Chicago-based RLYR (pronounced “Relayer”) is a band that eschews labels. If it needed one for the sake of categorization, post-rock might be most apt. Their songs sprawl and storm forward, a blossoming of melodic riffs and explosive drums that bleed out over long stretches—their debut self-titled album featured a 23-minute song, titled “Descent of the Night Bison.” It’s a distinct sound that is only the result of time. Collectively, RLYR’s members have spent decades in bands, and so, at this point, say they “have a pretty developed sense of what aesthetically feels right.”
The band has three members, though only two have joined us tonight. Pelican guitarist Trevor Shelley de Brauw and Locrian percussionist Steve Hess are in attendance, with Russian Circles bassist Colin DeKuiper at home in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It’s one of their last nights in town before they leave to tour for their recently released second album, Actual Existence. Like its predecessor, Actual Existence is a four-song, forty-minute instrumental effort. However, it now sees the band lean a bit more on structure, while still preserving the bite and energy they’re known for.
For their send-off, the duo has picked to spend our evening at Chicago taproom the Beer Temple. It’s quiet when we enter, with only a few saddled up to the simple, but smart wooden bar. Hess orders Sierra Nevada’s Weihenstephaner Braupakt, a cloudy and fruit-forward Hefeweissbier, while de Brauw hones in on Gummy Vortex, an IPA by local brewery Noon Whistle. I carelessly ask for a whiskey on the rocks. As it turns out, the Beer Temple has 20 beautiful craft beers on tap, but no tumblers for their whiskey. Or ice. I’m given a warm double in a chalice glass with a shrug and the three of us snag a table where we spend the next hour discussing Actual Existence, throwing away musical constructs, and naturally, where to get the best beer in Chicago.
I was told you guys really know your stuff when it comes to beer.
de Brauw: In theory. We know we like to drink it and that many of them are tasty.
You know enough to suggest two very beer-centric meeting spots in the same neighborhood!
de Brauw: Yeah, that's true!
For a while we thought that was going to be the concept of our band—three-song albums.”
Okay, so I want to know more about the band name.
Hess: It's taken from Yes' Relayer album.
de Brauw: The way the first album came together, it was originally three songs, two of which were lengthy instrumental songs. The three-song album structure has a resonance with us because of the band Yes. Relayer, Close to the Edge and some of their other albums were three-song albums with this structure. I feel like even though we're not as musically adept as the people in Yes we feel a kinship with the music and we wanted to do some sort of homage to them. So, we went with the more underrated album Relayer.
Wait, you guys specialize in three-song albums?
de Brauw: For a while we thought that was going to be the concept of our band—three-song albums. We ended up adding a song to the first album and it turned into a four-song album, and then we wrote this other album and it's got four songs so...
Hess: I also think a lot of people who come see a show aren't really into watching a 30-minute song. Well, there probably are a lot of people that are. And they're fun to play. But writing 20 or 30-minute songs... that's a lot of material.
de Brauw: Once you get past that 12-minute mark you're pushing it a little with the audience.
How long are the songs on the new album?
de Brauw: There's two in the 12-minute range and two in the eight-minute range. I feel like for a band like ours, four songs is a full length.
Hess: So maybe we can try to do five next time!
de Brauw: Maybe a short, three-minute song. That'd be nice, huh? [Both laugh]
Is this a style you both have been interested in for some time?
Hess: Oh yeah. Even with [my other band] Locrian there are vocals but sometimes they're just a textured background. And we do long songs as well, like an hour long. It just seems to work with our songwriting.
de Brauw: We're both from pretty expansive experimental music backgrounds, so I don't think we think in terms of song length or album lengths. It's just whatever feels like a finished song is a finished song and whatever feels like an album length is an album length. We just follow our instincts in that regard. And we're both decades into this at this point so we have a pretty developed sense of what aesthetically feels right.
When did you decide there needed to be a second album?
de Brauw: I feel like we were halfway through before the idea of the album started materializing. We were playing many of the songs live already, probably as early as two years ago, when we were touring the first album. But, the songs went through a lot of revisions and tightening between then and when we actually recorded them.
Songs kind of have their own life where they're born in the practice space, but they continue to grow and change and evolve. It's good to have those experiences playing them in front of audiences, because then you get a sense of what's working and what isn't working better than in your weird, niche environment. I feel like a lot of people have gotten precious about that, because with social media there's the worry things will leak right away. There is a nerve-racking aspect to that, that the unfinished version of the song will surface somewhere. But the flipside is the benefit of learning it in front of people, learning what the song wants and what it needs.
