What was the thinking behind recording Ataraxia/Taraxis in multiple studios?
It was partly an experiment that we wanted to try, but it was also a matter of necessity; our drummer Larry [Herweg] lives in LA, and Bryan [Herweg, bass] also lived in California up until this start of this year. So the writing process has become based around sending files back and forth. In 2009 we made the decision to scale back, because it was no longer financial viable to maintain the group as a full time job. Previously we’d been able to hash the songs out in a room with each other, but in this case…Bryan recorded bass lines, sent them to Larry to record the drums, who sent the drums tracks back for us to build up the songs from there. At the very end of the process, all of the songs were finished with Sanford Parker at a studio in Chicago, where it was also mixed and turned into the EP as it has ended up.
How is the writing process affected by the fact that you don’t have the immediacy of communication with eachother?
In a way it makes you more focused on the music and the sound, as when you’re in a room and playing loud guitars, you’re much more focused on the viscerality of the music. One of the songs on the EP is based around an acoustic part with drums, which would never have been able to develop in the practice space. Since we’re a relatively low tech band, building a song in the studio lead us to try ideas which we could not have come up with in practice. As a group we’ve been playing together for so many years, so that when we write as individuals and contribute to each other’s pieces, we all kind of have an intuitive sense of what our role is and how to flesh out our compositions. So even though there’s not the actual interplay of four musicians in a room, we have an idea of what each of us has to contribute to make it a Pelican piece.
So can you often predict what these pieces will end up like, based on how they sound during their assembly?
I don’t think that there’s a sound that we’re consciously going after, but there’s an unspoken sense of what we’re trying to achieve. When we’re starting with the bare bones riffs and structures, I don’t think we have a sense of where the piece is going to end up, and we don’t have an idea of how it’s supposed to sound when it’s finished. But whenever everyone adds their parts, we always get to “that place” – once it’s there and we hear it, it’s like, “oh yeah, of course. That’s where it’s meant to be: that’s the Pelican song.”
From City Of Echoes onwards, the song durations have come down. The tracks are even shorter this time round too. Is this an unspoken element of your evolution, or was it consciously decided between you to make the songs more concise?
It was unspoken; we wrote City Of Echoes, and only then did we look back and figure out the steps that lead to it. The thing that informed the first two albums is that we were not a touring band, and we had all the time in the world – we were young, and could just sit in the practice space and hash out these endless songs. We didn’t play that many shows. Once we were out touring, we were playing with bands that were relatively high energy – such as Cave In and The Life And Times – and I think we unconsciously wanted to be doing something a little more along those lines. Instead we had these long, plodding songs…I mean, I still really appreciate all of the songs that we’ve done, but when you’re up there and trying to express yourself in a live environment, you want to play more songs and play with more energy. Unconsciously we wheeled our way into a direction that meant that we were writing shorter songs that felt more exciting to play live. We haven’t really turned back since we made that creative turn.
So is the visceral quality still present?
Well I would say that the mood is intended to be more visceral that the compositions themselves.
How easy was it to keep the live environment in mind when you’re structuring songs by sending files back and forth?
We’ve already played two of the songs live, and we played them live before we recorded them. So we had an idea of how those would work as live compositions. We haven’t really conceived how we would pull the other two off live, and I’m not sure that they would work! But this is an early experiment for us, and I think that we want to try more stuff like this with the new full length we’ve started writing. It’s kind of like…if a piece comes together and we can figure out a way to pull it off live we would definitely do it, but I don’t think we want to limit ourselves to only writing songs that work in a live environment. There’s a world of creativity that doesn’t have its place there.
You worked with multiple engineers for this one; how influential were they on the way the tracks turned out?
I think each of the engineers lent their own sound to each of the recordings. Aaron Harris of Isis tracked the drums for two of the tracks at Kingsize Studios in LA; they definitely have the sound of that room and Aaron’s recording sensibilities. Larry’s bandmate in Ages recorded the drums for one of the songs in their practice space, so those have a bit more of a raw feel, but it worked for the composition that those recordings were lent to. And then Bryan and me recorded some of the stuff in my basement, none of which we intended to keep on the final EP – there were meant to be guide posts with which to build the songs – but some of it turned out to be pretty usable. And of course, Sanford lent his ears to putting the whole thing together, tracking all of the guitars and bass and other whacky instruments that we got into the mix. Each step had its own place in crafting the EP.
