What a 2,000-year-old tyrant has to do with the new Augie March record
Caligula, emperor of Rome from 37AD to 41AD, was not a good dude.
Legend has it he would sometimes throw innocent Romans off cliffs or have them fed to lions for his own entertainment.
He may have been romantically involved with his sisters, he squandered the state’s riches, he extorted prominent citizens and considered his rule divine. After the public grew “weary of this mad and unpredictable tyrant”, he was murdered and replaced.
So, again, not a good dude. But maybe a good reference point for an Augie March record.
“I went to the island of Capri and walked up to the top where [Roman emperor] Tiberius had his palace or villa and that’s where the young Caligula spent some formative years,” the band’s singer, Glenn Richards, tells Double J’s Zan Rowe.
Richards has a strong interest in history – not surprising when you consider the literary approach to songwriting he has become known for over the past two decades.
It was the story of Caligula that would become a touchpoint as Richards was writing Bootikins, the first Augie March record since 2014’s Havens Dumb.
[You] try and release something that has some depth and honesty about it, and doesn’t pander to anything.Glenn Richards
Bootikins, after all, is how people sometimes refer to the Roman emperor. Caligula was actually a nickname, meaning “little boot”, and was given to the future ruler when he was a boy.
“I had been reflecting on what appeared to be a concept that had emerged, or a theme, [during the writing] and that was I was visiting the potential worst aspects of my own character in song,” Richards says.
“It’s an easy way of psycho-analysing yourself via song – imaging the most exaggerated, extreme forms of your own weaknesses and angers and that sort of thing. Which sounds ridiculous, but when you are making songs I think it is a good tool.
“I started thinking of figures in history that best resembled this extreme follower of horrible logic to its ends, and Caligula is one of your prime candidates. “
Richards is not suggesting there are violent or cruel aspects to his character. He is not a tyrant. Caligula’s story simply made for a frame through which to examine his own experience.
After all, he says, what fascinates him about ancient Rome is both the familiarity and the “absolute alien otherness” of the people of that time.
“Everybody has several bad selves hidden beneath the surface,” Richards says.
“Why not explore them? I don’t know what else I should write about at this point in time.”
The band spent a few nights last week reacquainting themselves with the songs – and one another.
The rehearsals, ahead of a show on Friday night at Melbourne’s Thornbury Theatre, were the first time the band had played together in a while, largely because Richards lives in Hobart, while the rest of Augie March remain in Melbourne.
“We only really get together as a group if we need to,” Richards says. “But we are in constant contact over the internet.”
The first evening of practicing was “disastrous”, Richards admits.
“That’s a good sign – it seems to be a pattern.
“The first one is a complete mess, the second one is just trying to rebuild the confidence and the third one we actually get through the songs.”
Augie March are not as ubiquitous in the national consciousness as they were about 10 years ago, when they hit their commercial peak off the back of 2006’s Moo, You Bloody Choir, which was nominated for an ARIA and included the Hottest 100-winning ‘One Crowded Hour’.
There have been some quieter periods – there was a six-year gap between Havens Dumb and its predecessor Watch Me Disappear – and in that time the industry has changed around them.
In the first 10 years of their career, Richards says, “if you happened to be fortunate enough to release a record in a certain section of the [trend] cycle, you might do well, or you might just sync according to what was going on”.
It’s “vastly different” now, he says – trying to latch onto the zeitgeist is futile.
“And that’s probably the best thing to know – that you don’t know anything. And then [you] try and release something that has some depth and honesty about it, and doesn’t pander to anything, and doesn’t condescend to the audience that have stuck around for you.”
The songs on Bootikins began as poems, Richards says, which he then put to “simple music”.
“Which is something I have done before but only very rarely,” he says.
“This was a whole bunch of them. They were the core of the record. They were just loose. I didn’t edit myself much. As far as knowing when I’ve got the right number and there’s something resembling a concept, it just becomes obvious without my realising it.”
That concept – how a wild, tyrannical figure in history can illuminate our inner selves, 2,000 years later – revealed itself towards the end of the writing project, when Richards penned the album’s title track. That song was inspired by his reading of the Albert Camus play Caligula.
A statement on the band’s website notes that the concept “gave firmness to what had hitherto been a loose collection of misanthropic, humourous and occasionally devastating songs”.
The statement also adds: “Nobody was thrown off a cliff in the making of this record.”