Interview :: Pelican

Pelican is an instrumental band from Chicago that plays a dense, sprawling, heavy brand of instrumental music that often gets the band branded "post-metal." But that doesn't sit well with guitarist Laurent Schroeder-Lebec: indierocket! spoke with Lebec in advance of the band's upcoming show at the New Brookland Tavern about why post-anything is bullshit. An edited transcript is after the jump. More...

The first thing people probably notice about Pelican is the absence of a singer. Was it always the intention for Pelican to be an instrumental band?
Yeah, pretty much. I mean, at the beginning we definitely toyed with the idea of getting a singer; there weren’t that many instrumental bands around at the time, so we really didn’t have much of a point of reference for being instrumental. So we definitely thought at the beginning that we would eventually get one, but it just sort of happened that some songs materialized and it didn’t really seem like there was a need for one. Then we were put in the situation of wanting to play a few live shows and not having a singer to do it, but we kind of couldn’t pass up the opportunities — it was to open for High on Fire and then for Isis.

You don’t pass something like that up.
No, not at all.

My friend Russell has this theory that all music is better with vocals. The idea is that instrumental bands start at a deficit, having to try harder to keep the listener entertained and having to compensate for the tangible emotional connection a singer brings. As an instrumental band, how does Pelican approach its music so that the listener is not only entertained but emotionally invested?
The main way we do that is to keep ourselves entertained and inspired. I think if the performance comes we’re putting comes across as us enjoying what we’re doing and that we’re connecting with our own art, then we’re just looking for an audience to connect with that experience with us.
It’s the same as going to see a jazz band and there’s no singer and somebody says, ‘Well, this jazz band would sound a lot better if they had a singer. And these musicians seem to be lacking an emotional connection.’ And that couldn’t be further from the truth. I think that people are maybe too connected to the presence of a singer in their music and find that, maybe, instrumental music is averse to that. But I don’t think that’s the case; people connect with soundtracks in the same way after they see a movie. I think that our music can be quite emotional.

So is it liberating not having a singer?
It definitely imposes less structure. For us, we’ve found it to be pretty freeing. I think we fill the sonic palette pretty well with just instruments.

Pelican is often lumped in with other bands — usually Isis, Godspeed You Black Emperor!, Russian Circles, Mogwai, Tortoise, etc. — often because you’re all instrumental bands. Do you think Pelican’s pigeonholed by being instrumental?
I don’t mind the association with any of those bands — we’re all fans and there’s obviously a degree of inspiration. I think that there is a general pigeonholing that comes from being ... instrumental in general; people feel the need to lump instrumental bands in with other instrumental bands and there’s so much music out there. We’re inspired by everything out there that’s under the sun. It’s all there in our music and we don’t choose to put any titles on it.

So maybe “post-rock” or “post-metal” isn’t the best descriptor, then?
I just don’t think that there’s any post- anything. I think most genres around right now are going to be around for a while. You know, I’m a huge fan of metal and have consistently listened to metal for most of my life, and I definitely didn’t think that, all of a sudden, it was like, ‘Oh, metal is over; there’s a post-metal world.’ I think what there is is with the advent of the Internet and people learning about bands all over the world that are doing things a little bit differently; you find that there’s a lot more cross-pollination of genres, and I definitely think that’s something that happened for us. I definitely come from a punk, power-pop and traditional metal background and our other guitar player Trevor [de Brauw] has much more of a taste for experimental music.
We rarely butt heads about where we’re going musically. There’s not a lot of self-conscious reflection on how we’re crafting our art. It’s evolved alone and with each other, and I think our music has, too. So I’m really not too concerned with what team we belong to or who we should be touring with and what people think of us; I think for the most part we find that we’ve been playing music with pretty much anyone. We’ve toured with High on Fire, Mono, Daughters, black metal bands.

And like now, you’re on tour with Thrice and Circa Survive, and those bands obviously have a different fanbase than, say, Mono or Opeth. Is it difficult to cater to different crowds like that?
We’ve done so much different stuff that it’s pretty easy to feel like we can do anything, you know? And that’s what’s rewarding about playing the music that we do. That’s the challenge and that’s what makes touring really fun. When we started touring on a regular basis — and this is like three years ago — you just find that after a certain amount of time you’re really hitting the same spots.
When you’re playing the kind of music we’re playing, you’re also kind of shooting yourself in the foot in terms of potential for being huge. But that’s not the reward; we just want to build up a community of people who are excited about the directions we’re taking and the chances we’re taking and how we’re growing musically.
The language between each other on stage and the rush we get from playing on stage is what keeps us on the road.

There’s an almost seismic evolution from the self-titled EP to City of Echoes, which is much more complex and dynamic and a lot airier that your earlier works. Was this a natural evolution or a conscious decision?
I definitely think it’s natural. We write and generally the songs we write in batches. The weird songs are always the first few songs for a record. You write one and you’re like, ‘Oh man, this sounds different and we’re just not sure where we’re going.’ And you kind of doubt yourself a little bit and you always have this fear of repeating yourself at the same time; you don’t want to tread the same ground. So we started writing this record [City of Echoes] and just right away with the first song or two found that we were really headed in a different direction. And the rest of the writing went smoothly after that. And a year later, you’ve got City of Echoes.

Are there any unifying themes to Pelican records?
Traditional themes: family, health, falling in love, getting married, the pursuit of happiness in one’s life — it all gets sorted in there.
City of Echoes was a reflection of our own lives. We don’t really look back and try to understand where the music came from. The only moments we sit down and try to assess where something was coming from is if it was going wrong. But if everything sounds on point and everyone’s having a good time, you’re not going to say, ‘Whoa, guys, slow down. What does this mean?’
Any song is a different vignette is a ... little reminder or little triggers to remind ourselves from our times on tour.

Has there been any progress for the new record?
We’ve got four or five songs written. And it’s already shaping up to be really different from [City of Echoes].

Is self-parody something you have to actively try to avoid?
We have to. We’re just that hardwired to do it. If we feel like we’re treading old ground, it just starts to feel comical, and we’re very aware of the parodies of the genres we’re playing in and out of.

Pelican's May 1 show at the New Brookland Tavern has been canceled, but the show must go on: Opening acts Castalia and ...for science! take the stage at the New Brookland Tavern at 8 p.m. Admission is $4 ($6 if you're under 21). Call 791-4413 or visit newbrooklandtavern.com.


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