A QUICK TALK WITH PELICAN ABOUT … ‘Grunge Gravy’, Drinking With Kim Thayil, And Working With Members of Isis, Sunn O))) and Earth

Words by Andrew Parks

Trevor de Brauw needs to keep moving. Otherwise, how the hell is the Pelican guitarist going to get everything (press reports for other bands at Biz 3, repairs and renovations on his first-ever house) done before flying to New York for tonight’s Blackened Music bill at the Brooklyn Masonic Temple? The truth is, he won’t. Because it never stops. Not when the Chicago/L.A.-based band’s set to sound check an hour after landing, with de Brauw taking a seat at Pelican’s merch table soon after that.

With that in mind, we managed to get de Brauw on the phone last night to talk about Pelican’s eagerly-anticipated Southern Lord debut (What We All Come To Need, due out in late October), a roots-revisiting disc that also happens to feature guest spots from key members of Isis, Sunn O))) and more. Speaking of Sunn, we’ve been told the Temple doesn’t adhere to noise regulations, so tonight’s show might be louder than My Bloody Valentine‘s right around this time last year. So in the words of a press release we received last night, “You may notice all of Sunn O)))’s albums feature their mantra MAXIMUM VOLUME YIELDS MAXIMUM RESULTS. The Blackened Music Series will be adhering to Sunn O)))’s wishes for this performance…This show will be loud. This will be a show you will feel with your entire body. Please fortify yourself accordingly.”

“As for how loud we’ll be,” says de Brauw, “that’s up to whoever’s working our front of house. We encourage our sound people to make our sets punishingly loud, but we do try to keep it to a level where we can hear everything onstage. We definitely don’t go to the extremes Sunn do.”

self-titled: So have you been selling the band’s merch since the beginning?
Yeah, pretty much. We’ve got a division of labor in the band–like a Communist country where everyone does their part and nobody complains.

Who’s the roadie then?
[Laughs] Well, we’re all roadies. I don’t know. It’s pretty complicated, like any interpersonal business is. I take care of some of the financial matters, [guitarist] Laurent [Schroeder-Lebec] does a lot of the tour managing, and then any number of other little things [are divided up between everyone else].

You don’t even have a manager, do you?
No. We don’t make that much money doing what we do, so we go with any cost-cutting measures we can come up with. A lot of people play rock because they can’t do anything else, but we’re all intelligent, capable people who can keep everything together ourselves, so there’s no reason to pay someone else to do anything for us.

Is the band still split between L.A. and Chicago?

So that’s still working out well?
Yeah, it’s gone great. We just work in smaller teams and then bring ideas to the full band later. I think the songs are stronger this time because of that.

Was the songwriting process similar to the last record at all?
It’s similar in that the songs are still pretty concise. With the last one, we didn’t just boil down the song lengths and arrangements; the parts were also simplistic in a way. With this one, we went back to some of the ambient textures of our old material, and some of the songs are more complex even though they’re shorter.

Ambient how? Just more effects?
Basically. There was a lot of noodling early on in the band. I don’t know about everyone else, but I wasn’t confident as a guitar player then, so I’d just throw effects on top of everything–to wash it all out. Now things are still washed out, but the parts underneath are much more confident.

When we interviewed Greg Anderson (of Sunn O))) and Southern Lord) a couple months ago, he sounded really psyched about your new material, because he said it sounded like a return to your early days. Is that a fair assumption–is this one a lot more like Australasia? Or is it more of a culmination of your entire career?
It’s more like that. A good parallel would be in how Cave In radically changed their sound and turned a lot of people off, and then at some point they re-investigated heir old material. We toured City of Echoes quite a bit, so near the end of the run, we went back to our EP and some Australasia shit. I don’t want to say the new stuff is going to be just like that, but we have figured out our trajectory in a linear way. It’s a progression from the last record, where we emphasize our strengths. It’s not like we’re backtracking or anything like that. The songs are certainly not as long-form or repetitive as they used to be.

Some of the aggression and anger is coming back, though. As a whole, the last album was more uplifting. This one has its fair share of that, but there’s definitely a dark side to it.

