Ex Deo, Kataklysm Frontman Maurizio Iacono: "If The World Gives Me The Chance, I'll Give It Something It's Never Seen Before."
Band Photo: Kataklysm (?)
It takes vast reserves of endurance and determination to attain worldwide relevance in the extreme metal genre - much less retain it for two decades - and Montreal's Maurizio Iacono is one of a relative few with the scars and success to prove it. The job is never done, however, and rather than cool his heels as Kataklysm officially celebrates its twentieth anniversary, Maurizio has chosen to plunge forward with his personal passion project Ex Deo. Comprised of a modified Kataklysm lineup with extra personnel, Ex Deo in 2009 released "Romulus," (reviewed here) a lyrical history of the foundations of ancient Rome set to rumbling, melodic, epic metal anthems. This year, the saga continues.
On Sunday, April 1st, Finnish Viking metallers Turisas boldly led the vaunted Paganfest tour to Montreal's Club Soda. Originally booked for the entire tour, Ex Deo had been forced to cancel all but a handful of dates in order to focus on perfecting the highly anticipated sophomore album "Caligvla." Tonight, surrounded by friends and adoring hometown fans, they were ready to rock. I caught up with Maurizio shortly before showtime, and he brought me up to speed on a host of topics concerning both his bands, his lyrical inspirations, his passion for history, and more.
Mike Smith (OverkillExposure): For several months, we’ve been hearing about the new album “Caligvla,” which allegedly exists, though we’re in for another five month wait. If this isn’t the best metal record ever made, you might have a revolt on your hands!
Maurizio Iacono: [Laughs] Well, there are a lot of reasons it’s taking so long. It’s done; it’s in the mixing mode right now, so we could’ve released it earlier, probably in June. But this year, August 31st marks Caligula’s 2,000th birthday. That is so epic; there’s no way that anybody else could ever produce something like that. This record took eight months to put together, and when we were doing it, I didn’t pay attention to the fact that the anniversary was coming up. It was a total coincidence, which makes it even crazier, and I told the label, “We’ve gotta release it August 31st. There’s just no way we can miss an opportunity like that. When does that happen?” Think of a band like Amon Amarth, which is all about the Viking mythology and all that. They do have characters and stuff that happened, but it’s more fiction than reality. They don’t have the chance to do what we’re doing, releasing a record having to do with a certain persona right on a specific date. It’s crazy! We thought it was meant to be, so we pushed it back that far, and we’ve been taking our time to make sure everything’s perfect, or at least as perfect as it can be. I don’t really believe in perfection, but as long as it’s what we need it to be and we’re extremely happy with it, I think it’s gonna make a lot of noise. Our ex-label [Nuclear Blast] heard it and flipped. They were like “Whoa! Uhh… can we talk?” And I’m like “I can’t get off.” Y’know? [Laughs] So it’s one of those things where the response by everyone who’s heard it has been insane. We’ll see. The fans are the real judges. We put out music and they decide if it’s good or bad.
Mike: As a fan myself, I’m dying to hear a little more about it, musically. Are there any cool parts or whole songs you’re really psyched about, that you can share with us?
Maurizio: It’s a lot more “epic” than “Romulus.” That was a big gamble, because it was our first album, and we were testing new waters. I didn’t want to go too deeply into the Roman philosophy, because I wanted to associate people with things they know, like Caesar and stuff like that, and the beginning myths. So the subject of Romulus was the perfect way to start. We played it safe a little bit, but at the same time, it was very nerve-wracking. It was completely new, and if you mess up something like that on the first record, you’re done. Obviously that wasn’t the case; the record was very well received. We’d gone for a very raw production on that album, almost black metal sounding, with very sharp guitars and stuff like that. So we went for a better-produced record with “Caligvla.” It’s much bigger sounding, the drums are huge, and it’s a very “big” album. Especially with the symphonies, which are so complex they’ve taken months to put together. It’s like watching a movie. Tonight we’re premiering the title track, “I, Caligvla.” In the middle, there’s this huge symphonic part and it just grabs you! The best way to describe this record is “more dramatic.” I think that if you’re someone who likes both movie scores and in-your-face metal, put those together and this’ll be your record. It’s epic, man. The important thing for me is having my hairs stick up when I listen to it, and that’s what all of us feel. In the end, it’s about the five guys in the band agreeing. To have five guys, who are very different people, thinking the same, then you’re good. You always have that one guy who isn’t sure, but this time, we’re all there. We’ll see what happens! We’re definitely gonna tour for it; we’re gonna push it more than we did on the last album. We didn’t do too much on “Romulus.” We let time take its course.
