When you think of ‘pop music’, cacophonous cellos and shouty drummers might not usually spring to mind. But this is 2021, and the rules have been lobbed out of the window. Guitar music is back in the UK album charts (Architects and Maxïmo Park recently locked horns) and Grammy-nominated hits are being made in bedrooms (looking at you, Billie Eillish). Meanwhile, record labels of all sizes are lining up promising post-pandemic pop stars who redefine genre, scoring huge fanbases without even playing any in-person shows. When it comes to exciting new music, the artists who resist limitations are the ones leading the charge.
For the experimental Squid, formed in Brighton in 2017, the journey to becoming one of Britain’s most-lauded new bands began almost by accident. Five young musicians new to the city – Anton Pearson, Arthur Leadbetter, Ollie Judge, Louis Borlase and Laurie Nankivell – they gravitated together as casually-acquainted students when a local venue owner suggested that they use performance as a means to practice; an offer too good to refuse.
“I knew right away they were going to like each other and want to make music together,” says guitarist Louis, pointing between singer-drummer Ollie and multi-instrumentalist Arthur with brotherly affection, taking in a Zoom brew after their NME shoot in a park in Bristol (which, true to the band’s eccentric form, was photobombed by a crow). “It was all just hanging and jamming – a pretty chilled way to make new friends and start a band.”
Coming up in the same South London’s live circuit that has incubated the likes of Black Midi, Porridge Radio and Black Country, New Road, the frantic punk-groove of Squid’s 2019 single ‘Houseplants’ piqued the interest of the internet, perfectly capturing the millennial desire to nurture something – anything – despite rising rents and political division: “Houseplants in my future / Houseplants to disguise / There’s a rotten cesspit / Fear in your eyes.”
Praise was near-universal for that year’s debut EP ‘Town Centre’ (four stars from NME), as for their early live outings – the slippery, shape-shifting nature of their performance well-suiting their moniker, with different aspects of the band’s multi-instrumentalism rising to the surface from gig to gig.
“When the gigs were on, it was incredible,” says Arthur, reflecting on the encouraging nature of their early hype. “We had gigs coming out of our ears, so many places to play and people to see. It was just so exciting. And then when you had to knuckle down and focus on the album, it became a little bit like, ‘OK, we’ve got to really turn that off’. That switch is easy to turn on, but I think I can safely say it’s not so easily turned off…”
With group performance being such an instrumental part of their appeal, the pandemic provided a clear – if initially nerve-wracking – opportunity to shake things up. Signed to Warp Records (home to the innovative likes of Aphex Twin, Flying Lotus and Yves Tumor) and with most but not all of their members now based in Bristol, early ideas for upcoming debut album ‘Bright Green Field’ were exchanged virtually. Parts were passed between the group via email and began to sprout new limbs of personality.
“We were calling it ‘Consequences’ at first, like that game you play as a kid where you have to draw something and then pass it onto the next person to see what they add,” says Louis. “When you’re playing in a room together, you take for granted everyone’s slightly different approaches, but when you’re doing it through .wav files, you can really zoom in on the individual characters. With ‘Boy Racer’ especially, there’s this big synth reprise where Arthur’s dad plays the rackett, a medieval instrument that we ascribed some data to so that it could interact with the synthesiser. A choice like that just screams Arthur Leadbetter to me.”
Lots of bands talk about all members having equal say, but Squid’s musical meritocracy seems their greatest strength. Ask if any ideas were deemed too experimental to make the cut, and you get a unanimous ‘No!’, all three members on the call looking quite proud of the fact. Medieval racketts are just the tip of their iceberg – in 2019, the band introduced themselves to NME as sounding like “The Coronation Street theme tune played on flutes by angry children”, and studio anecdotes range from their wrangling with de-tuned instruments to setting out a sacrificial-style ring of amplifiers, all playing different sounds, a microphone swinging from the ceiling to capture the chaos.