How democratic is the writing process? Does one of you take the lead, or is it split evenly between you?
It varies record to record – we all step up when it’s called for. In the past pieces have been very collaborative, and then we kind of went in a direction where people would turn up with full songs composed. We’ve definitely got back to a point where we’re being more collaborative again. It’s kind of ironic now I think about it, because it would make sense to have been collaborating more when we were all rehearsing together. Now we don’t see each other that much, but when we do we collaborate! You think we’d have more time to just write songs on our own and show up with them.
I guess that the manner in which the EP was written explains why it took a while to put it together; it’s been nearly three years since your previous album.
Yeah, I think that not being around each other as much was definitely a contributing factor. When we stopped touring, we had to completely re-arrange our lives in order to make a living and that sort of thing. This EP is the first step in trying to figure out how to make Pelican more of a prominent presence in our lives again. In fact, since we’ve recorded the EP we’ve been writing really regularly again and getting the wheels turning on the next album.
Can you let forth any details on the new full length?
I think it’s too early to tell!
That’s fair enough. So you’ve got a few European dates coming up soon too…how do you find the live experience in Europe?
It’s always very pleasurable. People are very attentive and there’s clearly a lot of respect for the arts over there too; in a lot of places in Europe there’s Government funding, and you’re able to have venues that have accommodation and catering and stuff like that, which we never have in the States. We’re very excited – it’s been a really long time since we were overseas, and we’re all just really looking forward to it. We always love touring Europe.
So you’ll be playing the new material on these dates?
Well we’ll play the two songs that we know will work!
I’m guessing that’s the middle two pieces.
It’d be great to hear the last piece too, if you find yourself able to work around the complications.
I’ve thought about how to do it…for one, we’d have to do the acoustic parts on electric guitar, but then we’d also have to bring a keyboard to make the whole middle section work. That’s when it starts turning into a headache!
And then you’ve got the acoustic over the electric during the last part…
Yeah; I think there’s about nine layers of guitar in there, including one where Bryan was just standing there feeding back.
Maybe take your time working that one out. Is there anything new coming out with any of your other musical projects?
I’m in an ambient group called Chord. We’ve got a full length coming out on MIE Music, and it’s called G Maj7. Our compositions are just single chords, and that entire record is a GMaj7 chord.
What’s the thought behind this concept? Is it to place emphasis on the texture?
That’s correct. The pieces are not meant as songs – the emphasis is meant to be on harmonics, the interplay between tone and dynamics, and the atmosphere between the notes in a chord. For our last two albums we picked strange chords that were a little darker and more menacing in tone, so we decided to pick a really pleasant chord this time. We’re really pleased with how it turned out; it’s definitely a less aggressive record for us.
So the chord you pick has a direct impact on the atmosphere?
Oh, absolutely. Every chord has its own vibe, and that’s why people pick different chords for different songs – they have their own feel and communicate their own message. When we started the band it was an experiment, and it’s been really interesting seeing how much character every chord has on its own.
Is there ever a point where you think, “I tell you what – a change of note here would be great…”
[Laughs] Yeah! Part of the mission of Chord is that each person only plays one note in the chord – for instance, I think I’m playing a B on GMaj7. There are definitely moments that you’re like, “oh man – if I played this note now, it would sound awesome,” but if you don’t have the discipline then everyone starts doing that. Then it just turns into a fucking wall of noise. So it was quite a trek getting the right set of minds together to make it work, but we’re really happy that we’re each able to make our one note, and that it contributes to a better whole.
I think it brings a fantastic sense of focus and concentration about the sound itself.
I get frustrated when people write about Chord and mention my involvement as a member of Pelican. I guess it only makes sense, but after a while I’d like to stop seeing that happen – nobody’s identity in the group matters, because when you turn yourself over to a concept like that, you’ve completely subsumed your musical identity. I mean, you’re bringing your own sensibilities in terms of how you approach tone and texture, but…I don’t think that if you threw on some Chord for a Pelican fan, and didn’t tell them about my involvement, that they’d be able to pick it out.
So that one’s coming out soon then?
It hasn’t been announced yet, but I believe that one’s coming out in May.
Pelican website – http://www.hydrahead.com/pelican
Chord website – http://chordgroup.bandcamp.com