Bay Area art-doom band Giant Squid‘s latest album, Minoans, will be released October 28 on the Translation Loss label. (Pre-order it from Amazon.) It’s their first release since 2011’s Cetones EP, and their first full-length in five years, following 2009’s The Ichthyologist. The group has undergone numerous lineup shifts in its 10 years of existence, mostly in the drum chair; it currently consists of guitarist/vocalist Aaron John Gregory (who also designed the album cover), cellist/vocalist Jackie Perez Gratz, keyboardist/vocalist Andrew Southard, bassist Bryan Ray Beeson, and drummer Zack Farwell.
Minoans is a concept album about the titular ancient Greek civilization. Says Gregory, “Lyrically, the album is a giant love letter to the Mediterranean and specifically Bronze-age Greece – a region, people, and time period that deeply fascinates me – and which I feel mirrors these heartbreakingly brutal, turbulent times we live in today.”
We’ve got an exclusive premiere of the track “Sixty Foot Waves.” Listen to it below:
Aaron John Gregory answered some questions by email.
You’ve got two new bandmembers since the last release. How has each of them altered the group sound?
Yeah, and it’s super exciting. Andrew Southard being back in the band is something we’ve wanted to have happen pretty much since we parted ways in 2005, back when Squid left Sacramento to move to Austin, TX for a short bit. Andy is beyond brilliant; just an absolute beast of a talent, both in his musicianship with any instrument he gets his hands on, and of course, with his incredible singing. He helped hugely in writing vocal lines and harmonies on this new record. Having him back has allowed us to regain our massive keyboard sound, something we were known for from the first three releases (Metridium Field, Monster in the Creek, and the rerecording of Metridium Fields) but have been missing for quite a while. Back on Monster in the Creek, most of the time we were playing to his keyboard parts. Coming back into Squid now, he had to find his place amongst busier, and way heavier and louder guitars, and a full-time, equally loud cellist. Fortunately, he and Jackie work magically together, both in complementing their instrumentation and in singing together, so it has felt nearly seamless reintegrating him. There are plenty of times where we still compose our riffs against keyboard parts he brings in, but it goes the other way equally as well. This time around, a lot of our new songs are based off of bass riffs that Bryan brought in, which is kind of a rare thing for us.
And of course Zack, being total family already, has seen the band live more than just about any human being alive since he has toured with Grayceon alongside Squid so many times. So not only is he my dearest bro, and so close to Jackie, but he already was great friends with the rest of the band, and is simply a huge fan! We’ve had so many drummers come and go that he has popped up as a replacement in many, many prior conversations when we were in need. One of our initial worries years ago was that it would make us sound a bit too much like Grayceon. At least, that was the fear when we were looking for a drummer to write The Ichthyologist with, because at that point, we really were basing everything off of our one and only main album, Metridium Fields. We hadn’t found ourselves quite yet. But by the time came around to record Minoans, Giant Squid was pretty set in its ways, and there was very little chance we’d end up sounding like anything but Giant Squid. Plus, I’ll never be half the guitar player Max Doyle is, so there was certainly no danger there in sounding like Grayceon, though he is a huge influence on me.
At that point, Zack had already filled in for a bunch of last minute shows, and I was, and still am, jamming in another band with him called Cartilage. He lives in Pacifica down the street from us, and his gorgeous wife, Cory, was Giant Squid‘s second live guitarist during The Ichthyologist era; so the whole scenario was just meant to be. There was no question. It was finally time for Zack to be in Giant Squid. And fucking hell, he KILLED on the new record. I can hear that he is inspired by what both Christopher Lyman and Scotty Sutton (The Ichthyologist and Cenotes drummers, respectively) had laid down before. There are huge grooves in Minoans that are very Lyman-esque, pretty unlike stuff that Zack does in his other bands, and there are crazy tribal parts in the spirit of Scotty on Cenotes. But he’s pure Zack the whole way through in a way that only he can be, composing parts with us in a way that very few drummers I’ve worked with can do. Brilliant song arranger. Someone once compared him to Dave Grohl after drinking a barrel of Red Bull. That’s pretty accurate.
It’s kind of the line-up of my dreams. Everyone is family, totally in love with each other, and totally on-board with the direction the band went on Minoans.
It’s been five years since your last full-length, and three since the Cenotes EP. How long has Minoans been gestating as a project?
