Latest release: Forever Becoming (Southern Lord)Website: hydrahead.tortugarecordings.com/pelican/
The Coorong is a lagoon system at the mouth of the Murray River in South Australia, a fragile ecosystem that was the setting for the classic 1976 film Storm Boy, about a kid and a pelican he raises from a chick after its mother is shot. Somewhat coincidentally, it’s also the place where the photo that provided the image for the cover of Pelican’s first album, Australasia, was taken. The subject of the photo, bass player Bryan Herweg, was visiting an Australian-raised friend at the time. He didn’t see any pelicans, though: “We were pretty high at the time,” he admits with a laugh.
“I got a chance to go down there and travel for a month,” he explains of both the concept for the illustration and the inspiration behind the album title. “I saw the name Australasia and I had never heard of the region called that. That was totally weird and I thought it was a cool sounding name. My friend had taken a photo of me on a beach and we were in the Coorong. So when I came back I thought, I got a cool name for this, and it just represented the expansiveness of what I saw down there and it just seemed perfect for the kind of record that it was: heavy but just expansive, long songs. I just thought it worked great.”
Since 2001, Pelican has crafted five albums and several other recordings of those expansive songs, almost all of them without vocals. Often cited as pioneers of the post-metal genre – a description that, along with shoegaze, the band isn’t particularly comfortable with – the Des Plaines foursome developed their style quite unintentionally.
“In the beginning it was kinda random,” Herweg says. “We had started playing only a few months before we got asked to do a show – actually, a show with High on Fire – and we came down to Chicago and they said ‘Are you guys ready?’ and we said, ‘We don’t have singer, but we’ll try it out’ and we got a great reaction – and we wanted to play with High on Fire!”
From that moment, Pelican was an instrumental act.
“We also couldn’t decide on what kind of singer we wanted, so there is a little bit of that in there too, but for the most part it just kept going. Suddenly we were playing shows and next thing you know we were writing new music and on it went from there.”
Since then the number of bands making music of a similar nature has grown, although the market very much retains its niche appeal. Appreciation for heavy music overall, however, has spiked considerably over the past decade and that has meant more exposure for artists of all shades, including Pelican.
“I would say more accessible heavy music has been trending – not trendy – over the last several years,” says Herweg. “I’m glad. I feel like there’s a lot of cool heavy music being made.”
Bryan Herweg isn’t concerned about Pelican competing for space in an ever-crowding musical environment either.
“I don’t think any of us think about it. We just keep doing what we’re doing. We don’t really think about that kinda stuff. I just feel that we’ve been playing so long together now that… we just love what we do, we don’t put too much thought into the music – oh, I don’t mean that!” he says with a small chuckle, realising the ambiguity of his remark. “I just mean that we play whatever comes out now.”
Indeed, he goes on to explain that the Pelican creative process is a very natural, almost instinctive, one. That’s probably a symptom of the band’s stability. Guitarist Laurent Schroeder-Lebec’s amiable departure from the group two years ago and his subsequent replacement by Dallas Thomas has been the only change to Pelican’s personnel in thirteen years.
“Generally when we start out writing, I feel like there’s more thought but when everything starts to come together, it comes together very naturally,” he says, and while their music has a very conceptual flow across their albums, Herweg doesn’t belive that is intentional either. “We’ve been playing together for so long that we kinda write songs and hope that they all fit together. They all just seem to do that. There’s no real theme, physically. Sometimes there’s themes within the names, or something like that, but as far as the overall actual music, when we sit down to write songs, we’re generally pretty focused on that song and not really thinking about where it might fit into a theme or whatever.”
The What We All Come to Need track ‘Final Breath’ is the only time Pelican has incorporated vocals into their songs, in that case provided by Allen Epley of Shiner. While he admits that they have occasionally “toyed with” the idea of using a singer, Bryan Herweg is quite content without one.
“I love not having a vocalist,” he says. “I feel like there’s so much room for all the instruments to breathe and experiment a lot more. I definitely enjoy it. It’s been great.”
Pelican tours Australia in July:
24/7: The Zoo, Brisbane QLD
25/7: HiFi, Melbourne VIC
26/7: Manning Bar, Sydney NSW
27/7: Rosemount Hotel, Perth WA