Wolfheart – Gathering in the North

Sunday, 4th September 2022

Continually delivering a killer blend of melodic death/black metal with penetrating depth, Wolfheart show no signs of slowing down their impact as they arrive at this sixth studio album King of the North. Tackling subject matter relating to Finnish mythology, the band explore a wider array of vocal approaches given the talent on display – while still creating musical components that touch hearts, souls, and minds on a global scale. We reached out once again to guitarist/vocalist Tuomas Saukkonen to catch up on the latest developments with the new album, video work, cover art, the turbulent/hectic festival season and thoughts on that, how fishing/relaxing allows him to handle the chaos when reentering the world, plus discussion on the resurrection of Before the Dawn.

Dead Rhetoric: King of the North is the sixth Wolfheart album. Outside of working on a record during an unprecedented pandemic atmosphere, where do you see the specific differences or outlook on this set of material that sets things apart from other albums?

Tuomas Saukkonen: There was a clear decision when we were finishing the previous album Wolves of Karelia that I would steer the music more towards the debut album Winterborn. More melodies, a little bit less of the extreme elements of the music. Vagelis was the newest member of the group, but now he has been around for almost three years. I was fully aware of his vocal range, and we wanted to have him as a main vocalist besides Lauri and myself. Three vocals instead of one in the past is quite a big difference already, so there were a lot of decisions made to make this album different from the previous ones.

The previous album was focused only on the winter war between Finland and Russia. This time I went digging down further into the mythology of Finland, Nordic countries. I’m not saying everything is different but there were clear decisions made to focus the music to be different.

Dead Rhetoric: Do you believe you utilized a lot of the talent within the musicians this time around that maybe makes it a little different than the previous records?

Saukkonen: Definitely. Vagelis had a lot more time and it was easier for him to have more input on the solos. The vocals are a huge difference, my vocals are more like a percussive element. I can only bring rhythm, and I have a certain range as a growling vocalist that’s not going to get wider. If it’s not that wider over the twenty-five years I’ve been a vocalist, it’s a bit of an asset to have a different kind of vocalist like Vagelis who can lead any of the songs on the album. The biggest change came from inside the band.

Dead Rhetoric: What do you consider some of the biggest challenges at this point in the career of Wolfheart when it comes to these records? You’ve established the sound; do you think you are trying to expand in different areas now more than ever?

Saukkonen: I don’t see the music as a challenge anyway, because I have never aimed to develop the music in a certain direction to reach new fans or please more the existing ones. I see the challenges as somewhere else. We are still in the size range where we need the touring, and we need the exposure for the people to hear the music. We have a lot of fans to gain, our career could go a lot further than we are at now. The situation in the world is the biggest challenge. First it was the pandemic, the previous album was released right in the middle of the worst touring situation in the music business history. There were European countries that had record stores that are now permanently closed. That’s not a good thing for the album sales when people can’t even go and buy the album. We had no tours, and the Russia/ Ukraine conflict is putting a big shadow to all of the plans. The energy crisis that all of Europe is facing is going to affect the venues, the bands, the fans who will not have as much money to spend on the merchandise. There is winter coming, and probably things will escalate only to the worst. Bands that are our size, if we lose tours for two albums in a row, it’s a huge obstacle to overcome in the long run.

Dead Rhetoric: Can you discuss the Finnish mythology that provides the lyrical backdrop for this record? Were you always a follower of this type of writing and literature as a child, and the type of rich cultural context this provides to everyone from your country and beyond?

