If you’re planning on getting into the music of Trevor de Brauw, you’d also better plan on growing out your hair. Apologies to the bald fans of hard rock, of course, but the heaviness that emits from de Brauw’s amp(s) was meant to be consumed through mass doses of mane-whipping, cranium-nodding, and eardrum-destroying. Oh, right, you should also plan on investing in some sturdy earplugs.
There’s a quality to the Chicago-based guitarist’s work that is so thick, so ethereal, so distinctly… his. And while it’s a nearly impossible task for a musician who dedicates himself to the medium of instrumental rock to establish a sound that’s instantly recognizable, that’s exactly what de Brauw has done over the years. Through his bodies of work in Pelican and RLYR, he’s crafted a sonic identity that is, unmistakably, his own, and in doing so has become one of the most distinguished guitarists in heavy music today, easily on par with peers like Converge’s Kurt Ballou and High on Fire’s Matt Pike.
Throughout his songs, de Brauw uses his six strings to creates intricate little worlds without even uttering a single word. He’ll lead the listener down the darkest of abysses, only to climb out moments later on a triumphant crescendo to the riff heavens. The hypnotic sonic structures he crafts allow the listener to project their own feelings onto them, like audio Rorschach tests.
On Actual Existence, RLYR’s second release, de Brauw’s signature guitar-work is accompanied by a few new tricks—the four-song album quickly breaks out into a blast-beat pace and ends in a long stretch of all-consuming distortion. Yet, through the chaos erupting from his bandmates around him, de Brauw’s familiar sound remains a steady presence. We talked to the guitarist about having a career in instrumental rock, parenthood, and, oddly enough, Screeching Weasel. Listen to Actual Existence below.
Noisey: What kind of conversations have you had with your fans? How have you found that they connect with your music?
Trevor de Brauw: One of the interesting side effects of playing instrumental music is that there’s not a specific cross-section of people that you reach. I know that a lot of bands have diverse fanbases, but we interact with people that are from completely different viewpoints. I think that with some of the political stuff, I’ve seen that coming out more on our social media, where we’ll say something that we think would resonate with people that are… You’d think people who listen to eight-minute instrumental songs are pretty open-minded and left-leaning but that’s not always the case.
Yeah, “shut up and play the riffs.”
Yeah, totally. People don’t like it when artists and musicians have opinions. But I feel like a lot of the conversations tend to be more about the emotional nature of the music and what it means to each person. That’s what’s different from person to person, but it’s also the one constant—that people have a really deep, personal relationship with these songs because of the nature of it being more open to interpretation and they’re able to put more of themselves into it in a way.
Do people’s reactions line up with your intentions? Like, maybe you wrote a song that you meant to be triumphant but someone took it as sad. Is there a wrong way to interpret what you’re writing?
I mean, you’ve probably heard this from other musicians, but artist’s intent can only take you so far, and once you put music out in the world, it’s not really yours anymore. So yeah, I’ve certainly made songs I thought were uplifting and other people gravitated to the more melancholy aspects of it, and vice versa. Particularly with metal-style music, the music can seem so aggressive and angry, and that’s a common misconception in society—that because the music has this veneer of anger and cynicism that it’s coming from an angry place, but it’s really not.
I once paid you what I thought was a fairly obvious compliment—that you are a good guitar player—but you didn’t exactly take that compliment well. Why is that?
I think I tend towards self-effacing… [Laughs] I don’t know. It’s very nice of you to say that, though.
But I don’t mean being competent. There are thousands of kids playing Dragonforce songs on YouTube who are competent. I mean the artistic creation of a sonic identity. Is that something you consciously think about or has that naturally evolved over the years?
I think it’s a combination of both. A lot of the music I came up listening to was not music I proved to be proficient playing.
Like what was that?
Honestly, a lot of stuff along the lines of Screeching Weasel, Jawbreaker, Television.
But that’s the easy stuff to play!
You’d think, but there’s a level of playing it where it becomes convincing, and when you’re a teenager trying to learn an instrument, it can be harrowing trying to create something that is a convincing simulation of the things you want to be making. So I think when I was unable to replicate the type of music I wanted to make, I just started branching out into other directions and finding other ways to scratch the artistic itch and synthesize some of those influences but express them in a different way.
