Interview: James of Wheel
Interviewed by Paul Hutchings
Having released their latest, critically acclaimed, album last week, it seemed like the perfect time to catch up with James from the band Wheel. From the start of their career to writing a song involving the Black Lives Matter movement and more, Paul and James cover it all!
The Razor's Edge: It’s been over five years since Wheel was formed. How has the journey been to date?
James: It’s been a real roller coaster and in all honesty, the job has not been what I expected it would be – when we signed to our management company five years ago, a good friend in another band told me that 90% of what we would be doing, would have nothing to do with music and this was highly accurate! All of that being said, I feel incredibly privileged to continue to work on this band with such talented people and to have such a receptive and supportive audience – it’s still crazy to me that we get to do this for a job.
The Razor's Edge: I was lucky enough to see you in Bristol on your headline tour just before the pandemic broke. It was a great evening, and the band were on fantastic form. Did you have any idea then what was coming?
James: We had a hint of it after 'Moving Backwards' came out as the general reaction to the album was incredibly positive. People were really warming up to the music at the shows we played with Soen and Katatonia in 2019 – most people had clearly not heard of our band before and it was a lot of fun winning crowds over every night. Regardless of these reactions, we didn’t seriously consider that a headline tour would be viable so early in our career and having been able to do so after releasing one album was an extremely pleasant surprise for us.
The Razor's Edge: I think you completed the UK tour but obviously lost your US trek. How gutting was that for you?
James: It was a huge blow for a number of reasons – we have been keen to get over to the US for some time and not being able to travel there due to visa complications with our new members felt like a ridiculous bit of bureaucracy. It turned out that we would have been unable to travel there anyway due to the pandemic so in the scheme of things, I guess it’s good that we weren’t further in the process of planning the tour; it is definitely high up on our ‘to-do’ lists to get over there and play some shows as soon as it becomes viable to do so again.
The Razor's Edge: 'Moving Backwards' was such a good debut album. Were you pleased with the response?
James: We were absolutely blown away by the response we received. At the time of the album’s release, despite having played a few token festival appearances and some great support shows with Amorphis in Finland, we had played less than 20 shows in our history. Overnight, everything changed and we started to receive opportunities to support bands on the international touring circuit – we ended up playing well over 100 shows in 2019 and in more countries than I can remember. It was an incredible year and despite the challenges it presented, I will always have fond memories of the friends we made and the shows we got to play.
Don’t get me wrong, I have always been passionate about the music we make but we had low expectations when it came to others being into what we do. Releasing the album was extremely validating, particularly having spent so many previous years working privately on our music – it was a strong indication that we were onto something and to keep going.
The Razor's Edge: You’ve got the new album 'Resident Human' out now. How much of it was written before the pandemic?
James: I had already completed instrumental versions that were very close to being finished for most of the album before our headline tour in February 2020. We pulled everything to pieces and put it back together again multiple times afterwards but the essence of the songs did not change much – we had no vocals written until after we had tracked all of the instruments however.
The Razor's Edge: You’ve had a couple of line up changes since 'Moving Backwards'. Change seems to be inevitable in bands these days. You’ve got Jussi Turunen as the last piece in the jigsaw. How has he fitted into Wheel?
James: Jussi is an incredibly talented guy and stylistically, he feels like exactly what we need. He is technically brilliant and his sound design is aesthetically perfect for what we want to do – lead guitar in our band is a strange role as the guitars in our music are quite rigid – there is room to explore with sound design but not so much with improvisation as we need to be the cement that keeps things together for the drums. Jussi understood this instinctively from our first rehearsal together and we’ve been rehearsing together frequently since January this year. I think people are going to get a real kick watching him perform with us when we are able to do so again.
The Razor's Edge: 'Resident Human' comprises three long tracks, three average length and one short piece, 'Old Earth', which closes out the album beautifully. How do the tracks evolve?
