In the premiere of The Deepest Dish, our new Chicago spotlight show on RBMA Radio, local journalist Leor Galil spoke to prolific guitarist Trevor Shelley de Brauw of post-metal outfit Pelican. In this excerpt from the show, he discusses his newer band, RLYR, which is about to drop its debut album, Delayer, finding his footing as a guitarist and how Chicago’s ambiguous scene barriers helped Pelican grow.
Listen to The Deepest Dish on RBMA Radio every third Wednesday of the month at 11 AM EDT.
What was RYLR’s first song?
We were given a 20 minute set at Utech Fest, so we came up with... It eventually turned into the song “Descent of the Night Bison” which is an album side. It’s the second side of the record at 23 minutes long. Really, it was just a matter of we needed to find 20 minutes worth of ideas, so we were like, “We’ll do this for 5 minutes, that for 5 minutes, that for 5 minutes and that for 5 minutes, and that’s the performance.” The more we regularly we played it, especially beyond that initial show, the more it just sort of took on a structure of its own. That’s been our writing method ever since then. Over time, the structures just sort of fall into place.
What’s your current favorite song from the record?
Well, the last song that we wrote was “Slipstream Summer” and I think that that’s where we really locked into what we’re trying to do with the band, which is really summery, melodic guitar rock, sort of in the tradition of ’90s guitar bands. I feel cheesy namedropping these bands that other people probably namedrop a lot, but Dinosaur Jr.’s a big guitar influence for me, and My Bloody Valentine.
That song, in particular, when we locked into the middle section where the song reaches its melodic apex, it really felt like, “Oh shit. We fucking nailed it.” We did a song that is self-contained but it has that cathartic pinnacle that really defines what we want to do.
At what point did you start listening to those bands you mentioned? When did you start pursuing music seriously?
I guess in junior high school. I don’t remember the specific bands that led me to guitar, but at some point I just became really obsessed with this concept of playing guitar. I’d done band before that. I played clarinet and then I played trombone, but something about the structure of the school band experience didn’t lend itself to, I guess, sort of my free-spirited tendencies. Sitting in a chair didn’t feel right. I think by eighth grade, I was really diehard about playing guitar. Though I was really, really bad at it and couldn’t take lessons because I didn’t have the discipline. It probably drove my parents completely insane.
At what point did you feel like you were more on top of the guitar, that it made sense, that it wasn’t bad anymore?
Honestly about two or three years ago. I’ve had a lot of issues with self-esteem with my guitar playing for a long time. I think in the course of the last few years I’ve really started to reach a place where I feel more comfortable.
Given that’s how you felt, how did you approach making music in this very prolific way? I mean you’ve toured relentlessly, you’ve put out a lot more material than most people who might share that feeling. What’s kept you going all these years?
Compulsion. Even though I don’t feel like a great guitar player or a great musician, I’ve always felt like it’s the only avenue of self-expression that really makes sense to me. Things like this – talking to another person – are less comfortable. That, too, I feel like I’ve come a long way in the last few years. For me, the experience of playing music has really been the most direct way to tap into my emotions and communicate them to people that I know. It’s always been this really important aspect of my life, whether I was good at it or not.
I think in terms of live performance, there’s a physical aspect to it that isn’t about the playing, that’s just about letting all your inhibitions out. I do it on the dance floor at weddings too. Just completely cut loose and forget your physical self and go nuts a little bit. You know, for me for a long time, that was almost a priority over the accurate representations of songs. I didn’t feel confident that I could accurately reproduce songs on stage. Whereas now that I feel more like a guitar player, I feel like I care more about playing the songs properly now.
RLYR Influences, Pt. 1 - Dallas Thomas
When the original second guitar player in Pelican left, we filled his position with Dallas Thomas from the band Swan King. The reason we asked him was because Swan King had a similar tendency of tapping into post-hardcore and punk and metal all at once. There was an interest in things outside of metal.
