It’s hard for a journalist to nail down certain musicians. When an artist defies convention and throws the listener a stylistic curveball, you either find yourself at a total loss of adequate descriptive language, or you pile on the genres and comparisons until the band’s reputation is buried beneath a dung heap of words that have lost all meaning.
Take Pelican, an aggressive, melodic, instrumental post-rock/stoner rock/doom metal band whose members originally hail from Chicago. They’ve spent the better part of the decade performing and recording epic-length tracks, entirely sans vocals save one track, and built up a large following of fans who have followed them from their Hydra Head days to their new life on Southern Lord. Both labels are known for releasing heavy music — a bill that fits Pelican without any doubt — yet they remain distinctly set apart from any label-mate who’ve shared a stage or lent a guest performer to any of Pelican’s eight total full-lengths and EPs.
A lot of bands hope for the measure of balance Pelican have struck between brutal and beautiful, yet few succeed to such an extent. Perhaps there simply isn’t a genre that adequately contains the band because it doesn’t exist outside of Pelican.
The band’s latest full-length, What We All Come To Need, was released this past October on Southern Lord, and will be released in double-LP vinyl format on February 23. Guitarist Laurent Schroeder-Lebec lends a little insight into the newest release, and the inner-workings of the band’s creative process.
First, I know you’ve been asked as to why you made the switch from Hydra Head to Southern Lord (you commented in Time Out Chicago that it seems like a “lateral move” to some people), but I was wondering if you might comment on how the operations of the two labels differ, from the perspective a band who’s been so closely involved with the people behind both labels — and how it affects you. Would you say the business operations are vastly different, or is it more a matter of receiving fresh input on the creative, artistic side of things?
Nice way to phrase the question, actually — you hit on a few things that interestingly take us away from the controversy of things and introduce substance. But the point is still that it’s a very personal thing. We like both labels and continue to work with both. There are ways of doing business that are similar and some that are different. Principally, though, I think the second part of what you said is true: it’s fresh input, different collaborations, a different way of having our music depicted, [and] being influenced by different opinions and vantage points. It’s a new house.
What We All Come To Need features a great lineup of guest contributors — was this directly related to working with Greg Anderson at Southern Lord? Greg’s band, Sunn O))), has always utilized a lot of guests when recording.
It has nothing to do with that, actually — it’s because of logistic possibilities. We found ourselves in a studio for a longer period of time, in a city with friends whose work we enjoyed greatly, had Greg coming up to listen to our work, and had discussed for a while having a song where vocals might work. It all kind of gelled for us without too much forethought, and it worked out splendidly. The best things this band does happen pretty organically. We really found ourselves overwhelmed with the different voicing people brought to each song.
What is the collaboration process like for your band? Do you create riffs in advance and school your guests in-studio, or is it a more organic result of just jamming and screwing around with friends?
Well, these days it’s a little different from what it used to be. At the beginning, we very much followed a formula that’s pretty typical: we got together with a few riffs in mind, played around to structure things, and then just played the track until things worked out and sounded good to us. These days, we take advantage of technology more, and also have contributions coming from all members of the band. It’s really on all sides…these days it does feel more like a living creature. In the early days, it was just the clichéd writing style. But as far as guests go, we don’t school anyone — we let them run loose with the song in whatever way they want.
You’ve stated that some people are “annoyed” you used a singer on one track, “Final Breath,” on the new album. Critics aside, if it feels right, I am assuming you’ll do it again. Why do you think fans are so vehemently against hearing changes in your sound?
Well, the perception of annoyance is likely just the faulty bubble that the internet creates. A few blog posts will say it and all of a sudden it seems that everyone out there feels something. But, truth is, we actually have had that evolution met with far more support than otherwise. And yes, there’ll be more of it — it was super fun, felt inspired, and left us reeling with joy at how it sounded.
Perhaps this is an odd question — but in the years I’ve been interviewing musicians, I’ve noted they often love to discuss the lyric-writing process. It seems that getting words onto paper is very important when they feel they’ve got something to say. For the members of Pelican, being in a band free of vocals, do any of you write (or create any other art) on the side, away from the music side of things?
Well, Trevor [de Brauw] and Larry [Herweg] are the ones who predominantly have done other bands that release records — anything from death metal to free-form improvisational experiments. I had a couple of other bands going, but as is often the case, not everyone has the same side job schedule at home…for the most part, I’m busy working nights a lot these days, so I just spend days doing Pelican riffage — but I’ll bet sooner than later there’ll be some of my other music released. As for writing, I don’t do much writing. I did once, but the writing these days is through my guitar.
I read on the Southern Lord website that you worked with Dylan Carlson of Earth; that he “lent the band a hand in recreating an Earth song from their first seven-inch.” I saw, though, that he wasn’t credited in the album. Which song was it that he helped you with, and in what capacity? What was it like working with him?
Working with Dylan was great; he’s a great musician and gentleman with a long road behind and ahead…so many moments of brilliant creativity. It was an honor to work with him. However, he’s not on the full-length. He’s on the EP before it, and the song is called “Geometry of Murder.”
About two years passed between the time you released your last two full-lengths. What now for Pelican? Are you guys already working on new material, or are you focused on other bands or non-musical aspirations?
We always take about two years. At first, that had more to do with touring and such. Right now, though, we’re all enjoying a little time off to recharge the batteries and try out other projects, tend to our personal lives, etc. And yeah, we’ll begin writing soon. There [are] already a few riffs in the works, for sure!