Most metal bands say that–that “our new album is darker and heavier than the last.” So how is that true in your case?
Well, writing opens things up inside of you that you’re not otherwise aware of. I don’t think we’re angrier or darker than we were two years ago as people, but that’s just the way things are turning out [musically].

There was also another recent Pelican interview where one of you said the new record is “more riff-oriented.” Aren’t they all?
[Laughs] I don’t remember saying that, but it ended up on a Southern Lord press release somehow. Seeing it on paper…of course it’s riff-oriented, but not anymore than before. If anything, the rhythm section has gotten a lot more involved.

I don’t know. When you’re in a band, it’s always hard to explain how your sound’s changed.

The rhythm section point is interesting, especially since a lot of people still claim Larry [Herweg] can’t play drums. It’s like, “Have you really listened? Not just to Pelican, but to [his work in] Lair of the Minotaur?”
I know. Or the fucking Tusk stuff–his drumming’s fucking insane. I was blown away by it on a new song we put up on MySpace (“Embedding the Moss”), and already people started shit-talking it. It’s like they’re doing it just because other people are.

Well Pitchfork made that claim in a review, so maybe that’s partly responsible.
That’s quite possible.

Well, when you started, the drumming was supposed to be slow and simple–as if you were in doing a tribute to Earth, right?

And he’s able to play more complex stuff; the music just didn’t call for it in the beginning. So is that the case now–is he stretching out more?
Well, one of his skills is playing in the pocket and establishing a really solid groove. That’s the majority of what he does on the new stuff, plus he learned a lot in terms of how to control his footwork and do triplets with the bass drum. I don’t understand shit like that because I’m not a drummer, but I can definitely hear how much more complex it’s gotten.

Another difference with this record is Brian’s (Larry’s brother) contributions to the band. They’ve increased quite a bit, and his songs have a really different vibe. Like the song on the Young Widows split is his composition. He has more of a Kyuss background in his songwriting than the rest of us, so there’s this groovy, almost stoner-ish feel to his material.

When did you start working on the record?
We went to Seattle in March and recorded three songs in three days, which comprise our new EP. While we were up there, we demoed four other songs, plus a reworked version of the song that was on the Young Widows split. It was the lowest stress recording session we’ve ever had.

For the people who were really into the split or your EP, is the record the same kind of vibe?
The EP and the split are very different, but they cover a lot of the same ground. We’re honing on a much different tone than we used to go for. It’s even more rock than City of Echoes, but it’s doing something that’s also more metal in a way. We’re embracing our inner grunge.

Explain that if you could. What’s up with the phrase that’s on all your records?
Grunge gravy?

Yeah. You should collaborate with Kim Thayil of Soundgarden. He already worked on that Boris/Sunn O))) album [Altar].
We actually went out drinking once. Greg is buddies with him, so when we were recording, Greg was like, “Kim’s at this bar. Do you wanna hang out?” And we’re like, “Well, fuck yeah!” The idea of working with him–of telling him what to do–is too intimidating, though. We like our guest appearances to be a little more plotted out.

Working with Dylan Carlson (“Geometry of Murder,” an Earth cover from the Ephemeral EP) must have been very daunting.
Well, we toured with him and Adrienne [Davies] a bit, and got along great. Honestly, it was a little intimidating [working with him]. Greg brokered the deal and asked him if he’d mind playing on his own song. That’s kinda a weird thing to ask, but he was stoked on it and what we are doing.

Why did you pick [“Geometry of Murder”] specifically?
It was just one of those things where we were driving around on tour listening to that song and someone suggested covering it. There wasn’t any deep thought behind it, although it is a bit darker and riff-oriented. [Laughs]

Because he was involved, were you careful not to fuck with the original too much?
We’ve just never done a cover before, so it seemed easier to learn how to do it the way it was [originally]. Which is cool, because maybe some of our fans can hear that song and see the parallel between it and [early Pelican]. Then they can geek out to Earth.

