Wheel interview (03/2021)
|Conducted by:||RaduP (skype)|
I found out about Wheel through their 2019 record, Moving Backwards, which I've considered to be a pretty good album, albeit a bit too close in style to Tool. But I knew a few great bands that started out as Tool clones so I gave Wheel the benefit of the doubt. Now with a follow-up, Resident Human, out this Friday, it seems like they took advantage of that benefit of the doubt and did their fair share of growing. Naturally when the opportunity arose, I wanted to know a bit more about where that growth came from, so I sat down with James Lascalles over Skype to talk about that, among some other things.
Radu: All right, we're here with James [Lascelles, vocals and guitars] from Wheel, a Finnish progressive/alternative metal band, and we're here to talk about their new album, Resident Human, which is going to come out in… I don't know how long. One week, something?
James Lascelles: Yeah, exactly, next Friday. [Ed: You said they were Finnish. This man is clearly English.]
Radu: Let's hope I can transcribe the interview and publish it by then. [Ed: Who can transcribe it by when?]
JL: Okay, so potentially last Friday. Well, either one. It's either coming out soon or it's out.
Radu: It will be coming some Friday. You'll have the entire weekend to listen to it.
JL: Yes. Exactly that.
Radu: So how is it releasing an album when you cannot tour for it?
JL: I think like every other band it's a necessary evil. We'd started working on the record before the pandemic had begun, so luckily we had some inspiration and we had some really good ideas that we wanted to put together for the record before everything started, but we'd thought about delaying it further and we just thought there's no point. Also because we're not a bank, we're an art project, we don't have to be completely coldly economical about it; we thought it might be something kind of positive we could do, put some music out during the time when everyone's craving for something to do as a new entertainment, and we thought especially with some of the themes on the record this might be the right thing to release during the pandemic.
Radu: Yeah, naturally. How was the creative process of Resident Human compared to Moving Backwards?
JL: I think it was a lot more intense. There were definitely times when I felt like completely giving up. Writing the music was relatively straightforward; I think I had a few ideas that I'd written during our previous tour with Soen in 2019. In a hotel room in Istanbul, I wrote the intro part to "Dissipating", for example, and the bridge part to "Movement". I didn't know that's what they were gonna be at the time, but I just had a good day, came up with two strong ideas; I'd also written the two sections that formed the basis to "Hyperion" earlier in the summer, earlier that year, and bits like the main riff of "Ascend", so I had all these fragments and bits and pieces to start working with, but I did the bulk of the instrumental structuring and arranging from mid-November 2019 to the headline tour we did in February 2020, so it was a busy time but I got a lot done during that process, and by the time we hit the headline tour, we had instrumentals for most of the album done. Everything except "Fugue" and "Old Earth" we had pretty comprehensive structures.
So after that we kept on tweaking and editing, but we had the framework, we had the skeleton for the whole album, and it was just filling in the blanks at that point and tweaking stuff. I think somebody did a lot of important work with the drums at that point; once I've done the main writing bit, it becomes really democratic and everybody starts getting their hands in and tearing things to pieces and putting it back together again. The more times we do it, the more comfortable I've got with just letting go at that point and accepting that's what it is, because it always makes the music better, even if it's not always apparent instantly. We did some pretty major restructuring work with things like the drum beat in "Ascend" in the verses; that ended up defining exactly how those parts would go. I had something very different for the part there, but somebody sent me a demo and said, "What do you think about this?" So I programmed it and started messing with that. It becomes quite interactive and collaborative at that point, but the main legwork of the parts was something I was doing myself. [Ed: Kind of like how Radu sends me demoes of him asking random interview questions and then I fill in all the answers pretending to be the band members.]
Just before we hit the studio to do drums and bass, I came up with the idea for "Fugue", I think two days before we went into the studio. It's so weird we've done that as a single, because honestly the song was an afterthought; it was kind of, "If we've got time in the studio, we'll track that as well". We thought maybe it's gonna be an instrumental, kind of like a sequel to "Skeletons" from Moving Backwards, but we ended up thinking it should be kind of in between a regular song and an instrumental with this weird vocal style we did in the end. All in all, I think it's a lot more vulnerable and human-sounding than Moving Backwards was, and I think that's the main difference, is the approach with how we tracked the parts. So for example when we were doing drums and bass for "Hyperion", we just decided to switch off the click track completely, and that allowed the tempo to move a lot more dramatically, which is kind of a retro way to do it. I think there was a tendency to under-edit rather than over-edit during the whole process, which was terrifying, because we didn't hide our mistakes this time, we left them in there. We just thought the sum of the parts is greater if we leave that humanity in, and I think most of that is just before Moving Backwards we hadn't really toured at all, we'd done about 20 gigs ever, and after Moving Backwards came out, we did something crazy like 120, 130 gigs in 2019 and just got used to how that felt onstage and how the songs changed in that live setting. We wanted to capture a bit more of that feeling on the recording. So yeah, it was a real baptism by fire.
