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Tuomas Saukkonen (Wolfheart)

Interview with Tuomas Saukkonen from Wolfheart
by Kira Schletcher at 17 April 2020, 4:36 AM

If there’s any band that seems to tap most deeply into Finland’s national psyche, it has to be WOLFHEART. Resilient, tough, fiercely independent, in tune with their natural environment, and most importantly, with a work ethic second to none, the melodic death metal band is a true reflection of their origin.

Their stellar fifth album, “Wolves of Karelia,” dives fully into their exploration of the little-known Winter War of 1939-1940. It comes hard on the heels of the equally brilliant “Constellation of the Black Light” (2018) and “Tyhjyys” (2017). Mastermind Tuomas Saukkonen, the band’s singer, guitarist, and songwriter, spoke about the album in an email interview; the questions and answers follow:

“Wolves of Karelia” is about the Winter War of 1939-1940 (the Russian invasion after the start of World War II). Did you have this idea initially in any form or did it stem solely from you watching the interviews that were done with the veterans?

Actually, this Winter War theme has been coming up with every Wolfheart album so far. The debut album, ”Winterborn,” has a song called ”Ghosts of Karelia” about that war, ”Shadow World” has ”Defender,” etc, etc. I was born and spent my childhood in the Karelian region, so that area and its history is very dear to me.

Are you comfortable calling it a concept album, and perhaps not a concept album about that particular war but about the futility of war in general and the idea that nature is a greater force than any human endeavor? Is each song referring to different times or certain days in the war, certain turning points in the action?

I would call it a concept album. All the lyrics are based on the stories and interviews of the veterans. I wanted to avoid the ”SABATON style,” where a song is kind of like a documentary of a certain battle, even, (or a) soldier of a certain war. I wanted to focus more how a normal human, a farmer, felt and reacted in those cruel and violent months.

You had said this was a look at the personal perspectives of the war (what the veterans felt before the battles and after), not the political ones, and you said you “didn’t see it as my task, as part of my generation, to dig up anything from this complicated time” – why not?

It is not my place to become a politician or a teacher. I am just an artist, and music, like any other art, should also be open for interpretation instead of being a lesson. History will always repeat itself anyway. There is always ours, or the next generation, to make the same mistakes.

The idea of “Hail of Steel,” I think, is a tribute to the spirit of those Finnish fighters (“Northers never kneel/Winterborns don’t bow before the enemy”), that they made the ultimate sacrifice to protect their home – can you talk about that spirit, where you think it comes from, how it might manifest itself these days?

That is a very Finnish thing – to show great perseverance and will of mind, sometimes being really stubborn also! That whole mindset was clearly very strong for that past generation, but sadly, I must say I don’t see it that much in our generation anymore. If the past generation was the wolves, most of the current generations seem to be just teddy bears.

As an aside, you joked in the “making of” clips for the making of “Hail of Steel” about setting everything on fire, and indeed so many of your videos have those images. Songs on this album also make reference to fire in different ways – can you talk about that?

There (are) two kinds of fire, the flame within and the other one you light on fire. Both (are) equally inspiring, (e)specially during the Second World War. Finnish men and women had both of those flames burning really bright, but many of the actual fires were also (in) the villages, farms, (and) towns when we (were) under heavy bombings. War is fire.

The string section after the first chorus in “Horizon on Fire” really echoes the tension and fear the song depicts, about seeing the battle come closer and the inevitability that it will reach you – how exactly do you determine when strings are needed in a piece?

Strings really underline the mood and create a movie soundtrack kind of layer. It comes pretty naturally while writing the song or during the final mixing to hear where strings would be needed. (The) song has to carry a story, too, and it needs ups and downs and certain highlights in the mood.

“Reaper” has an interesting line, “The reaper comes for them who rise/Against your brothers” – are you saying this in a general sense, like men shouldn’t fight against each other since they are all brothers, or more in the sense that Finland was part of Russia for so long that this kind of war would be attacking your own actual brothers?

There is a point that we should see each other as brothers, but that is not the way of mankind. It’s more like stating that it is an ”eye (for) an eye” kind of situation – if you attack our countrymen and brothers, we will give you hell to pay. Finland was part of Russia, but we never spoke Russian (or) adapted much from their culture.

You make a reference to fighting at night (“In the veil of the night/In the shelter of the dark”) – do you know if a lot of the fighting in this war was done at night (which would use the Finns’ knowledge of the terrain to its best advantage)?

It was part of guerrilla warfare, when small groups went on skis to either scout the enemy movements or do small attacks/sabotage/damage behind the enemy lines. Sometimes it meant skiing for over 15 miles in freezing temperatures, but that was the safest way – move silently and avoid daylight.

The extended instrumental at the end of “The Hammer” leads into the actual instrumental, “Eye of the Storm,” and they are both rooted in piano. What do you enjoy about not just using acoustic instruments in WOLFHEART’S music but about playing them yourself specifically?

