Trevor de Brauw
Trevor de Brauw Credit: Lisa Shelley-de Brauw

Pelican became locally popular about ten years ago—they were the band that would crank it to 11 and play djun djun djun djun over and over again. Though their earth-shaking, monumentally minimalist instrumental metal was undoubtedly awesome, sometimes it could feel like a gimmick—but by their second full-length, 2005’s The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw, they’d added relatively sophisticated dynamics, a wider range of textures, and progressive, sprawling arrangements to their sound, silencing critics who complained that the band knew only one trick. Pelican has been touring several continents ever since.

Guitarists Trevor de Brauw and Laurent Schroeder-­Lebec and drummer Larry Herweg were playing together in grindcore outfit Tusk in 2000 when they formed Pelican as a side project, recruiting Herweg’s brother Bryan on bass; the idea was to make music as controlled and slow as Tusk was spastic and fast. Since then Pelican has gone through lots of changes—it now has its own side projects, for instance, with de Brauw playing in Chord, Teith, and Let’s Pet and Larry Herweg in Æges. The Herweg brothers moved to LA in 2006, and though Bryan came back in early 2011, Larry’s still there. De Brauw and Schroeder-­Lebec have both gotten married, and the latter has a kid—which helps explain why he’s on hiatus from the band (Dallas Thomas of the Swan King fills in for him onstage, and the other members are writing the next record without him). Pelican remains active, though, albeit less so—April’s Ataraxia/Taraxis EP (Southern Lord) is their first release in two and a half years, and Friday’s show will be their only Chicago date of 2012.

Interviewing de Brauw for this week’s Artist on Artist is Noah Leger, who replaced Dylan Posa in Anatomy of Habit this winter and also plays in Electric Hawk. Not only is he the best rock drummer in Chicago, he’s also been in a ton of bands you probably used to love, including Milemarker, Challenger, and Taking Pictures. Luca Cimarusti

Trevor, do you still own a van? No, I actually went in the complete opposite direction—I have a compact car. The seats fold completely back. So last night at the show, I was able to fit two guitar amps, a pedal board, and a guitar in the car.

Ten years ago I knew a ton of people with vans, and now I don’t know anybody—well, maybe Bobby Burg [from Love of Everything and Joan of Arc]. I think most people opted out of it because of the gas prices.

And owning a vehicle in Chicago is stupid. And driving a van in particular—people hate van drivers. If you’re driving a van they will treat you like shit.

They might complain if you park it in front of their house. OK, let’s talk about Pelican. Sure. But before I talk about Pelican can I talk about the last-Pelican-van thing?

Please. We basically came to the end of our full-time being-a-band-and-touring run at the end of 2009. We were like, let’s get rid of the van, because if we’re going to tour it’s going to be these shorter things and we can just borrow a van or rent. So we fished around and finally found a buyer in Russian Circles, whose van was on its last legs, and they were about to go out on like a seven-week tour with Boris or something like that. We knew it had found a very happy home and would be perfect.

Sharing with your rock brethren. Exactly. So we sold it to them, and the van was totaled in two days. Somebody drives into them and plows through their trailer and into the van, destroys all their gear, everything gone. Insurance covered most of it, but still.

You sold them a cursed van. Basically, the van was like, “If I’m not going to be with Pelican, I’m not going to be.”

It’s you or nothing. My way or the highway. Or no longer the highway whatsoever.

OK, I’ve been listening to Pelican since Pelican started. It’s important now that the form of your songs seems to take precedence over the dirge you guys were feeling in a different time. I think you’ve been more open to different production ideas, and certainly things have obviously gotten a lot tidier over the years. What do you think the trajectory is, and what do you think the new EP has to do with where you guys are at? To me the trajectory is that the bands that we were in prior to Pelican, they were more or less genre bands. We were in the hardcore scene. With Pelican we kind of touched on a bunch of different bands we were into that we kind of wanted to emulate that were different than what we were doing in our hardcore bands, specifically like Godflesh, Goatsnake, Sleep—a bunch of slower, more repetitive bands. We threw out like three or four songs before we even did a show while we were trying to figure out what we were.