Mike: As for that one guy not being sure, it’s always nice not to have a weak link.
Maurizio: [Laughs] Everybody’s got their opinions. You’ve got two guitar players, a bass player, a guy that does symphonies, a drummer and a singer. Everybody’s got to get along and do the record that everybody is expecting. There are a lot of expectations for this album. “Romulus” took everybody by surprise; they weren’t expecting Kataklysm to NOT sound like Kataklysm. That was already a hard-won battle. And this time, we’re taking it even further. Most side projects sound just a little bit different, but are basically the same band. For us, this is not the case. There won’t be any blast beats or anything else that relates to Kataklysm; it’s a completely different beast of its own. I knew it when I finally finished listening to the first mix. I was just like, “Wow. OK.” I think it’s gonna be fucked up. People are gonna go “Whoa!” when it comes out. The only thing is that we’re kind of alone in the world when it comes to Rome. There aren’t any other Roman-themed bands; we’re the only one.
Mike: I find it amusing that you’re singing about the Roman Empire when Eluveitie and Heidevolk – two of your peers amongst the Paganfest ilk – have recently released albums about ancient tribes FIGHTING the Roman Empire.
Maurizio: But ancient Rome was also pagan. Emperor Constantine made it Christian – we’re talking four or five hundred years after the death of Christ – but the whole Roman Empire was pagan and had many gods like Mars and Jupiter, and it’s very similar to the Norse mythology. They’re all kind of in the same boat, y’know? It comes from the Greeks. So if anybody belongs on this tour, it’s Ex Deo, or any band from Scandinavia. But Rome was such a big empire, it brought a lot of civilization everywhere, and certain people considered Rome an enemy because it was expanding. And if I really wanted to push the envelope, I’d say that Scandinavia was never really able to get out of Scandinavia. They were these tough Vikings and everything, but they stayed in Sweden. They couldn’t get out because Rome had the entire peninsula of Europe locked. From what I’ve studied, the Romans were not interested in Scandinavia. There was no agricultural gain, there was no gold. So why go there and fight all these beasts for nothing? They let them do their thing and everybody was happy. That’s pretty much what led to the way things are, but they still always see Rome as an enemy… it’s almost like the U.S. in a way. When you’re a superpower controlling the world, you’re always gonna be the enemy, y’know? And this is the problem a lot of the bands have with me. I mean, they love me – I’m friends with everybody – but the problem they have is that they can’t rewrite history. They can’t change it. Eluveitie lost. That tribe [Helvetios] got crushed, Gaul became Roman, and in time it became France, because it got civilized thanks to what Rome brought. And nobody wanted to go back to being Gaul because they got so much out of it – land, money, aqueducts – they didn’t want to go back! It’s like if I came to your house and told you to go live in a cabin with no electricity. Are you gonna do it? They were like, “Hell no, we’re good!” [Laughs] So to explain that to somebody that’s trying to be all proud of this tribal heritage is hard.
Mike: It reminds me of the People’s Front Of Judea in Monty Python’s “Life Of Brian.” WHAT HAVE THE ROMANS EVER DONE FOR US?
Maurizio: [Laughs] It’s a double-edged sword, of course. I mean, they invented a lot of bad things too. They created freedom and democracy, but they also created dictatorship and tyranny. So the whole world, the way we know it, is coming from a big source. I’m more interested in the aspect of explaining and teaching some of the things I know about it, and in metal, you can’t find a better concept! Crucifixion is the most satanic thing you could ever see, and it was made popular by the Romans. Look at Slayer’s artwork on that T-shirt with “War Ensemble” on the back, with the cross and the guys with military hats. Everybody uses the cross; it’s a very powerful thing. And the Romans invented it, and nobody’s started a band about it. So to me, years ago when I first wanted to do Ex Deo, it was this crazy concept that made sense.
