If there is any modern band that consistently sets high benchmarks for themselves with each passing album prior to execceding such benchmarks like it's second nature, it's Perth proggers Cailgula's Horse. With the release of their highly anticipated fifth album Rise Radiant drawing near, we got in touch with guitarist Sam Vallen to ask a few questions about the new record, member dyanmics, fatherhood, touring, Covid-19 and Steely Dan.
Rise Radiant has been the first album with new bassist Dale Prinsse onboard, how has he settled into the band?
Sam: "Dale has actually had a presence in the band since its very beginnings. He's an old friend of mine and he actually worked with me on the recording of every album after Moments from Ephemeral City. He even came with us on our 2018 European tour as a lighting guy! When we knew we needed a new bassist, he was the immediate choice, and he's certainly got the chops. Dale has fit into the creative process seamlessly - he's not only a master of his instrument but a force of creativity and inspiration for all of us"
There's been a slightly bigger gap between your previous album In Contact and the release of this one, is there any particular reason for that?
Sam: "It's mainly my fault - becoming a father and splitting the caring with my wife as well as finishing my doctorate in that period took a lot of my focus, and the guys do depend on me for the beginnings of our songwriting process. In saying that, the actual writing was far more measured and deliberate this time around. Songs like 'Salt and The Ascent' took quite some time to develop, and I'm very serious about making sure the songs are as good as they can be in that regard. I have to admit that we would have preferred to not have such a big gap ourselves, but I really think (as biased as I obviously am) it was worth the wait!"
It’s impossible to ignore the hefty benchmark you set for yourselves with every album you release. What's the writing process like for each album and was it any different whilst writing Rise Radiant?
Sam: "We always start by discussing what we'd done in the past, particularly the last record (which in this case was In Contact), and how we can veer far enough away from it that we are able to undermine anything that may have become habitual or easy for us. In other words, we set ourselves up to be artistically challenged as a rule. On Rise Radiant that sense of contrast was founded on the idea of making a deeply personal album rather than one based on a big concept, and on trying to create a record where every song has a distinct sense of artistic identity - we were thinking about records like Nirvana's Nevermind where you can remember every single song. Once we've set those guidelines, we start developing the music and lyrics together. I'll usually come up with a musical snippet, often something very small like a riff or chord progression, and Jim and I will start to arrange it immediately, building structural ideas, lyrics, and vocal melodies in parallel to the music.
The intention is to make everything feel like a part of a whole rather than the "writing the lyrics to the music" type of approach many heavier bands pursue. We want the artistic expression to feel holistic in that sense. The biggest difference, though, was the presence of the other band members in this process. Our last record, In Contact, was written solely by Jim and myself, and this is also true also of most of our back catalogue. This time around, the other three all contributed musical ideas which were very important to the album's creation and development, and which made a big impact on its identity."
You have said in the past that he's heavily influenced by Steely Dan, in particular when it comes to their mu chords. Have there been any other artists that have been particularly influential for you as individuals or as a band during the writing process for Rise Radiant?
Sam: "Steely Dan are a huge one for me when it comes to harmony and the art of writing songs, but we have an enormously varied set of tastes in the band. For me personally artists like Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree) and Mikael Akkerfeldt (Opeth) are benchmarks of uncompromising creativity. I love minimalist electronic music like Jon Hopkins and Kiasmos, as well as guys like Nils Frahm and Olafur Arnalds. I'm obsessed with Stevie Wonder, particularly the much-revered classic period. And I draw a lot of inspiration from classic prog bands like Genesis, King Crimson, Gentle Giant, and Jethro Tull for their groundbreaking approach to musical experimentation and expansion. In terms of contemporary progressive artists, there are many who I adore: Leprous, Plini, and Haken being a few examples."
You have also talked before about his PhD in musicology, and the thesis discusses the idea of progressive musical traits, and how actual musical progression is much more than just long songs and classical instruments in rock music. Is the goal of Caligula's Horse to be a progressive rock/metal band in the literal sense of experimenting outside of the box, such as the usage of mu chords and other unusual harmonies?
