Stone To The Bone: Squid Interviewed

Ollie Judge and Anton Pearson of modern rock band Squid take a walk past the neolithic burial chambers and chalk horse carvings of Wiltshire with John Doran to explain the genesis of their singular new album, O Monolith. All portraits by Maria Jefferis

Anton Pearson and Ollie Judge on Adam’s Grave, by Maria Jefferis

”A crouching bison-like monster with its head sunk down, for ever looking to the east.”
Aubrey Burl on Adam’s Grave

The plan is to walk widdershins around the tomb. Seven times should do it. Adam’s Grave is a large, neolithic burial chamber, probably around six thousand years old but long since wrecked and filled in with earth. The trapezoidal-shaped, chambered barrow is situated at one of Wiltshire’s highest points, overlooking the tiny hamlet of Alton Priors, the Vale of Pewsey and the Marlborough Downs. On a clear day you can see the 60 mile distant spire of Salisbury cathedral from up here. The barrow stands just a few hundred yards around a terracette-etched brow from an emotionally affecting, eye-level view of one of Wiltshire’s (significantly more modern) seven chalk horse carvings.

Way before the advent of carbon dating and modern archaeology but way, way after the tomb’s construction, it was given its current name by locals who believed it to be the grave of the first man. Archbishop James Ussher (b. 1581) made it his life’s work to calculate the day the world was created by God; his process to tally all of the generations in the bible. His findings: the world was created on 22 October 4004 BC. So coincidentally, he wasn’t far wrong in dating the tomb at least. His guess was as good as ours.

The things that rush into the gulf between what actually happened and what is now provable millennia later, are incredible. It is no wonder. Despite decades of research, sober study and wild conjecture by everyone from Aubrey Burl to Roger Hutton via Julian Cope, we still don’t really know precisely what these burial mounds were for. According to some of the tales collected by the nominatively determined local folklorist Kathleen Wiltshire this barrow is haunted by sonic ghosts, galloping hooves and ear-piercing neighs, the suggestion is they are the audio imprints of actual sixth and eighth century battles. And to this day, some still say you can raise Adam from his deathly slumber (or an ancient giant or even the Devil himself) by walking round the grave seven times anticlockwise.

Speaking to two fifths of modern rock band Squid, who have driven out to Wiltshire for the afternoon to go for a stroll through the countryside that has, in part, inspired their exciting new album O Monolith, I suggest we give it a go.

“I’m pretty sure it’s six times”, says guitarist Anton Pearson, feet anchored to the ground.

“I think I’ve left my baccy and papers in the car”, says drummer and vocalist Ollie Judge, trying to absent himself from the suggestion.

It seems necromancy, giant summoning and Hell raising isn’t on Squid’s agenda, so via a short detour to see the Alton Prior chalk horse, we wander down a long Ravilious-like slope, all the way to the comfort of The Barge Inn. They’re smart of course. No Neolithic hipsters these. They know the burial mound is open to various interpretations – tomb, place of ancestor worship, status symbol, warning marker of land occupation, site of ritual sacrifice, zone for occult magic – but also aware that they are potent symbols that speak to the present day. Looking at the ancient to divine the modern. Walking up to the higher ground in order to dig deeper into the strata.

As we walk away from Adam’s Grave, Pearson, who was living up the road in Marlborough while the album was being recorded, talks about the influence of this county: “Wiltshire has an identity. You can feel the weight of history here. But some of it is about not knowing. You can excavate the layers of archaeology and write about the deep history of this place but as much of it is false as it is true. We played with this idea a little bit, using it as a kind of springboard in order to invent things and not really have to care too much.”

He nods backwards over his shoulder at the barrow on the ridge of the hill now above us: ”You can ask, ‘What were they built for?’ But also you can ask, ‘What is their function today?’ I suppose for most people, they’re a visual reminder of the passage of culture. And in the 50 mile radius around here it feels like this landscape is a really important part of the psyche, because if you look at an OS map you can see these tumuli, dykes, earthworks, and they’re everywhere. They are literally all over the map.”

After recording sessions he would drive home, stopping off at Hackpen Hill to enjoy the sunset, sometimes spotting UFO hunters and occasionally, people with more earth-bound interests: “Once there was just me and one other car, but then I noticed that their windows were, like, really steamy. ‘OK, gotta leave now!’”

Judge grew up not far from here in Chippenham and could see the Cherhill white horse from the window of his primary school. He used to visit Avebury a lot with his parents and remembers his Dad taking an interest in the county’s crop circle phenomena, seeing them as a form of new, non-permanent art. He says: “Growing up, I hated the countryside and couldn’t wait to get out. It wasn’t until COVID, I started to think, ‘Sheep… the countryside… it’s nice… it makes you feel happy.’”

Work on the album began as soon as their debut Bright Green Field had been released mid-2021, a tour providing the perfect opportunity to road test new ideas. Playing all-seated, distanced shows to crowds ravenous for live music, meant the band had the nerve to play, and tighten, 80% of these songs as instrumentals. Squid – which also includes Louis Borlase on guitar, Arthur Leadbetter on keyboards/strings and Laurie Nankivell on bass/brass – who were based in Bristol at the time, set up camp in the Writing Room at Peter Gabriel’s Real World studio complex, in the nearby town of Box. And if this is creating images of opulence in your mind’s eye, the pair are keen to dissuade you from these imaginings.

