Feature Image Credit: Stefanie Vallen Photography
Jim Grey is the lead singer of Australian progressive rock bands Caligula’s Horse and Arcane. His band Caligula’s Horse will be releasing their upcoming album “Bloom” in October through Inside Out Music. I had the chance to sit down with Jim via Skype and discuss his band, his influences, personal life, and future plans.
Note: The interview is edited for time and length constraints. I have posted a link to the full transcript at the bottom of the page.
So, you’re a new dad. How’s it like being a dad? Is there any significant change you’ve experienced besides having a child?
Yeah, actually. I mean especially to do with how I want to make music, which is the most interesting change really. Because like last year was a year of a lot of loss for us.
I essentially didn’t want to make sad music anymore; I wanted to make more uplifting music, and that’s pretty much going to be the approach I take from henceforth. I think all I wanted to do after she was born was travel the world, sing with people, and celebrate each other. So it’s been a really fundamental change in the way that I think.
How has the family life, especially with the birth of your daughter, affected the songwriting process? You had mentioned the music is more lighthearted, maybe not as dark as in the past.
The new stuff, particularly like “Bloom,” it’s the first album after she was born. There is still bittersweet and melancholy elements to the album, very much so. That’s the key part in what we write. But it’s not in any way depressing. It’s always been, even if it’s bittersweet, kind of an uplifting quality to it. It’s not as dark as “River’s End” or as “Known/Learned,” which were startlingly depressing. I really just want to make music that is bright and colorful, that excites people. That’s the big change for me.
What are some of your hobbies besides writing music?
I train a lot. I like to go to the gym and keep fit. It’s sort of my “me” time, actually. I’m also a student of history. I study ancient history and classical language, so I’m learning classical Latin and ancient Greek and all sorts, because that’s a fascination of mine. I get to continue studying into the future no matter what happens with the band.
That’s impressive. That’s really fascinating.
And it’s awesome. I’m a sucker for it.
So, I have a few questions about both Arcane and Caligula’s Horse. Which band came first?
Arcane was definitely first. I’ve been doing music with those guys in one way or another since I was 17 years old. Originally we were a project called Dreamscope and had a couple different members, and then we sort of reformed in about 2005. And it was very much a learning band, like we were all quite young. But we took a long time to develop the artistry that we wanted. You know, the sound we wanted to create. So I think “Known/Learned” is very much a combination of that. It’s been a long journey. You could look at “Ashes” or “Chronicles of a Waking Dream,” and “Chronicles” I’m still very proud of even though we were still quite young when we made that album. But “Known/Learned” is definitely like the peak of that.
How did Caligula’s Horse form? Did you know anyone in the band prior to becoming the band?
Yeah, we rehearsed out of the same place. In a suburb called Northgate in Brisbane, in the middle of an industrial area, there’s a dirty old rehearsal room that we rented out. Sam Vallen, he had a band called Quandary which Dave and Geoff, who are in Caligula’s Horse also. They were doing a lot of instrumental, very technical progressive rock music. I think Sam wanted something a little more his, a little more sort of heavier and, I think, lyrical as well. So he approached me, put together and practically formed an album of material under, I think maybe it was called “Caligula’s Horse.” It was going to be a one-off thing, it was going to get a bunch of singers to sing on it and perform some tunes. But we had such a good time in the studio recording, I think it was “Alone in the World” that we did first. And after that he was like a madman. “Do you want to just sing the rest of the album?” I’m like “Yeah, sounds good.” And we ended up collaborating on one track, and I actually helped write “This City Has No Empathy,” which I feel is the strongest song on the album because it’s the two of us working together. It sort of took off a little bit, and by the time the internet got a hold of it, we had started developing a bit of a fan base around the world.
Switching between the two bands, is there a difference in the writing process between one band and the other?
Yes, startlingly different. (laughs) Yeah, like it’s apples, and like some kind of machine. Arcane has a very natural kind of process where we’ll jam on ideas. It’s very much a jam band kind of vibe. You know, people will get together and throw ideas around, we’ll play the same thing all night and see how it feels. Some of us will jump in an go “What if we drop this or added this?” Or I’ll start singing a hook over the top. Things will slowly build out of that. That’s why it’s such a slow process but I also feel like that’s why it’s such a natural kind of warm sound particularly of the stuff on “Learned,” because that was all written in a very particular scenario. Whereas Caligula’s Horse, Sam and me, that’s it. Zac, actually Zac our other guitarist, has entered in a lot on “Bloom,” and he’s credited on a couple songs as well now. It’s mostly Sam and me; we sit down in his home studio and we go over ideas. We practically have full demos of songs that are completed and then we can take to the guys and say “Here’s a complete song.” It’ll happen quite quickly, so we’ll flesh out vocal harmonies, write hooks, write lyrics, and just do it every couple of days. Then bang, there’s new material. So it’s a lot quicker, like “Bloom” has been ridiculously swift in its production. We basically have written and recorded the album in less than six months, which is something I’ve never done before. I know that’s what’s expected from hence, and the industry standard for us having been sort of off the leash and doing whatever we want. This was really quick for us, but I’m really proud of it.
