Squalus combines elements of progressive rock, punk plus various and sundry corners of heavy music in a breathtakingly expansive sound displayed on the California outfit’s debut album, The Great Fish, out September 15 via Translation Loss. Squalus draws its members from the now defunct Giant Squid: Aaron John Gregory, Andrew Southard, Bryan Beeson and Zack Farwell have thrown their collective shoulders into this new collective with rich enthusiasm.
Armed with two monolithic basses and a wall of drums capable of beating back all forces of nature, the group provides listeners with an unforgettable journey via the LP’s 11 songs. There are flashes of sonic theater, head banging abandon and even a visit from “Show Me the Way to Go Home.” Co-founder Aaron John Gregory explains that the film Jaws has been a lifelong obsession for him, providing the basis for this LP. The record becomes equal parts homage and response to the classic tale, a companion, and stand alone piece.
The Great Fish ultimately provides listeners with an exciting, nail-biting take on a familiar struggle. The music and approach are brave and beautiful; repeated listens reveal untold nuances that will inspire their own hours of exploration.
The Great Fish may be ordered here.
Aaron John Gregory, who also designed the album’s cover, speaks more about the album below.
This is the first album from Squalus but you’ve all worked together before. Was there was much talk about how to differentiate this group from its predecessor?
Squalus was originally just a two piece side project with Zack Farwell on drums and I on bass and vocals. It was very much the “punk” band we had that could play anytime, anywhere, with none of the logistical complications of our other band, Giant Squid. It was more or less a vehicle for us to gig at our local bar called Winters Tavern, located directly across the street from my house in Pacifica, California.
Being only a bass and drums two-piece at first, certainly defined the sound, very much by process of elimination. My bass riffs had to be constantly moving and filling in space, much more lead like. When Giant Squid called it quits, Bryan and Andy (bass and keyboards respectively) from that band joined up, we had every intention of keeping the same energy Zack and I had before: simple, punk, loud, explosive, with lots of hustling bass parts. We certainly discussed the sea shanty aspect, the pirate like swagger. We wanted parts to sound like a smoke billowing boat running down a huge shark, or like a huge shark about to run down a tired swimmer.
What impact did leaving guitar out of the picture have on the writing?
I think song writing wise the riffs and parts are certainly more noodley, but also more aggressive and hammering. Bryan and I had to think about where the two basses sat in the mix, both EQ wise and whose job was what. We both play with our fingers, with lots of groove and movement, but I tend to strum mine a lot as well which gives us a guitar like texture that Bryan plays under as we would in a usual bass/guitar setting.
Unlike Giant Squid where we had guitars and cello full time in the band along with the keys, Squalus’s two basses surprisingly leave a lot of room for the keyboards, as they accompany so much high end in the mix, so Andy cuts right through even when both basses are screaming loud and distorted. And if Bryan and I are dueling it out with busy riffs, Andy is brilliant at building up a wall of melodic texture on top of it, keeping it all together.
The man vs. sea thread running through the album is as dramatic as the music itself. I’m curious: Where did the fascination with the sea begin for you?
Lots of trips to the Steinhart Aquarium in San Francisco with my mother and aunt when I was young certainly planted the seeds, and awoke the interest in me in a big way. We had a lot of amazing aquarium stores in Sacramento where I grew up, so visiting those felt almost as magical to me as a child. From there, I also got heavily into keeping aquariums at home growing up, which has provided a lifelong profession for me ever since. I’ve owned a tropical fish store, serviced high end living reef aquariums for clients all over San Francisco, Sacramento, and Texas even, and worked as a professional SCUBA diver and aquarist at a couple San Francisco public aquariums.
But just as much as those defining moments growing up had their impact, it should be no surprise that in many ways it started with the movie Jaws for me, so this album really comes full circle in my life. I saw it when I was way too young to do so, and it just overtook me. I became simultaneously terrified of the ocean, and obsessed with it, but also very much enthralled with the idea of sharks, what they were, how they differed from other fish, were they capable of evil such as I saw in the movie! It’s that movie that made me need to learn everything there was about aquatic life of all types, especially sharks.
It’s also refreshing to hear band incorporate theatrical bits (“Jack the Ripper”) on an album. Do you go through a different writing process with those in comparison to the songs?
Yes, for sure. For “Jack the Ripper”, I wanted to be able to sample audio from that classic autopsy scene over a song when we play live, but we hadn’t written anything yet for it. I sat down with Andy and distinctly said, “We need to come up with something that is completely unsettling, unpleasant, kind of sterile and claustrophobic while also being somewhat nauseous feeling; something very different than the vibe in most of the other songs. What does an autopsy of a ground-up shark attack victim sound like, musically?”
It also had to allow room for the sample to sit live. Now on the record, we don’t use samples. As you note were acting out some of these iconic parts. Andy acted the part of Hooper and arranged the lines to sit just write in the movement of the song. For such a heavy scene in the movie, and for as dirty and unsettling as our song is, the acting in the track provides a bit of levity at that moment in the record, which is nice.
I think “Eating Machine in the Pond” is as one of the most dramatic and haunting things I’ve heard in a long time.
