For nearly 20 years, Pelican have thrived on contradictions. Since forming in 2001, the Chicago instrumental act have concocted a sound that’s never been easily defined. Some call it post-metal, but the truth of it is that Pelican have always had a deep well of influences, the kind that can bleed Earth-shaking doom metal into anthemic melodic sections without stumbling. And for their upcoming sixth album, Pelican have made a record that’s as nuanced and progressive as anything they’ve done previously.
But the obvious question is: Why did it take Pelican six years to make it? The answer is that life got in the way. Talking to guitarists Trevor Shelley de Brauw and Dallas Thomas, they’re quick to note that, when they were wrapping up Forever Becoming, they were already planting the seeds for Nighttime Stories. Though Thomas played on Forever Becoming, as founding member Laurent Schroeder-Lebec had just left the band, Nighttime Stories features his first original compositions, and he makes his presence felt on songs like “WST,” which is a tribute to his father who passed away during the album’s writing process. Similarly, the album’s title was supposed to be used for Tusk, a band Shelley de Brauw has played in nearly as long as Pelican. But in 2014, Tusk vocalist Jody Minnoch passed away, and that sense of loss permeates the whole of Pelican’s latest offering.
Yet, for the darkness implicit in Nighttime Stories, there’s a hard-earned optimism running through it all. In classic Pelican fashion, the brothers Bryan and Larry Herweg, who play bass and drums respectively, push the songs forward, allowing Shelley de Brauw and Thomas to establish their own distinct interplay. For all the pain that inspired the members of Pelican, there’s also a good bit of hope, as Thomas and Larry Herweg became fathers and, recently Shelley de Brauw welcomed his second child into his family. Where it’s easy to describe metal bands in terms of their harsher tendencies, Pelican offers something more complex. Nighttime Stories is powerful and pummeling, but there’s an inherent joy that comes through, as Pelican sounds stronger and more self-assured than ever before.
So there’s a lot to unpack with Nighttime Stories, from the losses you both experienced, to the fact it’s your first album in six years, the first one with Dallas writing for the band, and it’s recorded by Sanford Parker, who worked on the early Pelican releases. But before we get into all that, where was Pelican at after Forever Becoming, and how did the wheels start turning for this record?
TREVOR SHELLEY DE BRAUW: We started working on the title track first, and I remember showing you guys the initial riffs to that when we were tracking the B-side to The Cliff single.
DALLAS THOMAS: And “Arteries of Blacktop,” we had worked on that when we were recording Forever Becoming.
SHELLEY DE BRAUW: We spent an embarrassingly long time on this. [Laughs] We jumped in before we even finished recording the last one.
THOMAS: It kind of started immediately, but there were a lot of starts and stops. There were children being born, family members passing away, and there was a good year I probably didn’t do anything. I had a kid, and then my dad got sick. Seven months later, he passed away. Then it was dealing with his estate and going back and forth to Tennessee, so I wasn’t very present for a year there. And then in that time, Larry had a kid, so there was that block of time he needed, and then Trevor’s had another kid.
And you’re the only two still in Chicago, as Bryan and Larry are both in Los Angeles.
SHELLEY DE BRAUW: Bryan and Larry moved to L.A., but I think that compositional approach of us sharing riffs in a Dropbox and then fleshing them out in person started after What We All Come To Need. Forever Becoming and the EP right before that, some of those songs we never played in a room together. I think that opened our eyes to the fact we could do more stuff like that. We have a Dropbox that’s just full of riffs and song ideas and structures, but none of these songs really gelled until we were in a room together.
THOMAS: Another common problem with that long distance thing is that, when we have shows, any time we got together, we had to prepare for the tour we were going to do. We’d always be like, “Yeah, we’ll spend some time working on that,” and then somebody would be like, “Oh, I gotta come a day later.” Or somebody would miss a flight. Or when you finally get the time, everybody’s fried. So we just had to take some money out of our pockets, buy some plane tickets, and go and do it. That’s how we finally finished it.
SHELLEY DE BRAUW: At some point, you put the foot down and were like, “That’s it. No more shows until the record’s done.”
THOMAS: I was like, “It’s been five years!” And then everyone else was like, “Oh shit. Yeah, it has been.”
What was it like working on this material which was all being crafted during very intense personal moments?
THOMAS: Well, initially, their friend Jody passed away, and that’s what spawned a lot of the themes for the record, But as time elapsed, more people passed away. My dad was my best friend, he was a very supportive person for me playing music, and it just ended up coming out this way.
SHELLEY DE BRAUW: I feel like the music we make, and particularly this record, I feel like a lot of the chord voicings and the way the songs are structured are very discordant, and maybe more menacing and negative sounding than Pelican has been in the past. I know that, obviously, we’re a metal band, which has always been part of the DNA, but at one point in press materials, we referred to ourselves as “a triumphant band” or something, because we were much more into this expression of hope. Which we still are, but I think this particular set of material sounds dark and negative because there’s a purging quality to these songs. We’re collecting our negativity in this musical zone and pushing it out as a positive release. It’s a catharsis. So, I think it’s a positive emotion of just getting this negativity out of us. That’s also why the record resolves in this calm, mellow place, because the purging has happened.
