Catching Up With Pelican's Trevor de Brauw
The past four years have been quiet ones for instrumental metal quartet Pelican. Burned out after years on the road, guitarist Trevor de Brauw, bassist Bryan Herweg, drummer Larry Herweg and guitarist Laurent Schroeder-Lebec took extended time away from Pelican to focus on outside careers and life at home. For a few members, it meant a re-ignited sense of purpose when the band started to regroup last year to record the Ataraxia/Taraxis EP, but for Schroeder-Lebec, it meant acknowledging a long-term exhaustion that would lead to the guitarist stepping away from his main means of musical expression for over a decade.
Last week, the band released its excellent full-length return, Forever Becoming. After regrouping and adding guitarist Dallas Thomas to the lineup full-time, Pelican has now shifted from its slow-churning sound for Forever Becoming, turning to a more immediate, harder-hitting form found in the deafening cuts “Deny the Absolute” or “Immutable Dusk.” And although the act is open to listeners drawing their own conclusions from its tunes, Forever Becoming centers on one theme—mortality—above all, exploring the ideas of true life “beginnings” and “ends.” De Brauw took some time out of his day off spent with his son to talk a little about the process behind Forever Becoming, Pelican’s changes and establishing a narrative in instrumental songs.
Paste: Tell me about how Pelican pulled back together after your hiatus.
De Brauw: It was kind of a crazy period of time. In 2009, we had hit our wall in touring and doing the band as a full-time enterprise. We tried to start careers, but it was impossible to do anything outside of the band. Everything came to a head then. We were burned out creatively and in terms of living in a van, stuff like that. We made a conscious decision to pull back, and in 2010 we only played four shows.
In 2011, [drummer] Larry [Herweg] was the first one who said he’d like to do more stuff. We had a few songs we didn’t record, so we thought maybe we should record those? [Founding guitarist] Laurent [Schroeder-Lebec] wasn’t interested in touring, so that’s when we started playing live with [guitarist] Dallas [Thomas]. Much later that year, we recorded the Ataraxia/Taraxis EP, and the process of recording that EP for Bryan and I, it reinvigorated our creativity. In the past, the creative relationships have been more or less that Laurent or I would write together, or Bryan and Laurent would write together.
Bryan and I hadn’t met at as a duo, so it just started the creative process and created a new creative partnership. We were fired up and wanted to get the gears turning on a new record. Larry was ready, but Laurent still felt apprehensive. We pushed him further, he had a soul-searching moment and said “I don’t feel the creative fire now. I don’t know when it will come back. You guys should do the band without me.” That was hard because Bryan and I had this new experience of working together, but we’d never written an entire album together. It was a challenge, but because it had that new-ness, it had an excitement to it. It translated to the compositions. We harnessed that and wrote the record over the course of 2012 and recorded in the spring of this year.
Paste: Why was it that you and Bryan had never worked together as a writing team?
De Brauw: When the band started, it was Laurent’s thing. We were all in Tusk together, Laurent, myself and Larry. Tusk was my writing vehicle, Pelican was Laurent’s writing vehicle. But shortly after the first EP, I got more involved in his songs, we worked more together on arrangements and structure, and it became our thing. Bryan started offering tidbits from The Fire in Our Throats on forward, but he would go to Laurent. I don’t know if there’s a specific reason why we didn’t write together, but it was pretty much how the writing of the band evolved.
Paste: What kind of new chemistry do you see working with Bryan?
De Brauw: He and I both have a looser picking style than Laurent. I think the thing we lost from this record, positive or negative, Laurent had a lot of focus on how he’d pick things. I think it came from his obsession with Judas Priest and ‘80s heavy metal bands, with galloping and stuff. But I’d bring stuff to the band, it would be more open and strummy. Bryan is really into grooves, letting grooves free. We like to keep things open and spacious.
Paste: Didn’t working with Dallas tone down that “looseness” a bit in the studio?
De Brauw: If it was up to just me, the picking patterns would probably be different every time I played the song [laughs]. I slide a lot on my playing, and I pay attention to where I’m playing, but I don’t pay attention to where I’m coming from. When we were teaching Dallas new songs, he’s a very meticulous guy. “Can you show me how you’re strumming that?” “Well, yeah, I guess, but I guess I have to figure out what I’m doing first.” [Laughs]
Paste: Much of the theme of the album is on the idea of mortality. Was this something that was being discussed as the album was being written?
De Brauw: As with all of our albums, the theme kind of created itself in a way. We get halfway through the writing process and we look over the songs and see what they’re telling us, what it is that they’re suggesting. We take stock of what’s going on in our lives and what’s happened since the last record. That helps us make sense of what the theme is, and that’s where we take the rest of the record writing-wise. And in terms of the band, with things slowing down and starting back up again, all of us individually had circumstances in our lives where we saw a sense of closure on one thing and beginning again on another, so it seemed so consistent that it couldn’t be really ignored, particularly with the darkness of the first half of the album. It’s very dark, almost apocalyptic, and I think it’s obvious that it represented things coming to an end, and then you come to terms with what it means for something to end. There’s no such thing as an end, really.
Paste: Does the title for the album opener, “Terminal,” come from some of those experiences?
De Brauw: Its use as the introduction of the album is to set the stage for the album’s theme. The album is about regeneration and rebirth, but also that which precedes, namely death or cessation. There’s no real beginnings or endings in life, everything is part of a larger process. In the most literal sense dead matter decays and feeds the earth which, in turn, produces new life; but there’s also figurative examples all around us of things that present themselves as endings that are really just the start of a new chapter. As a whole the album’s thematic intent is to come to terms with this sense of mortality—that everything in this life will inevitably give way to something else. So it seemed fitting and necessary to start the album with a prescription of death.
Paste: You’ve discussed that you’re trying to establish more of a narrative in your songs. How does that work in an instrumental setting?
De Brauw: I guess when I say narrative, I don’t mean in the sense that there’s a narrative and we write a song that tries to tell a story. What I mean is that the song suggests a journey. That it starts somewhere, goes through changes and goes somewhere different. I think over the last few albums, we went in a more traditional song structure where it was more verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge.
With this record, we were falling back less on traditional structures and just doing more songs that flow from one thing to another without feeling a need to reference what came before it. The thing about instrumental music and narrative is that without the composer intending a narrative, by virtue of the fact that there’s not a voice filling a space with words that might suggest a meaning, it’s open for the listener to suggest within their own self. Any listener can take the music and apply their own thoughts. In that sense it’s a narrative to many people.