistic about stuff, but realistic, it is kind of where the name "Cold Hope" came from, around the time when that title came to me, my dad got really sick. And then watching him pass away, but I just became a new father myself -- I had a kid and lost my dad within the same year span. Not to get too political about anything on my end, having the grab-'em-by-the-pussy president come to power when you have a daughter is not a good feeling, you know? But you still have to have hope. The coldness comes from the pessimistic side, but you still have to move on and do your best.
de Brauw: I think that balance sort of exists on the record, where the record leaves off at the end is this more pastoral, hopeful vibe. It's sort of like this process of experiencing and processing all of this grief and anger and then purifying yourself through this expression.
Thomas: Channeling it into [something] positive.
Are you guys angry?
Thomas: Frustrated. I'd say. Anger burns out. When you're angry, it burns out quick. Frustrated… you gotta think long game. It's more frustration, instead of blowing your gasket and expending all of your energy.
So it's not like unbridled frustration and then… cut. You know how to play it out and explain the path the songs are going.
de Brauw: That's right, there's negativity on the record, but it's a process of purging the negativity. And I'd hope that's how people would use this music too, as a means to channel their negative energy into something else.
I went back and listened to some old Pelican records, then put on the new one, and honestly, you guys have not been heavier or more aggressive, and maybe some of the frustration is playing into that, but also maybe you've found a new way to express yourselves as a band too.
de Brauw: One thing that's definitely different on this record is this is the first time we've written an album from start to finish with Dallas. Part of the energy on the record is that's the energy we discovered playing live together in this iteration of the band. When we recorded Forever Becoming, we'd been playing with Dallas for a year, but we hadn't really written together.
Thomas: Clean slate on this one.
de Brauw: I really feel like we established our rapport in this iteration as a band touring that record, because our sound has continued to shift and evolve after playing the songs, and a sort of feral energy came out of those live shows. We figured out a way to harness that in the writing process.
When you listen to an album and see a band live, there's often two different experiences you get -- rarely is it the narrow, same experience -- in the case of Pelican, is playing live your element, so to speak? Or is it when you're putting the record together, more of a mathematical process.
Thomas: My vote is live.
de Brauw: I certainly prefer playing live to making records. I can't speak to other peoples' experiences to what's a better iteration of Pelican, but when writing these songs, we wrote them to perform live, not for an album.
Thomas: Yeah, for Forever Becoming, a lot of that stuff wasn't live-tested. When we recorded it and toured on it, we realized there were nuances to it… man, you know? I wish we would have recorded it now. We tried to do that with Nighttime Stories more, throwing some new ones in the set lists as much as a we could. We live-tested a majority of them -- not all of them, but two or three and try them out. They're a little more "burned in" [on the album] than the songs on Forever Becoming were. I feel like we play those songs better live than we did on the record.
de Brauw: Yeah, "Vestiges" is a song I did not get until we played it live, and the second or third time we played it, I was like, "I totally fucking get this song!" [laughs}.
Thomas: We added subtle nuances, nothing crazy, and it's totally different.
How do you guys feel about the post-metal tag or genre?
de Brauw: I feel like there is a lineage between us and some of the post-rock bands of old, I definitely see a connection between us and Slint, for instance.
But as far as what you're listening to, it might actually be much different than what you're playing. I've met a lot of artists who purposefully do not listen to other people's music to write their own; I've listened to a lot of artists who do nothing but listen to other people's music.
de Brauw: So I read an interview with Mike Kinsella of American Football the other day where he said he doesn't listen to music at all, he only listens to sports radio. But then I was hanging out with Nate Kinsella, his cousin, who's also in the band, and he was like, "yeah, Mike listens to a lot of metal…" [laughs]. I just read he only listens to sports radio -- no, he's really into Iron Maiden…
I think a lot of times bands don't want to admit they listen to other bands -- they don't want to make anyone upset -- but also they don't want to endorse anyone they don't want to endorse.
Thomas: I try to keep up, man, it's hard. What I do, I don't really want to be those people who's like, "urg, there's not any good stuff anymore." I refuse to be… there's so much, so much good stuff. Every year, and I do this every year, on Spotify in January, I start a playlist, and any time I see an album I want to check out, I throw it on that playlist. Then I'll hit shuffle to try and catch what's going on or try to find something new. And to cover as much ground as possible.
Yeah, we all have our own methodologies for how we keep track of new music.
de Brauw: Dallas's is the freewheeling artist approach, mine is a spreadsheet, very methodical, has to be organized by release date and color coded, and then I only listen to new records on Fridays, no old shit. Then I make a note of my feelings about the records so I know whether to go back and listen. I'm up to 184 albums so far this year [laughs].
Theoretical question for you: if you guys were to have sat down and written the new Pelican album, and it ended up sounding like an add-on to the last Pelican album, what would you have done? I guess the embedded question is was the intent to create something different, or did you go at it like you always have and it turned out different? It's been a couple years.
Thomas: There's been a lot going on in the last six years. There's been births, deaths… there'd be a lot of start and stop. It was all in a Dropbox shared folder, so we can always hit "pause" -- several months could go by and you could come back [to it]. It was done in these blocks. We had everything pretty organized in the folder -- it was never a conscious thing, kind of a slow evolving thing.
A lot of listeners who do not get into the process or know much about music-making, they might think you sit down for 40-50 hours a week and hammer this thing out. It's more like, you put a few things in the shared drive, someone will look at it over the weekend, and you work on it collaboratively over time.
de Brauw: There were several meetups where it'd be me and Dallas and the entire practice we'd be gigging through the shared folder [laughs] and remembering shit. I think also, this record, the stuff that stuck and the stuff that really worked and felt interesting -- it was the stuff that feels new and interesting, but also a big element of things not starting to progress and move unless all four of us were in a room together. All of the small-scale practices that we did were pretty slow progress; it was only really when we were all together… and that energy does come out on the record. It harkens back to what we were saying earlier, the live iteration of the band versus the studio version, for these songs, probably the live versions [are it] considering at the end of the day that's how the writing happened.
As you guys get older, how does it become balancing life and music?
Thomas: Challenging. You got kids. You have to be more efficient. If you have the time to do it, you probably don't have the energy to do it, so sometimes you just have to power through. You have to be efficient with the time you do have, because you'll probably be exhausted when you get that time.
de Brauw: I feel like there's this drive to keep doing it. I can't figure out how to divest myself of this. The band occupies a very necessary role in life. It's not an option to quit. Possibly at the detriment of my personal sanity and the sanity of the people around me [laughs].
Thomas: It becomes embedded in your identity. I've been playing guitar since I was ten, I'm 41.
What tours and shows do you guys have coming up?
de Brauw: We're going out east in June, then we're doing the Midwest in September, then Europe in October. Chicago's actually on the east coast string.
Nighttime Stories releases next Friday via Southern Lord.