Saukkonen: The Finnish mythology differs hugely from the Nordic mythology. For example, in Norway they have very well-structured documents – the Pagan and Vikings history, everybody knows Odin and about Vikings. When you dig deeper, you don’t have to look far to find well-structured documentation and stories. In Finland, we don’t have that. The main book of Finnish mythology, which the band Amorphis based many of their lyrics on, is also a compilation. The author went from village to village to gather the stories and make this one book about them. It’s poems, stories, and beliefs passed down. I did a huge amount of research, there was a lot of things I didn’t know until now because I was not reading this in books, it’s not present anywhere. These were spoken stories, old ladies’ stories, how the Northern Lights were born, how it rained during the summer and the crops would fail. People in the North coming up with explanations, phenomena in nature. The bear is a God like figure, when you wrestled a bear back in the day, you probably got fucked up. A feared creature that is a king of the forest, thus the king of the north. It was a lot of small bits and pieces that I had to fit together like building a puzzle.

Dead Rhetoric: How did the special guest slots come about on “Ancestor” featuring Jesse Leach of Killswitch Engage and “Cold Flame” featuring Karl Sanders of Nile? Have you always respected their abilities and craft?

Saukkonen: Those are completely different stories. We made the clear decisions before recording the album, there were some questions from the label and the management if we should bring some guest vocalists to bring more attention to the album and I said, no, absolutely no. I have two guys that can do vocals from the band. We have a lot of variety inside the vocals of the band, so I didn’t want to put anybody in the shadows for a guest vocalist. We were mixing the album in October; I get a message from a fan sending me a link to Jesse’s Instagram stories. He had one of our songs on in the background. I was a huge fan of Jesse’s vocals on the Alive or Just Breathing album from Killswitch Engage, I just had to write a comment on the story, like ‘nice job on the song’. He told me he was a fan of Wolfheart for years and had heard of us through one of his friends. He asked me what was going on, if we were making new music. We were at the studio, he heard some of the tracks, and he told me our music was the type of music that was right up his alley vocally, so of course the jump from that to asking him to do something from the album was very short. It happened accidently. Usually there’s management talking to management, there are favors being owed in the music business, there are things being exchanged, this type of system. When that happened, I had to think about my position again.

So I rethought my position and just think about what the music needs. With “Cold Flame” we needed this very monstrous kind of growling. I do my best in the studio, but I can’t get that voice out of me. We have some connections with Nile, our guitar player Vagelis is good friends with Nile’s drummer, and we’ve been sharing the same sound engineer when we tour in Europe and North America. It was easy to contact Karl, and naturally his performance is brilliant. I know he would appreciate the topic; he understands the approach and what I am trying to do with the feel of the album. It was opposite stories; both executed their parts insanely well.

Dead Rhetoric: Recently you released a video for “The King” which includes great visual scenes from winter/nature and the narrative sequences around the band performance footage. How did the video shoot go, and is this a collaborative process between director and band to capture what’s best in this medium?

Saukkonen: I’ve been doing all the videos for Wolfheart with one camera guy. It’s a two-man team – I do the production and we share the director duties. He has naturally a huge part of the visuals, I do a lot of work with the locations. I even bought the bearskin, that’s at my home at the moment, to have that on the video shoot. It’s more like to me to be able to visualize the music also – then be able to bring that music to visual places. I’ve been doing videos for Wolfheart in Iceland, Norway, Finnish Lapland – it gives a whole new level with the music anyway. It’s important to show the listeners the image I have in my head, not just make a music video because we need to have one. It’s part of the vision that I have with the music.

Dead Rhetoric: Where did the cover concept idea come about for King of the North? Do you believe there is a level of consistency that you’ve thought about when it comes to cover art and imagery for Wolfheart?

Saukkonen: I was adamant that there had to be a bear skull. One of the many questions I’ve been getting has been in regard to Game of Thrones, because of the title. There was a lot of thought process behind the title, but this is the pinpoint of Finnish mythology. Nature and the king of the nature – it had to be the title of the album. We had the bear skull in the front because we wanted you to know that we (humans) are not the king of the north. It should never be a man, it’s nature or the apex predator, that part of the world. We added the wolf skulls because of the wolves’ heart, it shouldn’t be about the bear only. A balance.

If you put all the album covers together, each cover stands behind each album, not making one whole piece of art. It’s better that way, each album is individual that way.