Speaking of geeking out to other bands, two of the guests on the record are from much smaller groups than, say, Isis or Sunn O))). Can you tell us a little more about them, starting with [guitarist] Ben [Verellen]?
We’ve been a fan of Ben’s band Harkonen for as long as we’ve been together. [Pelican and Harkonen] did some tours, but even before that, we were all Hydra Head junkies. And [their 2002 LP Shake Harder Boy] was one of those records that didn’t get recognized as much as [Hydra Head’s] other releases, despite being better in some respects. It took the mathy, discordant hardcore of that era and put a grungy spin on it, like early Nirvana and Soundgarden–crazy but catchy.

If you were to give an easy reference point to what he did in Harkonen, it’d basically be Botch crossed with Bleach, then?
Basically. [Laughs] The part that he plays on [“Glimmer”] brings to mind Sunny Day Real Estate, actually. It still sounds like Pelican–really thick and heavy–but it also reminds me of How It Feels To Be Something On.

And what was the deal with Allen [Epley, of Shiner/The Life and Times]?
Growing up in the Midwest and being into heavy, melodic stuff, Shiner was another great unsung act. Since we ended up touring with his other band the Life and Times, we ended up becoming friends with him and he immediately came to mind as someone to collaborate with.

This special guests thing is new to you guys. Why the sudden decision to go that route?
After working with Dylan on the EP, we thought it’d be really fun to try. We’ve talked about having guests on our records before, but we’ve never been able to pull it off. So we thought, ‘We’re gonna be in Seattle, and we have a bunch of friends there; why don’t we put a list of people together and try to find a way to incorporate them?’

Were all the guest parts written out beforehand or were they worked out on-the-fly in the studio?
We demoed all the songs first, then sent them to the contributors. Sometimes we’d give them a little direction or suggest a part we’d like them to play on, but for the most part, we would be like, “Do whatever you think works best.” The directions were pretty vague, although we did give everyone specific songs. With the exception of [Isis frontman] Aaron Turner–we gave him two to choose from.

Which were?
Hmmm, well he ended up playing on the title track. I can’t remember for the life of me what the name of the other song was. Oh, yeah–it was “Strung Up From the Sky,” the first song we leaked digitally.

It must have been fun with both your label bosses, past and present, on the record. (Greg Anderson co-founded Southern Lord, and Turner helps run Hydra Head.)
Ultimately, yeah. [Laughs]

So what does Aaron add to his song? Just play guitar?
Yeah, it’s the outro. The riff melts away into a bunch of abstract sounds using guitar, so he was an obvious choice for that sort of thing. Not just because of Isis; because of Lotus Eaters, House of Low Culture–stuff like that.

With Greg, Sunn O))) started as an Earth tribute band, kinda like Pelican. So did you both revisit that sound on this record?
Not so much. He plays on a song called “The Creeper.” To most of us, it has a dirty and heavy southern-rock feel to it. In a way, it’s our most ‘stoner-sounding’ song yet.

Well he was in Goatsnake, so that kinda makes sense.
Exactly. That’s part of why we picked him for that. In the end, he provided an intro to the song, which kinda is like a heavy Earth/Sunn thing, but it definitely sets the stage for what’s to come.

You mentioned Brian being responsible for the stoner-rock side of your songwriting. Did he do this track?
No, it’s actually one of Laurent’s compositions, and the place it came from is more like early Skynyrd filtered through his heavy take on music. [Laughs]

How did the album turn out, compared to the preconceptions you went into it with?
It’s much darker than City of Echoes, and it retains some of that album’s tempo aspects. But the song structures are more aligned with (the 2005 album) The Fire In Our Throats[Will Beckon the Thaw]. The songs aren’t 11 minutes long, but they shift through a lot of territories and moods before they really get to where they’re going. I definitely feel a lot more confident about the material now that I’ve heard it recorded. All of the song structures make sense.

The cover’s pretty damn dark–very Apocalypse Now.
Well, what the title of the record means to us is we live in a world where…Sorry, I just had a moment of pause where I realized every movie trailer has that phrase in it [mock movie trailer voice]: “In a world where…” But yeah, we live in a world where compassion is hard to find. Not just compassion between people, but compassion for the planet. The very existence of humanity seems to be predicated on this principle of progress without any thought of sustainability or how to reverse some of the negative courses we take. So what we end up all coming to need is each other–our love ones and close friends, a community to help us pull through tough times.