Interview: Sam Vallen – Caligula’s Horse

Caligula's Horse

Australian progressive metal outfit Caligula’s Horse are gearing up for the release of their latest opus; ‘Rise Radiant’. Guitarist and co-founder Sam Vallen drew the short straw and answered our call. Here Sam talks about the album recording process and all things ‘Rise Radiant’ related.

In the run up to the release of ‘Rise Radiant’ how are you feeling, especially since these aren’t normal circumstances?

It’s not at all normal is it! We had a full touring schedule arranged around the release, from the beginnings of the album’s production through to now we had this big vision, and a plan that the album would follow us, and of course all of that has fallen to the wayside with the pandemic. So now all we are looking at is the actual album release itself. I don’t tend to get that anxious when an album is due to be released as I really do believe that with a record like this, if people don’t like it, then that’s their prerogative. Jim (Grey, vocalist) and I created this for us, and that satisfies an itch that we had creatively no matter what. Part of me is always interested in seeing how it will be received, how it will be discussed and dissected, but at the end of the day it satisfies something very base for me, so I don’t tend to lose too much sleep.

You go over and above the call of duty though. As well as writing and playing guitar, you also produced the album as well as other studio duties. Does that mean that when you are in the studio, you are the one with the sleepless nights?

(Laughs) Well, it’s actually funny. The production of this record itself kind of collided with a bunch of other things. I had recently become a new father, and I was also finishing my doctorate (PHD in Musicology) at the time, so I was balancing a lot! Things that a smarter man maybe wouldn’t have put in the same period of two or three months. The album took up the better part of my nights, while the days were spent looking after my son or working on my thesis. I was immersed in the production. The beauty of this record was, compared to records before it, the vision that we had for it was very much set early, so it wasn’t as much a matter of chasing something, it was a case of – this is the vision, what do we have to do to pull it off? Of course that’s not to say that there was some time spent playing with different elements of it, I knew what task was required each night, and what each day in the studio required. In saying that, although I tend to be in charge of all of those roles, the band absolutely stepped up on this one as well. I remember writing some of the material and giving it to poor Josh Griffin, our drummer, and saying…man, how do you feel about playing a whole song in quintuplets..or…how’s this blastbeat section looking?..All of these things that were entirely uncharacteristic of our band. So in that respect there was a lot of pressure on me, but it was alleviated by this incredible band who threw it straight back at me when I threw it at them. It was really quite wonderful actually!

What was the recording process like?

So, the full production itself, from when we started recording through to when we received the mixes back was only about two months. It was quite a short period. It was a little longer than our last album, ‘In Contact’, but we really did condense it into the smallest amount of time that we could.

Am I correct in thinking that this was the first time that Dale (Prinsse, bassist) played in the studio?

Yes, exactly right. Dale’s an interesting one though, although this was his maiden voyage as our bassist, he has actually been a long time collaborator of the band. He and I go back to when we were Uni undergraduates, we’ve been close friends since then, in fact, he was actually the assistant engineer on (earlier albums) ‘The Tide, the Thief & River’s End’ and ‘Bloom’, off the top of my head. He was certainly there for ‘In Contact’, but my point is, he’s one of my closest friends and he’s always been auxiliary to the stuff that we do in the band. We took him on our European tour in 2018 as our lighting guy, and it was on that tour where our former bassist started talking about how he wanted to focus on his own material. He loved playing with us, but he had this vision about what was outside of that, and as soon as he told us that he was wanting to leave the band, it was cool as Dale could play the songs, and he was in! It was as simple as that. So Dale working on the bass parts in the studio was nowhere near as an anxiety-ridden experience as it would have been had we had to get a new member. We all knew his capabilities, how he worked, I had spent many hours with him in extreme circumstances, so it was kind of easy..and he killed it as well!

Caligula's HorseIt’s not often that happens, but a help when it does…

I couldn’t even describe how lucky that we are, to have that situation occur twice, because that situation was also the same with Adrian (Goleby, rhythm guitar) during ‘In Contact’. He had done all our video clips and stuff up until that record, and when Zach decided that he wanted to leave, it was just a case of making sure that Adrian was good with all the parts and then we were ready to go. We haven’t actually done a full blown audition since way back when Josh joined the band, so we got lucky and lightning struck twice.

The first two singles released from ‘Rise Radiant’ have been ‘Tempest’ and ‘Slow Violence’, the two opening tracks on the album. What was it about these two that made them obvious choices as, not only the opening two tracks, but also the first two singles?

It’s funny because, although you are right in pointing out that there is a strange correlation between the singles released and the album running order, we didn’t tend to think of that in those terms. It was really a matter of two different conversations, what works best as singles and what works best for the flow and the feel of the album. For the latter, the actual album itself, we probably hung over the sequencing of this album more than we had in the past. One of the principal elements that drove the creation of this record, was that we really wanted every song to be distinctive in its own right, as opposed to an album like our last one ‘In Contact’ where we were really striving for this full album flow, which was maybe at the expense of certain individual songs. It just so happened on this album, that wanting to come in with a big bang, raise the energy, then allow that ebb and flow between the heavier and the lighter moments to be heard, really the best option happened to be ‘The Tempest’ then ‘Slow Violence’. As for the singles..I was actually outvoted for ‘The Tempest’! I wasn’t keen on it as a single, it’s quite heavy and apprasive, and quite rhythmic. In the end, we were definitely right choosing it, I wasn’t that resistant to it! ‘Slow Violence’ on the other hand was one that everyone in the band agreed on, it’s the best single on the record, for whatever that means being a progressive metal band! It has this sparsity to it that some of the other heavy songs on the record don’t. When we were talking singles, we agreed that we wanted the second single as the principal single, the assumption being that the first single was more of a blow-the-door-open thing, and the second single was more about the character of the album. It’s always about balance.

