Wheel are based in Helsinki, Finland and have been working together since 2015. After releasing a first EP “The Path” in 2017, they are now back with their second EP “The Divide”, which was released on 1 June 2018. We had the chance to sit down together with James and Santeri who told us more about the band, the new release and much more!
Hi guys! Thank you so much for making time for Tuonela Magazine. So, Wheel has been founded in 2015. Not that long ago. Can you give a brief history of the band for those who haven’t heard of you yet?
James: 15 years ago, I started writing music in this style for fun and it was always a project I figured I’d get to one day. Through mutual friends, I was introduced to Santeri, Mikko and our previous guitarist Saku and we figured that we all had a similar interest in the same music, so we started playing together. Then came our first EP, that was comprised of three songs I had written previously. Since then we have been closely working together and it’s become a far more collaborative effort. It’s a bit metal, it’s a bit rock, it’s a bit prog, it’s a bit grunge, it’s kind of all of those elements combined together.
Thanks for the brief history. Now let’s talk a little bit more about the present day. You are about to release your second EP “The Divide”. Can you talk a little bit more about the creative process behind “The Divide”?
James: The main difference and also the main reason we decided to release “The Divide”, was that the first EP as mentioned before, was mainly composed from my old songs that we then developed together. It was a demo that had been waiting inside my computer for nearly ten years at that point; we changed everything about the first three songs on “The Path” EP and rebuilt them from the ground up. For “The Divide” EP we wanted to do something which was a bit more collaborative, where everyone had a creative voice. The basic idea is that everything came from the four of us rather than just one of us. “Please” the lead track of “The Divide” for instance, took a very long time to find a version we were all happy with. I think it nearly took six months as we were constantly tweaking it and changing it, if I remember correctly.
Santeri: Yeah, it was about 6 months.
James: Then “Pyre” was a real mixture of stuff. I’m not really sure about what to say about that song other than that there’s a lot going on in that song. (laughs).
Santeri: With that song the process took us quite long to finish as well. The last bit we actually created in the studio while we were recording it already. It was kind of a new way of working, well… At least for me. But I guess for the whole group.
James: One of our basic rules is that we have a democracy in the band. Whenever anybody wants to change something, we always do it. It’s a question of how to change it, not if we should. So it might take quite a bit longer sometimes to finish the songs, but we just keep thinking that this way, hopefully everyone likes the songs when we play them live and we feel that it’s something that represents the four of us.
So you mentioned briefly that the main reason you wanted to release this EP is because the last one were basically based on James’ songs. Does that mean that “The Divide” is something completely new, that you build up from scratch?
James: We started from zero for “The Divide”. It’s all new. The final song, “It’s over now” was actually an idea that our ex-guitarist Saku had. He came up with this really weird acoustic melody first. When he told me he had written an acoustic track, I thought that there’s no fucking way that’s gonna fit with what we’re trying to do with Wheel. But since it was a great idea, we were all quite certain that we had to use it. A friend of mine Paavo Lötjönen from Apocalyptica is playing cello on the recording. Tracking him was just amazing, he’s a really great musician and a good guy!
That was going to be one of my questions, about what the whole process of this collaboration with Paavo Lötjönen was like?
James: I met Paavo through a friend of mine,Tipe Johnson. He has been singing with them before and he’s even toured with Apocalyptica. They wanted me to produce an EP they were making together, maybe two years ago. That’s how I met him. He actually really likes Wheel. We’ve been in touch ever since, he’s even been to all of our gigs so far I think in Finland. (laughs)
So we talked about the creative process now, let’s talk more about the lyrics. Can you tell us about the story behind all three songs?
James: The lyrics for “Please”, are about polarisation in the media and came to me after I read a news article in the British press during the immigration crisis in Syria. The word used to describe the numbers of people being pushed into Europe was “swarms”. I thought that was a deliberately polarising word and needlessly colourful when you’re talking about victims fleeing a war zone. People have different opinions about immigration as an issue and they should be discussed, but it’s not this binary good or bad thing. If a country is going to let in everyone who wants to come, that’s going to cause a lot of problems. It’s going to affect the welfare of the residents. On the other hand, if you don’t let anybody in and don’t help our people who are suffering, aren’t you then failing as a human being? Surely that should be the kind of grounds, the starting point of any discussion: how many people can we help? The song is about how we use the news to become a mouthpiece for our ignorance. It’s almost like we have a roadmap to be a politically correct, but very inhumane isolationist in the modern world and the song became a rant about that. Whatever people’s opinions are, it’s a complex subject but we should be able to have a reasonable discussion about it; it shouldn’t be a binary issue.
