an interview with Trevor de Brauw of Pelican, Chord
by Parker Langvardt
Though probably not his busiest year in music, Trevor de Brauw has been working on a diverse array of projects. His heavy instrumental group Ataraxia/Taraxis and toured Europe in April, playing Bonnaroo last week. After a pair of Southern Lord showcases in California, they will be performing at Lincoln Hall on June 29 with Anatomy of Habit and Redgrave. Tickets are still available.
De Brauw’s ambient collaboration, Chord, also shared a bill with Anatomy of Habit on June 12 at The Hideout. They released their album Gmaj7 on June 5, along with recordings of their performance at the Empty Bottle that led to the album. Miracle Condition collaborated with Chord on the second track of Gmaj7 (Empty Bottle – 11/20/10), and their drummer Pat Samson is featured on the studio recording “Gmaj7 (Kinesis)”. Gmaj7 is available on vinyl via English label M.I.E. Music.
He also performed solo for the first time in several years with an ambient set at the Empty Bottle on March 26, which was recorded and posted to his Soundcloud with the title “Don’t Be an Asshole.” He will be playing again on Tuesday (6/19), with Sweet Cobra, Old Baby, and Electric Hawk at Lincoln Hall. Tickets are still available.
Trevor and I spoke yesterday about one-chord jams and not being an asshole, among other things. Our chat begins below…
bvChicago: I noticed on Neurot’s website that Chord existed only in conversation for a few months. Did it start out as humorous and light-hearted, or were you thinking about it as a focused experiment in music theory?
Trevor de Brauw: There was a little bit of humor intertwined into but really when we came up with it, it was laughing at it like, “I wonder what it would sound like. I bet you it would be pretty cool.” It was really just a matter of we wanted to set up a show, because we didn’t want to just do it and record it. It just seemed like the kind of thing that would be more of a physical, live interaction. So, we wanted to set up a show to figure out what it would sound like, and that’s what we did and we enjoyed ourselves and took it from there. For the first three or four years, I guess, we never recorded at all. We were just doing shows here and there.
bvC: At that time were you composing any of it or were you just going up and improvising?
Trevor: It’s hard to figure out. I know that for the first couple shows we definitely didn’t have any game plan. At some point we realized that the pieces would come off stronger, the performances would be stronger if we tied it to compositional elements. We eventually came up with the strategy of doing time-grids. We come up with a composition that is based on events or trajectories. Everyone usually just has one note in each chord. It’s just kind of a matter of figuring out when events happen. We have our kind of musical notation that we’ve invented that involves a grid. When we perform we all have timers in front of us so we can keep track of where we’re at.
bvC: Do you live track when you record?
Trevor: Yes, the record was recorded live. There’s only one piece that we’ve ever done that we recorded that was multi-tracked. I can’t remember the name of it offhand, but it’s the third track on the second album, Progression, [“D6 (codal)”] and that was an experiment in trying to do something that was a bit more multi-tracked. That piece also includes note changes. By our standards it’s practically a prog piece.
bvC: Did you plan out your live collaboration with Miracle Condition?
Trevor: Yeah, we did, and they were real sports about it, because obviously when you’ve been doing something as idiosyncratic as we’ve been doing for as long as we’ve been doing we kind of have our own language developed and kind of our own, as I’ve said, charting method. Really, the majority of the planning for Chord performances, when we do live shows, happens like the week of the show or the actual night of the show. If I remember correctly, the piece we performed that evening with the Miracle Condition, we were in the basement of the Empty Bottle charting out the performance and explaining to the guys in our own language what we wanted them to do. We’re just really lucky that it turned out much better than we could have anticipated.
bvC: What steps did you take to get Pat Samson of Miracle Condition in the studio with you?
Trevor: We did that show, and that was actually the release show for our second album, Progression. We had tried to put together a three band bill and it didn’t work, like we couldn’t find a third act to fit the bill, so what we ended up doing was we opened the show doing “Gmaj7,” then had Miracle Condition play in the middle, and then the headliner was the collaboration. The strategy that we baked up was to do the same chord in two drastically different interpretations of the chord. When the show was over we realized that it was a great concept for an album, to do the same chord in two different ways, and to do an LP with two separate sides. Once we had done that show, we took the compositions we had come up with at that show and kind of adjusted them so they would make more sense in a recorded environment rather than a live one. For instance, I think both of those pieces live ran around 35 minutes or something like that, which is too long for a side of an LP. It was just a matter of readjusting a little bit. The other thing was that we were really, definitely, definitely hooked on the drums with Pat, but we didn’t want the record to be too over-saturated with different musical voices, so we just had to keep it to the core five members of the band, with the addition of Pat, rather than have the entire Miracle Condition band come over, which would have been fun but it might have become really hard logistically.
bvC: How did you end up releasing the album through M.I.E Music?
