Wolfheart frontman Tuomas Saukkonen talks European tour, album concepts and inspiration
From labouring over meticulously engineered album releases to spending countless weeks trawling the globe from one namelessly anonymous city to the next, it’s hard to imagine a more manic and relentless lifestyle than the one that’s long been business as usual for Finnish ‘winter metal’ crew, Wolfheart. But with their electrifying blend of craggy, untamed aggression and sweepingly epic atmospherics currently dazzling audiences up and down the continent, there’s no mistaking the creative fire that drives and sustains this relentlessly industrious collective. Ahead of the Finns’ hugely anticipated turn in the capital this month, frontman Tuomas Saukkonen takes a rare moment to reflect on the thrilling, frequently chaotic blur that’s been the year 2019 thus far.
Look up the word ‘productivity’ in the Oxford English dictionary and, odds are, you’ll likely see a picture of Wolfheart frontman Tuomas Saukkonen staring back at you. With a staggeringly accomplished creative CV that, in 2012, saw the Finnish multi-instrumentalist juggling a whopping five different projects all in the same year, this is clearly the mark of a man who thrives under intense and unrelenting extremes of pressure. Having eventually disbanded all previously active projects by January 2013 in order to devote his full and undivided attention to his current, all-consuming passion, Wolfheart, this deliciously melancholic collective would go on to release record after record with every couple of years with steady and astonishingly prolific regularity. From handling songwriting duties and album concept writing to studio engineering and music video direction, the past six years have seen Saukkonen and co. invest immeasurable energy in bringing this stirringly evocative vision to fruition. With stunning 2018 opus ‘Constellation of the Black Light’ comprising their latest and greatest accomplishment to date, the Finns’ exhilarating melding of scalding aggression, intricately crafted fretwork and eerily haunting melodic arrangements was unsurprisingly quick to captivate listeners across the globe. Culminating in a major, worldwide touring cycle alongside Dutch symphonic heavyweights Carach Angren, it’s clearly been an intense and unrelenting period for this industrious collective.
“It’s definitely had its ups and downs,” Tuomas agrees with a good-natured smile. “On this tour, we actually had three shows cancelled in Spain, but luckily shortly after that we found an Airbnb villa in Barcelona with three bedrooms, a pool, panoramic view of the ocean and for three days that became the best vacation I have had in like, a year. So sometimes the downs can be also a good thing in disguise, if you know how to turn the bad things into positives, although I know it’s a weird thing to say that the cancelled gigs were the highlight of the tour. It makes me sound like the tour has been going badly, but it was definitely a surprising thing - lying beside the pool while your guitar player is barbecuing breakfast was quite a nice experience! Particularly when you spend the majority of your time trapped in this small container with wheels with like, fifteen people for six weeks, no privacy, no space.”
But for all the inevitable stresses and strains that come with being in an increasingly successful touring band, Tuomas is equally quick to highlight the many and varied positives that accompany these various testing trials and tribulations. As many a metal band will no doubt eagerly attest, few experiences are more pivotal in pushing and progressing one’s musical prowess than the intense and violently energised conditions of live performance. And for Saukkonen, there’s evidently no overstating the inspirational role these experiences have played in shaping Wolfheart’s intensely vicious and adrenaline-fuelled sound circa 2019.
“The audience’s reactions for the past two, three years have shown us that the more aggressive songs we play, the better the energy from the audience,” the frontman notes. “And that, in turn, has made me write faster and more aggressive songs, so progressively that’s been influencing our music more and more. Those aggressive ones work really naturally for the set so, as a result, we’ve started cutting down the mellow ones. Like, for example - so far, I wouldn’t call it a hit, but it just recently went over two million views on YouTube - ‘The Flood’, which is the easiest song we have, but are never going to play live because it just wouldn’t fit with the mood and everything. I would really like to play that song live with another band with me playing drums. That song just wouldn’t fit for the audience that we have at the moment because they tend to enjoy the more aggressive songs and those which blend melody and a more aggressive approach, whereas that song is more like a mood kind of thing. And I think that song also works better when you look at the video, the landscapes and the general mood of it all.”
With these hugely inspirational live experiences having seen the Finns progress into increasingly vicious and energised sonic territories, it seems only logical that ‘Constellations’s…’ accompanying lyrical content should orient itself in similarly primal and hostile subject matter. Sourcing rich inspiration from the myriad, unspeakable atrocities of World War II, Tuomas quickly found himself fully immersed in this darkly thought-provoking historical period.
