Wheel - Interview
"Resident Human" - the new album from Finnish prog metal band Wheel was released in March (vinyl version comes out on April 30th, 2021) and here is what James Lascelles, the band's vocalist said about the album: "Resident Human" is a deconstruction of what it is to be human in the modern age. From venomous online exchanges to introspective revelations, the album explores the duality of our underlying nature; our tendency towards destruction and our capacity for empathy. The album is more raw than anything we've made before and shamelessly showcases all the scars and vulnerability of our performances. We are incredibly proud of what we have managed to achieve on this record and it's our pleasure to finally share it with you all." Well, there was few more things I wanted to know about, and we got our answers from Aki 'Conan' Virta (bass). Turn volume up and keep reading!
To start our conversation on a positive note I'd like to say that your new album serves solid ass kicking!!! How's everything going?
Thanks a lot! We are really happy with how the album turned out and it was certainly a memorable experience with all the twists and turns along the way. Thank you also for asking, I'd say that everything here is as well as can be given the global circumstances we all are living in.
What was the most difficult obstacle to get through when composing and recording new material, which song gave you the most trouble in the end?
At least in the start the biggest obstacle was being in a huge rush: I joined the band in September 2019, and quite soon after that we realised two things. The first one was that Roni Seppänen had to step away from the band to concentrate on his family and maintain his job, and the second one was that we should start working with the next album right away. Before the pandemic really hit off in next March we had about 5 months of touring planned for 2020, and somewhere in the middle of it all we had to find the time to record and produce this album.
We first sat down with James (Lascelles) and Santeri (Saksala) in October 2019 to discuss the riffs and musical segments that James would start developing further, and he did an amazing job of creating the instrumental compositions before we started our headline tour in February 2020. During that tour we were trying to listen to the music as much as possible to get some hold of it, as we were supposed to hit the studio right after returning home! However, the first changes started happening at that time: we were forced to cancel our first US tour due to problems with US visa regulations, so we postponed the drum and bass recordings by one month. We also split ways in good terms with JC Halttunen who had taken on the lead guitar duties after Roni's departure.
The drums, bass and guitar (James tracking all of the guitar parts except the guitar solo of 'Hyperion' which was delivered by Roni Seppänen) were all tracked within April and May 2020 as we were still trying to keep up the pace, while at the same time already witnessing the signs of what was going to happen: as for many other people, EVERYTHING we had planned got cancelled or postponed. Although time was exactly what we had been hoping for, the initial reaction to all of this felt like hitting a brick wall. The band had been so busy so constantly for so long that James was feeling completely burnt-out and during June we didn't really get much further with the album. Once James recouped he started delivering his best vocals and lyrics to date, which really got the ball rolling again!
The trickiest track could possibly be 'Resident Human', as we were struggling with the vocals and the structure literally to the last minute: I think the track was already being mixed when we decided to delete a 2 minute section of music in order to create a more natural flow of ideas within the song. Then again James rewrote the lyrics for 'Movement' a lot more times than for any of the other tracks, and with 'Dissipating' and 'Hyperion' we needed to tweak the mixes a lot more… There were loads of different challenges during the process but luckily the end result is very rewarding!
What did you fear the most and it turned out to be the easiest?
I'm not sure if we were afraid of anything specifically, just stressed out! Of course, there could be a certain pressure regarding the second full-length album, but I think 'Resident Human' found the band naturally developing their own musical persona further than before. Obviously I haven't played on previous releases but after joining the band I've spent a lot of time going through the catalog and I'm super happy with the direction we're headed, something I know all of us are proud of. So, if there would have been fear of delivering a great 2nd album to the discography of Wheel, the problem would have kind of taken care of itself - but every step-in order to create it took a whole lot of time and effort.
When writing new material, do you look back and incorporate elements from past albums or is everything a brand-new project/idea and sort of a competitor for the title of 'best ever'?
There is an active search for the unfamiliar sounds and ideas in the group and as both James and Santeri have stated, we never have any leftovers after the release. Having played on all of them they should know!
Of course every song is aimed to be the best possible one but we also think of the way the songs interact with each other in an album context: I think Santeri came up with the final track order for the album quite soon and we all (including our new lead guitarist Jussi Turunen) also agreed on it easily.
Reading all different bits scattered on the internet about the band is hard not to notice the comparisons. Does it bother you?
Not really, people need to compare things to other things to get a better hold of things! Usually people are inspired by creations of other people and sometimes the source of inspiration is easy to trace, sometimes not. But no matter how hard one would try to be 100% original, I think in the end creating art is a collective thing: you cannot help being exposed to the work of others and once you find the stuff that really moves and touches you, it's in our nature to imitate. Of course, you gotta find a balance so that you're not strictly copying stuff, but there's nothing wrong in being inspired by others.
Are you embracing it or trying to get away from any influences while composing?
I think it's very important to keep finding new influences, and this doesn't have to be in the same form of art or style of music that you are creating. We all listen to a variety of musical styles and read different books - one key source of influence on this album came from James reading the book series 'Hyperion Cantos' by Dan Simmons.
I'd say that we acknowledge what has been done by the band previously and try to use it as a platform to dig deeper into the sounds that we all enjoy playing, and outside influences can help a lot in finding our way.
What are the stages of your creating process, do you work on new songs collectively in practice room or is there a main composer taking care of all that happens?
James has definitely been at the core of writing, but everything is discussed and approved as a band. We're aiming to make this more collective in the future (and for example 'Please' from The Divide EP was more of a collaborative effort) and are already exchanging some ideas in our group chat. Regarding RH however, James wrote the instrument parts and we learned to play them while at the same time giving them our own touch. Most of the changes from demos to album happen in the drum arrangements when Santeri adapts James's programmed ideas into his own playing and arranges them to be played on an actual drum set - for example the verse drum beat on 'Ascend' was written by Santeri and that idea ended up shaping James's writing for other instruments in return! 'Fugue' shows Santeri coming up with great drum parts in the studio, as he had no time to learn the track before the sessions started: we only got the demo of the track in the very last days before heading to Finnvox.
