PELICAN’S LARRY HERWIG ON DRUMMING, VOCALS, AND NEGATIVE REVIEWS
Larry Herweg’s role in Pelican is arguably its most distinctive and most controversial. Some say his on-par-with-AC/DC beats allow the winding guitar lines to breathe; others argue that his drumming is sub-par and holds the band back from greatness. What’s harder to argue is that Pelican’s latest, last year’s What We Come to Need, isn’t one of their best, a welcome return to evocative, slightly dark riffs after the stylistic shift of 2007’s City of Echoes. Some even thought highly enough of it to throw it on their year end list. And Herweg seems happy with the record, as well as sympathetic to those who found fault with the band’s previous album. In an interview with Metal Sucks, he discusses the meaning WWACTN‘s title and creation, “Final Breath”‘s controversial use of vocals and whether there will be more of them, and one reviewer’s nasty attack on his drumming technique.
It’s just a title that kind of spoke to the times right now – the planet, country and everything in this constant state of chaos and turmoil between the wars, global warming and the economy. It’s everything that’s going on right now. It’s basically a statement about the strength you get from your friends and family, human bonding and remaining hopeful in hard times and trying to get through them.
Was the theme of hope during tough time on the band’s mind when you were writing the album or did it sort of come up after you had already started writing?
I think what happened is that we started writing songs… it took us about almost a year and a half to two years to finish writing a batch of songs. When we were done writing we were trying to come up with a general theme or concept that kind of fits the mood of the songs. It’s kind of how the vibe has been for the last couple of years with touring, getting older and seeing the planet for how it is. It just seemed like the right title for the time right now. It’s kind of like when we did The Fire in Our Throats, it was the same thing. It was the middle of the Bush administration, we were an instrumental band but it was our way of saying “just because we’re an instrumental doesn’t mean that we don’t have all these things to say and that we’re not pissed off about what’s going on right now.” Fire in Our Throats was a statement about the time of dealing with the Bush administration and all the bullshit that came with it. Here we are, a few years later, and there are so many shitty things that are happening, and it’s like how do you get through them and how do you remain hopeful. I think for us we find strength in our family and friends – especially being away on tour and when we get home we realize just how much you need that support from people.
It is a very similar record sonically to The Fire in Our Throats. Was that hope aspect missing from that prior record or was it still there but in a different kind of energy?
I think it was still there. I remember saying to the band “oh The Fire in Our Throats is a triumphant record. We’ll get through it, we’ll get through it.” It was a kind of hopeful record, and I think it’s the same thing for this record. It’s hard times, but I think we’ll get through them. You try to remain hopeful and hope that things are going to get better. It’s hard, but what else can you do? You don’t want to give up. You give up and it’s like, I don’t know, that your life is going to suck.
City of Echoes and this one are two very different sounding records. Were they sort of created in 2 different mindsets or was it a sort of conscious decision to move in a different direction than where you had been with City of Echoes?
City of Echoes was that we had been touring a lot once we released Fire in Our Throats – we had been touring all the time. The lengthier songs that we had written in the past were becoming pretty annoying on tour. It was like “goddamn, these songs are so long.” There was so much repetition and honestly, not that we hated the songs, but performing them night after night became painful. We didn’t have that in mind when we were writing those songs. We were not a touring band. We were a band that played shows occasionally and did some weekend warrior shit where we would drive out of town and play a couple of shows here and there. But once you start touring worldwide all the time, those songs become so damn long. We were going out with bands like Torch, Cave In, Big Business, and High On Fire. These bands that have shorter songs that are full of energy and things that happen quicker. For me it was kind of like that I wanted to record more like that. So when we got home from all that touring and started writing for City of Echoes, it was like a conscious decision to trim down the songs, make them a little faster, and make changes happen quicker. We were keeping the Pelican sound but trying to evolve it.
In doing that, there were some things that we did well and some things that didn’t work so well. When it came time to do this new record, it was the same thing: let’s take the things that we thought we liked with City of Echoes and carry that on. Some of the stuff that we tried on that record that we didn’t work, let’s ax it and keep moving forward. I still think that there is elements of City of Echoes in the new record, I just think that we played the songs better and that the songs were thought out a bit better. I think some of the City of Echoes stuff was that we wrote it and just moved on. I think that on this new material that we just sat on it a little bit longer and each one of us had more time individually to really focus on our parts and make sure that we were 100% cool with what we were going to be doing and laying down in the studio.
I don’t remember how much time we spent on City of Echoes, but it definitely seems like we got back from tour and we cranked out 4 songs really quick and then working in the studio and finishing… A Delicate Set of Balances is the last song on the record, and that was definitely written in the studio. I think I literally played through it three times, and on the third take from start to finish was one take.
