Interview: Aaron Gregory, guitarist and vocalist for Giant Squid

Freddie Ross/Courtesy

Bay Area based experimental rock band Giant Squid had been crafting riffy, fusion songs about marine biology for over a decade before it announced its dissolution in early October. Intensely original in its approach, the band seamlessly fused heavy punk, mediterranean grooves, delicate brass instruments and a distinctly melodic cello into its eclectic discography. Its last album, Minoans, chronicles the tumultuous rise and fall of the proto-Greek civilization in an intensely thunderous yet delicately emotional manner simply impossible to label within a single genre. Although each of the group’s albums was wildly different from the last, they all shared a virtuoso musicianship and concentration on all things nautical.

I first saw Giant Squid perform in the hot, cramped second floor of a Sacramento tavern. Giant Squid guitarist, vocalist and co-founder Aaron Gregory confidently plugged his guitar into his amp, released a tactile wave of dissonant feedback and shouted, “This song is about sharks!” before the band erupted into a noisy fury of dissonant guitar, pounding bass, fracas drums, fragile keys and leering cello. I spoke to Gregory over Skype last week to discuss the music making process, the indie label and the band’s recent ending.

The Daily Californian: Your first album is a keyboard-heavy, trumpet-heavy, organ-heavy progressive rock album, yet your music is labelled “metal.” How would you describe Giant Squid?

Aaron Gregory: We’ve always had to be marketed as “metal,” our first record label (The End Records) was a metal label, and they pushed us as a metal band. There was a real initial backlash when that happened in 2006 by metal-elitist/purists blog dorks — most of the Internet initially saying, “This shit isn’t metal,” and other things not so kind. But when someone finds out you’re in a band — like, that’s your entire thing in life — the next thing you’re asked by anybody and everybody is: “What do you sound like?” I usually tell them something like, “It’s really loud heavy-metal rock music,” ‘cause good luck telling the mom at work that your band utilizes “cinematic soundscapes with bludgeoning down-tuned guitars.” ‘Cause if you get a chance to actually show them, they don’t hear that. They just get confused by my strange singing and the music’s overall racket.

DC: Can you classify Giant Squid as a single genre?

AG: That’s always a tough question … but I usually call it really heavy progressive rock.

DC: Who were your musical influences?

AG: I grew up listening to progressive punk bands that took the super basic fabric of punk rock — the three chords, the dogmatic message — and they would add different themes and elements to it without being too cheesy. Growing up, I was into Subhumans, Citizen Fish, Conflict, Dead Kennedys — and before that, in my early teens, even some more goofy shit like Primus or Dead Milkmen, which opened my mind to making music where anything goes. We established from our first album that damn near anything can happen in our music, as long as it makes sense amongst a backdrop of heavy, dark riffs.  

DC: Your music is noticeably different from the bands you mentioned and other groups in the genre. Most obviously, there’s a cello alongside the loud pounding guitars. Why did the band decide to mix the cello in with a band marketed as metal?

AG: You know, I’ve gotten so used to the band having a cello, I don’t even think about it anymore. But sometimes I catch myself and I remember, “Oh shit, we have a cello,” and (Jackie Perez Gratz) is singing the whole time, she has no frets and she always rocks it. But we’ve had a lot of people come and go, and every time that happens, we get something new or lose something big. Our first three albums were keyboard-heavy because we had a full-time keyboardist. But then the band kind of came apart in 2007, so I somehow convinced Jackie to join the band, mostly because I loved her singing and we desperately needed a strong female vocalist. The cello was a bonus, and back then I just thought she’d play the old second guitar parts, which she did for a tour or two, actually playing those riffs and transcribing keyboard and even trumpet parts to the cello. This was how the band worked until we wrote, The Ichthyologist. Then it really hit home for all of us — oh shit, we HAVE a CELLO. Ha! She’s a beast on every one of three albums she wrote with us.

DC: That’s actually my favorite of your albums. Which would you say is your favorite Giant Squid album?

AG: Minoans, our most recent, will always be my favorite. I think artists always say their latest stuff is the stuff they like the most because it’s the most relevant, you know? The album is 12 years of Giant Squid refining our craft and figuring out who we are. I think the combination of people playing on the album is unprecedented in the history of Giant Squid

The other thing about that album is that I really like the subject matter — it’s really freeing to sing something that’s not so personal. But the story is also totally heartbreaking — the demise of an entire beautiful civilization, the Minoans, consumed by the very ocean they thrived off of.

