About Me

Interview with Caligula’s Horse

Caligula’s Horse are about to release their fifth studio album “Rise Radiant” on the 22nd May 2020. Produced by their own lead guitarist Sam Vallen and mixed by Jens Bogren (Opeth, Devin Townsend Project, Leprous), the record is their most focused and potent artistic statement to date. “‘Rise Radiant’ is uncompromising exploration of the human experience dressed in vivid musical colour and virtuosic performances. The band’s vocalist Jim Grey had a rather interesting and heartfelt conversation with Metal Imperium about the new release. 

M.I. - How did you come up with the name Caligula’s Horse? Is it Incitatus, the one he wanted to nominate consul and priest? Why have you chosen Caligula? Are you a fan of this Roman Emperor? Are you a fan of history? Who are some of your biggest influences and of Caligula’s Horse’s influences?

Unsurprisingly, we get this question quite a lot (laughts)! That's the horse, yeah. Long story short: Sam and I have always been into history and it's a fun story, but more importantly it came to be a term to describe a fraud or someone out of place. So naturally it makes sense for us!

M.I. - I read the band usually likes to approach themes such as positivity, inner struggle, life, spirituality. Why positivity? Are you positive people in general? Why is it important to be a positive person?

I can only speak for myself here but, honestly, I don't consider myself a positive person. I've been fighting a war with my own mental health issues for my entire life, and from time to time I carry a lot of faceless hate with me and people around me suffer for that. I know my public image is a very positive and encouraging one, but that's a very deliberate choice on my part. There was a fundamental change in my outlook right before the release of the third Caligula's Horse album, “Bloom” – I'd been involved with a musical project called Arcane for many years, and had been writing a great deal of sombre and sometimes outright crushingly depressing concept songs. Just before “Bloom”, I lost a dear friend of mine to cancer well before her time, and that was an immense shock to my system that changed me forever. I couldn't deal with putting sadness out into the world, I wanted to make a positive change. That's something that we as a band, and Sam and I as songwriters, are proud to do. “Rise Radiant” is definitely a reflection of that goal.

M.I. - Although I’ve not seen them yet, there’s a lot of personal stuff in the lyrics? Any autobiographical aspects at play? 

I wouldn't say autobiographical, but there are themes that are direct reflections of our personal struggles, challenges, the changes in our lives (particularly as parents), and so forth. For example, Salt carries the emotional weight of periods of feeling suicidal, which is something I've experienced, but isn't about me as much as it is about capturing a snapshot of that moment in that journey for the people who have never experience it before, and celebrating the strength to overcome that moment for the people who have.

M.I. - How do Caligula’s Horse develop and nurture their ideas? In previous albums, the bulk of writing was done by Jim Grey and Sam Vallen but, this time around, the other members have also been involved. Why have you changed the dynamics? Do you think it is reflected in the album?

It's very exciting to Sam and I to have other voices involved in the writing process – there's always something that another set of ears or ideas can bring to the table. Each of the lads has contributed to a tune on “Rise Radiant” and they're all better for it! That change in the dynamic was really a natural one. The entire line-up now is truly passionate about the art as much as the performance, and they were eager to jump in and contribute.

M.I. - In your opinion, what are the bands that have a similar sound to yours? Which listeners might be interested in your sound?

That's a tough question. Honestly, I very rarely think about Caligula's Horse as having a “sound”. Of course, from the outside we definitely do, but it's never something that we try to match in the writing room or choose to cut if it doesn't fit that mould. But we definitely fit into the modern progressive metal world alongside bands like Leprous and Haken, for two quick examples.

M.I. - “Rise Radiant” is your 5th full-length and even the title has a positive vibe… what can fans expect of it? What do you want to achieve with this album? Did you feel any pressure or motivation to equal the quality and success of “In Contact”?

For me there's always subconscious pressure before releasing a new work, but that usually happens before anything is written and then immediately before release, haha! But during the writing process we're head to the grindstone with a singular focus and loving it. Each time we start working on something new, we always challenge ourselves to move forward in one way or another, to take what we loved about our previous work and then add to it or change the direction somewhat. That keeps us excited about what we're doing and always leaves us with an album that we're more proud of than the last.
The real but intangible thing I want to achieve with “Rise Radiant” is to be able to affect the experience of the individual for the better – I want to help people in the small way that I can. It's an album packed with emotion and full of messages of self-worth, inner strength, accepting the power in your weakness, and overcoming strife, whether inward or outward. We wrote all of this out of a reflection of ourselves, but coincidentally, I think those are important messages for people to hear right now.

M.I. - The new album “Rise Radiant” is only a few weeks away from its release and it’s a fantastic record. Was there anything different about the recording process this time around? How do you think the band has developed since “Moments from Ephemeral City”?

