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Squarewave takes a subdued approach on “Hazy”

The Wisconsin psych-rock band’s latest album came out on September 4.

The Wisconsin psych-rock band’s latest album came out on September 4.

Squarewave’s music has always had ambiance to spare, drawing as it does on elements of folk, psychedelic rock, and electronic music, often rendered in meticulous hi-fi detail. The Wisconsin band’s founding members, multi-instrumentalists Jeff Jagielo and Patrick Connaughty, often balance out their lush arrangements with triumphant hooks or Krautrock grooves. But on Squarewave’s new album, Hazy, they slow down and let the atmosphere seep to the foreground, creating some of their most restrained and moody songs yet.

“It’s kind of a dreamy, not-quite-awake album,” Jagielo says. “After we put all the tracks together and started listening to them together, they kind of presented themselves as a whole. It wasn’t a conscious effort to make a subdued record, I think that’s just what comes out.” An initial cut of the album, he notes, had more tracks and was “even darker.”

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The opening track, “When I Sleep,” sets the pace with a repeated, descending acoustic guitar figure draped in diffuse reverb, burbling synthesizers, wandering piano, and languid electric guitar phrases. Squarewave has never exactly been a gloomy band, but it’s hard to miss the sadness that weighs upon “Idiots All” (a bittersweet lament about the end of the world, more or less) or the closing track “I Can Not Find You.” 

Even on brighter, brisker tracks like “The Other Side” and “Turn It Off,” Squarewave creates a sense of exhaustion, though it never sinks into despair or complete surrender. “The Other Side” gives the band’s newest member, multi-instrumentalist Biff Blumfumgagnge of The Gomers and Reptile Palace Orchestra, space to layer up multiple tracks of aching violin. 

Hazy‘s most striking track, “Lemonade,” is as close as the band gets to being downright bare-bones. Jagielo recorded the core of the song by himself late one night, with an acoustic guitar, a hushed vocal performance, and one microphone. About halfway through, a gentle piano nudges in, along with vocal overdubs drenched in gauzy tremolo. It’s hard to tell whether Jagielo is feeling melancholy or if he’s feeling a bit stunned by the moments of beauty and innocence in the world. With Squarewave, it’s often easy to feel a bit of both. 

The follow-up effort to Squarewave’s 2016 album A Tighter Knot could well have been a more rocking affair, recorded live-in-studio with the band’s current five-piece live lineup. After A Tighter Knot came out, Jagielo and Connaughty recruited two younger Madison musicians, Alivia Kleinfeldt (Dash Hounds, Modern Mod) on bass and Brendan Manley (Dash Hounds, Disq, Post Social) on drums. That same year, the band asked Blumfumgagnge to join them at a live show to play a cover version of Nick Drake’s “Road.” Since then, Blumfumgagnge has become a full-fledged member of the band. There’s also a natural affinity in their hands-on approach to sound: Blumfumgagnge builds his own hybridized stringed instruments, and Connaughty builds just about everything he plays, from guitars to amps to effects.

As it turned out, the process of recording Hazy was even more spread-out than usual for Squarewave. Jagielo lives up in Wautoma where he manages the family business (a supper club), and Connaughty recently moved from the Madison area to Kansas City. Kleinfeldt and Manley have been busy with projects including Dash Hounds and the recent success of Disq. Blumfumgagnge, during normal times, is frequently on the road as a guitar tech for Robert Fripp. So only Jagielo, Connaughty, and Blumfumgagnge played on the album, piecing it together with some in-person sessions and some remote collaboration. But Jagielo, who ended up playing drums on the albums, notes that Kleinfeldt and Manley helped to shape the material through rehearsals and live shows.

“As far as their contributions, I would present a song to them in a very basic sense and we would just kind of work on an arrangement,” Jagielo says. “With Brendan and Alivia, I’m always blown away by how easy it is working with them. I’ve played with enough other musicians throughout the years that I feel very comfortable with them and we all seem to be on the same page…I ask them to play whatever they think the song deserves, and that’s pretty much reflected in the recording. I tried to re-create what they brought to the table. When we do get together, when we do have that luxury, it’s always fun for me and it’s always a great experience, because they’re just great musicians. Biff is just a monster musician and very tasteful. I think there’s a lot of room for anybody to go kind of crazy in our music and they always have a lot of restraint and I really appreciate that.”

Squarewave is sitting on yet another album of new material to follow Hazy. Jagielo recently formed a new electronic duo, Plainfield, with Ted Xistris, who played with him in the Madison band Ivory Library in the ’80s and ’90s.

Hazy is available through the Artisanal Records label and local record stores.

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