Mike: In the liner notes of “Romulus,” you included a disclaimer that emphasized the historical aspect and denied any kind of grand statement or political message. Despite that, when you write or sing these songs, how might you apply them to things happening in the world today?
Maurizio: If I had something big to say, it would probably be that advancement is not a bad thing. If we were all still living in the Stone Age today, it wouldn’t show any form of intelligence. I think the Roman Empire brought a lot to society and brought it forward. The proof is that the moment it fell apart, we went into the Dark Ages. No historical facts even exist for about a hundred or two hundred years after. Nobody knows what happened. It was darkness, because the whole world went into uncivilized territory, y’know? It led to the plague, then slowly England and France started to move, and we had the medieval times. But the moment Rome fell, it was actually worse than before. So I always see it like this, if you want to compare it to today: if America fell apart, and any country could claim it… it’s the end of the world. Everybody’d be fighting for it, and it’d be complete darkness. We’d go back to a primitive time. So right now, as bad as it seems, where the U.S. does things to preserve peace that some of us don’t agree with, we’re still here. We’re still here playing metal, drinking beer, having a good time and living. There’s a freedom about it. If I want to go to Australia tomorrow, I’ll have no problem. I’m not getting searched to the point where I can’t even leave the country because it’s war everywhere. We don’t have that, and in Roman times, it was very similar. They did bad things like any nation, but there’s an image that associates the Roman Empire to what happened in World War Two. That’s why I wrote that thing in the liner notes, ‘cause I don’t want to be associated with that. That’s not what I’m doing, with all the eagle symbolism. When I played Milan, Italy for the first time on Paganfest Europe, we brought the eagles out, and you should’ve seen the people, man. They were just like this. [Cringes awkwardly] They were almost HIDING; it was very fucked up. So I had to fucking do a speech because the first song had no reaction. Zero. Before, I’d thought, “We’re going to Italy, this is gonna be crazy!” But I had to stop and do a speech: “It’s not what you think. It’s about your history. Embrace it!” In Italian, by the way. “If you don’t want to embrace it, then YOU’RE the bad guys, man, because what happened is none of our faults. We’re up here talking about history. You should be proud of what you’ve done because you brought the world into advancement.” After that, the place went insane.
Mike: And if we don’t talk about history, we forget it, and then maybe repeat it.
Maurizio: It’s kind of crazy, yeah. The eagle is a big symbol of Rome, and it’s about your enemy. The eagle is able to see its enemy from miles away, and when it spots its prey, it gets it. That’s why it’s such an important symbol for a lot of nations. The U.S. has it, Mexico has it, Poland has it, everybody. But because we connected it to Rome, all of a sudden we’re nationalists or worse. People will go there for no reason, and it’s just craziness. But I don’t care. I think I have something very strong going with Ex Deo and I’m going to continue to pursue it. I think it’s getting bigger and bigger, and a lot of people are starting to understand what it’s all about. It’s not about trying to be bigger than somebody else; it’s about history, and how what happened back then is so similar to what’s happening now. How it influenced everything in so many ways. If you go to the White House, it’s like the Pantheon, y’know? If you compare those two buildings, they’re identical. The big white pillars, it’s all the same. George Patton, the most popular General the U.S. ever had in World War Two, rode a horse to his final battle in a big red cape, like Caesar. It’s a very popular statement that says a lot. He had a huge respect for the military capacity of Rome, and the U.S. copied a lot of the Empire’s military might and used a lot of their techniques and strategies the same way. Fight by air, and then come by land – that’s all Roman, with the catapults that weaken the enemy before the army comes in as a unit. There’s one thing you’ll notice about the U.S. Army versus a lot of other armies. In the U.S. Army, everybody’s equal. It’s all about your brother, right? The Roman Army was the same; that’s where it comes from. Everybody’s fighting on the same team, where you’re not bigger than me and it’s about protecting each other and doing the job. The reason the Roman Army was so strong is that it was a unit. The Germans, the Scandinavians, they all fought because everybody wanted to be a hero. They all had to have the most kills. “I’m the man” kind of stuff. They were more focused on that because the more men they killed and the more heroic they were, they’d get more women. The Romans weren’t about that. They had to fight for the right cause and do it the right way. That’s the difference. And it’s not that I’m trying to go against everybody else. I mean, I’m doing the same thing all these other bands are doing.