“It’s Over Now” is a fictional story about these institutions in America where they send gay teenagers to convert them to become straight. It’s written from the perspective of a young gay man; a priest visits his house and it is written about how I imagine someone must feel, being there in that situation. So it’s fiction, but there’s a lot of truth in it.
And then “Pyre”, what was that about? I think that’s a song about some kind of a broader corporate destruction (laughs). I remember there was something on NPR I listened to a few years ago, where some companies were trying to get the American government to approve its right to drill in the Arctic Circle. I remember thinking to myself that that was a pretty terrible idea but it’s nearly definitely going to happen, because that’s just the world we live in and that’s the way things go. The song is broadly about that. There’s this great cartoon I saw in the newspaper a couple of years ago. It’s a boat where the bottom end is sinking and the top is raised out of the water; at the bottom of the boat there is someone rapidly bailing the water out of it. Two people are sat in the top staring at him and one says to the other ‘I’m really glad we’re on this side.’ (laughs) I thought it was a good metaphor for how we destroy the environment even though we’re aware of how it is going to affect us in the future.
So the three songs are called “Please”, “Pyre” and “It’s Over Now”, why is the EP called “The Divide”?
James: There are so many reasons and funnily many more reasons popped up in the media after we finished recording it. Everything from the Brexit vote in the UK which was such a close call, like the winning vote if I remember correctly was 51.5%. Or how Trump became elected in the United States and his divisive politics. There are so many ways you can dress this up as to why it happened and we’re not trying to comment on if it’s good or bad. I feel that in the west, we are more divided than we have been in a long time and there’s very little reasonable discourse on any side. People are so certain that what they believe is right that they don’t consider the views of those on the other side. Historically that seems to be quite a bad thing but history repeats itself and here we are. So I thought it summed up the three songs quite nicely.
“The Divide” is loaded with political motives. What about “The Path” your first EP? Is it also evolving around the same themes?
James: No, it’s not at all. Quite the opposite actually, the first one is very inward. “The Path” had three songs on it as well. I wanted to write a progressive romance in a song, taking the cheesy love song and turning it on its head with “The Change”; that one is quite simple if you compare it to the new material and is more about mood. “Farewell” was about overcoming addiction, which is the ultimate cliché in rock music so we thought we would get it out of the way. “The Path”, the last song, was about songwriting, or the way we see songwriting. If you imagine there are two schools for music, one of which is accessibility and the other is originality, it’s about finding the point where they crossover. So you can do something which maybe not so many people have done before, but also making it fun, entertaining and somewhat familiar for the listener.
Apart from the lyrics, how do you feel your sound in “The Divide” has changed from the music you were making in “The Path”?
James: I think across the board it’s gotten better.
Santeri: “The Path” was actually our first demo tape. We recorded it after starting the band just three months earlier to that. The first songs were James’ old songs. “Farewell” for example was almost ten years old, or at least one version of it. We started with those songs and we kind of played them the same way James saw them. Of course we added our own spices to the soup, but still it was more like those songs were James’ songs. After that we started planning the new songs. It was more collaborative. There was still a lot of James’ riffs in there, but still it’s more like an EP we all made together, all of the compositions.
James: It’s a bit heavier as well I think. It’s got a bit of fire underneath it.
Santeri: Yeah, but of course there’s also the acoustic track.
James: The heaviest one of all. (laughs)
Santeri: We have kind of expanded on both extremes from the first EP. That’s also what we want to do in the future, go further and further and find new ways.
I’ve been reading a lot about your band and I’ve noticed that a lot of people are comparing you with Tool. How do you feel about that comparison and how would you describe your own sound?
James: It’s a completely reasonable comparison. I think Tool by far is the most successful band who’ve combined strange meters with these big prog compositions and these weird polyrhythms. They have lots of crazy sound design elements and we’ve definitely got a lot of that in our music. I’m a huge Tool fan. I can’t wait for the new album by the way, that’s gonna be amazing. (laughs) They definitely have a huge influence on how I write and how we write as a band. But I think that’s just part of the soup and there’s also a lot of Karnivool, there’s a bit of Meshuggah, there’s a bit of Mars Volta, there’s even some more poppier stuff like Nirvana or Alice In Chains. Basically, it’s this big mixture of all of our influences collectively and the more we work together, the more we’re going down that path of defining the boundaries of our sound.
Nowadays it feels like bands are having more and more trouble to categorize themselves. I personally would label you as progressive metal, even though there is more to your music than just that. How do you feel about that?
James: I think you’re completely right. Sometimes bands say they don’t have a genre. Come on! (laughs) Everyone does. Broadly speaking, we are progressive metal. But if you examine that genre, there’s still a lot of variety within it. On one end of the spectrum you have a band like Periphery, that has a lot of pop vocals, and almost synthetic sounds. On the other end you have bands like Meshuggah, who have a much more visceral kind of sound to them. Meshuggah especially is all about these crazy, polyrhythmic grooves. In stark comparison, Periphery is produced in a super modern way and they have a strong pop element in a lot of their music. We definitely are progressive metal, but you know, it’s a loose term.