Sam: "On a small scale, yes. It's very important to us that we're always exploring new avenues and devices to keep our music challenging for us. The moment we rescind into self-repetition is the moment this project loses its meaning to me personally. In saying that, there's a big difference between what we're doing and what the most (actively) progressive artists over time have done, and I wouldn't even consider putting us into that category. Writing in so much depth about progress has made me realise just how important the contributions of the likes of The Beatles, Robert Fripp, Radiohead, and others, truly is."
Is there an overarching theme to the lyrics on Rise Radiant, and do the lyrics link back to any of your older material?
Sam: "In the beginning we decided that this wouldn't be a concept album, but as we proceed with the writing we started to find some common themes crop up. The most pervasive, at least early on, was the idea of lived experiences - how we look at ourselves and our life. At some point we realised that there was something more specific which threaded throughout the record: the idea of "getting back up again". It's easy to posit the strength in terms like "stand", but just as powerful is the idea of failing and trying again. This ended up motivating the title and increasingly suffused many of the song's lyrics, exploring ideas like rising to the challenge of fatherhood, taking care of oneself, and removing oneself from hateful thoughts. There is also a larger manner in which the title and themes relate to the band: we, ourselves, needed to "rise radiant" for this record - we've had hard years touring and band member changes, and this album represents a step forward in spite of those things."
Much like the artwork for In Contact, Rise Radiant features luscious album art. What’s the link between the music and the artwork?
Sam: "The artwork was done by a frequent collaborator of ours, Chris Stevenson-Mangos, and we absolutely love it. It's a very light embodiment of some of the album's themes. The deer in the foreground is placid and safe, but the mountain in the distance looms as a counter to that safety. It speaks to the transient nature of challenge and of overcoming."
We're undoubtedly living during years unprecedented in most people's lives right now. Were any of the lyrics inspired by the circumstances we find ourselves in?
Sam: "The album was entirely written by the time we started seeing some of the awful events which currently challenge the world. As the terrible bushfires broke out in Australia, and then the covid pandemic hit globally, we realised how fitting an album with this character was. We wrote it with the intention of it feeling empowering and positive. So although it wasn't written as a response to these things, its message seems to have become all the more relevant in light of them."
On that topic, obviously you were meant to be touring later on this year. What impact do you think this is going to have on the touring industry in the short run, and how do you think bands and venues will recover?
Sam: "It's funny, we'd actually planned almost a year's worth of touring on the back of Rise Radiant. But considering how severe the Covid-19 situation has proven to be globally, none of that is even worth complaining about - we're just a band who has had to postpone shows while many have lost life and livelihood. Suffice to say that while touring - at all levels of the industry - is effectively suspended, I see no reason why it won't come back with a vengeance. After all, once this is resolved, peoples' drive to go to gigs and see live bands again will be increased if anything."
On a slightly more positive note, when bands can start touring again, what can fans expect from your setlist? Do you try and promote your new material as much as possible when you tour or do you vary it with some older songs?
Sam: "It's always fun organising the setlists! No doubt it would feature a lot of the new material - we can't wait to test some of that out on the stage. We usually feature most of our best-known songs (Marigold, Dream the Dead, etc.), but we also try and have a few deeper cuts on hand to keep the setlist novel and surprising for the older fans. We always try and balance the moshpit songs with some gentler moments to keep the atmosphere interesting and engaging."
There's certainly no shortage of great Australian bands right now, yourselves obviously included in that. Australia is pretty isolated from the rest of the world and it's obviously a big financial commitment for Aussie bands to tour in Europe and the US. Does having a healthy scene help in any way when it comes to going on tour overseas?
Sam: "The biggest benefit is the fact that we're all in it together - many of the more established Aussie acts know one another, and we're a pretty friendly "scene", distanced as we all are from one another in this enormous land of ours! This means that the considerable difficulty we all face is a shared one."
Finally, if you could choose 5 bands, active or disbanded, to tour with, who would they be?
Sam: "King Crimson, Led Zeppelin, Jeff Buckley, The Beatles and Metallica. These might seem obvious, but come on!"
Rise Radiant is released May 22nd via Inside Out Music. Pre-order the record here.