Formed in 2008 by Kataklysm frontman Maurizio Iacono, Ex Deo is a side project born out of Maurizio’s deep-seated passion for history and desire to explore his own roots and heritage. Involving the members of Kataklysm, Maurizio set about writing ‘Romulus’, which dealt with the foundation of Rome before upping his game considerably with the outstanding ‘Caligvla’, an album that explored the dark, seedy underbelly of Rome via two of its most notorious rulers, the lascivious, tyrannical Tiberius and the brutal, latterly insane, Caligula. It was an album of grand themes, disturbing contemporary parallels and brutal death metal and it won the band many new fans.
Unfortunately, Ex Deo could not easily coexist with Kataklysm. With so much invested in the latter project, Ex Deo was quietly put on hold, at least as a live band, although, as Maurizio explains, that hiatus did not extend to recording. Set for release on Feb 24th via Napalm Records, ‘Immortal wars’ is Ex Deo’s most epic outing yet. A full-blown concept record exploring Hannibal’s conquest of Rome (and the subsequent, violent response), ‘The immortal Wars’ sets a truly monumental historical event to some of the most thrilling metal you’ll hear all year. We were lucky enough to have the opportunity to speak to Maurizio about the project, about the growth of Ex Deo and about the prospects of the band playing live again – read on and delve deep into the roots of history, for Ex Deo are on the march once more…
The first thing is that Ex Deo started out very much as a personal art project for you is that right?
Yes absolutely, that’s how it started. It was just something that I wanted to create outside the Kataklysm environment and something that I wanted to do that was more… touching my roots and something that I felt could really be a great project in the metal scene – Rome and metal go hand in hand – and I thought it would be a good idea to do something different because everybody’s doing the Viking thing and I thought we had to respond to it and do something cool. But it was more out of fun and more out of art when I decided to do this, you know… it still is in many ways.
Metal has always had a fascination with the fantastic but sometimes reality is more fantastic than any dungeons and dragons tale and, as you say, this is also about your roots…
What I love about it is that it happened. It’s something that we talk about but we’re not… we kind of touch a little bit on the mythological part, with the gods, and Jupiter and Mars and all that… we touch that part, but we’re actually talking about actual people who were in that moment of history and that did those things that were linked to the mythological beings and they did those things in their own situations when they were at war or whatever. So, what I love about Ex Deo is that it’s really a project that’s focusing on real life history stuff, and some of it is incredibly brutal and crazy and it just fits perfectly.
One of the things that I really enjoyed about ‘Caligvla’ was that you took the trouble to include liner notes with each of the tracks to try and explain a little bit more about the history, so this is obviously something that you’ve read a lot about and studied…
Absolutely, I mean, already being of Italian origin, with my parents having been born in Italy, I grew up with it. Our history was always part of it and the only difference is that coming from a Catholic-raised family, Romans were never perceived as the good people. My father was really into stuff like that and he was always explaining to me our history – it was important that we not forget who we are… and I started just reading more about it and when I started learning about it in school in history (which was the only subject which I was good at), I was fascinated by it because it’s such an incredible part of who we are today and to deny it is to not accept what we’ve become or who we are right now because it all comes from there. History is written by who won and a lot of the time it’s the way evolution started, and to me it was a fascinating subject and I learned more about it by reading books and when I put it to music, I put the details in there because it’s important to have it. If I’m explaining a part of history, it’s almost impossible to do it exactly as it is because it would take me a whole record just to do one song! Because it’s so long and detailed, so I have to do it in a poetic version; a smaller, lyrical approach and just have as much as possible that can be done. I think the narrations that I do, on the album (and also on the new one), bring you on to the battlefield and put you in the moment. That’s what’s important.
One of the things that seems to me to be a little bit different between ‘Caligvla’ and the new record is that ‘Caligvla’ touched on Caligula’s reign and upon Tiberius (Caligula’s uncle), and then it went off into other areas of history whereas the whole of the new album is built conceptually around Hannibal and his early achievements.
