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12th October 2017
With a revised lineup since their third album, 2015's 'Bloom', musically innovative Aussie crew Caligula's Horse recently released their new, full-length offering in the form of the rather magnificent 'In Contact'. Frontman Jim Grey discussed this new work with Metal Discovery; some of its narrative themes and philosophies; the band's newly found creative emancipation; and just what, for Caligula's Horse, constitutes "progressive"...
METAL DISCOVERY: I gather there was a period of time, mid-2016, where the future of Caligula’s Horse was uncertain? What were the circumstances, and how did you ensure the band returned to full strength?
JIM: That’s pretty true - at that point we’d completed our first tour of Europe, which took a lot out of us personally and financially. I think that was really the biggest catalyst for Geoff leaving the band. So we got back on our feet with his replacement, Josh Griffin, and set out to start writing and touring again, only to be set back by Zac (our original) rhythm guitarist also deciding to leave for similar reasons. Basically the touring life, the expense, the lack of control, all of those things got to the guys and I totally sympathise. Once we’d found Adrian Goleby as Zac’s replacement, Sam and I set about completing ‘In Contact’ with renewed vigour. We’d been under a lot of pressure creatively in the past, both self-imposed and otherwise, to try and appeal to a certain audience or cater to a certain sound, and this album was a deliberate decision to do whatever the hell we want. The leash was off, and we didn’t compromise for anyone or anything. I think that’s why we feel like we have momentum now; we regained control of our goals for the project. This doesn't mean we're out of the woods, though; it's extremely tough for bands of our size to stay afloat right now. But, at least for now, we're very happy, creatively.
(Jim Grey on what makes Caligula's Horse progessive)
"For us, it’s all about story or emotional communication with our audience, and they often hear sounds from us they might not have come to expect, so I feel that’s why we call ourselves progressive."
Caligula's Horse - promo shot
Interview by Mark Holmes
Photograph copyright © 2017 - Stefanie Vallen
Caligula's Horse Official Website:
Thanks to Freddy Palmer for arranging the interview
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MD: A fantastic new album with ‘In Contact’, so how pleased are you with the results, in terms of what your original aims and hopes were for the new music?
JIM: I couldn’t be happier with how ‘In Contact’ has come out - in terms of the conceptual idea, each chapter has its own journey and sound, all the stories are unique and full of personal meaning, the album is everything I’d hoped it would be. Musically speaking, we really challenged ourselves on this one - we wanted to make sure that the music was communicated in an emotional way, and that nothing felt overly protracted, even if the songs themselves were quite long. ‘Graves’ is the strongest example of that; it’s a piece of music that doesn’t feel anything close to 15 or so minutes, it’s all about the journey.
MD: Have fans embraced this new one in the ways you hoped they would, and have you seen an increase in your fanbase?
JIM: Absolutely. The response has been outstanding - there have even been some surprises, like cracking the top 50 in the Australian charts, which is mostly unheard of for progressive artists over here. So the support for the album has been pretty overwhelming.
MD: The theatricality of the philosophically provocative monologue in ‘Inertia and the Weapon of the Wall’ is a nice interjection in proceedings. What’s the story behind this spoken word piece? Who’s the narrator? Just who is Ink?
JIM: This is an interesting one. I know that I’ve just said the album has been received extremely positively, but this track is definitely one that has divided people! It seems there’s no room for middle ground here, either people come out with goosebumps at the other end or they don’t think it belongs on an album. I actually take that as a compliment; it just means we’re doing something maybe a little unexpected, or (god forbid) progressive.
I wrote the basic skeleton of this piece separate from the band and the album, since I’ve been dipping my toe in the water of spoken word over the last few years. It began as a diatribe against people who seem to think that change will come to them by momentum alone - a trait all too common thanks to the echo chamber of social media nowadays. People forget that no change will come without immense effort, so some of my frustration with that poured into the original work that became ‘Inertia’. Once Sam and I had decided on the structure of the album and the four chapters within it, knowing that one of them would be a poet (Ink) led me to rework the piece to cover an important part of his story arc and character.
MD: The melodrama of ‘Inertia…’ continues, to a degree, in ‘The Cannon’s Mouth’… particularly through the vocal delivery. Do you have any kind of theatrical background, or a penchant for the theatre/musicals etc?
