Just two years after making an impact with their debut album “Moving Backwards,” the Finnish progressive metal band Wheel released their sophomore album “Resident Human” on March 26th, 2021. With their new album, Wheel invites the listener to an introspective and reflective journey that seeks to perform a symbolic deconstruction of humanity. Deep topics are presented through a brilliant blend of emotional and soft moments with an intense and heavy intricate musicianship.
Correspondent Brian Masso talked with guitarist/singer James Lascelles about the dynamic sound and the intriguing concept behind “Resident Human”, how important is for Wheel to address reflective and even inconvenient topics. They also spoke about the recording process for their second album, how collaborative it was, and how Covid-19 changed their recording plans. Besides, James commented about what it is like for a new band as Wheel to tour with established acts and their relationship with them, among other topics.
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How would you describe Human Resident’s sound and how different it is from previous album and EPs?
I think compared to “Moving Backwards” it was a lot cleaner in terms of production style. It kind of had to be, cause a lot of the instrumental stuff was at the same register with the two guitars. I think by comparison, “Resident Human” is a lot more human sounding, a lot more vulnerable and I think a lot closer to how we sound live. I think part of that is to fit the new material. Before “Moving Backwards”, we played maybe 20 gigs ever. After that came out and before “Resident Human”, we must have played at least 100-120 gigs. That year was pretty much insane. We just got kind of used to how the song starts to play live and how the parts feel right on stage. So, we wanted to commit more of that sound and vibe to the recording this time.
Even though the album is not strictly a conceptual album, there is a strong sense of cohesiveness between the music and the lyrics throughout the entire album. Could you talk about the main topics of the album?
There were two sides to the record, but the common thread is this notion of a figurative deconstruction of humanity, both in the individualistic sense and in a collective sense. I’ll start with the collective stuff. On “Movement”, for example, that song was about the social rhetoric that occurred on George Floyd’s murder last year. It was just interesting to see how an event that I thought would kind of unite everybody, because there was such a shared sense of pain and outrage for this innocent man who was killed, murdered by police in broad daylight. Then the police lied about it. It so quickly became conflated with all these other political values and statements and people became so divided and so hostile in a way which was not so conducive in preventing the situation.
I mean, it did not happen in isolation, it’s reflective of wider problems in society. I really thought that event would be the kind of a match to light the bonfire that might finally make the difference to these historic police brutality, which has become just inseparable in the eyes of many about American society. And interestingly, I spoke with journalists from all over the world about the new album over the past few months and journalists from various countries said that they had their own issues with police brutality and power. It really is an ongoing struggle in the world, which has been very interesting to learn more about, and there is no really a satisfying answer. I just think there is something deeply human about how tribal people become when their faction decides they have a stance on a narrative, even if it sometimes goes against their own natural tendency.
“Ascend” in a different way, explores “copy-paste” culture. The notion that when people communicate online, someone tries to articulate difficult subjects and challenging concepts in their own words, they might find someone else’s and just copy and paste it into a chat field. And you end up with this big old text, which is an imperfect medium to communicate the complexity of someone’s own opinion. Also, I think we lose something by not being forced to try and communicate challenging concepts in our own words. I think because everything is so instant now, which is becoming more common, even media these days is boiled down to a sound bite, even very complex issues like Brexit, for example, where the relationship between the British is very complicated, but maybe beside the greedy portrayed, it ended up being this very shallow kind of one or two sentences arguments that best answer both sides. It came out just by observing a social behavior and trying to present a solution, particularly because I’ve got no idea what the solution might be.
There are other tracks on the album that are much more introspective and reflexive. They were a direct consequence of the time that the pandemic allowed me to dig through some of my baggage and to think about the past few years. We went from having a very busy day to kind of nothing happening very quickly. The way I dealt with that was that I was reading a lot and I discovered during this time the “Hyperion Cantos” by Dan Simmons. A science fiction series, which explores a lot of very broad and deep subjects about just what it is to be human.
“Dissipating”, the first track on the album, which is discussing the emotion of an indifferent universe. And just trying to come to terms with the nihilistic, the tendency to nihilism that exploring these values themes allow us. It is something very frightening about feeling very small and insignificant on a cosmic scale, but at the same time, I think there’s something liberating about absolving ourselves of cosmic responsibility and trying to find significance, meaning in the value of what we have. We should feel gratitude for what we have because evert good thing that happens to us, every comfort we’re allowed and everyone who cares about us, none of that stuff is a given. I am trying to be more aware of that and feel more grateful for that. It’s something on the side of the things that changed about me last year. I have been thinking about that quite a lot.
