Interview with Caligula’s Horse Frontman Jim Grey
-Words by Tommy Hash
It’s both the songs and the organic vibe of a group of guys jamming together as a unit that makes a band a ‘band.’ Regardless of personalities blending or being put on a collision course, the tension and the time crunch prove that being under the gun can create a big fat, realistic sound. But as songwriters, Caligula’s Horse are ones to tug at the heart and soul of the listener, letting their skilled sound augment the glorious leaps and bounds into their hook laden material. After all, the tunes themselves are what draw us to artists in the first place.
It’s morning in Brisbane, Australia, warm weather is starting to break after their mid year winter has brought a chill to the land down under. Across the globe, a phone rings in Franklin, Tennessee where cooler if not colder weather is rearing its head on a Saturday evening. It’s one of those sparse instances where this humble scribe is digging deep into progressive rock. But upon listening to a record pitched by Inside Out Records, it’s crystal clear that the cliche’s of geekiness and arrogant narcissism have been thrown out the door, as another conglomerate of newer blood has left the bland, repetitive and often shallow sound way off in the distance.
For Caligula’s Horse, it’s the emphasis on the songs with their latest album Bloom and the multi-dimensional musical interests of each individual member of this quintet is what keeps the ears aurally observant. At last after two albums, the band has scored a record deal with Inside Out, bringing them into the arms of heedful worldwide progressive rock fans. But, don’t be too quick to typecast the band simply into some sort of thinking man’s fodder. They do admit to having an alternative edge to them, but it is that alternative that keeps them from being a poor man’s Dream Theater or some project soaked in impossible and unlistenable math metal slop. When you look at modern bands such as Haken, Devin Townsend, and Leprous setting prog out on it’s course for a contemporary sound rooted in risky ideology that break barriers for the whole ongoing argument for what is and what isn’t, you realize that things are changing. A younger audience is front and center and the whole catatonic crowd of veterans are running out of the blood supply for new artists to enter their fold, as least as far as decency is concerned on the latter.
With Bloom there is something for everyone here, more so than just the students walking Boston’s Boylston Street area (home to Berkleee) or those roaming Hollywood Blvd around Highland Avenue (the stomping ground of Musician’s Institute). People want to hear more from the guitars, drums and everything else; and it’s nice to have fresh faces. Having been around for a few years, 2015 is a time for Caligula’s Horse to gallop farther around the globe. Frontman Jim Grey gives us the goods.
TOMMY HASH: How did Bloom find you guys developing after two records? It also marks a big step with you guys inking a deal with Inside Out.
JIM GREY: Musically, with this album all of us wanted to create a natural step forward, we didn’t want to go reaching for some exciting new sound. We just wanted to take our existing sound that the band developed over the years and just take a natural next step forward. For us, looking at the previous album, The Tide, The Thief & River’s End, it’s a very dark album, a very heavy album, especially for a melodic prog band. That album’s sound is a reflection of a dark concept; it was pushed towards a pretty heavy sound. What we did is to with Bloom is try to take that sound and bring a bit more life and color into it; make it more vibrant and upbeat. Along with that came the lyrics that reflected upon the positive vibe that we carried to the world as well. Why not let the music and lyrics be part of something uplifting as well. In a couple ways it was a step forward from the previous album. But definitely, being signed to Inside out, that’s incredibly exciting for us, because even outside of the music, it’s a natural step forward for the band as well. We are going to reach more people, especially in the United States where there is a vocal undercurrent of the fanbase happening right now.
TH: When you listen to the album, it does start out on a slower pace then builds up, leading into a crescendo.
JG: The structure of the album was very deliberate. When you look at the previous album, we didn’t want to repeat ourselves almost in any way. There was the decision to be consistent to the sound we create and to the integrity of the art as well. At the same time the five of us don’t want to repeat something we have already done. We wanted to do almost the opposite of that where this album it has a natural growth to it, although that might sound cheesy, but pun intended. It starts with a gentle, softer approach and builds towards the middle and recedes to a soft acoustic number. I feel that Bloom is very listenable and almost has parentheses around it with a sign posting “the beginning” and “the end” of the album. I was referred to the final acoustic track “Undergrowth” as the post quintal cigarette you smoke immediately afterwards.
TH: Was there a deliberate concept to this album?
JG: Bloom isn’t a concept album. Sure there are actually themes and things that share a commonality with other tracks thematically speaking. Because The Tide, The Thief & River’s End represents such a cohesive story start to finish, I wanted to make sure this time, we were just writing a collection of songs. Because the five of us had all of these images of growth, life, and a celebration of life when we were writing all of the music for this, the natural sort of themes that came through in the songs and shine with similarity and things like that. But they’re all fairly sort of something positive in their approach. Let’s say “Marigold,” the first track that we released for listening is a celebration of the fact that we should be looking to those around us while we are alive, rather than wealth or something else like that. You can’t be judging someone based on the fact that they don’t have money or that they don’t earn as much because you can’t take that with you when you die; that’s irrelevant. That is the message we want to carry with that. It’s not a literal concept album.
TH: Nowadays, it seems like many bands in the progressive rock field are too afraid to have their own identity and always want to play to the cliches of what a band in this genre is supposed to sound like. You guys yourselves coin the band as an Progressive Alternative Rock Band.
