Interview: Tuomas Saukkonen of Wolfheart and Dawn of Solace

Wolfheart have recently released their brand new album Wolves of Karelia to rave reviews from both critics and fans alike. A few days after the release of the album, our senior editor got the chance to catch up with frontman and founder Tuomas Saukkonen to discuss how he’s been since they last spoke, the process behind the new album and virtual concert and ice cream.

How have you been doing?

The past five days have been insanely stressful. The normal excitement when you get something good out and eagerly waiting for the reaction is not really there and there’s been no time to enjoy what’s happened. It feels like an eternal damage control project to make sure things keep running. There’s always something new everyday, but it’s the same with other bands as well. It used to be an exclamation mark which was manageable, but now it’s a question mark everyday.

Wolves Of Karelia came out a few days ago now. How do you feel the response has been so far?

It’s been really good feedback from both the media and the fans. I do understand it’s getting a little bit challenging for those fans who love the first album as we’re moving more and more away from that in terms of sound. Having Dawn of Solace back now I think balances things a bit, but we have been getting great feedback on this album.

We spoke a couple of months ago around the release of the Dawn of Solace album. How do you think that has been received overall?

That went really well as well despite the even bigger difference between the albums. The contrast between those two albums is a lot bigger than the one between the first Wolfheart album and the new one. People understood my point of view for the new sound on DoS and it was taken really well and went really well.

This was the first album with new lead guitarist Vagelis Karzis. How was the process of working with him?

He did backing vocals on 3 tracks which was really awesome. He’s the main vocalist in his own band and sounds a bit like Zakk Wylde, only more badass in my opinion. He brings something completely different to the table that I or Lauri could bring, so we’re hoping to utilise his voice more on future albums.

It’s been really really nice to work with him and I’ve known him for a while whilst he was doing bass in Rotting Christ. When we did the first north America tour in 2018, that was the first time I asked him to be a session guy but he was sadly busy with the aforementioned band. He then joined us for the 6 week European tour in 2019 in the bus that had air conditioning problems. It was a really nerve-wrecking time as it was super hot in the bus and we weren’t sleeping right because of that. Those conditions really test the chemistry, and with those conditions that suck if the person doesn’t start to annoy you after 6 weeks, then the chemistry is really good.

I noted that you used the same engineer, Saku, as you did on the DoS album. Was Juho still involved in the mixing and mastering?

Juho was very much still involved. Saku did the recording and mixing on the DoS album and we’ve known each other for a long time. He and I played together in RoutaSielu which was my Finnish singing project. He’s been doing some form of recording in all Wolfheart albums and was in the original video of “Hunt”. He’s the sound engineer that puts up the microphones. I put a similar scene in the latest video for “The Hammer” as well.

He did the orchestrations for this album as well and is an amazing piano player and composer. He has his own band, Redmoon Architect where he is the sole composer, so he’s not just a sound engineer, but really talented musician as well. He knows my way of writing music and there’s a common trust between us. Even though he’s kind of a new guy from the list of names, he’s an inside guy for us.

I noted that in a recent interview with AP&P, you mentioned that the writing process was different from normal. Do you mind elaborating on that?

That was primarily due to all the touring. I don’t write on tour as I need to be alone and have a flexible schedule to be able to write. We played almost 140 gigs all over the world in 10 months which were awesome to play and drained a lot of energy. I had no energy or excitement to write anything for 10 months. That was a huge thing for me as if you look at my back catalogue, the average output has been 1.1 albums per year since 2006. It was a great thing for me to start writing again and creating new music after the touring.

I wrote the new album very quickly and was ready to go to the studio quicker as I had the album vision in my head. I kind of skipped the pre-production this time which kind of annoyed my fellow band-members as they like to prepare and rehearse. It’s not a very enjoyable situation when you’ve got a bassist and a drummer who hear the song the first time on arriving at the studio and then recoding it one hour later. I know my guys though and trust them. I didn’t see any risk in doing that, we maybe had one or two more takes during tracking, but there’s no difference in quality.

What would you say was the most difficult song to track?

“Hail Of Steel” was probably the toughest due to the speed of it. Especially with the tunings we use, it was starting to be at the limits of my playing. If I wouldn’t be using baritone guitars and strings close to bass strings, it might have been easier. Nothing was really difficult, but each album we go a little bit faster and I get older and slower as time goes on. That contrast means that every album going forward is going to get trickier to play. I seem to get grumpier as I get older and write faster music, so that’s the direction! 

Has your new baritone guitar arrived yet?