Dead Rhetoric: You mentioned in our last talk in 2020 the fact that ‘when the music becomes the product, the sales and different deadlines come into play, that’s a different challenge’. Do you believe there’s been a greater emphasis now because of the lack of live shows/festivals from 2020 until recently in 2022 in musicians putting out quality, recorded output to fill that void? Or possibly more appreciation for the physical mediums of vinyl, tapes, and CD’s that were taken for granted in a digital-driven, streaming/instant age of technology?

Saukkonen: That is a huge question. I’ve been talking with a lot of bands, and I’ve been talking with a lot of fans also. But what I have been hearing from all the fans is people seem to think there is more time, it’s been really good for writing music. But I’ve also been talking with a lot of other musicians and songwriters, and it’s been a horrible time to be creative. Of course we have the time, I have lost 200 gigs. I’ve never had this amount of time to be in the studio. In the meantime, it’s been hard to come up with the motivation and inspiration. The first year of the pandemic I would be opening emails hoping that there would be some sort of tour happening, festival, something to get better. That’s not something you are going to be able to go to the studio in that headspace and compose good music and get excited about it.

A lot of the music was more important than usual. The albums weren’t just about restarting a touring cycle, or to keep the machine running. It was the only thing suddenly that bands had – to write music, play music together because there was nothing else. The importance of the music itself is a lot bigger. Labels started to do vinyl versions of the older albums; bands were selling less because no one was touring. Bands would postpone the album releases as they were waiting for touring to come back. The industry brought vinyl back, different layers of stuff was happening.

Dead Rhetoric: Once again over the past few years, we’ve seen more work from Before the Dawn and Dawn of Solace beyond what you do with Wolfheart. What changed in your perspective to go back to this multiple outlet approach for your creative endeavors?

Saukkonen: It was not supposed to happen. I made a clear decision in 2013, which I have failed completely now. It’s different stories behind both of the bands. Dawn of Solace, I never buried myself. That was buried by the Spanish label, 2007. It took me twelve years to get the band free from the contract. When it was free, I was waiting for the perfect opportunity to release an album. It is going to be a side project, we did three festival appearances this summer, but we won’t do any tours as everyone has different priorities. It’s a second outlet of different kind of music.

Before the Dawn is a different thing. We will release a new single, announce a full comeback with the new lineup. We have already recorded the drums for the new album, our agency is booking festivals for next summer, we are coming back strong and big next year. This happened because of the pandemic. The label asked us if we were interested in re-releasing one of the old albums on vinyl. It sounded pretty good. We got together with the guys after ten years, somebody came up with the idea of why don’t we make a new song? The fans would appreciate that, we have done over 100 songs. We wrote a song, it was super fun, the outcome is still good. The album went to number one on the Finnish album chart. Then it was a slow burning idea for two years to maybe come back. We cooked up the idea and now we have made the decision.

Dead Rhetoric: Now that you are in your early forties, has your life perspective and outlook on what’s most important to you changed or shifted compared to how you led your life during your twenties and thirties?

Saukkonen: That’s actually a really good question. Of course, the pandemic changed certain things, how I approach things. I don’t think I’m 42, but that’s what the calendar says. Now, even more than ever, it’s important for me to do the things I enjoy the most. I am not getting younger, and my good years are going to get eventually less and less. I need to spend that time carefully. I want to focus on the good things, it doesn’t matter if they are smart in the eyes of the music business or the record labels. Saying that, I am going back to my twenty-year-old version where I had a lot of projects. Was it smart? At that age, it was fun to make music, and it was labels issues if there were too many in a year. I didn’t care about the promo or the career, I just wanted to make music. I’m closing that circle now. Seeing what the pandemic caused, I didn’t think the music business could have that kind of a shutdown. Now it did happen, I have a different understanding. Who knows if there are going to be any tours after next year. I need to do the things I want to do right now; nothing is (taken for) granted anymore.

Dead Rhetoric: Are there specific things on the bucket list left to accomplish over the next few years?

