Back with a new album, SQUID’s ‘O Monolith’ is a natural evolution in sound and style.
Words: Finlay Holden.
Photos: Alex Kurunis.
Delivering a debut album in the middle of a pandemic probably isn’t how they expected things to go, but Squid managed to establish themselves as raw and gritty experimentalists and have kept their peculiar train at high speed – not fazed for a second they’re now about to pull in at the second stop, ‘O Monolith’.
“We finished ‘Bright Green Field’ as lockdown was starting, and the whole of ‘O Monolith’ was written and recorded during lockdown as well,” bassist and brass-ist Laurie Nankivell begins, spinning a tale of not one but now two albums impacted by feelings of isolation. However, never ones to let circumstances get them down, Squid were able to turn their worst enemy into a disgruntled friend.
Remember when gigs were sort of allowed, but not really? That brief period gave the five-piece the opportunity to bring the creative process to the stage. “In May 2021, we did a seated tour called Fieldworks, which predominantly consisted of new music,” the multi-instrumentalist shares. “That was a way in which we could road-test some new and improvised material on tour, and a lot of that ended up being the stuff that took shape as this record.”
Attentive fans witnessed experimentation in its purest form as material was gradually honed in front of their very eyes, and their own responses had a direct impact on the direction of Squid’s choices. Although that exposure must create some pressure, this freeform unit are no newbies to spontaneous judgement.
“We always like to have a feeling of improvisation within our sets anyway,” Laurie confirms. “I think that is a key part of our live performance. Allowing yourself to relax while you’re at that point, while mad sounds are spinning around you that people aren’t always vibing with, is quite a nice feeling to have, but it’s also quite a bold one. A lot of this material came from semi-formed ideas that we jammed out, and that live feedback certainly helped to shape the tracks.”
Although their sonic musings are often sprawling, the development in the band’s style is clear to see – reaching out towards glimpses of jazz and electronica, the post-punk box is starting to feel a little cramped. Although there is a definite line connecting their two albums, albeit loosely, there is also a thematic transformation and musical evolution.
“We’ve always had the post-punk label, and it doesn’t feel like it best represents all of our musical adventures. It wasn’t necessarily something we all felt massively influenced by or aligned with. As a five-piece with disparate musical tastes at times, trying to put us into one genre can be difficult to do. ‘O Monolith’ feels more rhythmically and melodically complex at times, slightly proggy but also with a slight naivety within the lyrics and elsewhere too.”
“A lot of this material came from semi-formed ideas that we jammed out”Laurie Nankivell
Both the progression and naivety Laurie mentions can be seen realised in lead single, ‘Swing (In a Dream)’, which was the first tease towards the larger project; ongoing Squid elements, new synth additions and a uniquely muddled experience yet to be discovered. As a declaration of intent, the track is not afraid to get down and dirty pretty quick.
“As a progressive statement, it immediately says: this is electronic. This is a weird time signature. This is the first song on the album. It also has lots of different musical elements that seemed to fit together in a way that felt like a nice representation of other corners of the album.”
With the group signed to legendary techno label Warp Records – the supporters of icons (Aphex Twin) and newcomers (Jockstrap) alike – it felt like some sort of electronic revolution was inevitable for Squid, although it does manifest in subtle ways.
“I’ve produced techno for a while, and Ollie [Judge, vocalist]’s done some other electronic work,” Laurie reveals. “Naturally, these things start to seep in. It’s hard to not get excited by that stuff because it feels new and exciting, like there’s still a forefront of new technologies that are interacting with and shaping music. We’re a band that likes experimenting, especially with the interplay between the more organic and electronic elements. How you meld those things together is an interesting space to navigate.”
Those organic elements have already been proven to thrive in a live environment – as you’ll know if you’ve witnessed it, Squid’s stage show is key to their success in more ways than one. “Having a human-to-human interaction through music in an increasingly digital world feels like the most important thing we can do,” Laurie declares. “I love the idea of creating a space within our music where people can feel like they can be themselves. More and more often lately, there have been fewer and fewer spaces for people to fully be themselves. Our music, through the very nature of it being so experimental, allows people to reach that place, and it can only be a positive thing.”
Twisting a formidable niche into a welcoming scene is not a simple challenge, though. Despite their sound being one that seems immediately intimidating, the Bristol-based unit are keen to offer glimmers of humour by embracing their own quirks, and enjoy pulling on the irony that has consumed modern internet culture. “Some of that inherently slips in, and it’s a case of not taking yourself too seriously. At the same time, it is a fine balance between sincerity and taking the piss out of yourself a little bit. Sitting within that world feels like something we all subconsciously do.”
Speaking of the subconscious, this is where ‘O Monolith’ finds its grounding; while ‘Bright Green Field’ spoke outwardly about political tabloid headlines, it seems that Squid eventually withdrew into their own minds; their new full-length leans into the demented and surreal headspace that we’ve all visited at one point or another over the past few years. The aforementioned lead single follows Ollie into the very fabric of a painting, while ‘Undergrowth’ follows it up with the singer becoming a drawer which exists in the afterlife.
Eclectic as always, the various tales across the record – which has been kept to a short but sweet eight tracks – build a world of dreams, nightmares and everything else between as Squid flex their muscles away from touring and knuckle down to become an experienced writing and recording force.
“The folklore that exists in Britain feels like, prior to the last 50 years, it’s been really important to how people told stories,” Laurie observes. “To some extent, creating your own mythology and story within a record feels like an important thing to do. I would say it feels more of an internalised and creative process this time around.”
That process unfolded at Real World Studios, the space of which was a stark contrast to past experiences. As Laurie tells it, “it was literally less claustrophobic; we were in Dan’s basement in central London for the first album, recording during lockdown in the middle of a heatwave. That contributed to the intensity of the record in a really fun way, but Real World is a big, spacious space looking out at ducks playing on a pond that comes up to the main windows; its beautiful English countryside and definitely emphasised the spacious, natural feel of ‘O Monolith’.”
Each method has given these two LPs a distinct fingerprint, with the slightly alleviated pressure and sweat-inducing environment offering the opportunity to explore new areas for the band. “Having space within records is always really important in order to allow quieter moments to breathe. Progressing on from what felt like quite an intense and angry record, it feels more important to show that other side of ourselves.”
Although it is perhaps more loose emotionally, the substance of ‘O Monolith’ is still unsurprisingly dense. It’s not an album that shows its hand very easily but, as Laurie concludes, forcing the listener to pry for a new perspective with each listen is half the appeal. “Things that confuse you the first time and invite you back in for another listen, things that don’t give you the answer on a silver platter, are usually the ones I enjoy most because it makes you go back again and again. It makes you grow with the art rather than just being fed something immediately gratifying – hopefully, we can provide that for people.” ■
Taken from the June 2023 edition of Dork. Squid’s album ‘O Monolith’ is out 9th June.
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