It has, but it’s in a place I can’t access at the moment. Due to the lockdown situation, it’s not easy to get into or out of the capital region of Finland. If you don’t have the right documents, you can’t get in. There’s a lot of traffic there as well due to them checking each car individually. I’d rather have these tight measures and lower infection numbers though. But, I do have it and it will be in my hands soon.

I’ve been complaining about the spare guitar situation for a while now. I don’t like to play any other guitar in the universe other than my Amfisound Routa, but I found a guitar builder 20 minute drive from my house. This guitar is even more modified to me and I was able to visit a few times when he was building it. The neck profile is modified to my hand which has really helped with my playing. It’s a little bit longer scale length, but it doesn’t really affect much and is super balanced.

It did initially feel a bit weird due to me not having a new number one for over 11 years, but I’m getting used to playing it. I’m actually thinking I might sell my Routa as it may well become too different for me to play compared to my new one. Mainly due to the Routa being 7 string and my new one being 6 string. We’ll see though.

What does Routa mean?

The direct English translation is “ground frost” but it’s not really that. It has a different meaning in Finnish and is tied to the Finnish perseverance and attitude. It’s like the frozen ground underneath the surface, but more bleak. It’s a really good Finnish word. Hard to explain, but Finnish people know it and appreciate it. Finland is weird sometimes! 

What would you say was your main inspiration when it came to writing this album?

This was the first concept album and I tried to make the songs support the stories from the Finnish winter war as well as possible. What I have noticed now from listening to it post recording and chatting with reporters is that it’s a very victorious album. It’s got a very heroic theme to it, which fits well as they (the Finnish soldiers) are probably the biggest heroes our country will ever see. It became more of a movie soundtrack as opposed to album.

What are your thoughts on the current global situation?

The virus is doing is what it’s designed to do. It doesn’t matter if you believe in evolution or that everything came from God, that small tiny speck, that is doing all the damage around the world, is doing what it’s been made to do. Humankind has also made a perfect platform for this situation. We travel a lot, we don’t like giving away our luxuries and I think this kind of things was bound to happen. If you look at the various generations, they have each had their own plagues, for example the Spanish ‘flu. I think, if anything, it’s teaching people a bit more about respect for nature.

It’s a rough situation globally though, and I think we would have been better prepared for this 500 years ago. The economy is the biggest thing that I’m worried about. The aftermath that follows, the wave of bankruptcies and how the music industry will survive. There’s going to be a long term effect after it’s gone. I’ve been talking about this a lot with other people and it’s a good thing to talk about with people in different corners of the world. Things feel a lot less unfair when you realise that everyone is in the same situation.

I would be amazed if there isn’t going to be a lot of bankruptcies in the live music scene in terms of backline, venues and tour buses. As sad it makes me say this, there’s going to be economic damage to them. The industry wasn’t doing super well before that, so it’s going to be very rough. Particularly for people who depend on a bands income from touring. When you take at least half a year off from touring… things don’t go well in terms of money.

There’s so many question marks over the whole thing though. Nobody knows how it’s going to pan out and the only way is to come up with theories which will be proved right or wrong. It’s certainly a remarkable time in human history. In the future, we’ll see the time before and the time after the virus.

I’ve asked you this before, but what’s something you want to see less of in the music scene?

Younger bands should focus on their actual work. They should learn to walk before they can run. Anything that you put out and make available on social media under yours or your band name will define your status. No-one is going to give you a medal or a diploma for putting something out. That’s something a lot of people don’t understand. There is a lot of work that needs to be done on the music production before building the fanbase.

10 years ago, people made demos just for themselves to get better at songwriting and production. Before you started to become a releasing professional band, you’d maybe do a couple of those and then go on to do a proper EP or album. Nowadays however, there’s people just pushing music out, which is not a bad thing, but if the song can’t convince the listener in 15 seconds then you’ve lost them. It’s like shooting yourself in the face with a shotgun. You need to have good production and good music to be able to seen above the masses. So yes, walk before you can run. When you can handle walking, then start running.

What is one job you think people undervalue in the music scene?

Producers I’d say. A good producer has a huge role in music. A lot of sound engineers are not producers, and if the band doesn’t know what they want the album to sound like then it’s not going to be easy. Having a good producer is something which cannot be understated and can make the biggest difference in the music.

Now that things are messed up in the touring industry, one group of people that need to be valued are the people behind the scenes. The ones that make the tour happen such as the roadies, tour managers, bus drivers etc. The people that make sure the band are able to perform at their best every night. Without those people, many shows would not be anywhere near as good or, in some cases, even happen. 

You’ve been involved in a lot of different musical projects over the years. Has there ever been one which surprised you with how well received it was?