Radu: So in a way, you think the music on Resident Human will be easier to adapt for a live audience?
JL: Oh, definitely not. It's way harder to play; everything's harder.
JL: But I think it's just more - because of some of the structural parts on Moving Backwards, things like the middle part of "Up The Chain" is very dense, and there's a lot of stuff in the same register, so we went for this really clean and heavy recording sound because the material sort of demanded it. It would have sounded like a mess if we had gone for something as open as Resident Human sounds with those songs. This music - it wasn't deliberate, but it's definitely ended up more complicated and more rich - but I just think it's the way we've tracked it. For example, the snare drum: we're not doing snare triggering, where the snare hits and three or four other snares happen at the same time. We've really leant on the dynamic range in the tracks and tried to use it as part of the overall arrangement of the song, as well as just an aesthetic choice. We were just trying to play to the songs. We thought this fits the material better; that's why we chose it.
Radu: I want to ask how does composing vocal melodies go along with music that is so complex? How is your approach in that area?
JL: Honestly, it was a fucking nightmare. We had nothing, so when we recorded all the instrumentals, we were really trying to stick to this tight deadline we'd set ourselves, because we thought, "The music's ready, we'll figure that stuff out later". It was always we'll push it back, we'll push it back, the songs work, we'll do the vocals at the end. Once we'd tracked anything else, which was difficult in its own way because of the pandemic restrictions, I'd just felt like I'd hit a wall, like I completely crashed. I had a complete burnout for about two weeks where I was sleeping 14 hours a day, I didn't feel very inspired, and I'm thinking, "Shit, I've still got an album to write vocals for. What the hell am I gonna do?" [Ed: I do the opposite of that. I don't sleep for 19 hours a day, I come up with a ton of ideas that I can't do anything with, and by the time I've reached the headlining tour of my own house, I don't have an album to show for it.]
Also, it wasn't deliberate, because I wasn't really thinking about bar numbers when I was writing the music, but some of the metres are just... they're so fucking weird. Things like "Movement", for example - I think I ended up needing to redraft the vocals for that something like 30 times to come up with something that just felt effortless, because I always think in Wheel the job of the vocals is to make the rest of it make sense, so hopefully it sounds simpler than it actually is, because we don't want it to sound like an exam. It's supposed to be fun and it's supposed to be part of this overall cohesive journey thing, and I think we really wrote ourselves into a few corners. "Hyperion", weirdly enough, was the easiest one to write even though it might be one of the trickiest ones lyrically, because I'd missed the deadline the label had set us, I'd screwed up, and there was nothing else to fail at at that point, so all of a sudden the pressure was gone and the inspiration started to flow and I started getting all of these great ideas for the vocals.