In a similar way, “Hyperion” which is also inspired by the book, talks about mortality and the notion of life, death and this linear changes from birth to death. All of us are going in the same direction and we can’t change the speed or direction of the train. All of us are so immersed in our own experiences that I think we forget that every other person we meet is also having the same existential crisis that we might be experiencing. I am just trying to be more mindful about that, going forward. Just like with “Dissipating”, the conclusion I think is the same, which is just to feel more gratitude for what we have as opposed find significance in the now.
Tittle track, “Resident Human” it’s about a concept I learned about in therapy, to come to terms with just being bombarded by information all the time. It was described to me using the metaphor of the mountain. The idea that the weather will change, but the mountain just is. Forests will grow, will die. People will be born, live, love, die, but the mountain is the constant. It just is. It doesn’t judge. It just continues to exist. And I think it is a really useful exercise because all of us reacts emotionally, myself include, to the media we’re exposed to. Especially when you have this roller coaster coming through your face and seeing hundreds of titles and posts. It is exhausting when that becomes normal. So, obviously the elephant in the room is maybe all of us, myself included, could use less social media, but I also think just disengaging a little bit emotionally from that is a necessary survival tactic in this day and age.
Across the boards, there was a lot of room for personal growth, and I been through this perfectly, I don’t want to sound hypocrite. I have days where I find some of these concepts really easy to interiorize. There are other ones where it’s extremely difficult, but I think maybe it’s a bit on meditation and just the practice of trying to address that stuff inside will be its own reward.
Oh man, those are really dense topics. They will certainly resonate within the listener because all of us are humans and we all face these issues. We might experience the deconstruction you were talking about by analyzing our own experience with the concept the listener gets from this record.
Well, thank you very much. It was cathartic to write about some of this stuff. I think I’ve definitely learned a lot in the process. I think with every record we want to grow both musically and personally, and I’m trying to pick the record topics as well. That hopefully will mean something that match what we hope is the ways of the instrumentation, it is really important for us.
Speaking of those topics, the first thing that caught my attention while listening to “Resonate Human” was how reflective the content was toward the human condition. Actually, I find fascinating when musicians speak of relevant topics through their art. So how important is for Wheel to address reflected and provocative issues through its music?
I think it’s very important for us. The reasoning is just the authenticity and sincerity. We were in the incredibly privileged position that we have. Our management are incredibly patient when we send them an album with three songs that make half an hour. So, they never complained, they really supported us, allowing us to just explore art and making the best stuff we can. But otherwise, it is still about finding something good to say and saying it well. I think with every song we might want to find a subject that we believe in and say something that we feel matters to at least some degree. It is not the only way to make up a record, but it feels right for us. All the stuff we talk about, like even with subjects like “Movement”, it’s just what we talk about when we meet up as a band and are the subjects that we’re passionate about.
After talking about the album’s sound and concept, I would like us to focus on the recording process for “Resident Human”. According to the press release, the new album was supposed to get recorded through ten weeks, but suddenly COVID-19 happened. How did the recording process end up being?
It was actually worse than that. We were planning to record initially in about a five week period, which sounds like a long time, but we didn’t have the songs finished. We were also touring during that time as well. We finished touring and we started writing this music but in February 2020 we did some headlines. The plan was that we were going to come back. We were going to record in five weeks, and hopefully make an album. And then, we were going to the US for our first tour there. So during the February headline, we found that we weren’t going to the US due to Covid-19 complications. When we found this out, we had to pushed back the first week we planned to record by a month, which gave us some more time to prepare our stuff.
During that time, we had a few shows with Apocalyptica here in Finland but then COVID happens and all of a sudden all of that was canceled and everything in the future was extremely uncertain. And we had some really nice shows planned with bands like Meshuggah, Devin Townsend, but all of them were canceled, it wasn’t going to happen. We just decided to take our time with the album. With the instrumental stuff, that was relatively straightforward because we just had to figure it out to try and meet this deadline beforehand. But vocally, we had nothing when we started recording. It wasn’t until after all the guitars, bass and drums that we really sat down and figure out how the hell did we propose these tracks? That was way longer than we anticipated. I was writing those in the end for about, I think, four months. So, it was a real uphill, but I am so happy with how it is turned out at this point. It’s just a relief that it’s finished, and we think it sounds good. So, I took that up as a win.
How does the songwriting process work in Wheel, and how collaborative is it?
