Interview: Trevor de Brauw of Pelican

Pelican_by Lisa Shelley1

This may seem a little ambitious to say but Pelican are Chicago music royalty. With a career spanning four albums, 10 EPs and splits, two live DVDs, and 12 years together, these guys have carved themselves a little slice of the music scene that will be forever theirs. When these guys tour, you go see them. When they play in Chicago, you arrive ears ready for a bombardment of sound and fury. We caught up with Pelican’s guitarist Trevor de Brauw to talk about their latest EP Ataraxia/Taraxis, music piracy, and the history of the band.

Heave: It’s a little funny, I wanted to see what exact cities you had been to on your European tour so I Googled “pelican tour 2012.” There were at least one or two links advertising shore-line tours to watch the local pelicans migrate.

Trevor de Brauw: Google is a funny beast.

Heave: Since you’ve had some time to collect your feet after flying to the US from Finland, how are you feeling?

Trevor: Pretty good – actually after the Helsinki show we played a one-off in Istanbul, which was pretty insane. It’s one of the most far-flung places we have played so far. It felt like a real event – Western bands make it over there, but we were really one of the first from our scene of heavier progressive underground bands. The promoter who brought us over had previously worked with bands like Shellac and Mission of Burma, but nothing in our vein. It was a big honor. We also just played Bonnaroo last weekend, which was pretty huge and weird.

Heave: How have you been decompressing from your tour?

Trevor: By returning to normal life – job, home, listening to records.

Heave: I’m sure you’re very excited to be on home turf with fresh material. What excites you most about the upcoming dates in Chicago and elsewhere? Sights and sounds you’re happy to have near/have left behind on tour?

Trevor: The Chicago show should be fun – it’s been nearly a year since our last hometown show and our first since the new EP came out. We’re also playing at Lincoln Hall, which is a first for us – so there’s an element of something new for us.

Heave: You’ve said before that you can’t tour extensively now, I’m assuming, because you’re all busy young men. As your success grew, so did your families, side-projects, businesses, etc. How does it feel to be the “rock star” uncle or dad?

Trevor: I feel like the furthest thing from a rock star. There was a short period of time when we were a newer band and we were young and dumb that it felt like we were on some trajectory toward being a bigger band or something, but ultimately it’s just outside attention playing games with your perceptions. On one hand it’s positive because being under a microscope gives you impetus to really work on your art and craftsmanship, on the other hand “fame” can be a distraction – you can see casualties of the fame headtrip everywhere in the music media. I think we weathered that period well and we have no illusions about who we are and our place in the music world. We’re fortunate to have a strong fanbase that continue to care about our music and we’re happy to be making the highest quality music we can muster.

Heave: I recently burned City of Echoes for an extended “nephew” of mine, he loved it and played it for his friends. To what extent does your lives as fathers and brothers, businessmen and bandmates, make its way into the seeds of your creative process?

Trevor: It’s hard to say that it makes an impact at all. I think our creative process begins from the internal language we’ve developed as a small self-contained tribe and grows from there. Outside influences will always play into your worldview and overall mood, which comes out in the songs you write, but it’s never really an overt thing and it’s not even something we’re aware of until retrospection kicks in.

Heave: Your songs paint a vast landscape in the mind’s eye, rather easily. The nature of the music Pelican writes has one imagining lyrics or stories while listening to them. When you’re writing are you talking about what you see? Is it a more direct approach or are you just “going with your gut?” What, for yourself and for your bandmates, grows the ideas that become songs? Does it start with a melody or a scene?

Trevor: Generally our songs will start as nuggets – a couple of riffs or parts that go together and have a sense of flow. One person will bring that in and then we’ll work on it, either in pairs or as a full group. Usually from there it’s a matter of figuring out the interplay between the different instruments and once a sense of melody or trajectory comes to the surface other parts just kind of start to sprout and take form. We don’t really start with a narrative in mind, but letting small bits grow into full songs allows a narrative flow to assert itself.

Heave: There has been quite a bit of press and social-media traffic about copyright law, intellectual property and digital rights management, specifically in the States and the E.U. When people get your merch at a show, they own it, for all intents and purposes. Naturally, this fan shares it, eventually. It’s an ugly truth, but we know it happens. How would you handle copyright reform, were it to come to your doorstep? Do you feel that the efforts being made to ‘clamp down’ on digital media rights are just? Perhaps in an any-press-is-good-press sense, at least more people are hearing your music, liking it and coming to your shows. If we do want to pay our respects and buy directly from you, where would you prefer we do it? Does Hydra Head or Pelican use any form of Rights Agreement or license management? Do they need it? How hard and how long do you think both sides of this mess, pirates v. magnates, will slug it out?

Trevor: I wish I had answers for this, but I really don’t. There’s so many sides to the question and so many perspectives, especially from generation to generation, that it’s not really possible for the various sides to ever see eye-to-eye or come to any real resolution. Coming from the 90s – the era of tape trading and, eventually, CD burning – I have always thieved a percentage of my music, but it’s always been secondary to the feeling of owning the album or the song. I live by an edict that was verbalized quite well by music critic Christopher Weingarten: “steal as much music as you can, buy as much music as you can afford.” And I do buy a lot of music because I am a collector and obsessed with music and records. And I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically wrong with stealing an album in order to preview it before you’re willing to part with cash on an actual copy. In the old days you’d buy an album and if it sucked you got burned; I’m as happy as anyone to leave those days behind.

