crusher magazine here
by Morgan Y. Evans
California's Giant Squid are easily one of the best, most-adventurous and avant-garde bands in the underground, yet the also manage to flat out rock. People already in the know sort of savor their fandom of the group like a favorite secret, but that is sure to become a secret more difficult to keep (which is a good thing for music). Awareness of the group's astounding latest opus The Ichthyologist is rapidly spreading, garnering accolades and acclaim for the unorthodox four-piece.
Evolving like the ocean which inspires much of the band's work, Giant Squid have expanded their already vast net of sounds to include an even more present strain of musing, moody indie-rock which manages to be emotionally brow-furrowing and contemplative even in lighter passages. The interplay of light on the surface of the water can be deceiving though, as the band still plums serious, sludgy depths. Redundant ocean puns aside, this band is killer and thought provoking. Their earlier release Metridium Fields was locked in my stereo for a very, very long time, and I would often find it hard to remove even when I needed to study other CDs for interviews!
The Ichthyologist is a fuller, more varied, and in the end, even more rewarding release. It snakes, floats, and crawls through various terrain and explores every nook and cranny of musical potency the group can muster, which is quite a lot. Pent up with creative energy after playing the same songs live for ages, Giant Squid poured it into this new record and the effort shows. Band founder Aaron Gregory has moved beyond a simple handle like “stoner” or “post-rock” and is simply letting the band be what it wills, a monster with a life of its' own. While Aaron's vocals have often been compared to System Of A Down, that's his natural voice, which he also really stretches and evolves here to the next level.
Heck, Giant Squid admiration runs so deep, the band was able to coerce some top notch talent from the underground music world to appear as guests and collaborate towards the full vision of The Ichthyologist. The band has always favored added sounds beyond the standard “rock” line up of guitar, bass, and drums, so Kris Force from Amber Asylum's skills blend in beautifully. Vocal guests include Anneke Van Giersbergen (ex-The Gathering, Agua de Annique) as well as Karyn Crisis (ex-Crisis). The pair offer very different vocal styles, which both find a place within the larger picture of the record's sound.
Karyn Crisis, who continues to be one of the most important and influential women in metal (and has a new group, The Karyn Crisis band, featuring Davide Tiso of Ephel Duath) took some time to talk about what it was like collaborating with Giant Squid for her appearance on one of The Ichthyologist's rowdier songs "Throwing A Donner Party At Sea."
"Billy Anderson introduced Crisis to Giant Squid's music around the time we began working on our Like Sheep Led To Slaughter record," said Karyn, continuing , “...and though fans of their potential then, it's been great to watch the band grow and come into their own even more. I think The Ichthyologist is the pinnacle of their expression so far. This album, in my opinion, shows them masters of their creative vision, and it was an honor to sing on the album. Aaron is one of the people who coaxed me back into singing in the first place, along with Billy, during a time where I never wanted to sing again."
Quite an endorsement and another thing we have to thank Giant Squid for, and there's more. The Ichthyologist even parallels a forth-coming graphic novel. Read on to find out more as I discuss the ins and outs of this vast album with Aaron Gregory, who is also a real life professional diver.
(Note: At the time of this interview the band had self-released 1000 copies of the new record themselves but have just announced a coveted signing to Translation Loss records. The second printing of the new album will even be repackaged with new art by legendary comic book artist Sam Kieth of The Maxx fame.)
MORGAN Y. EVANS: How does it feel to have the band grow so much musically? Metridium Fields was amazing but I think is just a fraction of your potential and The Ichthyologist seems to really open things up even wider.
AARON GREGORY: Most definitely because The Ichthyologist is a brand new album full of brand new material (Except “Throwing a Donner Party at Sea”) instead of being a re-recording which Metridium Fields was, being really the only album we were known for. We were chained more or less to those old, old songs already going in to the studio when we did that album in ‘05/’06, where as here, finally after years of playing the same damn five songs (not including our brief “Monster In The Creek” period) we were able to experiment and do whatever we wanted again. Having the addition of a classically-trained strings player in the band definitely opened a ton of doors too, sonically and songwriting wise.
MYE: "Dead Man Slough" is probably my favorite song on the new album musically. Vocally it reminds me of Tom Waits singing a pirate song or something. Can you tell me the role that song plays in the concept story that ties the album into your forthcoming graphic novel?
AG: A murder is committed and it's a real turning point for the character. His pain and anger has grown to this all-consuming level. There are not many things that can really break a man, but love and money are on the top of the list. So, this is his breaking point, but afterwards the consequences of his crime make him feel even less human than he already was, and so he gives up, condemning himself to the bottom of the bay, which is where "Sevengill" picks up. How he can survive at the bottom of the bay is due to his transformation and is eluded to in many of the details in the album's lyrics, but won't be fully explained till the graphic novel sees the light of day.
