Giant Squid - Undersea Dreaming
By: MetalGeorge Pacheco
Hope you have yer reading glasses on, folks, because what follows is a fairly epic convo between your friendly neighborhood Blister, and Aaron Gregory and Jackie Perez-Gratz, both of the transcontinental subspecies, Giant Squid. “Why so lengthy,” you ask? Well, simply because the collective’s latest elpee, The Ichthyologist, is such a barnstormer that we just had to invade their personal space with question after intrusive question. Trust us, once you heard this record for yourself, you’ll be wondering where this Squid was all your life. From complex jazz arrangements, to delicate melodic sections, to mellow lounge bits (including brass) to that trusted ol’ heaviness, Giant Squid is as stylistically massive as their multi-limbed namesake. Add in guest appearances from Karyn Crisis and Anneke van Giersbergen (The Gathering) to the mix, and you have a “post-metal” act so intense that it defies every categorization. Isis better watch their back; there’s competition nipping at their heels.
Blistering.com: Where do I even begin, guys….seriously? The Ichthyologistis so much to take in, but I’m honestly blown away. I adore this record. Do you even take people’s perceptions into account when writing or recording, though? Do you ever feel aware that what you’re creating might be “difficult”, “progressive”, or just something which fans generally need to spend some quality time with in order to appreciate?
Aaron Gregory [guitars/vocals/keyboards]: Ah awesome! Thanks so much for the kind words. See, we definitely care what people think. It feels wonderful to have you express your adoration for this record. That reassures me that we did something right! Because, honestly, there are times when you get so engrossed in making a record, especially in the studio, you start to doubt yourself and the whole thing. Do we just suck, and will this even sound like music someone will give a shit about? It felt this way while recording at times especially since The Ichthyologistis a sophomore release, and we know people all over the world are going to hear it. Critics will be even more critical this time around, ‘cause they might be hung up on what they loved from the first record. It can be nerve-racking a bit, but then you just remind yourself that people’s opinion was never the reason you started playing music in the first place, and not to get caught up in it. It just becomes a sometimes annoying by product of exposure.
And yes, I think ALL truly good music should be absorbed for a while. All my favorite records were that way. We got a review on The Ichthyologistfrom a critic who hadn’t had the record more than a couple days, but wrote a review immediately with some kind of far-fetched judgments that were just off the mark. Giant Squid always creates stuff from far left field; if you’re ever going to “get it,” it most likely won’t be immediately, or even within the first several listens. This is art. Take some time to absorb it.
I’ve also read in some of the reviews of our music being difficult, but that this record is more approachable than the last, or vice versa (which is funny). The ironic thing is, if we’re difficult to anyone, I think Giant Squid is difficult for people that like difficult music!! We’re too melodic, we play soft/pretty parts constantly, there is no token metal cliché elements going on in this record, such as double bass or guitar shredding (probably because we can’t do either), and my voice can be out there for people, especially if all you listen to are bands with grown men trying to sound like goblins. Because of that, and other things in our mix, we know there is a good chance that extreme metal people who might casually rock bands like Origin or Behold… The Arctopus all day are probably going to hate us, and wonder why metal critics hype the band so much. I mean, are we really even metal? Do we have to be? Will we lose all this great press we’re getting?! Well fuck then. We’re SO metal then. Yes, that is a Rickenbacker guitar in my hand. Next question.
Seriously though, we never, ever said we were metal. The rest of the world did. And we’re proud to be considered that, regardless if we feel it or not. I just get perturbed when metal heads get mad about Giant Squid because critics tend to describe us in dramatic ways that may make them think they’re going to get some Leviathan-era Mastodon type songs, but instead get something more along the line of Black Heart Procession meets Blonde Redhead jams, just with really loud parts. I think it’s that reality though, that actually makes us drastically more approachable and possibly more appealing to the rest of the world than most heavy, underground bands, all the while never losing a drop of our integrity in the process.
Blistering.com: Further on this, is defying categorization something you consciously strive for? How much impact does critical or fan praise/response have on Giant Squid as a band, and as songwriters?
