Interview: Aaron Gregory of Giant Squid
Some bands cast longer shadows than their discographies might suggest. San Francisco's Giant Squid have recorded just two full-lengths during their 10-year career. But their intoxicating blend of metallic sludge, Mediterranean exotica, and virtuoso songcraft have made them one of the most critically acclaimed bands in the metal world as of late.
Giant Squid's 2009 sophomore album, The Ichthyologist, was an instant classic that graced many a top-10 list. It's become one of my favorite records. Their new EP, Cenotes, is currently streaming at NPR. It’s out now via Translation Loss records.
Aaron Gregory is Giant Squid's vocalist, guitarist, and self-proclaimed "Renaissance dude". We talked about his life and works by phone while he, his partner and bandmate Jackie Gratz, and their new child relaxed in Golden Gate Park.
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Cenotes finds Giant Squid in a very different compositional mood from that of The Ichthyologist. Can you compare the compositional processes of these two albums? What changed and what remained the same?
Well, both records were written really quick. A really good chunk—almost three fourths—of The Ichthyologist was written in four months from scratch. For Cenotes, about half the album was really spontaneously put together during the last three weeks before we recorded. It was just a massive cram session. We really had this small window to record it- to schedule with Matt Bayles, to schedule with my school, and to schedule around Jackie's pregnancy too, so she wouldn't be eight months pregnant up in Seattle, trying to record an album. So we had this really small window in early June and we went for it. It definitely slammed the pressure on to have something done to record. So they have that similarity.
We went into Cenotes with the mindset that we wanted to make a straight-up heavy record. No mellow songs, no country this or ambient that. We just wanted a totally riff-driven, heavy record that was composed of what the four of us could do live, versus The Ichthyologist, with all the different instruments and guest appearances. We really wanted it to be a 180 from that approach— we wanted to refine and simplify the approach to creating the music. There's not a single riff or melody in Cenotes that doesn't get played live by someone.
It really feels like an album that came out of just jamming in a practice space.
A very good portion of "Tongue Stones" came straight out of jamming—it was just the first thing that came out, and we said "remember that riff" and put it on an mp3 recorder. A lot of Cenotes was just Scotty, the drummer, and I arranging back and forth. He would come up with something that would inspire me to alter one of my riffs. Eventually it all became concrete. For "Cenotes", I just had a couple of riffs, and I'd say "okay, I have this riff, and we need to get to that other riff somehow". I would bring this very loose idea to the band, and we'd figure it out. It had a very spontaneous nature to it- not composed as much of verse/chorus/verse/chorus as some of The Ichthyologist is.
There's less of a pop sensibility, to the extent that you guys ever play pop.
I know what you mean, though. "Neonate" off Metridium Fields is a complete and total song structure. Verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus/chorus. A lot of our other songs are built that way too. That's the way I write. I think there's a biological reason why that song structure works for human beings. It helps people identify with music.
Cenotes is 35 minutes long—it's longer than many short LPs. Why is it being marketed as an EP?
Logistically speaking, we owe Translation Loss an EP and a full-length. The EP was to be next, so we wrote an EP. It just ended up being really long. We got a little carried away. Both the label and the band agree that it could be called a full-length, but at this point, to call Cenotes a full-length and then to give the label an EP next would be kind of a let-down for both for fans and for us. We're looking forward to writing even more material, and I wouldn't want the next release to be shorter.
Originally, the Cenotes concept was supposed to be a 20-minute song. We were going to do a split with Grayceon, and they had a couple of songs already recorded that ended up on All We Destroy. So that was the original idea, and then they ended up being ahead of us as far as getting stuff done goes. So they ended up just putting those songs on their record, which worked out well for us too, because it gave us the incentive to write more. The songs just ended up coming out long by nature. I think "Figura Serpentinata" is the shortest song we've ever written. But then there's the first song "Tongue Stones", which is nearly 10 minutes.
Giant Squid's Mediterranean influences are more overt than ever on Cenotes. I understand that you've been influenced by Mizrahi Jewish music in particular. Is that accurate? How did you develop an interest in this music?