Like all of our albums, expect maybe our first, Minoans was rather crammed out. It’s always a mad-dash to meet the release deadlines. We tend to write 75-80% of our album’s material in the six months leading up to the studio times, with a larger chunk of the composing taking place in the last couple months. The Ichthyologist was the same way. We all have jobs, careers, school, some of us have kids; it’s been years since we’ve been the kind of band that practices once a week religiously; not since Monster in the Creek, really. So we’ve learned to adapt over the years, and put in long weekend power sessions with everyone crammed into Jackie’s and my bedroom, with keyboards all over the bed, and tiny amps everywhere. I find the best stuff comes out under pressure, and that’s been said before by countless artists, but it’s so true. You’re way braver. You just try stuff, random stuff, random riffs, weird ideas, and throw it all out there because there isn’t really any time for everyone to go home and do “their homework.” The majority of all of our music is written on the spot, together in a room, riffing off of each other spontaneously.
What about ancient Greece interested you as a subject?
Well, it’s always had an irresistible allure to me, even when I was very little. The sight of columns with ornate capitals and carved pediments and huge marble sculptures of Gods; it’s just magical and ethereal, but yet so human. As an art student, I’ve had to take countless art history classes, much to my pleasure because I’m addicted to the stuff. One of my first instructors at the Academy of Art, University in San Francisco was Kevin Foreman; an extremely passionate teacher who only taught one class—art history from basically the beginning of mankind to around the 15th Century, just before the heyday of the Renaissance. So there was a lot of focus on Bronze Age civilizations. I had never heard of the Minoans before, but once we started diving in to their history and culture, I was blown away. Here was an ancient race, a massively advanced civilization, that basically no one really knew about till Sir Arthur Evans dug up Knossos and other sites on Crete in the late 1800s. Foreman said once in a lecture, “If I had to go back in time and be amongst any one people, I’d pick the Minoans.” They lived in total harmony with the sea, and were massively respected due to their naval power. Their palaces were enormous, their art was so far advanced, and their spiritual practices were bizarre and equally beautiful. They weren’t obsessed with war and conquering. And more or less, they are considered the very first European civilization. In reality, they weren’t really Greeks, though they had a massive influence on Mycenaean culture, which in turn produced classical Greece and all of its ways that we know and study today. But that too enthralled me, as they were very much a people that sat squarely between the east, with the Anatolian coast to one side, and the west, with Greece above and just west of Crete.
In class, we didn’t talk much about their supposed cannibalism of children, I guess for obvious reasons. A couple years after I took that class, when Jackie, Pearl, and I visited Greece and specifically Crete in 2012, I didn’t see much of anything pertaining to that dark side of their culture either. There is a general perspective of the Minoans as being very peaceful and progressive, and since the cannibalism can’t really be proved to have been done by them (the evidence the act took place is very real and accurate though,) it might have made people shy away from focusing on it. Nevertheless, as I started researching the album, and this topic came up more and more, I was that much more enthralled.
What can you say specifically about the song “Sixty Foot Waves”?
“Sixty Foot Waves” is specifically referring to the supposed tidal waves that decimated the shorelines of Crete and the maritime infrastructure of the Minoans’ coastal towns after Thera, a massive volcano on nearby island of Santorini, exploded so violently that it caused an enormous earthquake which in turn caused ungodly tidal waves to come roaring towards Crete. Research finds that the waves reached far up the hillsides, and had to be at least 60 feet tall, even taller possibly. There is also evidence that shows they repeatedly bashed the city, barely a half hour in between. These waves obliterated harbors, docks, piers, and more importantly boats. Meanwhile, the earthquakes did their own damage, and possibly destroyed many palaces and inland towns, setting fire to entire communities. After all was said and done, the Minoans were crippled and vulnerable. The rest of that story is continued in the song that follows, called “Mycenaeans.” The song is lyrically written in a military tale type way, as if the ocean is trying to conquer the island “like an invading state.”
Metaphorically though, the song can easily be viewed without any historical reference and seen as a prophecy of what might possibly happen to our own coastal towns here on the West Coast, especially with rising ocean levels. Living less than two blocks from the mighty crushing waves of the Pacifica Ocean, that is something very much on my mind. If a tidal wave hit, and we didn’t haul ass up the hill in time, we’d be done, as would be huge swaths of San Francisco and East Bay neighborhoods. Countless lives lost, and washed out to sea. I’ve have tidal waves on my mind a lot since Japan.
On top of that, the last segments of the song tie its subject matter directly into the last couple albums in ways fans might not be expecting.
What are your plans to present this music live? Is it an album you’d like to perform in full, or are you just highlighting a few tracks live?
I think we could play the whole thing live. We’ve played half of it live so far, including “Minoans,” “Sixty Foot Waves,” “Mycenaeans,” and “Phaistos Disc,” all of which are heavy crushers. But I’d like to play the more gentle or plodding slow songs, like the country-esque lullaby, “Pearl and the Parthenon.” They all were certainly written to be performed live. We’d just have to practice way more than we do now! We’re figuring out some minor touring and of course high-profile regional shows for next year. Maybe even Europe finally, so we’ll certainly be learning how to play most of it. Keep your eyes and ears open, we may be coming your way in 2015!