When you put a passionate and dedicated student of history (yours truly) in the same room as a very intelligent musician who loves all things related to ancient Rome, the likelihood of the conversation following a pre-planned line of questioning goes completely out of the window. Maurizio Iacono, frontman and leading force behind the epic-themed Symphonic Death Metal quintet Ex Deo is a man on a mission. His aim is to educate the world about everything and anything to do with ancient Rome, by drawing parallels between today and life more than two thousand years ago. The obstacles have been too complex in nature and too many to mention but if this interview/historical presentation has proven anything, it is that the Canadian born singer has the passion and determination to convince the doubters and achieve total victory…with the help of the Gods, of course!
By Yiannis (John) Stefanis.
- Hi, Maurizio. You are one of the few singers that I know who are willing to give an interview so close to performance time. Most of them are too worried trying to preserve their voice.
Maurizio: When I sing I am OK but my voice gets weaker after the end of the show. My voice is more harmed after the show than it is before and I damage it more often than you think (laughs). I do things completely the opposite way. People tell me not to speak as my voice will become totally extinct but if I manage to talk in a calm manner before a show the end result is better for me as it kind of warms up in a way.
- Maurizio, I believe that you are a Québécois, right?
Maurizio: That is correct. My family is originally from Italy but I was born in Montreal, yes. Our main language is French.
- I had a very enjoyable conversation with the guys from Voivod (fellow Québécois), a year or so ago and I attempted to speak to them in French but I didn’t understand much from their answers, because of their local accent!
Maurizio: People from France cannot understand us either!
- Ok, I feel much better now. Ok, what happened to my manners here? First and foremost, welcome to the UK! It is a pleasure to have here a musical project as specialised as Ex Deo. Five years ago you mentioned during an interview that, as far as touring was concerned, Ex Deo would focus more on specialised shows as your priority would be to front Kataklysm. I was quite surprised to find out that the tour you are currently undertaking in support of Nile is pretty extensive. Why this change of heart? Is it because Ex Deo have been attracting much interest lately?
Maurizio: Interest in Ex Deo is definitely picking up. One of the reasons why we decided to take part in this tour is because there are so many shows taking place in England and we have never played in England before. This English tour is quite expensive plus Ireland was also involved. As we already came to do Bloodstock Festival we thought that it would be a good idea to back it up with more dates. This was an important part of the tour for us to do. I have actually refused a lot of tour requests for Ex Deo in the past as I only want to perform with them at specific times. Last tour we did was Paganfest, which included a completely different type of band, and what we do now, supporting Nile, is a more extreme thing. We are, in a sense, trying to hit two different markets. I like to keep things like this because I can still pull off some form of show because what I have in mind for Ex Deo, as far as theatrical aspects of the show are concerned, we would not be able to do on a strict and constant tour basis. I am doing more Ex Deo related live shows now than I plan on doing in the future. In the future, I will try to do more specialised shows as I will hopefully be able to bring a whole Roman type of theatre onto the stage. That’s my dream. For now, I have to focus on selling the music, sell the idea first, and that entails us doing more tours like this one. So, we will do a bit more now that we are still in the beginning of our career and, hopefully in time, we will get to where we want to be. Again, there are no high expectations here. I do this thing out of my heart, as I love history and I believe that this is a great theme to introduce into Metal.
- You mentioned the words ‘target’ and ‘markets’ in the same sentence and I want to stay with that a little bit more. I am sure you agree that gaining the attention of a wider audience is much easier nowadays than it was back in the 80s as minds tend to be more open and boundaries easier to cross.
Maurizio: I believe that things are still fairly segregated.
- You reckon?
