Squid: Dark Clouds Over Bright Fields

As unsettling as its warnings and predictions are, dystopian fiction can be thoroughly entertaining to consume. Ideas that seem too farfetched to ever come to fruition, and too detrimental for anyone to even consider acting upon, safe in the minds of its audience. The grim reality is that dystopia is no longer simply an imagined reality reserved for fiction, and that all the grave and outlandish predictions it used to make are becoming a reality.

Heavily influenced by the decay and unravelling of the world around us, Squid’s debut album, Bright Green Field, is a triumph in building familiar worlds and allowing them to topple catastrophically. In a lyrical sense, the band have managed to take the absurdist nature of their previous output and twist it into something more brooding and sinister. From the anti-capitalist narratives of ‘G.S.K’ to the post-apocalyptic landscape of ‘Peel St.’, the band have honed their craft in storytelling through this lens and have created some of their boldest material to date.

Musically the record glides through a variety of influences, each carefully combined with one another to create their own dizzying takes on post-punk, jazz and krautrock styles. There are many elements left over from their earlier work, but on each subsequent release there appears to be another dimension added that allows the songs to unfurl spectacularly. The sprawl of singles such as ‘Narrator’ and ‘Pamphlets’ display this wonderfully; mutating multiple times throughout their lengthy runtimes, and the band’s utilisation of horns, synths and choirs demonstrate how Squid don’t simply use the studio as a playground, but as a place to refine their sonic experimentation. Their deal with esteemed electronic label Warp seems to have been instrumental to this broadening and has permitted them to explore a greater sense of freedom in their sound, and could still see the band evolve in continuously fascinating fashion.

It’s clear that since emerging from Brighton only five years ago, the band have only been working on an upward trajectory to where they are now, and with all of the expectation of a thrilling debut, they have delivered in all respects. Upon the opening night of their recent ‘Fieldworks Tour’, an opportunity for the band to further delve into live experimentation and improvisation, the band sat down to talk to Wax Music’s Danny Brown about all of the approaches and themes explored on Bright Green Field, and what lies ahead for Squid’s development.

Today marks the first day of your Fieldworks Tour. Explain to me the premise behind this tour and elaborate on what makes it different from the others you’ve completed in the past.

Laurie Nankivell: We’ve always used playing live and improvising as a way to work on new material, so this tour is really geared towards that part of our approach. We also knew these shows would be socially distanced and with a seated audience, and that meant naturally it was going to be quite a different experience to how our performances usually are. I think the fact that we’re getting a chance to play in places we wouldn’t usually play is something we’re all looking forward to as well. 

Louis Borlase: We’ve never been in a position before where we could decide where we wanted to go, so we wanted to take our music and play it to people in communities where music doesn’t tend to come. So I suppose that’s how it’s different from our other shows, as we’re doing this tour under our own steam.

How will the process of these gigs start off then? Is there any framework you begin with, or will you follow the lead of whoever in the band starts first?

LB: It’s the same approach we have when we’re usually on tour. It’s like you’ll write new music with the time you have and then play it in front of people in different forms or in different ways just to see how people react. Maybe this [tour] is like a condensed version of that approach as everything is super new.

Being able to play to an audience and refine your songs live was something that you were naturally deprived of last year whilst writing your new album. When it came to composing the new record, explain to me how your creative process altered and how you think the approach influenced the album’s final form? 

LB: Our approach definitely did alter, but in the same way that being in lockdown alters day-to-day life in general. As we were all apart from each other, we had to use different tools to communicate what we needed to, so obviously we used the internet a lot more to get our ideas together and work out what we wanted. But really I think what shaped it was what distanced us. When we were suddenly back together again and realising how weird it felt, it made everything slightly unhinged because we were all feeling a little bit pent up for not seeing each other for so long. We wrote ‘Peel St.’ just after we’d been away and hadn’t seen each other for about three months, so there was this inner tension that had been built up that suddenly got released during that session. 

Focusing on the album’s themes for the moment, although you claim it to be fictitious, the dystopian narrative on Bright Green Field feels eerily relatable when looking around at the world today. What drew you to these ideas in the first place, and how did they end up becoming the central focal point of the album? 

LN: It’s hard for us to say. I think asking where an idea comes from initially is quite a tricky question to answer. We don’t consciously chat about those things, but naturally we have conversations that involve how we’re feeling and what we think the world is up to and I think that naturally seeped into the songwriting. 

The opening scene of ‘G.S.K.’ describes a huge pharmaceutical building inside the album’s imagined dystopian city. Is it just coincidence that a pharmaceutical building is used as a central part of the song’s subject matter, or is there some sort of real world commentary happening here? 

