Rank Your Records: Pelican Guitarist Trevor de Brauw Orders the Band's Immersive Catalog
Take a journey through one of the most expansive discographies in heavy music.
In Rank Your Records, we talk to artists who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
Selecting a genre that best categorizes Pelican is tough. The instrumental quartet made a name for themselves early on in the Chicago metal scene thanks to their heavy-hitting guitar riffs and decibel levels that could melt any concert-goer's face. But as the band has endured since forming in 2001, their music has evolved, dipping into a mix of post-metal, sludge metal, and post-rock, to create something truly their own.
That may be why Pelican guitarist Trevor de Brauw was a little apprehensive about ranking the band's discography that spans over 17 years. He even let me know, telling me bluntly, "I feel like I should say any kind of ranking is somewhat arbitrary."
But de Brauw was game for the task and offered insights into how Pelican created their albums, the circumstances that surrounded some of the band’s low points, and how they regrouped after founding member Laurent Schroeder-Lebec left the band in 2012.
7. What We All Come to Need (2009)
Noisey: Why is What We All Come to Need at the bottom?
Trevor de Brauw: To me, to a certain extent, no matter how I look at the Pelican discography, ranking it is going to be an arbitrary thing. And a lot of it is not subject to objective or even semi-objective factors like quality of the songs or whatnot. A lot of songs on What We All Come to Need are staples of our live set and some of my favorite songs we’ve done, but there’s definitely some very subjective and personal things inherent to the way I view that record. To me, the album was written and recorded in a dark time for both myself on a personal level and also, I think, overall for the band. In 2009, we had been hitting the road really hard for, at that point, five years and I think we were all sick of touring, morale was low, and we weren’t seeing any real growth for the band at that point. I think when we went into the writing of that record it was the first time we ever approached writing a record where we were writing for the sake of making another album and not because we felt creatively driven. So for those reasons, What We All Come to Need has the connection to that time when the band wasn’t fun, and shit was just going on in my life—my mom was very sick with the disease that would ultimately take her life, and I just wasn’t having fun playing music anymore. I didn’t really feel invested in that album and it doesn’t have a joyous quality as the other ones.
Around the time the album came out, the band pumped the brakes regarding touring. Did you have that plan before the album’s recording session or after?
I think discussions of slowing down touring started in late 2008, and it was clear we were touring too much and less people were coming to see us and the feeling of lower morale was starting to creep in, so I do remember Laurent bringing it up that we should slow down touring in 2009. But what ended up happening was that we already set up a tour in the spring of 2009, which was supposed to be before we recorded the album and there was a lot of consternation in the band because we wanted to do less not to burn out. We recorded the album and had to tour when it came out, so by the end of the year we had way overextended ourselves from the point of what we wanted to do. We didn’t know that we wanted to pump the brakes going into the making of that album, but we were not doing it actively and ended up burning ourselves out in the process. So by the time we got to the studio, we were very well rehearsed because of the touring, but that burned out feeling was really setting in.
Because of that packed schedule, did the recording and writing sessions feel rushed?
No, not at all. We had plenty of time to record, it was the first record we did for Southern Lord Records, and [Southern Lord Records founder] Greg Anderson had given us a very generous recording budget. And I think we had three weeks or something, which is the most amount of time we’ve ever spent on a record and we were in Seattle recording with Chris Common, but something about that too—we were living in a hotel, and it was a weird isolated time
It seems like odd circumstances impacted how this record came out.
It’s more like the personal stuff around the record colors it poorly than any of the actual music, but I can’t divorce that in my mind when I think about the album. But there are songs from that record that we still play live and I think those are some of the best songs we’ve ever written. But it’s just like the documentation of them that holds a dark weight around it.
What We All Come to Need also has the distinction of, and correct me if I’m wrong, including the first Pelican song with a singer on it. What made you guys want to have that song, "Final Breath" (sung by Allen Epley of The Life and Times and Shiner), have a singer?
