Interview by David Cheney.
Caligula’s Horse are on the rampage. After numerous Australian and international tour runs, the Brisbane progressive metal powerhouse are paying respect to their roots and touring their two early records, ‘The Tide, The Thief and River’s End’ and ‘Bloom’ back to back. Lead guitarist and band mastermind Sam Vallen took some time out of a rigorous rehearsal schedule to chat with Dave Cheney about the band’s rise, meeting their musical heroes, the impact of progressive movements on pop music and the diplomatic value of the Nintendo Switch.
Hey man! How has your day been?
“It’s been good, full of lots of practice and preparation with the tour right around the corner.”
The ‘Let It Grow’ tour! On August 10th, 16th and 17th and you’ll be playing 2013’s ‘The Tide, The Thief and The River’s End’ and 2015’s ‘Bloom’ back to back; on top of that, your support acts Glass Ocean, Circles and Hazel Mai will all be performing stripped back acoustic sets. It’s an interesting spin on the traditional tour run, how’d the idea come about?
“It’s something we’ve fielded requests for in the past, even before the ‘Love Conquers All’ last year where we played ‘In Contact’ in full. When you’re a band like us and writing all these lofty concept albums it’s a natural extension of the music to want to play the records in their entirety. In terms of the tour production, we knew it was going to be a big ask for people to stand and watch two hours of progressive metal, so we wanted to compliment that by crafting an ebb and flow of softer music in between the heavier sets. We asked a bunch of our favourite acts in each city to do two short acoustic sets; one at the start of the night and another as an interlude. It gives the audience a breather so that they’re not sitting there dealing with all this lofty thematic nonsense for 2 hours straight.”
It’s a fresh way of building a show, sounds like you’re really wanting to give the fans something special?
“Well considering it’s something we haven’t done before and probably won’t do again we thought that if we’re going to commit to such an unusual set list, why not compliment it with something equally unusual and novel?”
Very true. In the tour rehearsals, are you riding any nostalgia waves while revisiting this time of the band’s life?
“It’s a fascinating nostalgic experience. Jim and I are really the only members who have been around through every album; we function as the core writing team behind the music. When you look back to 2013, you’re looking at a band of angry, hungry musicians who aren’t really aware of what the band will become. We didn’t realise this would get any bigger than our little practice room and our little home studios. Getting to explore this as a thirty year old who has had a pretty great experience off the back the band and has seen the cult following that releases like ‘Rivers End’ has received, we’re re-living what it meant back in the early days to have two guys fighting each other over how the music emerged. As for touring the material, we’ve only played some of the songs once or twice in all the tours we’ve done. For example, Old Cracks in New Earth, the instrumental track on ‘Rivers End’, we’ve probably played, I don’t know, once at a Progfest run back in 2013? So, we really have no conception of how they will work live or how they will come across.”
Do you feel nervous about how those songs will go?
“(Laughs) Not in a performance aspect, no. People know what they’re getting themselves into when they come to a Caligula’s Horse show, they’re going to have to contend with some strange stuff. I get more worried about the vastness of the repertoire. When the idea was first pitched, we thought “Oh great! We’ll explore what we did when we were younger, we’ll give our fans something special”, but in practice we have to learn ALL this music that we haven’t even touched in so many years. All my guitar parts on those old albums were written like I had something to prove so going back and picking it apart, I’m left thinking to myself “Damn. Ok, yeah that’s pretty tricky”. The problem is the scope too. Re-learning that many songs while practicing the current repertoire for the Latin America tour that we’re doing straight after, it’s a big ask.”
That is a huge amount of work! I was interested when you talked about being young, mid-twenties, hungry with something to prove considering that in 2011 you were mixing, mastering, producing and engineering Caligula’s Horse’s debut record ‘Tales From Ephemeral City’, now I hear you’re also completing a PhD in progressive music. What are you getting your teeth sunk into there?
“It’s a passion project, you’d be a maniac to do a PhD in anything without being pretty involved in the area. My doctorate looks at the way progressiveness relates to popular music as a whole, mostly with respect to the idea that you’ve got this popular music vanguard that expands the vocabulary of the given era. I make the argument the modernistic, boundary pushing attitude that bands like Radiohead and King Crimson utilise is both extremely important and sadly under-appreciated in the popular music discourse. It’s both a discussion of what progressiveness can mean when applied to pop music and how that has changed over the years. That’s the general elevator pitch of it, yeah.”
So considering around 50 years ago we had groups like The Beatles who managed to attain globally popularity while still pushing pop music into strange new territory, how do you think this attitude has changed in the modern music industry?
“The Beatles are a really interesting example sees as up until that point there just wasn’t a song writing powerhouse who had that kind of platform to demonstrate what popular music could do. Amateur songwriters didn’t shoot to the top of the charts, ‘professional’ session musicians or songwriters did, Rock’n’roll was much more commodified in the 50’s. So, then The Beatles come along, democratise song writing and only a few years after Rubber Soul, Revolver and their more progressive records we had the explosion of progressive rock acts throughout the 70’s. That said, we’ve never had a break in commodified pop music, there’s always been songs that exist simply to be in the charts and be consumed. But behind that there’s always been an underground pop vanguard who, while never being hugely popular, are always important and always influential. Radiohead are a great example of looking beyond the normative realm with a similar mechanism as The Beatles. The internet has also been a great asset in democratising music by providing greater accessibility to so much material and defying the traditional marketing mould that has controlled access to music.”
