25 September 2007
Words by Simon Milburn and images by Ryan Russell
Pelican sure is a strange beast. No, not the big billed bird - although some might say that. I'm talking about the instrumental heavy rock act originally from Chicago, Illinois (U.S.A.). When you look at their debut effort, 2003's Australasia and compare it to their sophomore effort from 2005, The Fire In Our Throats Will Beckon The Thaw, you could almost swear that they were either two different bands, or perhaps musically bipolar even with the nuances that linked the two releases.
Both albums brought the band further out of obscurity and soon enough, guitarists Trevor de Brauw and Laurent Lebec, and the rhythm section of brothers Bryan (bass) and Larry Herweg (drums) soon found themselves living the dream - playing their music across the country and living life in the back of a van - or thereabouts. There were lessons learnt during those numerous tours with the likes of Cave-In et cetera, and the time came soon enough for album number three. It was completed quicker than their previous efforts, but the result, City Of Echoes, is more compact, more diverse, yet more engaging from beginning to end, and the response to the album to this point has been positive.
“It's been good so far. We just finished the U.S. tour for that and it went pretty good, and people seemed to like it. Things are pretty good,” begins bassist Bryan Herweg. I caught up with Herweg hanging out at home in California, U.S.A to discuss their forthcoming Australian tour, labelling and pigeon holing of their music, receiving props from Judas Priest mainman Rob Halford, writing and recording City Of Echoes and just how it compares to their previous efforts.
“I'm the happiest out of all of our recordings. I think it's a good representation of all of our influences and all the four different members really learning their part, kind of, and bringing it all together, and bringing their influences. I think it's the best representation of what our band should sound like real naturally. It came really naturally. For me to go back and listen to it now, it's kinda cool because it's like, I hear my influences in there, and I hear Trevor's and I hear Laurent's and everybody's kind of finding their own place and I think it all meshed together really well.”
It's the third in a line of differing releases, but Herweg confirms that City Of Echoes was the direction that all four in the band wanted to go in.
“Y'know, we did the long heavy songs and I think that was definitely just us trying to find ourselves and our place and where we were gonna go and everything, and I think it was great for that. Fire In Our Throats... were all these long, building up songs and stuff like that, and we enjoyed writing that one, and I enjoyed it at the time. But after touring on it for a long time, we started to realize that we didn't really want to play 12 minute songs on stage anymore,” laughs the bassist. “So, going on night after night and playing five or six songs and you're playing for an hour and fifteen minutes, it was like, 'Alright, maybe we should try writing some shorter songs.' And we just got kind of bored with the slow, er, I don't want to say it but that like post-rock build kind of feel where everything's epic and da-da-da-da-da. We wanted to just go back and write a rock record, y'know? We're all big metal and just classic rock fans and stuff like that, so we thought we should shorten these songs up and keep them high energy the whole time and it'll be a lot more fun to vary it up a little bit on stage too for us. It was more of a personal choice.”
City Of Echoes can take you from the early sludge like vibe of Fudge Tunnel to the pop sensibilities of the Foo Fighters in the blink of an eye. But it was the post-tour reflection of playing long songs that played a major part in the shift and diversity found within their latest album.
“It was a huge reason. We toured a lot on Fire In Our Throats, and that was our first real touring experience as far as trying to do it for a living and all that stuff, and we realized that when playing with bands like Cave In where these guys seemed to be having a lot more fun playing these rock songs, and we'd get up there and have to be so serious and everybody takes us so seriously... not that we're not serious about it, but, that, night after night is not always fun. Sometimes you'd start getting' too hard on yourselves. I dunno. I think we just have a lot more fun on this record.”
It's a case of the group's previous efforts seeming like a good idea at the time, and when it came time for writing album number three, hindsight was a great learning tool.
“Oh absolutely! I'm really happy with the way both of them came out. Obviously people liked them, which is all that I could hope for. We just do what sounds good and what we like at the time, and I think it's been a growing process. When I go back and listen to those records, I can definitely see how we were learning and how we were learning to play with each other over those last two records. In hindsight, I think each one is very representative of the time in our band.”
Moving forward though, and City Of Echoes is the album that Pelican were always going to make after Australasia and The Fire In Our Throats Will Beckon The Thaw.
“Yeah, it feels that way to us, too. That's not a conscious thing. We didn't go, 'Well, this is where we have to go,' but it's all where we felt like ... we just all kinda agreed on it. It came really naturally. We just all started writing songs. I started coming up with these really heavy, harder and faster riffs so we were just like, 'Oh cool, let's go with this.'”
That natural shift in direction has lead to some changes within the creative process that accompanied it as well.
“We wrote these new songs a lot quicker. We had a little bit less time to do it. The other songs, we would write songs sporadically over a couple of year's time, and we would end up playing them live. It was kind of strange. This was the first time we actually sat down, and were like, 'Right. We're gonna write this record, and focus on it.' We even went into the studio with some songs not completely finished which is weird for us. The writing process happened in a smaller amount of time, but it was very productive and very natural and easy, and we had a lot of fun.”