Maurizio: I believe that 100%! They are…I will give you and example. We played Munich during the Paganfest tour and the crowd that came to that show went absolutely crazy, even though we were a brand new band. On this tour with Nile, playing at the same town was a battle! We have a more elite type of crowd attending the shows. It is easier to play to crowds that know what to expect from you, but crowds like these on the Nile tour are heavier for us. On Paganfest we were the heaviest band on the bill so fans would automatically think ‘the heaviest band is the coolest band’. On a tour like this one, where we are not the heaviest band, performing live is for us a bigger challenge. It is an artistic challenge of sorts to see if we can manage to change people’s ideas over what we do. In Metal, when you reach the point of listening only to very extreme stuff it is then very difficult to ‘go back’ as everything else comes across as weak and boring to you. It is a big challenge. With Nile it is different because they are not only aggressive but they are artistic as well, as a result of the whole Egyptian theme that they are involved it. We have always been friends with Nile, so the whole thing fits very well and when we play live, even though they are more extreme than we are, we fit very well together. The concept of these two bands being on tour works, at least this is my perception of things.
- There may be an age element involved here. Most young people nowadays find it easier to support various Metal genres while older fans are perhaps more set in their ways. Having said that, though, I should belong in the latter category, I have a degree in history, I love reading books about Ancient Rome and I love most styles of metal, so there are older fans out there like me and we might possibly be your “ideal fans”!
Maurizio: You are Greek, right?
- I see you managed to detect where this terrible accent of mine comes from.
Maurizio: You’re telling me? I am Italian! (laughs).
- (I laugh) Anyway, you see why I am personally so attracted to Ex Deo. On the other hand, I know many old school Metal fans who dismiss such projects as mere gimmicks. I guess the main battle you have to fight is towards changing the perception of this group of fans, right?
Maurizio: The only way to prove such perceptions wrong is by doing more albums because only by making more albums will you prove to those people that you are not joking around. Already the second album (note: Caligvla) has brought both to Ex Deo and also to their fan base more confidence and has helped solidify our fans’ faith in us. Even when we look at a simple thing like Facebook, when we did “Romulus” we had approximately 9,000 fans registered, which was very small, but since we released “Caligvla” we have reached 30,000. People flock more towards something where they know there is future. With Kataklysm (note: Maurizio’s main and much more popular band) being such a powerful entity for us, people perceive our involvement in Ex Deo as a joke, as something that is not serious. These people need to know that there is more to that and so we brought another record out and began to tour more. It is as a result of all these things that I changed my mind towards how much I am touring Ex Deo at the moment. With Kataklysm I would have more or less toured five to six months in Europe, you know? With this Nile tour we are doing two months and that’s it. It’s one of these things where timing and perseverance are playing an important role in the decision making process. What I am doing by that is that I tell all those sceptics out there “I am doing this and I don’t really care what you think”. That is the whole point I am trying to make.
- That is quite a statement indeed – the ultimate one perhaps.
Maurizio: It’s more or less “if you don’t like it, OK, but if you continue b*tching about it then fu*k off”, you know? I know that I p*ss off a lot of people with this Roman concept. At Bloodstock I said something like “Good Evening Britain, or should I say Britannia” to which everybody screamed but there were a few people booing me – the same people who sent me messages on Facebook saying things like “we are Picts” and were offended by the way I addressed them. Some journalist who was actually reviewing our show picked that reaction up and added to that “some of us are Celts” and all that. I am not coming to England to conquer her with a legion behind me, you know, but I am trying to do in a way is to educate people. The world that we live today is not all that different from the world that our ancestors lived in back then. If you want to get deep into things you could even say that Rome is still here with us. Just look at the Vatican which still behaves like it is electing an Emperor and how societies are still focused on how best to control people, only in a more modern way. Things are now more political than they are military. As for the military, see how the army of the United States is operating, having copied everything from the Romans. The US is the New Rome in my opinion. I think it’s important that people should know where everyone and everything comes from and I also always thought that metal heads have an advantage towards other music fans as most every day people follow anything you offer them without being curious about it, but to like Metal you have to be curious! As a metal head you need to be able to dissect and decipher music. It’s not easy for somebody to just press “play” and say “oh I love Metal”! I mean, how can you love something that goes like (note: at this point Maurizio recreates the sound of a classic up-tempo Metal riff) and understand it? You have to have some form of intellect to like Metal; I am a huge believer in that idea. So I really work hard towards promoting this idea. Some people are trying to make me look like the guilty party, someone who is trying to make money out of the whole ‘Rome theme’ and stuff like that, but they do not understand that I grew up with it!
