Interview: Tuomas Saukkonen (Wolfheart)
This Day In Metal: Thank you for joining us today, Tuomas! For any of our readers who’ve not heard you before, how would you describe the sound of Wolfheart in 2022?
Tuomas Saukkonen: I describe our music as “Winter Metal”, as weird as it sounds. It’s as massive and raw but as beautiful as the Nordic winter. I do really try to make it sound like “Winter Metal” too, it’s not just to have a fancy title for the music style.
TDIM: Do you think winter is a state of mind as well as just a season?
TS: It is, yes. At least, for any Nordic people. The longer the winter is, the more it affects you, in a way. I think that is the reason why there’s so much melancholic music coming out of Finland in general, becuase we are so affected by nature and the winter.
TDIM: Of course. A lot of your lyrics are inspired by Finland itself. Your last album (Wolves of Karelia) was based on more modern history – the Winter War with the Soviet Union – but with the new album (King of the North) you’ve gone back to much, much older history… is that right?
TS: Yes, the whole album is about Finnish and Nordic mythology. It goes as far back as history is known in these regions.
TDIM: What was it that made you want to look back even further into the past?
TS: I am really fascinated by doing a whole concept or theme album, and keeping the writing style from the previous album. But Finnish history itself is very short and the biggest event really is the War and I really didn’t want to do a second album about the same thing. At the same time, I’m very used to spending time with nature, I work outdoors. Nature itself in Finland is very important to me so it was very inspiring and interesting to go back that far in history. The whole mythology is based on different gods and demigods and beliefs and myths that try to explain nature, stuff like the Northern Lights…
TDIM: Do you do a lot of research before writing these albums?
TS: Well, I was already familiar with the main Finnish mythology book, Kalevala. That is actually the foundation of all the lyrics of Amorphis. Tales From A Thousand Lakes, that album, all the lyrics are translations from that book, and that symbol that they have is also the Finnish version of Thor’s Hammer. They are really like the ambassadors of that particular book of Finnish mythology! So I knew that book but I didn’t know all the small stories around it. Kalevala is like a compilation, the author just travelled from village to village to document different stories and beliefs that were told by basically the old Pagans of the village. It’s spoken stories from one generation to another, but there are dozens of stories from each region that didn’t make it into the book. So it’s very scattered, very historic and very valued as a document. I did a lot of research though and was able to find a lot of other stories that have not already been used in any of the albums by Amorphis! [laughs]
TDIM: Ah, that’s cool. You’re almost continuing that tradition of telling those stories orally, from one person to another, through your songs.
TS: Yeah! There are stories that aren’t documented in any actual books. Some of the stories are just like a few verses of a poem that was told in a certain region of the Karelian area of Finland, for example. So there was a lot of room for imagination. There are hundreds of years of stories, so I was trying to figure out what was the core of the story was when it was told the first time, before it started to grow bigger each time it was told.
TDIM: So do you come up with these concepts and lyrics first and then write the music? What’s your songwriting process?
TS: It’s completely the opposite! I always need to have the music first. What I have in my mind is the album concept almost like a movie poster. All the songs I write start as kind of like a soundtrack for that image. That comes first. Then I have to write the songs. I usually have the song recorded as a final version before I even start working with the lyrics. Most of the lyrics, I usually write near to the vocal recording time, because I really need to feel the song and be able to tell the story. Now, it is a little bit different because the lyrics came from the mythology – there was like some kind of basic idea. But when I write more personal lyrics, it doesn’t make any sense for me to write anything down first. It just feels completely ridiculous and pointless to write lines that are not connected to anything if there’s no music to write on top of.
TDIM: That makes sense – and I guess you feel it more intensely when you do it like that. It’s still new.
TDIM: So while you’ve always had a more melodic element to your sound – with acoustic passages, clean vocals, all that stuff – the new album feels to me a lot more melodic than anything you’ve done before with Wolfheart. For one, would you agree? [laughs] And if you do, was it intentional to make it more melodic?
TS: Oh, I definitely agree. It was a very clear plan. The plan was in my head already when we were finishing the previous album. I was writing about war and had a very clear and precise history-based theme that would steer the songwriting. It’s hard to write beautiful music about war. So I knew that the new album had to move more towards nature, towards the Nordic inheritance and history, and the music had to move more in the direction of our debut album, Winterborn.
But also, Vagelis (Karzis, ex-Rotting Christ), our guitar player also came to the band when we had already completed the previous album so his role was only playing the solos. But now there is more time to put the whole band in the right places. Having reviewed his range as a vocalist, I was able to write music knowing that this part is going to be for Lauri (Silvonen), our bass player, this part is gonna be for Vagelis, and that gives us a totally approach when it comes to melodies. When I only did Lauri and myself, I needed to look at the melodies differently. Of course, the melodies come from the guitars and keyboards and stuff but having two different clean vocalists providing the melodies gives me basically two new instruments. Human voice carries melodies differently to any instrument. You write a strong melody for vocals and that will overpower any other instrument. The same melody becomes stronger.