Yeah, that's a good question. We didn't set out to be an instrumental band, and way back in the early stages of the band we had tried out some singers and nothing ever fit. And so being an instrumental band was more of a matter of necessity than anything else. But once we were in our groove and making records, we all agreed if we had a song that felt like it would benefit from having vocals we would pursue it. [Bassist] Bryan Herweg wrote “Final Breath,” and from the moment he started writing it he said, “I really think this is a song that would benefit from having vocals.”
We had done some touring with The Life and Times, so it was really to us an obvious choice to go with Al whose work we really enjoyed and who we had a good personal relationship with from being on the road. We made a point of tracking that song early in the recording process, so we did that one first, I think, and sent the tracks to Al to record in Chicago and then send them back to us. He wrote the lyrics. But we didn’t hear them until the mixing stage, so we cued up the track and had no idea what to expect and the minute Chris pulled up the vocal track it blew us all away. That was a real positive moment in all the darkness.
6. Untitled (2001)
Before the creation of Pelican, you and other founding members Laurent Schroeder-Lebec and Larry Herweg were in the Chicago-based group Tusk. How did Pelican evolve from that and what led to the creation of your Untitled record?
Well, the two co-existed for a very long time, and the last Tusk album was recorded during The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw recording session.
One night Laurent and Larry were jamming and recorded “Mammoth” on a boom box and played it for us and it was clearly not a Tusk song, and we made the decision that Laurent, who played bass in Tusk and is a natural guitar player should be playing guitar, and we should start another band. [Laughs]
The reason this record is so low in my rankings is not out of any lack of nostalgia, but it set off a chain of events that changed our lives. I just put it so low because necessarily we were not a good band. [Laughs] We were not accomplished musicians, and it’s a pretty sloppy record. I mean, it’s a demo. We self-released it, and it caught fire locally, and then we got it to the people at Hydra Head Records, and they wanted to re-release it and send it out into the wild. It played a real pivotal role in the band and our development but wasn’t nearly as good as what was to come.
5. Australasia (2003)
Do you have fond memories of recording this album?
To an extent. Because the songs were a little bit more ambitious, I think we had more grandiose notions of how to approach the recording. Ultimately we didn’t have the budget to do what we wanted to, so the recording ending up feeling a little bit rushed and I think there are some moments on the record where you can hear us fighting against not only the limitations of our musicianship but also the limitations we had in time in documenting it. But it was really exciting to be making a full-length album. We came from the punk/hardcore scene and to get to the stage where you’re making an album, that’s usually the last days; you make the one album, and you break up.
You could have been a cult band for the rest of your life
[Laughs] Yeah, exactly, and then I think up to that point, any of the albums we made, the maximum length was, like, 20 minutes, and so to make a 50-minute album felt like a huge accomplishment.
4. Ataraxia/Taraxis (2012)
This one seemed to include all facets of Pelican; your melodic side, your heavier side, there’s even an acoustic side. It’s only a few tracks, but what were you looking to do with this release?
This one, and why I wanted to include it even though it’s not a full-length, that was the life raft that carried us from the first chapter of the band to the current chapter of the band. It was a moment when we were drifting and didn’t know what was going to happen. During this time we were practicing extremely infrequently. We went from 2009, where we did about four months of touring throughout the year, plus recording an EP and album, to only playing four shows in 2010.
Oh wow, what a drop.
That was far and away the least amount of time we’ve ever spent doing the band. It wasn’t clear what the band was going to do and if it was going to exist anymore. And it turned out, by the end of it, Laurent wasn’t interested in doing the band anymore. Larry was really dedicated to documenting these two songs (“Lathe Biosas” and “Parasite Colony”), and that would somehow act as a stop gap as we figured out what we were doing with the band. If I remember right, Larry booked drum time and recorded the parts and sent them to us, saying, “The ball’s in your court, guys,” and we were like, “Oh shit, the pressure’s on now.” Bryan and I started meeting more regularly and working on our parts and getting ready for recording. But what ended up happening was we started working on new stuff too. And that turned into the title track “Ataraxia/Taraxis,” and we ended up booking studio time and finished up those songs. Those meetings with Bryan really ignited some things in us because up until then was done in small units, but Bryan and I had never collaborated with songwriting before, and something about that ignited a new level of creativity in our partnership. A new sense of excitement, that’s what got us really interested in writing again, which ultimately led to the next album [Forever Becoming].