Yeah. I grew up next door to a guy named Dan Ratner, who played bass in a Berkeley band called Za'ataar. He gave me the band's first album years ago, and it's really what spawned the majority of everything Squid's done. Once I got that and started obsessing over this record, I wrote "Neonate" and then the Middle Eastern thing just kind of carried on. We've always kind of had a bit of that vibe, because I wholeheartedly embrace everything Middle Eastern, musically. So that band has been a total source of inspiration for the last 10 years. My goal for Cenotes was a straight-up homage to Za'ataar. If I could've gotten carried away with it more, it would have been just straight-up ethnic, middle-eastern, Arabesque, Israeli-sounding music. Maybe the next record will be, and there'll hardly be a distorted riff in there.
Cenotes continues the narrative established by The Ichthyologist. Can you describe the thematic connection between the two?
Sure, hopefully without giving too much away, because the comic's coming out with the vinyl. It's going to be a 12-page book that's going to show some glimpses, aesthetically and thematically, of what's transpiring in the music and whatever the hell I'm singing about. Basically, Cenotes could be considered the offspring of The Ichthyologist.
That's explicitly mentioned in the lyrics at times.
Yeah. It deals with birth and having a child. It deals with being the child as well. When I first started writing the lyrics, I came at it from the perspective of someone who's having a child but ultimately ended up kind of changing roles a bit. A lot of the lyrics deal with being the child and perceiving the protagonist of The Ichthyologist as my father figure. The straight-up story aspect is effectively about the son of the Ichthyologist. This album touches also upon the broader cataclysmic event that was directly responsible for the creation of the Ichthyologist, and how he becomes the inhuman thing that he becomes.
So in this record, the mood is kinda like "Fuck, we're all gonna die". And the next record will probably be like "Okay, we got through it! But now what's the world like?" It'll make more sense with the book.
It's pretty heady shit though. The more I write it and script it out for the book, the more excited I get. It's gonna be huge. If there were a movie it'd be a fucking epic.
You're a gifted artist and illustrator as well as musician. The Ichthyologist, which came out in 2009, was originally going to be released with an accompanying graphic novel that explained the album's storyline in greater depth. The comic still hasn't hit the streets, but you're still working on it. As I understand it, you're tackling the whole book yourself—writing it, penciling it, inking it, coloringit, lettering it, and so on. What's its status as of now?
When I first started writing the record, I based it on an accompanying story I was writing. They both started inspiring each other—I'd want to write a song about a certain subject, and then I'd have to incorporate it into the mythos, and that would inspire another feature for the mythos, which in turn I'd have to write a song about. I originally intended to only write the book—when we recorded The Ichthyologist, I hadn't attended art school yet. I liked to draw, but I was nowhere near being a professional-level cartoonist, and I didn't really have any idea what that would even entail. So I scripted out a professional script for a 22-page first issue, and then I started to hand it around at different cons, since I have some good connections in the comic industry. So I started getting some feedback, and people gave me some advice regarding what to trim in the script and what to do.
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The idea originally was to find an artist. I attended the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art in New Jersey, and I hoped to find a third-year student there to do it—hopefully for cheaper than your average professional would. But then I started drawing at school, and gradually became more proficient at it—I learned how to color, and I learned how to do professional lettering. I'm more or less capable of handling all of the responsibilities required for the book now. And I'm still improving as I attend the Academy of Art University here in San Francisco. So it just became a no-brainer for me to do the whole thing. Why would I give up the chance to be published as an illustrator? I should just illustrate the damn book. The subject matter and environments are things that I really enjoy drawing. So I can cater to my strengths as both a writer and an illustrator.
Translation Loss came up with the idea of publishing the book along with the album. They kinda read my mind—I always dreamed of doing something like that.
I've seen you mention the influence Alan Moore's Swamp Thing had on The Ichthyologist. Have any other specific writers influenced your own work?
I'd say Mark Schultz. He did an absolutely unbelievable story called Xenozoic. It's like church as far as comic books go to me. I only came across him in the last two years and it just kind of blew my mind. So that's one real big influence. Anything by Moebius, and especially his '60s series of westerns, Blueberry. The Blueberry books definitely had an influence on The Ichthyologist, because there's going to be a Western angle to it. Both writing-wise and illustration-wise, Blueberry is just amazing. Art-wise, I've got a lot of other influences beyond Moebius. Classic guys like Gene Colan do a lot of amazing dark, spotted blacks and heavy line work that I really love. Of course there's Sam Kieth, who did The Ichthyologist stuff. I grew up looking at Sam Kieth since I was like 11. His work and his kind of out-there approach to stories is really fun. The Ichthyologist won't be a funny story by any means, but there'll be some comic relief here and there as needed.
