OTwo Interviews: Arthur Leadbetter of Squid

Image Credit: Alex Kurunis

Isabella Ambrosio sits down to discuss Squid’s newest LP, O Monolith with their percussionist, Arthur Leadbetter.

For some time now, Squid has been labelled a ‘post-punk’ band from Brighton, England. The truth is, Squid is a lot more than ‘post-punk’, a more experimental approach to punk music – their band is known for their consistent fusion of various genres, and their ability to create a distinctive and unique vibe despite their encouragement of the collision of sound. Squid is a five-person project made up of Louis Borlase (guitar/vocals), Ollie Judge (drums/vocals), Arthur Leadbetter (keyboards/strings/percussion), Laurie Nankivell (bass/brass) and Anton Pearson (guitars/vocals). Squid boasts an impressive line-up of multi-instrumentalists which undoubtedly nourishes their eclectic tastes in instrumentals and rhythms.

Their most recent LP, O Monolith is hard to describe – in a good way. The elements of post-punk coalesce with a symphony of strings, keyboards, brass, and more. The choruses are filled to the brim with disjointed melodies and bits and pieces of unidentifiable instruments that strike the listener’s senses in a new way. ‘Siphon Song’ off the LP is a personal favourite, combining elements of post-rock and electronic, with a gradual increase in dynamics and haunting harmonies before reaching its apex in a tumultuous chorus filled with the same haunting harmonies and complex guitar strings. The lead single off the LP, ‘Undergrowth’, is a funkier track. It taps into a driving bassline and different guitar picking that leaves the listener in a complex state. The entire record is one that should grab your interest. It is not intended to be background music for daily tasks, but a record you ought to sit down and really focus on.

Arthur Leadbetter, the lead on keyboards, strings, and percussion, joined me for a lengthy conversation about Squid’s newest record, ahead of its release on June 9th. His weaving of the tale of how O Monolith came to be is reserved and filled with carefully chosen words. 

“I grew up around music. My dad’s a musician, my mum was a singer. I was in a very musical house, but I think, ever since I was a really little, young child.” He concludes: “I think it was the only thing that shut me up,” which had us both laughing. “For many years, I thought it was my dad who pushed me into music, but later on in life, I realised that I think it was me that chose it.”

His father’s own passion for music massively informed his choice to pursue it as a career , “My dad took me to see so many gigs and so many concerts when I was younger. I was very lucky to have that. We were always going to see different music, different shows in London. When I started going to school, I joined the local Haringey Music Services… where you go for instrumental lessons, or to join the orchestra, or to join the jazz band. The teachers there, that ran the orchestra, that ran the jazz groups, and played within the groups, were really, some of my favourite and earliest inspirations in music. So driven and so charismatic, and I was very lucky to have that as a guiding force when I was younger.”

He elaborates on the impact of Haringey Music Services on him as a young child and the way he approached music, “With Haringey Musicians, I remember when I must have been 16 or 17. And at the time, the mayor of Haringey was a Jamaican man called Sheik Thompson, and he chose Haringey Music Services as his chosen charity and subsidised a trip to Jamaica for the orchestra and the jazz band. I went to Jamaica for ten days, playing in the orchestra. It was amazing, it was an incredible experience. I think that’s one end of the scale, but the other end of the scale, going to play in the local schools as a part of a small group, playing whatever songs we were playing at the time. Jazz covers, and stuff like that. It gave me a real insight into what music can do for you, and take you out of the everyday slipstream. What I really admired about playing in a group, I can leave every day and I can leave school and go and do this instead. I found it really exciting.”