One of my favourite parts on the album is when ‘Autumn’ fades out and ‘The Ascent’ starts almost instantly. It stops you in your tracks.

That’s something that we’ve tried to do to different degrees on every record since ‘The Tide, The Thief & Rivers End’, we’ve tried to have two songs that act as two sides to the same coin, or at least directly connect. On ‘…River’s End’ it was ‘Into The White’ into ‘Old Cracks In New Earth’, on ‘Bloom’ it was ‘Bloom’ into ‘Marigold’ and on ‘In Contact’ it was ‘Inertia and the Weapon Of The Wall’ into ‘The Cannon’s Mouth’. We’ve always tried to experiment with how we connect songs, but what we haven’t done before is treat two protracted songs in their own right, two thematic, expensive pieces of music, as two different representations of the same theme. ‘Autumn’ being the softer, more thoughtful, kind of reflective instance of this particular theme, and then ‘The Ascent’ being a much more bombastic and energetic version, in a much darker kind of hue. So that was, to me, an absolute highlight compositionally, finding a way to join those two together so that they almost feel like they are a continuous statement, but yet discreet. They are not part one and two of a suite, they are just two connecting ideas, and I’m really glad to hear that you enjoy that jump because I certainly do.

Caligula's HorseIt was strange because the first few times that I ran through the album, I wasn’t sure if it was the same song, and had to keep checking that it wasn’t. Pink Floyd used to do it a lot… and yeah, I loved it!

See that’s where we nicked it from! It’s almost like a characteristic from that era of progressive rock where you have all these larger continuous statements that were facilitated really well by vinyl sides.

On the subject of ’The Ascent’, how difficult is it to create a song ten minutes long without going too far and ending up losing the listener? Do you have to rein yourself in at times?

Absolutely, I do, we’ve done it a few times, ‘Graves’ on the last album is the furthest that we’ve delved into that in terms of scope, but I think that ‘The Ascent’ manages the problem that you come into when you write songs like that, much better than ‘Graves’ does. The problem that I’m describing is balancing something that feels thematically coherent and something that feels boring. It’s really easy to have a long song that is a hodgepodge of different ideas that are put one after the other, and the only logic in their running order is that they are stitched together. I’ve always really hated that approach, and I don’t think that approach, as much as some people will accuse progressive rock as being like that, is indicative at all. But on the other hand, if you do base a full, long expansive piece of music on very minimal thematic material, then it can start to feel like a slog. What I try and do, when I’m putting the structure together, and this is usually done in conjunction with Jim because we work on vocals and lyrics as we create the music, what we do is try and find a couple of threads in the music, things that are really foundational; chord progression, a short and simple part of a melody, in other words – the building blocks of a song. When we’ve established a couple of these that we love, we basically adhere to, almost as a rule, making sure that these exist all throughout the succeeding sections. Essentially what that means when you look at the big picture is, as the song progresses, it never goes from one section to another abruptly, there’s always a shared quality throughout the pieces that forges them all together. If it’s done well it’s almost like you are getting the best of both worlds; it’s intricate and exciting, but it also feels linked and consistent. So that’s the balance that I have in mind, and when I say that I think about that balance – I mean I obsess about that balance! It’s really important to me.

You’ve touched on how you work with Jim. It doesn’t seem to be the stereotypical singer/guitarist relationship does it?! The singer normally takes control of the lyrics and the guitarist handles the music…

(Laughs) Funnily enough it’s not at all! Our relationship is artistically holistic, we work together from the very beginning. Usually I’ll come up with something like a chord sequence or a riff, and we decide if it’s of the quality that we want to work with, what is the scope like, where does it fit, and once we decide that then we start playing with lyrics and vocals straight away. The beauty of it is, once we are kind of doing that, doing a bouncing back and forth songwriting approach, rather than me giving him seven minutes of music and saying..hey do you want to see if you can fit some lyrics into this melody…it ends up being way more truly collaborative. It also means that Jim is dynamically giving me insights into the music and how he is feeling. We work really closely together, so that means that we are constantly fighting and constantly at odds about ideas, but the beauty is; once it does satisfy both of us, we can be pretty satisfied that we have tried everything and it is the way that it should be. But just to add to that observation, this is the first album since…well, ever..that we’ve had this much band collaboration. Each of the other guys in the band have a co-writing credit on the album, and that’s a cool way of expanding that approach. For them, they are seeing this silly, quick process of me and Jim beating the shit out of each other in the songwriting process, and they are getting involved. And it’s a stronger album for it.

Pre-order ‘Rise Radiant’ here


Band image on header – Rachel Graham

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