About Me

Interview with Wheel

Wheel is one of the most recent bands in the Progressive Metal scene. The Anglo-Finnish quartet released their first long-length album in 2019 - “Moving Backwards” - after two EP's in 2017 and 2018, and are now proving why Wheel is one of Prog's most promising bands, releasing “Resident Human”. We interviewed James Lascelles, vocalist, guitarist and composer, about the formation of the band, the release of this second album, as well as the shows they played in Portugal.

M.I. - How did you get to know each other? I know that you’re the only one from the UK, while the rest of the members are Finnish ...

I moved to Finland back in 2010 when a guy I had studied with in the UK won the Finnish Idols competition and invited me out to perform with him several times. At the time, the band I was working on in the UK was falling apart and I was close to moving back to my parents’ place and giving up on music all together; instead, I took a leap of faith and moved to Helsinki to pursue a career playing pop music and covers. The stylistic fit was never something that had particularly interested me but it made me enough money to cover my bills and seemed like the only viable option to follow my aspirations of being a professional musician; there were also elements of the job I enjoyed, particularly arranging vocal harmonies for the group. Ultimately, I became disillusioned with the position and after several years of working on the band, opted to leave, instead choosing to take a position in software sales which I can say with confidence, I was absolutely terrible at. 

During one of the last shows I played with the Idols artist, I was a contestant on a game show called ‘Tartu Mikkiin’ which roughly translates to, ‘Grab The Mic’ and the guitarist (Saku Mattila) in the show’s house band and I really hit it off. I thought my musical career was done at this point but for fun, I had been recreating some demos from songs I had written during my time at university and invited Saku to my place to show him what I had been working on. He was intrigued by what I had made and suggested we put a group together to see how the songs sounded in a live setting, which sounded like a great idea to me.  

The demos I had made were basically finished versions of the songs that ended up on our first EP, ‘The Path EP’ and after rehearsing together with our original bassist and our long term drummer, Santeri Saksala, we decided to record a demo of the three tracks, which we did in only two days – the demo turned out so well that we decided to get it professionally mixed. At this point, there was a collective sense that we were on to something really special and since then, despite many convoluted line up changes, we have been working our asses off on the band and treating it like a career.

M.I. - What is your musical background? Did you have music lessons?

My parents were incredibly supportive of my musical development and we always had instruments in the house growing up. I had piano lessons when I was very young although I was a horrible student – I never practised and never got further than Grade 1. Additionally, my Dad taught me how to play the basics on guitar and I played in the music group at my Catholic primary school. I later briefly had guitar lessons from the late Brian Parker who was an amazing player and teacher, but he died shortly after he began teaching me; I didn’t get another teacher after this, instead opting to teach myself. 

My brother Simon was and still is an insanely good musician too and had 4 Grade 8s by the time he was 15 – I learned a lot by experimenting with him and would often wake up to hear him practicing Rachmaninoff and Chopin on the piano. Simon’s classical background and brutal but constructive critique taught me the value from an early age of collaboration, and we were always pushing each other to try wilder and more interesting things with the music we both wrote at the time.

During my teenage years I wrote songs and performed with other students from my school; I eventually ended up singing for one of these student groups after the band’s singer quit and we had a show coming up. I had no prior experience and was pretty terrible at it when I started... I kept doing it regardless and slowly improved over time. 

I was in a range of small groups and bands in my formative years and in various lineups, I played drums, guitar, bass or sang in a range of styles. I also supported myself throughout my time at university in part, playing troubadour gigs – this is something I continued to do after moving to Finland as there were plenty of opportunities to make good money doing so over here. 

From the beginning, I was always interested in developing a comprehensive understanding of what each instrument could do so I could incorporate this knowledge into my writing. Drums in particular felt under explored to me as in most of what I listened to at the time, they were always in a supporting role; I was always drawn to music with unusual rhythms and songs that I felt allowed all of the players a chance to shine.