Jackie Perez-Gratz [vocals/cello]: Indirectly, we may strive for defying categorization, but only because part of our process is bringing in ideas that inspire us and putting them directly into the music. There isn't a specific genre or a band we are trying to imitate, so we tend to let the narrative move us in the direction it follows. For example, in writing Mormon Island - wherein the fiction is a woman's body that was found before her town was flooded to form a lake, because she was murdered and buried beneath a church unknown to anyone - we wanted the song to convey an underwater creepiness that had a church-music vibe. So, what we came up with are all the various sounds that we associate with that. I suppose if creepy underwater church-music was a popular musical genre we would be totally ripping it off! Basically, I'm just saying that by not aiming for any category, but instead creating soundscapes to convey the feeling of a certain place or situation instead, we usually don't end up writing in a common style.
Gregory: I don’t think we consciously try to defy anything. In ways I wish we could be easily categorized sometimes! It would be much easier to talk to strangers when the token question arises. Having said that though, I feel Giant Squid might feel like it defies categorization because extremely defined categorization is so out of hand today, especially with modern metal, where it’s the absolute worst. You just don’t see that rather pretentious need to perfectly categorize music down to the sub-sub-sub genre in any other musical genre, not even jazz. But, unless you’re trying to describe their music to an eighty year old woman, nowadays you couldn’t talk about even larger bands like Cattle Decapitation or Nile, by referring to them simply as “death metal”. You have to describe them so precisely in terms like “gore grind” this, and “melodic death” that, or whatever. If you pull Giant Squid out of the “metal” quick sand pit, you’ll find it suddenly isn’t a hard band to categorize.
Perez: In regards to the impact of critical or fan praise, we’re definitely aware of it, but it doesn't necessarily drive our musical choices. If we wanted to give the fans what they really wanted, we would have put out another album that sounds just like Metridium Fields. Instead, we went a different direction that still very much sounds like Giant Squid, but it's a direction that shows the growth the band has gone through as musicians and song writers.
Blistering.com: In your eyes, is Giant Squid a “progressive” band? What sort images does that word evoke to you? Do any of them fit what you feel Giant Squid is doing?
Perez: Yes, definitely. When I hear the word 'progressive' used to describe music, I think of fresh sounds, or fresh juxtapositions of familiar sounds, and I also think of new ways to approach writing music. I believe Giant Squid is offering both of these things.
Gregory: Giant Squid is rock. Okay, we down tune and embrace fuzz guitar tones, so… we’re stoner rock? I guess, sure. I’m okay with that. I like listening to us when I’m stoned! And yeah, we’re progressive rock too, absolutely. But, we don’t have fourteen changes of musical style in one song, or constantly changing time signatures just for the hell of it. It’s definitely not Mr. Bungle or Ozric Tentacles.
Blistering.com: This album takes larger steps forward from the debut, in a big way. Was there a conscious effort to really push boundaries this time around? How did you feel about how the last album represented you, and where do you think The Ichthyologisttakes the band in comparison?
Gregory: Metridium Fields (The End Records release) is a special record, but it truly didn’t represent the band who recorded it. Don’t get me wrong, we all loved those songs, but the line up that originally wrote those tracks had changed a lot since then. The original Metridium Field (the first self released version) was the perfect representation of who we were at that moment, as was Monster In The Creek for that era and line up. But Metridium Fields was more or less the Monster line up re-recording the old Metridium Field songs, as well as our producer’s (Jason Rufuss Sewell) interpretation of who he thought the band was on that record.
Thank god, The Ichthyologist actually represents the band that we are today. It also represents us emotionally and musically. We’re a little more pissed this time around than so sad, which makes since for me. Metridium Fields was written after living with the shitty aftermath of my parents splitting, and then losing my Father in a motorcycle accident, selling his legacy in the form of a beautiful mountain home, and watching my Grandmother die slowly every day. The Ichthyologist was written after I barely made it through a brutal divorce and then Giant Squid being dropped by our label. Musically, we were all so burnt out on playing those old Metridium songs since most of that line up had left long ago, and their was a lot of emotional baggage wrapped up in them. For the first time in a while, the people who wrote and recorded our latest record are also the people who perform it live with us on stage. That’s been amazing. Nobody is having to play parts they didn’t write.
