It's A Science: Squid Interviewed

It's A Science: Squid Interviewed

Peering into the experimental post-punk band’s brave new world...

Squid’s output is the musical equivalent of the inventions made in Dexter’s Laboratory. Though there are countless bands whose work feels like grand scientific experiments, none better encapsulates the nerdy joy of toying with sounds quite like the mercurial Brighton-originated quintet. Their debut album 'Bright Green Field' is their most concrete set of findings yet, and lead singer/drummer Ollie Judge and multi-instrumentalists Arthur Leadbetter and Laurie Nankivell talk me through it.

Squid’s recorded history began with a set of largely-instrumental post-punk that still indicated a love for ambient music, something that the band started out making once upon a time. Their ascent into prominence began when they were picked up by superproducer Dan Carey’s Speedy Wunderground label and sat alongside other buzzed-about bands Black Midi and Black Country, New Road. They generated their own fanfare with 2019’s 'Town Centre', one of the most intoxicating EPs of that year.

'Town Centre' was the first firm mark of their sonic thumbprint, cross-wiring boisterous, mathematical post-punk with progressive electronics that give the band their USP. There’s a tenseness to the proceedings which Ollie Judge’s fervent vocal style caps off, a goofy and yelpy shout birthed from a struggle of a gig that had him fighting against a “shit sound engineer”, in his words.

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Starting out in Brighton during university, the five of them came together in 2017 as a group of quirky, musically-astute in-betweeners. Throughout this time, it became a tradition for them to congregate to make dinner, then listen to records over bottles of wine. “The glory days,” Arthur adds with a sigh of reminisced glee.

They balanced the reserved with the reckless, finding a love for the house and techno music that beamed out of city nightclubs. They even stepped in with their own night dubbed ‘Small Hours’ in honour of the John Martyn song of the same name, which the band treat as their theme song. “It’s been a song that’s come back to hit us at many of the important times of our life in quite an embodied, almost spiritual way,” says Arthur. “That’s why we chose to base the night off that one song. We had all our friends come along and play to a crowd of really delectable guests. One time, we were downstairs doing the night and there was a dog wake in the room upstairs. You can imagine what they must have thought with that going on the floor below them [laughs].”

That mix of the serious and the playful is what makes their music so electrifying, and defines the comradery they have when creating music, especially so with the new album. Following a month-long writing stint in Ollie’s old pub, the band recorded with superproducer Dan Carey in his studio. With Carey, they had a regimented work schedule that sounds like that of a boot camp: starting at 10am, finishing at 6pm, pizza at 7, bed by 9. Their screening process was just as strict, as Arthur explains - “I actually don’t know how many ideas made the cut. We’ve got a strict process of elimination.”

In equal measure though, was the element of imagination flying around the studio as the band thought up countless different ways to record sounds Macgyver-style, such as hanging a microphone from a ceiling and recording it orbiting a circle of guitar amps. This led to album highlights such as one of the most face-melting moments of the year, the second half of the seven-minute ‘Boy Racers’, which is best left as unspoiled as possible (seriously, go and listen to it before I spoil it).

“As the recording process went on, we realised we had to ditch the more recognisable sounds and record overdubs of wild instruments that we were finding in Dan’s studio,” explains Arthur. “We were sat around in a circle with individual sounds that we had curated ourselves, hit record and made these bursts of sound, like yelps and screams from different instruments. It created a life of its own.”

'Bright Green Field' is a product of abstract thinking and dystopian visions, removing any traces of consciousness on every track to boil them down to bare environments. In Ollie’s words, “by the time we recorded it, I can’t really remember focusing on much else other than the sonic landscape of the album, which I think is nice, being totally engulfed in how we wanted things to sound rather than what we wanted to convey with meaning.” Take the first track proper, ‘G.S.K.’, whose architecture is founded upon an industrial backbone inspired by the faceless pharmaceutical company of the same name.

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Framed in the context of this mindset, it only makes sense that the influences and shared space of expression for the record were compiled as files on a digital interface. The band kept a shared Google Drive that sprawled with, as Laurie vaguely describes, “musical and literary influences, kind of little ideas influenced by sci-fi and Miles Davis quotes.” The drive also stores a folder full of years’ worth of old rehearsal and iPhone recordings of their vast draft catalogue, and thanks to this very folder, the oldest track on the record saw the light of day again after being tucked away.