Thank you! “Rise Radiant” was actually the first time that we've had a full-on month (or a little more) nothing-but-recording process. We've been doing things by the skin of our teeth for our whole career both budget-wise and time-wise, so recordings of the album have been less direct, particularly in my experience of tracking vocals. This time around we were so lucky to be in a position to do that, I'd never imagined we'd have the privilege of where we currently are as a band. 
It's been nine years since “Moments” was released, and I think you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who was exactly the same as they were nine years ago, haha! We try to keep our music honest to ourselves, and as we've changed or matured (questionably!) over the years, our sound has too. There are a lot more themes of patience and legacy since we've seen more of the world, and become parents and so forth. Big change!

M.I. - Sound-wise, what’s the main difference between “Rise Radiant” and your other four full-lengths?

“Rise Radiant” can definitely be on the heavier side, with some of our heaviest moments so far, but it's also just as full of variety. There are some very gentle moments and longer song journeys that grow throughout, as well as some very direct and punchy shorter songs that hit hard. The biggest differences between “Rise Radiant” and “In Contact” are those exact moments – as a concept album, “In Contact” was allowed to weave a story and take its time, whereas our challenge with “Rise Radiant” was to create a collection of individual tunes that each have their own voice, their own sound and message, and those writing constraints really drove us to create something we love.

M.I. - The new album includes a cover of Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give up” and also a cover of “Message to my girl” by Split Enz, a New Zealand rock band popular in the 70’s and 80’s… Why have you chosen these songs in particular? What’s so special about them?

It's interesting actually, we chose “Don't Give Up” well and truly before crisis struck Australia and then the world. We really chose it because we've always loved that song! It just so happened that the timing of recording the cover was right in the midst of the Australian fires, and even some of the lyrics were eerily appropriate to what we were feeling then. There were definitely some pretty sad goosebump moments in the studio along with that. Even now, with the current global crisis, I think songs like this have become even more essential. Lynsey Ward of Exploring Birdsong joined us as a guest on the track with an absolutely gorgeous performance too!
Much shorter story with “Message to my Girl” – that tune has one of the best choruses in rock music history and I will hear no argument about that, haha! Definitely been a favourite for years, and my Mum and Dad both love it too, so I'm winning some brownie points there.

M.I. - Taking the cover in consideration, do you believe the golden years of rock/pop music was the 70’s and 80’s? Which bands do you enjoy from that era? (I know I love listening to all the great tracks that were created then… even the not heavy ones)

I think that considering a certain era of music as a “golden age” or when the music was “real” is also to consider that music is a fixed and finite unchangeable thing. Like a language or like any other art form, I see music as something that exists in constant flux and development. It would be the same as considering a band having a fixed sound – that might be all well and good for a genre music artist who exists entirely within an existing framework with their take on an established sound, but for a progressive band, that would feel like we've run out of things to say or refusing to learn and grow.
I mean, it's obvious from the cover choice but I'm a big Peter Gabriel fan, his music was a part of my upbringing so it's in my bones! 

M.I. - The cover artwork for “In Contact” was done by an artist called Conor Maguire of Northern Ireland. Is he responsible for this cover as well? Are there any particular elements in the art that the listener should pay attention to? What’s the meaning behind it?

Conor is an incredible artist with a wealth of work behind him, you should definitely check it out! But this time around, all the album art was created by Chris Mangos, who was also responsible for all the artwork for “Bloom”. The artwork was inspired by the theme of an impending journey that seems entirely insurmountable – the deer is a creature that makes you think of nobility and strength despite its beauty and gentle nature, and that quiet creature is looking towards the distant mountain ahead. It's a gorgeous piece, and I feel like that theme of overcoming couldn't be captured better.

M.I. - All your covers, maybe except for the one for “The Tide, The Thief, and River’s End” are very bright and colourful… quite the opposite of the covers of metal bands… is this your way to standout?

It's not really as self-serving a decision as all that. Again, for us, this is all about the art as a reflection of us rather than an attempt to desperately grab someone's attention hoping that they'll love us. The brightness and colour of the artwork is in the music as well, lush chords, vocals that tend to stay on the gentle side, and colourful uplifting themes.

M.I. - This is your 3rd release via InsideOut Music… how’s the relationship going so far? Is it a relationship you have to nurture as if it were a romantic one? What’s it been like working with Inside Out since you signed with them?

Our working relationship with Inside Out Music has been a really enjoyable and fruitful one. It was at the release of “Bloom” through Inside Out that we were able to take the next step to touring outside of Australia and developed a growing international fanbase. They have been truly supportive and don't place any restrictions on us artistically, it's really been a pleasure.