- Do people still believe that there is money to be made in the music industry?
Maurizio: Exactly! Especially for a band like Ex Deo where, even if it ever gets to the point where the concept attracts a certain level of popularity and I can make some money as a result, I will straight away invest it back into the project because that is what I want to do. You think that it’s cheap to bring with you girls that are dancing on stage and feed you grapes and all that stuff (laughs)? That’s going to be expensive for sure. We have tried to make things more visually exciting for our fans in Canada, as it is easier for us to do it there, and the end result was a hit. We brought a belly dancer on stage and it really works. To bring such a show to a world level, to try to convince the label’s German folk how a Latin person thinks and how this whole idea can be great is difficult as there is not much money involved. The only way to achieve that is to be on the road and get the fans to back it up. That will happen in its own time. I realise that you cannot push anything in life, especially ideas, as they need time to spread.
- That is true and if things are meant to happen they will.
Maurizio: And one of the reasons is because I, personally, didn’t connect with the whole Amon Amarth ‘thing’. I think that the music is cool, I enjoy listening to it, but I did not connect with the overall concept. When they went to play a show in Italy together with Kataklysm I saw a friend of mine who loves Kataklysm having Thor’s hammer tattooed on his chest and he is from Italy! My first thought was “It’s not you, why did you do that?” to which he replied “For Odin! Odin?!?”. Where’s the olive oil (laughs)? We’ve got problems here, man! I really have a problem with South Europe wanting to lose its identity! I was born in Canada and as a result I do not have the same experience of things that southern Europeans have these last few years, the hardships and all, but I struggle as well and I understand a little bit as to why. But that doesn’t mean that one should lose his/her own identity! I was in Greece recently and your country is really beautiful. I learned so much during this trip as I went everywhere, the Acropolis where I saw the Parthenon, Apollo’s temple near Athens. The window of the hotel where I was staying gave me direct access to Zeus’ temple in central Athens, you know? How about Santorini? I mean, your country is beautiful. I paid a lot of attention and I experienced a lot of things because I did not use the services of people who arrange organised tours. They like to do their own thing and you have to follow their pace, but I did listen to what they were saying. Why are most of the ancient Greek artefacts completely destroyed? Instead of people keeping them together they just let them fall apart. But the biggest thing, the common message, that came up every time was “in 427 BC the Persians came in and destroyed everything so we had to rebuild it”. There is so much history there, so much war, so much blood and people still try to shy away from that. When I was there with the Septicflesh guys, I worked with them and they brought me to a place asking me “What you think?” to which I replied “What do I think? I feel like I’m in Italy”. You really feel the history! You cannot go to America and feel the same, you know? You get a more futuristic feel from them but nothing that suggests where this culture actually came from. It is a shame that most people do not know that. In America they don’t educate people with regards Rome and stuff like that – very little. You learn more about the Indians and Cowboys and the Civil War period but nothing about Democracy and where it was that this idea started from. It came too close for this word to not be how it is today, you know, and the Greeks have a lot to do with that! It’s all that which troubles me and so with the small ‘channel’ I have through Metal I want to use it in order to educate people as much as I can, but I have to do it in a very smart way because of the way people react towards that concept. If I go too far into history and start referencing the war against Hannibal, the story of Scipio (note: Africanus) and the start of the Roman civilisation, people will never really manage to get into Ex Deo. I will have to slowly bring these subjects in. “Romulus” was the foundation story, Julius Caesar is and always will be the most popular theme and “Caligvla” is also a popular figure and I also wrote a song about Nero in the new record. I have to move in such a careful way that people will become truly attached to the concept and once they are attached I can begin explaining things more – something that I intend on doing on the third record.
- Well, you have indeed picked a concept which is very wide and interesting. You have a good six centuries of sensational history to exploit, so many interesting stories to tell. This could keep you creatively active for a good ten years at least.
Maurizio: I know and I agree but there is a lot of work behind everything we do.
