The Squid and The Whale is a Hattiesburg band like no other. None since. None before.
On their new album Advanced Directives, the band demonstrates maturity but not in that assured way. Instead, the seven songs pull the band in different directions, sometimes all at once.
However, no matter how they try to subvert or best what they created before, Advanced Directives works hardest to be fully-realized and uses imagery that exists within any time or place.
The pursuit of this universal ethic bonds together the four members (singer/guitarist Sarah-Bryan Lewis, keyboardist Jaime Jimenez, bassist David Meigs, and drummer Dusty Weiss - truly they all sing) as even the most emotionally trying tale finds a settled conclusion.
Fortunately, they sat down with us to enlighten Advanced Directives, its development and better illuminate their live show and sense of direction.
SIGNATURE: The music of The Squid and The Whale has always been a well of emotion. As you have seasoned as a band, do you just know when Sarah-Bryan presents you with a song that is truly yours?
DAVID MEIGS: Sarah-Bryan has seasons where it seems like the songs just flow out of her. She will randomly send us a rough take on something she is working on and let us sit with it for a week or so. Jaime, Dusty and I will come to the table and start putting parts together around the initial frame of the song, and individually make suggestions for countermelodies, tempo ideas and build the song into The Squid and the Whale iteration.
We have workshopped songs for weeks and ended up never showcasing when we play them live. In other instances, we have completely disassembled the original renditions.
The true test is when Sarah looks at Jaime and lights up -- that's when I know we are on to something special.
DUSTY WEISS: I think the longer we've played together-the better we've gotten at communicating during song development.
This translates into each of us approaching a song in different ways but then talking through what the other is doing as well as our likes and dislikes until everyone's individual ideas merge into one cohesive end product that holds true to Sarah-Bryan's original framework while also carrying the personal imprint of each member.
This process gives everyone pride and ownership of the song. That breeds a passion for the song that, I think, comes through in the performance.
SIGNATURE: Your songs have a different structure this time out. Several use a more pronounced form giving the listener several memorable choruses to hang on to. While you were writing and recording, were there albums and artists you took inspiration from?
SARAH-BRYAN LEWIS: For me, Jason Isbell and Chan Marshall all day. His storytelling is just beyond anything my heart can take. And her ability to create the most unique yet memorable melodies and compositions are inspiring even on the 1000th listen. But it doesn't just stop there. Keeping a constant flow of diverse musicians and albums in your ear at some point WILL creep its way into your creative process.
SIGNATURE: There is a lot of sophisticated instrumentation on this record. How did you put all of this together with the various harmonies, your instruments, and strings even?
MEIGS: Jaime's musical genius helps in this arena. He can hear me play a bass part or Dusty doing some off-hand beat, and help us shape a hook that lights Sarah's melody.
With "The Warden," I think Sarah had the idea of adding a string quartet, and Jaime spent some time and wrote the parts. I have made it my mission to get a multitude of sounds out of the bass through various techniques and attacks. I guess I hope by expanding our sound, listeners will think we are a way bigger band than we are.
SIGNATURE: "Advanced Directives" is a clinical title. However, the record you have made is far more human. Are these lyrics emerging from dreams or free association? ("The Bathtub" mentions "cars on fire" or "The Warden" has "monsters sleeping in a pile under the door")
LEWIS: I have found that the moments between sleep and awakening are the most sacred moments that I have. For those few minutes or seconds, I am both too tired to focus on the distractions that come with my own awareness, yet awake enough to be aware of my own rooted existence.
Moments like these seem to be the moments where I can exist without the baggage. I breathe, I see, I focus. I imagine that is what dying might feel like. To exist within a single moment. And that's exactly what this album is - a blend of both. The "in-between."
The title was drawn (and there are a lot of layers here but I'm attempting to scratch the surface on this) from watching someone I love taking their very last breath. It was a weird experience. It changes you. It challenges your entire construct - the notions that help you sleep at night. The idea of forever. The things you do daily. The definition of "you." Breathing is all temporary in the grand scheme of things. So are we. We don't like the idea of that. But we exist until we don't. And with that last breath - silence.
Then what comes after? What was the legacy? What do we truly leave behind, if anything? What instructions have we given to those around us, be it written, verbalized, an act of pure goodness that ripples beyond any life we've ever known? That's this album. A dream. An existential struggle. A realization. The death of a part of us. The birth of something new within us. A new awareness. Impermanence. Just a lot of layers to unpack. I'm unsure what any listener grabs from it - to each their own - the album is meant to be listened to in the order that I placed it in. All in all, it's just one big story, each song breathing life into the next. It is my own instruction manual for myself. It is my Advanced Directive, in a way that stretches beyond a hospital bed.
SIGNATURE: "Pincushions" seems anchored in leaving something or someone behind. Amid your views of "color-coded labels" and "brittle birds" hovering above you, you are taking into account all of the things in your vicinity that some could see as what "makes" you - so to speak. However, then the chorus frees you - but still, leaves me wondering - what exactly does make each of you? And what makes you a band?
LEWIS: "Pincushions" actually makes me. It's a song about my struggles with my health (the doctors, the needles, the barn owl that loves to put me in check if I ever try to sit on my porch at night and feel sorry for myself) and the desire to be free of it. But in that desire, also my acceptance that my health struggles are just as much a part of me as anything else in my life. The friendships I have, the things I do, the job I clock into, the words I say, and the actions I take.
