It's Thursday night in Chicago, and Trevor de Brauw has a headache. "You can't ask me how I'm doing and not expect me to have some kind of complaint," he says with a laugh. "So we should just move past that." As guitarist and co-founder of Pelican, the instrumental metal band that took the underground by storm in the mid-aughts, de Brauw has earned a reputation as a meticulous architect of sweeping, surging riffs, and a thoughtful interview subject who offers personal insights into the emotional underpinnings of his work.
On his first eponymous solo album, Uptown, de Brauw takes a marked detour from the triumphant "instru-metal" that has become Pelican's signature. Instead, the album revels in slow, atmospheric drones with titles like "They Keep Bowing," "You Were Sure" and "Turn Up For What." In fact, the music has hardly anything in common with Pelican's—beyond the fact that it's almost entirely instrumental and has a distinct cinematic quality.
Between Pelican tours, de Brauw also embarked upon a career on the dark side of the music business. As a publicist for the Chicago-based publicity and management firm Biz3, he's worked with a wide variety of rock, hip-hop and electronic artists, including a roster that currently includes Sigur Rós, Run The Jewels and Inter Arma. We recently rang our man up to discuss Uptown's geographic origins and how working on both sides of the music business has taught him some especially useful lessons about rap feuds, working with assholes, and pulling a fast one on record labels.
Read on for our conversation, and stream Uptown in its entirety below; the album is out February 10, and is currently available for preorder form The Flenser.
Noisey: Your solo record is pretty far from the—to use your favorite term—"instru-metal" that you're known for making with Pelican. Did you write this material and quickly realize it wasn't right for Pelican, or did you have the intention of writing a solo album from the beginning?Trevor de Brauw: Well, I've always recorded solo stuff on the side and most of it veers off into more experimental or abstract territory. It's always been a little more ethereal and less structured. Obviously everything in Pelican is really tightly structured, as is the case with most of my bands. I've done a couple of records by myself, like CD-Rs, under the name Histoire, and when I started this batch of material it was technically meant to be another batch of Histoire material.
When did you start working on it?
The earliest stuff on this record dates back to 2006, when my wife Lisa and I were living out on a farm in North Carolina. I started branching out into different instrumentation because a lot of the stuff I was doing before this was really guitar-driven. This time out, I was more interested in texture. But there was no goal of making a record until three or four years later when I thought I had finished it and I started submitting it to labels. The first two labels I sent it to rejected it and I went into a downward spiral of depression. I thought maybe it was really bad, and in retrospect, it was. The draft that I was trying to get released was not a finished album. So I went through maybe three or four more drafts until late 2015. At that point I didn't have much free time because I was a parent. But I was digging through some old [music] files on my computer that I had walked away from, thinking they weren't done. But I realized one of them was a finished song. That ended up being the first song on the record.
What Uptown does have in common with Pelican is a cinematic quality. Are you predisposed to that kind of music?
To a degree, perhaps. I'm a person who suffers from having big feelings. I'm very sentimental. I'm not very nostalgic, but I feel everything more deeply than I need to. People who are into astrology would probably say that has something to do with the fact that I'm a Cancer. But for me, the attempt to make music that has a deep emotional resonance or reflects something that I'm feeling—I think that plays out in a way that perhaps comes off as cinematic. I'm trying to make pure emotional expressions.
You mentioned that you were living on a farm in North Carolina when you started working on some of this material. Did that color the process at all?
I've struggled with how to articulate it, but there is something about this album and the three places that I lived while making it. The first was the farm in North Carolina, where Lisa and I moved to try and escape city life and isolate ourselves. We actually got married in North Carolina but gave up on rural living and moved back to Chicago, to the Uptown neighborhood. That was a really creative period of my life. And then the third chapter was when we moved to our house on the Northwest side of Chicago. Because the record was composed over such a long period of time, and I hear those distinct periods reflected in the music, there is an almost narrative arc to the record for me. It was a period of incredible change in my life.
When we were in North Carolina, Pelican became a national touring band and my music career or whatever you want to call it really took shape. That was April of 2005 to May of 2006. Over the course of making this record, I became an adult in the figurative sense of becoming a grown-up to actually becoming an adult with a house and a child and responsibilities. It's not an interesting or unique voyage for anyone other than myself, but it's mine. [Laughs] I think that's part of why, instead of calling it Histoire, I called it Trevor de Brauw this time. It's my personal document of my personal journey that may not be of interest to anyone else, but it's important to me. [Laughs]
Was there a specific occurrence or series of occurrences that made you want to move out of Chicago in 2005?
Not really that I can remember in any great detail. We had this idealistic vision that we were going to start a farming community—the far-out hippie shit of becoming self-reliant, shit that is way more relevant now because society is about to collapse. [Laughs] We were forward thinking. We saw it back then; we just didn't have the follow-through.
So the title, Uptown, refers to the neighborhood you moved to when you returned to Chicago.