DC: The albums are all based off a graphic novel you wrote and illustrated yourself. Why did you decide to base all of the band’s music off this one work?

AG: Well the graphic novel hasn’t happened yet. I knew I wanted to draw it. But good luck writing, penciling, inking, coloring and lettering an entire multi-issue comic while working, going to school full-time, being a dad and being in a band. Now that I’m graduated, it’s going to happen, and I have a lot of it drawn already — that’s my next big task in life.

But yeah, the story regardless is certainly introspective and autobiographical in a way, but it’s fantasy as well because I really just personally wanted to write something that I could feel emotionally excited about, but that wasn’t exactly about me. There comes a point when you don’t want to regurgitate thoughts from the painful times in your life over and over again every time you perform, so by detaching myself from the narrative, substituting me with a fictional character of sorts, I can more easily do that without sacrificing my sincerity in performing the material.

DC: Even from a first glance, Giant Squid’s fascination with marine life and the nautical is clear. What is the source of the band’s fascination?

AG: All of Metridium Fields (the band’s first album) has dual meanings. All the songs are deeply personal —  I would always mask the personal aspects behind scientific terminology though. So songs like “Neonate” could be entirely about sharks, but it’s also about my relationship with my father, who died in a motorcycle accident halfway through recording that album. The marine symbolism allows me to replay the song over and over again by compartmentalizing the emotional content, framing it in a way that it can be left on stage or on the record.

Also who doesn’t like songs about sharks? Not enough people have written songs about sharks. So that’s what we did, we carved a niche in shark songs. My obsession with the ocean started when I was really young. It’s a lifelong love, it’s something I know a lot about, so it’s natural for me to interject that in everything I do.

DC: You recently posted to social media that “Giant Squid is done.” What caused the band to make this decision?

AG: I’m not gonna lie, that was hard. I’m the type of guy who, if everyone was on board, I’d keep Giant Squid going forever. A lot of it is because it’s nearly impossible for Jackie and I to do it, as parents of the same child. Having a child changes the way you think about everything, and pre-Pearl, Giant Squid was my life, it was my everything. It was my identity. Then when you have a kid, it really does change your perspective.

As a band, we have gotten to a point in our career where we can drive or fly most anywhere in the states — maybe not Omaha — and we know there’d be at least 20 to 30 die-hard fans waiting. That’s all I ever wanted though. Might not seem like much of anything compared to other top-tier bands on the road, but I’m golden, I’m good. And I’m so long past trying to promote myself to promoters or booking agents, or even other bands. There is so much more to life than that shit. I’d much rather go to the shows than try to convince people to let us play ‘em.  

DC: You mean there’s no market for 10-minute rock songs about sharks?

AG: That was never going to happen. That’s the reality of it. A band with a guy singing like I sing, making songs about sharks and seastar biology is not what people want right now, nor is it what people have wanted in the past 10 years. We don’t have management, we don’t have anyone really big or cool in our corner getting us the high profile gigs. We have to do it all ourselves. And it has gotten to the point that in our late 30s/early 40s, as parents working full-time jobs, we just don’t need it — don’t want it — and certainly don’t want to ask for (fame) anymore. Being at home with our child is 100 times more satisfying than living in a van with four other people for four weeks.

DC: Does that mean Giant Squid is over for good now?

AG: Well, we’ve got other bands going on. I have a band called Squalus, and it’s essentially a super weird, heavy punk band, and it’s about sharks. The whole fucking band is about “Jaws.” All the words are taken verbatim from the book, in order as they appear in the book or quoted from the movie.

DC: Will the cello still be a part of the mix?

AG: Jackie and I are doing a small two-piece project called Ice Plants. It’ll be super mellow, kind of dark exotic Americana, perhaps some Tom Waits and a bit of the Amber Asylum stuff. We’re parents and our biggest concern is Pearl, so her and I need to be in a project where Pearl can jump in the station wagon with us as we go play a cafe in the middle of the day or something like that. That’s what Ice Plants is.

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