Wheel Interview

Anastasya Korol

As they embark on a North American tour, the progressive metal band Wheel just released their latest album Charismatic Leaders. Vocalist/guitarist James Lascelles gives us the scoop on the new record and numerous other topics.

Chad Bowar: How did the songwriting process for Charismatic Leaders compare to your first two albums?
James Lascelles: It started in the same way it has done every time for us – I had a load of instrumental riffs and sometimes, 2-3 minute song segments in a folder on a hard drive and the guys picked out their favorite ones for me to start developing into full songs. The major difference to last time is how heavy these core ideas were – the album still has its dynamic moments, but overall, the trajectory of our writing has turned towards something heavier.

Did you write more songs than appeared on the album?
No – we never do. It is such a large investment of time to get one of these songs over the finish line, we never have anything left over like that! We have a load of ideas still saved on the hard drive I mentioned, but all of those will require a similar amount of work to turn into complete songs.

Do you find it easier to write the short songs or the longer, more epic tracks?
They both present different challenges compositionally and it’s difficult to predict how long it will take to get something finished. “Disciple” was really quick to write by my standards and only took a few days to put the bulk of the instrumental together, but “Empire” on the other hand took months. I spent a long time trying to flesh out my two original ideas from the track (the intro riff and the verse drum and bass groove) into separate songs and after failing to get anywhere for several months, our drummer Santeri suggested I try and work them together into a combined track. I wasn’t convinced that the meters would work together but I am happy to say that I was wrong!

How did you come to work with Daniel Bergstand and Fredrik Thordendal?
Our label InsideOut Music connected us originally and after a few Zoom calls with Daniel, I thought it sounded like a great match for us to work together. As we had only made the deal with Daniel, we had no idea how involved Fredrik would be until we arrived at their studio in Stockholm and Fredrik was answering the door and shaking our hands. To be honest, I was pretty starstruck (although of course, I played it perfectly cool!) to meet him as I am a huge Meshuggah fan but he was there with us working his ass off every day for the whole time we spent tracking there. It was an amazing experience.

What will be your strongest memory of the recording of the album?
Probably watching Santeri play the drum solo at the end of “The Freeze.” He had some ideas for the part that were locked in but most of it came from him jamming with the track and experimenting – I think it’s the best solo he has ever written and it was incredible to watch him come up with it.

What was the biggest challenge in its creation?
As always seems to be the case for us, it was time. Some of the compositional hurdles to overcome were very difficult to solve and the self-imposed time pressure did not help much. That being said, our relentless release cycles keep a fire lit under us at all times, encouraging us to continue writing and to grow as artists – maybe there is a benefit there too.

How has your sound evolved from Resident Human?
Resident Human sounded far more organic than its predecessor Moving Backwards as we wanted to capture a sound closer to what we were achieving live. We use very few (and rare) backing tracks during our set, favoring a more classic approach to live performance and we went a long way down the rabbit hole during the album production to figure out what that practically meant for a recording project. We were experimenting with turning off the click or programming clicks to have tempo changes in a controlled manner and much of the editing was left deliberately rough around the edges for this reason.

In terms of production, Charismatic Leaders has ended up halfway between our two previous albums. We have kept the lively feel of Resident Human and combined it with some of the more grandiose production we played with on Moving Backwards and the result is my favorite sound we have come up with to date.

What inspired the album title, and which leaders do you write about on the album?
My wife, Annukka Lascelles, is a YouTuber who makes true crime videos in Finnish and we often talk about the cases she is working on in the evenings. Many of the cases she covers involve cults in one way or another and our conversations have given me some insight into the behavior of cult leaders. I found it incredibly interesting to learn that most, if not all of them share a specific set of behavioral traits such as high levels of narcissism and entitlement, low levels of empathy, a lack of shame among other things and in the last ten years, I feel like these behavior patterns are becoming far more prevalent outside of cults, particularly in our political and cultural leaders. To compound matters, we reward and validate people using these methods to further their own interests.

We even see cult like behavior around certain brands – Apple is a good example as I have met people who treat any kind of criticism about their products like a personal attack. I’m not trying to single anybody out here, I think this behaviour is fundamentally human and we all behave like this around certain subjects – I just thought it was a phenomenon worthy of further exploration and writing the lyrics has had the unexpected payoff of helping me to see past my own biases and to be more compassionate towards those who disagree with me. The album title was the most succinct way I could think of to tie these thoughts together.