According to singer-drummer Ollie, the pandemic was a great excuse to push boundaries even further than they might have done otherwise: “When you know there’s not going to be a gig for a while where you have to play it live, you do sort of go, ‘Let’s just add that rackett, or the giant spring or a choir of gibberish voices – why not?’”
Supported as always by the encouragement of maverick Speedy Wunderground producer Dan Carey (who’s helped out with Black Midi, Fontaines D.C., Kae Tempest and many more buzzy UK acts), session recordings for the album became much more about a process of “layering details” than placing limitations. Working carefully on each part across five heatwave-ridden weeks, Carey’s small London studio became a sweatbox, almost a literal pressure cooker in which to get the job done.
It sounds like an intense way to make a record, but Squid also talk about it as a summer of welcome reconnection; they played afternoon basketball and dined al fresco under COVID regulations. “In a way, we’ve been so much luckier than most – I can’t imagine how much of a challenge the last year would have been for solo artists just starting out without the support of a label,” Louis says.
“It’s insane, the amount of good independent music that’s getting into the charts at the moment” – Ollie Judge
The image of a studio-quarantined band, huddling for safety as the outer world crumbles, forms a convenient metaphor for the sense of anxiety that shapes Squid’s music. While early material drew on the frustrations of the nine-to-five grind, life with label support has given them space to explore their more fantastical threads, shrouding lyrics in metaphor and surrealist, cut-and-paste phrases. ‘Bright Green Field’ is not a concept record, but the persistent image of dystopia looms large over its pastoral lands, gentrification nibbling away at its edges.
As a result, their field is one that skews to the left. Both ‘GSK’ and lead single ‘Narrator’ recall ‘Holy Fire’-era Foals in the precise guitar sounds of their intros, but swiftly morph into parping horns and scraping strings, a helter-skelter adventure with a sinister edge. ‘Global Groove’, (the bands’ current favourite) sounds like it should be an upbeat bop, but wrangles with the disconcerting state of world news via staccato beeps and stalking drums, ducking and diving around Ollie’s increasingly enraged howls: “Watch your favourite war on TV / Just before you go to sleep / And then your favourite sitcom / Watch the tears roll down your cheek”.
There are also personal fears among this state-of-the-nation stock-take. ‘Documentary Filmmaker’ was written about the experience of visiting a loved one on the same ward where Louis Theroux filmed a documentary about anorexia; the song doesn’t explicitly provide its context in words, but still swells with dissonant sax that perfectly captures the tumultuous feelings one goes through when willing a loved one to get well. It’s a real feat of emotional musicianship, and a display of their vitality as a unit, putting compassion into conversations that can be difficult to start. As the band’s main lyricist, Ollie doesn’t seem especially keen to unpack the more literal meanings of these songs with us, perhaps because he’s still working them out himself.
“If we’re doing anything that feels too familiar or like it’s a pastiche of something, we tend to move on,” he says, explaining that he doesn’t want to “give everything away” in a song. “When we were writing the album I watched a documentary about New Order, where Bernard Sumner said that he often writes lyrics and doesn’t really know what they’re about until other people start weighing in on them. It was a liberating thing to hear, because I think I was driving myself a little bit crazy thinking that everything had to mean a certain thing. It was a nice turning point for me, personally, to hear such a big star say that.”
“I don’t think, lyrically and musically, we’re really capable in some respects of doing a ‘conscious critique’,” Louis chips in. “There are five of us who have different approaches to writing music, and what makes society and reality so surreal is that there are so many different narratives going on, often at odds with one another. Whether it’s musically or politically or just in society, there’s always that sense of bizarreness. And I think we’re all aware of that.”
Surrealism might also be a means of self-preservation, especially in our high-scrutiny age. Like much of the emerging crop of new British talent, Squid have drawn the attention of a supportive online community voice; this month, the ‘SquidSquad’ having been having a great time photo-imposing the band into all kinds of weird and wonderful scenarios using the ‘Narrator’ Google Earth site, while also exchanging new music recommendations and planning meet-ups for when social distancing no longer applies. By all accounts, the fanbase are a thoroughly respectful bunch.