Did it feel like there was anything you needed to do, given how much time elapsed and the fact Dallas was now writing for the band?
THOMAS: After Forever Becoming and The Cliff EP, we were a clean slate. There was the one riff for “Arteries of Blacktop,” and the one riff that ended up becoming “Nighttime Stories” was the first completed song. There wasn’t that much thought into how it was going to be, though we were conscious of making it flow together and feel like an album.
SHELLEY DE BRAUW: In the back of my mind, there was some sense that there was a clean slate. The identity of this lineup, while we sensed it live, we didn’t know what the sound of it was because we hadn’t written an album together. Part of the excitement of that was letting the chips fall where they did and following the path that seemed natural. I just wanted to follow that intuition.
THOMAS: It wasn’t really a conscious thing, but I thought it was a kind of cool, back-to-square-one kind of thing, going back to record with Sanford Parker who recorded the first EP and Australasia, and that’s kind of the heavier Pelican stuff. In a weird way, it was kind of a full circle thing, but still an evolution because it’s with a different version of the band. It’s never going to be the same, but it’s about tastefully moving it forward.
But looking at Pelican, and the bands you came up with, it seems people are accepting of that. There’s no obligation to have to put out the same record every two years if you don’t want to.
THOMAS: And that’s better. Even if you’re the best band in the world, going into the studio, then touring, then back to the studio, then back on tour, you can’t enjoy that.
SHELLEY DE BRAUW: And that’s exactly what happened to Pelican.
THOMAS: When it comes out, it’s when it’s ready. And with this one, we felt it was ready.
Trevor, when you say that did happen to Pelican, when were you feeling that?
SHELLEY DE BRAUW: When we were recording What We All Come To Need I was pretty disengaged from the band. And when we were touring that record, the interpersonal shit that had been building up in the band boiled over. We were all just sick of being around each other so much. And we had toured so much and had plateaued. There was no growth for the band, but we kept telling ourselves that if we kept touring, the band would eventually become bigger and would become this self-sufficient thing. We were deluding ourselves.
So many bands split up for those exact reasons. Why didn’t Pelican?
SHELLEY DE BRAUW: I really think Larry was the one who kept the flame going. 2009 was the year we toured until we were like, “We’re not going to fucking do this anymore.” And then, in 2010, we played four shows. We did a show in Chicago, some Scion rock fest in Ohio, and then we did two anniversary shows in Chicago.
THOMAS: That’s when I met them. My old band, The Swan King, opened for Pelican at one of those shows. And I met my wife at that show. I met those guys, and my wife.
SHELLEY DE BRAUW: The reason The Swan King played is because they practiced next door to us, and we heard them playing and were like, “Damn. That band fucking rules.” It was all very fortuitous. But part of why I needed to scale back from touring was that my mom got really sick and ended up passing away, and after she had passed, I was kind of ready to start doing stuff again. What we all talked about at the end of 2009, we all talked about how, when we get back to this, let’s find a way to incorporate it back into our lives and not let it take over. Everybody went and got careers, and what we didn’t realize at the time, though I think he was saying it and we were not hearing it, is that Laurent was kind of done with this. He wanted to have a kid and a job and a normal life, and we were like, “He’s going to come around.” In 2011, after those anniversary shows, we were like, “We’re ready to go do a couple weeks in Europe,” and he was like, “No, I don’t want to, but if you want to bring somebody else, you can.” And that’s when we started playing with Dallas.
When did it feel like this new version of Pelican had found itself?
SHELLEY DE BRAUW: One pivotal moment with this new material was that we did this tour of the southwest and we deliberately knew we were going to play some of the new songs and road-test this stuff. The first show of that tour was Psycho Las Vegas.
THOMAS: Good warm-up show. [Laughs]
SHELLEY DE BRAUW: The set went a little haywire, because the stage we were playing on was running super late, and we were playing last. It was a concrete stage by a pool. It didn’t sound very hot.
THOMAS: There was no low-end. Every band was complaining about it, though it sounded great out front watching the other bands, but every band was saying it.
SHELLEY DE BRAUW: We played five songs. We were told we had to cut it off because there was a sound curfew and we could play one more song. So I said to the crowd that I was really sorry, that we only had time for one more song, and I asked them if they wanted to hear an old one or another new one, and everybody wanted to hear a new one. And that doesn’t fucking happen. [Laughs] In that moment, it really felt like it was connecting and gelling with people in a serious way.
How does it feel to have to put out this record that’s a little darker, and carries so much personal weight, and know you’ll have to likely talk about these subjects over and over again?
THOMAS: I’m just stoked that people care, so it doesn’t bother me. If people care to ask about it and talk about it, I’m fine with it. I feel like people don’t care enough in general, so if there can be some reciprocal thing, I’m stoked on it.
SHELLEY DE BRAUW: For me, part of the joy of making a record is that it’s a journal of this very specific period of your life and then getting to share that.
Nighttime Stories is out June 7 on Southern Lord Records.