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Interview: Caligula’s Horse’s Josh Griffin on their new album ‘Rise Radiant’

Photo: Jack Venables

Brisbane prog luminaries Caligula’s Horse released their fifth studio album, ‘Rise Radiant’, on May 22, so Grater booked a time with drummer Josh Griffin to find out what went into making this beast.

This is the second time you’ve hit the studio with Caligula’s Horse. How has this record been received by fans and the press?

“I was a little more nervous this time around because this is only my second album with the band.  I joined after ‘In Contact’ (2017).  That whole cycle was pretty much a whirlwind for me because I joined, (then) it was: ‘Okay, we’ve got a big song that’s from the album – learn that. We’re going to tour it. Here’s the album we’re recording in a couple of months’.  So I didn’t really have any build up in anticipation. 

“This time around we sat on it for a few months.  We tracked in December, it was finished by January, so it’s been ready to go.  When it clicked over midnight on the Friday (May 22), I was literally on my phone checking social media … and people are just all over Instagram and Twitter and Facebook with such love.  It’s been amazing.  We’re relieved and overjoyed.”

What about bad reviews or criticism? How do you choose to handle that?

“I’ve seen quite a lot of reviews where they’ve been very constructive with the things that didn’t work for them personally.  Anything that wasn’t their particular taste – (they’re) at least constructive about it. It’s not like: ‘The band’s taken a step backwards. This is a piece of shit. Three out of 10′ (laughs).

“We’re all pretty humble guys, but I think it (ego) can certainly get the better of anyone. So I think it’s nice to have that balance where people can be honest with their opinions and go: ‘Overall, it’s great. These are some of the things that weren’t to my taste’.”

Sam Vallen and Jim Grey are the founding members and handle a lot of the songwriting and lyrics, but did you co-write some material?

“It always centres around that creative nucleus… that creative core of Sam and Jim.  This time around they were really adamant: ‘‘Give us a bunch of ideas and we’ll start developing them and if they organically go somewhere that feels good, great.’  We were fortunate, all three of us – myself, Dale (Prinsse) and Adrian (Goleby) – to have a writing credit each on a song.  It was really exciting because we’re all probably a little bit more new to the whole songwriting process.  I’ve been a performer for probably about 15-20 years, but never really delved into writing and I think that’s just fear of the unknown; fear of attacking your creativity and not having an outlet.  It’s always scary when you’re going from nothing, whereas I suppose with a band like Caligula’s Horse, it’s already an incredible platform that you can launch off from.

“But we also got to see behind the curtain and see how Sam and Jim work and it’s a really unique shorthand that they have.  Sitting in the room and seeing that bounce around around you, you go, ‘I’m a part of this, but I’ve got a long way to go before I can be so quick on the uptake’.  The song that I co-wrote with Sam and Jim was Oceanrise and that started out as a drum groove.  I sent it out and then I went down to Sam’s house one day and he’s like, ‘Hey, check this out. I’ve actually married this with a cool idea’. And five hours later, we just had this nice little core germ of an idea that got developed into the song.  The speed in which Sam works is remarkable.  ‘This chord could be really good here’… he’s already identified every possible permutation in those chords or where it could work and I just sat there going, ‘That sounds really cool’. Then you could get an idea.  It’s a train and you got to get on otherwise ‘See you later’.”  

How did you decide on Sam as producer and Jens Bogren as mixer?

“While he’s an incredible songwriter and a phenomenal guitarist, one of his other passions is producing.  He loves that and he just loves the recording; all of the whole process.  It’s something he’s studying; it’s something he’s very passionate about, so it just falls to that.  It has those other fiscal benefits.  We go to a studio to track the drums of course.  The studio was down at the Gold Coast – Studio Circuit.  We found it due to an emergency.  A place we were going to record fell through at the last minute so we frantically searched around and we ended up at Studio Circuit and it is my home away from home. It’s a beautiful place.  Justin, who owns and runs the place, he’s just the best guy.  Great facilities and it’s really awesome. So we go to a studio, we do the drums but Sam just loves that process and when it comes time to putting all the sessions together and cutting it all up and creating the sound, that’s where he also thrives.  

