The Trials of Cato Awaken Giants For Gog Magog
The Trials of Cato are a UK-based trio founded in Beirut whose lineup expanded with the introduction of vocalist Polly Bolton alongside members Robin Jones and Tomos Williams for their new album, Gog Magog. The album is already available in the UK but is arriving for US audiences in February. For those going to SXSW this year, you also have a chance to catch the trio’s first appearance at that show.
Like their previous album, Hide and Hair, Gog Magog shows Cato’s wide range of musical influences and stylistic reach, building on a core of traditional Folk-inspired elements. Some of the thematic ideas on the album extend from spooky folklore to historical drama and Welsh-language poetic traditions, but also delve into the fears and uncertainties of the pandemic period with songs like “Ring of Roses” and “Paper Planes.” The group drew on a well of intensive songwriting that took place outside of Cambridge, England, during the pandemic period to select the tracks for Gog Magog, and channeled a remarkable degree of positive energy and reflection into this ethereal but earthy new collection. We spoke with Polly Bolton and Robin Jones shortly before the holidays about Gog Magog.
Americana Highways: Congratulations on your plans to come to SXSW in 2023.
Polly Bolton: Thank you. That feels like a big win for us. We’ve seen so many bands from our part of the world who have been through SXSW as a rite of passage. We’re super excited and we love the kind of events where you get to be on the ground and mingle.
AH: Did making this album feel different for you because you didn’t get as much chance to perform the songs first?
Polly: Yes, though we had played them a lot, we just didn’t get to perform them because we were writing them during the pandemic. It didn’t feel that weird because we were writing and recording during that time, a time we would have usually been on the road. We filled that void with an intense creative process which resulted in Gog Magog. Though the lockdown was terrible for our industry in general, we made the most of the time we were given. I feel like some of the madness and intensity of that time is reflected on the record, to an extent.
Robin Jones: I agree with that.
AH: Were there even more songs that you wrote during this period, and you were just picking from among them for the album?
Robin: Yes. We’re all keen songwriters, so there was a big pool of songs. We selected the 12 for Gog Magog. Now we’re looking forward to getting back into the studio before long to record some new stuff. We’ve got plenty of ideas floating around for 2023. We’re looking forward to that.
AH: This album has such an interesting mix of different mental states, almost. There are the Folk-inspired ideas, like Black Shuck, history with Boudica, and the traditions behind Gog Magog. I think it’s wonderful how that sits alongside songs that are very present for people right now, like “Paper Planes” and “I Thought You Were My Friend.” Were you intentionally eclectic in your selection process?
Robin: That’s fairly accurate in the sense that it’s nice to have a spooky song, it’s nice to have a Welsh-language song, a ballad, and instrumentals. We also like to include a few things that are more upbeat for our shows since we tend to have a lot of dancing. So there are boxes that we like to tick in terms of the colors we’d like on the album in terms of being happy, sad, etc.
Polly: I think that’s also a fairly accurate reflection of how we work as a group, as well, since we all have quite different backgrounds, musically speaking, and I think that really helps us to create a smorgasbord of sounds. We didn’t necessarily set out to do that with this album, but that’s just kind of what happened because that’s how we make music.
AH: I find it impressive that you all managed to write some happier, dancier stuff during such a difficult time at all. Did the lack of movement prompt you to want to do that?
Robin: We definitely felt a lack of movement. It was an apocalyptic time and had an end-times vibe, which may come through in some of our choices.
AH: One single that’s out right now, “Ring of Roses,” speaks to that. I was surprised that it doesn’t have a super-dark vibe to it given what it’s about, a plague. If you think about it, it’s disturbing in its own way, since it’s about something that’s in the air, that’s indistinct. That vagueness and uncertainty really resonates.
Polly: We were definitely trying to evoke that. For us, there was a really weird sense in terms of how time passed during that year or more. Days seemed to pass by extremely quickly and slowly at the same time. We were in this weird bubble and microcosm which felt dream-like at times, but also nightmarish as well. We tried to evoke that idea in the song, and there are a lot of references to the passage of time in the lyrics.
AH: What was the conversation like writing that song together? Was it a music-first song or a lyrics-first song?
Robin: The nursery rhyme was the genesis of the music.