Fun it might have been this time around, and while the writing process has evolved and the band matured, as difficult as their music is to categorize, Herweg believes that categorizing, or pigeon-holing and labelling, is something that they haven't been able to avoid in the slightest.
“I don't think we've avoided it because, it's kind of funny. I think it's the opposite. We've been pigeon-holed in every pigeon hole there is. It's almost like nobody can decide what they want to call us, which is awesome to me. That's all we wanted. We are all over the board as far as what we do and music is what we love, and we want to incorporate everything we love. Tomorrow I could watch some damned play and it could be like country music and I could be like, 'Holy shit! This is amazing!' and I'm gonna start writing country songs,” laughs Herweg. “Probably won't happen, but you know what I mean? We just want everything to be open. We all just love it. We love music and our tastes are completely all over the board.”
With that kind of diversity on board, Herweg never envisaged the band receiving the level of attention that it has been of late.
“No, no. Not at all. Not at all. It's all been ... it seems like it's been going really fast. It's been eight years now but still it seems very ... er... it's still a shock. It's still a shock when we go out and play headlining shows to three or four hundred people... five hundred people. It's just awesome in the States and even more so in other places. It's always been a shock. We never expected it would be like that. It's not why you start a band, y'know?”
Then from left field, Rob Halford, the legendary voice of Judas Priest, comes out and publicly acknowledges the quartet.
“That's amazing! That's beyond that,” Herweg states with genuine awe in his voice. “It's really funny that it's Rob Halford too because Laurent is a huge Judas Priest fan! That's his favourite band of all time. For him to do that, and for all of us too, it was awesome! It's amazing. It's very flattering when other musicians, especially notable musicians, say they like your band. That to me is very flattering.”
It's interesting to note just how polar opposite Pelican is to anything that Rob Halford has done over his extensive career with not only Judas Priest but also Fight and Halford as well.
“Right! That's what's even more amazing about it that he's into it. It's pretty awesome that at his age, and I don't know how old he is but I'm sure he's old, that he's still that into music and finding band's like us that are pretty new. It's definitely flattering.”
It goes to show that you really do need to look well beyond some of the ridiculous labels that are thrown around the music industry in recent years such as post-metal, post-rock, and such.
“I don't really understand what post-rock means. All those things, I think people are looking to just coin a term. They want to be the first to coin some genre. I mean, post-rock... it's all still rock. It kind of drives me nuts the whole post-rock thing. But as far as those labels go, it's just not important I think. Like I said, some of these people make up these weird names like doomo or whatever. It's like, 'What is this? You're trying to be the first one to say this!' I don't know. It's silly I think. I think all of that stuff's silly. Our next record will probably be totally different again and people'll wanna start makin' up some post- names ... they can go right ahead,” Herweg laughs.
Such as post-Pelican rock?
“Exactly!! The next record will be post-Pelican!”
But when it comes down to it, bullshit labels aside, Herweg's description of Pelican's music is honest, simple, to the point and downright correct at the heart of it all.
“Whenever I tell people that don't know, I always say that it's an instrumental rock band and it's on the heavier side. That's usually how I describe it to people. We're a rock band at this point. We've covered a decent amount of ground and stuff like that. There's really no way for me to go 'Oh, this is really what is sounds like.' So I always say it's an instrumental rock band, and that's how I'd like it to stay.”
It's just about time for Pelican to bring their style of heavy, instrumental rock to Australian audiences for the first time.
“We met Dave Batty who did the Isis tour. He had talked to us a while ago and had been wanting to do it for a while. We actually met him when we were out with Daughters in the States last Fall. He came to the San Francisco show and we met him and he said, 'We're doing it!' That's pretty much how it came about. We've been wanting to do it for a while now but it wasn't always financially feasible for us and now it is. So we are doing it and it's my return trip. I actually went and spent a month there with a friend of mine a few years ago. That was the inspiration for Australasia - the name. I came back from that trip and we recorded that record before I left. Some photography and things like that were the inspiration for the title.”
Although Herweg has been down under before, our music scene is somewhat of an enigma for him still.
“Honestly, I'm just really excited to see how the shows turn out. I really don't know what to expect. When I was down there before, my friend that I was with isn't really a music kind of person so I didn't really get to check out any shows or scenes or anything. I really don't know much about the whole scene down there and I'm really excited because I've heard the shows are great - Isis had told us they were great. So I'm just really excited to see how many people essentially know us. That's always the funnest part about going to far away countries - seeing people that are coming to see you. It's like, 'Holy shit! All these people actually know our band right there?' That's what I'm excited about, and to see it - I love it there. It's beautiful.”
There's no doubt from the enthusiasm in Herweg's voice that the group are looking forward to their first Australian tour, and he gives a hint as to what fans down under can expect from the shows.
“We always destroy!” laughs Herweg. “If we can, we always destroy. They can expect an intense rock show for sure!”
Pelican's latest album, City Of Echoes, is out now on Hydra Head Records through Riot! Entertainment. Pelican's Australian Tour, supported by The Stockholm Syndrome, takes in the following shows: October 3, The Zoo, Brisbane; October 4, Manning Bar, Sydney; October 5, Corner Hotel, Melbourne. For more information on Pelican, check out www.pelicansong.com.