Giant Squid is a singular entity, and you chafe against efforts to classify your music. Who, if anyone, do you consider your musical peers?
I would say Minsk and Helms Alee, definitely. We're hugely influenced by more textural/ambient stuff like Grails. I wouldn't necessarily say they're our peers—they're fucking kings of what they do. We aspire to accomplish what they accomplish musically. When it comes to the more metal aspect of what we do, definitely Asunder and Hammers of Misfortune. They've had an unavoidable guitar influence on Cenotes, which is definitely a more 'metal' record for us, guitar-wise. I played most of the album on the bridge pickup of my guitar, which sounds more metal. I've never done that in my life. I've always played on the neck pickup, so it sounds all farty and bassy.
The tone on this record definitely sounds punchier.
Yeah, right. Most metal guitarists would think I'm an idiot for saying something so simple. They'd be like "well, of course, dude!" But I've always played on the neck pickup. I just wanted more bass.
We live in a town with guitar players like John Gossard from Asunder and John Cobbett from Hammers of Misfortune and Ludicra, and Max Doyle from Grayceon. If we ever have a peer anywhere, it's Grayceon. Beyond the obvious connection with Jackie, we're two very unique and different bands, but we both admire and inspire each other a lot. I've seen Grayceon live more times than any other human being on the planet, so it's hard not to watch someone as brilliant as Max Doyle and not end up taking an influence or wanting to push my guitar playing a little bit. I could never be half the guitar player that Max is, but he definitely inspires me to pick up the pace a little bit more. And with Scotty on drums, who's very acrobatic and technically amazing, we've been able to play faster stuff.
Scotty had been in the band previously, right?
Yes. We got Scotty when we were in Austin. Long story short, everything fell apart, and people started to scatter. Brian and Scotty were really the ones who stuck by my side and helped me through that, and Scotty was new to the band at that point. Before we all left for the West Coast, we recorded "Sutter's Fort" in Austin. So that was when we started recording with Scotty.
In the past you've expressed discomfort with the notion that Giant Squid is a metal band. But you guys have received a great deal of attention from metal fans and publications. What's your relationship with metal like these days? Are there any recent metal or hardcore records that you've been spinning, or have you been sticking to the stuff you grew up on?
Well, I totally grew up a punk rocker. Punk is my roots. When I was a kid, I never gave a shit about Slayer. I was all about the Subhumans, and to this day, I'm all about the Subhumans. Those roots have never left me—the progressive peace-punk bands like Subhumans and more crusty stuff like Rudimentary Peni, that's all stuff I grew up on.
I didn't start getting into super-heavy music until about 10 years ago. I grew up in Sacramento and our heroes at that time were the Deftones. There are a lot of metal fans who consider them totally uncool, but I grew up with them in town, and they were blowing everyone's minds and being the heaviest thing on earth if you grew up there. From there I branched off and discovered stuff like His Hero is Gone and Neurosis and a lot of Bay-area bands like L-Dopa. So I started to embrace that and insert its influences into our music.
Metal-wise today, I seem to listen to Gojira every fucking day. I've listened to From Mars To Sirius probably a thousand times. The new Atlas Moth record is pretty insane. I'm super eager to hear the new Hammers of Misfortune, for sure. And I listen to the new Grayceon all the time. I'm a big Cattle Decapitation fan. We're good buddies with those guys. They're one of the only grind/death metal bands I really listen to. I wasn't really raised on that stuff, and it becomes hard for me as a guy in my 30s to listen to death metal and go "man, I identify with this". I'm not that pissed off! It's just not the most appealing thing to me.