Judge says: “The Writing Room is actually across the river from the main bit of the studios and nothing like the rest. It’s an old bunker; a very damp, cold and shabby building which looks like an old aircraft hangar with corrugated iron roofing.

Pearson adds: “We spent a long time in that place. I don’t think we ever dreamed we’d be able to make it to the other side of the river.”

Box is situated inside the Wiltshire portion of the Cotswolds and, like everywhere in the county, has its own unique folklore. Apparently, the seventh century Abbot of Malmesbury, St Aldhelm predicted the area’s future quarrying industry when he threw his glove on the ground there saying, ‘Dig here and you will find treasure.’ It is a process that Squid, shivering in Peter Gabriel’s unfashionable shed, continued some 13 millennia later.

Anton Pearson and Ollie Judge by the Alton Barnes White Horse, by Maria Jefferis

After abandoning an early title Moonrakers, they settled on O Monolith, a purposefully opaque name. Judge says: “We’re leaving it open to interpretation. We don’t know why it’s called that… yet.”

Pearson continues: “We were keen for things surrounding this album not to make too much sense. We were quite attracted to the way that the word monolith does that; it can have ancient and modern connotations quite easily.”

No matter how non-prescriptive they want to be about the album title, it’s clear there’s been something of a journey from the first album to the second; not just in terms of how ambitious O Monolith is regarding songwriting, but also in that it represents a switch from an urban to rural mindset. The world of Bright Green Field was an imaginary city environment used as a backdrop for the creation of a cast of characters to populate the band’s songs. As the band have moved on, so has the imaginary realm their work sits in. Pearson says: “I wouldn’t say O Monolith is a reaction to the way we worked on the last album but we’re always trying to move away from where we’ve been and to move into new places. And we wrote and recorded the album in a rural environment so I guess we were inspired by that.”

During their stay at box Pearson, a bird-watcher, took to walking alone in the surrounding countryside and making field recordings mainly of local birdsong – robins, blue tits, blackbirds, great tits, sparrows – to add to various tracks. He explains: “I love bird watching but I don’t always like it when it feels like a competition about who can find the rarest or most special bird. I just recorded what was there. On one walk I saw a dipper which was very special but it didn’t make a sound so it’s not on the record.” [LAUGHS]

Birdwatching is no longer the anachronism it was regarded as decades earlier seen from the perspective of the music industry. The gap between post punk/indie rock and bird watching has probably never been shorter. Pearson suggests that an increased awareness of environmental issues has probably changed this relationship. He’s aware of others, such as members of Sea Power, being twitchers but he doesn’t talk to any other musicians about it and, certainly, it’s not a hobby the rest of the band share with him. He visibly lights up when the idea of it being meditative is mentioned: “The practice means you’re spending more time in natural environments and – there’s all kinds of research about this – the natural chemicals you’re breathing in make you happy.”

Judge gives him a flash of side eye and a performative but friendly chuckle.

Pearson corrects himself: “In theory, it makes you happy. There’s something about the act of spotting a bird which you’re looking for which gives you an endorphin boost. But also it’s a practice that helps you understand more about your natural environment as a whole.”

The conversation segues, fascinatingly, into how birdwatching can be an analogue for deep listening which feeds back into his process as a musician and how, without constantly training the ears to hear specific minute details, the listener is missing the full spectrum of sound. He explains: “It’s an evolutionary development but ecosystems are organised in the same way that orchestras are organised, so that [sonically] they’re not always in competition and there’s space in every frequency for each animal to be heard.

“You can measure the health of ecosystems with sound rather than more traditional measurements. So researchers are taking really deep sound recordings in rainforests that have been selectively failed [by processes such as logging]. From a visual point of view the environment may look fine from the outside, but inside certain types of tree have been cut down selectively and if you compare spectrograms of the sound recording with a spectrogram taken from an untouched rainforest, it’s like comparing night with day: so much of the ecosystem has died as a result and you can tell by the way it sounds, not from the way it looks.”

It was only when the album was fully written and the inspiration from the surrounding countryside had fully bedded in that they realised it made total sense to simply record on the other side of the river in the main section of Real World. The band believed themselves to be out of place to the extent they felt like trespassers when they arrived. Their major recording experiences before this point had happened in Dan Carey’s relatively tiny and windowless studio in Streatham. Pearson laughs when thinking about the contrast: “It’s, er, very different! Real World is a James Bond baddie base from which Peter Gabriel is planning on taking over the world. Dan’s studio is an old Post Office room in south London.”

Judge adds: “When we first arrived the engineer said to us, ‘Pierre the chef usually cooks dinner at five.’ And we were like, ‘Er, what?!’ Forget the chef, we often didn’t even eat when we were working at Dan’s place. Actually, a big part of working with Dan is there’s the pizza place across the road that’s really really good. We used to go there at the end of the week. It was totally different in terms of emotion and physical space.”