A lot of that was inspired by this Dan Simmons book series called Hyperion Cantos. It's a science fiction series; I hadn't read science fiction before [Ed: Why isn't the Thrawn trilogy mandatory in schools everywhere?], but a few of the themes in these books really spoke to me. Hyperion was about mortality, the notion we're all on this train journey from birth to death and no one knows what's coming before or afterwards; we can't change the speed of the train or the direction we're going in. I think we're so immersed - or at least I was so immersed last year when I wrote it in my own experience and progression of time - that you forget everyone you meet and speak to is having the exact same existential crises that we are, and I think there's something very frightening about death because we're so removed from it in our society. It all happens behind closed doors and I think there's a very different relation to it in modern society to what humans have had in the past. I was just trying to find a kind of positive outlook, a kind of happy answer about mortality, because death sounds terrible but you can't have life without death. It's as pivotal a part as the life bit. I think I'm just trying to come to terms with the fact that it's part of the journey and therefore everything that happens along the journey is the only thing we can actually affect. The choices we make are very significant and the way we treat others and every good thing that happens to us, we shouldn't take it for granted. Like in the lyrics, we forget none of it is a given, give it up and search for something better - it's supposed to be positive, although I think it's juxtaposed by this really dark-sounding track, so I'm not sure how well it comes across on the record. (laughs)
Radu: Well, I gave the record just one listen so far, so I haven't really been able to pay attention to the lyrics that much, so I appreciate you going over the themes of the album. If you can tell us a bit more about what the album's lyrics, what topics they cover…
JL: Yeah, absolutely. "Dissipating", the first track, that's also about a theme from Hyperion Cantos. That one was about the indifference of the universe. I picked lots of fun topics for the record this time. It's just this notion that the universe seems hostile because once we leave the safety of Earth's atmosphere, suddenly you're in this subzero vacuum, which would destroy us very, very quickly [Ed: Oh, very much so], and based on what we currently understand about the speed of light, even reaching another galaxy seems nearly impossible, so it all seems untouchable and unknowable, in a way, and I think the more we realize how small humanity is, how small our corner of the universe is, it makes us feel kind of insignificant, and that can lead to nihilism. [Ed: Yeah, you'd better believe it does. Somebody just tell me a joke or something, please.]
Radu: Yeah, that's one outlook to get from the whole thing, but also, it's like, since our lives are so short compared to the entire span of time, it's just like the same: the space that we have is just like the time that we have. It's short in comparison to everything, so we have to make use of it as much as we can. It's not that we're insignificant - [Ed: Speak for yourself]
JL: Exactly, yeah, yeah.
Radu: I'd say that we're the most significant planet out of all of them.
JL: That's exactly it, and that's the conclusion that the lyrics come to - it's the notion that because we can't touch any of that stuff, we are absolved of any cosmic responsibility. There is none. This is it, this is all we know, this is all there's gonna be, so better make it count.
Radu: The only cosmic responsibility you have is for this planet. [Ed: Man, we had one cosmic responsibility and look what happened.]
JL: Yeah, completely, and just make the most of the time we're given and maybe find some joy in it, and maybe give some joy to others. It doesn't all have to be dark and bleak. [Ed: Yes it does. Only power metal bands are allowed to be happy.] I think last year, particularly for us as a band, who are so used to touring and being very, very busy all the time, kind of being forced to stop and really look at this stuff in the mirror, it was really cathartic to try and go gruesome with this stuff and put it into the lyrics, because a lot of people felt they had a chance to address this stuff in a new way last year because everything changed, maybe in a way that we can never go back to how it was before. Quite a few of these songs were inward-looking and about personal growth. The last one doing that was "Resident Human", which was about a concept I learned in therapy of the metacognitive state of being an observer. The idea of this - this was expressed through the metaphor of the mountain, the idea that the weather changes, but the mountain just is. Trees grow, trees die, people are born, live, love, and die on the mountain, but the mountain just is. It doesn't judge, it's just there. It's supposed to be a coping strategy about living in a society [Ed: he said the magic words, go wild] where we're just bombarded by information all the time, and it can feel draining and overwhelming, particularly when things seem so bleak, and I think often they do, or at least they're portrayed as they're very bleak.
So again it's just about trying to make peace with our existence and trying to find joy and peace, I guess. I think the saying "finding happiness" is always a strange choice of words, because I think a full human existence isn't only about happiness. I think it's a spectrum of emotions. But I think peace is the thing which we should be aiming to have, at least for myself, if I'm able to find it.
Radu: In a way, if you just strive to find peace and happiness for yourself, that's quite a denialism of the bleakness of life and you have to find a way to balance this, not to go in the other half just to see the bleakness and not finding any happiness for yourself. [Ed: Can we just once do a normal interview and ask people what pedals they use and what their favorite Slayer albums are?]
JL: Yeah, exactly, and I think the "peace" part is the achievable bit; it's the "happiness" that changes. Just being at peace with ourselves and being at peace with the limitations of our existence and just coming to terms with that in a positive way, because there is nothing else. If there's any kind of meaning to life, I think that's probably it, and I think that's as good as it's gonna get. On the other hand, "Movement" was looking much more outwardly and that was exploring the rhetoric after George Floyd was murdered and how quickly an event which I thought kind of unified us - the brutal murder of an innocent man in public by law enforcement, who then chose to lie about it - so quickly became conflated with all this other shit around it, and it became kind of a political statement and a metaphor for things which… as far as I know, who knows what George Floyd thought about any of those things? And I think it just showed how quickly we became divided against ourselves and how difficult it is to make meaningful progress socially, but those are the kind of things which we have to overcome to do it.