Mike: We need diversity.
Maurizio: I think so. I think I’m bringing something new to the scene, and if it creates some sort of friction, then cool, because we need a little excitement. [Laughs]
Mike: Fill me in on what sparked this huge interest in Rome in the first place. If I’ve heard right, a lot of this comes from your dad.
Maurizio: Yeah. My family’s very proud of our roots, and I used to always see my dad reading stuff like that. I always had it around me in my house. They weren’t really religious, and for Italians, that’s very weird. My father was always the guy that told me, “You have to look inside yourself about things in life.” Something he used to tell me that I believe today is, “The sun is the only thing that keeps this whole world together. When the sun comes out, everybody’s happy. When it goes down, everybody’s miserable. When it’s dark, you sleep, and there’s a reason for it.” So the sun keeps warmth and keeps life growing. When you see a flower come up, it’s a good thing. He’d say, “The Romans worshipped that as Sol Invictus. They didn’t look at it scientifically, like ‘that’s Jupiter.’” I believe that. When you look in the sky, what are you searching for? There’s a big ball of energy keeping everything together, and that’s the sun. I’m not a religious person, but if I have to believe in something, it’s going to come from my ancient roots. A lot of it comes from my family, because it made sense. They were all about me making up my own choice, but the way I saw it, that’s what it’s about. I’m not saying Christianity or Catholicism is bad. I mean, if you believe in Jesus and feel something from that, that’s good – it’s all about the individual. I really believe in the individual, but I don’t believe in worshipping an establishment. Ancient Rome fell apart completely when it adopted Christianity. It didn’t take long.
Mike: It’s true that any institution with enough power becomes corrupt. You can see examples of that…
Maurizio: With everything! It’s just everything, man. It’s human nature, being greedy and bad. We’re not a perfect species, and it’s normal for that to happen. It’s gonna continue; it’s not gonna change.
Mike: Now, in other areas, Kataklysm is getting ready to release the DVD “The Iron Will: 20 Years Determined.” Brush me up on what we can expect in the full package.
Maurizio: It covers the whole history of the band from the beginning of the beginning. It’s extremely detailed, so it’s a long DVD – five and a half hours! It’s hard to put twenty years in only two. We didn’t want to do an Anvil type of thing, ‘cause that’s more like a movie, and it’s kind of a sob story. We’re not a sob story! I wanted to give the fans the meaning of what we are, and to do that, every individual had to give his story, and we wanted to give people a feeling of how it is to be us: what we went through to where we are now. We bring you out on the road with us a little bit, and it’s a very, very detailed and well-documented story. You get that on two discs. Part One is “The Early Years,” and Part Two is “The Rebirth,” because Kataklysm went through a lot of crap at one point and we were almost done. You have to see it all to understand it. Then there’s a “best-of” CD on there with fifteen songs. We wanted to put only ten, but the label told us, “You guys have so many strong songs; you’ve gotta do fifteen!”
Mike: Ten songs does seem a little low.
Maurizio: With ten records, yeah. So we have about fifteen tracks, including the new song “The Iron Will” and the music video we did for it. The song will be released before the DVD drops, to promote it. It also has the whole live show, which is my favorite part. I mean, I already know the history of the band, and it will probably take fans a week to watch all five and a half hours of it. [Laughs] We filmed our headlining 20th anniversary show at Summer Breeze last year, with 30,000 people. It was unbelievable, with fireworks and everything. The fans were insane, and Germany’s a very strong market for Kataklysm. I saw the filmed show, and I thought, “Wow. If any Canadian band came close to playing a Maiden show, this would be it.” I mean, the camera goes over the crowd all the way to the back, and never ends. It was that big.
Mike: Makes for an interesting contrast to the usual shows back home. Such a different world.