“Jens is a bit of a hero for all of us.  He actually mastered ‘In Contact’.  He really connected with our music and from that point, he said, ‘When you guys do another album, I’d love to mix it for you’.  And we’re like, ‘That could be really cool’.  (It) comes time for mixing this and we put it to our label and it was an emphatic, ‘Yes please.  Absolutely’.  Jens works a lot with Inside Out and Thomas (Waber) at the label and it was a no brainer. 

“I think he connected with this music, this album, more than I think – himself included – any of us were prepared for.  It was such an incredible uniting of vision.  We tracked everything, we sent it over, he was given a brief of what we were going for and I remember getting those first mixes back going, ‘Well, he’s pretty much done it’.  Aside from a few tweaks here and there, he just understood it.  When you get a name like that, one of the biggest names in production in our genre to be so along for the ride on this – we’re very fortunate.  Someone like Jens, who was instrumental in the early Gothenburg scene many many years ago – instrumental in pioneering that sound – to see his evolutionary progression of his sound… so many bands want to chase that thing and I think you’re fortunate to find someone that specialises in that but has evolved and progressed in their own way.”

Prog metal is often seen as a very technical subgenre. But generalisations don’t always ring true, do they?

“The more traditional prog has more of a classical leaning to it. So they use those classical compositional techniques and put them in a rock context. Whereas, there’s a lot of atmospheric stuff like UK band Anathema and they’re considered prog, but they’re not a technical band.  There’s more emotional storytelling and more emotional musicianship.  There’s more of an atmosphere that they provide as well.”

You did a few shows with Anathema.  How was that experience?

“We ended up doing a couple of shows with those guys on our 2017 European tour and we were their main support for a show in the Netherlands.  You wouldn’t pick that they did the doom black metal type stuff early in their career.  It’s very solemn, it’s very moody, it’s very atmospheric… and they are lads – the very definition of rowdy English guys. We walked through the door and they’re like: ‘Are you guys the Aussie guys?’  And we said, ‘Yeah’.  And they said, ‘Oh, thank fuck for that’.  And then they just launched into being the most relaxed English bunch of people you’ve ever met and we got on so well.  It’s so funny to see that sort of juxtaposition: ‘This is the art, this is the mood, but we’re a bunch of dickheads’ (laughs). I guess that really applies to us too.  We take what we do very seriously and how we present it and how it’s received, but we’re a bunch of dickheads (laughs).” 

Dickheadedness aside, the album artwork looks very stoic and some of the songs have a very upbeat feeling about them. Is there a message in Rise Radiant?

“It has this positive, uniting message that – while it wasn’t written when we’re in the situation we’re in – it was something I felt very strongly about. And now we’re in a situation where it’s almost more poignant than it ever could have been. And I also think that that’s another reason we’ve had such an overwhelming response to this.

“Basically the album itself is about rather than overcoming adversity, you are succeeding in spite of it. There’s no, ‘I think I can and I’m pretty sure I can’.  It’s, ‘I’m going to no matter what comes at me’.  Even though you’re a fragile little being trying to achieve and push through that adversity, you still do it.  The deer and the mountain in the artwork really represent that. The deer can look at that mountain going, ‘Okay.  We’re just going to do a thing.  It’s not insurmountable. It’s a challenge, and it is gonna be difficult but you just do it’. 

“It’s not all sunshine and lollipops by any stretch.  It was a celebration of the fragility of that way we carry through those situations. Relating to the pandemic and the situation of the world at the moment, it’s something I don’t tire talking about.  It’s important now.  That positivity that is just inherent in the music and the lyrics and the package overall. It feels more important than ever to keep promoting and talking about that positivity so we all don’t forget.”

Rise Radiant is out now via Inside Out

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