And as far as pushing the boundaries, if you hear us doing that on The Ichthyologist, then that’s fucking rad, because there was no conscious effort to push anything when we wrote those songs. They came out as naturally as anything we’ve ever written. It seems impossible for Bryan and I to write anything that sounds remotely orthodox. You should have heard our old bands just out of high school! I wished someone had came in back then and stopped us from trying too hard to “push the boundaries”! My only concern going in to the writing process for The Ichthyologist was just making sure that we had a full, ten song album, and we didn’t stretch out five or six songs to make up an hour of music.
Blistering.com: How far back does the songwriting go with this record? Did you feel any pressure to follow up anything? Did this material go through many changes from their inception to what we’re hearing now?
Perez: “Throwing A Donner Party At Sea” was written by Bryan and Aaron about five years ago and it appeared on the Monster In The Creek EP but in a slightly different form than it does on The Ichthyologist. Some of the other songs have riffs here or there that have been stewing in our minds for a couple of years, but the songs were all written in about eight months. After a major transplant of band members and several line-up changes in a row, writing just wasn't possible until we settled down. But when we did, the album just poured out of us. We needed it so badly and without it we couldn't live as a band. The writing of this album was a healing process for all of us.
Gregory: We had started writing “Dead Man Slough” and “Rubicon Wall” in 2007 while jamming again for a while with the original drummer from Metridium Field, Jason DiVincenzo. There are even some riffs that I had been throwing around since the Austin days that never stuck, such as the main groove from “Dead Man Slough” and the intro from “Blue Linckia”. Actually, “Emerald Bay” - which we called something like “Last Bottle of Rum” or something - we were already playing in its entirety back in those days, almost to the point where we were going to perform it live on our second tour, but then it got shelved. It ended up being one of the last songs I showed everyone right before we went in to record The Ichthyologist.
Blistering.com: How would you say composition occurs, anyway? Do you guys still work the same way? What’s the process like?
Gregory: Giant Squid used to be way more about of all of us jamming in a room, stoned and/or drunk, whatever, and eventually a wall of melodies would emerge after just chugging away off of one persons riff for twenty minutes. Then we’d argue about how long to do it, when certain instruments should drop out to create dynamics, and whether it should be a verse or a chorus?! We do most of this the same way, except now Jackie and I will sit and write together, usually jamming of one or the other’s riffs, then we’ll bring that to Bryan who lays down his parts as we just sit there and jam on it for him repeatedly. Chris lays down his beats at the next practice, and then we start arguing about what goes where and for how long! We rarely ever sit at home by ourselves to write our parts privately, except for when I’m writing the second guitar leads and keyboards, which I need it all prerecorded on a four track to make sure I don’t write terribly clashing stuff. I created some messes on this record because I would write a keyboard part to one guitar riff, then another guitar lead to that same initial guitar riff, then vocals in the same way, hoping in theory that all three separate elements should work together since they were all written against the same initial melody. It made for some interesting dissident moments. Matt Bayles would joke about me “redefining jazz”. Then before I could take that as a compliment, he’d promptly eliminate the offending part in the mix! Doh!
A lot of time lyrics and vocals usually come once the song is fairly complete, though they may cause us to lengthen parts or whatever, which we did with songs on The Ichthyologist, even after we tracked them. I’d have to sing about all these things by the end of a verse, so we’d edit to make it longer. Problem solved.
Blistering.com: You incorporate so many disparate styles into this amalgamation called Giant Squid. Metal, rock, jazz, ambience, progression…even a laid back, lounge atmosphere all make their presence known, yet it all works and melds so seamlessly. Where are you all coming from inspirationally? Is this the whole point, to be this nebulous, impossible-to-pin-down force?
Gregory: Again, like I elaborated on before in the first questions, there really isn’t any point other than to create moods or pictures in your heads. I want a sense of escapism when you listen to Giant Squid. I want it to take you somewhere else, like a great graphic novel. I want you to put it in your car stereo and drive down the coast. I want you to lose yourself in it.
