For most of us, late-night moments of inspiration tend to result in short-lived attempts to get healthy or pick up a new hobby. Not so for Squid vocalist Ollie Judge: one night during the making of his band’s second album he found himself lying awake in bed, having woken from a dream that would end up setting the tone for the rest of the record.
In the dream, Judge was immersed inside one of his favourite paintings, the 18th century Rococo classic ‘The Swing’ by Jean-Honoré Fragonard. Standing among the artwork’s bushes and flicking through his phone as it ran out of battery, he eventually realised that the whole scene was becoming flooded. After waking, he scribbled down his thoughts, the fragments of which would form the chorus of the album’s lead single ‘Swing (In A Dream)’: “To live inside the frame, and forget everything / A swing inside a dream, and all they’ll do is scream”.
“At the time I was really struggling to write lyrics for this record,” Judge tells NME. “I think maybe my subconscious just gave me one, took pity on me, and gave me a good dream to write about.”
Judge concedes that, in hindsight, the dream likely represented some form of a cry for help, and while the same reading can be made of the song it inspired, listeners will have to scrutinise the lyrics pretty carefully to identify literal interpretations of what Squid actually have in mind. All across their second LP ‘O Monolith’, the five-piece have pushed their creativity to newer, more daring heights, resulting in by far their most mature and inscrutable body of work to date.
This new album finds Squid unshackled from the festering, febrile mania of their early work, emerging instead as a swaggering, confident and highly evolved predator. Louis Borlase and Anton Pearson’s guitars take time to breathe and, accordingly, the band’s sound expands, allowing ambient space to form between their increasingly experimental post-punk outbursts.
One reason for this sonic shift stems from a very literal expansion. While their 2021 debut album ‘Bright Green Field’ was made in producer Dan Carey’s own modestly-sized south London studio, this time around Squid primarily recorded in Peter Gabriel’s pristine Real World Studios in Wiltshire, albeit retaining Carey’s services behind the desk. As Judge explains: “One of the earliest decisions we made was wanting to move out of how things sounded in Dan’s claustrophobic studio to something a bit more open.”
With this newfound freedom came a desire to move things forward musically. “We were quite keen to make this an album where we lean more into melodic exploration,” says Borlase. “It was a little bit in the direction of less drone, more melody.” That approach is represented on tracks like ‘Green Light’, a jagged, convulsing concoction where guitars jive and cavort around Laurie Nankivell’s dancing basslines. Alongside Judge’s drum patterns, rhythm is often king on ‘O Monolith’, and Squid took influence in that regard from wherever they could find it.
“There was a particular rhythm that we got quite excited about,” Borlase explains. “Me and Arthur [Leadbetter, keyboardist] were driving in our van, and it has quite an unusual clicking on the indicator. We started tapping along to it and we realised it would sound really good. That made it onto the album.” Judge interjects: “We need to credit the good people at Vauxhall on the liner notes.”
The other major shift from first to second album is in Judge’s vocal delivery. Squid’s breakthrough singles ‘Houseplants’ and ‘The Cleaner’ established his trademark abrasive yelp, but on ‘O Monolith’ we hear the vocalist experimenting with tender and more sensitive tones. The closing section of ‘The Blades’, for example, finds him sounding positively vulnerable; a progression he was initially reluctant to undertake, but is now relieved to have made his own.
“Louis and Anton were just playing that guitar line over and over in the rehearsal room,” he remembers. “When something that soft and beautiful is playing, you don’t really want to ruin it by yapping over the top. I think the music that we’ve written for this album doesn’t really suit maniacal shouting.”
Judge is joined by a chorus of voices, courtesy of the ensemble Shards, for the first time on record on the album’s soaring closing track ‘If You Had Seen The Bull’s Swimming Attempts You Would Have Stayed Away’. Squid became fascinated by the idea of using a traditional musical tool to convey an aesthetic that’s rooted in an earthy history, while also still sounding menacing and modern. It is in this aspect that they drew inspiration from Gazelle Twin & NYX’s 2021 industrial folk album ‘Deep England’, which, along with These New Puritans and Talk Talk, the band consider to be primary influences. This cluster of artists all share a philosophical kinship, and are partners in abstract musical exploration.
Where ‘Bright Green Field’ was – misleadingly – an album rooted in urban sprawl, ‘O Monolith’ finds Squid exploring English nature. From the gentle use of field recordings on ‘After The Flash’ and ‘Green Light’ to the song ‘Devil’s Den’ (named after a Neolithic Wiltshire monument and ripe with references to English folkloric tradition), the album is the sound of a band searching for a geographical history to attach itself to, longing to place itself in a tradition that far predates them.
True to their enigmatic tendencies, though, Squid are reluctant to acknowledge any such assertions. “We had a chat about the album before we did it,” says Judge. “We said we kind of purposefully didn’t want it to make loads of sense. For ‘Bright Green Field’ we talked a lot about concept, but this is a bit more all over the place: it jumps around from past to present.” Even the idea of the titular monolith itself is deliberately mysterious: “It’s geological, it’s man-made, it’s spiritual,” Borlase adds.
The album’s gestation dates back to the weeks following the release of ‘Bright Green Field’, when Squid embarked on an all-seater, socially distanced UK tour. Few of their contemporaries had managed to build such a headwind of momentum in the year preceding COVID, and while the disruption cost them precious touring opportunities, they feel that the enforced strictures may have ultimately benefited them in the long run.
“If there wasn’t COVID, I don’t think we’d have been able to make an album like ‘Bright Green Field’,” reflects Borlase. “And maybe if we’d have been busy touring during that time, we’d have been less likely to have been five weirdos writing a second album like this in a bunker.”
The five members of Squid may have only first met in Brighton in 2016, but they’ve been widely considered for some time now to be one of the pivotal bands in south London’s celebrated post-punk scene that’s centred around Windmill Brixton. While a new generation of contenders are beginning to emerge in their slipstream (namely The Umlauts, Modern Woman and Miss Tiny), Squid are focused on their own rapid development. Their recent flirtations with softer tones have reconnected them with their earliest rehearsal sessions in various bandmembers’ bedrooms, and that original zeal, combined with their current performance levels, has them excited about the future.
“When we first started playing together seven or eight years ago we wanted to do things, but our musicianship wasn’t as strong as it is today,” says Judge. “Being able to [now] go back and execute what we couldn’t execute then is great. We’re all in the groove now: we’ve never been more confident.”
Squid’s new album ‘O Monolith’ is out on June 9 via Warp Records. A pre-release listening party will take place on Bandcamp on June 7.