MYE: Let's talk about the guests on the LP. I am a huge Crisis fan and have a giant tattoo of their symbol on my right arm, but I don't regret it, despite that it's impossible to hide. Some of her lyrics really helped me. "Throwing A Donner Party At Sea" is almost like a gypsy song, like Gogol Bordello. It was a cool match up with Giant Squid and Karyn Crisis because not only does it sound good but I was thinking of the old Crisis song "Surviving The Siren", which was like a personal war but also referenced sirens and the sea. How did you meet and get her involved? Was it through engineer Billy Anderson as he has produced you both in the past?
AG: It actually was through Billy. When we went in to the studio in 2004 to do the first version of Metridium Fields, he had just finished recording Like Sheep Led To Slaughter, Crisis's release on The End Records. He handed off a copy of it to us. The guitar player and female vocalists at the time, grew up listening to Crisis. It was the first time I heard them though and thought the record ruled. Karyn blew me away. Turns out, Billy later gave a copy of Metridium Fields to Afzaal, Crisis's guitar player, who really enjoyed it himself. So the story goes, Crisis was visiting The End Records, and one of the young guys working there was rocking some ISIS. Afzaal floated him our album thinking he would like it. A year or so later, the album floats around the label and is handed off to the owner, who likes it a lot as well and then we get signed! So, Crisis peeps and Giant Squid peeps become connected in that way and kept in touch. Karyn came out to see us on tour when we came through SF (we lived in Austin at the time), and her and I started chatting up a storm about mixed martial arts. She's a big fan, and I have practiced Brazilian Jiu Jitsu on and off, and Bryan is a retarded MMA nut. So, we hit it off like old friends and kept in touch. Funny, that same night, (celloist) Jackie approached us in the same way and we kept in touch as well til she officially joined the band. It was also the first night I met Kris Force, who I'm pretty sure I fan-boyed out on, but she was equally as sweet and down to earth as Karyn. It was an important, fateful show for sure! Any who, I talked to Karyn a lot in the next six months about playing in a band with Billy and I when I returned to California, which we did for a while, but it turned out to be a scheduling nightmare and so never got off the ground even after about eight months of doing it, which was really unfortunate. In the process, I became really good friends with Karyn, and thought it only natural that she come deliver the only real screaming part on our album, which was done by our previous female guitarist.
MYE: Kris Force is also very talented. I love her work with The Living Jarboe and she added great violin to "Mormon Island." Also Anneke Van Giersbergen, who sang on "Sevengill". She was of course, formerly of The Gathering and did a great collaboration with Moonspell recently for their single "Scorpion Flower" as well.
AG: Like I mention before, I met Kris at the same show I met Karyn and Jackie. I first started listening to Amber Asylum over ten years ago. Huge fan. Of course since Jackie was also a major part of that band for ten years, I got to know Kris more and more as time went on. “Mormon Island” was just calling for Kris to do something on it, and yeah, "great" is an understatement about her violin playing on that song. It's fucking unearthly. I swear, only she can create sounds like that. One of a kind musician.
Anneke we have known since we toured with The Gathering way back in 2006. Not only did we became huge fans after that, but she did as well for Giant Squid. She used to tell me all the time how she'd listen to Metridium Fields at least once a week in the car. So, I thought it maybe a long shot, but I asked her to do some vocals on a really heavy song and she was thrilled. I was so stoked. Her contribution, like those of all the gals on the album and Nate's priceless trumpet, was just chill inducing, and totally magical. That shit was meant to be for sure.
MYE: “Metridium Fields”, the twenty plus minute song on your last full-length of the same name, had some amazing instrumentation that just built and built on the main theme. Theme is an understatement! That's the longest dirge ever, but I never get sick of it. There's one particular passage that is like this low, I think, keyboard sound that is so grabbing and epic. It sounds like rolling waves. The new record too, it just contains so many beautiful or booming passages, I don't know where to start. Was it daunting coming up with a follow up to Metridium or were you chomping at the bit as that album was pretty old and you'd done a demo and re-recorded version for The End records? What did you want to accomplish to expand the palette of Giant Squid musically?
AG: Well, you're totally right, like I mentioned in the first question, we were super anxious to record a new record and move on, which is what consequently cost us our deal with The End. They wanted us to keep working and touring behind Metridium Fields for a lot longer til they had sold enough albums. I would have faced certain mutiny if we had chosen that path. So many people had come and gone since Metridium Fields. It was super keyboard heavy, with lots of dual guitar, yet here we were now, a four piece with a cello!! We kept performing and toured twice more behind Fields with the reduced line up, but it felt fucking contrived and heartless at times, like going through the motions because we were supposed to. Only two of us on stage had anything to do with those songs, which we wrote in like 2001 and had been playing live since. So, the time had really come to record something new with all the current members contributing to the writing process instead of playing or singing the parts written by someone else. Don't get me wrong, we still play a jam or two of that record, but that's it. So yeah, we parted ways with The End, self-funded the entire production/recording/advertising process for our record, and made The Ichthyologist.