Absolutely. Caligula, the thing is that, I think, you have to hit the nail right on the head and you have to get to the core of what he was and Tiberius, of course, because he bought him to what he was and that was a different aspect but… doing a whole record about it would have been a little bit far-fetched because, although we could have done a lot of different elements about it and dragged it across a record, it would have been too long, I think. Everybody knows he was crazy and what the historians say, and we have to base ourselves on that stuff. But, you know, every Ex Deo record has never really focused on a subject. It’s been like… ‘Romulus’ was about the beginning of Rome – Romulus and Remus – to Julius Caesar’s conquests, so it looked at different aspects and touched on different things… and also the relationship between the Romans and the mythological Gods and touching on different subjects. This album was a concept record form the beginning because there was enough material to do it and it was just a fascinating thing that happened that rewrote the course of History. SO Hannibal and Scipio being two of the greatest generals that ever walked the earth confronting each other in a… chess game almost, but with human lives, was really an incredible achievement. How these guys were thinking… how did Hannibal get to think that he would go into Rome, which was the biggest republic and army in the world at that time… how did he get to think that he would take Elephants across the Alps where he wasn’t expected and just cut through and do it? It’s insane to think that that could be possible. But sometimes you’re a genius in your insanity and I think he created an incredible route and he said in these exact words “we’re going to find a way and make one” and he did. So the record is kind of based on the whole story. It’s got three parts, the three first parts are the introduction to Hannibal and I introduce him with the Rise of Hannibal and then the preparation and he starts his conquest of Rome and then the response of Rome, after the intermission. The response of Rome to what’s going on and the last song, ‘The Roman’, is a celebration of the Roman solider. It’s a great history storyline that happened and that’s what’s crazy about it. To think that that shit happened for real back then and we’re able to talk about it today… I think that’s really cool.
You mentioned that it’s important to be able to take this very potent history and rewrite it in a way that is poetic and yet stays true to the actual events. How challenging is it to develop those lyrics to the point that you’re happy to put them on record?
You know, it’s… the difficult part of doing this is to actually say it in a way where the listener is able to put themselves in that place in history. It’s like you close your eyes and you can imagine, while you listen to the music, that you’re there. That’s the hard part. I think we’ve done a great job with that part. The history is written; anybody can read a book and imagine how it was and whatever. But to actually put a soundtrack to it and act upon it, almost… when I’m in the studio all the narration parts, they’re not done by anybody else, I do everything. So I’m the general that is talking, I’m Hannibal talking back to Scipio, I’m Scipio talking back to Hannibal. I have to have two different characters to do that, so it’s really a different approach to anything that we’ve done and I don’t think it’s been done in metal too much with that type of idea behind it. So it is a difficult thing, but it comes naturally to us, if that makes sense.
I noticed that on ‘Caligvla’, you used the first person a lot, so you were Caligula in the title track and later on you were Tiberius, and you embodied those characters but it’s interesting, I think, that you took a more sympathetic view towards Caligula than history in general has. You focused, for example, on his family had been killed rather than on the more fantastic elements of his persona…
Right, absolutely, because there’s a psychological war going on with him and it’s not something that just, OK, he was sworn in as the emperor of Rome and then he was crazy! There was a build up to that and I think that it’s good to talk about that because I think that, from all the books that I’ve read and all the things that I’ve seen about it, the documentaries and everything, I think that, at that point, he pretty much acted a little bit of the craziness, because he needed to look like he was insane and crazy so that he was respected and not overthrown. There is a part of that, that is extremely smart. He wasn’t… he knew that in those days you could be deposed easily and he knew he had to rule with an iron fist and show a little bit of craziness. I think that eventually, after he got sick – they say that he had a fever and that he got really ill – I think that role playing might have caused insanity that was more real, but before that, he was perceived as a decent emperor. He came in and he was giving back to the people and he was like that, and, although he was cruel, you’re talking a very different age. So I focus on detail, or I try to, as much as I can. It’s just difficult, the most difficult part, going back to that last question again and looking into this one, is that Rome is so rich in history and detail that, like I said, you could take one song and make a whole record because you want to talk about every little thing and that’s where it gets difficult. So the idea is to choose the right parts, the right elements to make a song stand out and make sense to the listener so you can educate in the right way, you know.
Listening to the music, and also listening to you talk now, it’s clear that this is something that you’re very invested in and very passionate about and yet, a year and a half ago or so, Ex Deo went on hiatus. Was it having this concept of Hannibal that helped to bring the band back?