James: We were much more aware of the overall narrative of the tracks as a collection this time around and the final order of the songs is something we are really happy with. We never think too much about how long songs will end up being – if we think ideas have the scope to become something huge, we love making the longer, bigger songs but there is an equal joy and challenge to see what we can get away with when using more conventional track lengths. We want to keep listeners on their toes and are always trying to balance our desire to subvert expectations with setting up rewarding payoffs in the structures and arrangements.
The Razor's Edge: You’re a self-confessed perfectionist. Do you deliberately decide on the length of each as part of the structure of the album?
James: Not at all, I think the core concepts of each track have dictated how long the developments should be. Sometimes, an idea can be more impactful by using it less and as part of a shorter, more concise overall structure where as others can be twisted and reprised as part of larger, more dynamic arrangements.
Honestly, the variance in track length, meter and how tempo is employed has always been a selfish endeavour – we are trying to keep ourselves interested and to explore the most interesting and exciting stuff we can think of.
The Razor's Edge: 'Movement' is one of the early releases from the album. I understand it considers the Black Lives Matter protests. How did that develop?
James: When I observed the awful footage of George Floyd’s murder, I knew I wanted to write something about it. I was so angry and frustrated with the rhetoric that followed – the venom, conflation, false equivalence, what-about-ism and de-humanisation being spread online was alarming and society soon forgot the central question that the events raised – is it ever appropriate for a tax-funded government agency to kill an unarmed civilian in broad daylight and attempt to dodge any kind of culpability? I think this is an easy, “no”.
Floyd’s death is representative of wider issues around the world related to legacies of systemic racism and the unclear boundaries regarding the societal role of police and their accountability; all of us should be demanding more from these institutions, particularly when their primary function is supposed to be to protect us.
Unfortunately, this has become a highly polarising topic but I make no apologies for stating my opinion about this bluntly. Historically, we have seen what happens when social minorities are treated as less than human and we all know the dark places society can end up in if this kind of behaviour goes unchallenged.
The Razor's Edge: You’ve drawn deeply on humanity and human behaviour as themes for Resident Human. Are you hopeful about humanity? If so, what gives you hope when the world around us is so dark.
James: I believe there is always cause for hope. Young people are more educated than they have been at any point in history and through the internet, have the ability to learn literally anything if they have the motivation to do so; additionally, more people around the world are gaining access to this trove of information every day. If civilisation survives long enough for us to reap the benefits of this de-centralisation of information and education, it will change the world in ways I believe we can hardly imagine. Ultimately, it will likely change how we treat each other for the better too.
The Razor's Edge: I read that much of the inspiration for the album came from the 'Hyperion Cantos' series by Dan Simmons. I admit I’m not familiar with these works. How deep did you dive into them and what were the key messages you drew out?
James: I discovered the books last summer and having never read science-fiction before, I was surprised how much they spoke to me. The story is wonderful and I’d recommend it to anybody regardless of personal genre preferences but the underlying themes in the third and fourth books were the main inspirations I drew from for the album.
'Dissipating' is about coming to terms with the seemingly hostile but ultimately, indifferent universe we inhabit. Every time the scope of our understanding is enhanced, we appear more insignificant and insubstantial on a universal scale and to some extent, this is accurate. The antithesis of this however is that all of us are absolved of any cosmic responsibility and we are free to make what we will of the short, unfair lives that we lead.
When viewed through this lens, I’ve found that everything good in my life feels far more precious as I’m entitled to none of it – every person that cares about me, every choice that I make has much greater value and is far more significant; these realisations have led me to a greater sense of gratitude for getting to experience any of this.
'Hyperion' deals with our perception of time and is about coming to terms with the limitations of our mortality – how the ‘death’ part of being alive is as fundamentally crucial to the experience as the ‘living’ bit and trying to make peace with this reality.
All of us are experiencing time in a linear fashion and have no control over the direction or speed of our transition through it. Additionally, we are all so immersed in our own experience that we forget (and certainly, I forget) that everyone we ever meet and everyone who has ever lived will face the same existential crises that we face ourselves.