- I will actually support that argument by saying that everyone who has ever seen an Ex Deo video is aware of the attention to detail and the passion involved. Your videos look like full-budget productions. Plus, as time is money these days, I am sure that you would not have undertaken such a project if you were not 100% behind it.
Maurizio: Absolutely! People have to understand that, to continue to do that we need the support of the fans – at least to come to the shows. If they don’t want to buy the record…I understand that as I do not buy so many CDs myself anymore. I do buy music but it is mostly digital. I pay for it because I really believe in the concept of intellectual property. Doing something so creative and so time consuming, with all the blood sweat and tears involved and have someone simply taking it with a click of a button? And having these people saying that they love the band and not even coming to the shows to support us? It’s not right! The foundation of all things seems to have gone – still, we are trying to stay alive. Bands like mine are at least trying to do something different and so we at least deserve the attention that people can give to the project. Other musicians are doing the same thing over and over again thinking: “Let me play the fastest stuff ever so that I can get recognised. Then I will go on tour and get my money so that I don’t have to work.”, or whatever…I don’t believe in that. I believe in something that’s much different and I felt that, in Metal, this concept will flourish. For years I thought: “Why isn’t anybody doing this?”. It’s crazy because it was the biggest empire in the world. It doesn’t have the best of reputations for certain things but these are things that you can totally translate into the Metal language – things like crucifying rebelling slaves like Spartacus. The Romans were very strict and in many ways set in their ways…
- …but, at the same time, they were pretty accommodating towards other religions and cultures, providing that they did not endanger the safety and stability of their empire.
Maurizio: Exactly. All those underneath you, however, will always portray you as evil. I mean, you look at any movie ever made about Jesus Christ. I grew up in a Catholic family and my mom made us watch…well, she did not make us watch anything but when you are part of an Italian family over Easter there are certain films that you are guaranteed to watch. I remember watching these films and being really attracted by the Romans as they wielded so much power and control over so many people. It wasn’t the armours or the weapons: I was attracted by the sheer power they possessed. Everybody made them look so bad. Your initial feel was: “What happened to poor Jesus?” but then you become smarter and start analysing stuff and you see the bigger picture. You see the aqueducts being built, the civilisation created, the placement of one black and one white stone into a basket which helped decide who was to run that vast empire. It was, of course, the Greeks who came up with this idea but the Romans took it and made it bigger. They took the initial idea from the Greeks and utilised it, protecting all the Greek artefacts, all those beautiful philosophical treaties in the process. Romans looked up to the Greeks and a great civilisation as it was they who built the foundation of all things.
- You know, I am going to leave this tour bus after this interview feeling at least one meter taller!
Maurizio: I am a huge fan of Greece and when I was there with the guys from Septicflesh I was telling them things like “you should push your history”. Everybody if trying to do all that stuff and they were probably fed up listening to things when they were in school, I respect that, but…even the story of the 300 – it was not 300 (note: that fought in Thermopylae) but more (note: there were also 700 Thespians who joined the 300 Spartan warriors who made a stand against a vast Persian army and held them for a few precious days) and then Athens came into the fight and saved the day. Still, if it wasn’t for those men, Persia would have invaded the whole of Europe and who knows what would have happened! Maybe you and I would not be here talking to each other today. So, I think that, in the end, everything finds its own identity and I also think that this is an identity that people should not forget. If I look at today’s politics it angers me that with Germany, even after everything that has happened, they kind of don’t want to help places that created Democracy – that helped evolution! They instead say: “Greece, I will give you the money but I will buy your islands”! People should not be forgetting so easily what they owe to countries like yours. So, I do my part by playing Metal and putting some sort of idea out there. As far as Italy was concerned, initially I was concerned about people’s reaction as Italy is very political and the message they see me trying to spread is completely different from the one that I am trying to push. I often say to people: “You should have seen the first show I ever did in Milan”. The first show I ever did in Italy was in Milan and…it was so funny because I arrived thinking “I am going to bring Rome to Italy and people are going to love it and go crazy”. When I arrived and started walking towards the venue I saw these twenty metal heads running towards me to which I thought: “Oh fu*k”, but they went straight past me as behind me were these guys from Alestrorm wearing those pirate hats and all (laughs). I am going to say this to you – I was hurt! I mean really? Pirates? I am bringing culture to the world and you are (laughs)…but it’s the truth. That made me want to push my message even more as I thought: “Ok, I need to be the king in my own country”. We came on stage, we raised our eagle standards, our Roman banners and pictures of the “Romulus” record and the crowd was dead silent! They were all heads down, looking almost as if they were ashamed of us! We played our first song and there were only a couple of people screaming and I knew what type of people they were which was most likely fascists. I decided to do a short speech explaining that this show was not a political statement but I am presenting our history and that those who feel ashamed should leave the place as it meant that they are ashamed of who they were. I said to them: “There is nothing wrong with what you brought to the world”. In America, Italy is perceived as a great culture and I had to explain that to them and THEN they went crazy! Then the show was awesome! It ended up being a great show but, until then, it wasn’t anything like that.
