Pelican’s Trevor de Brauw: the 10 guitar albums that blew my mind
For Pelican, the journey is everything. Since forming in 2001, initially as a side-project to their “nightmare prog” grindcore band, Tusk, the Chicago-based quartet have made a career of taking elements from metal and hardcore and using them in pursuit of an elegiac sound that travels far from both, forever caught somewhere between the low thrum of tension and ecstasy of release.
Of course, this we call post-metal - or instrumental post-metal - but if we’re really interested in making sense of Pelican’s sound we’ve got to step outside of genre conventions, and dig deeper to see what’s influencing them.
Pelican’s sixth studio album, Nighttime Stories, is out on 7 June 2019 through Southern Lord, and it’s a record that’s once more built on riffs and melodies and driven onwards by a progressive zeal, the chasing of the next horizon.
Even if that builds towards the hectic - as it does on the brawny Midnight And Mescaline - there’s never sense that Trevor de Brauw or Dallas Thomas will over-play. That’s not in their DNA.
It’s certainly not how de Brauw approaches his guitar. It’s not how he’s orientated artistically. For de Brauw, it started with the present and approachable pop-punk scene, and with being open to new ways of expanding upon punk’s utilitarian arrangements.
That took him to Jawbreaker, and then to Fugazi, who de Brauw maintains are a touchstone for everyone in Pelican, and whose use of ugly and vicious guitar noise in the sport of surprisingly user-friendly songwriting remains an example to all of us.
As instrumentalists, Pelican must find other ways to introduce lyricism into their sound, and, here, de Brauw looks to the likes of 1970s New York alternative punk legends Television, and to the melodic relationship between Bedhead’s Bubba Kadane, Matt Kadane and Tench Coxe, which afforded the Texan indie-rockers a conversational quality to their writing.
In explaining why each of these 10 guitar albums blew his mind, de Brauw advances our understanding of what Pelican are all about, how their sound came into being, and reveals what he is looking for from his instrument. It might just be what you are looking for, too.
1. Jawbreaker - Dear You (1995)
“When I first started playing guitar, pop-punk was the world I was coming up in. One record that changed a lot for me, and I got into a couple of records on this list through it, was this compilation that Ben Weasel [of Screeching Weasel] compiled for Lookout Records called Punk USA, and that was the first place I heard Jawbreaker.
“I know that 24 Hour Revenge Therapy is a favourite for a lot of people but, for me, I feel like you put on Dear You and Save Your Generation is such a mission statement. The second chord of the chord progression goes much higher on the scale than you would think in a standard punk progression.
“There are also these twists and turns in this one chord progression where Blake Schwarzenbach changes key in really abstract, weird ways, and it was so mind expanding that a punk record could do that.”
2. Fugazi - Red Medicine (1995)
“That era was a really exploratory period for that entire scene, in terms of trying to find new, sophisticated ways to use instruments.
“The reason that record always stands out is the last song, Long Distance Runner. Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto are doing these harmonised guitar lines. Harmonised guitar leads didn’t really have a place in punk at that time; that was really a metal thing. But they found a completely different way to utilise that sound, and the guitar line is so sparse but it’s so emotionally effective. Paired with the lyrics, it packed a real wallop.
“I feel like there’s something really accessible and proletarian about the playing. The thing that’s distinct about Pelican is that all of us have really vastly different tastes in music, but Fugazi is one of the touchstones that all of us have really been into.”
3. Garden Variety - Knocking The Skill Level (1995)
“When I heard that album it was so unlike anything I had heard. The guitar playing is so wildly distinctive.
“Anthony Rizzo’s chord voicings are deliberately dissonant - and angular, and weird - but it never strays away from being used in a melodic way. I was just so influenced by that; how to use dissonance in a way that’s really melodically engaging at the same time.
“I remember reading an interview with them and what they said was really influential on me. They talked about how their favourite music was stuff that every time you listened to the record you hear something different in it, this sense that you can engage with noise layering, that there are secrets hidden in the music.
“I’ve always been very interested in putting as much as possible into the music and not to worry about whether the details are on the surface or not.”
4. Sunny Day Real Estate - LP2 (aka The Pink Album, 1995)
“There are two things I took away from Sunny Day Real Estate, and I want to preface that by saying that The Pink Album isn’t my favourite.
“It’s close. I think How It Feels To Be Something On is the most successful Sunny Day Real Estate album record but The Pink Album opened my eyes to some very specific musical things.
“I don’t know the technical terminology for a lot of this stuff, but their chord voicings often included notes that there not quite in the scale, that have - not a dissonant quality... almost like a yearning quality. There’s this yearning element to the sound because the chords were always within the range of what would be a resolving chord but isn’t quite there.
“I’ve always been really interested in that because it is immediately emotionally evocative. The other thing that was really interesting about that record in particular was the use of odd meters and polyrhythms.”