Far From Fields, the song right before it, was the same thing. We had just finished writing it, played through it a couple of times, and then tracked it. I think that was a one taker. Now you look back on it and are like “that was so stupid.” Doing stuff like that is such a risk and a gamble. I think we got lucky because there are people who really dig those songs, but as the performer, I can hear so many imperfections in those songs and there are things that could have been so much better if we would have spent a little more time on it. On the new record, we had everything ready to go. The only thing that we kind of changed in the studio is the last song. We didn’t like the way the second half of the song sounded, so we came up with another part and looped it. Other than that, the record was finished.
After the arguably more successful results you had on this record with writing shorter songs, do you guys think you guys will ever go back to writing longer songs again or is shorter going to be the norm from now on?
The song Embedding Moss that we did on the EP Ephemeral that came out this spring, I think that feels like a long song. If I remember, it’s about an eight minute track that went through so many different movements. I feel that it was about long enough. I’m not saying that we’re not going to do that. If one of us gets inspired to write something that’s going to take a long time to get through, then maybe we’ll do it. I just don’t think that’s where our headspace is right now as far as writing goes. Like I said, City of Echoes were a lot of ideas that we were trying to execute and I don’t know if they were executed as well. I think on the new record that we still had a lot of those similar ideas, but I think that it was executed a lot better. I have no idea what the new stuff is going to be post what we all come to need. I have one guitar demo of stuff right now that I was going to start working on, but other than that, I have no idea. We’re not opposed to it, but I have a feeling probably not.
Things just seem to be working out pretty well.
Yeah. It’s how we’ve been writing for the past few years – keeping touring in mind. I think people in general with their attention spans, I know we have fans of the old material that really enjoy the long stuff, but I think we have just as many fans that enjoy the songs that get there quicker as well. There are tons of people that like the old stuff, but at the same time, there are all these people at our shows that really like City of Echoes and don’t really care for the old stuff. There are both people out there. We’re just going to try and write stuff that feels right to us that feels fresh and something new. We’re going to keep the Pelican sound but it keeps evolving. We don’t want to do the same record again. I don’t want to feel that we have to backtrack and do things that worked in the past to just be safe about it.
I heard people say that about the new record, but I don’t know if there was anything conscious about any of the songs on this new record that was like “Oh, we need to make this sound more like the old stuff.” Do you know what I mean? It wasn’t really like that. It was kind of like we kept writing.
That’s interesting, because one of the first things I thought when I heard the record was that it did sound very reminiscent of a lot of the stuff you guys did before, even back to the first EP you guys did. That wasn’t a conscious thing then?
No. Laurent writes most of the songs. Bryan wrote I think 3 of the songs on this record. Bryan is the bass player, but he also plays guitar. That was new for him to write a bunch of songs on guitar. I don’t think either of them were ever like sitting down and trying to channel the old days of Pelican back into the new stuff. I think it just kind of happens.
Moving in a different direction, what led you guys to have vocals on Final Breath? What led to that decision?
We’ve always, as a band, said that we were never opposed to it. Even when we started the band, we never set out to be a strictly instrumental band. It just kind of happened that way out of our general laziness of finding someone to be the singer. I remember when we started the band and during that first year of songwriting and rehearsals, after practice we would sit down, eat and talk about who we were going to get to sing, who was going to find somebody and who do we know in Chicago and blah blah blah. We were brainstorming who’s going to be this possible vocalist. Time went on and we just kept writing songs. Over a year’s time I think we had 6 songs written, and we were still kind of at the same point and were like “we don’t have anybody. No one’s found anyone. No one actually looked for anyone either.” We were like “let’s just play a show and see how it goes.” We played a show and it worked, so we just kind of went from there. We were like “well, here’s 5 songs that we spent a year writing,” and playing for people just to see how they would take it. They liked it, so we were like “okay, it’s working so let’s just do this.” That’s how it stayed. The whole time we were doing it, we were planning the instrumental movement and were like it was so powerful. We were like we’re just a band dude. We just wrote a bunch of songs. We honestly thought we would have a lead singer. We talked about it and no one did anything about it. Here we are, 9 years later, and we’re like “man, if we’re going to do a song with vocals, this is the song to do it.” It was a song that Bryan wrote, and it was very simple as far as the structure and patterns. We were like “this is the one, so if we’re going to do it, let’s make it this record.” We always wanted to make the records a little bit different from each other. I thought that was a great way of making this record different from the last one by having someone actually singing on a song. We didn’t think people were going to expect it. Al, who is a good friend of ours, did the vocals. He’s in The Life and Times who we toured with back with Mono in 2006. We’ve been friends ever since. We love his band, and we think he has a great voice. We approached him with the idea, and he has a healthy ego and he’s like “fuck it, I’ll do it. Send me the shit.” He cranked that out in no time. We sent him the rough tracks from the actual studio as soon as they were done, and a few days later he had sent us back his studio tracks. He did them in Chicago in a separate studio, and he sent them back via WAV. file. We kept mixing from there. I didn’t know what to expect. He had high hopes, and in our minds, he totally blew us away and exceeded our expectations. I think it made the song really cool. Real people dig it.
