Ever since Wheel came on our radar with their incredible debut album, Moving Backwards, this year we’ve been dying to get a chance to talk to these guys. The stars aligned in the middle of December 2019 when the band were warming up for A Chapter Called Children of Bodom, and we were able to chat with vocalist/guitarist/songwriter James Lascelles and new-ish bassist Aki Virta about the lyrics on their debut album, how Virta joined the band, as well as how it feels to be opening for such an important show.
Thanks for taking the time to talk to us at long last! And here you are, opening for Children of Bodom!
James: Yeah, we didn’t see that coming.
How did it happen?
J: I got a phone call from our manager maybe a month ago saying, “Hi, I’m with Jouni from Greybeard” – who I think is Bodom’s manager or agent – “Do you want to open for them in the Ice Hall?” Umm… yeah. We’ll do that.
J: [laughter] I was tempted to say it, but I thought, what if he takes it back?
Aki: All I got was the email. “Ready to confirm? Are you going?” Sure! [laughter]
J: It’s a nice end to a great year. Compared to 12 months ago, a lot of great stuff has happened and we really didn’t expect any of it. We don’t take any of it for granted and we feel very lucky to be here.
It’s been incredible to see. I didn’t know who you guys were in 2018, but a friend of mine – incidentally, who hates all new music – recommended your album to me. Now I’ve seen you multiple times, listened to the album a ton, and that’s just me! You’ve already done the European opening tour and it seems like you’ve just exploded. How did you guys get such a ferocious start so far?
J: I think we just got really lucky with the team around the band. Our good friend Paavo [Lötjönen] from Apocalyptica introduced us to their management, who came out to our second gig and signed us. We’ve been working really closely with them ever since and they basically said that if you release something here and do this, we’ll get you this tour. The business side of things has been very efficient. We really knew nothing about how this works and we got really lucky.
Incredible. Now, one of the first things I noticed live was your stage look. It’s of course uniform and completes the image, but was there any reason for that particular stylistic choice of hoods and silhouette-like visuals?
J: To be honest, I didn’t realize what a cliché it was when we started doing it, but it turns out everyone and their uncle is wearing hoods on stage, but at least for us it had a really specific purpose. Most of these bands, there’s normally a singer and then there’s everyone else. We’ve always thought with the song-writing that the vocals are no more or less important than anything else in the music – as you’ve heard, it’s quite poly-rhythmic and intertextual, and it’s quite rich in each part, so it’s supposed say we’re all on the same level. Even on stage, I’m off to one side. We don’t want it to be a singer-and-a-backing-band on any level, and the hoods are part of that.
You know, I didn’t really expect to get such an in depth explanation for it. Now a little bit about Moving Backwards: Back at Tuska, you mentioned that “Where the Pieces Lie” is about overcoming adversity. Is there a story behind that that you’d be willing to share?
J: Of course! When we were writing the first album, we were under a tremendous time pressure and I basically had a bit of a burn-out. Luckily not severe, but a pretty intense depression by what I’m used to, so I got on medication and started seeing a therapist. It’s a song about finding where your limits are and having to do it anyway. It’s too late to start again, you go from where the pieces lie. That’s how it feels when it’s hard but you’ve got to do it anyway. I think I learned a lot about how far I can push myself without completely screwing myself up in the process. It’s pretty openly discussing that.
In your title track, there were a lot of Orwellian references, 1984 and whatnot, because it is your title track, which makes it all the more curious.
J: I’ve always been very conscientious about privacy and surveillance, which has been something that’s changed very underhandedly in our time, especially with social media. Specifically, that song is about a law passed in 2016 in the UK, which is being referred to as the most aggressive surveillance law in the western world.
It is. It’s supposed to be in the name of defense and to prevent terrorism, but there has been no evidence presented whatsoever that this [prevents attacks]. In fact, quite the opposite. It seems to be ineffective. It’s just a power that’s been given away that we’re not going to get back, and Brexit is the perfect distraction. It’s all anyone talks about anymore, so things have been allowed to continue.
It slides under the radar while “sexier” topics dominate the media.