I actually asked Reddit if anyone had any random questions, so the next couple questions are from Redditors. One of them is how easy is it to mesh your metallic edge with your emotional soft side? Does it come naturally? Is there a lot of thought and planning that goes into it?
I’ll start with instrumentally. Sam has a magnificent ear for this. The sequencing of songs on an album and writing within the songs themselves on a micro and macro level, hearing the passage of the song, and how it grows, it’s such an important structure. So we go through with a fine tooth comb everything we’ve written, like “Does this part that we’re listening to right now, does it serve the song at all?” And if it doesn’t, it goes because we don’t want to have that typical progressive music, where we’re doing long songs for the sake of doing long songs, or we’re doing overtly technical sections just for their own sake. We want it to serve the song; we still want to be writing good music, so that process we take is really deliberate. In terms of a vocal approach, not really, because I’m a wilting, delicate flower really, because I’m a big softy. I studied classical voice and jazz voice in the past. I had two particular singing teachers when I was studying jazz. Between the two of them, one of them taught me very much technically how to sing and the other one taught me how to mean it. And I think that was the most important lesson is that if you’re honest with the emotional delivery then the style will take care of itself. Because if it’s a big and powerful passage like on “Keeping Stone: Stand on Fire,” with the lyric “I will stand and raise a voice like sound on fire,” that’s a big and grandiose statement. If I’m honestly delivering it, it comes out with a strong, emotional, and powerful presence. But if it’s something like on “Nightingale’s Weave” where it’s a soft farewell to a father in a hospital bed, of course that’s going to come out feeling soft and delicate, and a little fragile. I think the role of any singer is to be a competent actor in that way. If you’re using that method, then your delivery is honest.
Someone asked how does Australia continually produce such high quality progressive rock and metal? Is there something in particular that makes Australia a powerhouse for that genre of music? Is there something in the water?
…Well it’s very hot here. (laughs) At the moment, you’re right. There’s sort of a really strong community of alternative progressive music coming out of Australia. I think a lot of it is because of how secluded we are. I’d love to hear people argue with me on this, but the fact that we’re so isolated means that we’re not trying to appeal to any particular market. We’re trying to service the music that we’re writing. These stars will come up, and there’ll be waves, and yes there will be people who will be inspired by each other and influenced by each other. I think most of the time it’s because we’re isolated and we’re very supported. I was chatting with a fan from New York; he was pointing out that it seems when we talk about another band we always discuss them as if they’re our friends and that we’re very supportive of one another. And it’s true, and I didn’t realize this but apparently in some other places in the world it seems very competitive, and a little back-stabby, and people are trying to get at each other in order to get ahead. Whereas in Australia I think we all know how tough it is as individual artists; it’s practically impossible. It’s a really tough thing to do because it’s so sparse and so far apart in population is so low relatively. In Australia, if you’re doing metropolitan areas the most number of shows you’re going to play is five or six in a row. That’s with a lot of trouble traveling in between 12 to 14 hours on a bus, in between cities, getting on the bus after the show, and you wake up at the next venue for sound check. (laughs) We all know how hard it is, and we support each other and we share each other’s music. We’re all genuinely friends and we all get along very well. A form of community is a part of why all this music keeps coming through and very original.
This next question leads into a couple of “Bloom” questions. Someone asked will there be a stylistic change with the album… you touched on it earlier… or should we expect a natural progression in sound from the previous albums?