M.I. - How does your creative process work?

I don’t have a linear approach to creativity although I have written most of Wheel’s music; ultimately, I’ve always viewed creativity as an extension of the freedom to fail and sometimes, a lot of failure is required before something really interesting starts to come together. 

Maybe it is because I am relatively untrained as a musician and composer but every time I find an idea or series of ideas that interest me, it feels like learning a new language; a great deal of experimentation is required to figure out the most satisfying way to arrange, structure or develop parts. 

In a general sense, I have always avoided complexity for its own sake and I invest a lot of time adjusting structure and arrangement to (hopefully) make the overall journey as rewarding as possible. Particularly considering the longer songs we make, I am very conscious of the commitment we are asking from a listener with these and want to ensure that the payoff for investing time into our music feels worthwhile.

Ultimately, making Wheel songs is a selfish endeavour and we are trying to keep ourselves entertained – if we don’t like it, why would anybody else right? Once I have produced an idea or a demo, the guys in the band indicate which ones they think are worth developing and then we begin the long, democratic process of tearing the tracks apart and building them back up as something greater than they were before. 

I feel incredibly privileged to be able to create with such a talented group of people and I trust them implicitly – the more music we create together, the easier it is to let go and trust that the changes we make, even to songs that I might already think are very good, only serve to improve them overall.

M.I. - “Resident Human”, like the previous record, has a specific lyrical concept. Did you also approach the album conceptually on the musical/instrumental part?

The musical/instrumental part actually inspired the lyrical themes this time around. The material on ‘Moving Backwards’ had a lot of movement in the same register (the middle part of ‘Up The Chain’) and some extremely chunky riffs (like ‘Vultures’) so we went for something clean and heavy with the production style. This time around, as the tracking progressed, it became apparent that this was not the direction for the more dynamic music we had written for ‘Resident Human’. 

When we started recording drums and bass at Finnvox studios in Helsinki, we didn’t have any lyrical themes or any vocal parts written. It was through decisions such as switching off the click track (for ‘Hyperion’) and choosing to under-edit the parts, giving them more of a live feel, that we realised the direction the music demanded – something more vulnerable and showcasing a greater humanity than our previous album; it felt like the logical next step for the lyrical themes to do the same. 

M.I. – In the promo, you said "And we kind of did it [a progressive COVID concept album] ... but it's more about the time that COVID allowed us to explore ourselves, rather than the pandemic itself." Can you develop this idea? What did you explore you about yourselves in these COVID times?

We were forced to take a step back from all of our norms when the pandemic restrictions began and for the first time in many years, we had time to evaluate and reflect upon everything that had been going on around us. 
The uncertainty of the time was also a factor that led us to address the choices that we continue to make and to try to make some kind of peace with the turbulence that goes hand in hand with trying to build something new.

These thoughts didn’t only lead to change, I think a lot of it just reaffirmed for us that we want to continue on the journey we began with Wheel back in 2015; it is impossible to predict the future and clearly, all we can do is choose how to spend this time we are given. I think all of us have found a renewed sense of purpose over the past twelve months and considering how much of the pandemic has only been bad, there has definitely been a silver lining in the sense that we are more sure than ever that we are pursuing the right things, personally, professionally and artistically.

M.I. - The album reflects on the constant social changes we see in the contemporary world. What do you think about everything that’s going on politically and socially? Are you optimistic about the future?

I have mixed feelings about the future although there is always cause for hope. I think young people these days have access to more information than any generation has at any point in history and every year, more and more people globally are gaining access to this trove of data. Of course, not everything about the internet is good, but we are living in a time where anybody with an internet connection can educate themselves about literally anything if they are motivated to do so; if our species survives for long enough to reap the benefits, I think this will permanently change how we run our societies for the better and hopefully, improve how we tend to treat each other too. 

