Pelican didn’t become Pelican until June of 2001. That’s when 3/4 of the band (guitarists Trevor Shelley de Brauw and Laurent Schroeder-Lebec, and drummer Larry Herweg) played two very different shows in one week at Chicago’s most iconic bowling alley. (Among local punks, at least.)
While Monday night saw Shelley de Brauw, Schroeder-Lebec, and Herweg’s spastic grindcore band Tusk headlining over the Le Tigre-leaning tracy + the plastics, Wednesday featured Pelican’s live debut (rounded out by Larry’s brother Bryan on bass) alongside a 3-year-old High on Fire. In many ways, the latter was a proof of concept playing out in real time.
“We were toying with the idea of having vocals,” explains Shelley de Brauw, “but then [promoter] Brian [Peterson] was like, ‘I heard you guys have this band that’s more in the stoner-y realm, and I have High on Fire coming; do you want to open?’ We were all listening to shit like Mogwai and Don Caballero, so we knew that it was a possibility to be an instrumental band. Once we got a positive reaction, it was the kick we needed to get things going.”
“It was like, ‘Okay, now we’re a band,” adds Schroeder-Lebec. “We have to do this.”
One thing Pelican excelled at early on was riding the line between indie rock and metal, a delicate balance that was blurring by the day in the early 2000s. As Schroeder-Lebec puts it, “There were pockets of different things happening at the time. You had your Explosions [in the Sky] and Godspeed [You! Black Emperor] people in one corner; you had your Goatsnake people in another. And then you had the experimental rock elements of Tortoise and the like.
“We were able to Venn diagram between a lot of these scenes in a way that made us able to jump onto a bunch of bills fairly seamlessly, especially because of the instrumental component of it,” he continues.
The only issue with all the touring Pelican did over their first two decades is that it sometimes got in the way of their songwriting, enough so that the entire band felt burnt out by the end of 2009. This low morale lasted years, all the way through the sessions for Ataraxia/Taraxis, a stopgap EP that eventually led to Schroeder-Lebec’s decade-long departure from the band.
“Rather than take the harder road—trying to balance everything in my life and deal with some challenging things—I divorced myself from the creative process,” Schroeder-Lebec says, alluding to the sudden demands of fatherhood and a burgeoning career in the hospitality industry. “It was not an easy decision.”
Now much older, wiser, and more than a year into a reunion that started with the departure of guitarist Dallas Thomas and led to the early stages of their first LP together since 2009, Pelican’s co-founders were happy to break down all the key records in their discography over a couple Zoom calls, beginning with a self-released EP that was quickly co-signed by ISIS/SUMAC frontman Aaron Turner…
Pelican workshopped their slow and low sound for a year before their High on Fire homecoming. It was not a Tusk side project so much as the doomier side of the same chaotic-neutral coin.
To put the key differences between the two into perspective, consider how Shelley de Brauw remembers their earliest rehearsals: “We’d get to Larry’s house around 11 and do like two hours of Tusk, and then we would smoke pot and have Pelican practice.”
“The two things were happening simultaneously,” he adds. “It wasn’t like, ‘Hey, we’re gonna do a Jimmy Buffett cover band now.’”
Pelican’s Untitled debut may not be indebted to the Mack Daddy of Margaritaville (may he rest in peace), but it does boast a few beastly forebears that never quite left the back of the band’s mind: namely Earth, Goatsnake, and Godflesh. After personally silk-screening and stuffing its first 500 copies, the quartet mailed a CD over to Turner in hopes of joining his influential label Hydra Head. It worked.
“That was obviously a huge thing,” Schroeder-Lebec says of the signing. “They were very much the vanguard—the place where forward-thinking hardcore and borderline metal was actually really well recorded…Cave-In had already released Until Your Heart Stops, and [Botch’s] We Are the Romans were already out, so it was like, ‘Holy shit. What a community to be part of as a young instrumental band.’”
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Pelican’s first album wasn’t just driven by the desire to be as loud as humanly possible, although volume certainly played a role. In case you couldn’t tell by their recent Karate cover (featuring Pinebender singer Chris Hansen), one influence that has lurked just beneath the surface of Pelican’s heart-tugging hooks since the very beginning is good old-fashioned emo—the Rites of Spring version, not the Warped Tour one.
“[Australasia] was the period where we started getting increasingly invested in dynamics,” explains Shelley de Brauw. “Quiet/loud was part of it, but also emotional dynamics. We probably wouldn’t have said it at the time…but there were definitely a lot of days where Laurent and I drove around listening to Texas is the Reason. Nowhere is that as clear in our discography as it is on the title track of Australasia.”
That song, along with the tightly wound textures of “GW,” hints at the melodic tendencies that would come to characterize many of the high points within Pelican’s catalog.
