Published Sep 25, 2012When Kataklysm frontman Maurizio Iacono spearheaded the Roman-themed Ex Deo and released 2009's Romulus, it turned out to be a pretty cool side-project of powerful death metal that incorporated the history of ancient Rome. But with sophomore album Caligvla, Ex Deo have become much more than just a side-project, as the band have taken what they created with Romulus to the next level. Continuing with the Roman concept, the aptly titled Caligvla focuses on the reign of the mad Emperor Caligula (aka Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus), and features even more orchestral flourishes than their debut. At once beautiful and brutal, this is as epic as death metal gets, and while attempting a concept record of this magnitude could be considered a tad hokey, Ex Deo pull it off with their artistic integrity intact.
Caligvla is the second Ex Deo album. How are you feeling about the final product?
Frontman Maurizio Iacono: Really good. It's a record that took a lot more to put together than the first. We just worked really hard on this record to get all of the elements right and we're really happy with the end result; it's a big step ahead of Romulus, in my opinion. It's looking really good at the moment with the media, so we're happy.
In what ways is this record a "step ahead" of Romulus?
Well, first the production is much better. The first one had a very organic sound; we wanted to do something a little bit more underground sounding. This one though, we went with a much bigger production; we wanted to have more of a soundtrack environment to give it justice and to have a big sound. We worked really hard on that angle with our guitar player JF [Jean-François Dagenais], who is also the producer of the record. It took eight months to put this record together because it's much more intricate than the first. The elements in it, to put this stuff together, were a lot harder this time around because we didn't just go with a flow of something pre-prepared like we did on the first record. We came in and analyzed every moment, every part together and we worked differently than with the first record. The first record was put together by the band working together in the same place. This one was put together piece by piece with guys from all over the place. I live in Chicago, some of the other guys still live in Montreal and one is in Dallas, so we had to put all of this stuff together with technology. It was a very different approach, but when it all came together and got mixed, it just sounded killer; it was like everybody was on the same vibe. Plus, the first record is a record that when we did this project we didn't really know how it was going to come out and how it was going to sound, and if the band had their own identity or not. This is the first time with the feeling of knowing where the band stand and what our direction is. Also, the team on this record was a lot more focused on Emperor Caligula, which is one of the most notorious, evil people from the past, you know, to come to life again. It was kind of one of those things where we went deeper into Roman history compared to the first one, which was more introductory.
Is Emperor Caligula the main concept behind this record, lyrically?
Well, you know, he had a short reign, so it wasn't like I could talk for an hour about him. I'm a very to-the-point type of person, so we did a two-part song on him, the first song and then there's a song called "The Tiberius Cliff," which is about how he got brought up. We wanted to draw the parallels between what he did and why and where it happened. It was one of those things where we wanted to draw kind of a similar parallel to what happens today in society when you're brought up with a certain type of people or parents that instil things in your head, and then you become like that. And for him, his entire family was murdered by the existing emperor at that time, called Tiberius, and he took him under his wing, but he made him witness all this crazy stuff and then he became like that. It parallels a lot of things you see in today's modern world.
What got you interested in Roman history?
Well, first, I'm Italian [laughs], so that's already something that comes easy to me because I was brought up with it. My parents, when I was younger, were really into it and made sure that I understood a lot of history behind my culture and it always kind of stuck with me. But I think that I really got more into it when I started visualizing it more, watching movies like Ben-Hur and really old stuff like that. Then obviously movies like Gladiator really emphasized the whole thing and it made me really get more entwined with it. I decided to go to Italy and spend some time there with my family and just get really together with my culture and I learned a lot about it. I figured that the metal scene is a vast place where you could do a lot of different things, and it wouldn't work anywhere else but in the metal scene, you know? I figured it would be cool to bring this type of project, with this type of history, to this type of music. It was unique ― nobody's ever done it before ― and I figured if the Vikings are doing it with Amon Amarth [laughs] and all that, then I can do something that I think was even more interesting because it was really real, you know, there's not a lot of mythology behind it. I thought it was a very interesting concept and I got really into it and read a lot of books after that, and it's kind of part of my life now.
Listening to some of the songs on the record, it's easy to visualize it as a scene from something like Gladiator.
