On the Rocks Show Coverage + Interview with Wolfheart’s Tuomas Saukkonen: Lineup Changes, Tour Surprises, and Album Number Five

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Nearing the end of a seemingly limitless string of tour dates across three continents and 10 months, melodic death metal outfit Wofheart returned to On the Rocks in Helsinki, the city closest to what they consider to be a hometown. Sandwiched in between openers and Dutch symphonic black metallers Carach Angren, the band, comprised of full-time members Tuomas Saukkonen (vocals, guitar), Lauri Silvonen (bass, backing vocals), and Joonas Kauppinen (drums), did their part to draw a nearly-sold out crowd to the intimate venue.

Wolfheart at On the Rocks, Helsinki.

Opener Nevalra from Missouri, USA, kicked off the night to a thin crowd, whose delayed presence could have been partially attributed to both the early set time and Metallica’s performance in Hämeenlinna the night before. Thy Antichrist delivered the second set of the evening, with their self-described “existentialist black metal” sound also next to fans of the headliner, Carach Angren. Singer Antichrist 666 appeared to have just been dug up from a dirt nap, and their theatrics kept things moving alongside some noteworthy solos and even a taste of flamenco guitar.

Carach Angren spared no theatrics on stage and delivered their usual quota of shock value by barking through horror-themed songs such as “General Nightmare” and “Blood Queen”. Tactics such as elaborate corpse paint and murdering a mannequin on stage were among those used by Seregor (lead vocals, guitar), Ardek (keyboards), and Namtar (drums).

Wolfheart took their turn in the evening’s penultimate timeslot, confident to approach the audience perhaps best acquainted with their music, even with two session musicians in tow. The group mutually parted ways with guitarist Mika Lammassaari (Mors Subita, ex-Eternal Tears of Sorrow) in May 2019, in a move that the band saw coming, but startled fans.

With a chain slung over his shoulder for a guitar strap, Saukkonen approached the audience with an intensity that didn’t give away the fact they’d played 100 shows nearly in a row before that one. During “Breakwater”, a single from 2018’s Constellation of the Black Light (Napalm Records), Saukkonen split the crowd and demanded a pit. The fans were energetic, but wouldn’t rev up long enough to mosh much beyond one song. Session drummer Waltteri Väyrynen (Abhorrence, Paradise Lost) dove into the material with a noticeable precision, as if the music had been his all along. “Zero Gravity” was unrelenting, and “Ghosts of Karelia” was another highlight, marrying themes of winter and war to Wolfheart’s tenacious brand of melodic death metal.

New York-based readers may recognize Wolfheart from the April 19 Irving Plaza show alongside their Finnish countrymen Swallow the Sun and Children of Bodom, both of whom had representation in the audience at On the Rocks. In a pre-show interview on an unusually warm Finnish Wednesday evening, Saukkonen sat down with Metal Solstice to candidly discuss the band’s dynamic since Lammassaari’s departure, the velocity at which they release new music, and how they made the best of unexpected cancellations on the road, to name a few.

Metal Solstice: So it’s number 28 on a string of 31 European shows. How are you feeling?

Tuomas Saukkonen: Well, there were 100 shows before this tour, starting with the U.S. tour on October first, so I’m counting differently than you are! You don’t get the privacy or same kind of rest on the road; you always wake up in the bus and face the same people. Especially for the Finnish people, we need to be more our own bubble and space. So I’m going to be fairly happy when the tour is over, but I would do it again. It’s been a really good run, but I do really miss home.

MS: The Sevilla, Granada and Valencia shows were cancelled. Can you tell me about that, and anything else that surprised you on this tour?

TS: For us as a band, that cancellation was the best thing. We still went to Barcelona for the next gig that actually happened, but in those days we went to an Airbnb villa with four rooms, a big swimming pool, barbecue area, and a panoramic scene to the ocean. To me it feels like I’ve been on one super-long trip, so those days off gave me the energy to do the rest of these shows. That became kind of a positive surprise and it’s been an interesting tour. I already knew it would be challenging with club shows during the summer, festival season, but the festivals have been a lot smoother now that we don’t fly in and out. Now we get to wake up on the bus, have breakfast, and we are carrying this tour home with us.

MS: How was last night’s set in Tampere?

TS: It was better than we expected. Metallica was playing at the same night to 40,000 people, and they’re starting Tammerfest which is basically the second biggest festival of the city. So, timing-wise, it was basically the worst ever. Considering that, the turnout was really good and the Finnish people are not usually that excited as an audience for Tuesday, so it was a pleasant surprise.

MS: Let’s discuss how things have been since Mika left—hey, I saw you make that face!

TS: Oh hey, no, it was just a “me gathering my thoughts” face! [Laughs.] It needs to be talked through, because people are asking and there is only so much information we can put on a Facebook post. Last summer at Rock Fest Barcelona we already had a meeting inside the band, including Mika of course, about how we were going to deal his schedule with ours. It started to look like it would be the busiest year, and it became even busier than we thought. When we did one tour, there was another tour already offered. Tours over tours. The schedules kept on being difficult, and it was stressing him even more than us.