“The process of writing Australasia was us finding our own voice, what Pelican’s identity was,” says Shelley de Brauw. “It definitely represented not just the shift to more melodic songs, but the coexistence of both minor and major key stuff, finding a way to make both of them heavy.”
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Aside from the usual breakthroughs that happen as a band finds their critical and creative footing—better songwriting, bigger shows—Pelican was surprised to discover Schroeder-Lebec (who was born and raised in France) deep in a Dazed and Confused phase as their acclaimed second album took shape.
“One of my memories of that time is that Laurent—who was not subjected to classic rock radio like the rest of us—suddenly got enamored with the whole history of rock music in a way that was unpretentious,” explains Shelley de Brauw. “We were all just like, ‘Yeah, of course: Traffic, whatever. It’s fucking boring. We’ve heard it a million times.’ But he was engaging with it in this deep fan way that was unlocking intricacies of songs that had been played in the background of our lives since we were kids.”
Before you get the wrong idea, The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw is not Pelican’s prog rock opera. It is, however, a clear move towards making hands-in-the-air epics with a seize-the-day spirit that spilled over into Tusk’s own The Resisting Dreamer album made during the same Chicago sessions.
“One night, we were like, ‘We should just keep the tape rolling and do this Tusk thing in one take,’” recalls Schroeder-Lebec.
“I think it was two takes, and we spliced it, actually,” counters Shelley de Brauw, laughing and smiling at what was clearly a high point of both their friendship and formative run as bandmates.
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The fierce contrast between Pelican’s founding guitarists and well-oiled rhythm section reached its apex on City of Echoes, the full-length that finally bottled their collective bombast in a way that was crushing and clear.
“There was definitely an increasing development in our playing that was allowing both guitars to stand apart from each other,” says Schroeder-Lebec. “Whereas on Australasia, it’s kind of hard to tell.”
Ironically, a big part of getting Pelican’s guitars to go their own way was Schroeder-Lebec’s insistence on Shelley de Brauw painting over his progressions and wild arpeggios.
“You used the phrase ‘Can you just double what I’m doing?’ many, many times,” remembers Shelley de Brauw.
Schroeder-Lebec nods. “I do remember moments where I was like, ‘Man, I really wish he would just Thin Lizzy this out with me’—where we would just hook up on the riff. But then the songs are better for it because we don’t do the riff together.”
“The chaos of that approach reached its apex on Fire in Our Throats…,” Shelley de Brauw says, “where you would show me a riff, and I’d be like, ‘Yeah, I don’t really want to play that; I’m just gonna do this instead.’ By City of Echoes, we had figured out how to split the difference in a way that worked.”
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Having come full circle with some of their heroes on the Ephemeral EP—a Southern Lord soirée complete with an Earth cover (“Geometry of Murder”), a Dylan Carlson appearance, and a sleeve design by Sunn O))) guitarist Stephen O’Malley—you’d think the next Pelican album would be a victory lap with very little tension.
Several personal narratives were playing in the background of What We All Come to Need, though, many of which had to do with being a band in their early 30s. Family-wise, Shelley de Brauw’s mother was sick with the illness that would take her life. And the band, well, they were starting to splinter due to slightly declining show attendance and the saturation point that comes with being on the road for a little too long.
“I remember having a lot of conversations with Laurent about how Disintegration was Robert Smith’s reaction to turning 30,” explains Shelley de Brauw, “and wanting to make one grand masterpiece. I wanted that for us, too, but didn’t know the path to it.
He continues, “And then there was the feeling of my mom passing away. It was a very, very difficult time on every level. I think that all of us really needed to step away, but we didn’t know how to talk to each other about it. We just didn’t have those tools.”
“There were more difficult conversations on tour,” adds Schroeder-Lebec, “moments of stress and blowouts that, in the right context, could be taken care of. But I think I lacked some of that [ability], and felt like the forward momentum of the band would just keep us going.”
It did for a while, partly because Schroeder-Lebec stuck around for another EP and partly because What We All Come to Need is so compelling. Thanks to simmering hit singles and live staples like “Ephemeral” and “The Creeper,” it’s actually become their biggest album in the streaming era. The record also welcomes several close friends into the fold, including Turner, the other half of Sunn O))) (Greg Anderson), and members of Helms Alee (Ben Verellen) and The Life and Times (Allen Epley).
Epley’s appearance on “Final Breath” was especially noteworthy, as it was the first time Pelican weaved in vocals seamlessly.
“I distinctly remember [producer] Chris [Common] bringing up the vocal tracks,” says Shelley de Brauw, “and it was several layers of harmonized vocals that sounded so fucking gorgeous. It was mind-blowing because we knew that he was going to do a great job, but I don’t think any of us envisioned how great of a job he would do.”