M.I. - The band has already postponed the American tour that was supposed to happen in May / June… anything else? How complicated was it making this decision?

It was the only responsible choice we could make. Of course, it felt like the rug had been pulled out from underneath us, and touring the US has been a pipe-dream of mine that was set to become reality, and watching that fall to pieces was emotionally crushing. That being said, it was the right and only thing to do – our desire to tour, to support the new album, to grow as a band, all of those things are nothing when compared to the very real life and death situation the world finds itself in. There were a couple of other significant tours that hadn't yet been announced that were postponed as well, and we're right in the midst of re-booking those in the hope that we get through all this by 2021!

M.I. - Is touring overseas different from doing shows in your country?

Very different, and very different between those countries too! It often depends on the cultural approach to emotion and to music. For example, our shows in Latin America were wild, and the more heart-on-our-sleeve songs such as “Firelight” from “Bloom” were met with celebration and joyful tears, whereas in Australia, there's less of a response to things like that, and more to the progressively adventurous tunes as well as the heavy stuff.
Touring itself couldn't be more different. In Australia, for a band like us, we're not doing rural touring at all, just metropolitan centres. So, when we'd tour, we'd literally do five, maybe six shows spread over either a week or over two weekends, flying between each show because of the insane distance. We did road tours in Australia earlier in our career and we are well and truly done with all that, haha! Getting too old. In Europe (as was our plan for the US) it's amazing to be able to play 30-ish shows over a month and a bit, and to drive overnight and wake up in a new world every day.

M.I. - Have you had the chance to see how some of the songs sound live? How did people react to them?

None of the new material has been played live yet! We've kept it all tightly under wraps. Personally, I can't wait to play “Slow Violence”, “Valkyrie”, and “The Ascent” live. They're going to be huge fun.

M.I. - What have you been doing in this quarantine/social distancing days? How are things in Australia regarding this?

Australia was pretty slow to respond, I think there's a common theme around the world (except in New Zealand) of politicians being more concerned about their own re-election or position than public welfare when it comes to things like this. But we've taken action over the last month or so, lots of isolation, social distancing, the schools are closed, that sort of thing. We've been able to flatten that curve pretty well! Hope it keeps up.

M.I. - How much negative / positive impact has this virus had in the “life” of Caligula’s Horse so far?

It's most definitely had a negative impact. We've suffered some losses from tour cancellations and the loss of opportunity, but we've personally dodged some pretty significant bullets and come out okay. There are a lot of bands around us that have been hit super hard. More than that, some of our crew and heaps of others in the industry have had their careers and livelihood disappear literally overnight.

M.I. - Have you written new lyrics ever since this insanity began?

Honestly, no. It's a combination of being far too busy, and also just trying to get by mentally. I'm homeschooling my daughter for the first time ever, which I'm happy and proud to do, but it is pretty exhausting and keeps me on my toes. But my big problem is that I need people. I rely on family and friends to stay sane and keep me on the level, and I don't really have that contact now, so from time to time I feel trapped, which is pretty punishing. Obviously, I'm incredibly lucky and I'm just having a whinge here, but basically there's no time or inclination for creativity from me right now.

M.I. - You’re not the traditional prog rock band – what’s your take on progressive rock/progressive music?

For me it's about having an original voice musically. I've always been an advocate for artistic honesty – when I used to give singing lessons, one of the most important things that I wanted to impress on younger singers is that emotional honesty is not just the key to developing your own artistry, but the way to connect with people through your music. So that's something we strive to do, as well as to fight ourselves on our own habits and challenge ourselves to develop with each record. That constant effort to grow and find out more about your own music is what makes an artist progressive to me. But there's an endless list of different views on that!

M.I. - What is your view on progressive rock and metal in Australia and has there been an increase of fans and bands following the genre?

There is definitely a solid progressive music scene in Australia. We've seen peaks and troughs in that scene in terms of its popularity over the years, but the artistic output from prog bands in Australia has been huge. Interestingly, even as the popularity of the genre has remained fairly static in Australia, Aussie artists have reached the ears of prog fans worldwide and seem to be making a pretty significant impression! 

M.I. - In this strange period of our lives with the coronavirus… is there anything you have just realized? Like that we should value our normal lives? That money doesn’t matter? Anything like this?

Personally, it's been a serious ego check for me in terms of what's important in the world and my place in it. I can only hope that that's been the case for many people, particularly people in positions of responsibility. But there's never been a greater opportunity to grasp the global change that we've needed for so long, and the evidence of the impact of our absence in the world has been made abundantly clear. When we make it through all this, I can't see how we can return to the status quo as we knew it.

For Portuguese version, click here

Questions by Sónia Fonseca