Do you feel platforms like Spotify with their playlists have helped progressive music reach a broader audience in recent years than say, traditional radio?
“I’ve got a bit of a love hate relationship with Spotify. Even for my band, Spotify is huge for us, I know this is how our music is getting out there. That being said, they’re infamous for not treating artists fairly in regard to royalties and underpaying musicians. I definitely feel that the domineering power that big record labels have had over mainstream radio has restricted underground music movements such as progressive rock from being broadcast and allowed to flourish. But at the same time there’s always been some more open-minded stations, even Triple J is happy to present content that’s unusual and alternative. For the listener, Spotify does allow people who are willing to look for something new to do exactly that, whether it’s through curated or algorhythm-generated playlists. It’s pretty amazing, whenever I’m listening to a band like Leprous or Haken and I leave it playing, Caligula’s Horse will eventually come on. It’s a new world.”
A new world indeed. Touching on the tour again, you and your co-guitarist Adrian Goleby will be presenting some guitar masterclasses on the road. What can punters expect from these? Do you have a ‘good cop bad cop’ dynamic?
“Ha! Adrian would definitely be the good cop. With Adrian, he’s a much more recent addition to the band and was following us in our early years. When he joined the band, he brought a very different understanding of what it was about, a much more objective and fresh view when he transitioned from ‘outsider’ to ‘insider’. So, for the masterclass, we like to keep it dynamic between his fresh face and my older, more jaded self. We structure the classes around what people want to hear. Some people want to focus on the technical side of guitar playing, others are more interested in our song writing and creative process; we try to cater to a variety of tastes. I mean, when I go to a guitar masterclass, the last thing I want is just to be talked at for an hour.”
So Caligula’s Horse has been bouncing around the world so much over the past few years, you’ve done Damnation Fest in the UK, you’ve toured Europe extensively and even tagged along with THE Opeth, how do you stay sane on such demanding runs so far from home?
“Two words. Nintendo Switch and a SHITLOAD of Mario Kart. When you’re going crazy and haven’t slept for days, eating strange food in alleys and still somehow hungry, stuck on the travel bus for 17 hours, you need something to help escape.”
Any other favourite titles?
“Dark Souls is a big one, I’m a huge Dark Souls fan, but Mario Kart is the one that we all play together when we’re all still talking to each other.”
On the topic of tours, I hear you once played with had an interesting time meeting band hero Daniel Gildenlöw from Pain Of Salvation?
“He’s a huge hero of ours, yeah. I still have the image in my head walking into the venue in Toulouse, France. We were so jet-lagged, real nasty and ragged at the time. And when we get in there Daniel is onstage, shirtless, chest rippling and rocking a giant pair of capoeira pants while performing these crazy capoeira moves. It was like we were hallucinating the same image at the same time. He’s a really amazing guy and boundlessly energetic which is great to see when you’re a jet-lagged Australian who has just travelled 25 hours to be there.”
I hear as well that Adrian and yourself have an affinity for cats on your tours?
“I love how the cat’s out of the bag on that one. I don’t know exactly when it happened, probably on a long string of dates through Europe. Picture this, you’re at the merch stand every night and it’s the same thing for like 30 shows in a row. So, we just started drawing pictures of cats on everything and for whatever reason it took off. Everyone started asking in every accent imaginable “Hello can I have a cat? Can you give me a cat?” It was great, we’ve got signature cats now.”
Can we expect to see the cats making a comeback on the ‘Let It Grow’ tour?
Almost certainly. If we’re asked for a cat, we will deliver a cat.”
Perfect. So, you’ve had some great success with Caligula’s Horse, you’ve travelled the globe and shared the stage with some of the biggest progressive acts in the world and just eight short years ago, you were the mastermind behind the band’s debut record. With the wisdom you’ve collected at this stage of the bands career, what advice would you give yourself back at that time if you could?
“That’s a doozy of a question. The funny thing is I can’t help but look back at what I did in 2011 as a bit amateurish compared to what I do now. I’m still quite proud of it for what it is, I definitely see the value in it. That being said, one thing I’d say to a late teen, early 20 year-old angry hungry kid would be “Don’t hate so much.” You know? It’s really easy for a scene to become a bit bitchy and nasty and I feel I probably partook in that a bit too much; I think everyone does at that age. I know now how important it is to foster an attitude of positivity and I think I could have done a better job of that at the time. In terms of the music, I was always pretty happy with it and it’s wild listening to something grow over the years. To everyone who is an angry young kid playing gigs at their local for 20 odd people, I’d say, “be more positive about it, enjoy it, embrace it.” You know?”
Wise words my friend. Thank you so much for your candid take on music and the band and good luck on the tour, can’t wait to see some more cats!
You can purchase tickets for the upcoming tour now!
Caligula’s Horse always deliver an incredible live show, so grab your tickets fast before they all sell out!
Saturday, August 10: The Zoo, Brisbane
Friday, August 16: The Factory Theatre, Sydney
Saturday, August 17: Max Watt’s, Melbourne
Tickets on sale from wildthingpresents.com
With thanks to Maric Media