I think a lot of what you’re referring to—the experimentalism and the dirgey aspects—was a bunch of hardcore kids trying to learn how to play slow, which meant there was a lot of space in our music. We covered up a lot of our inconsistency rhythmically with waves of distortion and dirgeyness because there wasn’t a lot of confidence there. While we were sure of our purpose, we weren’t sure of ourselves as musicians. The immense amount of touring that we did in the following years kind of brought on more confidence. As we started getting more confident, the spaciousness and the epicness of our songs became kind of boring. So we started moving into sophisticating our songs and focusing on songcraft and musicianship, which kind of comes out more on the later albums.

So what’s up with the new EP? I think when we did the last album we realized we’d reached the apex of everything we’d been going for, basically. This is the definitive thing we’ve been trying to get to. So the EP represents a clearing of the coffers; two of the songs were ones we hadn’t finished in time for the last album and two were brand-new experiments.

That’s great. I’m so glad it’s an EP. I’m actually a gigantic fan of the format of the EP. It’s literally our fourth EP, so we’ve matched our rate of albums with EPs. We’re fans of EPs too, and for some bands that’s where they really excel. A band like Slowdive—the EPs are arguably better than the full-lengths.

When we were kids buying records, the EP was kind of a practical way to get those eight songs on a recording quickly and get it out cheaply. It’s easier to write a good EP than it is to write a good album.

That might not be a bad thing. Do you have any thoughts or comments on the current state of music in Chicago? It seems the bands are all great, but it’s gotten kind of fragmented. It seemed for a while—and this might be because for a while I was going out all the time, and now I don’t as much—but it seems like more than ever there’s multiple shows happening on the same night with touring bands where shows should be getting combined. And it seems like the audiences are getting smaller because of it, because everyone is going to different stuff. Like last night—it was a total bummer that our show at Lincoln Hall was competing with Swan King’s and Whores’ at Fireside. It doesn’t make any sense.

I agree. Those bands should have been at the Lincoln Hall show. There’s no need to divide audiences like that. And I’m not pointing any fingers because it’s all of our faults, it’s my fault—I wasn’t paying attention.

I was happy to play at Lincoln Hall for the first time. I thought playing on that strange dance stage was quite satisfying. Being ushered into the alley right after was not so great. Well, I’m glad you guys [Electric Hawk] were bringing a little King Crimson to the heavy side of Chicago.

Oh, we’re nerds. Because I know Dallas Thomas studied under Robert Fripp, and there’s a little bit of King Crimson to their work as well.

Swan King? Oh, absolutely. But you guys have almost a more, like—overt isn’t the right word. More jazziness to what you’re doing.

Jazzy? That’s interesting. I’m not so sure . . . That new song you guys played last night had some very jazz chords in it. I was getting some Jackie Pastorius. Is that his name?

Jaco, yeah. Yeah, Jaco Pastorius. Bill Bruford moments from you, and I was like, all right!

I’ve been traveling for work a bunch recently and it’s been giving me a chance to think about art and how it relates to the suburbs of America. I grew up a city kid and feel very fortunate that I did. I was able to walk to an art gallery and see a naked Lisa Suckdog when I was a teenager or see Cop Shoot Cop and buy their seven-inch with pig’s blood splattered all over it, and I feel like the suburbs of America are so fucking sprawling. Like, where do these kids get art? How do they absorb it? The mall is not the place. Right. It seems like culture comes from the Internet now, which is a great leveler—and perhaps an out-of-place analogy, that may or not work as I talk it out, is Target. You think about Target, it’s the great leveler. You see hipsters in there, you see affluent yuppies, you see working-class families, you see crazy people who wandered off the street. We all have to submit to Target at some point or another because it’s wiped out all the small neighborhood shops that you could have gone to for your toilet paper or whatever.

But is Target then also the Internet? Because it has plenty of bad ideas. Exactly. You see, you can get cool shit from the Internet, but because everyone has to submit to it, it’s all watered down. That’s the great leveler: you have to dig for really great culture on the Internet, but most people can’t get past the first wave of crap. And I feel like that’s where so many people are getting their ideas now.

But if Queen became a band tomorrow and “Bohemian Rhapsody” hit the Internet tomorrow night, would anyone care? I don’t know. Well, the music video is pretty outrageous. I feel like that would—

I’m talking about the song. The song doesn’t stand a chance. It’s too fucking long.

But does that speak to the attention span of a modern American person because of the Internet? I don’t know. It’s the chicken or the egg, right?