It is a song about being more empathetic to the experience of others and how we should face the setting sun together, united in our assured oblivion; how although we may stand divided, we will fall together and are all going to the same place. I think there is something liberating about finding joy in the present and being grateful for however much time we are given and especially after last year, this is something I am trying to be more mindful of.
The Razor's Edge: Were there any challenges because of the virus in recording the album?
James: Absolutely – when JC was still in the band, he was unable to join us in the studio for the drum and bass recording. He lives in a different province and our province had shut down its borders for all but essential travel.
We recorded the drums, bass and guitars during the first wave of infections here in Helsinki and we could never shake the shadow of the pandemic – we were socially distancing in the studio and staff members frequently came in to the control room to clean the mixing console while we were working. It didn’t prevent us from recording anything as we had intended to but it was an added layer of complexity to an already ambitious project.
I recorded nearly all of my guitars in isolation and we opted to re-amp most of them to minimise the risk we were posing to anyone involved in the production – I am really happy with how the record turned out but I sincerely hope it is the last album we need to record during a pandemic!
The Razor's Edge: Many artists have postponed release dates. If I’m right, you pushed Resident Human’s release back. Have you benefited from doing that?
James: Definitely – the vocals took much longer than we anticipated to write and record and the extra time was essential to get the songs completed to the standard we were aiming for.
The Razor's Edge: The band Facebook page has been active throughout the pandemic with your IG Live sessions. Have you enjoyed these?
James: We have! We have been thinking about doing something like this for quite some time and the pandemic gave us the time to explore the idea. We know so many great artists who we have either met or performed with over the past few years and we have met a load of new ones through the streams – it is definitely something we are keen to continue for the foreseeable future and we have some great streams in the pipeline – follow us on Instagram if you want to watch any of these. We always do them as live streams that fans can interact with and afterwards, they are saved to InstagramTV.
The Razor's Edge: I saw you three times in about seven months at Bloodstock, Damnation and Bristol. I think I saw you smile once! I’m sure you do enjoy yourself when playing so reassure me that you do.
James: There is nothing like playing live – it’s one of the best feelings there is and I love every second of it. I guess I just get really intense when we perform.. Smiling never seemed very ‘metal’ to me anyway, so maybe it’s overrated!
The Razor's Edge: Talking of festivals, those were two different events but great receptions at both. How were they for you?
James: Absolutely amazing – I love performing on home turf regardless and the audiences are always enthusiastic.
Bloodstock was a fleeting visit to the UK for us due to our other touring commitments, but it was one hell of a show. In contrast, we had much more time and stuck around for the whole day at Damnation to watch some of the other bands after our set. I really enjoyed The Vintage Caravan, Opeth and Jo Quail – it was a lot of fun to be an audience member for a change and to meet so many of the fans throughout the day; we’d love to go back to both in the future.
The Razor's Edge: And you have an appearance at Arc Tangent this year if it goes ahead. How hopeful are you that you’ll be able to play live in 2021?
James: At this point, it’s impossible to call it – we are completely at the mercy of factors that we have no control over.. We would love to come and play at Arc Tangent but like everyone else, we are waiting to see what the global situation looks like closer to the summer. We have everything crossed.
The Razor's Edge: I get hot watching you play in that anorak. You must get ferociously warm by the end of a gig. How bad does it smell by the end of a tour?
James: Not great in all honesty – Santeri has an easier time as his one is very light and a kind of mesh but Aki and I have thicker hoodies which definitely felt like a design flaw by the end of 2019… We will likely update out stage costumes again to coincide with the new material but we haven’t made any final decisions about how we will do so yet – maybe ‘smell’ should be part of the design brief!
The Razor's Edge: Can I just finish by congratulating you on a brilliant second album. I really hope you get back on the tour trail and are able to play again soon. Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions and good luck with Resident Human.