It’s funny that you mention Screeching Weasel. Because yeah, Ben Weasel’s guitar playing is so unbelievably simple that if you have the most basic of guitar knowledge, you should be able to play it. But at the same time, I can hear his pop punk chords and know they’re his, in the same way I can hear Pelican or RLYR and instinctively know it’s yours.
Yeah, he’s got this one really strange chord voicing. And I never studied music so I don’t know the language, but there’s one chord voicing that’s distinctly a Screeching Weasel chord voicing where it’s like, they’ll be playing a power chord on the fifth string, the A string, and then they’ll go down a string to the sixth string but they’ll leave the pinky of the octave of the first chord in the same place and it has this weird sustained vibe to it. I know this is getting painfully analytical for Screeching Weasel, but there are little nuances in their music like that that I’ve obsessed over a lot over time.
What are the things in your guitar playing that people might be able to pick out as distinct?
Oh, I have no idea! [Laughs] The thing is that the approach on my side is so instinctive and while there is some degree of trying to create something new or different, I’m not painfully analytical about my own playing.
This new RLYR album ends with this build-up to a four-minute wall of noise. Are there any big ideas you’ve wanted to go for with any of your projects that, for whatever reason, financial limitations or whatever, that you weren’t able to do?
I feel like every record comes up against financial constraints that make compromises necessary. There were a lot of ideas on this RLYR album that we wanted to pursue but we just didn’t have the cash to keep in the studio.
Say you had one of those crazy album budgets from the old world of the music industry—a million bucks to make a record—what would you do with it?
One thing I’ve always wanted to do that I haven’t had the opportunity to do is to go into the studio with unfinished songs and finish writing them in a studio setting. Because I think the process of making songs for records and the process of making songs to perform live can be really different things. A lot of times, the records I’ve made have been attempts to capture what the band is like live. Because that’s how the songs are written. So the process could be a lot different because you’re creating something that’s more about the studio as a tool and creating a new sonic environment that’s not as deeply rooted in the live performance.
Now that you’ve been making music professionally for a while, and start thinking in the long-term, is there anyone whose career you look up to?
Nick Cave. I went to see him on this most recent tour and the amount of energy that he brought to the performance was just staggering. And he’s chased his own vision and created his own thing. So I think folks like him and Tom Waits. But yeah I don’t have as much talent as either of them has in their pinkies.
You’ve described yourself as overly sentimental, and I think that comes through in your music. Has becoming a father changed the emotion that goes into your songwriting?
I know that the music has shifted, and I know that it’s a result of parenthood, but it’s hard to put your finger on it as a specific attempted thing. Not that I’m trying to express a different range of emotions, it’s just something that naturally comes out. The music is an expression of self on the most intuitive level. If there’s one thing I think has changed about me it’s that I was never one to be nostalgic or look back that much. I’m always pressing ahead. I continue to do that with music, for sure, but something about being a parent and living with this person that is your best friend, and that person changes and evolves so much that the version of them that you love today is going to be completely eradicated and replaced with a different person in a few months’ time. So that has turned me into a pretty nostalgic person. I can go through old photos on my phone, getting choked up in the middle of the night. That was never my vibe before. I’ve always been the person that doesn’t take photographs because I would prefer to live with the memory of how it is in my mind.
In addition to being a musician, you also work as a music publicist. As someone who lands big bookings for artists, if you could book yourself to have a conversation with anyone, who would it be? Myself excluded, of course.
I know, we’ve already scratched off the bucket list with this interview, so I don’t even know how to answer anymore. [Laughs] I’m a huge fan of David Marchese’s current run of interviews. I do not think for a second that he’d produce gold with me, but his recent run has been really awesome—the Quincy Jones piece, the Mike D piece, that Julian Casablancas one, they’re all so well researched and thought out in advance.
Well maybe when you get to Quincy Jones’ age and have the lifetime of a career he’s had, you’ll get that distinct honor as well.
Dare to dream, right?
RLYR is on tour with Fotocrime:
4/13 - Cleveland, OH - Now That's Class
4/14 - Philadelphia, PA - Kung Fu Necktie
4/15 - New York City, NY - St. Vitus
4/16 - Boston, MA - Great Scott
4/17 - Washington, DC - DC9
4/18 - Asheville, NC - Mothlight
4/19 - Birmingham, AL - The Firehouse
4/20 - Louisville, KY - Speed Museum
4/21 - Chicago, IL - Beat Kitchen