Yeah. It’s interesting at the very least. Do you think that’s going to be something that when you guys are writing and arranging from now on that you guys might keep as an option of including a vocalist?
Yeah I think we’ll keep it open. So far there has been some mixed reviews. I just read one last night, I think it was Iann Robinson or something, and he has a website where he reviewed Slayer and didn’t have very many nice things to say about it. He got to our record and got all gushy up until that song and was like, “You guys don’t need to do that.” It like totally bummed him out. There is definitely mixed feelings. When I play the record for other people, that was the song that really stood out to them. I remember playing the album to Aaron Harris from Isis. We’re just sitting there going track by track and that song came on, and his eyes lit up and said “that’s fucking amazing, dude. It sounds so good.” There are people who think it’s awesome and people who don’t. It’s still pretty early to say, but I’m definitely not opposed to it and I like how it came out. We have to keep in mind too if we’re going to play it live it becomes complicated. If we start doing more songs like that and getting more singers involved or even getting Al involved again, it’s like how are we going to do that as a band and never perform those songs live. Right now it’s like how we’re every going to play Final Breath unless we coordinate with Al to take him on tour with us or something. It’s kind of complicated. I could see us probably doing it again. All the guys in the band are really psyched on that song. I would say on the next record that we release will probably have another song like that. I don’t think it would be a whole record of songs with vocals, but why not throw in another one and try it again.
Yeah, that makes sense. Moving in another direction, what caused you guys to leap over to Southern Lord Records from Hydra Head and how’s it been going over there?
It was time for a change. We’ve been a band going on for 9 years. Both titles are awesome, I had worked with Southern Lord when I played drums in Lair of the Minotaur. I know how they do things there, and I know how Greg (Anderson) does business. When we were talking about trying to move elsewhere, that was the option that came up. They had been expressing interest for awhile, so when he gave us an offer it was an offer we didn’t want to refuse. We had done 3 full lengths and three EPs with Hydra Head, and Southern Lord expressed interest. They made an offer that was pretty hard to refuse. We decided to switch gears. Mark (Thompson) was okay with it. Everyone is still really good friends. I told Aaron Turner that we had a new record, and after the split we were out on tour with Isis. Everyone is still really cool with each other. I talk to Mark all the time. He’s still really supportive of the band. It’s been fine, and I feel that it gives the band a fresh start in people’s eyes when you make a change like that. There’s no high drama or anything like that. I think people think that there was some crazy shit that went down, and that’s totally not the case.
Was having Greg Anderson and Aaron Turner guest on the new album was kind of a point of solidarity or was that something that just happened?
It just happened, but at the same time it just shows that everybody’s cool and not to worry about it. I mean look at Boris: Boris does it the same way by doing records on both and it’s not weird. I don’t think Boris gets people asking questions like “oh why did you do this record on Hydra and not on Southern Lord and going back and forth?” There’s nothing weird going on, but as far as the guests go on the record, that was a conscious decision. We were going to be in Seattle recording. How many musicians do we know in Seattle that would like to be on the record? Aaron Turner had just moved to Seattle, so he’s living there now. Greg Anderson is originally from Seattle, and he was going to be up there when we were in the studio, so those 2 were just obvious to us. Ben Verellen to play bass on the first song, I believe he was in Tacoma. It was almost too easy because they were all local, and we were going to be there for 3 weeks recording this record, so we just had them come in and do stuff. That’s how it went. It was pretty simple. Al was the only one from out of town. He was in Chicago. We just traded the files through the internet. We wanted to do a record that was different from the previous ones, having vocals was one way of doing that and also having a couple of guest musicians come out and play on the songs was really cool and exciting because we had never done that before. It was fun. It was awesome. Those are all guys that we look up to and are all in bands that we loved for a long time. It meant a lot that everybody agreed to contribute.
That’s good. Do you think it helped shaped the record or at least the way it came out?