‘Paddling’ was reworked from its original 2018 version, which nearly saw a wider release. “It’s funny because we completely fell out of love with that track and stopped playing it” admits Ollie. “I think our manager listened to it and she suggested trying it again, and we got spurred on to give it another shot for the album. We all laughed [at the idea originally], but then tried it and now it’s a single [laughs]. I’m super happy we decided to reinvent that track, and its success gives me hope for all these other lost recordings that we’ve got, and could revisit them in five, 10 years and they might see the light of day.”

While their goal with 'Bright Green Field' was to create sonic landscapes, the band often use the idea of rooms and spaces to describe the fluxes in their work. Tracks like the lead single ‘Narrator’ show how they undergird multiple sections at once, shifting from a typically krauty rhythm to a dissonant synth passage that raises the stakes in tandem with Ollie’s screeching vocals. “One of the things we wanted to achieve sonically was to have the album feel like it inhabited a few different places,” Arthur explains before elaborating. “Small places, big places, crazy places, emotional places, fun places. Spaces became one of the key drives of the different kind of methods that we used in the studio. Dan [Carey] was concerned with how to transition between those spaces.”

The aforementioned ‘Boy Racers’ constructs something similar, taking its par-for-the-course first half and pulling the floor from underneath it, unleashing what Arthur describes as a “mega-drone” layered with high-torque synthesizer and echoes of freakish sonic spectres. “We thought it was quite a fun idea to have a conventional pop song in the first half and then something we’ve never done as a band before [in the second],” Ollie analyses the track. “We all got obsessed with the idea of making it sound as alien as possible without having anything identifiable.” Aside from the bizarre thought that this is what Squid sees as a ‘conventional pop song’, Arthur adds more visceral insight: “I just wanted to make the sound of a completely unrecognisable room. The most obscure thing you can imagine that really shocks you, and that’s the sort of room we wanted to achieve at the end of that song.”

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As the band describes almost all their music in this way, it becomes increasingly apparent that Squid is an outfit that runs on instinct. The roadmap of their tracks are visually ambiguous, as seeing where they go next is like driving through fog, likely a product of intense improvisation. Hearing them speak on the importance of their jam sessions all but confirms this.

“Part of the reason the music works together is just a happy accident,” Arthur states candidly. “They all came from different places and we just had to work out different ways of making them work together and within themselves, and that was just a process of trial and error, and constant thought throughout the whole thing.” Laurie thinks back to when the boys wrote ‘The Cleaner’, the lead single from their Town Centre EP. “It used to have all these different endings and we tried them all out live, and we decided to put all these endings together. That’s why it’s eight minutes long.” The roles in the band are just as fluid, negating preciousness and allowing for a five-pronged approach to any section of a track. “The best thing that you can do is push other people’s ideas to be where they are,” Arthur asserts.

‘Global’ Groove’ highlights a cut that one could say was cobbled together with context, but sounds anything but. Centred around a dark, bluesy riff, the track fades out into an extended ending with a wailing synth that once existed as a loose experiment of Arthur’s from a couple years ago. Ollie describes the outro as being “tacked on” rather than relentlessly tinkered with, suggesting that this came as an “ah-hah!” moment at the end of a long road of failed trials. He goes on to stress the extent of the number of alternative versions of the track, before joking that they could end up on the inevitable 20th Anniversary special edition of the album.

This probing approach does not mean that their music is without structure, however. Using a whiteboard to map out each during sessions, they even scaled that up to the album’s sequencing. “We’ve still got the drawings from when we were trying to decide the track order,” says Ollie. “There’s lots of pictures of rivers and volcanoes, so I’m not really sure what that says about us,” he laughs, before handing it over to Arthur, who has a theory that every song in popular music has a whale shape.

“I learnt this from the director of my Harrogate Young Musicians programme I was a part of for a while, he wrote an essay on it in university. Every song has a big head that goes up and suddenly comes down, and then it has this dip just before the tail and goes back up again,” he explains. “We took it and wrote all the tracks out on the whiteboard on the door of the studio, with this line above it to illustrate how the listener might feel when they’re going through it. The height of the line was dictated by speed and volume and intensity, and we jiggled the tracks around so that we weren’t assaulting people, because that’s not what we wanted to do. We wanted it to be a pleasant experience.”

'Bright Green Field' was released earlier this month to huge critical acclaim, signalling that the experiments indeed worked. Nevertheless, there are a few loose ends by the band’s standards. The band is reluctant to detail any lyrical content, as in previous interviews, they have mentioned that the words are visceral spurs of inspiration that weren’t dwelled upon before entering the world of their album. Much like the plucky title character from Dexter’s Laboratory, it seems that they don’t fully understand what they’ve created yet.

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'Bright Green Field' is out now.

Words: Nathan Evans
Photography: Holly Whitaker

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