JIM: I do, albeit only a little. I’d studied drama in high school, touched on musical theatre in university, and performed in a number of amateur theatre shows with my family for fun. My interest doesn’t really lie with modern musical theatre, since there’s a lot of it that is a little too earnest and over-the-top for me. But the challenge for this album was to tell four stories four ways, and Ink’s was definitely the darkest, so some of the vocal delivery reflects that.
MD: I wrote in my review of the album: “there are many different moods within the songs, and all of the stylistic divergences create, convey, reinforce and reflect the themes and specific moods during any given passage of music.” Do you purposefully try to match lyrics with the changing moods of the music, so the narratives and sounds are at one?
JIM: I think it kind of goes both ways, actually. If a story or lyrical skeleton for a song is quite dark sounding, that will guide the song and its structure but, for the most part, the fundaments of the music comes first, and that informs the way I write the lyrical content. What ends up happening after that is an almost simultaneous writing process, with Sam and I in the room developing ideas in both worlds until we have the full structure of a song. What’s important for us is that the story is being told both musically and lyrically.
MD: A great quality of your songs is that you always seem to be using various genre elements to colour your music with different emotions, rather than letting genre dictate the songs (or, in fact, songs determining the genre). Do you regard genre as secondary to your actual songwriting?
JIM: I think we’d seriously get bored otherwise. There are certain things that we like in music that are present across the board, especially to do with what Sam enjoys in terms of guitar, but they’re only there because they serve the song, and because we enjoy them. Being a slave to a genre means that you’ve closed your mind to emotional opportunities, storytelling opportunities, your scope of content becomes truly limited. If it suits a song of ours to include electronic drums or ambient synths, we’re not concerned about losing fans by using them, haha! Not to mention that the minute “prog” becomes boxed into a single set of sounds and rules, it becomes the most ironically named heritage genre in the business!
MD: Another great quality is that the virtuosic musicianship is only allowed space and time within the instrumentations when the compositions allow for it, and require it; there are no mindless, for-the-sake-of, flashy displays of musical wizardry. With such accomplished technical abilities, is it ever a struggle to exercise restraint… do you find yourselves having to reel in your virtuosity as individuals and as a band?
JIM: Not really - as I’ve said that’s practically a part of the band’s mission statement. But the songs aren’t void of technicality altogether, far from it, we just make sure that the technical doesn’t outweigh the meaningful.
MD: Do you believe what partly constitutes a progressive band is challenging yourselves as musicians, by pushing and developing your own abilities, to find new ways of emotional expression through your music? Any examples of such for the new album?
JIM: That’s a nice way of putting it - for me, it’s more about introducing new ideas to the musical discussion. In what way can you push music forward? Is it by way of complexity, emotional content, instrumentation, influence, musical approach? Whatever you bring to the table will challenge you as a musician, so you’re totally right. I think the most challenging part for me this time around was the a cappella section in the beginning of part 3 of ‘Graves’ (‘The Boy and the Broken Wheel’). Sam composed this gorgeous thing using a bunch of different instruments to highlight the different voices, and I set about writing lyrics for it. Originally, it was going to be one set of lyrics that was rhythmically displaced across each of the parts, but then after listening to the instrumental version for some time I really wanted to grab ahold of the contrapuntal elements and highlight them to represent the different voices of the Sculptor character’s anxiety and paranoia. So my challenge was to write distinct voices with original lyrics for each line, where possible, and bring them all together into a single voice at the end. It ended up sounding great, in that it definitely feels like the rising tide of many fear-inspiring voices, but without resorting to cacophony.
MD: I’ve always made the distinction between genuinely progressive music and generically progressive music; the former being true of bands who are actually progressing, and the latter effectively a paradox in having a genre called progressive. Where do you see yourselves within the polarity of such a distinction?
JIM: There are always going to be crossovers, given that we’re all taking part in the musical discussion right now. Personally, I feel privileged to be writing and releasing music at the same time as some of my favourite artists, and watching them almost trade influences with one another, release by release, is a treat. The difference between that and participating in trends in order to appeal to a certain audience is fairly internal, I should think. More about the reasoning behind your own musical decisions. For us, it’s all about story or emotional communication with our audience, and they often hear sounds from us they might not have come to expect, so I feel that’s why we call ourselves progressive.
MD: Personally, I think Caligula’s Horse veer more towards genuine progression, but do you strive for originality, or is that more a corollary of you compositions?
