Thursday, November 16, 2017

An Interview with Squalus

Giant Squid was one of my favourite bands, due to their progressive approach to sludge metal that resulted in some of the most interesting and original albums of the last ten years. Though they called it quits recently, their members are back with a new project called Squalus. Since their Translation Loss debut The Great Fish was one of the albums I looked forward to most in 2017, I was eager to find out more about the band's origins and intentions. Vocalist/bassist A.J. Gregory was kind enough to answer my questions.

Dreams of Consciousness: Please introduce Squalus - who are you, where are you from, and how would you describe the music you make?

Well, we were all in another band called Giant Squid. Once we put that project to rest in 2015, four out of five of us started working on this band, and the songs that would become this record. Bryan and I have been playing music together for over twenty years, since high-school. Andy has been with us on and off since 2004, and Zack recorded Giant Squid's last record with us in 2014.

Squalus, like Giant Squid before it, is spread across two towns. Zack and I live in a little coastal town called Pacifica, just south of San Francisco. Bryan and Andy are in Sacramento, which is a good 3 hour drive away nowadays, and where Giant Squid originated.

I think the band is a strange combination of weird sludge metal and synth-wave/outrun. That was what we were shooting for. Obviously with distorted basses and live drums, it's always going to lean towards the more metal side of things. But all of us listen to a lot of outrun music these days, and knew Andy can nail that vibe in his sleep. Since that music is so inspired by movies of old, we thought it would be a good way to really drive home the cinematic aspect of our theme.

DoC: How did Squalus come about? What were your intentions, musically or otherwise?

The roots of Squalus came out of another fun little side project called Hell Ship, which had two drummers and two bassist. It was both Zack and Scotty Sutton, the drummer of Giant Squid before Zack, on drums, and then Shane Bergman, the bassist of Zack's other band, Walken, and I, both on bass. That sadly disbanded with people moving and life getting in the way.

So Zack and I kept it going as a two piece, just drums and bass, called it Cartilage, and embraced the JAWS theme from that moment on. We played a bunch of shows in and around San Francisco and other little Northern California towns, but eventually caught wind of another band in the East Bay playing under the same name. We talked to them about it a bit, in how to go forward because we had used it first, but not by much. And with some research I found like seven other bands around the world called Cartilage, some of which were pretty big in their respective regions.

All this time, Andy had mentioned wanting to add some stuff to our songs after he had seen us play live in the city. And Bryan kept wanting to start a punk band about sharks called Red Triangle, and was emailing me these incredible punk riffs. So it was obvious what we needed to do! A quick name change to better reflect the theme, and lots of emailing riffs back and forth, and we had a new band in the works.

When we first got together to rehearse as a full band for some shows we had already booked, Zack had to come later that night because of some obligations, so it was just Andy, Bryan and I; keys, and two basses. And holy shit did it sound horrible. We spent a good couple hours just beating each other over the head with volume and out of phase bass riffs, and walls of low end mud. I remember all three of us looking at each other, very concerned that this might actually not work! Then finally Zack shows up, and something about having the drums right in the middle, with it's own set of high frequencies and such, that really divided up the two basses, and the super loud keyboards. It suddenly sounded like a band. Such a fucking relief in that moment.

DoC: How are Squalus and your previous band Giant Squid linked, and what makes Squalus a distinct musical entity? 

With Giant Squid, I played guitar, and my wife Jackie Perez Gratz [also of the amazing Grayceon - Dream of Conscientiousness] played cello, so we had a much different sound, obviously. I'm sure everyone can imagine sonically the differences between those instrumental arrangements. Giant Squid was crazy heavy, but could always float in a way with the keys, cello, and guitar. Squalus maintains those keys, but the dueling basses and total lack of guitars grounds us in some deep, dark, territory. We use tones that really recall the sensation of being underwater, moving through the pitch black brine. At least I think we do. You might just hear some phaser pedals and more reverb than should ever be on a bass guitar. 

DoC: Interestingly, Squalus eschews guitars, opting for a dueling bass sound. How did this decision come about? What are the challenges in writing for two basses, as opposed to a bass and guitar? 

Bass was my first instrument, and has always been my favorite melodic instrument. Giant Squid was born out of our high-school punk bands where I just sang, but eventually wanted to get way more proggy and weird (think Subhumans/Citizen Fish) and so I started playing guitar full time very early on, like around 1997. Somehow, that guitar never left my hand, and for more than a decade the bass collected dust. But once Hell Ship became an idea we were throwing around, I took the opportunity to play bass instead of guitar, pitched the two basses idea, which those guys loved, and off we went. That's just the way this project has always been, based around my weird bass riffs.

One of the biggest problems is making two bass guitar frequencies work. Luckily Bryan has a much darker tone; playing a Fender five string with a just a middle pickup, running through a 70's SVT. I play the same Rickenbacker I've had since I was 14, always on the bridge pickup, with an old Russian green Big Muff I've had since the earliest days of Giant Squid, all through a Fender Twin. Yup, a Fender Twin guitar amp, and a beefy 2x12 1x15 cab. So we can really separate the instruments just via tone.