I would say Bonegrinder as that was something we did for fun. We no certain goals with it and I already had Before the Dawn which I was focused on, but we had it for fun. It got a lot of attention for being fun and we did some really cool tours with some bigger bands like Napalm Death and Dismember. It was really cool times and we played like a weird mix of melodic with some metalcore and hardcore. We were really well received in the Finnish hardcore scene and it was super fun to sit behind the drums and watch the proper moshpits.

You’ve got the virtual concert experience coming out tomorrow for those who pledged. How was it doing that and did the response you got surprise you?

We planned the gig immediately when our tour got postponed, and then Vagelis was unable to fly to the gig. They then lowered the amount of people who were allowed to gather which meant we couldn’t have the full camera crew. It became a case of working out how it was going to happen and not really excitement.

We were able to get Lauri’s brother, Eero Silvonen, to fill in for Vagelis which was really cool. He used to be in RautaSielu with me and has been doing a lot of session work in other bands and Wolfheart. He already knew half the songs which was good. But the whole thing was just trying to get it done. It was rather weird to play to an empty venue and was a complete ‘WTF’ sensation. I knew that things were going to look good though and that part was easy.

We chose to do the virtual gig which was provided as a download link instead of streaming to ensure that our fans could get it. We wanted to avoid the issues which sadly happened with Insomnium and their streaming concert. There was about 1000 comments on their Facebook page within half an hour of it meant to start and lots of fans complaining and everything. I was a little bit disappointed with the fans as everyone was trying to come up with a solution to the situation. Nothing good comes out of the situation as it was due to the internet and not the bands.

What do you enjoy doing outside of playing/writing music?

I do like to watch a lot of movies and go to the movies. I like to spend time at home playing guitar and piano and building stuff with my hands and seeing the results. I wouldn’t be able to be a musician full time, I need to have something with a routine and I like getting my hands dirty during the week and have a real weekend to chill and play music. If I have too much free time and holiday I get very unproductive and lazy.

Which album is going to come next? Solo piano or Dawn of Solace?

It’s not going to be a solo piano album as I’m not at the level that I should be making an album like that. I wouldn’t be able to train myself to become good enough to release just solo piano. There’ll piano on Dawn of Solace though, and it was planned that there will be a third DoS album. It might come out sooner than I planned as I now have more time to compose the material.

You mentioned a few years ago that you prefer to be rootless and have freedom to move around. Is that still the case?

Because of my line of work, I need to move around quite a bit. My company provides me with a flat which is a handy location to the current work site. I still consider myself rootless and don’t have a nest per se. I want to keep things practical and I like the certain feeling of being able to pass the keys back to my boss and go somewhere else. That doesn’t mean I’ll necessarily do that, but I like having that freedom.

Once this pandemic has passed, what are the band’s plans?

It’s still a big question mark, but we do have something partly booked for September-October time. We need to see how summer goes and what that brings. I don’t think it’s a smart move to go on tour immediately as if a few venues go into bankruptcy, it’s going to cost us a lot of money. I don’t think people will forget us if we take a bit of a break and make sure that things make financial sense for us to tour. We’ll be back on the road as soon as it is safe and makes financial sense to do so. It’s like a formula one race for us at the moment. There was a huge crash and the safety car is on the track, and we’ll continue to race later. Everything is standing still and will begin motoring later.

Which bands do you think will be headlining the main stage of the big festivals in the next 5 to 10 years?

Realistically, I think Insomnium will get there in less than five years with the rate they are going. I can see Sabaton making their own festival tour with a really ridiculous thing like the Russian army choir touring with them. I hope that Wolfheart would be the band that’s in like the teatime slot. The 6pm slot, 2 below the headliner on the main stage would be really really good for us.

If you had to put together an ice cream sundae, what flavours of ice cream and toppings would you use?

There’s one thing that I enjoy a lot so I’d say it would be old school vanilla. I’d put some raisins in it as they get hard and sticky when you put them in ice cream. I’d then put some toffee sauce that my mom used to make which solidified on top of the ice cream. I’d then crush some walnuts on top of it as well. Kind of like what Ben & Jerry’s are doing. Really solid vanilla ice cream and then some over the top combinations in there. It’s like a food that you can eat or throw at somebody and they would actually die. That could almost fit with the album theme actually. It’s a very handy dessert in a war situation. It’s a dessert that you can enjoy or beat someone to death with.

Ice cream or energy drink?

I don’t know why this is so hard for me to answer! Energy drinks are just stupid as it’s just the same sugar rush as Ice cream. I shouldn’t like energy drinks as much as I do. As an artist I have certain freedom to do certain things, but I would have energy drink and Ice cream. You get thirsty after eating something with so much sugar and lactose, so you have the Red Bull afterwards. Which then leads to adult diabetes. Everybody’s got to die someway!

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