Pelican’s Trevor de Brauw’s ‘New Architecture’ Vacillates Between Paranoia and Hope
For two decades, Chicago-based guitarist, Trevor Shelley de Brauw has been creating rich, dense, guitar-driven music, most notably with Pelican, who — along with ISIS — pioneered the post-metal movement of the late ’90s / early part of the 21st century. Aside from Pelican, he has been busy formulating a variety of different takes on guitar rock with other projects, such as RLYR, Teith, Let’s Pet and Chord, among others.
De Brauw’s Uptown, available from the Flenser on February 10, gives us six tracks of austere, moody, impressionistic soundscapes. Similar to the majority of his work, most of the material on Uptown is sans-vocals. The exception is “You Were Sure,” which features de Brauw’s voice accompanied by a lone, desolate acoustic guitar. The overall vibe of the record is introspective and restrained, with a maudlin overtone. Below, the guitarist explains why.
How does Uptown, your first solo album, differ from your other work?
Strictly speaking, this is not exactly my first solo album — I released a few CD-Rs over the years under the name Histoire, but this is the first one that will get a proper pressing and distribution. I’ve grown away from the original ideology behind that project, so it felt like the right moment to just release this record under my own name.
The thing that sets the solo material apart from my band-oriented projects is the relative absence of percussion and decreased emphasis on riffs and structure. In that way, I guess it’s most akin to the power-ambient collective Chord that I’m a part of. The pieces on the album are fairly abstract and tend to emphasize texture more than “parts.”
Do any other musicians appear on the record?
You can hear my former cat walk through the room in the background of one of the songs, so I gave her an album credit. She’s no longer of this world, so it’s a bit of a haunting sensation to hear her in there for me. That’s the only guest on the record. I made all the other sounds.
What was the recording process like? Did you record any of the album on your own?
It’s all home-recorded. Generally speaking, I’ll have one or two vague ideas and sit down to try and work them out with the proverbial tape rolling. It’s very seldom premeditated or pre-written, so the many of the elements that make up the final piece are improvised to one degree or another. Once I have the initial germ of an idea recorded, I’ll brainstorm what other ideas or instruments might be called for that help flesh out a final composition. The last song on the album, for instance, is several tracks of improvised guitar that I cut up and created a composition from. But then there’s a piece like “Distinct Frequency,” where it’s all live takes and the post-production was limited to creating a satisfactory mix of the layers.
There’s a lot of trial and error trying to assemble the finished piece, and even when I reach the finish line, there’s a strong chance that the experiment has failed. There’s at least a full album’s worth of discarded pieces that I made along the way to the finished Uptown album.
Is it all guitars? There are a lot of tones on there that may or may not be guitars.
There’s guitar on each song of the album, but there’s only one song where guitar is the only instrument. I also made use of a couple of different organs, tape recorders, electric piano, radio, trombone, and some other odds and ends. I collect random instruments, and I seldom get to use them in my other groups, so my solo works give me the ability to make use of the stuff I’ve accrued. There were a few songs I made over the years leading up the album that have no guitar at all, but they didn’t make the final cut.
There is a very austere vibe on the record. What were some of the emotions you were trying to convey?
I’m very intuitive; I don’t typically think in terms of intent when I’m writing or making music. There’s some sense in which I was simply capturing my mood of the moment. I think one thing that binds much of the record together is a sense of deep sentimentality, of trying to keep constantly aware of how precious every moment of this life is. Mediation on this has manifested in music that seems to vacillate between paranoia and hope, which I think is more or less a constant in my work across all my various projects.
There is a very urban feel to the record. Being a city-dweller, do you think the environment of the city informs your work?
The three oldest compositions on the album were made while living on farm in North Carolina over an hour from anything that would qualify as a major city, so it’s interesting that this urban quality seeps in even when I was somewhere totally rural. But yeah, the city is in my blood, and I’m sure it works its way into all my work in one facet or another. Come to think of it, the farm recordings are among the darkest stuff on the album, so there’s a probably some sense of dislocation and isolation being intuitively conveyed there.
I’ve read that Uptown was written over the course of 10 years. What was the inspiration for the material?
Bits and pieces of things just seem to germinate at random moments — like half-formed ideas that I want to pursue and see what they resemble when they materialize. A lot of the ideas come to me as I lay in bed trying to fall asleep and I just try to commit a vague sense of them to memory so I have leads to follow when I get time to work on them. I’ve come to realize over the years that it’s not worth approaching abstract music with a defined sense of what you’re after, because it will alter during the process.
Between my other bands, my job, my family and just life in general, I do not have much free time to pursue these ideas. There have been a few times over the years where I thought the album was done, then I’d listen to what I had and there would be one or two songs that weren’t quite right — they either weren’t good enough or the album’s flow felt off. I more or less gave up on it for a couple of years until late 2015 when I had a night free and started cleaning up my hard drive and found a couple of songs that I’d started, but never finished. I spent a couple of nights working on them, and it was only when they were finished that I realized they were the missing pieces I’d been looking for. It was a real relief to finally find the finish line.
What is it about instrumental music that you find so compelling?
My brain seems to be wired a certain way. Growing up, I was pretty shy, and words felt burdensome; it seemed impossible to really ever properly convey what was going on inside my head. When I discovered guitar, it became a solace, a language where words didn’t matter. I think this experience from my youth affects how I listen — I’d say with maybe 80 percent of music, my ears are primarily drawn to the instrumentation, with vocals as a background interest.
For my own music, I’m always interested in seeking out what will serve the song or composition’s needs; the vast majority of the time, vocals do not seem to be called for by what I’m working on. There’s one song on Uptown with singing; it was just a matter of feeling that it was an element that the song seemed to need to feel complete.