Honestly, at the moment? Not as much as I’d like it to be. We got back from touring in 2019 and our management told us that if we wanted to write some new music in the next couple of years, that was the time to do it because there was a huge amount of touring coming up. So, at that point, our previous bassist Mikko Määttä had to go home due to health reasons and Aki Virta, our current bassist, was originally just going to fill in for the gigs. He absolutely killed it right away. When it became apparent that Mikko was out for a long term, we asked Aki to join. Roni, our guitarist on “Moving Backwards” also said he wanted to leave, because he has a very young daughter. He loves the shows, but he isn’t so keen on everything else. We were very sad to see him go, but not completely surprised due to this reason. So, at that point, the plan was that I was going to start working on some new music. I did a lot of the pre-work myself and I was programming drums, that kind of stuff. We’ve been saying since the start of the band, we want to build up from the start to the end of the production as a group. And it just always seems to be some kind of logistical reason why it’s been very hard to do so, but now there’s always next time.
Sure, we will see if next record is more collaborative.
Exactly. I mean, we’ve done some stuff more collaboratively in the past. “Please” from “The Divide” EP, was extremely collaborative. That’s why it took so long to write it. I think it’s four months or something on that song. I’m really happy with how it turned out. Everyone had an input. I always end up being the guy doing the structure and arranging, but I like doing it, so I don’t mind that. I think that if we have got a group of people, all with different musical influences within the band, the more of those influences we can get into the music, I think the more interesting stuff we’re going to be able to make. Time will tell if that theory is correct or not.
Several songs, especially the longer ones, powerfully combine calm passages with heavy, frenetic passages. What is Wheel trying to convey with these dynamic changes?
I think it’s a big commitment to ask someone on this modern age to listen to a 12-minute song. So mainly we wanted to make sure that the journey has a very good pay off and hopefully its structure was good enough for people could just escape for that amount of time and not being fixated on how long the song is lasting for. We have all listened to songs that last two minutes and sometimes we look at the clock and wonder how long this has been going for. I think all of the best art just places you, it makes you forget that.
It is also about dynamics. If you try to make everything sound as heavy as possible from song´s start until the end, the goal is to make a song that is a 10 song, if you keep it the same all the way, it might end up being a 6, because there are no dynamics, there is no silence, no balance on the sound. When we write, we really want to lean on that dynamic range, and we are always thinking about how it would translate to the stage. It’s a lot more exciting when the heavy part happens if its being balanced by something a little bit softer.
Also, we try to put some surprises in there. We wrote longer songs, I think it´s actually easier in a way because you’ve got so much more time to set it up. It’s like setting up a joke for a comedian, if you’ve got time to build up the punchline, it’s a lot funnier than having it in just two lines. By contrast, I think when we were making shorter songs, which again, we love making the shorter ones as well. I think there’s a lot more music to compete with in that space, so we always try and find to do something subversive to do with the structure, the arrangement or the basic idea. It’s either just do something that’s been done before in an interesting way or come up with something that hopefully no one has tried before. We’re always on the lookout for ideas that inspire us to try that stuff.
Speaking of the shorter and longer songs, some of them ranges from just two minutes to even more than 10 minutes. How do you guys determine the length of the songs?
It’s always determined by the music. We try within the writing itself and may use complexity for its own sake. “Resident Human” was supposed to be two or three minutes longer than it ended up being and in fact, just before we did the final mix, we ended up cutting quite a big chunk section out of it, which just didn’t work. It was horrible to do and I was really worried at the time we made the wrong choice, but the flow of it is so much better now. Sometimes less is more. I think even though it was counter-intuitive, sometimes to remove a movement or an idea we are really interested in is the right move for a song as a whole.
I think that the top layer has to be enjoyable and engaging. I think it needs to sound good with the mood, needs to be nice and hopefully we’ll will say something important, but we also like to add in these extra layers of detail, kind of behind the scenes, which hopefully will be fun to discover for the listener. That was what made me really wanted to listen to these bigger, longer compositions, just to decode them and find out what’s really going on. It’s highly selfish, we just write it for ourselves.
Absolutely. There is a ton of nuances that the listener will take a lot of time to discover. I’m writing a review for this record, and every time I listen to it, I find out new things. The number of details within the deeper layers is quite impressive.
Well, thank you very much. That’s very nice of you to say. It is great to know that someone is getting those.
I found it interesting that after experiencing heavy and intricate passages and the depth topics we talk about, “Resident Human” finishes in such a calm and ethereal way with closing track “Old Earth”. It was the perfect soundtrack to continue reflecting upon the subjects contained on the album. Why did you choose to finish this way?