Riff wise, while we both lock in a lot on full on bass riffs, both us plucking away with our fingers, I often play chords on the Rickenbacker, while Bryan holds down his always brilliant and obscure bass line underneath. He and I have been playing music together so long, that we just know what to play off of each other. So in many ways, we write for Squalus the same way we wrote for Giant Squid.

DoC: Tell me about your debut album, The Great Fish. How long had you been working on it? What were the recording sessions like? Now that it's done, how do you feel about the results?

Hard to say how long we've been working on it, because so many of these songs have been floating around in the other projects like Hell Ship and Cartilage, which started in late 2008. But Andy and Bryan joined in Squalus officially in late 2015, I think, and I'd say from that moment on, we wrote with every intention of creating a full record as soon as we could. We quickly booked time with Tim Green at Louder Studios in Grass Valley, which is like going on a camping trip in the woods to record, drink beer, swim, stay up ungodly late with your closest friends, drink more beer, wake up, get in the spa, record, drink more beer, swim, play Mario Kart, drink beer, sleep, repeat. I will record with Tim Green in some [manner] or another for the rest of my life, for as long as he'll have me and my dudes.

We couldn't be happier, truly. Sonically, it's perfect. We had no idea how two basses would come out, and funny enough, I don't think Tim got the memo that we had no guitars until literally we were standing in the live room, talking about what cabs I should use. He kept suggesting I should use his original Marshall cabs from his days of playing guitar in The Fucking Champs, to which I'd say, "Man, I'm going to shred those!" Which he'd respond with, "Well how heavy are you?!" At this point I explained the whole dueling bass guitar thing. I think he laughed, scratched his head, and then said, "Cool!" That dude has had far stranger things thrown at him in his long epic recording career.

I wish we could have spent more time on the voice acting parts, practicing and such. That was a last minute decision, because there was no way legally for us to use the JAWS movie samples that we play to live. I think they came out really great, and man did we have fun doing them. But that was new territory for us, and I'm a perfectionist so I hear things in there I'd do differently. Whatever. But now on a good day, I can recite the entire Quint Indianapolis monologue, word for word.

DoC: The Great Fish draws inspiration from the novel/movie Jaws, employing a lot of the dialogue for the lyrics. Will Jaws be the primary inspiration for Squalus, or can you see yourselves moving on to other subjects/nautical stories (ie, will there be a Squalus album based on "The Old Man and The Sea" down the road)?

Yes, The Great Fish... is a sludge metal recreation of the story of JAWS. All the lyrics I'm singing are either quoted directly from the book (after some heavy editing and arranging to make them musical) or are lines/quotes from the movie. And trust me, pulling that off musically was no easy task. But if you listen to our record enough, then go watch the movie, you'll pick up on lines that you may have never paid much attention to before. "One time I caught a sixteen footer off Montauk. Had to stick two barrels in him. Two to wear him down and bring em up." That's poetry already, so some it I didn't have to edit or alter. It's all as absolutely verbatim as possible. There are a couple spots where I had to add a pronoun or something for it to make sense lyrically.

The Great Fish... title is actually the very first three words of the novel. This record is about the novel and the accompanying movie. We joked about doing a sequel for JAWS 2, but in actuality, what we've come to embrace here is more Peter Benchley's brilliance and creativity; his obsession with the ocean and what lurks beneath - something I can very much relate to. So our next album's theme is already planned, as is the third; in a way we have a trilogy of sorts in mind, if we make it that far. Let's just say we will be exploring Benchley's work, especially that which had movie adaptions. I'm very excited about the next one. There is a hint of what it is in the liner notes.

DoC: Would you say that your home of Pacifica, California has had an influence on the nautical themes of both Giant Squid and Squalus? Why or why not?

I was obsessed with the ocean long before; just bodies of water in general no matter how deep or shallow. Sure, living a block from the Pacific Ocean certainly has its massive influence, but I've been in love with JAWS since I was like 8, and obviously Giant Squid was drenched in the nautical themes long before that was such a thing in heavy music. Our Namor EP came out before ISIS' Oceanic. Whaaaaaaat?

So, I'd say Pacifica certainly fueled the concept, but wasn't the starting point. It's a very sharky town though. The high-school a block from my house has a huge mural out on the street of four giant white sharks, which are its mascot. I can see it from my front door practically. There is a huge pier a couple blocks away where people catch sharks all the time. I even helped a fisherman recently untangle a smooth-hound shark that got caught up in his line, and then threw it back immediately, of course. People have spotted white sharks cruising by the pier every year as well. It's a magical place to live, no doubt. The salt gets in your soul.