J: Exactly. I’ve got opinions about Brexit too, I’m a Brit living in Finland – guess which side of the fence I’m on there. This surveillance stuff though, it’s an absolute no-brainer. It’s fear and the populace is being used to divide us for nefarious purposes and I don’t think there is any good reason for the government to have that level of access to private, law-abiding citizens in the UK.
Makes perfect sense. Now my last question about the first album was this fantastic and evocative line in “Vultures,” that says, “Try to piss on your bonfire.” It’s one of those lines that stuck out and I always hear, even when I’m not actively listening. Can you tell me what inspired that?
J: That whole song was about online witch-hunting, and specifically the case where James Gunn lost his job as director for Guardians of the Galaxy 2, I think it was. [This was] because of a tweet he made 10 years before, making what was clearly a joke, even if it was a pretty tactless one. One of the tweets was something like, “What’s the best thing about being raped? When it’s over.” It’s not a laugh-out-loud joke, but in 2009 it’s not that shocking in the context of the time in which it was said. But he lost his job for this and I thought that was fucking crazy. The song’s about that. It’s about online witch-hunting culture and how the court of public opinion seems to hold more weight than the actual law, or at least it can do as much damage. The pissing on the bonfire thing… it’s such a rubbish way to put out a bonfire. There’s a raging inferno and pissing on it isn’t going to change anything. It’s a futile gesture. It seemed like the right line.
[laughs] I love it. It’s great. Now, I feel like I’ve been ignoring your new bass player a bit here.
J: This is Aki Virta.
How did you guys join forces?
A: It all came out of the blue for me. I got a phone call in the middle of the day while I was driving, working, and I got a phone call from a good friend of the band, Jyri Helko – a great bass player himself – and he was asking if I was busy for the rest of the month. I was driving around and asked, you know, “Whaddaya got?” The phone call was a bit hasty or messy, so I didn’t totally understand what he was talking about, but he was really just rambling on about some gigs that he should be helping out, but he couldn’t do it, so he said he’d call me back and I said, “Sure, give me a call when you know more.”
I was expecting some sort of cover gig work, freelance musician stuff, and then he called me 6 hours later and said, “Okay man, there’s this band on tour and they need a bass player now.” Okay? What next? He sent me a message with the tour dates. Next up Santeri [Saksala, drums] calls me, gives me the same kind of hasty, rambling discussion-starter, which ends up with the words, “So if you could fly out to Slovenia tomorrow, that’d be really awesome.” [laughter] So my reaction… [laughs] “Hold on a minute…” First of all, I hadn’t heard of the band, I hadn’t heard any of the songs, and I’m just casually working around Helsinki.
So what I agreed with Santeri was that I’d go home, listen through the setlist, I’d give him a message. I went home, I listened to the songs, and I was just so impressed, immediately, because of the whole soundscape they guys were having and the rhythmic variety, especially the vocals. I was blown away. I sent Santeri a message, “I’ll talk to my boss tomorrow.”
Thursday morning I went to work and I went half an hour early so I think the guy already knew that something was up. I saw down and said, “So I got this phone call.” [laughter] “I need the next week off.” The guy heard… well, I didn’t know very much at the moment, I just knew that I needed to fly to Milan on Monday. So I told him what I knew and he was like, “Oh, I hate to let you go but… I don’t want to say no to that.” So we shook upon it and I headed out for 10 hours of work. As I was driving I was just listening through the songs and trying to get somewhat into them and since I had two gigs and this Tough Viking competition on the weekend, I could only practice the songs on Friday evening and Sunday during the day.
Then I had to fly out to Milan on Monday. I had such mixed feelings about it all, being so excited because I had never been on tour or in any gigs abroad from Finland. I was so excited to do it, but at the same time, I felt like… whose idea was this? Who thought this was a good idea? [laughter] This is going to be a fucking disaster. I got a taxi to the venue and immediately when Santeri walked off the bus and James came out of the bus, Roni came up and saw me and we started talking. We just hit it off. As people we synced, and the same thing happened when we went on the stage for the sound check. It just clicked.
