by David Anthony (@DBAnthony)
Depending on your frame of reference, RLYR could sound like almost anything. The band’s pedigree is well known, as guitarist Trevor de Brauw, bassist Colin DeKuiper, and drummer Steven Hess have spent the past 20 years playing in bands that all but reshaped the sound of aggressive music. With RLYR, they expand that approach, making the most anthemic, catchy instrumental music that’s been released so far this decade. Their songs still have a certain sonic heft to them, due in large part to the weighty propulsions of Hess and DeKuiper, but when paired with de Brauw’s use of melodic, pop-injected riffing, RLYR finds their home in no one space but their own.
When I meet them at Metropolitan Brewing’s taproom in Chicago, they’ve just finished practicing, and it becomes clear that there’s no grand ambition behind the band. What started as de Brauw and Hess working together for a one-off improvised performance, the band began in earnest, with DeKulper joining them and RLYR getting to work on their debut album, Delayer. With their second album Actual Existence, they went further into themselves, pulling out riffs that would perhaps feel alien in their other projects, but are completely at home here. But all of this genre-bending came naturally, the product of three friends who had never played together deciding to start a band, then chasing whatever inspiration they found in the process. As “Artificial Horizons” shows, RLYR is capable of darting back between heavy, doom-adjacent riffs into something that resembles a post-hardcore chorus. There are no vocals, but the melody sticks in your head, making for the kind of music that stands on its own merits, even if people keep trying to put it in a box.
David Anthony: You’d said that “Slipstream Summer,” the first song on Delayer, was the one that felt like you all had figured out what you wanted the band to be. How quickly after finishing that album did you start writing for Actual Existence?
Trevor de Brauw: I feel like we wrote “L.Layer” pretty much right after recording the last album, right?
Steven Hess: Yep.
Trevor de Brauw: Because when we toured for Delayer, we played three of the songs from the new record on that tour. So we were pretty well through this album by that time. And I guess there was a year between recording the first album and when we went on tour for it. But yeah, that stuff started coming really rapidly after the first album.
DA: I know RLYR started when Trevor and Steven were asked to do that 20-minute, improvised piece. How did you start evolving out of that? As a lot of these songs sound like pop songs through a different lens.
Trevor de Brauw: I don’t think there was a whole lot of intent put into the writing of any of these songs. I don’t think that we act very intentionally. The way that the band got together as an improv unit and then gradually evolving songs out of it, that approach really hasn’t changed at all. What happens is that, we’ve gotten more used to the mode in which we write, which is that we improvise until we come up with a structure and then we refine it and refine it and refine it. I think that what happened on this record was not a change of approach but continually refining the same methodology.
DA: Knowing your backgrounds, this record still feels tied to but kind of takes a step sideways. How much freedom do you feel to pull from a different well of influences than what you normally do?
Steven Hess: I think that’s a huge factor, for me anyway. Just getting to reach into that bag of artists that influenced me, and sounds that influenced me, that I hadn’t been able to use in other projects that I’m involved in. With Locrian, it’s dark—it’s kind of gloomy. Which is awesome, and it’s perfect for what that is, but with this, it’s bringing something catchy into it. It’s still heavy as shit, but it’s a pop sensibility, I guess. But even with structures, there’s some weird shit we’re doing.
Trevor de Brauw: With our other bands, we utilize hooks and try to do catchiness in a really different way.
Colin DeKuiper: For me, it feels different than any band I’ve been in before but, at the same time, it’s the same. I’ve been pretty familiar with Pelican and Locrian, and I’ve been familiar with these guys for a pretty long time. I think there’s something natural about playing together. The Venn diagram between us, there’s certainly a core overlap, then there’s definitely the shit that only each of us individually are in to. I don’t think there’s really intentional effort to pull from those things, but it’s just the natural effect of three different points of view coming together. But to Trevor’s point, it’s not really intentional in making it sound the way that it does. That’s just the result of us getting together and playing.
Steven Hess: It is unique. I don’t even know how I would categorize it, really. As a writer and player in the group, it’s hard for me, even when I’m playing the songs, to think of how I would categorize this band. Maybe I should think on that a little bit, because I feel like I should be able to. [Laughs]
Trevor de Brauw: It’d be easier to market, for sure. [Laughs]
DA: It seems like people are becoming more receptive to that though, where they are less concerned with how something fits into a genre and are more interested in how it stands on its own.
Colin DeKuiper: Definitely. I’m always excited when parts surprise me. There’s that improv process, and then something happens that I don’t expect at all. And that’s what I want to hear as a listener. I want to hear something that excites and surprises me but, at the same time, I can identify it.
Trevor de Brauw: I feel like the major difference between the writing process for this record and the last one is that everyone felt more comfortable to bring things to the table. I look at the first record as being, not minimal by any means, but there’s a whole lot happening in these songs compared to the set of songs from the first record. There’s just a lot of riffs.