JG: I think that the moniker for progressive alternative rock is the most appropriate. Despite the fact that in my opinion, the “progressive” moniker sort of suggests that it’s almost irrelevant. I feel Caligula’s Horse is not playing a genre of music. My view, my theory on prog metal is a view that we share – prog metal is a genre that is becoming more like a genre of music where there are a series of categories that make it what it is and anything outside of that isn’t prog metal. It requires this type of production, this type of vocals, djent riffs, and replaced drums. That’s what supposedly makes prog metal. For us, we wanted to take that step away from it because that doesn’t really reflect the music we make at all. Sam Vallen our guitarist, is a big fan of Steely Dan and a bunch of really early prog rock stuff; he’s actually doing his PhD on the certification of progressive rock.
TH: Really? A PhD
JG: Yeah, he’s the best person to sit with on an airplane because he will just talk your ear off about prog. I’m a big fan of artists like Jeff Buckley and things like that. So we’ve got, as a writing team, an approach that is very much centered around songwriting. Like you say, there are a lot of technicalities in progressive songwriting for technicalities sake and that’s not an avenue we want to take at all. Everything that we write has a reason for being written. Everything that’s in a song has a reason for being there. Our music is assisting the song and communicating the message, it’s assisting the song, telling a story, and leading the listener into the next section of the song and the last song on the album as well. So we put a lot of thought into that, so the last thing we want to do is be a part of a movement in progressive music that leans towards (being typecast in) a genre of music and over production.
TH: That’s the problem with a lot of progressive rock, too many gimmicks. Boasting about equipment, how the album was recorded; not to mention that just about everybody with a laptop and an Internet connection can refer to themselves as a ‘band’ of some sorts.
JG: When bands are hiding behind gear, effects or over production, it stems out of fear I think. I know in the past I have used Melodyne and requested that the software be used on a couple of things, mostly out of fear and self-belief, stuff like that. The most interesting thing is that sometimes you get the fantastic singers that you have seen live and you know who could pull off this stuff magnificently and you hear them tuned on the album. It’s just because that’s the industry standard. I just don’t want to be a part of it.
TH: And then you have a lot of fans of bands criticizing a direction that has been taken on a ‘new album’ as opposed to their last few.
JG: You do have people saying stuff like I don’t like that album by this artist; that’s fine. Like Opeth and their last couple of albums, they polarized a lot of people. Some people didn’t like the direction that they went into. You don’t have to like it, that’s fine. They are making the music they want to make, people who like it are going to enjoy it. If you don’t like it, don’t listen to it, don’t get angry about it, don’t get upset that they have change their sound. Be happy for them. It’s like Devin Townsend, I’ve seen him live and I’ve seen him smile. I’m glad to see him smile because he has had a hard time and it’s great to see him happy, regardless of what musical direction he goes into.
TH: How do you feel your lyrics augment the melodies?
JG: lyrics are a fundamental parts of song. The beauty of music transcends any language, and that’s fairly understood. You still sing something in another language and someone can be emotionally effected by it. A way to enhance that message and communicate more directly is through the lyrics. Prog has a stigma when it comes to not being able to have “cool” lyrics; it’s been pretty bad over the years. That’s why I spend so much time on the lyrics making sure they stand out, saying more than what I literally want to say – the abstract. Steven Wilson is good at that, but he’s also very good at stabbing you in the heart and twisting it (laughing).
TH: You also are a vocal teacher, what are some of the most important issues you want to teach your students?
JG: You can always get into the most technical sides of singing and the fundamentals are always important, they go across genres whether you are singing classical or jazz. The most important thing when you are writing music and delivering songs to people is honesty. I said this to a student the other day that we were communicating our voices to each other before we even had a language to speak. If you hear somebody who is singing a song and they don’t really mean it, you can tell. All of us hear them sing and think, that’s just plastic; you can tell when they are being dishonest of disingenuous about the emotion that they are singing about. If there is honesty, that’s what effects you – you don’t even have to be the best singer in the world. I’m going to bring up Jeff Buckley again, you listen to (Grace) and you hear the imperfections. If he wanted to go back an nitpick, he could have gone back over those performances and fixed up a bunch notes that aren’t right or where the deliveries are weird. However, because his delivery is so honest and direct, the emotional effectiveness of his performance is what effects people. Buckley is completely naked, completely nude in his emotion and that is what people find so intriguing and effective about him, just being honest.
TH: Buckley did more with one album than most bands can’t do in a career, people always praise Grace and remember where they were when they first heard it or even mention on how it changed their perspective on songwriting.
JG: Music is like a smell, like your first girlfriends perfume, the stuff that sticks with you. A song sticks with you especially if you first heard it during a big pivotal point in your life, a time of great change in your life which, that song will always be there no matter what. No matter when you hear it, it brings you back to that time.
TH: Regardless of who a band is, the end it always boils down to the songwriting.
JG: Even if you are writing music for a mainstream artists, there is a lot that can be learned from both alternative and progressive music. It’s the snake eating it’s own tail, these guys know that this is the radio sound and they design their band to sound exactly like that to get the radio play, but in doing so they limit their attention to the public eye for about five minutes. These are the poppier bands who are not branching out of Austrailia too much because they are adhering to the Australian pop sound. However in the progressive scene where all of us are off the leash, where we are doing our own thing and supporting eachother and recreating out that is unique and is their own, those are the ones that are branching out to audiences overseas because the audiences overseas don’t want to hear that band a thousand times. Bands like Karnivool and 12 Point Ninja have gained popularity outside of Australia because they have their own sound; people are seeking it out. The pop world could have a lot to learn because of the power for a band to have their original voice.
Copyright & Publishing: 2015 Tommy Hash for Ytsejam.com