How did you handle all that during Pandemic times?
For recording we needed to be physically in the studio at the same time so for example we kept the distance within each other and aimed to have only 2 persons in the same room. For the production… We shared tons more of messages, emails, links and video calls than any of us would have cared to in a normal situation. Meeting up and having a discussion face to face is so much faster and much simpler (and more enjoyable!), you can avoid many misunderstandings and just make the general process more fluid. Especially when planning out something that we are not experts of, such as album art - we spent a lot of time explaining our ideas to one another with no avail.
In your opinion, which song from the new album is the best representation of Wheel and the new album?
That's a tough question, as I think the whole album is the best representation of Wheel! This combination of songs works so well with each other that it's really hard to pick just one of them, but let's see… I may need to go with either the opening track ('Dissipating') or the title track ('Resident Human'). There's just something so uniquely majestic and epic in the mood of both of these, and the way they both evolve from start to finish is perfect. It's so Wheel, yet it's completely new kind of Wheel… If we were having a discussion of this face to face I might end up changing my choice multiple times!
How important the lyrics are in Wheel?
VERY important. Even though James writes 'em, we always go through them together and make sure the whole group can stand behind what's being said. This is kinda easy because we share very similar values in life, discuss similar topics also outside of music AND the fact that James doesn't really declare anything absolute in his writing - it's more about contemplating, offering an argument into the discussion instead of trying to tell someone how to think, feel or act.
Is there a common subject on the new album? What are lyrics about?
We don't consider RH to be a concept album, yet the lyrical themes do tie in well together. As the album art (once again created by the talented Ansu Lascelles) shows we are kind of dissecting what it is to be human, how interconnected and similar we are despite the differences on the surface: 'Dissipating' discussing how does it feel to live on this planet in the middle of an infinitely vast and hostile universe, 'Hyperion' contemplating on the fact that we are all born and will one day have to die thus coming from nothing and ending up back as nothing. 'Movement' touches the aftermath of George Floyd's murder in the US: how aggravated and out of control discussing this kind of themes can get in the internet where you can remain "faceless" behind your comments and forget that we are still discussing other human beings, their lives and everything they hold dear. 'Ascend' follows on a bit of a similar theme on the opposite side of internet behaviour, where instead of saying something original we just keep copy-pasting the content created by others. The influence of "Hyperion Cantos" is not only evident on 'Dissipating' and 'Hyperion' but also on 'Fugue', while at the same time drawing comparison to the global pandemic on our planet. In the books a cryogenic fugue is a form of stasis one can enter to be able to sustain lengthy distances of traveling in space, and the downside of it is that it raises the risk of having a brain damage or a heart attack among other things. While we as a species are escaping the pandemic into quarantines and would really just love to jump to the other side of it so that things would again be considered "normal", there are several downsides to being locked down and not being able to enjoy the normal interaction and the way of living, such as mental issues and alcohol abuse. Again, we are not saying that these measures wouldn't be necessary but instead contemplating how it feels to be a part of this world right now, traveling through the pandemic each in our own Fugue. The title track is about a meditation exercise James shared with me in the spring of 2020, called "The Mountain". In this exercise you picture yourself as a mountain, just being without taking part. No matter what happens around you (or on you) you are simply observing and witnessing without taking part. Other days are sunny and others stormy, sometimes you witness life and sometimes death - you, the mountain, remain the same. Even if your surface is affected, the essence stays untouched. It's a very deeply calming image, especially in times like 2020 when the whole world seemed like it had gone crazy.
When it finally happens, which songs from the new album will be played live?
I think the album should be played in its entirety, and I think the rest of the band agrees. That's how we have been rehearsing the material now and it feels amazing to perform it like that! But of course, this will always depend on the situation, sometimes we want to include other songs and sometimes we may not have time to play all of it. What I'm most looking forward to at the moment is playing 'Dissipating' as an opening track of a gig - I can imagine the feeling of that moment, being back on stage, starting a gig with such an amazing track… After that, anything goes!
Since we are on the subject. Which songs from your discography will you play 'no matter what happens' during the first show after pandemic?
I'd like to say, "the new album" again but I'll resist the urge - 'Vultures', 'Tyrant' and 'Wheel' (all from Moving Backwards) are definitely strong candidates. It does seem like all of the band's discography is being quite equally loved by our audience and we enjoy playing basically any of it so the setlists could vary every night.
Which three are your favorite and which ones are crowd favorites?
So far I think 'Wheel' remains a mutual favorite by the crowd and the band alike: it just packs so much energy and works great at the end of any gig. Personally, I also enjoy 'Tyrant' and 'Lacking' a whole lot, which also attracted great reactions from the audience on all the gigs I've played with Wheel so far. Of the new tracks it's obviously hard to say, but we are very eager to find out!
Not that you hear much of it probably but how do you handle criticism about your work, does it help; is it in the way; do you care?
To be honest, we wouldn't mind hearing some more of it! We enjoy discussing things, so it doesn't matter if someone doesn't agree with us - instead, let's talk about it. And I don't think any of us really cares if someone just wants to say that "Wheel sucks", as it's not really a discussion and we have no need to force-feed our music to anybody. Instead we appreciate the fact that so many people care about what we're trying to do and that the amount of them seems to be growing.
Thanks for taking time to answer all the questions. Good luck Wheel!! The last words are yours!
Thank you for letting us answer, and for the readers: thank you for listening and supporting us, stay safe out there and keep it Wheel!
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