GIANT SQUID’S AARON GREGORY: THE METALSUCKS INTERVIEW
photo by Daryl Darko
Aaron Gregory of Giant Squid wears so many hats that he’d easily clear out a headwear shop. He’s a former fish store owner, a student, a scuba diver, a graphic designer, and the guitarist and vocalist of Giant Squid. Gregory and his bandmates, including his partner Jackie Perez Gratz (also of Grayceon) recently released Cenotes, a more than worthy follow to the critically acclaimed album The Ichthyologist. Cenotes is also a key component to a storyline Gregory is creating for a graphic novel. Gregory’s fascination with the sea started when he watched Jaws as a kid. It scared him shitless, but changed his life. The new father discussed his aquatic fascination and Giant Squid’s new album recently with MetalSucks.
How did you develop this obsession with all things nautical? Did you watch Jacques Cousteau as a kid?
The Jacques Cousteau specials from the 1960s and 70s were syndicated when I was a kid. I watched them with my parents. I had this inherent, unexplainable fascination with anything that had to do with water and anything that lived in it.
Both houses I grew up in had creeks running behind them, and I’d always be messing around, exploring those. From there it started with a goldfish and a bowl when I was really young. Then, I convinced my parents to get me a twenty-gallon aquarium when I was about seven. By the time I was ten, I had six large aquariums going in my room all the time. It drove my parents apeshit because they were so loud, with all the noisy air pumps. I’d frequently gather all the nickels and dimes I could and ride my bike to the local pet store. I’d harass this poor guy there in his early twenties, picking his brain about which fish is what. Then I’d buy some tropical African fish that would kick the shit out of everything else in the tank, and learn from my mistakes. It kept growing and growing as an obsessive hobby from there. It was never a phase; it never went away for me.
When I got old enough to drive I would spend a lot time on the road going to Monterey and San Francisco to visit the public aquariums. I was just a nut for it. My mother paid for my dive certification as a high school graduation gift, and I started jumping in the local river with all my scuba gear and scurrying to the bottom. It was near zero visibility and sixty-five degree water at the warmest, and all I usually saw were lots of tires and crayfish. I’d collect small bass and other fish for my tanks at home, and try to figure out what everything was. Most all of my earliest jobs were at pet stores, and I volunteered at the local salmon hatchery. Years passed and I bought someone’s aquarium maintenance company, which led to purchasing a tropical fish store.
What was it like running a tropical fish store?
I was probably a bit too young to do it, only twenty-one. My aunt and I were partners. I was an owner, operator and manager and did all the animal caretaking and ordering. I also kept on top of the technology. I lived in a large apartment upstairs where my band practiced. Back then we were called Koi, after the fish. We changed the name to Namor, after the Marvel character. We soon decided we needed a more basic name, something people could get immediately. We couldn’t believe Giant Squid wasn’t taken. All of the other animal band names were taken.
It was hard not to be inspired by such stuff when your band practices above a fish store.
You’d think it would have been taken by one of those bands that have a fixation with 1950s horror films.
Definitely. When we started doing this there weren’t people calling bands whale-core yet (laughs). Isis’ Oceanic was a couple years away. Not to say people hadn’t played with these themes before, but we were big enough dorks about the ocean to go with the name Giant Squid. We’ve had to get it federally trademarked to get others who tried to use it to back off, but we’ve been around long enough that no one tries anymore.
What fascinated you about the ocean? The variety of life? The isolation?
I was obsessed with things that lived under water. The fact that a small pool of water can house an entire alien ecosystem blew my mind. I spent so much time looking at dragonfly larvae and snails and these weird little animals. I just couldn’t believe all this alien life lived behind my house in the tiny creek. My obsession was exaggerated a thousand fold whenever I looked at a river or an ocean. It was just the massive amount of life in water that spurred my interest. I could be diving in the American River, in the middle of Sacramento County, surrounded by shad that swam up from the ocean, and be thrilled. I’d think about how far away I was from the coast, and yet there I was swimming with wild ocean animals that came to my town. Most people just consider shad dirty old fish.
Did you start playing music after you developed this obsession?
I started playing in punk bands when I was just shy of fourteen. My father bought me a miniature scale bass when I was thirteen. I started some neighborhood punk bands in the garage. I never incorporated anything water-based until high school, my junior year, when I met the people who formed the early lineup of Giant Squid. We were obsessed with The Subhumans and Citizen Fish and a lot of anarcho-peace punk. A lot of what they sang about was evolution and where we come from. We started a punk band called The Pedestrians and sang about coming from the ocean and being primates, but also hating high school and getting beat up by jocks. Years later, when this punk band changed into Koi, all of our song titles were like chemical compounds and about sharks and fish.