But I do think that something has to change. I could go the old guilt trip routine about how our band is at a level that we should be able to make a living off our music, but with the record sales we lose to theft we can’t afford to do the band full time and have to approach it as a hobby. But no one sympathizes with those stories because who has the right to say that they deserve to make a living off of music, right? But the way I see it it’s not really the high-sense-of-entitlement bands that are getting burned on the deal, it’s music fans like myself, who are going to see recorded music decline with each passing year. If labels can’t sell records, can’t even break even on them, there’s no incentive to keep making them. Putting out a record is a huge gamble to begin with, now that sales are declining who the fuck would want to take that kind of risk? And what’s left is bands trying to fund their own recordings so they can sell them via platforms like Bandcamp or give them away, which means budgets keep getting lower, which means records start sounding shittier – all fine and good of course since digital music sounds like crap to begin with.

Think about an album like Loveless – that record had an insane recording budget, required the label to take a tremendous risk. That record would never, never, never happen now – it’s not even remotely possible for anyone to consider investing money like that in an album because it will not recoup. The same will soon go for incredibly artistically ambitious “commercial” albums like Dark Side of the Moon, or Exile on Main Street. And it’s not killing the bands – the bands will continue making their music, but we’ll be the ones who have to live with the inferior version of their master vision, or no recording of it at all because there’s no budget for it.

I don’t know how to shift the gears on a sea change like this. There needs to be huge cultural shift to understand that the recorded arts are being neglected. Music piracy would need to be stigmatized. I think there should be more enforcement – not the way the RIAA have gone after music fans and sued them for ridiculous sums for stealing music, but the platforms for stealing music. I don’t know that fines and lawsuits settle anything, but if there were at least some online oversight going on and taking down illegal download links it would make things better. Potentially.

Heave: The practice/recording room/booth/whatever gets hot. Sometimes that heat is from exhaustion, too many bodies or from tempers. After 14 disc releases and two DVDs Pelican must’ve refined their writing process to where it’s not so hot anymore. What do you enjoy most about having the experience to make good music well, or even efficiently?

Trevor: I think what’s changed, or evolved, that I enjoy is that we have a much more intuitive grasp over each other as musicians and we have a firmer ability to communicate musically. In the past we used to struggle a lot more with figuring out where each person fit in the mix when it came to the arrangements, now we lock on this a lot quicker which leaves us with more time to actually craft the songs.

Heave: Is there any element from your original process that you miss, or perhaps are happy to be forever done with?

Trevor: In the old days we would sometimes come up against a wall when writing and just keep ramming into it over and over again until the wall fell. It was hard work and frustrating. Everything flows a lot more now and I don’t miss the anger and frustration.

Heave: Ataraxia/Taraxis evokes a recorded sound akin to March Into the Sea, with a hint of experience. Again, what was the mindset going into the production of this record?

Trevor: We kind of went about recording this record in a really strange fashion. Larry recorded drums for two of the songs on his own in LA with Aaron Harris (of ISIS fame). Meanwhile the rest of us made some home recorded experiments. We sent a rough draft of one of those to Larry and he recorded drum parts for it in LA with his bandmate in ÆGES Kemble Walters. Then we took the drum tracks from those three songs and the home recorded experiments into the studio with Sanford Parker to record everything else and mix it. It was an experimental approach for us and we really didn’t have a concept of how it would turn out – we knew it all linked together musically, but in terms of production we kind of just trusted Sanford’s ears and judgment.

Heave: Are there any new toys to your music making quiver; anything you’re particularly fond of? Are there any relics of the process from the Pelican EP or Austrailasia that have survived through What We all Come to Need and Ataraxia/Taraxis?

Trevor: Our process hasn’t really changed much in terms of recording since the first EP, we’re just more experienced and have a clearer idea of what we’re going for, most of the time. The only really new tool in the quiver, at least on this last go round, was using home recording as a stage in the compositional process. The results we yielded wouldn’t have happened any other way.

Heave: Are there any “Limited edition” goodies that you’re releasing with this EP? Shirts or Vinyl? At shows and in your store?

Trevor: Not really this time. The most limited edition thing we have right now is this boxset the German label Viva Hate Records put out which is the vast majority of our discography spread out across 10 LPs and a 2xLP limited edition pressing of our debut album Australasia. We have both of these at most of our shows and the box set is in and out of stock from our webstore.

Heave: Who do you usually involve during the merch-design phase? Your shirt, “tapewormheart” at Blue Collar Distro, looks really cool; are you guys very hands on with the visual art associated with your music or do you have a few people you trust to do best by you? Any particular team-up with artist and Pelican that you’re fond of?

Trevor: We have a small stable of designer friends that we really like: Mike Wholberg, Jebb Riley, Ryan Begley are our main shirt folks. We do some other stuff here and there. For our records almost everything has been by Aaron Turner, but we’ve also worked with Stephen O’Malley, Seldon Hunt, Billy Baumann, and some other folks here and there. We like to work with artists who we feel have a similar musical background since it plays out in the visual aesthetic, but we want them to their own vision so we can fully entrust them. For the albums we generally have a theme we’re trying to express and explain this at the beginning of the design project, but the end result seldom ever turns out as we initially imagine, but this is always for the positive.

Heave: Is there any artist you’d like to work with in the future? Visual/Musical? Any performance experiments you’ve planned? Anything you’ve been interested in doing, but have held back on?

Trevor: In 2005 we made plans to do a collaborative LP with Jesu. I’d still really love to make that happen one day. The concept was to cover a bunch of songs by shared influences: Slowdive, Red House Painters, and so forth. I keep meaning to bring this back up to Justin on the occasions when we communicate, but never remember until this question comes up in interviews. Would love to reopen discussions on that.

Pelican play Lincoln Hall Friday, June 29 with Anatomy of Habit and Redgrave. Tickets are $12 in advance, $15 at the door. The band also announced this week that founding member Laurent Schroeder-Lebec will be taking an indefinite hiatus from the band. You can read Pelican’s official statement about it on their Facebook page.