"It’s easy to become demoralized when you’re an independent artist"
It’s always exciting to have bands like Caligula’s Horse. They bring fresh air in with their qualitative music and their unique artistic approach. As they release their amazing new album "In Contact", guitarist Sam Vallen and vocalist Jim Grey had some interesting things to share with us.
"We always want to take a step forward from our previous albums, and continually grow as musicians, songwriters, and people"
Do you have your previous works in mind when you come to make a new album? Do you think that there has to be a continuation somehow or maybe a progression from album to album? Or it’s “come whatever may”? What was the case around this time?
Jim: In a sense, yes - before we even begin to write for a new album, we always sit down and talk about the direction we want to go, the kind of imagery we want to create. A lot of the time, that’s based on what we haven’t done, what we haven’t yet been able to express. So, we always want to take a step forward from our previous albums, and continually grow as musicians, songwriters, and people.
I find “In Contact” a bit heavier and maybe closer to your first two albums than “Bloom” was. Do you agree? If yes, what led to this direction according to your opinion?
Sam: I absolutely agree! Jim actually broached the answer in the previous question: uncharted territory. We’re always excited to see how we can adapt and transform the Caligula’s Horse approach with every consecutive release. For “In Contact” a large part of it came down to realizing what Josh (our new drummer) was capable of and exploiting that with faster and more intricate songs. That said, a big part of it was also entirely organic and not directed in any way. Maybe it’s some pent-up aggression we weren’t even aware of coming to the surface!
"Adopting any label is a bit distasteful for bands peripheral to the bigger and more aesthetically-consistent musical styles, as we most certainly are"
Would you prefer to label yourselves as a “progressive metal act with rock elements” or as a “progressive alternative rock band with heavy elements”. Truth is the lines are thin and you play on more than one fields, but is there any point in these labels?
Sam: It almost goes without saying that adopting any label is a bit distasteful for bands peripheral to the bigger and more aesthetically-consistent musical styles, as we most certainly are. I’m not too interested in where we fit in that context, but I also understand the need for such language, so I wouldn’t fight against it or suggest that it’s without value.
For good or ill, “progressive” has come to mean - since journalists helped it crystallize into a genre form in the early seventies - a set of traits that describe us quite well: an attitude towards exploration and experimentation, an openness to unconventional influences, and so forth. So in that sense, either of those labels are fine.
The first thing that caught my attention was the album artwork. You had colorful covers in your previous works, but this one reminded me something like an old story book or a novel. Did the music or the artwork come first? Are these two connected?
Jim: The music and the concept definitely came first. We knew that we wanted something striking, colourful, and original for the cover, and went about seeking artists of various styles for inspiration, until Sam came across Conor Maguire. His work really spoke to us, and we gave him a brief that included the concept of the album and some imagery from the lyrics - even his first charcoal sketches blew us away, he nailed it.
"What inspired their stories was the idea that all forms of art could be seen as an attempt by a human being to remember a dream that we once all shared but have forgotten as individuals"
“In Contact” is a concept album, but not in the really traditional way, as there are four different chapters. Are they chapters of one single story or different stories connected somehow? Please give some details about the concept and the lyrics.
Jim: The chapters are all separate from one another, and each follows the story of an individual character. The only thing that connects the characters in these stories is the fact that they’re all artists of one kind or another, attempting to better their own lives in some way. This theme of “reach” pervades the entire album, since what inspired their stories was the idea that all forms of art could be seen as an attempt by a human being to remember a dream that we once all shared but have forgotten as individuals. So each character is reaching for a better life, but also reaching for that dream without knowing it.
I’ve seen the first video where you talk about the story of the four first songs and it’s a really interesting theme to think about. Many artists, especially in the rock/metal business seem to be fed by something that destroys them as human beings and I couldn’t help but think of Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington. Why do you think this is happening?
Sam: You’re actually touching on a point that motivated a large part of the first chapter of “In Contact”, “To the Wind.” Jim and I often discuss the horrific way the public valorizes self-destruction in art. The idea that artists should suffer, and their suffering in some way imbues their art with a greater sense of legitimacy or authenticity.
What I’m talking about here is when you hear people talk about an artist’s drug use, or how they “went off their meds” to create a certain work. Their torture - something that in so many cases culminates in the loss of their life or livelihood - becomes a commodity.
I reject that there’s a correlation between this internal torture and good art, and I truly wish value judgements of art were exempt from this because it’s most certainly a self-perpetuating system.
"Typing nasty comments on youtube, or writing artless reviews take an instant compared to the effort that goes into a record, a painting, a poem"
Do fans fail to see the human side of artists? Is it because of the audience’s lack of empathy or because the whole industry makes people don’t care about it?
Sam: Very often, yes. For an outsider to someone’s artistic process it requires absolutely no effort to denounce that artist’s work; typing nasty comments on youtube, or writing artless reviews take an instant compared to the effort that goes into a record, a painting, a poem, whatever. There’s nothing like public censure or the idea of fans seeing you as worthless compared to your younger self (that being a key theme in “To the Wind”) to invalidate an artist - someone so deeply entrenched in their own expressivity, and accordingly vulnerable. For a “fan” this is an afterthought; for the artist this is an insult to the very thing they live for.
And this is not to say that criticism has no place; on the contrary, I think it absolutely does. But there needs to be a sense of empathy behind it. One that respects the artist’s humanity.