It's such a hostile territory online, especially within music, trying to talk about politics, and that's fucking crazy. You know, back when I was growing up and back when my parents were growing up, that was the norm, and I think being social commentary is one of the fundamental roles that art is supposed to play and I think historically it's done that many, many times. Yeah, we're all really afraid of getting it wrong, and I get it, because I'm really afraid of getting it wrong, so it is scary to kind of put a view out there and see what people do with it, but I've always thought that the two smartest things a person can say are "I don't know" and "I've got it wrong" [Ed: This is the third thing], and in the future, if it turns out that we make a political statement which turns out to be something which doesn't represent us anymore or someone says, "Ah, you've really dropped the ball there; this is really how you should feel", and they make a compelling argument, then we'll change our minds. I don't think there's anything that scary about that. I think the ability to grow and learn new things is an ongoing process for all of us.
"Ascend", in a similar way, that kind of covered a different aspect of online culture, particularly how we use copy and pasting to articulate very complex ideas and we use other people's words to do it rather than try and formulate our own, and I think the process of trying to put our own feelings, especially the complex ones, into our own words helps us to form up those views and to improve them, maybe find holes in our arguments. I actually think it's a really big part of personal growth and development, and because everything has to be instant, it doesn't really leave space or time to do that. There's also a side to it where social media is a terrible medium for debate, which it clearly is, because we get so heated, things get so negative [Ed: If you can't summarize your entire belief system in 240 characters or fewer, I don't care what it is], but I was just observing a lot of this last year, just people I knew online, and some of the things they'd write to each other, which would literally be that they'd copy/paste, just dump a load of text into a chat field, and you're always wondering, "Have you read all of this? Does this actually accurately reflect your opinions?" And in some cases I'm sure it does, but I don't think it does nearly enough to warrant the number of times you see it happening.
So yeah, I was thinking a lot about the state of things last year and we were talking a lot about this stuff in our rehearsals when we were making the record as well, so it just naturally felt like all these things fit together to be a kind of figurative deconstruction of humanity in 2020.
Radu: Okay. So now let's go a bit back to… [Ed: Wherever it is that you can go back to after processing all of these truths] You're releasing Resident Human, and before that you released Moving Backwards, and when I reviewed Moving Backwards I noticed that you sound a lot like Tool.
JL: Yeah, sure.
Radu: This is something that I think a lot of people have been saying about you and probably asked you about it, so has it ever bothered you that all your sounds and all your influences are reduced to sounding like Tool?
JL: No, not really. Firstly, there is a degree of fanaticism of Tool fans, which is just unavoidable - you know what I'm talking about. Some people just like the band - I love the band, I think they're amazing - but it's literally almost like a religion for some people, and I think they get very heated and very passionate and I'm not gonna touch that with a 20-foot pole; I wouldn't dare, to be honest. But people are always gonna try and compartmentalize music and to work out what category it goes in. I'm on Reddit quite a lot; I like to just put my fingers in a lot of the scenes and get a flavor for what everyone else is doing and maybe what new bands to check out, and I think, for example, a lot of audience members are very bothered about what genre stuff is and giving it the correct label. Interestingly, I've never cared what label people want to call Wheel [Ed: Okay, Wheel is now ska], and none of us in the band do. I think most of the bands we've toured with, they're similarly disinterested in what label they're called, because it doesn't really change anything very much for an artist. We're still going to try and make the best music we can within the framework we've set ourselves, and however people want to compartmentalize that doesn't change the kind of output we want to make, so there is always going to be a degree of Tool comparison for us, and I'm okay with that. We're making metal music with polyrhythms, weird metres, some of the songs are very long, there's sound design elements, there's darkness, there are these big subjects in the lyrics, but of course there's going to be a degree of comparison but it would be insincere to say that they're our only influence. On this album alone, I don't know all of the influences of the music because some of it's buried so deep from my childhood or my teens I don't even remember it, but I think I've identified about 60, 70 different bands that have influenced parts of the music, and I think that's just what it is. When you start out, I think your influences are a lot more obvious and the longer you create the more you carve out your own path and follow that, see where it goes -
Radu: Yeah, this is what I've been noticing with Resident Human, that it's sounding less and less like something else and it's starting to have its own identity of you as a band.