I could give a shit if anyone can or can’t pin down the band’s style. I think that it’s a sad portrayal of today’s music, even in the underground, that it’s such a big deal when a band like Giant Squid mixes different styles seamlessly. The Doors did it in every song forty plus years ago. Radiohead does it on every record today. But in the underground these days, it seems bands stick to their formulas and sonic esthetic in every song. If they do change it up with styles, they usually do it in some extreme fashion, turning on a dime to change it up mid chorus so it’s all Mr. Bungle-like, and then everyone gets really worked up and calls it genius. “Wow, to go from black metal to bee bop jazz in two beats! Unfathomable!” That can be fun to watch at a small bar when you’re drunk, but that’s not even musical to me. Skillful yes, but not musical. That tends to come off more masturbatory and showy than anything.
One of my favorite bands lately is Grails, because they seem stylistically to be so many things at once. If they had amazing vocals, they’d be one of the greatest bands today.
Blistering.com: Speaking of which, the vocals are so diverse; I’m hearing everything from Tom Waits on “Dead Man Slough” and “Sevengill”, to Serj Tankian on “Throwing A Donner Party At Sea” and “Blue Linckia.” This is not an insult, by the way! This isn’t even mentioning Jackie’s contributions, or those of your guest artists! Are you approaching the vocals with this sort of narrative atmosphere, considering this album is based on Aaron’s own graphic novel?
Gregory: Absolutely. If the lyrics are meant to be sung by an old man who is part sea star, living at the bottom of San Francisco Bay, hoping his old lover will jump off the Golden Gate some day so he can have some last words, then that is what I try to capture, such as in “Sevengill.” Or, like Jackie mentioned before, she needed to sound like the fragile, forgotten spirit of a women murdered and left at the bottom of a lake in “Mormon Island.” “Emerald Bay” is a drunk and delirious man in a small boat, seeing things in the water as he waits for his eventual demise, contemplating whether to drink his last swig of rum. When he hears a voice in his head from the lover he lost, almost taunting him, those lines are harmonized with me by Jackie to represent that.
Not all the songs are meant to be that theatric, and are just more pissed off, and so I’ll sing in my more natural voice, which unfortunately gets labeled as the Serj voice. That is a comparison that I don’t necessarily take insulting, it just seems really limiting. I was singing in punk bands sixteen years ago and haven’t changed my vocal style much since. I still worship the Subhumans and Dead Kennedys, and so I get frustrated when singers like Jello Biafra or Dick Lucas are hardly ever mentioned when people describe my voice. Whatever. [I hear the Jello influence, now that he mentions it.-mg]
I’ll never mind being compared to Tom Waits.
Blistering.com: Speaking of which, would you mind telling us a bit more about this lyrical thread and theme? How did the novel idea come about, and was it difficult to work that into this body of music?
Gregory: It’s based off of an elaborate story that I’m writing in to the form of a graphic novel of the same name. But, the album is a much more poetic, abstract telling of the origin events of the main protagonist, which in some obvious and some not so obvious ways, reflects my own life and what I’ve gone through in the last couple years.
Basically in order to survive what he’s gone through, he ends up becoming something more as he adapts rather inhuman forms of self preservation, which brings in the significance of sea stars to the whole record. What follows are moments of revenge, murder, delirium, self doubt, and eventually suicide. There is a bit of time traveling that takes place through out the record, which won’t make a whole lot of sense till you read the graphic novel. But still, those songs as well as all the others can definitely be interpreted in whichever ways the listener wishes. Anyone who has been lied to, betrayed, manipulated, or taken advantage of will hear that familiar anger in these songs, whether or not the song is “supposed to be” about sharks or sea star men.
Blistering.com: Going back to “Sevengill” for a moment. Anneke’s vocals are gorgeous, as always—truly a coup for the band, as is Karyn’s always devastating presence. How were you able to get everyone together, and how was it working with all the guests? I’m guessing that Kris and Lorraine were kinda like family, getting involved in the whole thing, right?