I think so. I think we sat down and thought about each individual song and who would fit best for parts of it. Obviously when we did The Creeper, that was a slow burner on there. I would say the song that’s probably the closest to maybe older other [Inaudible] type material, I thought The Creeper. We were like “if we’re going to have Greg Anderson on a song, that’s definitely the song.” We’re all big Goatsnake fans. It just seemed like the one. When he heard the song, he was like “yeah I’m totally down.” He basically wrote the intro to the song. When that song starts, there’s like this guitar line that repeats 4 times and that’s Greg basically introducing the song. It was cool. When we toured with Isis, Aaron was doing these really cool guitar effects in one of the songs with a screwdriver and delay pedals and stuff, I don’t play guitar so I don’t know the technicalities when they play, and he was making all these crazy noises. When we had finished the song What We All Come to Need that has that loopy guitar outro with tons of guitar effects, we thought it would be cool to have Aaron to come in doing some of that shit he was doing on the Isis tour in that section of the song. So it was the same thing: we sent Aaron the song and were like “it’s from this minute to that minute, can you fill it up with some of your guitar tricks?” That’s what he did. With Glimmer, Ben Verellen (who plays guitar in Helms Alee, but in his old band Harkonen that we toured with in 2003, he played bass). We thought that he had a very particular bass tone that was pretty mean and awesome. When we finished that song Glimmer, we thought that the outro could use a little more low end, and we thought he was the perfect person for it. We called Ben and asked for his trademark bass sound for the end of that song, and he came in and filled up the song really nicely.
Yeah. Apparently they did shape it a bit more than I previously thought, but it still sounds just like you guys in the end.
Everything was written already. It wasn’t like we had to do these intense sessions where the guys would come in and spend all this time writing with us. It was more like the songs were done, can you guys give a little special touch to make it that much better. You know what I mean? It was like icing on the cake for a few of the tracks.
I always keep in my head that there isn’t a vocalist. I always try to keep things fairly simple and nothing too way off the wall. I think on City of Echoes, I tried to do some things that were maybe unconventional like putting weird fills and changes in weird spots just for the sake of it being there and making the songs more complicated than they were. I think on the new record I tried to not do that at all. On the new record, I just wanted it to have a nice groove and give it a really solid rhythm section. This was the first record that I didn’t try to do a click track to. Most of the records were done with a click track. On City of Echoes, I can go back and hear going up and down and had this ebb and flow to it, but this fluctuation that I’m kind of done with that. On the new one, I wanted it to be as solid as possible. It was about writing songs and spending a lot of time on my own rehearsing the songs to a click track to make sure everything worked, fit, and sounded smooth. There was a lot of preparing that way which I never did in the past, but in the past it was like just write the songs and jam through them. If one of us speeds up, then we all follow. A lot of the old records were like one take – all of us playing at the studio, so there are tons of imperfections and mistakes and things. We were younger and didn’t really know any different. One night I was working with Chris, it was like “we’re going to do it instrument by instrument.” It allowed me to go in with my reference and then track the drums as opposed to save the click track, lay down the drums and have everything be a layer from that point on. I think it really gave the new record that solidarity and tightness that it really needed that our older records don’t have. I don’t think we’ll go back to tracking songs like how we used to in the studio.
Are you more proud of your drumming on this record or is it it is what it is with you?
I think because I took more time on it, I think it’s more confident. I guess in that way I’m more proud of it. I’m really proud of the songs too. I just got home from tour yesterday. When we were heading out to start the first leg of the tour, I just remember being so excited and psyched. It’s really exciting to play them live because the material on the new record is really strong in my mind. In that way I’m proud. I think it shows more confidence, so yeah, I’m psyched on it. There are things in the past that I thought were cool, and there are things in the past that as time goes on you’re like “oh why did I do that? It sounds like shit.” It’s one of those things that I think every musician goes through. I do my best.
How do you react to critiques of your style in the press if you’ve read any?
[laughs] You’re probably referring to the Pitchfork review?