Polly: I think the first lyrics we came up with for that song was the opening line, “Hold your horses, steady.” That kind of gave birth to a riff. Then we were thinking of this unknown presence that felt foreboding. We’ve always loved incorporating myths and nursery rhymes into our work. They are a great starting place for being creative. This old plague rhyme may be a warning about the Black Death, though that’s disputed.
Robin: We were willing to roll with that as a catchy hook.
Polly: We started weaving it in there, and the music built up around that.
AH: That original rhyme and song, too, has the interesting quality of not sounding bleak despite what it may be talking about. The vocals on your song really carry that chanting quality.
Polly: We wanted to get that breathy choral feel, like kids singing a rhyme.
AH: I’ve only heard of the giants of Gog and Magog because the people of London apparently love these figures and they are involved in a parade. How did the idea become part of your album?
Robin: They are everywhere. They feature in the Bible, these two heralds of the apocalypse called Gog and Magog. They feature in Arthurian medieval mythology. Then they warped into one figure in medieval traditions. We live just outside Cambridge in an area called Gog Magog hill. Cambridge is a flat fenland but there are two hills outside Cambridge called Gog and Magog. We live there and it also seemed fitting as a title with its medieval references.
AH: What are these creatures like? Are they good guys or bad guys?
Robin: In the Bible, they are meant to herald the coming of the Antichrist, so they are definitely baddies! [Laughs] In medieval Britain, the legend is that before people came to inhabit the island, it was inhabited by giants, and Gog Magog was one of the last giants killed by one of Arthur’s heroes. They are still baddies there, but not satanic baddies.
AH: The cover art for your album is really lovely and goes further with that idea. We see one giant, and another giant hand coming up out of the water.
Robin: An American artist called Kathleen Neeely did the cover art. She did the art for our first album as well.
Polly: We pitched the giant idea to her, and she came up with that brilliant piece of art. There are a few little references in there, for instance you’ll see the giant coming out of the water, but in the crowd of people fleeing from him, you’ll also see figures holding up their instruments in defiance of the giant. There are also other little bits in there.
AH: The colors are great. They are nicely haunting. I noticed the golden scales on the fountain.
Robin: Well spotted! That’s The Trials of Cato logo. That’s on all our t-shirts. That was a last minute thing.
Polly: It used to just be a fountain, but we put that in.
AH: At what point did you associate the Gog Magog themes with the other songs on the album? There’s an instrumental piece associated with it.
Robin: The instrumental piece was written here, though not with the Gog Magog theme in mind. But after hearing it, we thought it would be a fitting title for the song since it has a vaguely marching momentum to it. It feels like an emerging giant.
AH: It really works! The instrumental piece has mysterious aspects to it, and it’s a blending of a lot of different cultural elements, also. That makes it feel like an encounter.
Robin: The instrumental has an Eastern twang to it.
Polly: We are influenced by a lot of those Eastern scales, a lot of which are quite ancient. The Phrygian mode is our favorite mode. [Laughs]
AH: How far back does the song “Paper Planes” go for you? That’s the one that starts the collection.
Robin: That’s quite a new one that was written in lockdown. We were responding freshly to events and emotions of the time. That one had a punchy feel to it, so we felt it was a nice way to open the album. It’s also quite a hopeful song as well, that despite hard times and problems, the sun will rise. I don’t know that we’d say that the album is totally optimistic in mood, but we wanted to start off that way.
Polly: We had a lot of fun with that in the studio. Some of the vocal parts in the second half of the song are something that we went really big with, with almost a psychedelic feel. The vocal also soars right at the end, so we had a lot of fun with that one in the studio. It’s also a fun one to do live.
AH: I love how it’s not a predictable song structure, either. I was also really surprised because I didn’t expect for it to become such an outreach song. It becomes very dedicated when the speaker says that they won’t abandon this person who is in trouble. It’s active in that way.
Polly: The idea of isolation and loneliness are also so central to that song, and are things that we all experienced in lockdown in different ways. Ultimately, it becomes upbeat.
Thank you, Robin and Polly of Trials of Cato, for talking with us.
Find more about the band, here: https://www.thetrialsofcato.com
The Trials of Cato Awaken Giants For ‘Gog Magog’