On Returning: Squid And The Art Of The Second Album

Inside their magnificent 'O Monolith'...

When people begin to describe the scene that has emerged from a handful of sweaty, tiny venues across London in the past years, circulating around the beating heart of Brixton’s Windmill, the conversation often hinges on a few key acts. Bands such as Black Country, New Road, Black Midi, Goat Girl and of course Squid owe a significant aspect of their identity and reception to the environment in which they blossomed. Beyond this, it is clear how the bands bounced off the surrounding scene’s acts as they fine tuned and explored their respective sounds. For these acts, acknowledgement of their ‘post-punk’ origins are a helpful contextual stepping stone for new listeners attempting to understand their nuanced and varied styles. However, for Squid, a band whose latest, sophomore album, ‘O Monolith’ was released last week, such broad labels can lead to projects as swervingly complex and intelligent as theirs to be overlooked or passed by.  

The reality is that Squid are not like any other band. The abrupt and punchy sound displayed on their early EPs such as ‘Town Centre’ aligned with many people’s understandings of the scene, but this shifted with the release of their debut album ‘Bright Green Field’. Enchanted fans were met with a swerving, angular and beguiling concept album. Although it did not abandon the elements that had made them so successful as a live band, driven by energetic rhythms and witty, observational lyricisms, it took listeners in unexpected and far more complex directions than fans of the singles may have come to expect.  

In this way, their sophomore ‘O Monolith’ feels like a natural next step for the group. Like their debut, it is an intriguing listen that genuinely seems to take the listener on an immense journey. The tracks wander but never without direction, using complex time signatures and melodies to propel the listener through the group’s anxiety riddled reflections on the world. With the album’s release last Friday, many of the glowing reviews termed it’s sound as a sign of a “maturing” band, returning to form in a more nuanced and assured release than their debut. ‘O Monolith’ in many ways feels like this, but the crucial element of its sound is a confidence which radiates off the tracks, a sense that the band are writing and performing first and foremost to satisfy themselves before anyone else. Prior to the album’s release we spoke to guitarists Louis and Anton about how such an alluring project came into being. 

Having built acclaim primarily through their electric, sweaty and often chaotic live shows, it is intriguing to consider how such a group approach the process of recording. The material is often written months prior to stepping into a studio, leaving artists at risk of having moved on from what the tracks when they come to record them. This is not, Louis believes, the case for the tracks of ‘O Monolith’. “Even now, I’ve learned to love [‘O Monolith’] so much more than when we finished recording it,” he explains. “I think it was so new… We’d had such a hectic start to 2022 because we came back from an extensive tour of the states, and then went into doing this recording.” Alongside this “we weren’t actually sure when we finished recording who was gonna mix it, that was all quite up in the air, and then we just were kind of off again being busy in the first bit of summer.” This left him and the rest of the band asking themselves “could we have done more in the studio? Is there more we could have recorded, maybe we could have taken out less?”

A satisfying resolution came with the appointment of John McEntire to mix the album, known for his massively influential work as a member of acts such as Tortoise, as well as his production credits, including but not limited to numerous iconic Stereolab albums. “The puzzle pieces kind of fell into place” Louis describes. “We had quite a meaningful discussion about how we wanted artwork to be a part of the project, and everything kind of landed.”

As their anxieties began to subside, they were replaced with waves of excitement. “Despite having lived with it for quite a while, having sat on the finished music for a while, it kind of took on a whole new meaning” says Louis. The band seem fairly star-struck by the opportunity to work up with John McEntire, with their faces lighting up as they recall his importance to them. “We used to listen to ‘Dots and Loops’ and all those Stereolab records” Louis recalls, “but particularly as well his bands like Tortoise, Sea and Cake, Gastr Del Sol, all kinds of amazing mixing influences for us. We were listening a lot to ‘Millions Now Living…’, that kind of slightly more electronic Tortoise record, when we were working on ‘O Monolith’.”

The mixing process itself was fairly remote, Louis goes on to explain. “We thought it would be interesting to reach out, and he was like, incredibly laissez faire about whether or not he wanted to do it. We never got to meet him. When we messaged him thanking him for it, he was like ‘it’s cool’” they laugh.

McEntire’s mixing enhances the album, which uses minimalism and intricate attention to detail in order order to contrast and elevate the more chaotic, raucous moments. There is, in particular, a clear sense of confidence across the songwriting of the work. Anton credits this as being at least in part accountable to feeling “like the pressure was out of the way” once the daunting task of the debut was finished. “We had already done something we were pleased with and we didn’t feel like we had to say absolutely everything… I think we’ve kind of learned that, though we’re still really really happy with the first album, I think [on ‘Bright Green Field’] we were just trying to say everything we could with it, and put a bit of every single part of us.” This sense of grounded self assurance enabled the band “not to worry too much about exactly why things are working and not to be too self analytical. There’s definitely a lot of that, but I think that we’re doing it without the kind of pressure or anxiety behind it that maybe we had on the first album.”

