Squarewave on a new lineup and "A Tighter Knot"
The Wisconsin psych-pop outfit discuss their recently released album.
With Squarewave's core songwriters—Jeff Jagielo and Patrick Connaughty of legendary and long-defunct Madison band Ivory Library—split between rural central Wisconsin and Madison, it understandably took a while to follow up their 2009 album, a gorgeous psych-pop effort titled Throwing Stones. Thankfully, after a few membership changes—which include the departure of precise original drummer Brandon Smith, a stint with former Smart Studios engineer and Bugatti Type 35 mastermind Wendy Schneider, and firing their laptop—the band have finally returned with a full lineup and a new album in A Tighter Knot.
The new record blends layers of immersive sonic tapestries, hypnotic rhythms, and lush electronic soundscapes with ripened folk songwriting. It incorporates moody bits of the 1980s Paisley Underground movement and the entrancing qualities of Krautrock. However, beyond the songwriting, a big part of Squarewave's sound comes from Jagielo's audio engineering background (he worked at Smart Studios from 1995 to 1996) and Connaughty's homebuilt instruments.
"Pat built his own modular synthesizer from scratch," Jagielo explains. "As well as his two guitars, amplifier, and effects. He's super talented and it's all top notch. His amp is made out of old Hammond organs." Since wrapping up the album, the band has expanded its lineup with Dash Hounds members Alivia Kleinfeldt on bass and Brendan Manley on drums. The official release show for A Tighter Knot won't be until January 18 at The Frequency, but the album was recently released via Artisanal Records and is streaming in full on the label's website. All four members recently spoke with Tone Madison about writing songs from electronic drum patterns, building a wall of sound, and how three weeks of work ended up taking six years to finish.
Tone Madison: How did A Tighter Knot begin coming together? Were you already working on it before original drummer Brandon Smith departed?
Jeff Jagielo: It's our first album since 2009's Throwing Stones. We'd been recording off and on since then. We didn't play that often, so maybe it seems like there were years between our shows. I actually called Brandon to record the drums on about four tracks and never heard back from him—ever. Pat and I were a bit perplexed. Brandon is such a powerful rock drummer and has this great charisma and sense of humor that took the computer element out of our live set up, but it was also always a battle of volume.
Patrick Connaughty: It was a constant, yet extremely slow, recording process. It could have all been condensed into maybe three weeks, but it took years. Hoping not to repeat that.
Tone Madison: Jeff and Patrick—I know you two live in different parts of the state. How do you generally work on the writing process? Do you pass things back and forth remotely? Or do you make sure to work together in person?
Jeff Jagielo: [At first], we'll both have song ideas that we'll trade via computer, but then we'll get together to record the basics. We'll have the general structures and then each of us will add what seems to work on top the ideas. Since I have the [studio] setup, I'll generally spend more time tweaking the songs.
Tone Madison: One of my favorite parts of Squarewave's overall sound is your chord choices, which tend to be moody and mysterious. You never seem to take the easiest route from A to B. Is this something you're mindful of?
Jeff Jagielo: Not really. I'm just going with what sounds good in my mind. Many times, I'll have a few chords that work and then a melody will present itself that sometimes ends up changing the original chord progression. I'm certainly not a schooled musician. A great deal of this album was sketched out on a piano. Again I'm not too skilled on piano. "Chopsticks," OK?
Tone Madison: What is the division of labor like? Are you both pretty active with both the songwriting, electronics, and production when working on an album?
Jeff Jagielo: Yes. Pat has strong ideas about where his songs should go—bass lines, drums, and keys. He'll always leave the song after we accomplish those things and then let me at it.
Tone Madison: Then you come in and sculpt the production?
Jeff Jagielo: Yes. I'm usually impressed with how quickly he comes in and lays down the finished tracks. We don't discuss much. We're so used to working with each other that we just drink, record, and laugh. He'll have a few points to make about where the song should go and then he's on his way back home.
Tone Madison: One of my favorite tunes on A Tighter Knot is "Pages," which eerily channels Nick Drake and hypnotic Krautrock. The bass synth sounds super meaty. How did this one come together?
Jeff Jagielo: We were playing off a groove from a drum machine. We used a Roland System M1 synthesizer for the bass line—actually two basses, left and right. We tried to be careful with phasing issues. As the groove progressed I just came up with chord changes.
Tone Madison: Do a lot of these tunes begin on a bed of electronics, then? Do you generally build from the rhythm up?
Jeff Jagielo: For A Tighter Knot, drums and grooves were always the foundation to build from—on keys, mainly. However, I'd replace the keys many times with guitars or leave them in the back. I also fell in love with my lap steel on this recording—it's everywhere. I wanted to bring the Krautrock element to a traditional pop-psych production, though a lot of these songs sound like folk-rock.
Tone Madison: Sure, it resembles folk-rock at times, but not in some cheesy, hyper-affected sort of way. I can definitely hear the psych and Krautrock influences as I'm listening to the last third of "Stay Away" and that rippling, hypnotic wall of guitar and droning synthesizer slide in.
Jeff Jagielo: There's a wall of sounds on that one—a Moog, a pump organ, and about 15,000 [layers of] guitar all soaked in echo. Oh, I almost forgot about the Mellotron. I'm a sucker for that.
Tone Madison: Brendan and Alivia, how did you end up getting involved?
Brendan Manley: We both played in Modern Mod, which I had the pleasure of joining for about a year before we disbanded. Jeff came into B-Side Records one day and was talking to Steve Manley about Squarewave and how they needed a drummer. So Steve said, "Hey, I know a drummer!" Then there was inquiry about adding a bassist to the lineup, so naturally, I suggested Alivia—being the awesome bassist she is.
Alivia Kleinfeldt: I hadn't been playing bass since the split of Modern Mod, so I was eager to get back out and doing it—especially with Squarewave's music. We've been practicing at my house in Verona.
Tone Madison: What's the live setup for Squarewave like these days? I remember you having a computer with Ableton loaded up onstage at prior shows.
Jeff Jagielo: [Before], we were playing with Wendy Schneider—of Smart Studios, Coney Island Studio, and also the director and main architect of the Smart Studios documentary—and various drummers. We were a different beast of a band then. It was cool with three vocals, but our schedules just wouldn't allow it to happen. When Steve told me about Alivia and Brendan, I was worried that our age difference would be weird, but they both are so great musically and have such instincts. We aren't using Ableton at all anymore and it's great to not have the anxiety of computer failure or glitches to make or break the band. But, that's not to say that we won't in the future. We've been really working on our guitar interplay. With Brendan and Alivia laying down groove's, theres still a wall of sound at times, but it's still a goal of mine to bring keys and electronics into the fold.
Tone Madison: What's next for Squarewave? Have you begun writing new music as a four-piece?
Jeff Jagielo: Yes, and we hope to write more.