TDIM: Yeah, Vagelis, in particular has got such a huge voice. His clean vocals on this album are amazing.
TS: Yeah, it fits for the size of the guy! [laughs]
TDIM: [laughs] It’s really interesting actually that you’ve written the songs around their abilities. You’ve also got a couple of really prestigious guests on this too, with Jesse Leach (Killswitch Engage) and Karl Sanders (Nile). How did they get involved?
TS: That’s two completely kind of stories… [laughs] Jesse Leach, to me, is just a really cool story that will remain a super-cool story until the end of my career. I was and still am a huge fan of his vocals. His vocal work on the Killswitch Engage album Alive Or Just Breathing had a huge impact on me when I was learning my vocal style. It wasn’t about trying to copy his, but the primal and the raw sound, the certain chaos in his voice, was the impact. Last October, we were mixing the album already and I got a message from this one Russian fan on Instagram. He was sending me a link to Jesse’s Instagram stories. There was a story about his girlfriend moving to the States and it had one of our songs, called Valkyrie, in the background.
At first, I thought it’s an accident, he just wanted to have any song that has that title, because that was the theme of the post. I had no connections with Jesse, I’d never met him, we don’t share management or labels or anything that would connect us. But I had to write a comment on the story, so I said “nice choice of song!” I didn’t really expect any reply but I got one in minutes, with Jesse telling me he’d been a fan of Wolfheart for years, his music had been introduced to him by one of his friends and they regularly listen to Wolfheart. Then he was asking how things were going with the band, and is something happening and I told him we were in the studio and we started talking about music and he was telling me about Wolfheart, as a style, is the thing he would most like to do as a vocalist. So my reaction was, of course, “okay! Let’s get it done!” [laughs]
Like, this is the easiest timing for that ever. One thing that I didn’t tell Jesse was that I didn’t have the song… I told him that he’d be donating vocals to this black metal kind of song, I promised to send him the demo in a few days but I didn’t have the song. So I wrote the demo in two days! But it boosted the excitement of the album so much. In the last minute of mixing to be able to add one extra song that has one of my idols on it… that’s gonna lift the bar for the next album! [laughs] Something extraordinarily cool needs to happen with the next album recording to top this one.
TDIM: [laughs] Damn! I really hope it does!
TS: The Karl thing was completely different, Cold Flame, where he’s doing his part. The lyrics are very grim, all about the mythology of the creation of the Northern Lights. There are different variations depending on which region the story was told, it was either a giant well splashing water in the sky with different colours or it was a fox with a burning tail, but the most grim version was that, if you were killed by violence and you went to the northern version of the underworld, you were bleeding there eternally and the blood was colouring the sky. The Northern Lights were the blood of the murdered people in the underworld.
TDIM: That’s so Karl.
TS: Exactly! He’s very into Egyptian mythology and this kind of stuff anyway and the song is very heavy too. I tried to do the vocals myself but I couldn’t get that monster kind of sound. It’s just not a thing that I do. We share a lot of connections with Nile. Vagelis is a really good friend a the drummer and we shared the same sound engineer on some of our tours so it was super easy to contact Karl and ask and he did very good monster growling. It was perfect, exactly what we needed. What I really like about it is that I knew that because he’s so into history and mythology, he’d appreciate the topic It wouldn’t just be a guy doing a vocal.
TDIM: Yeah, that’s exactly his kind of topic. He loves blood and he loves history – the bloodier and the older, the better! It’s a great song too, I really like Cold Flame. Ancestor (the song with Jesse Leach) as well. Damn, that goes hard. Such a huge anthem. Although actually I think my favourite song on the album is Knell.
TDIM: Yeah. It gives me a real Iron Maiden vibe with the twin guitar harmonies and that kind of slow galloping rhythm. [laughs] I dunno. I just love it. It’s really good.
TS: [laughs] I didn’t see that coming. I do appreciate the Iron Maiden reference. I’ve never been a fan myself but I think it’s only a good thing to get the comparison. I’ve heard so many different comparisons and a lot of people have completely different favourite songs on the album so, like, if that’s your favourite because it sounds like Iron Maiden, that’s only a good thing. Also, the album is very varied, but it is genuinely one of my favourite tracks too. It’s definitely going to be in the setlist.
TDIM: Great stuff. That’s perfect for my next question too, about playing live. Obviously you’ve not been playing much during the pandemic but I believe you’ve done a couple of festival dates now?
TS: Yeah, we were lucky . We played two festivals in both pandemic summers, in 2020 and 2021. In August they lifted the restrictions here and there were some festivals. So every year we got to play just two gigs [laughs] but we haven’t done much in the way of touring lately…
TDIM: You’re starting a tour at the end of September tho? Excited? [laughs]
TS: I am very, very much excited. Like, even more excited because, while I was really sad to hear My Dying Bride weren’t able to join us, they replaced them with Insomnium. We go way back with Insominum. With my previous band Before The Dawn, both of us had our first albums out at the same time, we had tours together than we booked together here in Finland so we have such a long history. To be able to tour with them again, it’s gonna be great.
