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Plus how important Headbangers Ball was.

A photo of the members of the band Wolfheart
Photo by Teppo Ristola

It's a period of change for Tuomas Saukkonen. At the helm of Finnish melodic death metal flag-bearers Wolfheart, Saukkonen has catapulted the grizzled and ferocious ensemble to the heart of the genre, releasing the critically acclaimed King of the North earlier this month a mere two years removed from the release of 2020's opus Wolves of Karelia.

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Now, backing an album that features an expanded lineup (including three vocalists), and guest collaborators including Killswitch Engage's Jesse Leach and Nile's Karl Sanders, Saukkonen is embracing the unfamiliar, including the long awaited reunion of Before the Dawn where Saukkonen himself transitions from vocal duties to drums.

We sat down with Saukkonen for a deep dive into Wolfheart's new album and unexpected collaborations, the return of Before the Dawn, his earliest introductions to heavy metal and much more!

On The Release & Recording of Wolfheart's King of the North

"It's been really good. It's been really good considering there's a few quite big changes with the vocals especially. I know how metal fans can be when you change the balance with the vocals, especially with it being like 99% of my growling up until now. And now we have quite a big percentage of clean vocals. So that doesn't always go well with the fan base. But in this case it's been surprising, like maybe 1% has been complaining about that.

"But I think also because the execution with the vocals is so good from both Vagelis and Lauri and even if you are not into clean vocals you understand the quality. But it was a little bit like a risky move, but it seems to have paid off.

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"It definitely opens a lot of doors (adding a third vocalist), because with my vocals only being the lead vocals it gives a completely different pressure for the guitarist to bring the melodies for each song. And that starts to be repeated at some point when it's always the same instruments, bringing the melodies, and then my vocals being basically percussion. I can only add rhythm with my vocals. So of course having two melodic instruments in the composing is a huge step. Definitely, it was a huge upgrade for me also as a songwriter because, like you said, I think that's the perfect way to say, new tools in the toolbox. It's quite a big advantage. 

"It was a lot easier. Like there were different deadlines this time because like you said, there was nothing in the calendar. There were only a few standalone festivals in Finland that we did, so both summers. So there was nothing interfering with the writing process, although I had so much more time to use on the pre-production also.

"But the downside is a lot of uncertainty in the air, only question marks, basically only getting bad news from the industry, more tours being postponed, things being canceled two summers in a row without proper festivals. And last summer we already knew that this summer was going to be partly fucked up because all the festivals were pushing this lineup that was booked for 2020. So there was only bad news coming from the industry.

"So it was a lot more difficult to find the motivation to write music because partly it felt like it doesn't make any sense to release albums because we already lost previous full length because of the pandemic. Then we did the Skull Soldiers EP that was supposed to come out when the pandemic was over, which did not happen because it just took another year with the virus. So yeah, the motivation was the challenge. There was certainly more time, but to be able to use that time effectively, that was a little bit more tricky. 

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On Collaborations With Jesse Leach & Karl Sanders on King of the North

"I think why it fits is because it happened as a result of an accident. It wasn't planned like it usually is. Our management was asking before the recording of the album that, if we would be into it, they would start asking some bigger names to do some collaboration. I said definitely no, it's not a good idea. I don't like the idea because this is the first time that Vagelis and Lauri are having a much bigger spotlight with the vocals, so I don't want to take that away from them, and I don't really think the album would have needed it. Then things happened by accident, and because it wasn't planned, it just happened. I think that's why it actually felt so natural.

"And with the song also fitting that well for him [Jesse Leach], his vocals and mine together. We were already mixing the album when I started talking with Jesse, because I didn't know him before until I saw this one Instagram story that was sent to me by one Russian fan, that he had one of our songs in the background. And I sent him a comment like 'a nice choice of a song.' I didn't expect him to reply and he did reply, and he started telling me he's been a fan of the band and asking how things are going and is there new music coming out and in general.

"But we were mixing the album already and the conversation really quickly went to a place where I had the opportunity to have him do vocals, but I had all the vocals done already. So the natural selection for me as a songwriter, I told him that I have a song, which I did not have at that point. And I wrote the song in two days, sent him the demo, and then we started working the vocals on that song. So the song 'Ancestor,' where he's doing the vocals, is written for him and me. So it was not just a song that was done for the album, and then we just had somebody do something and try to make it sound like it would actually be part of the song or the album.