“Most of the memorable experiences with fans are just people who want us to meet the whole family,” smiles Louis. The nicest one was at Latitude – there was a mum with her son and he’d just been given a new book on the Iron Age, which he brought with him to the gig. Afterwards, he was like, ‘Can you sign my special page on forging?’. It was a very Latitude thing to do, but also so wholesome and sweet.”
“He’s since gone on to be a Blacksmith,” deadpans Ollie.
All jokes aside, Squid do seem well-positioned to inspire a whole new generation of musicians to give this ‘rock star’ thing a go. With gigs back on the 2021 agenda, they’re tentatively beginning the process of repairing instruments and re-learning those difficult parts, trying to sound like, Ollie says, “more than a Squid covers band”. Their first stop will likely be the Windmill in Brixton – the heart of South London’s up-and-coming circuit, which the band have been fundraising for – as well as greater attention to the independent venues they’ve missed previously. In short, they’re doing what they can to keep smaller music communities thriving.
“Places like the Windmill, they’re not just venues – they have their own locals and communities that have almost become dialectical for new and exciting music,” says Louis. “There was the Five Bells, which sadly closed down, in south London, which was always such a fun place. You’d go there and there’d be some experimental art-rock band playing but then a group of old men at the bar like, ‘Shut the fuck up, this is horrible!’ When there’s a synergy between the two, you realise you’ve got a kind of happy medium.”
‘Bright Green Field’ might not win over every bloke at the bar, but it’s created a learning curve of new ways of working that the band are already capitalising on. All are keen to explore more musical collaboration with the peers who feature in ‘Bright Green Field’’s horn and string ensemble – a roll-call that includes jazz musician Martha Skye Murphy and Black Country, New Road’s Lewis Evans – as well as working on their excellently titled ‘Ink’, a new record label imprint which will allow all members to pursue individual projects beyond the immediate Squid universe.
“Small venues have their own communities that have become dialectical for new and exciting music” – Louis Borlase
Given that they’re part of a vibrant scene that actively encourages genre exploration, there is seemingly no limit to where these collaborations and external ideas could lead. Sitting as they do in a Venn diagram of a great many stylistic influences – jazz, post-punk, ambient – Squid’s lane of ‘intellectual indie’ seems several steps removed from the instantly accessible verse-and-chorus of the so-called ‘landfill’ era of ’00s indie.
Though Squid, Black Midi and Black Country, New Road might find themselves lumped into the same space, they’re all coming of age in their own ways, proving that you don’t have to abandon your quirks to be successful. It’s a hugely welcome development for guitar music, but we Brits are notoriously sceptical of anything deemed ‘pretentious’; as talented musicians on the cusp of releasing a potentially challenging debut, are Squid concerned about seeming a little bit too smart and putting people off?
“I really hope not!” laughs Louis. “I genuinely don’t think people take us seriously enough to think we come across as too pretentious. I think people are more likely to latch on to elements of novelty with our music, if we’re going by anything that people have said before, but we’re all human. If somebody doesn’t like it and wants to say so, it kind of boils down to, ‘Why are you being mean?’”
If Squid somehow aren’t for you, of course, the ocean they swim in has never been more vibrant with choice. The global pandemic might have stunted live shows, but bands who could have never dreamed of a chart hit 10 years ago are finding themselves battling it out at the top, reflecting our changing tastes and the ability of grassroots audiences to propel innovative, exciting new acts into the mainstream. Who’s to say that Squid couldn’t be one of them?
“It really is just insane at the moment, the amount of good independent music that’s coming out and is getting into the charts,” says Ollie. “Mogwai were Number One – I don’t think there’s ever been an instrumental post-rock album at Number One before. And Black Country getting a Top Five record… it’s just amazing to see.”
He’s right – we’re at the dawn of a new age of independent music, and Squid are making a strong bid to steer the ship. Let’s hope they’ve packed that rackett.
Squid’s ‘Bright Green Field’ is out via Warp Records May 7