Politically, at least in the short term, I think there is a lot of work to be done. We are living in a time where fascism is frequently being rebranded in misleading ways and tragedy is being used as an excuse for tightening the grip that authorities claim they need upon our societies to keep us safe. From more aggressively controlled borders to surveillance measures that would be more at home in “1984”, I think there is real cause for alarm about the way these trends seem to be heading. Fearmongering and misinformation are being used to demonise political, religious and sexual minorities and we don’t remember even the most recent historical events that allude to where these practices tend to head. The important thing to remember is that all is far from lost and it is still possible to change our ultimate destination. 

I don’t believe that there are any simple solutions to remedy this beyond remembering that all of us exist within echo chambers and that the mirror of the world around us that we perceive is fundamentally flawed – people who disagree with us are very rarely our enemies and building bridges/engaging with those who have spent the last ten years being fed a different world view to our own are nearly always worth engaging with; every one of us is deserving of compassion and peace and only through finding peace ourselves can we be the change that we want to see in the world around us.

M.I. - You said in the promo that “Hyperion” and “Dissipating” are influenced by Dan Simmons' series of sci-fi books “Hyperion Cantos”. How does this influence reflect on these songs? Can you tell us more about this relation between the books and your music?

I read the “Hyperion Cantos” series last summer and have never read anything like it. The story is spectacular and many of the themes in the book are remarkably relevant to how the world appeared last year; this is even more impressive considering the first book came out in 1989. The third and fourth books in the series in particular dig into some topics that really spoke to me.

“Dissipating” is about making peace with the seemingly hostile universe we inhabit. It’s about letting go of any delusions of grandeur for our species and in turn, liberating ourselves from any cosmic responsibility. The scale of the universe is at least according to current science, unknowable and according to current physics, large swathes of the cosmos are unreachable – this reality may lead some to feelings of nihilism but “Hyperion Cantos” led me to a different conclusion – everything we do, every good thing that happens to us and everything we choose during our short lives is loaded with significance, meaning and value and remembering this has helped me to find greater gratitude for being here to experience any of it.

“Hyperion” is about coming to terms with the limits of our mortality, particularly accepting that death is as essential a part of being alive as living. We are all experiencing time as a linear journey from birth to death and we are so immersed in our own experience that we forget (and certainly, I forget) that everybody we will ever meet will go through all of the same existential crises that we face ourselves. It’s a call to arms that we should face the setting sun together, united in our assured oblivion and how although we may stand divided, we will eventually fall together.

M.I. - You also mentioned that you had a burnout in June, and that you had to postpone the album. What happened?

From September 2019, I had been under a huge amount of pressure. We had two lineup changes in quick succession, one of which happened during a tour and had a brutal timetable to assemble music for our second album around our other touring commitments; I was too ambitious with the schedule and had very little downtime for the 9 months from September 2019 – May 2020 when the instrumental recordings were finished. On top of this, I had been suffering from depression and near constant anxiety for quite some time. 

As everything had been cancelled due to Covid and we had no vocals written for the album whatsoever at that point, once the instrumentals were recorded, the plan was to take some time to go through all of the songs we had tracked and to quickly get some vocals together – this was the straw that broke the camel’s back and at the time, it felt like running into a wall. I had a really hard time coming up with vocals for the record and in hindsight, it’s impossible to say how much of this was due to the complexity of the material and how much was due to overdoing it for such a long time; regardless, the result was the same – I crashed and for a few weeks was sleeping for nearly 14 hours a day.

It took me several months to get myself back to a state where I felt I could take more than the smallest steps to produce decent lyrics and vocal lines although it wasn’t a complete waste – I discovered “Hyperion Cantos” during this time. 

In the end, I took so long to finish the vocals that I missed the deadline we were aiming for with our label – something I’ve never done. Weirdly enough though, once I had ‘failed’, the inspiration floodgates opened again and I came up with my favourite lyrics on the whole record.

M.I. - You also said that, after that, you wrote those that were, in your opinion, the best lyrics on the album. What lyrics were you referring to?