3. The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw (2005)
This record seems a bit more melodic and layered than Australasia. Was the band looking to try something new on this recording?
There was not a whole lot of calculation with our music over time. A lot of it was just following intuition. I think, in general, learning how to write these longer, more complicated arrangements was just growing and evolving, and the songwriting went that way naturally with this album. Also, during the time we were writing that album we were not a touring band, so we had a lot of time to sit down and play guitar.
The album feels like it encompasses different genres, which seems to be the band’s calling card as you can’t lock down the band’s genre.
Our interests are all over the map. Every single one of us is a huge fan of all kinds of music. We’re interested in pursuing that and never had any ambitions to be a metal band, we were interested in playing music that we could come up with and seems to fit.
2. City of Echoes (2007)
With previous albums, they sounded very guitar-focused, but City of Echoes feels like the entire band is firing on all cylinders. From listening to it, Larry’s drums stand out a lot, along with the guitar riffs. Did you want to have a louder sound on here or was it a natural progression to everyone in the band to grow?
I think what you said about firing on all cylinders, that’s part of why City of Echoes is so high on the list for me. The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw came out, and that album had elevated our popularity, and we also transitioned into a full-time touring band. Spending that much time playing together, touring, and just the excitement of playing music in front of audiences, it fuels this ambition, and I think that in many ways the album was the first real peak of our playing. I think we were all playing really well as musicians at that time and Laurent and I had a better-developed sense of how to incorporate our different playing styles and found the best common ground we ever had.
Did the writing of the record feel like a common ground?
It was really rather intuitive. I don’t think we had realized that the songs had become so much shorter and up-tempo. I think it was later in the process that we realized the music had evolved in this way. But it felt like a very natural reaction to playing live more because we were creating more music that was geared toward that environment. The songs that seemed to work the best were the ones geared to the live audience.
Do you feel like members of the band were pushing each other to up one another’s game?
For sure. Not in a competitive sense, but, like, after shows picking apart what was working and there was a lot of positive reinforcements living around that time, and it was a really great period for the band. This was also the first record where we had a serious recording budget, so we didn’t have to rush through it in the same way we did with some of the earlier records, which made a big difference regarding confidences in the performances
1. Forever Becoming (2013)
Why is Forever Becoming at the top of the list?
This is probably the highest pressure I’ve ever felt for a record regarding… it was the first album we wrote without Laurent, and it was this moment of creative partnership that Bryan and I had discovered. I mean, I don’t know, it was this confluence of things and we didn’t know if we could pull it off. Bryan and I had never written an album before and we also had a new member [Dallas Thomas] and asked if we could we make a record that could be convincingly Pelican. And we achieved what we set out to do, which is why I think it ranks so high for me. There was a lot of self-doubt and questioning and the fact that we pulled it off.
And hands down it’s my favorite-sounding Pelican record, as we really nailed down the production that we set out to achieve. I think I could swap it for City of Echoes regarding the positiveness around it, but the recording for me is what edges it over the finish line regarding putting it at the number one spot.
Dallas had come on this album after Laurent left in 2012. You mentioned you felt pressure, how was the process of making it without the original lineup?
It was complicated, and at points, it was pretty painful. I would write these extremely long meandering songs, and I think part of it was like, “I’m going to recapture the vibe of the earlier Pelican records” and writing these 12- to 13-minute songs. I would then show them to Bryan who would learn parts of them and we would see what Larry would say. But he lives in Los Angeles, and we are in Chicago. Larry would come out for a songwriting session and pick through the parts, and I’d be… so frustrated. [Laughs]
Because I would work it out as a 13-minute song, and it would end up six minutes long, but when you go back and listen to it, you’re like, "These edits make sense." I think we do our best when we’re in a room playing together, and there was a lot of recording on computers and sending to one another because it’s not possible for us all to be together at the same time, so there was a lot of frustration with sending files and getting feedback. It felt weird to piece an album together on a computer and thinking: Is it really going to work when you get together in a room? And yeah at the end of the day, we made it all work, which made it feel like an accomplishment.