Despite being rife with anxious preoccupations, the album feels imbued with nature based imagery and elements. Perhaps it is the way it grows and reaches outward in sound, like branches expanding and reaching into the sky. Perhaps, the organic feel of the tracks can be in part attributed to the location of recording, which may have seeped into the fabric of the album. Recorded at Brian Eno’s Real World Studios, a nature oriented sanctum in Wiltshire, the environment feels crucial in understanding ‘O Monolith’s Sound. Even more fittingly, vinyl copies of the album are accompanied by a short story, written by Paul Ewan, which uses the life of an overwhelmed Geography teacher to reflect upon the staggering nature of Global Warming. 

The creatives surrounding the band as they wrote helped to maintain the momentum garnered by the band on the tail end of their US tour. At the studio Louis describes having “such a nice force of energy to hang out with over the course of two weeks.” These outside influences helped the band to expand their sound. “There was a really nice group of people, and that was something we wanted to also explore” Louis explains, “the kind of energy of making a record that’s outside the remit of what we do just the five of us. Because the five of us were kind of the core for ‘Bright Green Field’. It was again for ‘O Monolith’, but we knew that we wanted to write vocal parts that would require bringing arrangements kind of deeper into the fabric of the record.”

Perhaps as a result of this, the band leant towards tracking while recording the material for the album, using live takes heavily in the process. “There’s a small element of sacrifice with that” says Louis “because if you’ve got a live take, and the drums are sounding great, there’s a chance that what you’re doing too will have the percussion there as well, because you can’t take them away because they were there in the moment.” This, however, ended up benefitting the band, “you can’t recreate the effect of just adding percussion when it’s so intrinsic to your performance in the first place” he reflects “they’re already there.”

The additional of non-band members also helped by freeing up drummer and vocalist Ollie Judge, enabling him to be more experimental with his lyrical delivery. This is certainly apparent across the album, in which Judge’s vocals are more varied and expansive than any of Squid’s previous works, becoming an instrument in themself. “He just allowed himself to finish doing the tapes with us,” Anton recalls, “and then work on the lyrics after… So that meant that ‘O Monolith’ has maybe got a bigger range of vocal styles, dynamics, and pitches on this album than maybe he’s had before, because he had that freedom to remove himself from the shackles of the drumsticks.”

The lyrics are important, but crucially not dominating force at play in ‘O Monolith’. The music cascades in a manner in which each element plays a significant and central role. “I think our music is about a lot more than what the lyrics are about,” Anton discusses. “I think, for us, the songs are already about stuff, even if we don’t know exactly what it is, or can’t put it into words, even before there’s any lyrics on them.”

In fact, it is not just the lyrics that have been shifted from the forefront on ‘O Monolith’ – the whole album is more aware and careful of the way in which noise and momentum are used. “From a musical point of view, we were making a conscious effort to have more space, kind of musically,” he elaborates “We were trying to use less layers, when we were recording, like fewer overdubs and less massively thick textures than maybe we did on ‘Bright Green Field’. One of the things I’m proud of on this record is that we’ve made something that is musically more complex, but with fewer layers, which I quite like.”

Of course, now the album is with the world and the reviews are rolling in, it is out of the band’s control. The question arises then, of how to translate such a complex and varied album to audiences of live fans, many of whom have only heard the tracks in a recorded context. “I don’t think we would be good musicians if we were just infatuated with something we’ve already finished,” explains Anton. “We’re ready to change things or breath new life into things… from a touring perspective”.

“I think it would be very difficult for us to get into the mindset now considering we’re like a year after having recorded the music, to say, okay, we’re going to create the kind of energy of every single song in the studio version and take it to festivals and around the place. There’s music that feels very, very much like the kind of particular energy, setup and mindset we were in while recording,” Louis reflects. “The version of ‘Green Light’ or ‘After The Flash’ can’t necessarily be emulated [live] for no loss of sound.”

This doesn’t stump the band, however. “It’s kind of more interesting for us to see the limitations that we have, such as… The slightly more compound and complex time signatures that Ollie was playing on tracks such as The Blades, where it’s just had to drum and sing in like 7/8. It’s also just easier and more exciting for us to create arrangements that react to that and push against it to create something that kind of supersedes it as well. So I think the real excitement for us is to kind of stare limitations right in the face and create something that works for both listeners and us, and to mash together all these ideas into really fun, performable versions of the songs.”

And so, with an astoundingly packed live schedule lying ahead of them, Squid continue to push forward and expand upon their material.­ They have proven they can produce a brilliant debut, and have continued to blossom on ‘O Monolith’, but that will not distract them from their identity at heart, a complex, ever changing, energetic live band. It uncertain what the next chapter will bring for Squid, but they show no signs of slowing down. 

‘O Monolith’ is out now.

Words: Eve Boothroyd
Photo Credit: Alex Kurunis

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