Yeah, but it's not just biographical. I'm really interested in the neighborhood of Uptown itself. One of the reasons that chapter of my life was important is that I'm in love with that neighborhood. Around the turn of the 20th century, it was the center of affluence and nightlife in the city, which you see remnants of in really ornate, majestic venues like the Aragon Ballroom and The Riviera and the Uptown Theater, which has been under renovation for as long as I can remember. And jazz clubs like The Green Mill have these doorways that lead to catacombs with this long tunnel network that connects all of the bars in the neighborhood. During Prohibition, the cops would bust in and everyone would scatter in the catacombs so the cops couldn't find them. That's also how a lot of the smuggling was taking place.
What's it like there now?
It's starting to get gentrified now, but when we lived there it was the pits. It has the highest concentration of homes for the mentally ill in the city. There's gang violence and a lot of struggling working people mixed with mentally ill people who are medicated. So you have all this crazy, vibrant life all around you. It's hard, but it's also really beautiful. You get to witness humanity on this really magnified scale. So I just wanted to give tribute to that neighborhood.
The only song on the album with vocals is "You Were Sure." Why that particular song?
The song called for it. It's like a three-minute acoustic ditty. As you know, I don't play instrumental music because I think it's the way to go. [Laughs] It's just that most of the stuff that Pelican writes or the stuff that I write in my other bands just doesn't call for vocals. That's the just the nature of the way I write when I get an instrument in my hands: The space that would be occupied by a human voice already has other stuff happening. Or the piece just doesn't lend itself to vocals. Some of the more ambient, droney stuff on the record wouldn't really benefit from vocals. But that song needed them. And I've sung on both of the Histoire records, so it's not out of place with the home recordings I've done in the past. It just doesn't come up that much in general for me.
In addition to being a musician, you're also a well-known music publicist. Do you find that those two occupations affect each other in any way?
I try not to let that get into my mentality when I'm making music. Being a publicist does make you think about how you present your music to people, though. Publicists tend to think in terms of, "What is there to write about?" with regard to a record, so you start concocting a narrative behind it. If such-and-such artist was raised by salamanders, you've got a compelling story outside of the music itself. [Laughs] But I try not to let that bog down my own music. For this record, I just want to be as pure and sincere about what the record is—it's a self-indulgent exploration. [Laughs] I don't want to turn it into something it's not by ascribing some narrative to it—although I did just give you the narrative about the last ten years of my life.
What do you see as the pros and cons of working both sides of the aisle, as it were?
Certainly being involved on the business side of things gives you a more holistic picture of how the entire music machine works. For a large period of time, Pelican has operated as a semi-DIY enterprise, and I think due to a certain lack of experience, things that we did early on could've run smoother if we had known more about the whole machine. I don't have any regrets, but looking back, I go, "Oh, we could've done this," or "We could've done that." What's good about publicity is that I'm connected with press, I'm connected with managers, I'm connected with booking agents—which is beneficial because it allows me to see how all those moving pieces work. It gives me a better sense of how to approach things, so there are probably fewer wasted opportunities. Even in terms of getting someone to put out this record, I have experience writing pitches explaining to people why things might be beneficial to them from a business perspective. But this is not. [Laughs] I fooled them on that one.
How do you approach the promotion of a record that you don't necessarily like?
No comment. [Laughs]
What if the music is good, but the artist is difficult to work with?
Yeah, that happens. It can be disillusioning. The same thing happens when fans discover that the person who makes the music that they have this deep personal connection with is a jerk. But I don't think there are a whole lot of people making records who aren't emotionally invested in what they're making. So they can get very hung up on how it's presented and how it's perceived. When those things don't play out on the public side how they want, it can be hard. Nobody wants to get shitty reviews of their record that they labored over. It's hard. So I try not to take it personally when people are dickheads.
The other thing I keep in mind is that nobody who is making music, putting it on a record and going out and playing shows is completely sane. Playing music is a very rewarding experience, but you can do that at home and not feel like you need people to listen to it and crowds to cheer for you. So there's a certain amount of emotional damage involved in expecting that or wanting that. And I'm completely implicating myself here, obviously. Going out onstage to play music and expecting people to react to it is a big, "Hey, look at me!" moment, and there's something really weird about that. I think about that quite a bit—sometimes when I'm onstage, which is very distracting. I don't recommend that at all.
Speaking of live shows, do you plan on playing any of this material live or is it too layered for that?
These songs, no. I do play live shows occasionally, but these songs are really studio constructions, which is kind of a hallmark of all the solo stuff I do. All of it has a degree of improvisation and I try not to premeditate too much. It's more like going in with a concept and playing layers until it turns into something. But there is a piece that I've been playing live for a few years that, ironically, I have not been able to reproduce as a recording yet. But yeah, I've got a record release show coming up here in Chicago [on February 10th at The Empty Bottle].
So you won't be playing anything off the record at the record release show?
If you had any advice for a band trying to promote their new record, what would you tell them not to do?
Without throwing anyone under the bus, I think feuding with other acts is a bad idea. It plays well in rap, but feuding doesn't make sense. So don't do that. We're all here because we love playing music, so give it a rest. I also dislike when bands get angry at journalists. I mean, I get angry at journalists everyday, but don't start railing on people when you get a bad review. It's really immature.