It sounds like the science club mated with the high school band.
[laughs] A little bit, yeah. But I never liked the science club kids and I thought the band kids were stuck up. But you’re kind of right. There was a weird combination of niches that you’d find in any high school.
So you are living above this pet store and you are playing in a band. Why did you leave the business and spend more time on music?
We were forced to because of the logistics of the business. All the fish and pet stores throughout California took a huge hit after 9/11, and I bought my shop a week before the planes crashed. Disposable income was gone. Since we put every dollar we had into getting the shop we couldn’t last longer than a couple years. I ended up having to sell the business back to the previous owners. A Sacramento musician, Johnny Cowan, bought my aquarium maintenance company when I took over the shop, but he unbelievably gave it back to me for a fraction of what I sold. That helped my life tremendously. I kept up with that and made a much better living than with the retail shop. But it was hard to lose the store. It was one of my life’s dreams. Fortunately, by going back to the maintenance job I was able to focus much more on music and kick the band’s momentum into overdrive. I had money to put into it and more time to make it happen.
When Giant Squid moved to Austin, Texas, I got hired by one of the biggest aquarium maintenance companies in the country. When I returned to San Francisco, I got hired as a professional diver and animal handler at Aquarium of the Bay. I was surrounded by sharks all day long, and literally wrangled them on a weekly basis. The Sevengills weighed twice as much as I do. The aquarium thing has almost always been my day job.
A “cenote” refers to a deep cave or a pit under the water, correct?
They are basically underground rivers and very common in the Yucatan. They flow under the jungles. The roofs fall in on the cenote and you can access these pristine underwater aquifers. The water is beyond crystal clear. Mayans and Aztecs considered them holy places and would hold sacrifices there. They were a very important part of that ancient culture. I was lucky enough to get to scuba dive into one in Tolume, Mexico. It changed me in a lot of ways. I’ve never been in anything like it.
On the Cenotes cover you see a hook that’s hanging into the abyss, seemingly reaching into nothingness. It seems to imply a lack of life or gravity.
That’s a good interpretation. The cover is a part of a larger mythos that is going to be revealed soon. We have a comic coming out with the Cenotes vinyl. Cenotes will play a big part in this story arc. There’s a lot going on at the other end of the line [laughs].
You are going back to school and just became a father [with bandmate and cellist Jackie Perez Gratz]. Did these changes work their way into writing Cenotes?
Absolutely. The record is very birth-centric. In some ways Cenotes is the offspring of the The Ichthyologist. There are moments when I tried to write the music as a child looking at their father, and some moments the very opposite. I mean, the majority of Metridium Fields was about child – parent relations and emotions, so that’s been a constant theme I revisit. Having a kid just drove it home. While we wrote this record Jackie was very much pregnant. There was so much mystery and impending anxiety. That undoubtedly got wrapped up in the record.
You mentioned a comic will be coming along with the vinyl version. Can you tell me more about that project?
It will be half as long as a monthly comic, which is usually about twenty-two pages. It’s directly about the Cenotes event in this grand story of The Ichthyologist. It will explain a lot of what is happening on the album cover and what a lot of the songs are about without giving too much away. I’ll be happy to get this graphic element of Giant Squid out there. Once finished, it will let me show my work to companies and hopefully land some jobs. It will also give fans a taste about what these songs are really about [laughs]. I’m sure a lot of fans are scratching their heads over that. My goal is to try to do a small book every few months, six books a year. That’s pretty ambitious considering I’m in school and a father but I want to get this out. Hopefully I’ll have enough content for a graphic novel or trade paperback in the next year or two.
Do you ever worry that focusing so much time on the graphic element will take away from your music?
No, because they are all separate parts of my being. I’ve gelled them all together; my music, my art and my love of science. But they are still very different parts of me. I can focus on things exclusively. When I was writing Cenotes it was all about hunkering down and working on the music, working on riffs. When I focus on art I focus on being a better illustrator, and put music down for a bit, if not just that day. I just take things one at a time so I don’t get overwhelmed. I don’t try to write songs and then jump in and draw something in the same afternoon. I need to have a good warm-up for each thing. When I work on a drawing I have coffee and work for few hours in the morning, then get some fresh air, then work through the night. I stay in that mode and keep my head and hands working. The secret is not trying to do all the trades at the same time.