Santeri: Even if we categorize ourselves as progressive metal as we decided to do, because it’s easier for people to recognize and find us. We still are a group of individual players. We all have our own backgrounds, we have our favourite bands and favourite sounds that we like. None of us are purely metal players. That of course brings its own flavour and that’s our strength. We don’t try to be progressive metal or anything like it. But we make music that we like.
Santeri just said that you have all different kind of influences and inspirations. Now, what are the things that inspire you that contribute to creating the music?
James: That’s a very good question actually. Lyrics are always the hardest part for me, because despite how difficult it is to arrange the songs, they still manage to take the largest amount of time. I’m very self-critical about writing songs. That’s why I think current events have been plenty of food for lyrical content recently but musically we’ll get really stuck with an idea, just something that interests us, a groove or a rhythm, or just a weird bar number like in “Please” there’s a lot of fives and sevens in there. In “Pyre” there are elevens in the C part and whatever the fuck the chorus is.
Santeri: The inspiration for that song comes from many different elements,
James: We all come up with ideas independently and then we share them in the rehearsal room. The ones that everyone gets excited about, are the ones that we develop into full songs.
So far you have release two EPs, can we expect an album?
James: The short answer is yes! We are already quite far down the path to making that happen, we have no idea when it’s gonna come out or will be ready, but it’s on its way.
Speaking about the new album, is there also a thematic connection with “The Divide”?
James: I think at this stage we can say it’s more focused.
Santeri: The songs were written in a shorter period of time. So here might be some thematic thing in the songs. Before that there were longer periods of times in between the songs. But yeah, we’ll see.
Have you been working on any music video for “The Divide”?
James: We have a video and it’s out today already probably!
Santeri: The song is “Please”.
James: The video footage was shot by two separate companies. One group is a friend of ours, who also worked on the “Farewell” video. The other group is a Finnish-Australian company called Koptercam. They shot all the crazy footage in our old rehearsal place. So the dark and creepy prison shots. It looks really amazing and they did a really good job. It’s definitely more traditionally rooted in metal than the previous video, there’s lots of fire, slow-motion and anger (laughs).
Sounds great! I have to see it when I get home. Now, we have talked quite much about the new songs. But what are the things that have challenged you as a band during this process?
James: That is a very good question, the most notable one was that our guitarist Saku Mattila decided to leave the band and pursue other projects. We recruited Roni Seppänen to replace him. We’re still good friends with Saku, it’s nothing personal or unpleasant. He was just not feeling it and got some good opportunities elsewhere, Roni has had some big shoes to fill and he’s been filling them like a boss. We’re very excited to start playing with him over the summer.
Santeri: The challenges are pretty much the same for every new band, getting started is the hard part. So, I guess we’re still looking to get more opportunities, more contacts etc. One of the recent good things is our management company in Germany. Things started rolling and now we’re releasing our second EP. Of course that’s basic challenges for pretty much every band starting out. You know, how to get the people to know you.
James: In a way you’d think it has become more easy nowadays with social media platforms, but there’s this miasma of other bands. I think it’s very hard to articulate in 140 characters on Twitter or through a series of Instagram photographs what value we add to the scene or why people might be interested in what we are doing. We put a lot of time and effort and attention into what we make and we really care about the art first. We still think that it’s not music for everybody, which is a deliberate choice on our part but yeah, we’re still looking to find our people!
Well, so far at least it sounds like you have been doing great. Now, let’s talk a little bit about your plans. What is happening with Wheel the following months.
Santeri: Next week we’re playing at Elmun Baari in Helsinki. 7 June is the official EP release gig of “The Divide”. That’s the only thing in June. However, in August we have some gigs in Germany. We’re playing at Summerbreeze Festival. Which is one of the bigger festivals in Germany; Then there is some touring planned, and we are supposed to visit the UK at some point during the summer or early fall season. We don’t have that much booked yet though.
James: There’s a lot of to be confirmed.
Santeri: Still, we’re really looking forward playing those shows, they’re also the first shows with our new guitar player Roni, so it’s gonna be great!
James: He’s gonna kick ass!
Hopefully we’ll catch you at least at some point in the next coming months! Thank you so much guys for elaborating more about Wheel and introducing us to your music! Before we wrap this up, is there anything you’d like to share with our readers?
James: Please check out our music and if you got even a passing interest in any of the things we spoke about, about the band, then we think you might enjoy our music!
James: Great job! (laughs)