The avant-punk group have fast become one of Britain’s most exciting new bands - we meet them in their South London studio to talk through their unstoppable rise. Pictures by Holly Whitaker
Open the tabloids and it’s all avocado toast and selfie sticks, but there’s far more to millennial life than the papers would have you believe. Just ask Squid – the Brighton band whose breakout single ‘Houseplants’ has made them the unassuming spokespeople of young frustration.
A frantic, punky ode to the indecision and anger that drives the lives of British youth, ‘Houseplants’ has deservedly racked up radio play and near-universal praise. Atop an incessant, stomping beat, the five-piece’s drummer-vocalist Ollie Judge barks his way through oh-so-relatable topics with a rolling-eyed delivery: “We speak about our days, yeah, we speak about a raise / Everybody’s bored, we’re just too afraid to say,” he snarks, before turning his attention to the rise in houseplant ownership amongst the younger generations – often pinned as a replacement for children, pets, or other such responsibilities: “Houseplants, houseplants / We squeeze it at night, oh, we squeeze it so tight.”
“It’s been really surprising, and we’ve felt so warm towards the people who’ve played it, or shown it to people, or heard it once and then come to shows,” says Ollie. “I was living in London without and money,” he says of its creation, “Getting paid pretty well, but then having to put over half my earnings into just having a house, and having to live on like £200 a month. I was very pissed off with the state of things,” he shrugs.
“It could be perceived to be quite a chaotic, shouty, fun song,” says percussionist and keyboardist Arthur Leadbetter, “but the subject matter is far from fun. And also, the music is hysterical. It’s what we’re all feeling.” Guitarist Louis Borlase agrees: “We were all working full-time, and we’d only have two, maybe three hours to get in a rehearsal space and write something. That urgency probably shaped the way it feels.”
Unusually for a song with quite so much radio love, ‘Houseplants’ is also undeniably weird. Completed by Laurie Nankivell on bass and brass, and second guitarist Anton Pearson, Squid’s breakout hit is a sprawling, hulking mass of gloopy sounds, dissonant guitar-work and Ollie’s throat-shredding yell, all capped off with a Pandora’s Box of odd percussion and electronic addition – as such, it’s the perfect introduction to the oddball band. Bonding over left-field bands like Neu! and This Heat, Squid’s love of the avant-garde was cemented from day dot. It’s their lyrical relatability which sets them apart from those groups, though. “I’ve definitely always liked bands which might be quite out-there instrumentally, but keep it all in one spot lyrically,” says Laurie. “I think keeping it accessible, but still weird, is definitely the goal,” says Ollie.
With those inspirational oddities in mind, it’s perhaps unsurprising that, upon inviting NME to the studio of their go-to producer Dan Carey (Black Midi, Kate Tempest) to witness the recording of a new session, the band opted not to cover the usual Live Lounge fodder. Instead, they took on experimental composer Steve Reich’s ‘Clapping Music’ – a poly-rhythmic piece designed, as the title suggests, to be performed anywhere, simply by whacking your hands together. Squid being Squid, though, have adapted it for their full-band set-up, horns and all. Oh, and they added lyrics, which are taken from an interview Reich did on the piece, years ago.
“I’ve always been aware of the piece, and always wanted to perform it with somebody – and then I saw the app,” grins Arthur, referencing an app designed specifically to help budding clappers nail ‘Clapping Music’’s odd rhythm. (Think Dance Dance Revolution, for massive nerds). “It changed my… life, really,” ha adds, to a tableful of laughter. That app helped them through – or possibly contributed to – the madness of the band’s SXSW schedule in March, which saw them performing six shows in just five days, all across Austin, Texas. In between those shows, they’d collectively sit on the porch of their Air BnB, clapping away. “I think it contributed to the madness, definitely,” laughs Ollie.
Madness is where Squid thrive, in fairness. Their two singles to date, ‘Houseplants’ and last year’s ‘The Dial’, were recorded and released by Speedy Wunderground – the label-meets-studio-space of Dan Carey. Not content with the typical route of recording a new guitar band, Dan goes full bonkers with the recording process, insisting the bands play everything live, in a single day, in complete darkness, and filling the room with smoke and lasers. Your typical bedroom studio, this is not.
The combination of Carey and Squid seems like a match made in heaven. It all kicked off from a doting email from Ollie to the South London wunderkind producer (“I think I said, ‘Our recordings are shit, can you make them better?’” says Ollie, “We didn’t even email anyone else”), and has now culminated in Squid’s new EP (due later this summer) to be the first non-single release on Speedy Wunderground.
Recording the EP over four days, rather than one, allowed for the bells, whistles and odd instrumentation that make Squid shine to really come into their own – particularly on a day in the studio they dubbed ‘Arthur Day’. “There were about 16 layers of cello,” Arthur laughs. “I actually really wanted a cigarette all day, but every time I’d finish tracking something, there’s another part that relied on me.”
“Someone called me that day,” remembers Anton, “and was like, ‘Oh, what’ve you done today’ I realised… nothing,” he laughs, recalling turning around to see Arthur wielding a rainstick.
“I always call percussion the ‘fish sauce’ of music,” says Arthur. “If you take the percussion out of a song, it’s never gonna sound the same. But the untrained palette won’t know what’s missing. I love Brazilian percussion instruments – my favourite percussion instruments are the ones that aren’t just percussion, but are also a rhythm,” he adds, citing the cuica, the berimbau and the güiro as particular favourites in his box of oddities.
“It’s quite experimental,” says Dan Carey of the record. “It’s all contained within accessible frameworks, but there’s a lot going on. Having a bit more time enabled us to go a bit deeper. And the fact we’re doing it for our label means we can do literally whatever we want.”
There’s some “real tender moments” on the record too, they tease. “Are the Yorkshire post-punks gonna like it?!” quips Ollie, to another table-wide laugh.
It’s a record that, with the band’s reputation for bolshy bangers like ‘Houseplants’ and ‘The Dial’ now firmly established, is sure to turn some heads. Squid are confident in their ability to push boundaries though.
“We formed over that love of ambient music, and jazz music, and stuff like that,” says Laurie, “and I think this EP’s the perfect blend – the punky, but the more thoughtful experimental music, too. I think it’s a good way of being – not influenced by any one scene too much; just doing the weird shit.”
Squid’s new EP will be released via Speedy Wunderground this summer