What has the response been to the singles from this album you’ve released so far?
Overwhelmingly positive – this album and its respective singles are undoubtedly the most popular thing we have released so far. We have been blown away by the positive comments and reactions from people all around the world.

How did you come to sign with InsideOut?
Our management company Odyssey Music Management connected us originally. The owner of Century Media, Inside Out’s parent company was at a showcase we played a few years back and he and our manager started discussing adding Wheel to the roster. We eventually met the head of the label at a show in Germany during our tour with Leprous a few years ago and hit it off immediately.

Does that affect your expectations for this album?
Absolutely. I am really proud of how far we managed to get by ourselves, releasing through our management’s label services, but InsideOut has a lot of experience releasing prog and prog metal albums specifically, as well as a global network of publicists/links to journalistic publications that we haven’t had access to before. We work very hard making the music and expect nothing less from our partners.

How was the video shoot for “Empire”?
Freezing! I had just got home from a few weeks in Portugal where the temperature was really mild – around 14C and when we landed in Finland the day before the video shoot, the temperature had plummeted to around -20C.

The following day, the temperature had not improved and we drove up to Tampere to shoot the video in a converted factory that didn’t have any heating. The director of the video, Kie Von Hertzen, (from the band Von Hertzen Brothers) did a fantastic job managing the shoot and producing the video but it was not an experience I would like to repeat! Maybe album four will finally be the one where we need to make a video in the summer.

What’s the most important component in promoting an album in 2024? Is it videos, getting on streaming playlists, something else?
Undoubtedly it is social media. There has never been a time where it has been possible to reach fans all over the world like this and to be able to do so for free. Don’t get me wrong, there are limitations to what you can achieve from your phone and there is nothing better than playing shows and winning people over at the grassroots level, but some of the roadblocks that used to exist between artists and their fan bases have completely disappeared.

Streaming playlists are also very important and can really make or break a release – particularly the ones curated by Spotify. We are lucky enough to have grown to a size where we have some pretty solid listening numbers and anything we release generates a consistent level of interest but to move beyond that or to make a bigger jump up in audience size, it tends to need the support of these playlists.

You’re returning for another North American tour this year. What’s your favorite thing about playing here?
There is so much to love about playing in North America. The nature is still exotic to us and we love getting to see the more remote and rugged parts of the country such as Arizona, Colorado and Wyoming but the people are wonderful too. Everyone is friendly and seems sincerely excited that we have come to play over here. Touring in North America seemed like an unreachable dream for a large chunk of my life so it is still surreal to me that we are over here doing it, particularly this time as we are doing so as headliners.

Where haven’t you played live that you’d still like to get to?
We played Australia for the first time last month so there are only a few places left on our hit list that we have never visited. The obvious ones would be Central and South America, India, Japan and South East Asia, all of which seem to have an audience for Prog Metal. We would also love to get down to South Africa one day.

What’s the coolest site or attraction you’ve been able to visit while on tour?
We went to see Niagara Falls a few years back and that was incredible – The U.S. has beautiful nature everywhere though. I think the most memorable drive of my life was traveling from Denver down through southern Colorado and crossing through the mountains in Arizona. It is a stunning part of the world. We don’t have much spare time when we tour but I also had a walk around New York City when we played there with Vola last year. I would love to go back some time and have a bit longer to explore.

With more and more material in your catalog, how difficult is it to come up with a setlist?
It was rough this time – we had to make some brutal choices and cuts to put a cohesive show together. At this point, we have already released 3 Eps and 3 albums so we are spoiled for choice with what to put in. It’s a great problem to have in the long run as we can put on a very different show every time we come over.

What are some of your non-musical interests and hobbies?
I’m a big fan of video games, particularly RPG and strategy games; I also love to read. Other than that, I love going to the gym when I can find the time to do so – touring always breaks any good habits I make but I am getting better at jumping back into it when I get home.

Anything else you’d like to mention or promote?
Right now, we want to promote our North American headline tour that is running through most of May. We are playing all over the country and the set is stellar. We played the first show in Florida and if that is going to be the standard, it is going to be one hell of a tour. You can buy tickets and check out where we are playing here. Also, our album Charismatic Leaders is out – check it out and let us know what you think!

(interview published May 8, 2024)

Watch Wheel – “Empire” Video


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