Antagonism, Grief, and Heavy Music: Inside Pelican’s ‘Nighttime Stories’ with guitarist Trevor de Brauw

Photo : Nick Sayers

Six years after releasing Forever Becoming, the instrumental quartet Pelican have announced their new album, Nighttime Stories, out on June 7 via Southern Lord Recordings. That’s the longest stretch between records yet for the Chicago band.

“I think part of what took a while was just playing shows and getting a sense for what this new entity of the band was and what the vibe of it was before we started creating new music with it,” guitarist Trevor de Brauw says. “I feel, in a lot of ways, that we’re a better band than we ever have been before, especially in the live iteration, and we just wanted to create music that would translate that same live energy.”

The eight-song album marks the band’s first release to fully incorporate their new guitarist, who joined the band in 2013. “This is the first record we’ve written front to back with our new guitar player, Dallas Thomas,” de Brauw confesses. “He played on Forever Becoming,but he joined right before we recorded, and he wasn’t as integrated into the band when we made that album.”

After six years and one new member, Pelican’s approach to composition has changed. “The process of creation was slow and meticulous,” de Brauw admits. “We tried to capture the feeling of how the band is when we perform live. Really, the most productive writing sessions for us are when all four of us are in a room together, which is a struggle, because [bassist] Bryan [Herweg] and [drummer] Larry [Herweg] live in Los Angeles and Dallas and I live in Chicago. So, there is a lot of putting pieces together, like little ideas, and then, when we would have the opportunity to get together as a full band, really take one or two small ideas and see where they go when we start playing them together. In the past, there was maybe a little bit less jamming in the practice space and, more, we would do our writing at home and bring it and sort of hone it in the practice space, whereas these songs expanded and became their entities when we were playing them together.”

Nighttime Stories is also different in tone from the band’s previous works. “Our other records are cathartic in a way, but this one feels a little bit more, I guess, antagonistic—but not antagonistic toward the listener,” de Brauw clarifies. “When I think of antagonistic music, I think about music that’s difficult to listen to or something like this, but this is sort of like an antagonism toward external forces that would wish to do the world harm. We’re inviting our listeners to join in that antagonism and anger.”

“There’s one thing that alarms me a little bit about underground music. I grew up in the ’80s, and so much of music during the ’80s in the U.S. was a very specific political music against the rising regime of conservatism,” he continues. “Not just conservatism but really far right-wing conservatism, where the pendulum started to swing in favor of the ultra-wealthy in this country. With the Trump era, it feels likes there’s this pervading message of hope through underground music, which I think is a positive thing, but there’s also—and less so in the metal world, [but] you know, I follow a lot of indie rock, and a lot of it really is a reaction not of anger but to be tepid and hopeful and keep out of it. I just wish that I saw more musicians making angry music right now, because I think that’s maybe what’s called for.”


Marfa Capodanno

Nighttime Stories reflects these feelings to communicate something specific, including de Brauw’s grief over the passing of his friend and former Tusk bandmate, Jody Minnoch, in 2014. “Every album is a journal of sorts that documents a specific period in time,” de Brauw explains, “and this album, because it was written over a period of six years, I feel like it has less of a thesis statement than any of our other albums. It’s just sort of a journal that covers a lot of different experiences in a lot of different times and a lot of different feelings, from losing Jody to Dallas losing his father to Larry and Dallas having their first children to documenting our own personal feelings about the political situation in the U.S. and abroad. There are so many emotionally charged things that have been happening in each of our lives that I don’t think it’s really fair to try to sum up the theme of the album into one specific thing. I think the album sort of charts six years of an emotional journey.”

“We don’t put a lot of emphasis on figuring out what it is we’re trying to say before we do it,” he adds. “The songwriting process is really about having that germ of an idea and playing in a room and feeling out where the song wants to go. A lot of that process is really intuitive and sort of leaning into what sounds right at any given time. I think that when there are things that you need to express, when there’s something that you need to get out of your system, those things manifest themselves whether you’re trying to write it a particular way or not. So, I don’t know that we would be able to as effectively write lyrics about the things that we’re trying to write about, because in some sense, we’re trying to tap into something that’s deeper or exists on a different plane than what you can express with words.”

The band at Electrical Audio PH. Jonny Coffman

The title Nighttime Stories was initially proposed for Tusk, de Brauw’s hallucinatory art-grind band who included other Pelican bandmembers Larry Herweg and former guitarist Laurent Schroeder-Lebec. “It was a whole album idea that was floated by Tusk’s singer Jody Minnoch, probably pretty close to 2008 or 2009, sometime around after Tusk had made what ended up being our last album, [2007’s The Resisting Dreamer],” de Brauw remembers. “He’d had an idea for another album, but he lived in Portland, [Oregon], and Larry lived in L.A. and Laurent and I lived in Chicago, and although the ideas were really compelling, there was just never time to work on anything. So, it kind of just slipped away, and then, more recently, in 2014, Jody passed away unexpectedly.”

“When we started writing the music for this album—I would hesitate to say it sounds like Tusk, but there is an element of the dark psychedelia and dissonant chord voicings that seem to harken back to Tusk in some ways,” he continues. “Larry suggested titling the first track that we wrote ‘Nighttime Stories’ as a sort of homage to Jody, and as the songwriting continued, we found that that same sort of, like, the bad-acid-trip vibe was creeping into many of the songs. So, he suggested the idea of pulling some of Jody’s lyrical concepts and using them for song titles, which we did for many of the songs on the record.”

The stories of which the title speaks are a tribute to the late vocalist. “I think the stories are lost in the sands of time, because Jody is no longer with us, but in general, they involve outcasts, derelicts, people at the edge of society who are just sort of looking for their way,” de Brauw shares. “He had a very singular narrative style that was very much about the underbelly of society and sort of like these outcast characters.”

Musically speaking, Pelican have always excelled at vacillating between the savage sounds of the metal underground and the more delicate and nuanced sounds typical of the indie music scene. “I think certain things happened a certain way, and then, when we became more aware of them, we would lean into that. This vacillation between heaviness and things that are a little bit more delicate and gentle has always been a part of Pelican,” de Brauw acknowledges. “We’re always keen on trying to examine those zones. In some ways, I think this is our least delicate record, because there’s less clean stuff on this record than usual. I feel like this record is a lot heavier and more caustic and almost more claustrophobic at points, which I think taps into the anxiety that we’ve been feeling as a society but also as individuals. I think that sense of claustrophobia—[it’s] not healthy to exist only in that spot. So, it was important to find moments of rest in the storm.”

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