I just love to play acoustic instruments in general. With those, you can really hear the touch and the dynamics of the player. It is more honest that way. With the instrumental, I wanted to create a musical ”eye of the storm,” so that the whole album would not be blast beats and growling – (I wanted to) make similar moments like actual battles have, when (the) cannons and guns stop for a while before the next wave hits the frontlines.

“Born From Fire” is kind of a pivotal track. From what I read, the Russian casualties were much higher than the Finnish ones (even though they were better equipped, the Finns knew the territory and weather much better, as you say, “Lead them into the void/Cut their line of supply” and “Wait for the cold,” like let the climate help you). I think this track drives that point home – was that what you were trying to achieve here?

That is correct. It was brutal conditions to Finns too, but being out in nature in freezing temperatures was nothing new, so we had the upper hand. The terrain was very difficult for big army trucks, and once you managed to stop a convoy of trucks, tanks, and soldiers, they were facing two enemies in the middle of nowhere – Nature and the Finnish army.

Does ”Arrows of Chaos” refer to the Russian army specifically? You use the term “murderer,” and of course the invasion was completely unprovoked and ultimately unlawful?

Actually, that set of lyrics is based (on a) few similar stories from the veterans who felt like they were murderers and how the war made them like that. They knew that it was kill or be killed – and it was war, where each man had to do what they had to do – but they still carried that burden to (their) grave, knowing that they had taken (the) lives of others. Other soldiers were there because they were told to do so, just following orders. It is about the mental sacrifice of losing (a) certain innocence and purity.

The ending, “Ashes,” is what’s left when the fighting is done, the memories of those who have passed – was there a certain veterans’ story that might have inspired this, or was it just the logical conclusion to the story, to have a memorial type of song?

There was one story that inspired me a lot. One soldier saw his best friend wounded in the trench(es) when they were at the war; (they were) just 19. They had to retreat, and that was the last time he saw him and he never knew what happened to him. There (are) still (a) few search parties that go across the border every summer to find the remains of the veterans, and (at) the age of 90, this veteran got the news that his friend’s remains were found just in the place he remembered – still sitting in the corner of the remains of the trench. That is where the line ”We bring them home” comes from.

You have called this WOLFHEART’S heaviest album – in what sense exactly (musically, thematically)?

Musically. Of course the theme is heavy, but (it’s) nothing new in our songs. It is the fastest album overall we have done, and my drummer (Joonas Kauppinen) can confirm because this time we went on his absolute limits.

You brought Vagelis Karzis on as session guitarist on the album and he’s also touring with you – you said you’d played a lot of gigs with him recently, but what made you decide he was the correct match?

Vagelis is already a permanent member – that deal was closed before the end of 2019. We toured the whole last summer with him when he was still the session guy, and that was a perfect test to see if the chemistry will work. And it worked perfectly. We needed a European guitarist since we play 75 percent  of our gigs in Europe/Scandinavia. Vagelis has also toured multiple times in the U.S. and Europe (during his) seven years in ROTTING CHRIST, so he brings a lot of experience.

What made you bring back DAWN OF SOLACE, after saying you were stopping everything else except for WOLFHEART?

Actually, DoS was the only band I did not stop; it was buried by a shitty label back in 2007. DoS is the only project that I was forced to stop. It was not really on the planning board until I partly accidentally made demos of the songs ”Lead Wings” and ”Ashes” when I was supposed to work with new WOLFHEART material. When those songs popped up, I knew that they were DoS songs. The new album, “Waves”  is at once worlds apart from WOLFHEART and at once recognizable. The music is less dense, more straightforward, and of course, it has the clean vocals.

Since you are so in charge of everything in WOLFHEART, how are you with ceding the vocals to another singer? And why is a clean singer (Mikko Heikkilä) best for that particular project?

I am a huge fan of Mikko´s voice. We did four BLACK SUN AEON albums together – (he’s a) great artist and friend – so it was awesome to get him to sing the songs. I specifically wanted to keep my voice out (of) the album. My voice could not bring anything to this mood that DoS has. There’s no aggression in DoS, mainly sadness. Clean vocals tell the stories of the lyrics so much better and deeper. Mikko has such a mournful voice – he is simply the best vocalist for the job. And any singer is better than me because I wanted to push somebody else into the spotlight!

What’s Next?

As with most tours this spring, WOLFHEART’S “Devastation on the Nation” tour of the U.S. and Canada – led by ROTTING CHRIST and also featuring BORKNAGAR, ABIGAIL WILLIAMS, and IMPERIAL TRIUMPHANT – was cancelled and moved to Feb. 11-March 12, 2021, and will follow the same route. In the meantime, fans were also encouraged to buy tickets to a virtual gig the band released on April 9; over $15,000 has been raised so far.

And then what? Tuomas answered with his typical stoicity.

“We now just wait (to see) what will happen with summer festivals and are we able to get back to touring in September/October when our planned European headlining tour should take place,” he said. “We already received really good support from the fans with the virtual gig, so now we just wait (to see) what happens. We will figure out (how) to manage the situation.”

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