Maurizio: Well, the crowds are crazy here too; it’s just a different amount of people. I mean, Kataklysm hit the German charts in the top 40, almost the top 30. Switzerland, Austria, we hit the charts there too. Think about it – a band from Montreal gets released in Europe, and for a couple of weeks stays in Germany’s top 30 record sales from around the world. It’s big. Not to be conceited or anything like that, but for a fucking kid who lived in the North End of Montreal… it’s just like, “What the fuck?” Y’know? Nobody’s done it. We’re the only Canadian metal band that’s done it. I don’t consider Rush a metal band; I think they’re more of a progressive rock band. They would beat everybody, but as far as metal is concerned, I think we’ve done our share of promoting it the right way, and representing where we come from. We hit the Billboard in the States on the last record too, which is kind of weird, but times are changing!
Mike: Have you been working on any new songs in addition to “The Iron Will?”
Maurizio: At the moment no. We’re thinking about recording something, and of course the label always wants us to be in the studio, but right now, we’re focusing really hard on Ex Deo. I think “Caligvla” is that strong; we really need to be on it. But I think in the end of 2013, hopefully we’ll get a new record out. It all depends. “Heaven’s Venom”  was a very strong record, and that’s why it’s taken three years to release Ex Deo, because we were always on the road. I’m STILL on the road for it! I’m still getting good offers to go tour, and we have to take them, y’know? We’re doing Siberia for the first time, three shows. We’re doing five shows in Russia, China is coming on board now, and the band keeps on growing into different places. It’s just one of those things. Hopefully we’ll find time to do everything else! [Laughs]
Mike: You and your manager Steph Mellul recently launched the booking agency Rock The Nation America together. How’s that coming along?
Maurizio: Good! This is our first tour; we put it together. We have a tour called Conquerors Of The World that’s coming at the end of the year, with Septic Flesh, Krisiun, Melechesh, Ex Deo, and also Inquisition from Colombia. We’re working on Thrashfest and a bunch more tours. We have artists on our roster doing a lot of different tours as well. We’re doing a Kataklysm headliner coming through with Origin, Fleshgod Apocalypse, and Rose Funeral. A lot of these projects are getting worked on now, but this, Paganfest, was our first main tour. It’s gonna get bigger and better. We’ve signed a lot of great bands like Hypocrisy and Hammerfall. A lot of things are ahead, and we’re going to book stuff in the States and Canada equally. The important thing is that Steph and I understand not only the business side of it, but also the road. We understand what it’s like to be a musician. That’s the advantage we’ve got on everybody; we’re not pencil pushers. We work from the road, and there’s nobody else doing that. Bands appreciate that, when we “think like a band.” I’ve said to other bands, “I know what you’re eating at this club, on this night.” It’s hard to beat that! It’s cool that Steph and I go way back, and after twenty years of doing this stuff, we have people behind us who believe in us. We’re making a big difference and we’re very happy.
Mike: Have you thought about one day filming an Ex Deo DVD with a massive theatrical live production, props, pyro, and things like that?
Maurizio: The ultimate dream for Ex Deo is to completely reproduce a theater. We’ve had a lot of offers to play in Rome, and we’ve refused, because I want the band to get much bigger before we go there. Basically we’re not worthy yet. [Laughs] So the moment we go to Rome, it’s gonna be epic, and I’d like to shoot a DVD in a coliseum. There are a lot of coliseums in Italy, and if we find the right one that accepts us, that’s the way we want to do it. We’ll be doing more live; with a thousand years of history, it’s a never-ending concept, and there’s so much you can bring to it live. It’s crazy. We want to bring women onstage dressed as Romans, and crazy stuff like that. If the world gives me the chance, I’ll give it something it’s never seen before.
Mike: On a related note, will “Caligvla” be an X-rated album?
Maurizio: [Laughs] I’ve seen the original artwork, and it was fucked up. But I didn’t want it to be banned, so we made a better cover. We’re working with Seth from Septic Flesh, who’s an incredible artist. He’s done some crazy artwork, and the guys were flipping two days ago when they saw it. It’s amazing. I don’t want to give away too much, ‘cause it’ll be a nice surprise when we release it, but it’s pretty much an incarnation of Caligula. It’s pretty fucked up. If you watch the movie, [“Caligula”] it’s a bit cheesy, but we’re making it serious on this record. It’s gonna be good.
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