You don’t get much more avant-garde than Squidbeing a multi-genre band, but making music routed in neolithic English folklore reaches the next level. That’s the result they got after pushing boundaries during the creative process of their sophomore album, The Monolithand hiding out in the English countryside to record it. It’s a transformation even Squid struggle to wrap their heads around.
“We’ve spent so much time writing and rehearsing that we haven’t had much time to comprehend that the album’s coming out in days,” bassist Laurie Nankivell begins, chatting over Zoom from his home in Bristol. He was right — The Monolith was about 48 hours from release, but the post-punk five-piece were focused on how it would work in a live set for this summer’s run of shows.
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“I didn’t even think about it until last Monday,” lead singer and drummer Ollie Judge chimes in. “Not that [the album release] isn’t exciting, but when our first record came out, it was really exciting. It was like Christmas Eve when you’re 10 years old. But now it’s like Christmas Eve when you’re 15.”
“When you find out Santa Claus isn’t real,” Nankivell laughs.
Debut album Bright Green Field introduced Squid as a group that could throw together jazz, punk, and dub and make it sound daring and layered yet still controlled. But The Monolith would open the floodgates now that they were exposed and more established. They returned for their second album oozing confidence and swagger, diving head-first into experimentalism with something both rhythmically demanding and thoroughly expressive, all while being much more creative.
Judge and Nankivell, together with keyboardist Arthur Leadbetter and guitarists Louis Borlase, and Anton Pearson, were keen for more melodic exploration on The Monolith. You can tell by the two singles written in 7/4 — “The Blades” and “Swing (In a Dream)” — which came out first.
The latter is the opening track written halfway through the process and based on one of Judge’s dreams, where he’d found himself trapped inside 18th-century painting “The Swing” by Jean-Honoré Fragonard. It wasn’t long before the picture frame began to flood and Judge frantically tried to escape before he woke up and poured his fresh memories of it down on paper. It’s the first thing listeners hear on the record and the first sign of a spiritual album with purposefully vague themes and raw instrumentalist.
“With [“Swing (In A Dream)”]we’d just been messing around with some experimental electronics on the drum machine,” Nankivell says, “and then Ollie decided to drum along to it, and we thought it sounded great. It definitely sounded quite different to anything on Bright Green Field, but it was probably written about halfway through the process.”
“I think we recorded it the week before we did the From The Basement thing with Nigel Godrich,” Judge concurs. Squid recorded a set of tracks from Bright Green Field for YouTube channel From The Basement in July 2021. It premiered a year later. “It did set the tone for everything else we wrote after that. Because I think we were struggling to find the track that set the tone for the whole record, and all the writing came a bit quicker after that.”
It was to be a different experience from the start once they decided to record The Monolith in Peter Gabriel’s luxe Real World Studios in Wiltshire, rather than in producer Dan Carey’s squashed, in comparison, London studio. By the end of the sessions, it was clear to Squid that the environment had made a big effect on the record’s sound.
“We’d said we wanted a more natural-sounding record,” Nankivell says. “I think, generally, Bright Green Field feels quite full in a gritty kind of way. Naturally, we wanted more spacious-sounding music. I think you can feel that in different points [on the album]but, with there being five of us, we always ended up filling it out a fair bit. But I think it is slightly more spacious.”
The band even brought the outdoors inside, with both “After The Flash” and “Green Light” involving soft bits of field recording. It was about being vulnerable and honest with the new sounds they wanted to try out, rooting themselves in rural English countryside to do so, and stepping out to organically source the noises and rhythms they had in mind.
“Dan’s studio was…” Nankivell makes a gesture with his hands, describing the space they’d used to record Bright Green Field“a tiny room. We especially felt it in the height of summer. We were in a very big, beautiful setting in Wiltshire. Even just being able to practice parts in separate rooms and the way in which you play acoustic instruments in that main room… it changed quite a lot.”
“I remember going out to have some toast, and Tom Jones was doing a live take of a track off his record,” Judge says. “It was really beautiful.” Jokingly, he adds: “The aim is to record there again, or somewhere similar… if the budget allows!”
“It was quite interesting having Zands [Duggan]the percussionist, play with us,” Judge says. “We hadn’t really talked about all the rhythms and everything in the songs. Then he came to a rehearsal and wrote everything down and put rhythms to things. We’d never really had that before — we’d never had someone actually score our music. So it was quite interesting to see it on paper and look at how he thought of it compared to how we thought of it.”
And it wasn’t just the rhythms that changed. Judge took a step away from his trademark raspy shriek to show off the vulnerable side of his vocal on the final few bars of “The Blades.”
“I think it’s some nice foreshadowing of the route and the type of music that we’re gonna go down,” Judge says. “Unless we do a punk or metal record, I don’t think I’ll fall back into shouting. I just think you can do a lot more with a quieter voice.”
If you’d asked Squid at the start of the process — still roped up in lockdown restrictions — what the record might sound like by the end, they wouldn’t know how to answer. “All the music within it was written in lockdown and even before that,” Nankivell reflects. “And maybe that was a natural representation of us being quite fragmented doing all sorts of things [in the studio]. But I think we were also less conscious about it having to have a thread through it and we didn’t necessarily want it to be interpreted in one specific way. We left it more up to the audience to make those links.”
“I think ‘The Blades’ is my favorite track,” Judge says. As open and disconnected as they want the album to feel, it’s not stripped of all meaning. “It encompasses some things we’ve done before, some things we’re doing at the moment, and some things we want to do in the future. But I think ‘If You Had Seen the Bull’s Swimming Attempts You Would Have Stayed Away’ also felt really good because it was quite an uphill struggle getting that track together because it’s just so rhythmically complex. Until we actually recorded it, I didn’t really know if it would work or if it would sound pleasing to anyone. But it all melded together and made sense in the end.”
“I also think ‘Devil’s Den’ encompassed a lot of the weird and slightly more vulnerable, natural elements that we wanted on this record,” Nankivell offers. “Especially in that first half, and then again that contrast in the second and third parts of the track. You can definitely hear Zands doing his most extravagant drumming in the second half, which is a really nice moment as well.”
The five-piece have come a long way since their first meeting in 2016, where they all came together in Brighton. They’re paving the way for London-based post-punk and continue to expand the boundaries with every new track they create. There’s a lot to be proud of.
“Making new interpretations of these new tracks for the live shows is where we’re at right now,” Nankivell nods. “We haven’t figured out some of the best ways the tracks will fit together yet, so that’ll be an exciting part of the next few weeks.”
“I’m really excited to see the Red Hot Chilli Peppers at this festival that we’re playing at,” Judge adds, breaking out into a laugh. “That is something I’m looking forward. I used to go to End of The Road festival with my parents as a family holiday, and having played up there onstage and getting ready to do more shows is really cool.
“It’s all been a real full-circle moment, and we’re just excited to keep going and see what’s next for us.”