You know, check it out – the whole hiatus thing was misread. The hiatus for me and for Ex Deo, when we went officially on it, it was more about the time frame, that we didn’t want to… it was the touring part that was really draining us. I have Kataklysm as well and Kataklysm is an important band, it’s our baby, and we’ve nurtured it for twenty-five years and that’s the band that’s always on the road and that’s the everyday thing and the guys have fully invested in Kataklysm. Ex Deo was a project that came out of love and passion as well, both are, but one has taken a lot of our time. So for us to tour as both bands is almost an impossibility because we just don’t have the time to do both. Both are growing and we all have families and kids, so for us, it’s like, going out and ignoring one thing would hurt the other and we decided that, at least for now, we were going to do the possibility of an album, yes. The hiatus was like ‘let’s take a break from everything, let’s concentrate on Kataklysm for now and then when we get back to it, we’ll do the record but we won’t do touring’ because for us, it’s… a lot of people got the chance to see it, and they’re the lucky ones, but live, I might not do any more shows for it. If we do, then it’ll be very limited, so it’s… we’re investing more on the album and the visual of the next video clip that’s coming out soon and we’re going to show the visual of the record, but that’s going to be pretty much it. If we tour for it, it’s going to be limited for sure. So that’s what I meant with the hiatus, it was more about taking the time off from touring for Ex Deo because it takes a lot of energy to do Ex Deo live, it’s not only physically, but the concept of what it is with all the Roman stuff. If you do Ex Deo, you’ve got to do it big or you don’t do it.
I was lucky enough to see you at Bloodstock where both Kataklysm and Ex Deo played and it was amazing when you came out on stage with the full costume – as you say – it was big…
Yeah, and we loved it and I think, that festival totally opened up Ex Deo for the UK and after that we came back with Nile, I believe, and it was incredible for us. The band kept growing after that festival in the UK and there’s definitely a market for it live in the UK and maybe it’s something that, at some point, we can revisit, but you know in due time. We’re not going to close the door but we’ll see how things go when the record comes out. The fans decide, you know, they have to be knocking on the Bloodstock door again and they have to be the ones to demand it so the promoters come to us and say ‘come!’
I think for us, in the UK, the Roman history is so closely allied to our own history that, for us, Roman history (from which we get so much of our society and language) is arguably even more potent than Viking history…
Absolutely! I think especially the UK, France and mainland Europe. It’s been hugely influenced by world but, to be honest, the whole world has been. Everything that we have now, there’s a lot of it that’s coming form that world. There was… before religion took over, there was society and when religion took over it became the dark ages. When Rome fell, it’s self-inflicted destruction… social destruction I should say… it just took everything down. I can see a similarity to today’s world. Stuff’s still happening the same way. It’s just a different time and in a different way that’s going on now. I don’t know, man. It’s an important part of everybody’s history, so I think that everybody connects with it. And it’s also taught in school so that helps me to get people into it!
On the ‘Caligvla’ album, and also on ‘the immortal wars’, you draw parallels with modern society and even gladiators and the way there’s a modern fascination… not with the death, but with the humiliation and the public spectacle still very much there…
Yeah, the boxing – you love how the guy’s on the floor and knocked out and it’s just done in a more civil manner, if you want to call it that, it’s more civil, but it’s still the same. We’re one thousand miles ahead with the evolution of technology but deep down we’re the same, we haven’t changed. Look at what’s going on now, this record’s called ‘the immortal wars’ because the whole concept of Hannibal versus Scipio was two different continents that were colliding because of money, commerce, greed and territorial space. Now we’re doing the same thing but only masked by religion. So religion is in the front, but in the back there’s the oil and there’s the territory and the control… it all comes down to money and power. So I think that the record has come at a good time.
The last question for you – and it comes back to this idea of ‘the immortal wars’ as a conceptual piece – it’s very much an album, it flows from start to finish, it takes you on the journey and part of that package are the videos that you do as well as the artwork, so it’s obviously very important to you to write albums rather than songs that happen to be on the same disc. How do you go about creating such unified body of work?
It has to flow from the beginning to the end. It’s the same thing I did with ‘Romulus’ and with ‘Caligula’ and it’s the same on ‘the immortal wars’ – they all have to flow from the beginning to the end… they have to. Especially this last one because it’s a concept record, so from the moment you press play we’ve written this record so that the dramatic parts put you in the crazy, melancholic area of history then, when it’s war time we all come at you with the guitars and everything. So we really try to build the emotion. It’s a very important part. And the visual… I don’t want to do an Ex Deo album without having some sort of video with the idea of what’s going on so we’ve done a video for the song ‘the Roman’ from the new album and it’s a very controversial video [so much so that an edited version is slated for release] and very crazy, like the Romans were. It was filmed in Serbia and we went to an ancient Roman area over there that was still intact and did a crazy video and it’s out now so check it out! [Warning very NSFW!]