- Is this a barrier you feel you have to climb quite often when on tour?
Maurizio: No, it was mainly in Italy that it was like that and I had members of my own family saying things like: “Be careful with that when you’re in Italy”, you know? They probably saw this as a communist type of idea – “You’re bringing this thing over to Italy and Italy censors it”.
- Similar problems take place in Greece. It is mainly because in countries like yours and mine, past Fascist regimes used ancient culture as a means to promote their ideas and this association has remained in the minds of many people.
Maurizio: It is indeed unfortunate that the said regimes borrows such ideas but, I also learned during my recent trip to Greece, that the Nazi symbol (note: the swastika) was one used by the Ancient Greeks – I am not sure if you know it.
- I know indeed and it is even part of the Buddhist culture of India.
Maurizio: Every artefact that I saw, in their bases, featured the symbols all across (note: Maurizio was thinking of the Meandros, which is not exactly that same symbol, but I could understand why he make this association as they look similar in some ways). It represents unity, like two hands locking together so that they cannot pull apart. The Nazis used this symbol in their flags because it was ancient and…who knows what they thought, but that is where it comes from and the meaning of the symbol was completely opposite to the one that they as a movement were promoting. The eagle, the red colour of their flag…they took everything from imperial Rome which is a shame but people need to be educated! I will probably end up being crucified at some point for being so outspoken about these things but I am willing to take the risk. The Romans did some quite nasty things but they did also benefit the world hugely.
- You know, we could be discussing this subject for hours!
Maurizio: The one thing that really amazes me is that this society was governed by a single figure but it was, at the same time, one of the freest environments to live in if you were willing to partake in it. Within the Roman world you could partake in any religious worship you wished, you had free commerce, you could really be somebody if you really wanted to. It wasn’t like you were restricted – the only thing they wanted was for you to pay your taxes and nothing much has changed in that respect today. Every government will protect you with her army but they need to get money from you to do that. The concept is great but some people have obviously abused it in order to gain power…nothing has changed. My whole thing is to try to bring parallels between those two not so different eras. I expected the Germans to have actually been the toughest people to sell this idea to, especially as they are so into Amon Amarth and all that Viking stuff, but they are actually quite into it. I can actually see them start buying shirts at our shows and they probably end up wearing an Ex Deo t-shirt the day after the show. I was afraid in the beginning that this attempt will hurt me and Kataklysm in Germany as Kataklysm are very big there. These are actually our main markets in Europe for Kataklysm, Germany, Switzerland & Austria. So, I was worried that this Ex Deo thing might be a big gamble. Will it affect Kataklysm’s sales? People there, though, are starting to get it, you know? We have a song called “Teutoburg” on the new album which shows that one should also learn to accept one’s tragedies. We lost three legions in that area so I talk about it. That proves that the concept is not about being ‘all for glory’… At least ancient Rome existed – all the Norse stuff is based on mythology and talk about something that’s not really there (note: not sure that I entirely agree with Maurizio on this one. I mean, the Vikings did exist…), about a myth.
- I am really excited to see you being challenged on a philosophical level. On a purely artistic level, how challenged does a band like Ex Deo make you feel? I know it’s unfair to compare them to Kataklysm but let’s do it for the sake of argument.