[Laughs] right. Well, you know, one of the things about when we wrote this record was that we had flat-screens in the studio and we played those kinds of movies. We wanted to make sure that what we were writing could also fit with it. The TVs didn't have any sound, so it was a lot of visualizing. To me, it's very important that when you're doing music, if you're going to do something, you've got to do it right, and I wanted it to connect with movies like that. We also had a lot of artefacts, Roman artefacts, around the studio for influence. I think that if you watch Spartacus or whatever is playing, and then your music is playing and it could fit right into it, then it's like, "Okay, you're doing something right," you know? For me, it was really important and Jonathan [Leduc] is the main orchestra guy for us, who worked out all the details on it. I mean, he's done an incredible job, in my opinion. It's like Hans Zimmer in some of these parts; it kind of almost sounds like that. It's that good. He worked really hard on it and the trick here was to put metal music and then combine it with that grandiose feeling of the soundtrack to a movie like Gladiator. To combine it together is very difficult and you've got to almost make your music not too complicated so that you can let the whole orchestra breathe behind it. For some reason, it came naturally ― certain things you can't really explain. Some people would try to do it and it doesn't make sense or it sounds like a Nintendo game [laughs], but for us, it came together right. I think there's a lot of heart behind the band and we're getting more mature with it, gathering all the Kataklysm experience behind it, and obviously it works in our favour.
Kataklysm are your main gig and you've been doing that for so many years. Why did you decide to do this side-project?
Well, trying to bring this whole imagery to Kataklysm wouldn't work [laughs]. Kataklysm are a very street-oriented band; it's about social aspects and this is kind of more like a fantasy thing. I wanted to get more into theatre, like I wanted to bring the concert experience more to almost a theatre level and I couldn't do that with Kataklysm. I also thought that Kataklysm would need a break. We can't be doing a record every year, every two years, so now it kind of got drawn up to every two or three years, and in the space of time between we do this Ex Deo thing, which keeps us busy and it's fun. But I have a very big vision for it and I want to bring it to a level where people will see a concert and it's not just music and a band headbanging; it's like you go to see it and it's a whole theatre set-up. I want to bring something different to the music industry and we're working really hard with this project and a lot of people are starting to get behind it, so there are a lot of good vibes.
How are you feeling about the upcoming tour with Septicflesh?
Well, I'm also the manager of Septicflesh, and they're a great band from Greece, and they're one of the upcoming bands that are going to make a lot of noise in the next few years and I have a lot of belief in them. We were thinking about how we could package the line-up for the tour and make it interesting with bands from all over different parts of the world. We decided to bring all these bands and wanted to bring in Ex Deo as well; it makes sense, both bands are in the same imagery kind of. So I was like, "Sure," plus I'd be out there with those guys anyway, so I think it's going to be a very, very cool tour. There's a lot of hype behind that tour, so it should be really cool. It's all good friends, everybody knows each other and what I like about it is that it's a lot of bands that you don't see everyday that are touring together, and that makes it really interesting.
You mentioned that the live show is more like a theatre show and Ex Deo are more of an artistic project for you. Is that what you intended it to be when you first started it?
Yeah, it totally is. It's something that I want people to think and I want people to dream, like you see this and it brings you back in time and I just want to have that experience with people. I love when I go to a show and I know people when they used to listen to Iron Maiden, they get kind of drawn back into a different place. You look at the artwork and you're completely somewhere else and then you go see the show and they've got the whole stage set-up and it's cool, with Eddie and all those different things. Music is supposed to be entertaining ― it's an entertainment thing ― and this thing is interesting because you have all these bands that promote Satan and all that stuff [laughs] and try to be super-evil, but with Ex Deo, it's almost real, like it happened. These people like Caligula and Nero and all these crazy people existed for real, and it's like talking about it, it's not a fantasy thing, so it makes it even more legit, and I think that's interesting. Even the crucifixions that you see other bands promote with the upside down crosses, which is Satanic and all that stuff, well, that was all invented by the Romans, you know [laughs]? It was their way of doing what they did back then if you broke the law or whatever. But it's the parallels, and I like to compare a lot of what used to be in those times to what's happening now, which is a very educational thing at the same time
You made a music video for "I, Caligvla." Is it more fun to make Ex Deo videos because there's so much imagery to work with?