Musically, I wanted to get the fuck away from the Pelican Cult of NeurIsis thing, so the first thing in my mind to go was the token twelve-minute song. Next was screaming. I'm pretty worn out on hearing grown men scream. There are few that can convince me they are really that pissed. Maybe I'm just old. Probably why all I listen to these days is Dio, Gillian Welch, and the Greg Graffin solo album. And finally, anything goes musically, as long as at the end of the day we had ten full, real songs. No filler noise passages and such. I wanted it to feel like a road trip album. Like I mentioned before, when Anneke told me we were good driving music, that really stuck with me. I wanted it to feel like an adventure, so when you're driving down the coast, you can take it all in from the beginning to the end, like a journey.
MYE: What was it like working with Matt Bayles? How much pre-production did you do and how much layering of stuff was preconceived, like the strings, versus tried out in the studio?
AG: Matt is a real sweetheart, but can be a real stern dude when the clock is ticking, time is limited, as are funds. He knows how to get amazing records done with those limitations, as long as the band doesn't act like a bunch of jerk offs. At the same time, you don't get to leave the room till you've nailed every damn part perfectly, but with feeling. So, yeah it could stressful and intense. He can come off like a hard ass at times, but when you're working with a producer at that level, and paying that kind of money, recording in studios that Soundgarden, Mastodon, and Neil Young have recorded in, he's not there to hold your hand. He's there to make a record which you got to play. I loved that about him. I felt it a great personal accomplishment to make it through Bayles boot camp. I'll be that much more prepared next time.
As far as preproduction goes, I did a lot of multi-tracking with a four track at home when writing keyboard, banjo, and second guitar layers. All of Jackie's parts were written along with us beforehand just like any guitar riff or bass line, as she is no different than anyone else in the band. We write it all together in the same room at the same time at practice. There really weren't any big string arrangements or anything. Just her killing amazing cello riffs. All the guests except Jackie's sister had written all their stuff at home and so we had no idea what they were playing till they either came in to the studio and laid it down, as in the case of Lorraine, Karyn, and Nate, or sent it in like Kris or Anneke.
MYE: The End records didn't put this one out, which is odd as they had Crisis Like Sheep Led To Slaughter and people loved Metridium Fields. So you guys have been doing it yourself. Can you explain what happened and your plans to extend awareness of The Ichthyologist to the public? It is certainly a vital release for you guys and a major musical statement.
AG: It is fucking odd isn't it!? Well, other than the very basic reasons I gave earlier about them wanting us to "work harder" in their eyes behind Metridium Fields, I can guess and give my opinions, but I'd much rather spend any more time and energy talking about the label we're signing to, out of Philadelphia, though I can't really say more till we make our announcement. They're great guys who have families and day jobs still while running their label. A great roster of bands, almost every one of which we could tour with, and the same exact Sony backed distribution as we had before. The perfect label for us to be on right now.
Honestly, leaving The End Records was a blessing. We all felt relieved after the initial emotional disappointment quickly wore off. They've changed their perspective drastically and their goals, and we realized that Giant Squid wasn't going to meet those goals for them in the time they'd have liked us to do so. I don't need to say anymore other than we made the best decision in breaking off from them to make our record on our own terms and move forward as artists.
As far as getting the word out, we hired our own PR people, one of which was my dear friend Adrian Bromely who tragically died in his sleep a couple months after working The Ichthyologist. But in that short time, he secured huge features for us in magazines such as Revolver. That's a pretty big deal for an unsigned band! Revolver actually made us "make up" a false label name just to mention in the article. I guess it really was a big deal for an unsigned band to get such press, and generally frowned upon, it seemed. From there, the wonderful girls at XO Publicity, who were also close to Adrian, took over and helped finish what Adrian started, and soon we were getting write-ups in Decibel and Terrorizer (this month's issue!), along with the cover of local weeklies, and dozens upon dozens of website reviews. Adrian and Kaytea at XO were the exact same PR team we had working Metridium Fields, so it worked well, and we sold almost half of the 1000 copies of The Ichthyologist before the official release date in early February, all strictly through our MySpace. It slowed down a bit eventually, but we're down to our last shoe box full four months later. They'll be gone before we hit the road on our National tour with Grayceon this August.
MYE: How did you get into scuba diving to the point where you could do it professionally? Is it rewarding having it overlap between your passions, music and diving?