LB: I think lyrically there’s nothing about lockdown that’s really influenced a song or the words on the album in any way. But I think lockdown influenced more of what we were or weren’t able to do physically. Lyrically there’s more socio-political themes being talked about in the songs that were there before the pandemic hit and the lockdown was announced. It just meant that there was more time to reflect. It’s not a lockdown album, it’s just a complex set of circumstances that made it the way it was. [laughs]

I know during the writing process there was an attempt by everyone to collect your ideas into one place. I think you called it ‘Squid’s Book of Big Ideas’? 

Arthur Leadbetter: Ah yeah, so we needed somewhere to put all of our ideas into one place, and that document was something to do that brought us closer together whilst we were all separated.

Anton Pearson: It was better at representing a conversation than a Facebook message. 

AL: That’s right. I was fed up with seeing Facebook messages with ideas and scrolling and losing them as the conversation went on. We needed a place to put all these ideas together, like photos, videos, drawings or whatever, where it was just a scrapbook. I don’t think we had any intention when we were starting it, but a picture began to emerge when we were writing and the album landscape took on this one big idea. The theme of loneliness kept on popping up too, but there were a load of other ideas that we won’t mention [laughs]

LN: Elton John lyrics. [laughs] 

LB: I think in reference to the city idea that’s been attached to the album, it’s important to point out that the whole decision to think about things in the context of an “imagined city”; it’s all the stuff you do with a little bit of hindsight. I don’t think we were thinking “now we’ve got this city, let’s talk about what’s happening inside of it.” But when the album was finished, it was nice to step back and make sense of this thing that we created. We realised that in the past our music focused very much on characters and people, but this album focuses on places. 

AL: Also, if we hadn’t made that book, or hadn’t made that list, the album would still have been just as good as it is now. It’s like it helped us understand what we made, but no-one else has to use those ideas to interpret what we’ve done, they can form their own meanings. 

One moment that stands out to me on the album is Martha Skye Murphy’s vocal contributions to the song ‘Narrator’. Her screams during the latter end of the song make for a very intense listen, so describe to me what the process was like producing her and guiding the performance. 

AP: We didn’t really have to give her that much direction ourselves. I think Martha is just an incredible artist. She understands what it means to embody her art in herself, so she’s very good at conjuring some sort of visceral manifestation of what she’s trying to express, even if that’s slightly a vicarious thing, like she’s imagining the character that she is and lives out the whole idea. It was amazing to be in the room watching that performance, and it was also amazing to hear that vocal take without any music.

Were those screams something that happened naturally, or did something prompt her during the session? 

LB: Well we had already recorded the track about four weeks before Martha came in and did her vocals, so we had a bit of emotional distance between us and the song. We had the feeling that, now that we’ve done with the song, Martha can come in and do what she wants. During the sessions we became almost like a background and a platform for her to come in and deliver a vocal take that exalted the song in some dramatic way. 

There’s a vocal choir that appears throughout various points of the record, with this choir apparently being the result of a social experiment you conducted for the album. Just give me some background about what this experiment was, and explain to me how the idea fits in within the narrative of the record? 

AL: We wanted to bring together the voices of our friends who were spread out across the country that we were all separated from. We wanted to put all their voices together to create a soundscape of them talking about specific things that we picked which were related to the album. It created this cacophony of voices that mirrors the feeling you get when you’re on social media and you’re seeing all of your friends chatting all around you; it’s kinda comforting when you listen to two or three but stressful when you listen to ten. 

The process of doing it for me was really cathartic, because I had to listen to them all, so it was really nice hearing all my mates say really nice things. And it was beautiful listening to them because when you put two [clips] together they almost seem to sing with and talk to each other. 

What were some of the things you were asking?

AL: One of them was “what’s come through your door recently”, which is a reference to the song ‘Pamphlets’. We did another experiment recently where we asked people what their summer plans were, and who they were proud of. It was really nice hearing the responses to those questions.

Releasing a debut album is always a significant moment for a band, because it’s an event that encapsulates everything they’ve worked for up until that point. Now that ‘Bright Green Field’ is out in the world, are you all satisfied with what you have created?

All: YES! 

LB: Let’s make another one.

AP: We are really happy with it and never thought we’d get this far. If we were told we had to stop tomorrow we’d all be really gutted, but we’d be so satisfied as we’ve had such fun making it. 

Introduction: Reuben Cross // Interview: Danny Brown // Photos: Holly Whittaker

Squid’s debut album ‘Bright Green Field’ is out now via Warp Records. You can stream and purchase this and the rest of their discography via Bandcamp.

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