Perez: Well, my actual family IS on the album! My sister, Cat Gratz, graciously appears on “Emerald Bay” playing oboe. But, yes, Kris, Lorraine, Karyn, Nate, Anneke are all like family to us. Kris, Lorraine and I have collaborated for several years in Amber Asylum, Karyn is a collaborator of Aaron's and friend to us all, Nate goes waaay back to Aaron and Bryan's Sacramento days, and I believe he played trumpet on some of the very first Giant Squid recordings. And I cannot go without mentioning Billy Anderson here as well, because he’s an unofficial member of Giant Squid and is truly one of our biggest supporters. Billy tracked all of the local musicians except for Kris at Sharkbite Studios in Oakland, CA. We had everyone come in for three hour chunks of time back to back over the period of two days/nights. It was a lot of fun just playing director, and not having to do any of the work myself! All the guests came in and slammed it out like it was nothing for them. I made Billy play Karyn's vocal tracks solo over and over because I just couldn't believe such a sound could possibly come out of such a sweet little woman.
Anneke and Kris recorded themselves off-site and their contributions are not without special stories because of it. With Anneke, we didn't get her vocal tracks until the very day we were supposed to do the final mixing of the song, “Sevengill.” We were so stressed out and nervous, because we had given her lyrics and mapped out where in the song there was room for her to sing, but we had no idea what she was going to do. Was it going to work? What was the song going to sound like? After we got the tracks late that afternoon and heard them with the mix for the first time we were smiling from ear to ear. What were we thinking? Of course she was going to sound amazing. Of course her performance was going to be gorgeous and inspire the jaw-gaping reverence we were hoping for! We’re so thankful she wanted to be a part of it.
Kris gave us multiple violin tracks and they were not very obvious how they were to be placed within the context of the song, “Mormon Island.” She had given us some idea of what we should listen for in order to align her tracks properly and we relayed this information to Matt when he was doing the preliminary mix of the song. When we first heard violin in the mix we thought the violins sounded truly supernatural and perfectly dissonant for the narrative of the song. Later we found out that her tracks were not placed correctly at all, but in fact were placed several beats earlier than she had intended which is why there is such dissonance. By that time, we were so in love with the way it sounded and committed to the mix the way it was, so we decided to leave it. I am a firm believer that sometimes mistakes lead to people's best ideas!
Blistering.com: How was it laying everything down in the studio, then, particularly with Matt at the helm?
Perez: Recording was challenging for all of us, including Matt. It was definitely worth the effort, though, because we’re all so happy with the way the album turned out. Musically, Matt really strived to get the best possible performances from us, which sometimes proved difficult because we would get tired of playing the same section of a song over and over, or we would lose sight of the emotion behind the music because we were trying so hard to nail it technically. We also had limited time recording so towards the end when we were overdubbing all the extra instruments and vocals, Matt bit his tongue and let us track everything we wanted, even if he didn't think we had enough time or whether or not he liked the idea in the first place. He had the enormous task of mixing everything together so that it sounded cohesive and not like a garage sale, so we could understand his position, but we had a vision for the songs so we just pushed forward. In the end, some of our ideas ended up on the proverbial cutting room floor, but other ideas turned out exactly the way we envisioned them and surprised everyone, including Matt. I think the songs didn't really sound like much of anything until the final stage when all the pieces were put into place. Certain songs that band members originally did not favor turned out to be their top picks, because the songs made so much more sense to them once the vocals and additional melodies were added. There was a lot of faith held between us during the recording process.
Blistering.com: What kind of transformation-if any-would you say the music goes through when filtered through the live performance? How about you as people? Would you say that you yourselves are severely affected when you unleashed the live set?
Gregory: It’s definitely more raw, for damn sure. Obviously we’re only a four piece and again, we can’t really be knocking out trumpet and keyboard parts yet until we get some additional people on stage.
It’s also nice and loud and kind of pissed sounding when we play live. Performing sometimes inspires a bit of anger in me, personally. Maybe because of the logistics of playing little clubs is always a nightmare, and we can never hear ourselves that well vocally, and so singing in key becomes a bitch. But we don’t dare turn down too much, because it generally sounds weak and ineffective, since these types of clubs have little sound reinforcement or token inexperienced sound guys, who don’t know what to make of a band that isn’t just all loud riffs and screaming.