JL: Yeah, exactly, and I think that's just part of the process. To be honest, I think that happens to nearly every group. There are bands that come out of the gate where right from the first album they've had a really clear, definitive sound of "this is who we are", but that's exceptionally rare. I think for most people it's just a numbers game; I think the more songs you write, the more time you spend together performing, the more you have to ask yourself, "What do I care about? What are my values?" I think those are the things that tend to define ourselves.
Radu: And I also want to ask: what is the origin of the band name?
JL: The origin of the band name was actually the self-titled track, "Wheel". You know in Pro - I don't know if you do know, but when you make a song in Pro Tools, you've always got to give it a name before you start doing anything, and I just typed it in and then I started thinking: this really fits on so many levels for what we're doing musically, because there's something about the continuity of things and how the cycles repeat, and I think that comes through especially with the vintage stuff of us turning off the click track and going for these less-edited songs, and also about trying to get to new places because we keep trying to pick new ideas that interest and inspire us like these strange metres or sound design elements that we haven't heard before, and I think those two values in particular, that really is at the core of what we're trying to do musically: keep something of the old, but also find new places to go with it.
I'm a British guy living in Finland, so we also wanted to find something people could say in lots of languages, and it just seemed like a really good name for all these reasons.
Radu: Yeah, but it's, like, such a simple and very used word, and you're using it for a band name instead of something that could specifically name the band. So, like, if I search "wheel" in Google, I'm not going to find the band; I have to search "wheel band" or "wheel resident human" by the album name, because I was searching a few interviews for you and I think Wheel is also, like, an engine for something, some technical issue, and it gave me interview questions for that, and so -
JL: Oh, I completely understand the frustrations, but in all honesty I think it's a little bit of a troll move on my part. I don't want to have to completely bend what art is for internet search engines, and it matters, of course, that we can be found, that we can be identified, and a name ostensibly is a flag that people can use to identify us, but I also feel that - it's kind of like usernames or e-mail addresses, back in the day, where you end up with "markymark6932122@!". [Ed: Boy, he came up with that example really fast.] We could pick something that'd make us easier to find, but we wanted to pick something that we felt fit the music, and that was our priority with it.
Radu: Didn't you feel the need to check if there was any other band named Wheel?
JL: Yeah, we did, and at the time we started the band, there wasn't one - they weren't active anymore. There'd been one in Germany, but at the time - because we started the band in 2015 - they hadn't released anything for quite some time, and -
Radu: They're releasing an album this year.
JL: Yeah! Can you believe it? So at the moment, they haven't contacted us; I guess we'll speak to them about it at some point, but we don't mind if they use the name and we use ours. We've got two distinct things we're trying to do and it all seems aboveboard and fine, so… hopefully there's no issue on their side, because there's none from ours. It's just what it is, and there are only so many names, there's lots of bands, here we are.
Radu: Well, maybe you'll release a split with them so then you'll have the Wheel side and the Wheel side.
JL: We'll just make it a double-sided album, yeah; who knows? Yeah, I mean, with that kind of thing… it's just what it is. It looked like they weren't active at the time, so who knows?
Radu: Okay. And we have one more minute left, right?
JL: Yeah, one more.
Radu: Okay, so one last question. If you could choose one living director to direct a video for a Wheel song, who would it be? [Ed: I was so afraid he wasn't going to ask it.]
JL: Definitely Tim Burton. It would have to be macabre and gothic, but also a little bit entertaining as well, on the humoristic side.
Radu: Okay. Well, this is about it. Do you have any last words for our readers?
JL: Absolutely. Thank you so much for your interest in what we do and your support of the band. We are still absolutely blown away that so many people care about what we make, because we did not anticipate that would be the case before Moving Backwards. Check out Resident Human and let us know what you think on social media.
Radu: All right. Thanks once again and have a nice day.
JL: No problem. Take care. Thank you for your time.
Radu: Bye. Take care.
Once again thanks to SSUS for transcribing the interview.
||Posted on 28.03.2021 by Doesn't matter that much to me if you agree with me, as long as you checked the album out.|
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