“When it comes to lyrics, I always write the songs first. I usually start writing the lyrics at the studio when we are already recording the album because I need to hear the songs in order to write the lyrics and then that focuses the theme of the lyrics for a very short period of time. I write all of the lyrics in one or two weeks, so that point I have pretty much already defined what’s going to be on the album, and at that time there were a lot of obstacles, both inside and around the band. So this kind of warrior theme works well as a mind-game when it comes to these modern day obstacles. And I kind of got this certain idea because Finland has a very close history with the 2nd World War and the Russians, and it comes up every year because it’s quite a big thing for Finnish people, given the land that we lost, and now the Russians are being quite busy in Ukraine. Those kind of things that usually don’t matter to Finnish people, but on a yearly basis they always bring the Independence and that war up; things bands like Sabaton have been writing about for many years.”
Tuomas continues, “I was born in the village that is bordering Russia and there is still a big canon that is pointing toward Russia that we used to play around when were kids. It’s a really cool place and I think one of the first things I ever asked my parents was, why is that canon pointed there? And they explained that it’s aimed at Russia. Those kind of things you get inspired about from your childhood as well, and I had this big idea like, how would I act if I was fighting in a trench and I knew that if I put my head up I would probably die, but I know that’s something I have to do anyway because those are the orders I’ve been given? How would I react? How would I face the horrors of that war? Hopefully our generation never needs to see that, but it’s very inspiring place to go with your thoughts because it puts a person in a very difficult place psychologically. I don’t know where it all started, but as soon as we entered the studio I automatically started writing about the subject. It leaves a lot of room for guessing, and a lot of people turn into really bad human beings when the opportunity is given. Some become heroes, others just become killing machines and it’s just an extreme state where it’s not you anymore, but some primal version of yourself that you never knew existed before. Are you going to be able be to kill another person just because they and you are simply following orders? It’s not good versus evil, just ordinary people pitted against one another so there’s so many moral points of view to consider in all of this.”
Devoting equal, meticulous care and attention to the intensely atmospheric visuals that accompany these vicious, coldly majestic compositions, the ever-versatile musician’s recent foray into music video direction has, with the release of ‘Constellations…’ produced some stunning, visually arresting results. From fiery, cinematic action sequences worthy of an epic Viking saga to sweeping, panoramic shots that richly evoke all the savage, snow-blanketed beauty of their native homeland, each lovingly crafted piece perfectly captures the energy and atmosphere of this uniquely multifaceted long-player.
“We once paid quite a bit of money to hire a Finnish director for one of our music videos, but the result was complete crap,” Tuomas recalls with a grimace. “The label arranged the premiere for the video to be made on Finnish TV, but I had to ask them, ‘Can we cancel it? This is going to look really bad.’ Then I got thinking, can it really be that hard to direct a music video? We paid thousands of Euros for this guy and this is the result? So then I started learning the cameras angles and the colours and whatever else is involved and just started making the videos myself, but it’s more about the ideas you have rather than any particular technical skills. If you have a good idea, you can make a good video, and that’s why I really enjoy to be able to build the visual side of things. Because I get a visual idea of the song when I’m writing it, so now I can build a visual based on what I see or hear in the music, so I get to be the artist twice over with the same song.”
“Also, because I basically have this ten-year-old kid living inside of me, when I get to work with fire and pyros, it’s so awesome,” he grins. “We do a lot of work with the same guy who does pyros for Sabaton, and I email him all these stupid ideas like: “Can we set this on fire? Can you set me on fire?” And then I just keep planning and planning based on what can be done and what cannot be done, and that is just an insanely cool thing to do. I’ll literally spend hours going through websites selling used instruments so I can pick up things I want to burn or explode on the next video - one piano, one drum, and so on. They’re partially broken, but look like they’re brand new. As a director, I rarely work for other bands nowadays, but I did do the latest video for Ensiferum, but it is a different thing when I make a video for myself because I have a personal connection with the song. It can be a little bit difficult to find a similar connection with somebody else’s song and then it becomes more like a job, so I wouldn’t see myself doing music videos as a job. Then again, next year there’s probably going to be a new Wolfheart album which means I’m going to do three videos for Wolfheart, then a solo album which means another two or three at least.”
But before venturing too far into the as-yet-unknown specifics of the band’s forthcoming plans, he hastens to conclude, “There are a lot of plans locked down that I’m not allowed to talk about right now, but we’re going to be continuing because, since we’ve gathered so much momentum lately, it would be really stupid to stop now and, of course, the more you work and see the results, the more motivated you become.”