Considering the album was talking about all these introspective topics and it had all these polyrhythms and these really big board structures, that at points it sounded even hysterical, it felt nice. When we were tracking bass and drums, we felt that it would be really nice. They had this beautiful piano in the studio, which I was playing on the brakes when they weren’t recording. I just started playing around with it. We were just thinking that after all these incredibly complicated passages, it was really nice to bring people back down to earth in terms of emotion. Back when we were in the studio, we heard someone saying that part of COVID is dealing with grief, not just about losing people to COVID but the pandemic in general, the idea that we have lost the innocence of not growing through a pandemic.
It feels like just looking in the rear view mirror, we were driving away from something pleasant and you’re driving forward to the unknown which is how it felt for us at the time. There’s something about the romanticization of the past, you know, we can debate how much should it say it’s normal after the pandemic? Because a lot of people I’ve spoken to have said they’re not going to go back to exactly how things were. Honestly, I agree. I don’t want to go back about being stressed out as I used to be, there are definitely things I can change in my life. So after all the heaviness, it just felt like something organic and very human after the busy and complex songs.
Thank you, James for all the insight, considering how personal it is. Before we finish, I would like to focus on touring. Last year, you guys were ready to embark on your first-ever headline tour with some dates in the USA. How did not being able to carry them out affected you as a band?
Well, as I mentioned before, unfortunately the USA leg wasn’t going to happen before COVID due to visa complications. We did the European headline, which was an amazing experience. I mean, how many bands can do a headline tour with just one album, we were incredibly surprised with it and having so many people coming from several countries. For the rest of the year, we had some really big touring plans but everything got frozen. It was pretty depressive to be honest, to lose all of it in one go. We know people have bigger problems in the world, we live in a very safe country, we have been ok on the pandemic period but there was definitely a sense of loss. We put so much into what we were doing and we can’t go out and perform in front of people and I think a lot of bands feel like that. I think all of us has developed just a renewed sense of gratitude that we get to do any of this, because I think it’s really easy to end up feeling like is going to continue forever. The truth is that all of this is so fragile and anything can change in a moment. I think we just need to come to terms with that. This year has allowed us to rehearse a lot, four times a week every week, it feels great. We’re always learning new ways to approach things live next time, just to level up the whole experience, especially just to really demonstrate the difference between listening to an album and how the song should play on a performance.
It was hard losing all that stuff, but then once we got past this initial piss, we just decided to get deeper into the work and to figure out what we’re going to do while we can get out and play again, because there will be a point where we can, it’s just a question of time and we’re just trying to use the time we’d been given well, and I think that’s all anyone can do.
Before all this madness happened, Wheel got to open some shows for Apocalyptica, Soen and other established acts. How is it like for a new band to tour with an established act? What do you expect from the tours and do you receive any advice or mentorship from those bands?
Soen in particularly were just lovely, right from the start. We’ve done supporting tours where we don’t even meet the headline band. I don’t mean that as a personal judgment, I’d get it. Everyone is doing what they needed before the show. Soen was so warm just from the start, from the first show we played with them in Norway, in February or March 2019. On the first night we did a really tricky day trying to get our stuff delivered there. Martin and Joel just came up to me and told us “Hi, we are so excited to have you guys here. We love the album and welcome to the tour”. We really hit it off with those guys. We spent two months on a bus together. We’re still really close. We’ve got a chat group where we talk very regularly. They’ve been very supportive about us and our music and we feel the same way about them. Their new album kicks ass, by the way, if you guys haven’t heard it.
We’ve had a similarly great experience with Apocalyptica. They even introduced us to our management company. I met Paavo (Lötjönen, Apocalyptica) for a project where I was co-producing an EP back in the day. He just started asking me “okay, so why are you in Finland? What you’re doing here?” And I showed him the demo. He really liked it and then he said “Hey, this is good, can I show it to our management?” And I said, “Yeah, please do, sure”.
I expected nothing because I mean, I’ve heard that kind of stuff so many times, but he followed through with it actually. Paavo is still a good friend of mine, we actually met up last week. He’s a loving dude, to the stand of playing with Apocalyptica a few times. We’ve got some plans for the future, to tour some more when the pandemic is over. Hopefully in early 2022, we are going to tour with Apocalyptica and Epica around Europe, which would be great. So yeah, honestly, we’ve had all kinds of mentorship and advice from especially those two bands, but basically all the bands we’ve worked with. The Prog and Metal scene in general is composed of a really nice group of people. It’s great to be part of it.