The band took Carey with them to produce the new album and are adamant that he could have produced an album of equal complexity at his own studio, the main difference being the new sonic properties offered by the Real World rooms.

Whatever the reason, the album is a leap forward in most senses. The songwriting, the arrangement, the production and the lyrics speak of a band fully engaged with the idea of drilling down further into their own identity, while creatively pushing outwards.

‘Swing (In A Dream), inspired by a nocturnal vision of the painting ‘The Swing’ by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, is one of eight examples of how Squid have moved away from their exciting but proscriptive roots in a short space of time, now speaking more to the freedoms offered by late period Sonic Youth or progressive brass-enhanced Dutch punks, The Ex.

Another clear highlight ‘The Blades’ is an imaginative reaction to the climate of police brutality which inspired the Kill The Bill protests in Bristol. Over a glitchy modular framework, it’s clear it’s not just the music of the band which is being pushed outwards. Judge complements his usual ‘I’ve just jumped straight into a very hot bath without testing the water first’ dynamic vocal yelp & shout with moments of melodicism and tender introspection; a surprisingly effective development.

The locked-in stone-to-the-bone dynamic funk of ‘Undergrowth’ is also an outlier example of that time-honoured staple of British rock: a song with lyrics written by a bored young musician looking out of a window. For Judge, also Squid’s chief lyricist, however, his period of curtain twitching happened during lockdown and there was no one for him to observe, a state of affairs that rapidly led him into some really odd metaphysical terrain. He explains: “I developed this obsession with animism. I was going for weeks without seeing anyone walking past my window. I was just looking out at things that hadn’t moved in weeks, like the bins and found myself wondering if there were spirits living in them. [LAUGHS] Then I started having these thoughts all the time: ‘What if I die, what will I come back as? Maybe I’ll come back as furniture…’”

Judge laughs a lot and he laughs a lot while he’s describing these events – enforced glibness is, after all, the true English disease – so there’s a blink and you’ll miss it subtext to this: he, like a lot of people living alone during the pandemic, really struggled with his mental health. He admits as much in passing: “I was going pretty crazy and had to get out to talk to other people. I got a job at the Rough Trade warehouse, doing mail order, simply so I could interact with other people a few times a week. Yeah, ‘Undergrowth’ is about dying really.”

Ollie Judge and Anton Pearson in The Barge Inn, by Maria Jefferis

Pearson’s sole lyrical contribution to the album is the dense, puzzlebox-like ‘If You Had Seen The Bull’s Swimming Attempts You Would Have Stayed Away’ which is ostensibly about rats arriving in this country along with Roman colonisers: “We know that when the Romans came here it led to the destruction of some languages in different places, so I wrote a story about rats rubbing out dictionaries. But it was also inspired by by Theo Anthony’s documentary Rat Film about the red-lining of different urban populations in America and how poverty relates to rodent populations.”

Probably the song where all of Squid’s new directions and interests converge most clearly is on ‘Devil’s Den’ a satisfying blend of English folk, noise rock and post punk. Another neolithic monument, Devil’s Den is situated seven miles away from the pub we’re sitting in, in a rarely-visited field near Avebury. In essence, it’s the essential architecture of a burial chamber, with all of the sod, earth, chalk, human remains, artefacts and rocks cleared away. Just two huge standing stones and a capstone lying across them. If you clamber up onto the dolmen you will see several natural indents. And, so it goes, if you pour water into these hollows and return the following day, they will be dry; the Devil having been overnight to drink from them. Of course, in order to summon him, you need to walk around the Den seven times widdershins. And if you have a really steady nerve and you wait until midnight after walking around the Den seven times, so folklore has it at least, you’ll see why the Devil has returned: to lead a team of eight white oxen in an attempt to pull the monument down. Something which he has, so far, failed to do. Viewed head on, the dolmen looks like the mathematical symbol for Pi.

Judge reveals that despite living most of their lives in Wiltshire, the events of the last few years proved too much for his parents: “They got sick of the UK, sold their house and moved to France while we were recording Bright Green Field. So I started thinking about where I grew up a bit more and started reading up on local folklore… places like the Devil’s Den.”

“But it’s also about the witch trials. There’s a feminist play called Vinegar Tom written by Caryl Churchill in the 70s, which I thought was interesting. And then I decided to load the song with as much supernatural imagery as possible.”

He’s quite keen to state that this isn’t a folk horror album though. All of the evil things that stalk O Monolith are very modern horrors indeed: police brutality, isolation, existential crises, environmental emergency, detachment from the natural landscape: “The scary ideas relate to what we are going through at the moment, but we’re using folk ideas – not to mask that exactly but as a way of weaving them into a fabric. We’re weaving together the present day and folk history.”

The light’s waning and it’s a long drive back to their new stamping ground of south London. Just time to double check one thing: do they see the idea of the countryside as an imaginary or psychic escape from the horrors of modern urban living?

Ollie Judge winces: “I don’t think so. Spend too long in either environment and you’ll realise they’re exactly the same.”

And drinks are drained, and that is that.

O Monolith is out on 9 June via Warp

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