Saukkonen: The festival shows for Before the Dawn, that’s the best fun we will have in a few years. I’m going to be the drummer in the new band. I won’t take on the vocals anymore, which is the biggest change as a musician for me. I don’t have a bucket list in the sense of what needs to happen. Every day when I wake up, I need to be able to focus on the thing I enjoy. I want to think things small enough – I don’t want to think things too far of what’s going to happen next year. I don’t know how Europe is going to survive the winter with the gas and electric crisis. It has to be the things that I enjoy.

Dead Rhetoric: Being back on stages across Europe in 2022 for the summer festival season, how do you believe these shows went for Wolfheart, and do you believe there’s a newfound love and respect for live entertainment after it being away for so long?

Saukkonen: That is a very layered question again. At least my answer will be layered. The music business reacted a little bit funny towards the festival thing. Especially in Finland, and it may be the same in Europe. Everyone was prepared that the audiences were going to run to all the possible festivals, there are way too many festivals for the summer. There were 300 festivals in the summer in Finland, and we only have five million people. It didn’t make any sense, it was really complicated for the production of the festivals, a lot of failures happened that haven’t happened before, so it leads to a bad experience for the audience. They don’t differentiate if it was the bands’ fault or was the festival organization really bad.

The people were excited, but the two-year pandemic also changed the consumer behavior. You were off from the festivals for two years; it wasn’t going to be a tradition anymore. Nobody would buy the pre-sale tickets like three years ago. Fans appreciate the festivals, and it was great for us to play them, but things seemed very complicated. I hope next summer things will be balanced out. A little bit more normal. A lot of people left the industry, as they didn’t have a job or a paycheck for two years. If you are a monitor engineer, sound engineer, bus driver, backliner, stage fielder, stagehand, whatever you are, you are still extremely needed in your place when the show happens. If 20% of that crew doesn’t come back to work after the pandemic, that is a huge issue already. I thought things would be fun, but it’s very complicated to get the festivals on track, the schedules, the flights. There is no routine, it fades out in two years. It felt like I was doing the festivals for the first time in my life.

The winter touring will be amazing, like we know how things are going to get done. This summer it’s seemed like everything is like riding a bike for the first time in my life, where are the wheels on the side. It was a weird summer, let’s put it that way.

Dead Rhetoric: In the two years of the pandemic, did you throw yourself into any new interests or hobbies outside of the music?

Saukkonen: No, it was really difficult to gather the motivation to get into music or rehearsing with instruments. I went back to my day job. One thing the pandemic didn’t affect was gardening. I was outside, alone, and it was the safest place to be during the pandemic anyway. To work as many hours as I could, I made more of a financial buffer and just waited to see what happens in the music industry.

Dead Rhetoric: When you feel overwhelmed or you have lost your focus, what types of things do you like to do to regain perspective?

Saukkonen: One thing I do always when needed. I rent an Air B+B cabin somewhere in Finland that has to be beside a lake, there has to be a boat so I can go fishing. I prefer to be off the grid, you don’t have to charge a laptop if there is no electricity. I disconnect from all the things that are building up, the stress. I maintain a phone, but that’s it – I don’t get to do any work with a laptop. I stay there for three or four nights, fish, heat up the sauna, make my meals on my own. It’s a different process, you look at life in a different way, you see the simplicity of life. And then you are a lot more able to handle the chaos when you come back on board.

Dead Rhetoric: What’s next on the agenda for activities related to Wolfheart, Before the Dawn, Dawn of Solace, or any other Tuomas-related musical endeavors for the next twelve months or so?

Saukkonen: We start touring in late September with Wolfheart, when we come back, I will focus on the recordings of the Before the Dawn album. Then we will do a North American tour in the beginning of 2023, a European tour if there is Europe to tour, and we will book festivals for the summer. Before the summer, there should be the new Before the Dawn album. It’s looking good on paper; it should be busy times.

Wolfheart on Facebook

[fbcomments width="580"]