Escaping Dystopia – An Interview With Squid

As he descends the basement stairs, the members of Squid salute Arthur Leadbetter’s dad. He carries an antique rackett – an impish request made from his offspring – and takes a seat before making his cameo on Squid’s debut album. Fast forward a year and i’m sat on a zoom call discussing this very moment with the band. Laurie Nankivell leans back, comfortably placing his hands behind his head – a picture not too unlike a grandfather preparing to tell his young about the long gone war. He showcases his fairy light adorned room, complete with a HMV gramophone framed photo, and bites into his snack of choice – an apple. Thence he uncoils the aforementioned tale. “It was just after the first lockdown. Arthur had this idea of getting the sound of his dad’s rackett, which is like a 16th century German bassoon. It looks yae big’ – here he stops to extend himself, reaching his arms above his head in a childlike gurn – ‘and has loads of interweaving tubes within it, and he mapped this to the pitch bend on his Prophet synthesizer. And that’s why you’ve got that kind of amazing, like bass-ey tone on that song that sounds quite otherworldly.

Boy Racers, a deck of two cards, is from which this conversation thread is weaved. Although the first movement has a few familiar Squiddish sounds, the second is maybe their most disjointed piece yet. A malicious sounding drone instrumental, making for the musical equivalent of stepping on a murder hornets nest and being chased home by the buggers. This is but one of many exercises probably directed at the hit parade stations that play Houseplants every hour, expecting Squid to deliver just one shade of post punk. ‘We challenge you to a further duel mr radio!’ I imagine the Squid boys cursing with a maniacal laugh. Nankivell puts on his best relieved face and claims that “the biggest challenge in recording the album was making it sound cohesive. We added all these ideas (like that on Boy Racers) to fully written tracks last minute. It all came from riffing off each other like jazz musicians”.  Not too much of a surprise when you practically have to live with Dan Carey for a month. To those at the back, that’s the perfectionist Speedy Wunderground spearhead.

Even previously in their longest stint of 4 days, havoc has still managed to be caused due to Carey’s exotic lifestyle. On one occasion an unnamed workman was brought in after Carey thought his mixing desk had gone kaput. Getting his hands dirty, the workman drew innumerable amounts of ‘smoke combusted gunk’ from the crevices of the desk. It’s no secret that Carey boils his bands sadistically with smoke machines and lazers – even during a British heatwave – but what is a secret is this one time when “Lex – the engineer – was the first to arrive, and his mouth opened in sheer shock”. Ollie Judge, the singing drummer tells me about this second hand. A waggish grin lights up his face while he assures me the studio is usually in ‘good working condition’ despite the natural paranoia that stalks him. This occasion followed one of many lavish parties Carey hosts in his leisure hours, where artists come and go like old friends. Analogue recordings house Carey’s basement. Any band he recorded probably collaborated with the other and will almost certainly be found on a rarities compilation in 30 years. Judge casually remarks “I’ve been to quite a few… quite a few cracking parties there. We had a jam with Fontaines DC at one which was quite fun”. 

He moves on to tell me that everyone comes to know each other through ‘friends of friends’. In doing this the band were able to expand their repertoire of musicians. This answers for the wide variety of them to make guest appearances. Lewis Evans from Black Country, New Road (saxophone), Martha Skye Murphy (who provides the hellish scream on Narrator) and Emma-Jean Thackeray (Jazz multi instrumentalist) for example pop in here and there, giving the album a strange orchestral quality, pushing the boundaries of what a rock band ‘can do’. It comes to no surprise that field recordings of bees, guitar amps and church bells appear alone on the disconnected opening track Resolution Square. Something strangely fitting to the dystopian quality the album provides. In fact the band spent so long experimenting that they have numerous amounts of additional material they were gutted to loose. One part of our conversation goes as follows:

Nankivell: “There was a contested trombone part on ‘Peel St’ that we had to cut. There was a bit of a cracking trombone solo and it got V-Toned by another member of the band.

Judge: *laughing* “Who was V toning it I can’t remember?

Nankivell: “Anton” *with a smirk*

Judge: *bursts into laughter and an aux lead falls out of his headphone socket* “Oh god!

Nankivell (to me): “I can send you the trombone version if you like

For a group that Carey sliced into upon hearing their early demos, it isn’t second nature that the harsh treatment continues into recording the album. Judge laughs and recalls that the track Paddling was “originally pitched up a semitone, and then right at the last minute Dan was like, ‘does anyone…does anyone actually like this bit?’, and we were all like ’..no..we HATE IT.’ He laughs and says ‘good. Me neither’.” The sped up complete version is a lyrical cry against modern society, penned in a Wind In The Willows esque fable.

I can’t help but ask Judge about his lyric writing process from here, getting the impression that he loves reading. He tells me that yes, he wrote many recent songs about the novels on his shelves – unless it’s the odd film that sent him to sleep (A Long Days Journey Into The Night) for the raucous Narrator. Although coming across as ever prophetic, he reassures me that actually the books content mostly helps him to ‘make observations on the ever changing landscape of Britain’. Something he describes as the message of the upcoming album.