"People often don’t realize how much of their love for older material is driven by nostalgia"
Also, here’s another sad truth. Many artists made less interesting music once they got sober. I don’t want to mention some of them but I can think of many cases. Do you see it too?
Jim: That may well be the case, but it’s important to remember that artists don’t owe us anything. Least of all what we specifically want from them. On top of that, people often don’t realize how much of their love for older material is driven by nostalgia.
Musically, “Hands Are The Hardest” is one of my favorite songs of the album. It has these guitar melodies and licks that are kind of trademark of your sound, especially combined with the vocal lines that somehow follow them. What makes this song special in your opinion?
Sam: “Hands Are The Hardest” was the first song we wrote for “In Contact”, and I think it’s quite unique for us. I think its sonic fingerprint rests in its counterpoint: everything is very intricate, but its elements rarely collide.
Mentioning these guitar licks, I tend to think that Sam’s somehow influenced by John Petrucci’s early playing on songs like “Learning To Live” and “Innocent Faded”. Then again I may be completely wrong, so would you tell me which guitarists have influenced most your playing?
Sam: John Petrucci was an enormous influence early on. Robert Fripp, Jeff Beck, Allan Holdsworth, Steve Vai, Larry Carlton, Paul Gilbert, and Guthrie Govan are all guys who I look up to as a musician and guitarist. Recently I’ve been blown away by Richie Allan (guitarist for a New Zealand band called Heavy Metal Ninjas), Rick Graham, and my countryman Plini.
Jim, what do you think makes Sam stand out as a guitarist and what do you love most about his playing?
Jim: For me it’s the fluidity of his playing - it’s extremely expressive and nuanced, it doesn’t feel overly composed or rigid. There’s a communication there that I think is vital.
The guitar work on the album is overall astonishing, especially the solos. What was Adrian’s contribution?
Sam: Adrian joined relatively late in the process, and so his contribution will likely be more evident next record. That said, he’s had a profound effect on our live show where we’ve re-arranged parts and he’s come up with some new solos and things that will no doubt surprise some fans!
"It’s more important to be true to your own artistic vision than to cater to current tastes or what people might like or expect"
You chose “Will’s Song” as the leading single, but I think you made an album that is more than the sum of its parts. So how do you convince new audience to listen to your music if they have to listen to the full album to get it right, in our day and age?
Jim: I think it’s more important to be true to your own artistic vision than to cater to current tastes or what people might like or expect. I think there’s enough on “In Contact” that grabs your attention to encourage you to listen to the rest. I trust that people will take the journey.
Another highlight of the album is the closing of “Graves”. Tell me how you ended up writing a 15 minute song and more about the ending of it… Is a closing track always very important for an album?
Sam: Jim and I actually began the writing that would culminate in “In Contact” with the idea of finally writing a “side-length” song, something we’d both done to various degrees of success in our previous bands. We approached it as a personal challenge - how can we make something long and detailed but still consistent and coherent in spite of its range and variety? - and we overloaded ourselves in an artistic sense making it happen. “Graves” took months to write, and by the end of the process we both fell into some fairly severe writer’s block. It couldn’t have been more worthwhile though, I’m very proud of that song.
Album closers are hugely important to us. “Bloom” concluded softly with “Undergrowth,” so “In Contact” needed to end as colossally as it could!
How did you end up having a track will only narrative and no music like “Inertia And The Weapon On The Wall”? I am happy this wasn’t my listening test for my English examinations back in the day, cause I would have failed big, as I haven’t figured out what you’re trying to say, haha! What is it really about?
Jim: There’s a lot in there - I’ve been dabbling a little in spoken word poetry recently, it’s an interest of mine. It’s definitely a little intimidating to put myself out there and have a spoken word piece on the album, but thanks to Sam’s studio magic, there’s some gorgeous textures and imagery that really capture the mood well.
The poem addresses a moment in the life of Ink, the poet character from the chapter of the same name. He seems to be able to see through the cracks of the corrupt city in which he lives, and this is a concentrated view on that - the way he sees the world.
"We grew up with Meshuggah and the like"
Some of your songs like “Will’s Song” and “The Cannon’s Mouth” end with this huge riffing that is closer the modern prog type of music, like Messhugah or even djent stuff. Is this part of your music vocabulary too?
Sam: We grew up with Meshuggah and the like, so we share common influences with the djent scene. In saying that, I prefer to think of it as heavy riffing rather than a reference to a movement in music. I have no interest in following trends...
It’s your second album with Inside Out and by now you may be able to see the difference of having such a label to support you. As the role of a label in the internet day and age, with the music industry still collapsing, is debatable, what difference has it made to you?
Sam: It’s incredible to be supported in terms of promotion, in terms of a belief in your work, and of course financially. It’s easy to become demoralized when you’re an independent artist filtering every cent that you make from your day job into delivering your music to your fans, so having a team behind you, helping you make each record as momentous and as celebrated as it can be, is fantastic.
You played with some great bands in Europe during the summer. Tell me about your experience, which artists made a bigger impression to you than you might have expected and also if there are any differences between European and Australian audiences...
Jim: That last tour was insane, really. Being able to share the stage with some of our favourite bands, night after night, was a rare treat. Literally every time we’ve played in support of bands that we look up to, we take the opportunity to learn from them. There’s always something to take away in terms of stagecraft and performance, plus watching amazing artist play every night never gets old!