Displacing their inspiration from people to place for the first time, Squid conjure up a dark and immersive sonic world on debut full-length Bright Green Field. In anticipation of its release, the band talked recording sessions, WARP Records, and ice lollies with The Mic’s Louis Griffin.
About five years ago, the gears began to shift in British guitar music. The last vestiges of Britpop and the indie revival finally fell away, and stranger, less obvious influences began to drift to the surface. This change was precipitated by the clamour and the fury of Fat White Family, Shame’s no-wave revisionism, and the sledgehammer that is the first IDLES record, but once the door was open, the current was not to be stopped. “New Weird Britain”, the post-punk revival, whatever you want to call it, this deluge of fascinating – and popular – rock is one of the defining musical movements of the last decade, right up there with the dominance of grime and the ascension of hyper pop.
There were several outriders of the movement, surplus to those mentioned above, but as the scene unfolded, the bands got progressively odder, and progressively better, and, well, more progressive. Black Midi, Black Country, New Road, Squid. This crop of bands were less indebted to their influences, and cast a gaze forwards, rather than backwards. Indeed, Squid might be the best example of this, seeming markedly different to their peers from day one.
“Half of the album was almost exclusively written without having played it at all live, which I think was really good for us.”
For a start, they were borne out of a jazz background, instead of the gig circuit. Indeed, their first transition to a ‘band’ set-up was the realisation that they couldn’t rely on venues to have a grand piano. The second difference was their variety; they had the same ostensible line-up as their contemporaries – guitar, bass, drums, synth – but the way it was deployed was markedly different. Their first music under the Squid moniker is actually the ambient of 2017’s Lino EP, and although they’ve spent the ensuing years drifting steadily nearer to recognisable rock, it’s hard to shift the feeling that they come at the format from a completely different angle.
The final difference that comes to mind is the route and speed the band have taken to this point. From the aforementioned ambient, it took them just a year to alight on the wiry guitars of their breakout single The Dial. From there, another year to become the first act to ever release an EP on the prestigious Speedy Wunderground label. Bringing us to 2020, and the band’s debut on the even more highly regarded WARP Records, home to Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada – a label that rarely, if ever, signs bands (the closest they’ve gotten in recent years is the distinctly electronic Jockstrap). They released two debut tracks on WARP, some of their most vital material yet – and then promptly announced that neither would be on their forthcoming debut album.
Of course, COVID-19 meant that the recording of Bright Green Field, said album, was a slightly bumpy journey. So, when I sat down with Ollie Judge (the closest thing the band have to a lead singer, albeit from behind a drum kit) to dissect the album, I wanted to hear in his words how the record shaped up. “It was quite a long process,” Ollie tells me. “We’d been writing over a period of maybe a year, and then in the studio from July through to August.” The lack of live performance as a barometer for quality also had a fundamental impact on the process – to call this a lockdown album might be an overstatement, but the influence of the pandemic on Bright Green Field can be distinctly felt. “Half of the album was almost exclusively written without having played it at all live, which I think was really good for us – instead of taking a year to finesse and write a track, you’re forced to do it in a really short space of time.”
The band set about recording the tracks with longtime collaborator Dan Carey in his South London studio – a very different experience to their previous sessions. “There was a lot less time pressure, I think. We’ve only ever been in the studio with Dan for maybe three days, four days, so having a whole month to record a body of work was really liberating for us” Judge explains. “It gave us time to experiment and play lots of instruments that we hadn’t recorded with before. It was just the sense of time, really, being on a label that let us just go into a studio for a month.” Indeed, to begin with the process was intended to be much shorter. “[The length of the session] was good for both us and Dan, because initially we thought we could do it in about two weeks, but Dan was quite adamant that he thought it would take about a month, and it did take just about a month…”
“There’s just so many different takes you can have on it, I’m finding different ones every time I listen to the album.”
The recording of Bright Green Field broke new ground for the band. They worked with collaborators for the first time, played instruments they hadn’t before – and, perhaps most importantly, it was incredibly, incredibly hot. The recordings took place at the height of summer, and the band credit the temperature with an effect on the tempo of the record. “Laurie and I were getting interviewed by someone who thought that we upped the tempo of quite a lot of the tracks, and it was definitely the heat that did that” Ollie laughs. “We recorded back-to-back three tracks at a time, live, in 35-degree heat! So I think it was the thought of a cold soft drink or an ice lolly on the other end that maybe made us play quicker than we’d rehearsed everything” he chuckles.
Climate aside, the other experimental factors on the album were entirely intentional. The band brought on Lewis Evans (from Black Country, New Road) to play saxophone, as well as Martha Skye Murphy on backing vocals – both alongside an entire choir of manipulated vocal samples of friends and family. “Arthur made a piece called Voices over the first lockdown, he texted loads of people with a bunch of questions, and they sent voice notes back on Whatsapp. I think the questions that he asked were ‘describe something near you’ and ‘what’s come through your front door’” Judge tells me. “He layered them all so it made a weird jumbled mass of voices. And it’s weird, when you listen to it, you can make your own narratives, I guess, with all the different things that people are saying. It was a really nice thing to do, to have friends involved in some way on the album.”
The LP itself is a far more widescreen evolution of their work up to this point – far more concerned with texture and feel, a tangible sense of place. “We started writing it in the transition of having a full time job and doing Squid on the side, to the full-time job not being there anymore and doing Squid full-time” Judge says. “So it was a lot of being on tour for ages, and experiencing different cultures and different cities, seeing how some cities have changed and how some cities have stayed the same. That kind of travelling definitely influenced the mood and lyrics of the album. Also, just how much the UK has changed, purely from how it looks, over the past few years, and also changed in politics to a kind of scary, right-wing kind of thing. So yeah, definitely more concerned with place rather than people, which is what, lyrically it was kind of more about with Town Centre [the band’s previous EP], microscoping characters and very small details, so it kind of broadened the scope I guess, into the city that these people live in.”
The album’s title evokes images of pastoral Britain, and the steady slide towards a concrete future. Opener (bar an instrumental track) G.S.K. used to be called ‘Concrete Islands’ – but, like so many things about this album, it’s hard to pin down. “There’s just so many different takes you can have on it, I’m finding different ones every time I listen to the album. I think it’s maybe a longing for a bright green field…” Ollie ponders. “Laurie and I were talking about this thing of the uncanny valley, when you see something that may look like a bright green field but you get a little bit closer and something’s a little bit off, or a little bit freaky.”
Taken separately, these influences might paint Bright Green Field as a depressing work – but it’s not.
Lyrically the concept of things not quite being what they seem runs right through the album. Judge cites the work of Mark Fisher and Douglas Copeland as influences, notoriously cynical takes on late capitalism and the “cancellation of the future.” I asked Judge how this had manifested itself on record. “There’s a definite mood to their writings, in that it’s very dark, and downbeat, but it also takes the piss out of itself. It sees the bleakly funny side of our obsession with the future.”
Taken separately, these influences might paint Bright Green Field as a depressing work – but it’s not. Rather, it’s a very transient record, as Judge pointed out, rooted in ideas of progress and motion. It’s flecked with despair, but also hope, and a raft of other emotions that float somewhere in between. Sonically, a similar landscape is present; ideas rear their heads, only to disappear beneath the waves just as quickly, and be replaced by something else. It’s hard to gain purchase on anything, and, certainly on a first listen, incredibly overwhelming. But, in years to come, it might well be seen as a defining cultural document of the particularly odd times we find ourselves in – and, right now, help us understand those times. Squid’s Bright Green Field is well worth a visit.
Written by: Louis Griffin
Edited by: Olivia Stock