One of the upsides of Schroeder-Lebec pulling away from the songwriting process on Pelican’s Ataraxia/Taraxis EP was that Shelley de Brauw and Bryan Herweg started writing together for the first time. (The latter was responsible for the right turns on “Final Breath.”) While they’d certainly developed songs together as a band, the duo hadn’t formed a distinct songwriting partnership before.
Part of it was pure survival. As Schroeder-Lebec stepped away from the band, his two longtime bandmates felt protective of the sound they’d spent a decade developing. While live guitarist and soon-to-be-full-time member Dallas Thomas knows how to knock just about any chord progression out of the park (“He fucking kills shit,” says Shelley de Brauw), his writing and playing style is quite different. For instance, Shelley de Brauw plays behind the Herweg brothers’ lumbering beats, and Thomas tends to play on top of them.
And yet Shelley de Brauw insists, “We never wanted to play live as a three-piece. It was really just like a matter of trying to preserve the musical DNA of the band during the writing process.”
Helping keep that process on track was Larry Herweg, the person often responsible for seeing the big picture within Pelican’s sprawling tracks. That was especially the case on Forever Becoming, as it seemed like Shelley de Brauw and Bryan Herweg were so determined to preserve their past that they were overdoing it in the idea department.
“It was really dense material,” explains Larry. “I felt like the songs were really long, so we spent a lot of time editing them.”
A perfect example is “Threnody.” While the final version is as vivid and vicious as you’d expect a Pelican song to be, its eight tight-knit minutes were originally more like 12. “In hindsight, I’m glad you did that,” Shelley de Brauw says to Larry, “because the song works a lot better. I remember you just kept being like, ‘Yeah, that part doesn’t make sense.’ I was like, ‘What the fuck?’ Internally, I was hurting. Like, ‘How can you not see how this makes sense and connects to this other thing?’”
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In the same way Herweg kept Forever Becoming from veering too far off track, Pelican’s new guitarist wasn’t afraid of telling them to “either shit or get off the pot” during the six years separating Forever Becoming and Nighttime Stories.
With the band split between L.A. and Chicago, touring was becoming an issue again, mostly because rehearsing and refining their set was taking up any time they had in the same room together. To give you an idea of how drawn out Nighttime Stories was, its title track was written in 2014 when Shelley de Brauw flew out to L.A. for the Grammys, but about three years passed before the band were shaping it and two other new tracks (“Midnight and Mescaline,” “Cold Hope”) onstage.
“Dallas put his foot down,” remembers Shelley de Brauw. “He was like, ‘We’re not playing any more shows until we make a record.’ So we built a timeline, and it worked.”
To be fair, Nighttime Stories was as informed by loss as What We All Come to Need was, starting with the sudden death of Tusk singer Jody Minnoch. The song titles on Nighttime Stories are nods to a packet of playlists, abstract writing, and photocopied library books that Minnoch sent to his bandmates as loose ideas for an LP they never ended up making. Larry Herweg still has it on his desk a decade later.
As much as they appreciated Minnoch’s impassioned song ideas, Herweg and Shelley de Brauw say they were in a different headspace creatively when they received them. So, they essentially set them aside for the foreseeable future.
“We were like, ‘I don’t know what to do with this; let’s just go on about our lives,’” explains Shelley de Brauw. “And then Jody passed away tragically…It was very affecting. I think that it came out in [the song] ‘Nighttime Stories’; those riffs feel very Tusk-esque…Something about that dissonance and feeling of anxiety and discomfort became an underpinning to so many of the songs on the album.”
Adding to the album’s painful subtext was the death of Thomas’s father, a man so close to him Shelley de Brauw immediately defaults to his first name.
“Bill wasn’t just Dallas’s dad; Bill was his best friend. There was a real parallel between that and what we had gone through with Jody…What’s really at the core of that record is adults wrestling with the fact that there’s so much tragedy at the heart of life, happening in parallel with all these beautiful things. Starting families; stuff like that.”
Similar in spirit is the musical bond that first brought Pelican together and sustained them for years. It’s exactly what’s brought them full circle with Schroeder-Lebec since he rejoined the band for some live shows in early 2022. And it’s why, along with the hard-fought maturity that comes with being in their 40s, Pelican’s next album may be wrapped as soon as next year.
“We have a bunch of new songs in the can,” says Herweg, “and they feel very different from Nighttime Stories…It’s been pretty exciting to put them together. I know we’re all getting antsy about recording, especially Laurent. He’s got the itch real bad.”
“We unlocked a new way of playing that’s a lot more based on listening to one another,” adds Shelley de Brauw. “I remember Laurent stepped into the room and was like, ‘This feels so different than it did before. It feels so good.’ In the old days, it was really like, ‘This is my part, and this is how I’m gonna play it’…There’s so much more feeling to it now.”