I feel it is a natural progression. One thing we’ve very much wanted to do, even before we started writing and putting together a mission statement for the album… because “The Tide, The Thief, and River’s End” was such a dark sounding album based on the dark nature of the concept, we really wanted to return to some of the brighter, more colorful approach that we had on the first album. We’ve got a lot of that coming through, and it is a natural progression of sound. We always want to be creating new and different music. So the growth I feel is a natural one. There’s not going to be anything that’s startlingly different, none of that. Our approach was to not edit anywhere near as much as standard in modern progressive music. Actually, I’m going to bring this up. This is a pet hate of mine at the moment, particularly with vocals. You have these amazing vocalists in these progressive metal bands, who you see them live and they’re absolutely incredible. And then to hear them on the record, the industry standard thing to do, the approach that everyone takes with this kind of djenty and progressive metal is really highly edited everything. So guitars, drums, and in particular vocals. You hear them and they’re hard tuned, pitch corrected vocals. We’ve done it before in the past as well. Like, you can hear it on the first album, there’s tuning on that, there’s editing on that. Part of our growth and part of our sort of protest against that in particular, it is to remove that. So there’s going to be no vocal tuning of any kind on “Bloom.” Everything else is minimal editing and very live sounding. A lot of the vocal takes we were attempting to get long, one-take blocks of performance to try and capture something. It wasn’t perfect, but it was special. I feel like it’s a very natural sounding album in that way.
It sounds like approaching a song that way, it just comes across as more personable. It comes across like you have more… it’s just more passionate. Sure, there’s some artists out there where they’ll say “OK, I hit the note wrong, but I’m going to keep it in there because I did that.”
And it sounds great. The examples I love to use are like Jeff Buckley’s “Grace,” which is probably my favorite album of all time, and Michael Jackson’s “Bad.” The song “Bad?” If you listen to the chorus, he very rarely hits the actual note on “Bad.” It’s slightly flat, the intonation is out, the whole way through. And it’s fine because it’s Michael and he’s killing it, and he’s so natural in his delivery. And for Jeff, there are flat notes and slides and things all through “Grace,” but because it’s such a beautifully delivered line, you don’t even notice because it’s so real. I think it’s going to be interesting to see how people who are constantly hearing highly edited music respond to hearing something in this way. I think there may be some sort of mixed response from there, but I genuinely believe that our fans are going to love this album. It’s the best thing we’ve done so far for sure.
“Bloom” comes out in October. As you said earlier, “River’s End” has a much darker concept. Is there a concept to this album? Is it rigid as a story, or is it more free flowing?
Um, it’s not a concept album.
Oh, it’s not at all?
It’s very deliberately not. Just purely because we’ve taken that step with “River’s End.” We’re not ruling out that we can do that again in the future, but we wanted to do something different this time. Especially since Arcane releasing “Known/Learned,” which is sort of a sparse and lengthy conceptual work that we just wanted to write a collection of the best songs we could possibly write. And we’ve done that as far as I’m concerned. (laughs) But not to say that the individual songs themselves don’t have stories or specific inspirations behind them that are contextual. Because of course they do, that’s how I like to write. But they’re not connected to one another as such.
Do you find it easier writing like that? Do you find it easier writing a concept or a more direct album like this one?
I think kind of both. I feel to write my best work, I need to have a story in mind, whether that’s a story within just one song or a story within an album. The stuff writes itself when you know you’ve got to get from A to B plot-wise, or you’re trying to create the imagery of a particular moment that you have in mind. Then it’s a lot easier for those rhyming couplets or hook or something else will just appear in your head. Whereas if I’m trying to conjure something from the ether that isn’t really about anything or isn’t telling a story, a lot of the time it ends up being crap at first because it’s just me pushing too hard for an idea or trying to write about my feelings, which is always trite and a bit sad. (laughs) So yeah, I think conceptually it’s a lot more fun and a lot easier to write.
Did you take any different approaches in the recording process? Is there anything in the writing or recording different from “Bloom” than prior albums, or even from Arcane albums?
Well yeah. Recording-wise, I can speak for myself. Mostly Sam and I in the studio were really trying to capture as much of the real vocal performance as possible. As much of those long lengthy takes as possible. So there are whole sections… most of the opening track is one take, and it’s actually the first take. And you just walk away from that and have a sense of pride for completing that. But it does have a very strong and natural vibe to it. We still have our trademark harmonies, and really flesh out jazzy harmonic approach to vocals. It was a different approach in that we tried to get as real as sound as possible.
I just have one more question for you. Do you have any advice for any aspiring musicians out there?
Yeah, probably. I would say stick with it and support your friends. It’s something that you have to be passionate about. If you are genuinely passionate about it, then make the sacrifice. Work as intensely hard as you can, and at the same time, make connections with friends. Be friendly with them, be supportive of all the artists, not just because that support will come back in droves, but because when you support each other everyone gets better. Everyone gets a lift from helping each other. So help out other artists and be personable.
A special thanks to Jim for taking time to sit down and chat with me! It was an honor meeting you.
You can read the full transcript here.