Maurizio: Kataklysm is more of a street level band, a Pantera-meets-Death Metal kind of band that plays catchy music and the themes are everyday stuff you associate with easily. I like that because I am also quite a realist and I like to live in today’s world – I don’t like living in Roman times the whole time, you know (laughs)! But with Ex Deo the most challenging thing musically is to bring things back to those times. It has to convey a feeling that you can be back in those times and, again, every time we do a new record we watch Roman-themed movies, we remove the sound and we play our music to them. If the music can relate to the action taking place then we are doing the right thing – if it won’t then we have to redo the whole thing. This is what we do every time.
- So you are referring to different types of musical scales and melodies? More oriental in theme?
Maurizio: We are also trying to find different types of strings that were perhaps used back in Roman times which are not really easy to find.
- I believe that we don’t have records of how music was played back then.
Maurizio: We only have surviving literature so we try to go into that level of understanding things. The keyboard player that we have, who is recording all that stuff for us, is very good but, after a certain level, I think that we will have to start using an orchestra. If we really want to push this towards where it really needs to be then we need to go all the way, you know?
- I have to admit that there have been times, especially when watching your music videos, where I remember thinking to myself that in a setting like the ancient theatre of Epidavros (note: an amazing theatre situated in southern Greece), and with a budget that would include a full orchestra and performing actors, an Ex Deo show would be a great experience indeed. Any investor who is willing to put serious money into such a project ought not to be disappointed by the end result.
Maurizio: There is a discussion going on with regards the possibility of doing exactly that in Italy. There is an abandoned amphitheatre, a small one, that we want to use. Doing that in a place like the Colloseum in Rome is obviously impossible. We want to do a shoot with candles in an empty stadium with Ex Deo in the middle performing a show for a DVD – that is the idea that we have. The Italian government is interested but they have to do this background check on us to make sure that we will not use the footage for propaganda purposes but little things like that are OK – they are normal. That is something that, in the future, I want to do. I really want to do something like that in the future and it would be great to be able to experience such a thing. So, as far as the shooting is concerned, we will see if we get the opportunity to do that but you could say that your idea has already been implemented, so to speak. We are already talking with people in Italy to get this done. The theatre we are looking at is one close to Venice – it has a very good capacity for such a purpose and it is also very well preserved. The acoustics there are also great so we won’t have to do much in that respect. It is incredible how well people used to build things back then – even the Colloseum: such a massive building but you can hear a needle drop inside there. I have been travelling to Italy all my life – I go to Italy at least once a year and I have never seen anywhere else with such a massive and great monument. As I said, I love Greece. I thought that it was a beautiful country and I was totally mad that so much stuff was destroyed. Poseidon’s temple (note: in an area near Athens called Sounion) was the best preserved I have seen, with the Aegean Sea surrounding it and the story of how it was named after the father of the person who went to Crete to fight the Minotaur…I actually went to Crete to see that place as well.
- Half my family comes from that island. I love Knossos – it is a magical place.
Maurizio: Crete is really beautiful. I really loved the Knossos palace – I took many pictures while I was there. It was really cool, because when you are there you are really feeling the power of that place and it is something that half of the world knows nothing about. They don’t know. So, I think that if I can channel that knowledge around I will do it and hopefully I can help educate people a little bit more, you know? It’s cool, to see many people nowadays with Roman tattoos, shields, swords – people are really getting into that stuff now, you know.
- I hope you will excuse the absence of a Roman tattoo from my body, but I will support your quest nevertheless!
Maurizio: I understand completely – ‘una fazza una razza’ (note: expression used to denote the many similarities between the Greeks and the Italians), right (laughs)?
- With such a fitting comment on your part I believe it is time to wrap things up here. Maurizio, it has been an absolute pleasure talking to you. What you do is an amazing and important undertaking and I want to wish you all the luck in the world in bringing it together.
Maurizio: Thank you! It is a massive thing indeed and I try not to think about how much work is really involved to keep myself sane – I just go with the flow. Hopefully we will get there in the end. Thank you personally for understanding the concept, appreciating it and supporting it the way you do.
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