I love Weakling and Wolves in the Throne Room. They're probably the only two 'real' black metal bands I've ever listened to or given a shit about. Black metal is a rare mood for me, and when I get it, I pretty much put on Weakling and that's my fix. I like a little bit of Nile. I like their thematic ridiculousness about Egypt. They're as dorky about that shit as we are about sharks, so I kind of appreciate that otherworldly quality of it. But I find myself listening to Tom Waits and stuff a lot more.
I listen to really brutal heavy music when I'm in class—when I'm painting or drawing. And I listen to really brutal music when I'm driving, because San Francisco is road rage-inducing. But as I get older, I'm more into vocally-oriented music. I'm not too into growled, pissed-off vocals. Especially when you've got a baby screaming at you all day.
You and Jackie just had a child. Congratulations! Is it a boy or girl?
Thank you! It's a girl. Her name is Pearl Grey.
Are you guys gonna put an instrument in her hands at an early age? It seems pretty inevitable.
I'm sure she will pick one up. We have a lot of instruments around the house—there's guitars and cellos and basses everywhere. I'm sure she'll be a natural, or I hope so. That would be great.
Before Jackie was in the band, Giant Squid's second guitarist was Aurielle Gregory, whom you were married to at the time. Has your romantic involvement with other band members affected Giant Squid's band dynamics in any way?
Wow, that's a heavy question. How do I tactfully attack that? I would say that the thing about Giant Squid, and why we've lasted so long, is that we're very family-oriented. It's very much a family band. And whether that's because we've had siblings in the band, or because people in the band have been best friends since elementary school—Brian and I have been best friends since the punk band that we started in junior year of high school, which eventually became Giant Squid—there's definitely a family aspect. Being married or having a kid with someone in the band didn't drastically throw the band off too much, because there was already that family vibe.
Things got rough when people didn't respect that family vibe and the sacred nature of family. You should always respect things you go into—knowing someone for so long and loving each other. And if you have known someone for so long and you do love them so much, then the pressures of being in a band can stress those relationships. And some people didn't handle it that well.
So basically, I would say this: pretty much all the filth and detritus and residue gets washed out of the pan, and the real gold chunks are still sitting there, if you know what I mean. The true essence, the true family essence of the band, has now really been established, and it's in a good place right now. The lineup is super, super solid, and I can say with wholehearted honesty that every member of the band would die for someone else in the band, without a moment of doubt.
It seems like you have a lot of balls in the air—Giant Squid and Cenotes, which you did the art for. You've got The Ichthyologist comic book, art school, your career, and your family obligations. How do you balance all of these commitments?
I'm still trying to figure that out! Because there's a lot of other stuff on top of all that. It's hard, man. I have this natural tendency to want to be this Renaissance dude, and do all these different things. I have another band called Hellship—we've played a quick show and we're playing a bunch of other shows this month. It's really cool—it's Scotty from Squid on drums, Zach from Grayceon on drums, and Shane Bergman, who's the bassist from Hazard's Cure and Walken playing bass, and I play bass. So there's two basses and two drummers. That's something that I'm really excited about, but we really struggle to find time to practice and finish writing material.
Honestly, I've just got a really good support system. Jackie is an incredible partner in life, and she is as busy as ever too. She works for the Electronic Arts video game company, and she has Grayceon, and is always playing on people's records, and now is a mother. But we're still able to really support each other and find time to do stuff—I run off to class and she watches the kid, and I run off to Hellship practice and she watches the kid, and vice versa. I'm Mr. Mom most days when she goes to work. The band itself is a really good support system—it's very family-oriented, like I was saying. They really come together to help. It's the whole 'takes a village to raise a child' kind of mentality. And we have amazing parents, which helps.
But it's hard! Sometimes I wish I wasn't so driven, and I could just sit around and play video games, because I fucking love video games. That'd be really nice, to just be able to drink beer and play video games more often. But I just kind of have this innate drive to accomplish a lot and do a lot. And I just love a lot of different things. I practice archery once a week. I SCUBA dive at the California Academy of Sciences every other week and do little underwater presentations for people. You just gotta find time to schedule it all.
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Giant Squid’s 2009 sophomore album, The Ichthyologist, was an instant classic that graced many a top-10 list. It’s become one of my favorite records. Their new EP, Cenotes, was reviewed on NPR's First Listen (no longer streaming). It comes out October 26 via Translation Loss records.
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