DA: Listening to Delayer, the tones on Actual Existence feel much warmer and more inviting. How did you approach the recording process this time around?
Trevor de Brauw: I think we just put a little more time in. I think the last record was recorded in three and then mixed in two, and we added a day to each of those this time.
Steven Hess: And I think we were better prepared for this one.
Trevor de Brauw: I think because there wasn’t a surplus of time with the last one, I just played the guitars through my normal live rig and just tracked the songs. This time out, we laid down the drums and the bass and then went through the songs part by part and made different amp configurations to make sure every part was articulated with a specific tone that served the part a little more.
Steven Hess: I think we just experimented with sound a little more. We had a little more time in the studio, so we were able to fuck around and mess with things that we wouldn’t normally have had. And I would like even more time to do even more of that.
Trevor de Brauw: I remember I was like, “We’re gonna have all this time for all these overdubs,” and then it was the eleventh hour and I was just finished my guitar parts. [Laughs] Maybe next time we’ll add a fifth day.
DA: So the song we’re premiering is “Artificial Horizons.” I am gonna be that guy but, is that a Lungfish reference?
Steven Hess: No, but I love Lungfish. [Laughs]
Trevor de Brauw: There’s a riff on the album called “the Lungfish riff,” but it’s not in that song. Almost all of the riffs are named after different bands.
DA: That’s how bands always talk to each other it seems. It’s either the Lungfish part or The Cure part or something.
Steven Hess: I don’t think we’ve had a Cure part yet.
Trevor de Brauw: Yeah, we should! The Cure are a top-five band for me, so the fact we don’t have a Cure riff is criminal. It’s a criminal oversight.
DA: Album three is going to be all Cure worship.
Trevor de Brauw: It’s going to be called Criminal Oversight and it’s going to open with the Cure riff.
DA: But listening to “Artificial Horizons,” it feels like one of the heavier pieces on the record, but it still fits with the poppier stuff that you’re working with elsewhere on it. How do you go about sequencing a record with four big pieces and have it feel cohesive?
Trevor de Brauw: That’s one thing that was different about this album than the previous album in that the sequencing was pretty deliberate and built into the writing. We wrote “L.Layer” first, then we wrote “Vacancy,” and I think that’s maybe when we started writing “Artificial Horizons.” The album is a sandwich of two lengthy pieces, and I use this term loosely, two shorter songs in the middle. The songs on the outside, the longer songs, are both in B major, and the songs in the middle are both in E major. So there’s continuity in the way it flows.
DA: Do you write like that often, where you know you’re going for a certain feel so you start in the same key?
Trevor de Brauw: I think most of the songs start with one part and we just jam on it, then it turns into something eventually. But there was the intent to structure an album out of the songs we were working on, where there was less of that on the previous album.
DA: As we discussed, RLYR practices regularly, often way more than the bands people always associate you with. Does it get tiring having to push back against that “side-project” tag?
Steven Hess: Oh, it’s not a side-project.
Trevor de Brauw: All our other bands are long-distance bands and we don’t practice very often. Pelican, when we practice, it’s a huge occasion, because it only happens every few months. Whereas with RLYR, every week we’re in the practice space. I think that was a stumbling block of public interpretation when the band came out, and that’s something I really wanted to fight against, was this perception that it was a quote unquote “supergroup,” or that it was a side-project and people would associate it with our other bands. I really wanted it to stand as its own entity.
Steven Hess: I mean, we are a supergroup. [Laughs]
Trevor de Brauw: Super good looking. [Laughs] Well, the opposite of that. But yeah, it’s a full-time band that practices on a regular basis, and the songs evolve in a certain way because they’re rehearsed again and again and again.
DA: Does it ever get tiring getting thrown in those boxes, or having to still answer questions about what it’s like to be an instrumental band?
Trevor de Brauw: Well, I’m 20 years in on that. I think because of my day-job, I can’t do that anymore when I leave the office. My experience through the bands I’ve done is, you put out music, especially if you do music that’s a little esoteric and off the beaten path, it’s going to be misunderstood. Especially if you want people to hear it a certain way, you’re going to be let down. I try not to have a set of expectations about how the music is going to be understood or interpreted, because it’s always a letdown when you do that.
DA: Well, I’m excited to let you down when I write this!
Trevor de Brauw: No, man, you get it. I can tell.
DA: Oh, I’ve heard that one before. But are there any things with “Artificial Horizons” that stand out and helped shape the song that people might not pick up on?
Trevor de Brauw: I do have one very important thing to say about that song, which is that, when Pelican toured with High On Fire in 2007, Matt Pike taught me the John McLaughlin Mahavishnu scale and that song contains our Mahavishnu riff. So shout-outs to Matt Pike.
DA: Now you have to play the song shirtless, I guess.
Trevor de Brauw: That is…unlikely to occur. [Laughs]
RLYR's Actual Existence is out April 13th via The Flenser.