Honestly playing live is just really emotional for me, and so if I’m feeling indifference from a crowd, it tends to make me more pissed, and thus making me play louder, harder, whatever. We’re not ever there to entertain anyone, we’re there to share, and some crowds don’t grasp that. I’m not up there regurgitating riffs and memorized lyrics. I’m actually trying to go somewhere in my head where these songs exist as stories or feelings more than verses and choruses to be performed in order.
Blistering.com: Personally, I could see you guys playing this album in its entirety, and I’d be perfectly happy! Do you think The Ichthyologistlends itself enough to this narrative that you COULD pull off something like that? Will we be able to catch you guys live this summer?
Perez: Wow, that would be a major feat for us indeed! We’d have to add about three more people to the band and clone Aaron at least twice. There are so many intricacies with the various instrumentations and melodies that are weaved throughout the album, a lot of it would be very difficult to pull off live without additional musicians. That doesn't mean we wouldn't consider it; we’re already currently performing several of the songs from The Ichthyologistwith just the bare essentials. But if we were to attempt to perform the album in its entirety, I would hope we could incorporate more of the instruments and layering that's on the recording.
Blistering.com: How do you go about incorporating all of the diverse instrumentation—Jackie’s cello, for example—into the music?
Gregory: Jackie just writes perfect, timeless sounding cello riffs that compliment anything she puts them up against. Incorporating her was never a problem. She’s absolutely no different than having a second guitar player. The songs either wrap around her, or vice versa, but it’s never a case of, “shit, where do we fit cello parts!?” No, we write everything together simultaneously.
And when it comes to the guest stuff, I always just tell them to play whatever they want, and usually wherever they want, though there are moments in certain songs where I would picture a trumpet part or whatever. We would then take all this riffing and soloing that they lay down, and just have our way with it, using pieces here and there depending on how they benefit the songs. That was definitely the case for Lorraine’s flute and Nate’s trumpets.
With Kris Force, we just gave her free reign of the entire song. I knew she could never do wrong (not as if anybody else would, but you know what I mean).
As far as Cat’s oboe parts, Jackie had written them out ahead of time, as she knows her sister doesn’t like to just jam on stuff since she’s classically trained. Cat then transferred Jackie’s melodies to sheet music while in the studio, and then laid it down verbatim!
Blistering.com: I’ve asked this to many bands before, but I was wondering whether or not you feel that the Left Coast possesses a different, unique vibe amongst the fans and bands who call it home? The scene out there seem to be really close knit and supportive.
Perez: I've lived and played music in San Francisco for almost seventeen years, so I can't really compare it to anything else, but I will say that I feel very special and honored being a part of it. I love running into my friends at shows, many of whom are also in local bands, and asking about what they are up to musically and vice versa. Then we toast our drinks and stand back to listen to an amazing performance from other peers, together. There is nothing more satisfying than that.
Gregory: For me, moving to San Francisco has been amazing. Through Jackie I’ve met and befriended people who are or were in bands that I am such a huge fan of! And of course, you run in to each other at shows and you talk about each other’s music for a bit, but then before you know it you’re talking about your dogs or some movie you’re both nuts for, or something totally unrelated to music. And then you stop and go, “dude, you were the singer for Dead and Gone? I saw you when I was like 16!” There’s very little pretentiousness in the SF music scene. You’re drinking at the same bars and shows as the members High On Fire or Hammers of Misfortune. Everyone is, for the most part, good friends and very sweet and accepting of new comers like little ol’me.
Blistering.com: What else lies down the pipeline for Giant Squid?
Gregory: I don’t want to give too much away, but I can definitely talk about a 12” split with our sister band and Jackie’s other main project, Grayceon. Our half will be one enormous song called “Cenotes”, that will compliment the story of The Ichthyologistin the way Tales of the Black Freighter compliments The Watchmen. Other than that, pushing The Ichthyologist, deciding which labels to go with on it especially in terms of getting it out there on vinyl, as well other stuff like the split 12” and previous albums we’d also like to see on vinyl like Monster In the Creek and Metridium Fields. Then touring behind The Ichthyologistas much as we can in these ridiculous economic times.