TDIM: Yeah! I hope you can make it to the U.K. at some point… maybe… but I guess that’s still pretty difficult because of all of our… problems…
TS: Yeah, nothing became easy during the last few years. I thought maybe with the pandemic over it’d be easier but now with Russia and Ukraine, that’s not easy for Finland either. It’s going to be a very fucked up winter coming for the whole of Europe. Then you’ve got Brexit and the visa situation. Even a small visit to the U.K. doesn’t make any sense now. The gasoline prices on top of the visas…
TDIM: Yeah, it sucks…
TS: We’ve done one tour in the U.K. that was more than just a gig in London. We should play there a lot more but… it’s not in my hands.
TDIM: Maybe next year someone will sort it out and you’ll get here.
TS: Well, I just saw you’ve got a new Prime Minister…
TDIM: [laughs in British]
TS: Well, maybe soon something will change for the better. You’ve had a downfall for the past 3 years…
TDIM: At least 3, yeah… but hey, maybe you’re right. Maybe something will turn around soon. I certainly hope so! Anyway, since you just mentioned one of your old bands… what’s going on with your other projects? I know you’ve got Dawn Of Solace back again and I keep hearing rumours online about some kind of mystery project… [laughs]
TS: Well… what’s going to happen is my oldest band, Before The Dawn, we’ve been doing these on and off special gigs since we buried the band in 2012… we released one new song two years ago, a vinyl release… and a lot of things have been happening behind the curtains and… now there is going to be a new single from Before The Dawn! Released tomorrow! [Note: This interview was conducted on the 6th September 2022 – Downhearted, the new single was released on the 7th!]
TS: Yeah, we’ll introduce the new line-up and reveal our future plans, including a new album that I’ve already started recording. We’re actually making a full comeback.
TDIM: That’s awesome, I’m really glad to hear that.
TS: There’s big changes. I’m calling the whole thing Before The Dawn 4.0 because we have had 3 different line-ups. There was the first one with Panu on clean vocals, then there was the middle part with Lars, then the last album with only growling and that was the passage to Wolfheart… so this is the fourth version. There will be surprises for people.
TDIM: Ah, man. That’s cool. Before The Dawn were great. Speaking of things from the past, obviously this site is called This Day In Metal, we love to look back at metal history. We’re super nostalgic people. So I’m curious about your metal history. Do you remember the first time you ever heard heavy metal music and how it made you feel?
TS: Yes, I do. I remember really well. I don’t remember exactly when but I remember the moment. I think I was maybe six or seven years old. I was living in a very small village on the eastern border of Finland, there was no radio or music magazines, nothing I could actually get my hands on, but there was this one show on TV that showed like music videos. Normally just the basic mainstream stuff but in one of the shows, they had Over The Hills And Far Away from Gary Moore. The music there, the Irish vibe in the melodies. I remember how amazed I was by the video, with the violin and the guys on the bedrock and I was like “wow”. That was the first time that I heard actual rock and metal music.
It needs to be mentioned also, it was a very small village with nothing happening but there was one death metal band in the village and the singer just happened to be my neighbour! He gave me the first demo that they made and that was the first album where I heard growling vocals. I didn’t even know what death metal was but that made a huge impact. It was actually a really good demo, it still is, and some of my favourite vocals. It was one of the first bands that got a record deal outside of Finland, but they just didn’t have the kind of management that could make things happen. Actually, the drummer of the band is now the manager of Nightwish!
TDIM: Ah, wow. I guess he got better at managing.
TS: If you talk to him ever, you can ask him about the band. He’s not very amused when I ask him about it. [laughs] But those are my two very defining moments. Seeing the music videos of that age was important. There was one friend of mine who had MTV, the American version, and he was giving me old tapes of Headbanger’s Ball. So there was a lot of music I discovered through watching music videos rather than listening to albums. I think, early on, I already developed close connections with the visual side.
TDIM: Yeah, because of course you direct all your own music videos too, right?
TS: Yes, I really enjoy the whole process. Doing the pre-production, seeking out the locations which will fit the music. We’ve travelled to Iceland and Norway and Lapland and it gives a completely different level to the music, to be able to produce the visual image. I think it’s those few things in my childhood had a lot of impact, when I look back now.
TDIM: That all makes so much sense. I can see a direct connection from that Gary Moore video to so much of what you do. Even though it’s completely different, I can still see that influence really clearly, now you’ve said it. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us today and hopefully we can talk again soon when the new Before The Dawn comes out.
TS: Well, the new album is planned to come out in early June so yeah, let’s talk next Spring!
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Interview by C.J. Lines
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