DoC: Both Squalus and Giant Squid (with the Monster in the Creek album) have dealt with the topic of shark attacks - what draws you to the subject? How do you view sharks in general? What would you say is the biggest misconception about them?

JAWS flipped a switch on for me as a kid. I became obsessed with sharks, everything about them. I can't explain it any more than that, but they were everything to me. I drew them, read about them, watched every JAWS movie countless times (even the horrible JAWS 3D and The Revenge). It's equal parts terror and fascination I think. When something is terrifying like that, it can also be alluring, especially when you're young. And as I learned more and more about them, and started working in the aquarium industry, actually taking care of these animals myself, the fascination and admiration only became deeper and stronger.

For a while I was a professional SCUBA diver at the local public aquariums in San Francisco, working face to face with sharks, literally in the frigid water with them, often pinned against a wall while I did feeding presentations. And we're not just talking four foot leopard sharks, but BIG 8-9 ft long sevengill sharks, which are a very ancient, lumbering, grumpy species. And at times we had as many as eight or nine of them in this enormous aquarium, all coming in for their snack of salmon steaks, which were in a bucket that hung off my belt dangling between my legs. It was crazy fun!

The biggest misconceptions with all predatory animals is that their behavior stems from maliciousness or evil. JAWS certainly portrays the animal quite wrongfully like that, which Benchley admitted to repeatedly after the success of the movie and book. But I also don't agree with sugar coating the animals. Working in such close proximity with these animals day after day taught me just how hard wired they are to eat and defend themselves. With the tip of my own scuba fin, I once barely tapped the very tip of the caudal fin (tail fin) of a young sevengill shark that was swimming below me. Like BARELY tapped it, just to see if he would register it all. The shark completely turned 180 degrees, mouth wide open, practically folding itself in half, and came right back at whatever it thought was behind it. I was up high enough that it didn't see anything, and so its ancient brain forgot all about it within seconds, and went back to cruising in circles. But if I was there when it turned around, it would have tried to bite me, no doubt.

Each animal is different; they have different personalities to a degree. But, they are very much the eating machine that Hooper explains them to be. We're not talking mammals like a dolphin or seal, or even normal bony fish which can be far more receptive and interactive with humans. Sharks are pretty simple minded animals. They eat, breed, swim, and you don't want to get in their way.

If you go in the sea, you're in their world. And man are they out there. Yes, sharks don't actively eat or even hunt man. You're not part of their pre-programmed diet. But meat is meat, and all it takes is a decent sized animal, and a lot of confusion on their part in the right situation, and you can have a bad incident.

Meanwhile, man is killing MILLIONS of sharks a year for shark fin soup, a tasteless, pretentious "delicacy" in China. It's literally bringing dozens of species to the point of extinction. And once they're gone, you're going to see a fall out in the oceanic ecosystem that no fishing industry is prepared for. You think sharks eat a lot? Try an unchecked population of pinnipeds, like sea lions, tearing through fishing stock in regions all over the world. You can't take out the apex predator in an ecosystem without all hell breaking loose. When the cat is gone, the mice come out to play.

"Shark Finning Must Stop" - AJ Gregory, 2013

DoC: In addition to music, you are also an illustrator and comic artist, and were responsible for most of the artwork for both Squalus and Giant Squid. What mediums do you use? Who/what would you say your 5 biggest influences are (both people and subject matter)?

I am! I'm a freelance illustrator and illustration instructor at the Academy of Art, University in San Francisco. I did all the album art for The Great Fish... in acrylic paint, so very traditional and by hand. I usually work in ink for most of my stuff, and then color digitally, but I love to paint as well. It's the same medium I used for Helms Alee's Sleepwalking Sailors album art as well. It translates well for album covers, gives it a more old school book cover vibe.

Painting wise, one of my biggest influences is Cedric Wentworth, a local San Francisco painter who has become a bit of a mentor to me. The illustration and painting work of William Stout is a huge influence as well, especially considering his life long career of paleontology art. Straight up illustration wise I'm inspired a lot by comic illustrators like John Buscema, Moebius, Joe Kubert, and modern artists like Geoff Darrow and Frank Quietly.

DoC: What's next for Squalus and A.J. Gregory?

I'm finishing up the debut album for my other band, Khôrada, which I'm singing and playing guitar in. It features three of the dudes from Agalloch, and our record is coming out via Prophecy Productions in Germany very early next year. I'm sure some serious touring and festivals will follow, as those guys have quite a following from their successful prior career in Agalloch. On top of that I'm illustrating a new book entitled Eye of the Shoal written by Dr. Helen Scales that will come out worldwide early next year as well, via Bloomsbury Publishing. It's a deep look into all things fish and serves kind of as a sequel to the book we did together in 2015 about mollusks entitled Spirals in Time. I'm getting to draw some seriously fishy stuff.

Thanks again!

Squalus on Facebook

Squalus on Bandcamp

The Great Fish on Translation Loss Bandcamp