Instrumental metal quartet Pelican are celebrating ten years as a band, but they're not eager to characterize their longevity as an impressive feat. Their story wouldn't make a particularly salacious episode of Behind the Music—no suicidal debauchery, no backstabbing, no fistfights. "Ultimately we're incredibly boring in the reality-show-drama aspect," says guitarist Laurent Lebec. "I never took anyone in this band to the hospital. No one's had to have their stomach pumped. We almost got arrested once, but the drugs were ingested before they were found."
But most bands don't disintegrate in fireballs of moronic excess—they break up for an infinite variety of reasons, from the pressures of worldwide popularity to the pressures of mortgages and child-rearing. It's hard to keep any band together for a decade, even a drama-free one, and in light of that it doesn't seem silly for Pelican to pat themselves on the back. They're playing two tenth-anniversary shows, one this Saturday, October 23, at Bottom Lounge and one next Saturday, October 30, in LA—where brothers Larry and Bryan Herweg, the band's drummer and bassist, now live. German label Viva Hate is releasing a wooden box containing Pelican's seven major releases on ten LPs and a T-shirt. And the folks at Three Floyds—regulars at Big Star, where Lebec manages and tends bar—are brewing a commemorative doppelbock called the Creeper, named after a song on Pelican's 2009 album What We All Come to Need. (Lebec and guitarist Trevor de Brauw are beer nerds, and Lebec hosts monthly beer tastings at Bucktown wine shop Red & White—the next one's on Wednesday, October 27.) The brewery plans to bottle the Creeper, but it'll be available first on tap, both at the Bottom Lounge show and at a party at Big Star on Sunday, October 24, at 7 PM.
One thing Pelican isn't doing to mark this milestone is touring. From mid-2005 through 2009, de Brauw estimates, the band spent four to six months out of every year on the road, and the costs of such a schedule have come to outweigh the benefits. Pelican had reached a level of success where it looked like music could support them, but they had to tour so much just to get by, hitting the same cities over and over again, that they saturated their market. Attendance at shows began to slip, and so did merch sales—it's hard to keep selling T-shirts to the same people, and once everybody's bought or pirated the latest album there's not much else on the table.
"We didn't set out to do this as a job," says de Brauw. "We set out to do this because we're friends and we like making music and we like having fun. We've had that opportunity to do that and go for it, and we reached a point where we weren't making enough money on the road to make ends meet anymore."
Heavy touring puts a strain on more than just a band's finances. "You're divorcing yourself from a complete normal life, and all of us have serious girlfriends and wives," says de Brauw. Lebec and his wife, Sarah Schroeder, are expecting their first child in December. "You're sacrificing your friendships, you're sacrificing your relationships with people back home. You're sacrificing your home. I can't tell you how many times I've come back from tour and my roommates and my girlfriend would have completely rearranged the place, and you walk in and you don't recognize the environment you live in. Your cats don't recognize you."
Pelican is in many ways an exemplar of a certain type of midlevel band—the kind that tends to slog away on tour, with each member netting perhaps a couple hundred dollars for a month's work, until somebody calls it quits in frustration. If you don't tour enough, you can't build the same kind of audience, but if you tour too much, you'll miss so many paychecks at your day job you can't cover your bills. These are the bands that have arguably been hurt worst by the industry-wide decline in album sales. Since 2005 Pelican's numbers have fallen roughly 25 percent from release to release, and de Brauw says that almost everyone he knows who was making a living from music five or ten years ago is working now—even those whose current bands are bigger than the ones that used to pay their way. He's a publicist at Biz 3, and the Herwegs both work at Whole Foods, Larry in bookkeeping and Bryan in meats.
Pelican are pretty confident their fortunes aren't suffering because their music has started to suck. What We All Come to Need hasn't been reviewed as widely as some of the band's previous releases—a side effect of the media's hunger for shiny new things, commonly encountered by artists who've been around for a few album cycles—but among those who paid attention to it, it's been received just as well. (Only 2007's City of Echoes encountered much in the way of mixed reviews.) De Brauw notes that audiences already knew the songs when Pelican toured to support it, so he doesn't think people are pining for the old stuff and losing interest in the band's current direction. Pelican has fans dedicated enough to buy a career-spanning box set that costs almost $200; there just aren't enough of them to sustain the group financially.
"The middle road is hard," says Lebec. Bands that are either very popular or totally obscure have their futures laid out for them a bit more clearly. The former get fame and all of its attendant perks, while the latter have no option but to treat music as a hobby. Bands like Pelican are pulled in both directions—they're capable of being much more than just weekend warriors, but the kind of unambiguous success that frees musicians from their day jobs seems constantly just out of reach.
In a situation like that it's easy to overextend yourself: Maybe one more album would do the trick, you think. Or one more tour. Or one more aesthetic compromise.
When Pelican started, the band "was just a pursuit of sound," says Lebec, "and it felt very private. We never knew where we were going. But I think we got to this point around [the 2005 album The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw] where it seemed like it could have catapulted to the next level—but ultimately, and this is just me saying it, that move to go to the next level needed something that we never compromised on, and that's a vocalist." Well, almost never: Allen Epley of the Life and Times sings on "Final Breath," which closes What We All Come to Need. But the band made a point of not playing that up. "We did it when we wanted to do it, which was at the tail end of that largest bubble of popularity," says Lebec. "We did it the way it should have been done: we did it for our art and as a middle finger to the people who wanted to have it happen three years before."
The goal of taking Pelican off the road is simply to keep the band together—to make sure, in other words, that what they're celebrating now is a new chapter. Had they resolved to keep touring the way they have been, says Lebec, "I don't think another ten years would have happened. I think I would have been toast. Ultimately if the aim is to preserve the integrity and the heart of a band, whatever procedural operations you have to do to maintain the core, you have to do it."
Though de Brauw says they'll tour again in a limited way "when it becomes a comfortable possibility," it's not clear when that might be. Pelican's deal with Southern Lord, which released What We All Come to Need, calls for two more albums, but there are no plans in place yet to record them. De Brauw also plays in Let's Pet—his wife, Lisa Shelley, is the drummer—and the drone outfit Chord. Larry Herweg is in a group called San Angelus with members of Sparkmarker and Undertow, and Bryan Herweg, a sometime sous chef, has become as passionate about cooking as he is about music. When I ask Lebec what's next for Pelican after this month's pair of shows, he answers that there is no "what's next." "I think the idea that I can finally not have a 'what's next' is beautiful," he says. "It's been a 'what's next' for ten years."