How did you all meet?
de Brauw: Our first show was in Milwaukee, but Steve and I met in Chicago.
Hess: Yeah, and then we got asked to do this fest called Utech as an improvised duo. Instead of going full on improvised we decided to get together a couple of times beforehand and actually work out some kind of skeleton of an idea. After we did the fest, we continued because it was fun and we thought there was something there. That improvised piece turned into the side-long piece on our first record.
Where are you favorite places to go drink in Chicago?
Hess: I like drinking in my home. [Laughs] I like this place, the Beer Temple.
de Brauw: The Metropolitan taproom is so nice. It's built right next to the river in this once abandoned industrial building and there's huge glass pane walls overlooking the water. During the daytime it has this really nice, chill atmosphere.
Hess: Hopleaf is great. They have such an amazing beer selection. It's a little overwhelming. And around here there's another place I like called DMen Tap. It’s got an atmosphere that’s like...metal and D&D themed.
de Brauw: And they have a window in the back where they serve currywurst and fries! Sleeping Village is also awesome. The taps selection is really good and they have a couple of coffees. It's a relaxed room.
What about local beers?
de Brauw: Yeah, there’s a lot! I'm a big fan of Spiteful. I like their Alley Time. I've also been really into a lot of the stuff that Marz Brewery has been doing lately. They've been branching into the Northeast IPA style—so, like, cloudier and fruity. I feel like that style is catching fire faster than people are able to adjust to and do right by. Marz is one of the few breweries that seems to have a grasp on how to make it really well. I like the citric qualities of Northeast IPAs, but well executed ones where it tempers the bitterness.
Hess: I'm not a fan of the whole hazy thing. I just want that to get over with. There are some breweries that are putting lactose and cultures in their beer and that is a bad idea. I'm not going to name names. Like, I was sitting outside and I could hold this beer up in the sun and I couldn't see anything through it. I couldn't even see my hand on the back of the glass.
What's your go-to shitty beer?
de Brauw: I like PBR too, and Old Style.
Hess: If I had a choice between PBR and Old Style I'd go for PBR. It's just a taste thing for me, nitpicking at that point. The carbonation is finer in Old Style and I don't like that as much.
de Brauw: The shit beer I'll ride for is Bud Light Lime. But, it's hard to categorize it as a beer. In the summer, if it's really hot, and it's around, I'll drink it. I'm not going to purchase it, but I have been in scenarios where Bud Light Lime was available and it was hot out... and it's refreshing. I'm not going to deny it.
Hess: I like Coors too. The real Coors. Not Coors Light.
I think there's a photo of me drinking a beer when I was still unable to walk.”
Do you remember your first beer?
Hess: I was very young. I think there's a photo of me drinking a beer when I was still unable to walk. It's an old black-and-white photo of me sitting on the floor drinking beer. Were my parents that terrible? I remember one time driving in my dad's truck when I was maybe five or six, we stopped somewhere to get some snacks and he picked up a six pack of half-cans, but it was near beer, so non-alcoholic. He let me drink one so I could see what beer was like, and I remember not enjoying it at all. I was repulsed.
de Brauw: I remember having sips of my dad's beer growing up and thinking that it was gross. The earliest memory I have of drinking beer for alcoholic effect would have been the Coors Lights I snuck as a freshman in high school. I also had some nights with Mickey's and Zima.
Hess: I remember in junior high getting a friend's older brother to buy us beer. We would go camping and take coolers of dirt-cheap Stag Beer. Terrible. We'd drink it just like water. Hiking through the desert. It was a horrible idea. [Laughs]
So what is your favorite style of beer?
Hess: I like a good, straight up lager. But it also depends on the season. During fall and winter I slip into porters. Then when spring and summer come around its lagers. I also like hoppy IPAs. Founders Brewing has a really nice porter.
de Brauw: If you want to dig in on local stuff, Revolution Brewing's Eugene Porter is a great one, and so is Spiteful's God Damn Pigeon Porter.
Hess: Yes. That's a fucking good porter. When it comes to lagers, there's this little butcher and larder grocery store I go to behind The Hideout Inn. The cheese guy there turned me on to this beer called Lake Brothers. It's a small company out of Detroit and they only make this one beer, a lager. I don't know if they'll eventually go on to make something else but they just focus on perfecting this one beer. And it's delicious.