Identity is a weird thing. It's just a bunch of experiences that you absorb and package into a nice little box. We are both everything and nothing. And that's what this band is. A group of individuals, each making our separate journeys, but saving just a little bit for each other. And when we are all in the same room, we share. We bring our identities to the table and make something with it. That's what a band is. You find a group of people that are willing to work as a team. I am honored to call this group of individuals my team. We complement each other. And sometimes drive each other crazy. But first and foremost- we complement each other.
SIGNATURE: "The Warden" seems to frame time as this fleeting item we all chase. In the song, you make all these adjustments to your life just to get a little more. How much patience would you say you have as the central songwriter? And for the band, how much patience would you say you have to lift these images from the page and make a recording that will attract more people?
LEWIS: Patience and I have a very complicated relationship. Depending on the day, I have none. It shows up in the most unlikely of circumstances but is nowhere to be found at other glaring times. But I respect patience, and I have worked very hard over time to allow it a place to exist within my life. What I do know is this - Dusty, David, and Jaime have helped me greatly in that aspect. Especially Dusty. One could likely argue that my relationship with patience has gotten better mainly because of this band.
WEISS: No doubt, we'd love to create something that loads of people would love. But that is not realistic and would only drive us mad. I think we use our internal measuring sticks to determine if the song is attractive or not, and just hope that others like it too. Sometimes patience does run thin in trying to satisfy our own expectations, so much so that some songs get shelved for weeks or months before we actually finish them. You get to those moments where the harder you try to get it right - the harder it is to get right. The best thing is to just walk away from it for a while and try again later. Patience.
SIGNATURE: While you have recorded before, this one had to feel like a dream right? Also, did it feel hopefully close to what you were envisioning all those times you played live in the last few years?
MEIGS: "Advanced Directives" completes a narrative both lyrically and musically. Brennan White, who recorded and mixed us, helped us level up this record and trim some of the fat off of some tunes. Brennan brought what we do on stage and recreated it in a studio sonically. Listening back to Dusty’s drums, Jaime’s intricate sounds and the band in general on this record makes me breathe contently.
WEISS: Yes! I can remember thinking we had some really solid songs entering the studio. Then listening to the early studio mixes, I got downright giddy. I just wanted to listen to them over and over, not out of narcissism, but because I really liked what we created.
SIGNATURE: What is on the record that you are particularly proud of and why?
LEWIS: For me - "Wolves." "Wolves" marked a huge transition in my writing process. It was the beginning of my new experiment in songwriting. After I wrote it, I sat back and actually remember saying, "Well, I definitely have NEVER done that before." I remember being terrified after that. Thinking I had sabotaged myself by setting a different standard and one I couldn't replicate. I am my own worst critic and my writing process is rather self-deprecating at times. So, I'll have to check myself on setting ridiculous expectations. However, in the same vein, I realized that I shouldn't be replicating a thing. Once I settled into that mindset, the only goal from here on out has been "make it different, make it mean something, leave a little to chance."
SIGNATURE: As you write post-album, do you feel a little freer now? And when you just run over pieces of anything that is brand new, does it have that "next chapter" feeling to you?
LEWIS: It's less of feeling "freer" and more like "onto the next adventure." With every song comes the opportunity for the next chapter. I like it.
SIGNATURE: So are you already collecting songs for the followup?
LEWIS: Yes. I actually have two collections going. I have been thinking about maybe releasing a solo album in the next year or two, some are the original (unheard) versions of some of the songs that morphed into a different tone with the full band collaboration, and some that have never been played except by me with my guitar, standing in my bathtub (great acoustics in there haha)
SIGNATURE: What is next after the record release shows?
LEWIS: Taking over the world. Just kidding. I don't really know and I'm okay with that. Just set it free and see what happens. We have created a yearly "short term goal" list and I think it has helped feed momentum. For now, we are trying to play out of town more. My personal end goal would be for a song to end up in a film. I would be over the moon if we achieved that. However, really, as long as I am creating - I am happy.
SIGNATURE: How did The Squid and The Whale take shape? I know it has been over 10 years, and I remember watching Sarah-Bryan play solo and play with Jaime. Unlike most bands around here, you seem to grow organically, away from the sunlight and in privacy.
MEIGS: So when I was in college at USM, I met Jaime Jimenez through a mutual friend who played keys. Jaime and I played together in a couple of bands before I moved to Texas. When I got back into town in 2012, I ran into him at the Farmer's Market downtown and basically invited myself to play with him and Sarah. After a month or so we decided a drummer was needed to complete the family. Dusty and I go to church together, and I asked him if he'd be down to play. Dusty has since become our accountant, drummer, and helps me strategize and execute merch and tours. We have grown as a band both personally and musically, and adding a lead guitar when the right fit came around was in the back of our mind. I think we are in the process of evolving on each album, and hearing Hal Kolodney's layer his insane guitar tones took us there for this album.
SIGNATURE: How it is in Hattiesburg now compared to 2008 when you hit the coffee shops and played to just get your songs out there?
LEWIS: I don't think the town changes. I just think people change. I'm not the same person I was in 2008, so I see the town from a different perspective with every passing year. I don't care anymore if I play for 1 person or 100. The ego aspect of performance is gone for me, and gone with that is the performance anxiety, expectations, etc. I don't want anything from a listener. I'm just here to share my project, and it's inclusive for anyone who wants to participate at that moment. I'll perform, and it is what it is. And that's how it should be. Hattiesburg has always had such a great, diverse (and growing) group of musicians. All these musicians support each other, and that has never stopped. That is what makes this town and the people in it so very special to me. We are all just making our way and holding each other's hands. I'm honored to be a part of that.
Mik Davis, a longtime resident of Hattiesbdurg, is the record store manager at TBONES Records and Cafe.