So that one was a bit difficult, because I knew we had to have a song for the estuary attack scene, but there is such little dialogue in that whole part of the film. It’s such an iconic scene in the movie, but it doesn’t happen in the book, so there was no direct dictation we could manipulate into lyrics like I was able to do for the other two attack songs, “The Great Fish…” and “Flesh, Bone, and Rubber”. But in the final couple weeks before recording, we also didn’t have a song for the “eating machine” dialogue that Hooper has with Brody, which happens just before the pond scene. So in combining them in to one song, it gave us some great content to sing, while only needing to add some bits of the panicked shouting of the pond attack witnesses; and of course a little bit of dialogue from the man in the dingy trying to advise the kids in the sail boat. It’s like Hooper is trying to convince Mayor Vaughn that there is a huge shark in the waters, while that huge shark is eating someone alive in the pond a stone throw away.
“The Orca” has its share of drama too and I think it’s one of the best examples of how you’ve incorporated basses on the album.
“The Orca” needed to personify not only the namesake boat, and how much of a character it was, but also her captain, the legendary Quint. So it’s pissed and smoky, heaving and slow at times, billowing and fast at other times; but always has that swagger, that confidence, that salty dog attitude of “my way or the high way”. By that point in both the film and our record, Quint is fully in his element. He’s not convincing the local people at the town meeting of what he can do, or puffing his chest in front of his guests at his boathouse. Instead he’s fully in command, grinning, crushing beer cans, telling nasty jokes to get under his passenger’s skin, but still so deadly serious. He’s sharking! So that song had to capture his enormous personality and that type of slightly maniacal attitude, which we hope it did!
“The USS Indianapolis” is the big, sweeping track. It’s a perfect example, I think, of everything the band does. But it seems like something like might be difficult to write, that there’d be some real challenges to find the right balance of drama, etc. Was it?
Content wise and emotionally speaking, that song is much more than just a scene from Jaws, because it’s a telling of what actually happened to the USS Indianapolis. I feel that song pretty hard when we play it. My grandfather was in the Navy. Some of my best friends were in the Navy. So screaming about what happened to those men, then listening to Quint tell the tale while we devastate that ending, was very cathartic. Having to act the whole speech part myself to track on the record, essentially memorizing it entirely, has added a whole other level of attachment to that tragic story for me, and I think the band as a whole feels the same.
Writing wise, that song was very spontaneous. It was written when Zack and I were just a two piece, and starting to incorporate samples into the live set. I had written it up to where it feels like it naturally ends, and then the sample begins. And that was going to be it. We’d play the sample at the end and stand around on stage drinking beer I guess. Sounds like a horrible plan. But one rather inspired, alcohol soaked rehearsal as we first attempted it, I swear Zack and I just looked at each other, and came in with the first devastating note right after he says “…tell by looking from the dorsal to the tail”, and then on the fly wrote all that doom stuff while the sample was screaming loud in our room. We were feeling it, big time.
We had to memorize what we did in that long drawn out ending of course, and repeat it exactly right each time so we knew to stop at the right moments during the sample, allowing it to breath and be heard clearly for certain phrases, like “he was bitten in half below the waist” before dropping back in crushingly loud.
But yeah, it was one of those incredible inspired and organic moments that makes writing heavy music so magical sometimes.
This album’s going out into the world and it’s inevitable that there’ll be Giant Squid comparisons, but I suspect that plenty of the old fans will come along.
We really don’t know, to be honest, but I certainly hope so. If you liked what we did before, you should appreciate and see what we’re doing here as coming from the same place, just a bit more lighthearted and heavy-handed. Giant Squid was so personal and emotional at times; so cerebral and serious. I think the inherent fun in what we did here with The Great Fish… may come off as tongue-in-cheek, which in ways it is at times, of course. I mean, we’re voice acting parts from one of the greatest movies of all time. We’re obviously not trying to be underground, cvlt or cutting edge. I’ve already seen one small review from an old Giant Squid fan who says it has goofy lyrics about fish. Ha! Obviously they didn’t read or grasp the concept of what the album is reenacting. Maybe he’s 19 and never seen Jaws.
But I do honestly think there is a lot of Giant Squid living and breathing again in this record, especially on the three songs where Jackie Perez Gratz appears, because that’s literally all five us back again, riffing off of each other. Those songs are undeniable in their similarity at times, and will hopefully lure in old fans that may have a hard time with the drunken, shark hunting sailor antics at times!
Tim Green did all manner of things in the control room and beyond. What do you think he added to the recording that another producer/engineer might have missed?
Tim is so brilliant at what he does, and knows exactly when to step in and when to be hands off. He loved the concept of the album and what we were trying to do, and even watched the movie right before in preparation. I think our relationship with him maybe is where he would differ from other producers would approach it.
We’ve become great friends with him since tracking that last Giant Squid record, Minoans. We love the guy, and pretty sure he feels the same way about us! So we’re very casual in there with him, drinking, being relaxed, bull shitting, joking about everything, drinking in the spa after the sessions, playing Mario Kart with him ’till 3:00 AM. Felt like there were days when we all just talked in Quint’s voice.
That’s the kind of energy and environment we needed to make a record like this in. We take the music and the concept very seriously. This is a wholehearted, very sincere and loving homage to a story that changed my life. But we obviously don’t take ourselves too seriously. And Tim is right there with us in that regard, making sure we do it just right but also have a damn fun time doing so.
What’s your go to shark story?
Real life story? The Matawan, NJ shark attacks of 1916. They are the most freakishly crazy, unbelievable shark attack incidents ever recorded in my opinion. Giant Squid did an EP about them in 2005 called Monster in the Creek. Really amazing story, that was actually the inspiration in many ways for Peter Benchley to write Jaws. Second to that, the sinking of the Whale Ship Essex is probably the most tragic and incredible sea tragedy ever known, though the USS Indianapolis comes damn close.
If we’re not talking real life stories, I think you can guess my favorite fictional shark tail.