These were the lyrics to “Hyperion”!

M.I. - How is it for you to have your first European headline tour and another one coming in the USA? How did Wheel grow so fast?

Looking back, I have absolutely no idea. We never anticipated the kind of response we got for “Moving Backwards” and it felt like everything went from 1 – 100 overnight. We always felt like we were onto something special with the music we were writing and I can attest to how fantastic the other guys in the band are at what they do but nothing could have prepared us for what happened after the record came out. We had played less than 20 shows ever before the album was released and, in 2019, we played well over 100 shows – it was a wonderful year for us and we are all excited to get back out there and do it all again with our new material.

The European headline tour was amazing too – the audiences were incredible and it was really satisfying to be able to play longer sets every night; some of those gigs were really crazy. It’s a shame we didn’t get to go to the USA due to visa complications but frankly, we wouldn’t have been able to do so anyway due to Covid - it’s definitely high up on our to-do list to get to the other side of the pond as soon as we can.

M.I. - How did you get the opportunity to tour with Soen and, now, with Epica and Apocalyptica? You will play on great stages...

We share management with Apocalyptica and, in fact, Paavo from the band is the reason the management company took us on in the first place. I was acting as a producer for a recording Paavo was playing on with our mutual friend Tipe Johnson and when he heard our first Wheel demo he asked if he could share it with them. Ulysses from Odyssey Music Management flew out to Finland to see our second ever show and we’ve been working closely with them ever since. Odyssey’s network has been pivotal in securing us all of these great slots and having worked with them closely for five years now, I really can’t say enough good things about them.

We are really excited to get out and do the tour with Epica and Apocalyptica in 2022 – I think the new material is going to sound incredible on the bigger stages!

M.I. - How do you look at the current Prog scene? Do you think that the genre has been able to be renew itself?

I think Prog is not going anywhere which is great to see. I think like all genre names that try to encompass ‘not’ being a genre name (like ‘alternative’ and ‘indie’ for example), however boundless in scope a genre may claim to be, there are always tropes that end up becoming synonymous with the genre title – in this respect, Prog is no different. 

Speaking of the wider scene, I think there are some incredible bands making progressive music these days – it’s a great time to be part of it. In terms of Prog renewing itself in the future, there is definitely a wave of great new bands making progressive music but like in all genres, there is always room for more innovation.

M.I. - What are your main references in Prog, or in Metal in general?

There are a huge number these days but I’ll list all the ones I can think of right now – Karnivool, Tool, Meshuggah, Radiohead, Mr Bungle, Faith No More, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Nirvana, Pantera, Rage Against The Machine, Massive Attack, Led Zeppelin, Opeth… 

M.I. - What are your short- or long-term goals? Do you have a defined plan for the band?

In the short term, we are rehearsing a lot as it’s pretty much all we’ve been able to do for some time. Thinking more long term, we are already experimenting with some new song ideas although they are in the earliest stages of development and we want to tour as soon as it’s safe for us to do so – the songs sound great on the album but they are going to sound even better live…

M.I. - How was it to play in Portugal? What do you think about the Portuguese crowd?

I love playing in Portugal – we played twice there in 2019 with Soen in Porto and Lisbon, (Joel from Soen actually got up to sing “Wheel” with us in Porto which was really fun – if anyone has a video of that night, upload it!) and came back over the summer in the same year to play at Comendatio Music Festival which was a blast.

I love the energy of the Portuguese fans and the country is beautiful. It’s very high on our list of countries we need to revisit as soon as possible!

M.I. - Thank you very much for your time. Please, leave a final message to the readers of Metal Imperium.

Thanks to all of you for taking the time to check out our music and for all of your support – we don’t take any of this for granted and sincerely appreciate every single one of you. Keep it Wheel and let us know what you think about the new album on social media – much love from Finland to you all.

For Portuguese version, click here

Interview by Francisco Gomes