The influences Leadbetter brought to Squid were extremely innovative considering the post-rock and post-punk foundation the band has. “I grew up playing the cello as my first instrument. Orchestral music was my first introduction to playing music. I was in love with classical music when I was younger. I think the rigorous nature of classical training and the playing and practice I really benefited from. The teaching I got with the cello was really, really helpful for me. And now that I’m in a band that takes influence from the whole spectrum of different types and styles of music, I’m trying to draw upon earlier influences and use them in a way that is novel and new for me. The idea was to incorporate synthesisers with orchestral music, to blend the digital with the acoustic. We are sampling instruments that are classical and turning them into modern synthesisers. [We are also] inputting midi notes into a computer and using that to control analogue and acoustic instruments that have been sampled. We’re bridging the gap, and not just to create unique instruments, but also to tell a story about who I am as a person and where I’ve come from musically. For example, in Bright Green Field, I sampled my dad’s instruments and used my influence. It’s a really sweet way to tell a story about where I’ve come from musically and where we want to go.”

Squid started as a band playing jazz covers in a jazz bar, “Straight off, I don’t think any of us had any formal jazz training. So none of us were really clued up in the technique of traditional jazz. But, I think it’s like the ethos of jazz that we take with us in everything we write. I love the idea that there are no wrong notes, just how you react to those wrong notes. I really love that. I mean, I definitely don’t follow it all the time,” he laughs to himself, “Because there are lots of times where I’m like, ‘that’s a wrong note’,” his face turns to one of stress at the thought, “But I love that idea of the freedom with jazz that you’re able to explore something within yourself that is very personal.”

The band has grown and has become so much more than their jazz beginnings by incorporating genres from all over the world. It remains fascinating how they are able to fuse the genres and create a cohesive sound within the dozens of different elements they include in their work, “It’s definitely tricky sometimes in the rehearsal room sometimes to let everyone’s really diverse backgrounds and influences come through the music equally. You just have to be calm and kind to everyone, and give each other space. And then it’ll come through. There’s no real method, there’s no plan, there’s no discussion about how we compose for the next song, or how we compose for this genre or that genre, it’s just putting our ideas together and giving each other space, and if it goes down this new avenue, then great. Sometimes you go down roads that you take a quick U-turn and get out of there,” he laughs, “And just laugh.”

Looking at all the members, their creativity, and their beginnings, it’s interesting to see how the band came together and evolved from their different upbringings, “The funk and soul band [with two members of Squid] came first. But then, we saw that as very fun and exciting to play, but not a serious endeavour, because essentially, it was just covers. It did involve the three of us, but when we started playing The Verdict in Brighton, in the basement, that was the first time we ever wrote a song together. And it was a very different process, much slower, far fewer rehearsals, just writing a song, and going to play it, and it was always different live. The difference between the two groups, the soul band and Squid, before we were called Squid, is a cavernous difference. When we first started, we sat on the floor of the stage in the jazz club, and one song would last twenty minutes. Very post-rock-y, very slow, and had a modern jazz, post-rock kind of vibe. I hope the recording still exists somewhere. I think it does, I think it’s somewhere. We have some recordings from the first gig we ever played.”

The studio, particularly with O Monolith, felt welcome to collaboration and to new ideas, “[The studio was] busy… It’s organised. We’ve got lots of songs, and not that much time, so we have everything very, very well rehearsed when we go into the studio, so we know that the song is how we want it to be recorded. We obviously allow lots of space for improvement and different interpretations of the song, different versions, and all sorts of experimental studio techniques we want to employ. But, we usually have two sections of recording. First, would be the main tracking, where we’re getting everything down. All the drums, all the main bits, and then, the second half is when it starts to get a lot more experimental. You start to ease into the recording sessions and start to employ different, weird techniques that we love to do.”

Every member of the band has a hand in the experimentation process of the LP, especially the producer, Dan Carey, “A lot of it is down to the producer, I think. I think that the relationship between the producer and the band is a very important one. Listening to them and allowing their creative voice to come through, and allowing them to shine in a way they would like to, is a really important part of the recording process for us. Having that sixth member, and saying, ‘Hey, let’s try this’ and saying, ‘Yeah, go for it.’ And that’s really fun.”

Arthur Leadbetter’s insight into the album gave me a whole different perspective on the album, and our later conversation went beyond the record itself. The post-punk band’s newest LP, O Monolith, was released on the 9th of June, with well over a million cumulative streams on the record. Its punchy drums, strong basslines and diverse style have made it a strong contender for record of the year.