GSK for instance is a post brexit take on J.G. Ballard’s 1974 novel ‘Concrete Island’, ironically now set outside the GlaxoSmithKline building. Judge’s scream of ‘mosquito nets – they cover the buildings’ may as well be about the face masks we cover our mouths with. The track has a Captain Beefheart esque (albeit more polished) snarl to it. Judge is right here (presses a heavy hand tight to the face) in the mix, while swarming strings, brass and cartoony synths pin down the ears and paralyse the body. Sinister double narratives follow later, with a fantastic use of dissonance on the strings to soundtrack it. Judge tells me that this happens a lot when the band present interconnecting material. More often than not they end up being glued together. It is to be noted that this happens more than once on Bright Green Field. “We never really talk about what we’re writing when we write, so we write independently and then think about how the two interact with each other after it is written. That’s quite a fun way of doing it I think because the two lyrical parts always end up having a shared theme even though we haven’t spoken about it.” He pauses to think, and concludes with ‘Which is kind of a testament to how much time we spend together”. 

Upon moving to Chippenham, the group continued experimenting. They ‘tinkered’ with altering and writing songs entirely in a barn, away from technology and life. Judge tells me that he wrote the entirety of the paranoid Peel St in this space. A song that will have you questioning ‘Is he okay? Someone get him some water’. He points his finger, ‘WHERE WERE YOU WHEN THE ICE CAME TO TOWN?’. I ask Judge if this is a warning about climate change, in which he answers “It is I guess. By extension, it’s kind of about climate change. It’s written about a book called Ice by Anna Kavan, and in that book there’s a giant ice shelf that kind of engulfs the earth, but you don’t really know if it’s real or not. But it’s also about addiction and also about loads of other stuff, so somewhere down the line it is maybe.”

Shards of noise, the equivalent of glass are thrown in musical passages here, and more so on 2010 – a personal favourite – a perfect contrast to it’s lyrics. I am surprised to learn the band have never heard of Glenn Branca upon hearing these. I excitedly introduce them to ‘The Ascension’. A record that has tones somewhat similar to these tracks. Any noise rock and no wave fans will not be disappointed. Judge perks up, “Glenn who? Let me write that down.”  Somehow however, at the same time these tracks move in passages of calm, making it a step forward from no wave. The synths cry, peculiar instruments return and the double narratives expectedly come back.

Although the majority of the songs were written before the world fell apart, the disconnect in lockdown lifestyle is fully evident on the album. Distorted and out of place voices pop in and out on numerous ocassions before being cut out, as if they are being recorded from haunted answering machines. Nankivell tells me that between him and Arthur, the two called a group of friends, asking questions. More directly, three specific ones. “What’s come through your door?’ ‘What’s around the corner?’ And I actually can’t remember the last one.” Here Judge assists ‘Describe an object near you’. The colour comes back to Laurie’s face and he explains. “Arthur had actually created a piece of music that he’d recorded live for a live stream on YouTube that a friend of ours was hosting. And for part of that he’d done this same process of getting various voices together and overlaying them. And it had created this really nice texture where one voice would ask a question and be answered by another voice and you’d get this completely surreal babble, but sometimes you’d make up the narratives in your head, I guess, in the same way, like a result of melody. Steve Reich did this and would give you this beautiful tone, even though it’s the result of like ten guitars playing slightly similar tones. It’s like 10 voices speaking together can give you like a completely different narrative.

Maybe the album would sound different in a parallel non coronavirus universe. Sometimes it really does come to these after effects. We discuss the brain forcibly rewiring itself over this troublesome year. The conversation turns to dreams. Laurie rivals my own dream the night before our interview, one of a funeral hearse turning up at my front door instead of an uber. He smirks and animatedly remarks, “I had a dream last night that I’d moved to London and I’d moved to a guardianship. But the guardianship was like this really large piece of land and there was no roof over my head. It was like a Sims house without a roof. And I was kind of just fine with it. I was kind of just like, Oh, this is GREAT, London. I don’t need a roof. Like I’m living in the capital. Um, and then I met my friend Robbie and we went skating!  That’s about it.”

Breakfast In Bristol

They came to a gig in Bristol for The Simple Things festival. I was so scared for the crowd to be honest. We played on the second floor of a big concert hall and there were people crowd surfing, but there were walls that were kind of like waist height and people were crowd surfing towards this like drop.

As we talk there is a muffled female voice and Judge subsequently bursts into laughter. “My Girlfriend’s just saying how stressful that was when that happened. Watching people almost crowd surf to their death was quite worrying… no one was injured though… that was good. Then we got signed by Warp!’ *more laughter from the two*  “Quite luckily, it was one of the best shows we’d ever played. And yeah, we just had breakfast with them the next day and had a nice chat. That’s pretty much how we got signed.” 

What a picture, imagining the Warp executives inviting a rock group to breakfast. A prestigious electronic label turning Squid’s dystopia into utopia.

Graphics Credit: Lucy Hilditch