Trevor: Sean, the bass player, he put that together. Every time we try to do something with a different label, and branch out and see if there’s different people we can reach. I know M.I.E. has a very good reputation and we were lucky they were very interested. It was cool to do something overseas as well because the first two labels we worked with were stateside. It’s just a matter of broadening our base if possible.
bvC: Out of the other members of the bands, whose projects are still ongoing? I noticed X-Bax has been active.
Trevor: Jason was doing a dark-wave/ambient kind of project called Anatole, and Sean is doing something called Sacred Cities that he hasn’t shared too much information with me about. I’m interested to hear that. It’s sort of along similar lines as Chord.
bvC: You’ve been doing a decent amount of solo work this year. Is this more than usual for you? Are you kind of ramping it up right now?
Trevor It’s hard to say. I’ve done a couple of solo albums under the name Histoire, and the last one I did was in 2005 and I’ve been working on a solo album since then that’s been coming together really slowly, to the point that I don’t know if it’s every going to be finished. I haven’t done much in terms of playing live solo since the early 2000s, but I recently came up with this composition that I was working on. I’ve done two performances of it so far and I’ve got another one coming up June 19. It’s very active for me in terms of the solo front since I haven’t really been playing solo shows at all before. It’s one of those unpredictable things. I don’t want to play the same piece over and over again. If I came up with more pieces that work as a solo performer I would probably do more, but I don’t really want to drill this one thing into the ground. The thing with my solo work is it’s usually written in the recording environment, and that has a lot to do with layers, and multi-tracking, and different instruments and different textures and stuff like that. There’s not a whole lot that I do that’s reproducible live.
bvC: Where did the title “Don’t Be an Asshole” come from?
Trevor: Umm… it kind of came to me. I think the piece semi-ironic because I think that the piece in a way is aggressive but it’s also supposed to be soothing. It’s in your face about relaxing and chilling out.
bvC: How was performing at Bonnaroo with Pelican?
Trevor: It was really fun, but it was sort of stressful. I don’t really do well in large mass circumstances. I enjoy playing in front of large crowds. It can be fun, and the show definitely was, and there’s a price to be paid for the fun. Shit like that is such a total clusterfuck.
bvC: You mean the logistics of performing?
Trevor: Yeah, the logistics of getting around the festival grounds, which are entirely gigantic, and band vehicles aren’t really allowed anywhere near the stage so you have to arrange transport through the festival and stuff like that. It’s total chaos. Also, mobile phones weren’t really working on site, because they have towers for the purposes of the festival but there’s 80,000 people competing for the bandwidth, so it’s really hard to get ahold of anybody.
bvC: Did Dallas Thomas from The Swan King fill in for Laurent?
Trevor: Yeah, he did. Laurent hasn’t really been playing out of town with us ever since he had his child. He prefers to focus on his family and his career and stuff like that.
bvC: When Mike Hill of Tombs interviewed you for Brooklyn Vegan, you had mentioned that Europe was your priority this year since you hadn’t toured there in a while. How does that touring experience compare to North America?
Trevor: I think a lot of people say that it’s better, but I don’t know that it’s better, I think it’s just different. Hospitality is definitely approached really differently in Europe than it is in the states. So many venues try to put you up and prepare food for you, where in the states you’re more likely to have to seek out a hotel on your own, or find somewhere to stay, and find your own meals. You know, it’s just a different approach. Really, audiences are great anywhere. It was nice to tour Europe after so long, because since we hadn’t been there it felt audiences were approaching shows like it was a really special experience, so it felt good to have that kind of connection with the fans. In the states sometimes, because we’re a little bit more available here, people can sometimes get jaded and not have as enthusiastic of a response. I think we’ve been so sparing for our shows in the past couple years that I anticipate that kind of reaction in the states as well when we get around to doing more stuff here.
bvC: Do you know when you might tour the U.S.?