5. Radiohead - OK Computer (1997)
“The record that launched a thousand pedalboards! In the span of a year, from when that record came out to a year later, every punk band suddenly had a delay pedal.
“I remember going to a show three or four months after that came out, in some basement club in New Jersey, and every single band had a keyboard and these giant pedalboards. I was like, ‘What the fuck is happening!?’
“This is the first one on the list that I don’t consider a punk record. OK Computer was a record where the playing, in a sense, has that same quality where there’s not a whole lot of showy playing, even though it’s a rock record, figuratively speaking. The real showmanship is how each player in the band was individually building these walls of sound using the tools at their disposal.
“I’m not the type of guitar player who usually watches gear videos because I find them boring and I can’t really follow the terminology, but I recently watched an hour-long interview with Ed O’Brien and was totally fascinated.”
6. Botch - We Are The Romans (1999)
“When I heard that record it really resonated with me, because at that point me and Larry [Herweg, drums], and Laurent [Schroeder-Lebec, Pelican’s former guitarist] were doing the band Tusk, which was like a psychedelic, proggy grindcore band. I heard that Botch record and thought, ‘These motherfuckers nailed what we are trying to do!’
“It’s really groovy but also dissonant and just so visceral. The emotions are so impactful and the production is so incredibly bombastic but crystal-clear. And yeah, the songs on that record take you on a journey! The playing is so idiosyncratic and weird.
“Dave [Knudson] had this sprawling musical DNA. He was picking up the best elements of so many different things, like the wiry leads of Jesus Lizard but then also the bludgeoning chunks of hardcore. It’s an incredible record. In the middle of some crazy off-time stuff, there will be the hook. ‘Oh, okay, I’m still with you guys!’”
7. Godflesh - Selfless (1994)
“Godflesh is a band that I was into for a long time in high school. I know that Streetcleaner is considered by most to be the quintessential Godflesh record. I like it, but I’ve always thought that Pure and Selfless, which I got into much later, were the peak period for me.
“That record is just stunning. The riffs are very simple but they are extremely controlled despite how brutal and heavy they are. This is probably a hallmark of all of these picks, but that tight-rope act between melody and dissonance, heaviness and brightness, is very present on that album.
“[Justin Broadrick] can go from the chunks of Crush My Soul to the yearning, epic melodies of Go Spread Your Wings, and all of it is just gorgeous music. Their albums are all world-building, which is something that I think is really different from Pelican.
“Our writing is always super-intuitive, but you get the impression from talking to Justin that Godflesh is really cerebral music, despite how heavy and physical it comes across.”
8. Television - Marquee Moon (1977)
“In recent years, I’ve become a real fiend for Television bootlegs. If you do enough digging, you can find some of these rehearsal demos and hear how hard they worked on these songs.
“The guitar playing on that record is just so lyrical, and that’s something that I have chased a lot. That lyricism of the guitar leads is awe-inspiring to me.
“One thing that always comes up is the guitar lead on Marquee Moon, which is of course gorgeous and epic, but then you’ll hear a song like See No Evil where just the riff itself is just this incredible lead line that’s a multi-string melody, and I can’t for the life of me work out how he [Tom Verlaine] is doing it. It’s so precise, executed so perfectly. It’s crazy.
“It must have been a conscious choice for them to dial back the gain in the studio just to make sure the songs were coming across as clearly as possible.”
9. Bedhead - Transaction de Novo (1998)
“In a way, I feel like the closest analogue to that record on this list is Godflesh’s Selfless. I feel like the use of space and the absolute singularity of the approach is what’s notable here.
“For me, just the interplay between the guitars is what’s so inspiring, and it really made me want to figure out how to establish more of a counterpoint between guitars when writing.
“Neither one of the guitar players in Bedhead is playing the song. You can take any one guitar out of the mix and none of them will make sense on their own.
“It’s all about deconstructing the entire song and then rearranging it so that it’s the interplay between multiple instruments, and it just makes the builds between the crescendoes of the songs that much more effective because it is so careful. It just feels like you’re on this journey with them.”
10. Oren Ambarchi - Grapes From The Estate (2004)
“It was important for me to get at least one record on this list that reflected my interest in using guitar to create non-guitar sounds.
“[With] a lot of experimental music, the performance is the highlight. It’s about the interplay. Whereas, on this Oren Ambarchi record, what is highlighted is the process. He is doing something with his guitar that is so incredibly of its own world, but it is entirely less about the performance and more about the process that it is undergoing.
“The sound of the guitar has been affected so it no longer resembles guitar, and then he is doing something with building loops but it is unclear how these loops are beginning or ending, or what he is doing to create them, and it just creates this deep curiosity in me! [Laughs]
“I feel like the album as a whole has a narrative flow to it, where it starts in a very sparse place, but, as the songs go on, the arrangements get bigger and bigger. It has this really beautiful pastoral feel to it.”