It sounds like you are creating an entire mythology for Giant Squid out of thin air, sort of like what H.P. Lovecraft did with the Old Ones.
I’m creating a fantasy comic book universe. There will be explorations of spirituality and examining the idea that all things, all existence and thus consciousness, comes from the ocean. There is a lot of heady stuff. There are also just a lot of giant oceanic monsters trying to destroy the world. It’s pretty damn adventurous and fun.
What is it like to have your life partner also be your musical partner?
Incredible. She’s an amazing person and the best musician I’ve ever known. We’re able to hang out and talk about bands, gear and songwriting, show each other new stuff. She’s so much more metal than I am. I’ve been so influenced and inspired by Grayceon after watching them more than 40 times now. Being able to experience playing all these shows and adventures together is simply amazing. It’s tough, too, like any relationship can be in stressed times, like on long tours, but we’ve done it a lot now and it’s worked out wonderfully.
Do you shop for albums together?
Not really, but we show each other stuff. We have common ground. We’re both huge fans of stuff like Grails and Helms Alee. We had both a metal and mellow playlist to listen to during labor. We had a very long labor so there was a lot of time to listen to music. When it comes to classics she really taught me a lot about stuff like old Scorpions and UFO. I then even get her to listen to Citizen Fish sometimes.
When you said you had a metal playlist for labor why was I thinking you are in the delivery room with Cannibal Corpse playing in the background…
[laughs] No, no, no. It was more of a rocking playlist rather than a metal playlist. There was Dio and old Scorpions and some Sabbath. Jackie’s a huge Judas Priest fan. Sometimes the livelier tunes were much better than trance-inducing Middle Eastern music.
What was the most difficult song on this album to write?
“Snakehead.” I had this grand concept and all the riffs but had to convince the other people in the band they were Giant Squid material. There’s almost like a reggae part played with a punk beat in the first half of the song before we break into distortion. They liked the riffs but they just didn’t know where to find their place in them. I told them to think snaky and weird, otherworldly. Jackie writes that kind of stuff in her sleep, but it still took a while. We had all kinds of struggles with that song but it finally came to life one day. Most of the other songs were very spontaneous. In this case though, I just had a hard time convincing people that all of these jazzy gypsy chords would work.
What is it like for Jackie to play with a three-piece in Grayceon and then work with a musical collective in Giant Squid?
Grayceon is a lot faster and busier and Squid is more riff-based with some pop structures. Also, since Squid has a bass player her role changes. There’s so much going on in the low end that it works better for her to play more high register stuff. With Squid she gets to pluck her strings with her fingers in a pizzicato technique a lot, rather than use her bow. It has a banjo kind of sound. I’m sure Squid is easier for her to play, since it’s slower and more spacious, but I like to challenge her vocally. I ask her to sing in a higher register. She sings with her natural chest voice in Grayceon.
I don’t know how she does vocals while playing a cello with no frets. Even with a guitar with frets I fuck up all the time.
When people call Giant Squid post-metal, what do you think?
I don’t know what that is [laughs]. With our band I’m sure the debate about genre and metal niche is going to rage on forever. I assume post-metal means the whole Neurosis-Isis movement in metal. We’re definitely inspired by those bands and try to pay homage to them. But I think people should be inspired by bands, not rip them off. I can wholeheartedly say we’ve done something new with our music. It still all comes down to distorted down-tuned guitar riffs, though. What makes it interesting is what you do with those riffs and around those riffs.
When Mastodon put out Leviathan and officially claimed the Moby Dick record were you like, “Shit, we should have done it first…”
[laughs] When we were throwing band names around back in early 2002, we decided Namor would bite us in the ass later with legality and copyright issues. We were going to use the name Leviathan, and quickly found it had been used. Then Mastodon put out Leviathan. Mastodon was so Moby Dick fixated so I never worried about it. The same with Ahab. Leviathan is an incredible record, and of course Moby Dick is an incredible book, if hard to read. Jaws was much more important to me, both as a movie and a book. I love whales, but sharks are everything.
Could it be that Moby Dick is about one man’s mad quest to conquer nature and your music is about coexisting with it?
The book is fixated on Ahab and his quest. The whale is the outside force coming in, I was always much more interested in being part of the outside force.