Trevor: It’s hard to predict because it would involve finishing an album first, and inspiration comes in waves and you can’t really control it, but the writing has definitely been picking up as of late and it’s our hope that we’ll finish writing this year and record at some point early next year and do some US dates in the course of 2013, but I don’t want to commit to anything until the material is actually written.
(via AV Club)
bvC: Is the album going to be connected to Ataraxia/Taraxis?
Trevor: The EP was more of a matter of clearing the coffers and wrapping up some old ideas that we hadn’t completely finished yet, and then kind of exploring some new territory. The first and last track, which were the newest ones on there, which were a little bit more of an experiment for us, I think that we will be approaching ideas with some of the lessons that we learned from those songs in mind, but I wouldn’t say that the EP is necessarily a predecessor to the LP stylistically speaking.
bvC: It’s interesting to see how you’ve taken your concepts over the years. The concept of this one seemed like you were moving on from the negative concepts that came up in the last two albums. Is there anything that really inspired this progression of concepts? Is it just where you’re mentally at at the time?
Trevor: Yeah, I think the concepts are really much more informed by what we’re feeling at any given time, and that progression is really just like, an artist through the maturity of growing older. All of us have grown a lot as people since the band started. We were in our early 20s, or whatever, when we started playing together. We’ve been through a lot together and we’ve experienced this really unique journey with one another that’s been a really special experience. I don’t know that the new EP was necessarily any more hopeful than the stuff that preceded it because there is kind of a bleak outlook to some of the concepts that were underlying the songs, but I think there is a sense of hope that we yearn towards that we try to approach with our music. I, for one, would really like to explore that more in the newer material.
bvC: What I understand from researching the terms used in the titles of Ataraxia/Taraxis, it has to do with trying to ignore the really terrible things that are going on in the world, and get yourself and your personal life together instead of getting yourself overwhelmed, which I could kind of see as a negative thing.
Trevor: Right, it’s a catch 22. The Epicurians believe that you should disconnect yourself from the public life, because the public life that leads to anxiety, which can eat you up inside, but when you turn your back to the anxieties of the world, it actually gives them more power.
bvC: I also noticed in that interview with Mike Hill that your second show ever was with Isis?
Trevor: Yeah, second or third show.
bvC: They were still pretty early in their career too?
Trevor: Yeah, that was their first headlining tour actually. It might have been before the first album or it may have been right after it came out.
bvC: How did that happen? You went through the promoter and they booked you with them?
Trevor: Yeah. In the early days of our band there weren’t that many, for lack of a better term because I don’t really think we are, there weren’t very many stoner metal type bands in Chicago, and our first show was actually opening for High on Fire. We knew Brian Peterson, who booked both the High on Fire show and the Isis show, we knew him through our grind back Tusk and he heard that we were working on this band Pelican that was more stoner-y or whatever. High on Fire were coming and he was like, “You guys want to do this show?” and we were like, “Yeah, fuck it. Whatever!” and that show went over really well. When Isis came through it seemed like another really good fit.
bvC: What venues were those shows at?
Trevor: They were both at Fireside Bowl. At one time the greatest venue in the city. The vibe is gone. The Fireside Bowl that was there at that time was a very different thing than the one that’s there now. It wasn’t really just about having shows there. There was almost this sense of an ongoing community or something like that, and it wasn’t really a community because it wasn’t like people were tied together. It was a vibe. A sense. There was a long period of time where they didn’t give a fuck about the bowling.
bvC: This Southern Lord showcase that you have coming up is going to be your second show presented by Scion. It’s kind of interesting that they got into music. They released that Melvins album recently. Do you have any thoughts on companies like this becoming involved in music?
Trevor: I think the way Scion kind of approaches is they’re kind of stepping into the role that…there used to be funding for the arts from wealthy people. The people that work at Scion that are connecting these programs, their interest is in the underground arts and supporting the arts with the captial that’s there to do so. I know that at some level, there are people that just care about selling cars and stuff like that, which is all fine and good. There are certainly worse car companies than Scion. To us, it’s hard for us to do shows because we have full time jobs and stuff like that, and it’s just an opportunity where they’re able to cover airfare so we’re able to come out and do a couple songs on the west coast, which would otherwise be really hard for us to get out there and make it happen unless we were doing a full tour. Sometimes I have a little bit of a mixed feeling about getting corporations tied into art but I think the people that I know at the company that are working on these programs have good intentions, because Scion obviously could be doing stuff just tied in with much larger artists, and this is more about supporting an underground community.