When the promoters of the upcoming Uncaged Festival stopped merely teasing their touring event and began releasing the line-up, Caligula’s Horse was the first band announced. With the rest of the cast since revealed including some of Australia’s verifiable rock luminaries like Wolfmother, Magic Dirt, The Hard-Ons, Tumbleweed, The Meanies and The Superjesus, it was a very cool gesture for the Brisbane prog metal unit’s name to be dropped first.
“It was really nice,” says vocalist Jim Grey, “especially as there wasn’t quite as much of the ‘Who?’ that I expected in the responses!”
“‘Let us know when the real bands are announced!’” he continues, with a mock growl of indifference. “I’m stoked actually, because the line-up really suits me and people my age. You’ve got the Superjesus in there, Magic Dirt, all this stuff from when I was a teenager. I still have the chorus from the song Gravity stuck in my head – from then! So I’m stoked. That’s what I’ll be watching.”
Uncaged will be the biggest rock-oriented all-Australian festival since the demise of Homebake nine years ago. It fulfils a promise made by Silverback Touring when COVID put the live touring scene into a coma that they would focus on giving priority to Australian acts when conditions became favourable again. The line-up represents the best aspects of the greatest rock festivals, an all-inclusive bill that takes in everything from straight-up hard rock to punk, death metal, prog and experimental instrumental music, veteran bands to newcomers. There are also no foreign acts. It’s something that Grey identifies as one of the upsides of the pandemic.
“I hate talking about the positives of COVID,” he says, with a careful, ironic chuckle, “because it sounds awful to say that, but one of the positives for me was that I got to have a second kid. I have a second daughter now, which is awesome. The other positive is that now they’ve been forced into putting together this line-up that is diverse, there’s no internationals… you can’t bring out your mid-level internationals out, or the big headliners – all of these acts have to be Aussie or New Zealand. All that’s done is now accidentally celebrating the variety of music we have in Australia. With all your Triple J festivals, and whatnot – not disparaging them too much – you don’t really get an idea of the amount of variety and creativity there is in Australia, whereas this is going to be… sick!”
For Grey, the opportunity for his band to play at Uncaged is particularly special simply because of the festival’s very nature. Caligula’s Horse have never played a major outdoor festival in their home country before, and last year’s touring plans for Rise Radiant were wiped out even before the album was released.
“Personally, for me, being stoked about something like this is purely because it’s an outdoor music festival. Because of COVID we missed the window of this album release for Rise Radiant, and we missed the window for a whole bunch of stuff to a certain extent. We’ve played outdoor festivals in Barcelona and in the US, big festivals like ProgPower and stuff, so we do have those experiences. But there’s nothing that compares, for me, to the Aussie music festival, possibly because I remember going to them – the Big Days Out and things like that – in the early 2000s, so it’s been on my bucket list for a very long time. I’m excited to be involved!”
Rise Radiant cast Caligula’s Horse in a different mindset to 2017’s In Contact, setting a triumphant tone in contrast to the dark angst of the previous set. It was an ironically upbeat release for a world about to descend into gloom and uncertainty.
“It was kind of a weird coincidence, actually,” the singer admits. “We wrote the music we needed to write, and it turned out we needed it more than ever before. We even thought it was strangely coincidental with the bushfires in 2019. I remember recording the vocals of the Peter Gabriel cover of Don’t Give Up on Rise Radiant right in the middle of all the bushfires and stuff and thinking, ‘Wow the lyrics are really specific to this’, and then of course 2020 rolls around and goes, ‘Here you go – hold my beer!’”
Paradoxically to his earlier comments about the positive side of the pandemic, it proved to be a very dark period for Jim Grey personally. He is very candid about how deeply affected he was by the complete cessation of all the band’s activity and cancellation of their plans.
“I went through just a massive period of depression that I don’t really remember much of,” he admits. He is very frank about the possibility he may not even be still with us if circumstances had not been how they were. “I’m so grateful and lucky to be where we are, not just in Australia but obviously where I am in Queensland because I wouldn’t have survived a Victorian lockdown, I don’t think. I would not have survived a Victorian-style lockdown. I disappeared for months, and my voice suffered from it, and I had to go and get a procedure on my voice because I had basically been holding my breath and locking myself into position for a long time so I had to go and get these injections to relax my vocal cords.”
COVID disruptions came at a particularly cruel time for Caligula’s Horse, when they should have been about to undertake a breakthrough US tour.
“For the release of the album itself, we were meant to be in the States. It was going to be our first headlining tour of the States, on the release date we were going to be doing a show in Chicago… I was going to make fun of their baseball team… I had plans. And those plans were dashed upon the rocks. Our situation was so fortunate because we had no deaths or anything. I always feel really weak complaining about it even though it was a very real thing for me, because compared to those who’ve lost family and stuff… it’s just rough.”
Cancellations and constant rescheduling eventually got too much, and Grey completely lost heart: “Every email you get about a new booking, or whatever, you just go, ‘OK. Sure. I’m sure that will happen.’ It’s not hard to get cynical about this thing that is your main form of self-expression that you really, really love but that you’ve also become really good at because you’ve dedicated your whole life to it, so if the idea of touring makes you go ‘Pfft’ then, what’s the point?”
Things are clearly looking for positive now, and Grey suggests that having the network of the band in place was something of a safety net, even if they couldn’t perform and weren’t in the process of writing.
“We weren’t able to work together, or tour, or anything. We’d only just done Rise Radiant so we weren’t ready to start writing new stuff and it got to the point where we hadn’t been on tour together for so long that we just went camping together, and that was lovely. We needed that. It’s funny when you realise how much you need to be with that group of people.”
As for the Uncaged shows, will Caligula’s Horse use it as an excuse to celebrate the band’s 10th anniversary, which they weren’t able to do this year?
“I suppose we could do some frigging Dream Theater-like three hour set or something, but it’s a festival so we’ll only have limited time! We’ll most likely do some of Rise Radiant, which will be fantastic and play a few other bangers, and maybe I’ll experiment with wearing sunglasses on stage like some kind of douchebag, or something, I don’t know!”