Pelican guitarist Laurent Lebec knows there’s a disconnect between the way he looks and the music he plays. “We’ve rolled up to festivals and people will be waiting there for us like, ‘We heard you didn’t look like metalheads. We heard you guys look like total emo nerds.'”

“Of course,” says Trevor de Brauw, the band’s other guitarist, “as soon as people say that we get really self-conscious, and then we have to hit the gym.”

Lebec and de Brauw aren’t black-clad bruisers with neck tattoos, but they can afford to joke about flouting the dress code of what Lebec calls “full-blown ass-ripping metal.” Since forming in late 2000 as a side project of local grindcore band Tusk, Pelican have released four discs, toured Europe twice and Japan once, made two appearances at the underground heavy-music festival Emissions From the Monolith in Youngstown, Ohio, and landed features in Magnet, Alternative Press, and the Wire. The group’s brand-new sophomore album, The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw (Hydra Head), shipped more than 18,000 copies in its first week–almost twice as many as their first LP, Australasia, has sold to date–and they’ve wedged their foot firmly in the door of the indie-rock clubhouse, playing sets at All Tomorrow’s Parties and Pitchfork’s recent Intonation Music Festival.

The two guitarists met in 1995, when de Brauw was a high school senior in Evanston and Lebec had just arrived from Paris to attend Northwestern. “We knew all the same punks,” says de Brauw, “and did a lot of the same social activism–Food Not Bombs and other things like that.” After playing together in a series of short-lived hardcore bands they formed Tusk in 1997 with singer Simon Czerwinskyj and future Pelican drummer Larry Herweg. Lebec switched to bass, and de Brauw wrote most of the music. But even before Tusk put out their first seven-inch in 2001, Lebec was feeling dissatisfied with the band’s division of labor and started working on a batch of instrumental songs.

“After a few years of not having an outlet for writing guitar riffs, I tried doing some stuff, but it didn’t fit the model for Tusk,” says Lebec. He and Herweg, roommates at the time, started working up the new material, bringing in de Brauw as second guitarist. “It’s funny–we decided to do a new band, but we basically did it with the same exact people,” says Lebec. They recruited Herweg’s younger brother, Bryan, to play bass, and the band that would become Pelican spent the next ten months developing its sound.

“I think the idea behind Pelican was that we wanted to play slower music, really loud and imposing, but we wanted it to be soothing at the same time, from the sheer volume and low end,” says Lebec. Bands like Earth and Godflesh influenced Pelican’s minimalist early approach, with its oceanic throbs of drop-tuned guitar, but Lebec and de Brauw also brought in elements from their favorite hardcore and punk bands. “We tried to draw on stuff we were keen on growing up,” says Lebec. “D.C. melodic punk, Dischord Records, Jawbreaker, Texas Is the Reason–things that you wouldn’t normally associate with really heavy music.”

After Pelican’s first gig–opening for High on Fire at the Fireside in June 2001–the band found traction with surprising speed. “Locally Tusk had such a hard time breaking. But with Pelican it happened much faster,” says de Brauw. “Right away we found we had a pretty diverse audience. People coming up to us saying how cool it was to have a heavy band that didn’t have annoying vocals, or a heavy band that was trying to do something different. That encouragement was pretty crucial. Chicago’s been a great city to bloom in.” The absence of vocals–or rather of the monochromatic growling and shrieking that often passes for singing in metal–no doubt helped Pelican win over indie-rock fans, but so did the music’s embrace of shamelessly triumphal major chords. It was no less apocalyptic in scale than doom metal, but it could evoke legions of angels, not just the armies of darkness.

In summer 2002, the group self-released an untitled EP, manufacturing 500 CDs and burning 168 more when those sold out. They shopped the disc to more than 50 labels before Los Angeles-based Hydra Head–home to progressive heavy rock acts like Isis, Harkonen, and Cave In–offered to sign them. The label reissued the EP in early 2003 and put out Australasia that fall.

In April of this year Hydra Head released the March Into the Sea EP–a song from Australasia remixed by Godflesh mastermind Justin Broadrick plus the new 20-minute title track, recorded in spring 2004 at Electrical Audio with Greg Norman. This February the band returned to Electrical with Norman and spent eight days tracking and mixing Fire, whose seven songs run nearly an hour. “We’re not intentionally shooting for a specific length,” says de Brauw. “Every riff suggests another riff. We let the riffs find the ends of the songs on their own.”

Staggering volume is a defining feature of the Pelican live show, though there’s more breathing room in the set than there used to be. “When we first started the band and the melodies were really simple, the physical feeling of the music was an integral aspect to what we were trying to do,” says Lebec. “But over the course of the two albums the songwriting has shifted in a way that the emphasis is now on clarity. And with super super high volumes there’s no chance for that kind of clarity.” (“I think my amp is at half what it was when we started,” adds de Brauw.) But even dialed down, Pelican’s stage volume tops 120 decibels, and for the crowd out in front of the PA stacks the sound is as punishing as ever. “People always come up to me and say, ‘Yeah man, it was so much more awesome with the earplugs out,'” says de Brauw. “And I’m like, ‘Well, we wrote the songs with earplugs in, so I’m pretty sure that’s how they’re supposed to be heard.'”

In May, just before Pelican left for Japan, de Brauw moved to North Carolina with his girlfriend to start an organic farm on land her father owns. Everyone else has a day job–Larry Herweg at Whole Foods, Bryan in construction, and Lebec with the University of Chicago’s donor relations department–but de Brauw’s departure has reoriented the band by forcing them to make the most of their limited time to rehearse and tour. “I don’t think any of us are looking to be pop stars,” says Lebec, “but we’re all hoping to make enough money at some point where we can just focus on music.”

Currently Pelican are in the middle of a national tour that will bring them to the Metro on August 20. With Fire already reviewed in Spin, Blender, and Entertainment Weekly, they’ll certainly continue to make inroads with mainstream audiences–and their live show will just as certainly continue to pleasantly surprise orthodox metalheads. “If anything it’s been kind of advantageous to have people look at us and do a double take and be like, ‘They kinda look different, this might be interesting,'” says Lebec. “As long as people are willing to listen, that’s all we care about.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jim Newberry.