"So the song was written in the mixing phase of the album just for him and me to sing. And as a songwriter that was the coolest thing ever. Like he's been one of my vocal idols since the Alive or Just Breathing album came out. Writing a song, knowing that he will be part of the song and thinking like his different vocal styles, how he would fit in on a blastbeat, just the amount of ideas that I had in my head and the excitement.

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"In that phase when you're usually mixing an album you've heard the songs 2000 times. There's nothing new, you heard all the layers, everything is familiar. There's nothing, like in that sense, exciting. And then suddenly you are back writing a song for the album with one of your vocal idols that just a few days ago happened to tell you that he's a fan of the band. So that also changed the whole album making process. That doesn't happen in that schedule."

On Pandemic Lessons

"Definitely a lot of things are happening now. Time will tell. Will it be too much in the end? But it feels good now. There were two years of very complicated times and it was very difficult to find the motivation. And now everything feels good that's connected with making music.

"So I think that's the one thing of the pandemic and what I learned from the pandemic, it's like now that I'm able I'm just going to do the things I want to do that I enjoy. And I don't want to think too much about it or second guess because who knows what's going to happen next? We are on the brink of the Third World War at the moment, Finland being right on the border of Russia. So whatever is cool that I can make happen, I'm just going to make it happen."

On the Return of Before the Dawn

"Juho, the guitar player of Before the Dawn, he also plays in Swallow the Sun and they've been really active for the past 20 years. So I don't think they're going to slow down in the future either. But yeah, it's going to be complicated. But I don't think it's going to be an obstacle for any of the bands.

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"We're going to find a way to make it work. And the album is going to come out next summer. We already started booking festivals for Before the Dawn and we already recorded the drums and the rhythm guitar. So the album is pretty well in the making already."

On Nearing Ten Years of Wolfheart

"To me, Wolfheart feels like the new band. Especially because it only got underlined even more strongly now that Before the Dawn is coming back. Because that's the old band now. And to me Wolfheart I think is always going to be the new band. And I really don't feel like it's been ten years. A lot of things have been happening and we are being really active with the songwriting, but it definitely doesn't feel like a decade in my head."

On His Formative Metal Moments

"There are actually two big moments. I was living in this small village, seven kilometers from the Russian border where my father's farm is located. Still a very small village. It's kind of like being isolated naturally. In the early eighties there was no electricity. We had electricity, but no internet, no music magazines came.

"There were no music programs. It was really hard to find music and learn about rock and roll or metal music or anything in general. But the neighbor of our house, the kid of the family happened to be the vocalist of the only death metal band in the whole village. So I got to hear growling vocals way too early.

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"So he gave me the cassette demo that they made, the first one, and that was like a surreal moment because usually you have stepping stones. You go from a little bit softer, you build up to find the more extreme music. You don't dive into it directly in that way. That was definitely one of them.

"And I still remember the song precisely how it went, the first song on the demo. I can say that there's a certain pattern that got stuck in my brain when it comes to starting the song. I kind of like, not ripping them off, but kind of using the similar formula. From that day on I really enjoyed opening the song with a big chord. And that just made a big impression.

"And the second one was one guy I knew in the village. They had MTV and he was recording Headbangers Ball. I started learning about music and a lot of new bands and different genres by watching music videos instead of buying albums. So I went with the very strong visual connection with the song. A lot of the new music I actually saw and listened to the first time.

"So I became a fan of music videos at a very early stage. And that's one of the reasons why I still do all of our music videos. Every song that I write I always have an idea of which kind of music video should be supporting this song. So those kinds of things have been shaping my career quite strongly, how I begin the songs when I write the songs on some occasions, and why I still really like to do the music video or stuff."

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Parting Thoughts

"For all the fans of any of my bands, just hold tight. It's going to get a little bit crazy with the schedules with the stuff coming out. There's already a North American tour also confirmed but I'm not allowed to say any details. But finally, we are coming back.

"It's been three years since we did any gigs in North America, and that's just insanely way too long. So at the beginning of next year, we're going to be back."

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