JIM: I’m glad you think so! I think it has to be both, really. But, to be clear, I mean that we strive for originality for and from ourselves, we don’t want to repeat exactly what we’ve done in the past, because that doesn’t represent who we are in the present.
MD: The only thing about ‘In Contact’ that could be construed as regressive is the album artwork, which seems to have a 70s kind of vibe to it. What is the artwork supposed to represent within the context of the album’s themes and narratives?
JIM: In keeping with the themes from the album, we wanted an original work by an original artist to visually represent the overarching elements of the narrative. Sam came across Connor Maguire from Ireland, and we fell in love with his style immediately. Once he had a brief on the concept and characters, he had free rein to take the cover in whatever direction he saw fit. And the 70s vibes are real! We’re just a fan of that classic look, to be honest.
MD: With your debut album being released just six years ago, Caligula’s Horse already seem to have made quite an impression and impact. Obviously, your talent and fine compositional skills speak for themselves, but how fundamental have Inside Out been in helping get your band name and music out there to a wider, global audience?
JIM: They’ve been a huge help and a great support. They’re a label that respects their artists in terms of musical direction, we’ve never had any pressure from them in that sense. Their reputation for signing good artists has definitely helped push our name worldwide. I think it needs to be said that the progressive music community itself has been just as vital in terms of our reach, people out there seeking new and interesting music, supporting artists that few have even heard of. Those people are the real patrons of Caligula’s Horse and I’m extremely grateful for them giving us a chance and then spreading the word over the years.
MD: You’ve had some tasty support slots over the years with the likes of Opeth, Shining, Anathema, etc. Have you found that your music’s been widely embraced by fans of other bands for such support shows? I ask, because, on numerous occasions, I’ve witnessed a closed-minded “progressive” scene in the UK where, for example, 99% of a 3,000 strong audience at an Opeth gig were distinctly unresponsive to a set by Pain of Salvation. There are many other examples. It seems to me that, at least in the UK, in general, the so-called “progressive” scene is actually an insular-minded and intolerant one when confronted with new, original music.
JIM: That’s a fairly broad stereotype in my experience. There are black sheep of course (particularly on the internet, no surprise) but for the most part, the people I’ve met have warmly welcomed us and been genuine music fans, not just progressive music fans. I suppose if you call yourself a progressive music fan ONLY then you’ve already proven why you’re not. Another interesting thing I’ve noticed in touring internationally is that no nation seems to respond to live music the same as another - there are stoic and silent audiences that you’re sure are hating every second of the performance that surprise you with an eruption of rapturous applause after the song ends; there are crazy drunk party crowds; seated audiences; you name it. So I wouldn’t blame the world of progressive music for what might just be a UK problem, haha!
MD: It seems that Australia is some kind of musically fertile land for forward thinking musicianship as, past and present, there have been some genuinely progressive acts, like Alchemist, Ne Obliviscaris, Alarum, Voyager, The Levitation Hex, etc. Is the Aussie scene as innovative as we’re led to believe overseas, or does it also have its fair share of regurgitated, regressive bilge?
JIM: Ouch, bilge, that’s rough. In terms of the progressive and alternative music scenes, there is a heap of interesting and innovative acts, yes. There’s been a very supportive community that has grown over the years - there are peaks and troughs of interest, as everywhere, but we’ve managed to reach more and more people over time by just doing what we do. There’s always going to be surface level music of the moment, but that’s only really a problem if you pay it any mind.
MD: What plans lie ahead for the rest of the year for the band, and into next year? Any further plans to come back over to the UK again?
JIM: Now that the ‘In Contact’ Australian tour is under our belt, we’re taking some much-needed time for ourselves for the rest of the year. Sam is going to bury himself in a library and finish his PhD, and hopefully we’ll be back in action sometime in the first half of next year. As for the UK, we’ll definitely be back, it’s only a matter of time!
MD: Finally, there seem to be an endless number of interesting and bizarre anagrams of your band name; a few being: ‘Goulash Eclairs’; ‘Gauchos Rallies’; ‘A Seagulls Choir’; ‘Asocial Leg Rush’; ‘Racial Slug Hose’; ‘His Casual Ogler’; ‘A Classier Ghoul’; ‘Lush Logic Areas’; ‘A Slouchier Slag’; ‘Ouch a Salesgirl’; ‘Clausal Shoe Rig’. Future side-project names, perhaps?
JIM: I swear to god, if A Seagulls Choir isn’t taken then IT FUCKING IS NOW.