AG: Been diving since I was 16, and pretty fearlessly. The first thing they teach you when you get certified is to not ever dive alone. The first thing I did after getting certified was start diving completely alone in the dark green, American River that ran through Sacramento, crawling through bridge rubble and practically sticking my head in to beaver dams. From there, I started diving solo in Monterey out by the Metridium Fields near the Coast Guard jetty. For years I just never had any friends who were certified, and I couldn't wait to explore under the surface, so I pushed past the normal fears and dove solo. Probably not smart, but a calculated risk like anything can be. So, needless to say, I'm comfortable diving in really cramped quarters, in frigid, dark water, with spooky shit swimming around me. One day I saw a Craigslist ad for diver wanted at The Aquarium of the Bay, and I knew I was perfect for it. They have two massive aquariums, about 150 ft long each. The job entitled getting in and cleaning every nook, cranny, and crevice, then hand feeding and catching animals while I'm in there. Could be a Giant Pacific Octopus practically strong enough to hold me down in his cave, or just a little Surf Perch with a bum fin. A lot of the times it was one of the near hundred different sharks we had, about eight of which out weighed me and were 7 to 8 feet long. Most people's nightmare. My dream job! So, yeah it was rewarding to say the least. Every day I'd stop myself—either while sitting on my knees tossing mackerels in to the mouth of a 350lb Giant Black Sea Bass, surrounded by a swirling ball of 100,000 anchovies, or while hand feeding a ten foot shark, gargantuan mouth inches away from my face, while divers at each side of me fend it off with PVC poles—fuck, this is a dream come god damn true.
The biggest sharks I swam face to face with were the gorgeous but formidable Sevengill sharks, thus inspiring the song of the same name on The Ichthyologist, which lyrically hints at their natural tendency to eat human bodies of suicide victims that have jumped off the Golden Gate.
MYE: That's perhaps the most metal thing ever.
AG: We gave away real Sevengill shark teeth to the first fifty people that bought an album, all of which I collected from the bottom of the tanks! I even have Sevengill shark teeth shaped inlays in my seven-string guitar fret boards (total dork, yes I know). Sharks are as ancient as an animal can be, but by shark standards, Sevengills are fucking prehistoric, so there is a real, archaic, dinosaur like vibe about them. Also, Sea Stars surrounded me constantly at work, getting in my way as I tried to vacuum and scrub these basketball-court size aquariums, and so they became ingrained into my psyche as much as they were in the rock work and walls that surrounded me, and eventually forming the basis of the entire album's story. Remarkable little creatures they are.
MYE: Do you like Jack London stories, like The Sea Wolf?
AG: I'm sad to say, for as much reading as I do, I haven't read a single Jack London book. Funny thing is, the owner of the Aquarium Of The Bay also owns the world's greatest collection of Jack London memorabilia and artifacts, a true museum of first editions and personal belongings. Because of that, I've been meaning to get around to diving in to those books. The Sea Wolf sounds like a great place to begin.
MYE: Nature plays a large role in your band and even a band like Mastodon's stories or Cattle Decapitation decrying animal abuse. Why do you think the underground is more reflective and attuned to this when it is all around everyone?
AG: I actually don't think it has anything to do with the underground. The world itself is more attuned than ever. Look how popular shows like Shark Week, or specialty shows on Animal Planet and Discovery Channel have become. The fact that Megalodon has become a household name like Tyrannosaurus Rex just goes to show the tremendous popularity the information age has brought to the natural world. I couldn't be happier about it.
I knew Mastodon was about to become my new favorite band when I read the track-listing for Remission. Any band with a song called “Trilobite” is fucking rad. Metalheads have always been obsessed with beasts and monsters and whatever captures the imagination. So, things like real life sea monsters are a no brainer. In as far as Cattle's case, and the cry for vegetarianism, any somewhat extreme view is always going to have a better launching point in the underground where such ways of thought are always accepted more and encouraged. It was the same as with peace punk bands in the ‘80s and early ‘90's like Subhumans and Citizen Fish, who constantly sang about vegetarianism.
MYE: Parts of the album feel submersed, deep, lonely yet also comforting but chasm-ic, like some black hole womb at the ocean floor. At times I don't know how to describe the sound, which is a compliment, 'cuz that's my job! People are often torn between calling you indie rock or stoner rock, but neither wholly fits.
AG: Well, thank you. I don't know what we are either actually, other than just a loud, hard rock band who understands dynamics and song writing. We're not metal. Down tuning a guitar does not make you metal any more than adding a cello makes you classical. Smoking weed will make our music make more sense though, so yeah, progressive stoner rock works too. We're just really emotional rock, but tend to tell our tales of woe through metaphors involving the natural world. When I say a song is about sharks, it is, but it might also be about my parents. The shark references can be a metaphor as much as they are literal, such as in old songs like “Ampullae of Lorenzini” or “Neonate”. There is a more literal, folk type element to the writing on this album, but even those are open for interpretation.