It was a mutual decision last summer already that he would step down from the band lineup for a year and then we see if things are looking a little bit easier. Things look even busier for us in the future, and it didn’t change for him, so it was this common decision just following up the meeting we had last year. It was not news for us, but we didn’t talk about that publicly, so for the fans it came really suddenly. It was something we knew for a long time inside the band, and tried to make it work. For a band, it’s a good thing to be busy, and it just gets too complicated for both parties if every gig has to be arranged and you need short-notice session guys and stuff like that.

MS: Have you thought about who will permanently replace him?

TS: We haven’t talked about it. We have different options, but it’s easier to start that conversation once we make the next album and see the touring schedule. We might find a guitar player that we’re perfect with musically, 150 days away from home if you have a family or a job. Rather we’ll do the album as a trio, then we’ll see who we need and when we need them. With six different session guitar players in a year, now we know that we can make it happen without a permanent member and the audience has apparently gotten used to it because nobody’s complaining or asking too many questions. Every tour we have a different guitar player, but they do honor for Mika’s playing. People don’t feel that they see a lesser version of the band, so we could even keep that in the future. Rather give it a lot of time and when we find the right person, maybe he just stays in the band without any agreement, just see what happens.

Constellation of the Black Light album cover, 2018.

MS: What is the best piece of advice that perhaps a colleague or another band has given to you that you’ve incorporated in your set, or at least considered?

TS: None! We don’t take any suggestions, like if someone would come and suggest that we would look really good with deer antlers and the next gig I would have them on! It’s about what we want to represent to the audience, not the other way around. We never ask the fans what they want to hear; we always want to play the songs that we want to play. That’s the reason we get excited on stage. Otherwise we’d be like a hired cover band of our own music.

MS: Wasn’t implying that you take requests! I take back that whole question.

TS: [Laughs.] No! I like my answer; you need to write that down. Well, we are quite Finnish, so everything comes from inside the band. Songs, stage presence, and what we want to do on stage. It’s been different now because we have different session guys for every tour, so it’s changing, also. On the U.S. tour we had an American guitar player and bass player, so it was only me and the drummer. Half of the band lineup was guys I never met before, and those guys defined the dynamic of that tour on the stage. The first time we played together was the first gig we played together. That happened also on this tour, and the South American tour. So, we wouldn’t be able execute any wishes anyway.

MS: I’ll skip the philosophical questions you usually get about Wolfheart’s content, like, “What does winter mean to you?”…

TS: Appreciate that.

MS: …but I did notice that as album after album goes by, you keep adding more keyboards. Would you ever put a keyboard player on stage?

TS: No, we have so many orchestrations. The guy who does the keyboards for us would like to play live with us sometimes, but there’s too much stuff already on the songs that he wouldn’t be able to do it with a keyboard. We would need to have a keyboard player and the backing tracks still. Again, that’s one person more for the dynamics inside the group, so it wouldn’t work, in my opinion.

MS: Let’s discuss the speed at which Wolfheart gets new material out. I’m guessing that you’re already working on album number five?

TS: Two albums at the same time. Wolfheart and my solo album.

MS: What can you share about each of them?

TS: For the Wolfheart album, some of the songs are pre-produced already. Management and the label already heard them, so everybody knows that there’s new stuff coming, but I don’t have the title or the schedule yet. At some point next year it will be out. The solo album is going to be out November or December, pending some negotiation around digital distribution. Recordings will start in September and I will have the album mixed in the first week of October.

MS: Thematically, did you stick the to war-themed content again for the Wolfheart album that you used on Constellation of the Black Light?

TS: I don’t know yet. I always write the music first, and then the lyrics, so the music that comes out defines quite much about the lyrics. This time I’m actually consulting a few outsider people about the possible storyline of the album, could we build that and how we’d build the story. We have been trying to find some historical things in Finnish history, because it’s actually difficult. We don’t have that strong pagan culture or religion; we don’t have the Viking stuff. We were bounced under ruling of Sweden or Russia without our own identity.

There were a lot of stories based on Kalevala that were carried from village to village, but when Christianity came to Finland, and the skills to write, they started writing about Christianity. They didn’t write about the old stories so they kind of disappeared. Amorphis is kind of doing Kalevala already; they kind of own that book, and they should, that’s their thing. But in Finnish history there’s not much you can take, so we’re still investigating that. But there might be actually a theme or story on the album if we can find one that suits us.

MS: So you have to get a little academic?

TS: We’ve been getting really academic for half a year now. There is one American movie producer who is a really big fan of ours. The most recent Rambo was his production. He’s been ordering a lot of first presses of a lot of Finnish historical books and he’s just trying to find something that he can propose to me, because we don’t have. We’re hitting a dead end at the moment.

MS: When you’re writing, is there a specific environment that works best for you?

TS: Home. My home is in a small village in the middle of nowhere, in all of my windows I see trees. There’s one store, one bar, small pharmacy, not even a bank. Not even a kebab place! Small and Finnish. When I walk out one minute out from my flat I’m going to be at the shore of a lake. That peaceful environment is the complete opposite of where I’m sitting now, in constant chaos and constant dealing with other people. I never write on the tour. I have all the Dawn of Solace songs with me here on my laptop, but I can’t calm down. I’ve been listening to the songs like 200 times but I don’t get in that mood. Home is the best place, where there’s nobody and nothing else.

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