I had kind of a muddy guitar tone and really relied on ambiance and effects and stuff like that. Dallas’ playing is really tight, really accurate and very dry. At first I was concerned that our styles didn’t mesh well together. Learning how to play with a guitar player who I didn’t previously know, who had a different style than me, in front of audiences, that’s a lot of pressure. He forced me to buckle down and figure out how to play these songs accurately. He would ask me questions when I was teaching the songs that I had never thought about before, relating to technique. A lot of the stuff was intuitive up to that point.
RLYR Influences, Pt. 2 - Screeching Weasel
A few Halloweens ago, I joined a Screeching Weasel cover band. Screeching Weasel is a band that meant a lot to me in high school, and less so over time, but they’ve always been this constant in the background. For those of you not familiar with them, they were a snotty pop-punk band from Chicago, indebted to The Ramones with their own bubblegum style but really aggressive and fast. I thought the songs were so simple, I’d learn them really quick and it’d be easy and fun.
We started practicing in March for one show, and it turned out we needed all that time because Screeching Weasel are actually really accomplished musicians and a lot of the songs are really hard. I wasn’t used to playing that fast. This thing that I thought was just for fun, it forced me to examine the musical wiring of my brain. None of the music I’m making sounds anything like Screeching Weasel. But it taught me a little bit more about my musical background. Learning how to play that stuff accurately was hard. It’s so fast and counterintuitive to how I had been fingering stuff.
RLYR Influences, Pt. 3 - Nowhere To Hide
Up to this point, I’ve always been in two guitar bands. Being in a band where I’m the only guitar player, where there’s not another guitar player covering up my mistakes, means that I really have to focus. I’m completely naked up there, not literally. If I screw up it’s going to be obvious. I think all those things played a big part in me suddenly becoming a professional guitar player late in my 30’s.
I think the most surreal experience I ever had playing guitar was something called the Taste of Chaos tour. It was Kevin Lyman from Warped Tour launching what was like a metal version of the Warped Tour. I don’t know that the fans gathered what the hell were were doing. At that point, we had a 30 minute set every night, we were playing three songs with no vocals, which I think confused a great number of people. The biggest show of that tour was the Long Beach Arena, made famous by Iron Maiden on their Live After Death album from 1985, which in my humble opinion is the greatest live album ever recorded. (I will accept debate on that, that’s just my personal opinion.) On that particular record, Bruce Dickinson leads this audience chant, “Scream for me, Long Beach.” Everybody screams and it goes back and forth a while and he asks them to fuck his hearing up and all this stuff.
When we played Long Beach Arena, it’s 11,000 capacity, I think it was completely full. I couldn’t resist the temptation to ask Long Beach Arena to scream for me and in fact they did, and it was hilarious. I can not really put into words that feeling. The band was clearly confusing everybody, but they were willing to scream for us all the same, so that was a strange humbling experience.
Everybody having their own scene but being somewhat open to things beyond it, I think that really meant everything to us.
I think Chicago has a very different vibe musically than other cities. I don’t think that Pelican could have existed in the same way if we had come from another place. We all came up more or less in the punk and indie scenes going to shows at the Fireside Bowl. It was, at least at that time, a tremendous all-ages world that were a part of. Chicago has a very large population, and there are a bunch of different pockets of scenes that overlap. It’s kind of like a big Venn diagram or something. There’s a lot of capacity to wander into different musical environments as sort of like a scene tourist or contribute to multiple scenes. I think that Pelican, because we were punks or indie, but had a lot of metal influence, we were able to come up in this way that nobody knew which scene we belonged to. Everybody having their own scene but being somewhat open to things beyond it, I think that really meant everything to us. That was really the formula for us being able to get somewhere bigger with it.
Where do you feel at home in Chicago?
Empty Bottle, no question. I just walk in the door and I feel like I’m at home. Part of that is that that was one of the first places that Pelican got its early break, but I also worked there for a number of years. Even though I don’t recognize the same number of faces that I did during my tenure there, I just always sort of feel like it’s my living room or something.