J: Just to be completely clear, he had 2 days to learn our set and then we had a gig. He did six shows with us after that, back-to-back. Even the first one, you had it 80-85% down. It was crazy.
A: It was the most stressful thing I’ve ever done as a musician [laughs]. But I enjoyed it right away, hanging around with the guys and playing, and that week of touring was really amazing. One week after the tour – for a week in between I had a vacation in Spain – and then I got the call from Roni, “Do you want the job or not?” Obviously, I did.
Amazing, I love it. What a great story! If you survive that, you’ll survive anything.
J: We were so impressed. He’s the right guy for us. Mikko had to go home for personal reasons and we really didn’t know what to do with that, so we did two shows with backing tracks, which I never thought we’d do. We deliberately avoided that stuff because we wanted our sound to be what we make live, with the exception of maybe two intros. That was pretty daunting. But we managed to not miss a single show and we got Aki out for the third one, so we very rapidly found a solution, mainly thanks for Aki and Jyri for finding him.
Which shows were those? Was it part of the Soen Tour?
A: It was Milan, two gigs in Poland…
J: Yeah, the Soen Tour.
The footage on social media from that tour looked insane. You guys had a great turn-out.
J: It was pretty wild. We were blown away. On the first leg of the Soen tour we were the first support but we were bumped up the bill for the second leg, which was super nice. We really hit it off with the band. We’re big Soen fans and they’ve been really supportive of what we’re doing. We didn’t expect any of it. It’s been a good year. We hope to work with them again.
Do you have any plans for a second album, some more shows, anything like that?
J: All we can say about the new album at the moment is that we’ve started to work on it but we don’t know how long it’s going to take. We are hoping to have something out as soon as possible but I don’t want to tie us in knots by promising something I’m not 100% sure we can deliver. But we’ve got some new stuff.
A: The next tour is going to be with Lost Society, Shiraz Lane, and Arion.
The Best Tour Ever, right?
A: Yes! After Christmas we’ll be on tour for 6 days and then waiting for the February 1st headlining tour in Europe, and after that we’ll be having 6 days with Apocalyptica in Finland. After that, the freshest announcement is supporting Swallow the Sun on our first-ever US tour. So we’ve got a lot of stuff coming up for sure. We’re very excited and hopefully the people are too.
Do you have any idea how popular prog is in North America?
J: I think it’s kind of niche everywhere, but when it’s niche in a country with 330,000,000 people…
You’ll get some people to show up [laughs].
J: Yes, exactly. It’s not mainstream, but I think there’s something liberating about that. We don’t need to make the 3½ minute single, which is going to chart really well. We can do what we like and it’s okay.
Well I think that’s all the questions I have time for…
J: Before we end this, can I just say, thank you so much to your magazine for the lovely things you’ve written about the band, we really appreciate the support. We’re new, we’re just getting to know people so far, and it’s been wonderful, so thank you.
Well thank you guys for putting out such great music that we all like so much! [laughter]
J: Thank you very much!
I hope we’ll get the chat to continue this soon because I’m not even close to out of questions, but it’ll have to be so long for now. Have a great show with Bodom tonight!
A: Absolutely, and you too!
Grey Beard presents:
BEST TOUR EVER – PART 1
Lost Society, Shiraz Lane, Arion, Wheel
Check out our material from Wheel in 2019:
Gallery: CHILDREN OF BODOM w/ WHEEL @ Jäähalli, Helsinki, 15.12.2019
Report: SOEN w/ THE PRICE & WHEEL – Olympia, Tampere, 17.09.2019 (English)
Report: SOEN w/ THE PRICE & WHEEL @ The Circus, Helsinki, 18.09.2019 (suomeksi)
Gallery: SOEN w/ THE PRICE & WHEEL @ The Circus, Helsinki, 18.09.2019
Review: (2019) Wheel: Moving Backwards
Report: OPERA FESTIVAL ROCKS – Olavinlinna, Savonlinna, 21.07.2019
Gallery: OPERA FESTIVAL ROCKS @ Olavinlinna, Savonlinna, 21.07.2019
Festival report: TUSKA OPEN AIR – Suvilahti, Helsinki, 28-30.06.2019