I may be. [laughs]
Yeah. I honestly feel that until that point there really wasn’t that much bad press about it. I feel like once that review came out, it was like he had opened up this can of worms and all these people had all this shit to say. Before that, people might be like “oh the drumming is okay.” But no one has ever said shit like that guy has said and because it was Pitchfork and was seen by so many people, it caused so much nonsense. For the last 2 years I feel like I have to constantly defend myself. It’s pretty irritating and pretty annoying. I thought that a lot of the shit was totally uncalled for. He raised good points though. He did call me out on things that did needed to be worked on, which is part of the reason why I learned to play with the click track because I was like “okay, maybe he’s right. Maybe some of my tempos need to be worked on. Fair enough.” The way he went about saying some of that shit, I thought, was totally unprofessional and I think for shock value like you know how some journalists cause shit to cause controversy. I think it was a way to get people to their website and get them talking. I took what I could out of that article and used it to my advantage. I could have read that and gotten really upset and said “fuck this, I’m done. I’m quitting. Whatever.” I’m not that type of person, so I read it a few times and thought about what it had to say. “Okay, there are a few things in here that I can work on and make better,” and that’s what I try to do rather than let him break me down and let people get the best of me or whatever. In the end, it’s fucking music anyways. The fact that people get so offended and so aggro about shit is beyond me, but anyways I was just like “you got to keep moving on.” At that point, the band had found a really good momentum and was doing really well. So when a review like that comes out and gets so much attention, it’s really hard to shrug it off. You know what I mean? When that came out, I got so many fucking E-mails that day “Have you seen this? How could he say this?” I turned my fucking computer off and turned my phone off for a week because I don’t want to hear about it. You know?
So far the reviews of the new record have been pretty positive. Some journalists will bring up that article, which is pretty annoying but I understand why because everyone fucking read it and everyone wants to know what I think about it. There you have it. We sent him the new record. I remember being at Southern Lord, and they’re like “do you want to send Grayson the new record,” and I said “yes, send it to him because I can’t wait to fucking hear what he has to say this time.” I’m not going to fucking hide from this guy. Know what I mean? Send him the fucking record and see what he has to say. I haven’t heard anything yet. Maybe it’s come out. No one’s sent it to me yet, but I know he’s not writing for Pitchfork anymore. Maybe he burnt too many of his bridges.
Do you keep your drumming for Pelican intentionally simplistic in a way? Do you find yourself dialing it back with them?
I don’t know. It’s hard to say. When I started playing music with Laurent and Trevor, we were doing a band called Tusk. It was completely different. Trevor was the songwriter in that band. We were trying to write these crazy songs that were all over the place. It was a completely different way of songwriting and headspace. The drumming was totally off the rails. When we started Pelican, Laurent was like “I have this other way of songwriting that I wanted to approach with this band.” Laurent was playing bass in Tusk and started playing guitar again. It was just so different. We were listening to a lot of Converge and Godflesh and things like that. Those bands have drum machines and the drumming is really simple and steady. I think that when we started writing for Pelican, even back in the demo, that was kind of my mind frame and headspace – playing a lot simpler and slower. It kind of carried on. I think when we got to City of Echoes, I had been playing in Lair of the Minotaur, and I remember Laurent being like “you got to do some of that shit you do in Lair of the Minotaur with Pelican. It sounds really cool.” So I can remember trying to throw in some of the stuff I did with Lair, like the opening song Bliss in Concrete with a bunch of drumming things I would do in Lair that I did in that song. Some of it worked and some of it didn’t, but I think with the new record, I went back to that mind frame of scaling back and having it be simpler like it was back in the day. I always feel with Pelican that the guitars are the focal point and that’s what I think a lot of people focus on is the play between the 2 guitars. I always try to keep that in mind. I want the songs to have a nice groove, and I’m not a shredder or anything like that, so it’s not like I’m going to bust out some drum solo nonsense or some shit. I can’t play like that and nor do I want to anyway. I just like to think of Pelican as a rock band and in a rock band you need a nice, steady drummer. That’s where I’m coming from.
My last question would be: despite having spent 2 years writing What We All Come to Need, you’ve still been pretty prolific with a couple of EPs, splits and so on. Are you guys going to continue to be that prolific or are you going to slow down a bit now that the new record is out?
I think we’ll probably slow down. Unless the opportunities present themselves, the split we did with These Arms are Snakes was a collaboration that sort of came up on tour when we were touring with them. We had talked about doing that and just made it happen. The split with Young Widows was their idea. They were doing a 4 7 inch series for the new record and they wanted us on it. If more stuff pops up like that, we’ll obviously do it. As far as us planning anything like that, I don’t know right now. We don’t really have plans to do anything like that right now. Who knows what the future will bring. Like I said, I only have one new song that I’m starting to work on now and in 2 weeks I’m going back on tour again to finish the second leg of the U.S. tour. We’ll see. It’s so early now.
I think you’re going to see us touring less though in the States. I think we’re kind of reaching our over saturation point of how many times we’ve done this state at this point. I think once we finish this leg, we’re probably not going to tour the States for a bit and give it some time to breathe. Maybe when the next record comes out, we’ll hit the road again and give people more anticipation. This is our third time through the States this year. It’s like how many times can you hit the same city in one year? We’ll tour a little bit less and not crank out as many EPs and focus on the full lengths from here on out.