I tell you, it's a lot more stressful [laughs] because if you do it wrong, it's done, you know what I mean? It'll be dead in the water. People will be like, "Oh, it's cheesy, it's not real," and that's the big challenge with it. With that big challenge comes a lot of expenses because it's extremely costly to do something like that. I don't know if you've ever seen the series Rome, but when they did this series on HBO, it was the most expensive series they ever made in the history of the channel. And the whole set burned down and they couldn't finish the project and that's why it stopped, but it was amazing. But, you've got to get the costumes, you've got to get the actors, it's just a lot of work and it has to look fantastic. And then the movie 300 made it even more crazy with all the blood spray, and it's just very rough. But we did this video and we got a place that had an ancient Roman theme and we were able to reproduce a lot of it and we're extremely happy with the video. It's going to turn a lot of heads, like it could be a movie, it's that good. We didn't have a lot of time to shoot it, we had to do it in two days and that was crazy. All the battle scenes and everything, it was pretty crazy, but we pulled it off. With the first record's video, we did a lot of CGI work, we went to Serbia to shoot it and it was only me and it was doable because I was the only one in it. It was more of a solo project when I first started this band, but now that it's a band, I have to include everybody and introduce the line-up, so it was a lot more work. We did the video in Philadelphia and we pulled it off [laughs]. That's all I can say, when you see it you'll be like, "Wow." It's a very cool video and it's obviously more fun, because it's like a movie. It's different from Kataklysm; it's another experience.
Do Kataklysm fans ever have any expectations when they come to see an Ex Deo show?
I think a lot of them come to see it just to support Kataklysm. They're like, "Okay, they've got this other band, Ex Deo." And then at the end of the show they're like, "Dude, I love Ex Deo, they're great, what a great concept, but you know, Kataklysm are my band." So they'll be like that, but then you've got the people that are like, "I actually like this more than Kataklysm." It's always different, you've got the both sides, but they come and they come more for the show I than the music sometimes because the music is very different from Kataklysm. The one thing that I like about what happens in this situation is that we are able to create our competition. A lot of bands feel like, "I've got to get bigger than this band" or whatever, you've always got the little juvenile confrontations with other bands. But we created our competition; it's like the bar was high on Romulus, it was a record that received really great critical acclaim, and then we had to come up with a good Kataklysm record because we don't want to get outdone by Ex Deo and then it's vice versa, you know? So, Heaven's Venom comes out for Kataklysm and that was a major success. We toured the world for over a year-and-a-half, and now we come out with this new Ex Deo record and that's getting full scores already. It's like this thing between both bands that's making us work harder to get better at what we do, and I think that's very healthy. At some point, we're going to hit a wall [laughs], but for now it's just one of those things where it's a healthy competition.
You don't live in Montreal anymore, but most of your bandmates do. What are your thoughts on the current metal scene there?
Well, Montreal has always been a leader, so it's that place, like I'll be in Germany this weekend and I know for a fact that I'll be talking to some people in bands in Frankfurt at the show and they'll be like, "Hey, Montreal is the best place to play in North America." It's known worldwide as a leading type of city. It's always got a good emerging scene and there's always great bands coming out of it. But I've always said it's very hard when you're from Canada trying to break into the U.S. or world market. It's like the world is always going to look more to the States or Sweden, for example, than Montreal or Winnipeg or wherever. I think it's unfortunate, in one way, but in another it makes us work harder and it makes us different, and I think that's a big success in its own. Even though I don't live there anymore, I will always be Canadian; I was born there. I enjoy where I live now, in Chicago, it's been good to me. It's definitely helped the band a lot with me being here. My guitar player is actually moving to Dallas at the end of the year, so he's working to go there too, so it's just sometimes for the music you've got to do things to help push the cause. But we never say we're a band from the States, you know; we're a band from Canada, everybody knows that. Our new website will be kataklysm.ca [laughs], so we can't get away from it. It's just one of those things, it's a great country and you know what, for metal, a lot of people call it the Switzerland of North America because you come here and there's always people at the shows, they buy merch and it's always a good place to play.