Hot off the heels of the release of Wheel’s expansive sophomore album, Resident Human, frontman and lead guitarist James Lascelles was kind enough to take the time to offer some insights with regards to the meaning and context of this inspired piece of work. Sure enough, the musical complexity of the record is matched, if not exceeded, by its lyrical depth and James takes us on a tour of his idiosyncratic and philosophical worldview as well as letting us know how a varied childhood diet of Nirvana and classical music recitals set the stage for a future in prog-metal.
There are a number of recurring lyrical themes across the album, seemingly dealing with the human condition and the reconciliation of human nature with modern life. What inspired you to explore these themes and do you consider the record to be a concept album?
James: "I don’t think the record is a concept album although there is an underlying theme that unintentionally connects all of the lyrical themes together; a figurative deconstruction of what it is to be human in modern times."
"The album’s shorter songs are examining our collective behaviour. 'Movement' is excising my frustration about the rhetoric that followed the murder of George Floyd last year and 'Ascend' is considering the consequences of copy/pasting our opinions in public forums, rather than having to organise our thoughts independently and present them in our own words.
"The longer songs are all introspective and are considering the individualistic existential crises that I personally tried to reconcile with last year. The title track, 'Resident Human' is considering a concept I learned about in therapy, the meta-cognitive state of 'The Observer' which was explained to me through the metaphor of 'The Mountain'."
"The idea is that we are bombarded by vast quantities of information on a daily basis and tend to react with emotions first, particularly to information that clashes with our world view. 'The Mountain' is a proposed solution to this chaotic and destructive process and is about learning to observe what is happening around us without reacting to it. In all honesty, I still don’t always manage to do so myself but I’m tying to be more mindful of my behaviour regardless; on the days where I remember to try to see the world through this lens, it can help to make sense of what is going on around us."
The three ten minute plus tracks act as the real foundation of the album, what is the writing process like when putting together such elaborate and complex pieces? Do you set out intending to write tracks of this length or do they grow in the making? Are there any challenges in replicating compositions like this live?
James: "We’ve always had open minds when it comes to track lengths and have let the ideas themselves, dictate the ultimate length and mood of the final arrangements. I always thought that the term ‘progressive’ meant that we could do more or less whatever we like and ignore the bulk of the contemporary tropes that modern popular music tends to follow; this definitely applies to track lengths too – at least in my mind."
"When we are making longer songs, we always keep in mind that we are asking for a big commitment from a prospective listener and in return, we are brutally aware of our part of the bargain – to ensure there is a rewarding payoff for sticking with us for the entirety of one of those songs and to cut any unnecessarily clutter that would diminish the effect of the journey – we actually deleted a three minute chunk from 'Resident Human' just before the final mix was done for this reason. It was hard to let go of the part but once we did, the flow of the track was greatly improved."
"Writing longer songs is no different to writing shorter songs in the sense that it’s about trying to create an enjoyable progression for a listener and to explore a rudiment or concept that has interested us enough to develop it into a full song. Using the stranger meters we have explored on the record always feels a bit like learning a new language as we try and figure out the ideas that have the greatest utility within a given meter, groove and tempo and although this process often takes a long time, I think it’s the most crucial part when searching for interesting results."
"All of our songs present their own challenges when we try to recreate them live and the trickiest one for me is always trying to play guitar and sing them at the same time – the guitar and vocals are often working in two separate rhythms and that presents many difficulties when trying to perform the songs; I deliberately avoid thinking too much about how the parts will work together in a live setting when I’m composing and every time, regret the oversight when we finally get to the rehearsal room!"
How did you first discover heavy, progressive music and what inspired you to make this music yourself?
James: "When I was growing up, Nirvana were the first band that made me want to play heavy music. I loved the aggression of their nastier sounding records, particularly Bleach and Incesticide which completely blew me away – particularly when they let go and got really weird like they do in 'Beeswax' and 'Hairspray Queen'."
"My parents bought me a Gibson Les Paul when I was around 15 and the first time I turned my amp up and played a few notes on it, I knew that it was what I wanted to do with my life – even through the crappy Trace Elliot amp and cheap pedals I was using at the time, it sounded incredible to my untrained ears."
"I think my love of complex music started from a young age – my brother was a classically trained pianist and I would often wake up to hear him rehearsing Chopin and Rachmaninoff on our family’s piano. We frequently would travel to see him perform at Westminster Abbey in London too, where he was a member of the choir. Although at a young age I did not appreciate how incredible a lot of this music was, it left a lasting impression on me and directly fed my desire to experiment with concepts that aren’t so common in contemporary music – I wanted to write ‘big’ songs right from the start."
"In a universe that has no interest in being fair to any one of us, I think all of these positive happenings gain greater significance when considered in this manner."
Two of the tracks, Dissipating and Hyperion, take inspiration from the world of science fiction. How did this come about and how do the themes tie in to the wider message of the record?
James: "Both of these tracks were inspired by a series written by Dan Simmons called Hyperion Cantos, which I discovered and read last summer. The story in the books is fantastic and I would recommend it to anyone looking for some escapism but the underlying themes of the third and fourth books in the series were what spoke to me the most.
"'Dissipating' is about coming to terms with the indifferent universe we inhabit – making peace with the fact that although humanity is small and insignificant universally speaking, we are in turn absolved of any kind of cosmic responsibility and are free to find our own significance during our short lives here on earth."
"The book alluded to this as an alternative to nihilism and I found it liberating to consider my existence through this lens, particularly during a year where everything in my life was turned on it’s head due to Covid restrictions. The outcome for me at least, was to feel more purposeful in the choices I make and to find more gratitude for everything good that has happened to me in my life – in a universe that has no interest in being fair to any one of us, I think all of these positive happenings gain greater significance when considered in this manner."
"'Hyperion' is about our linear experience of time and the journey that everyone who has ever lived, will share between birth and death. One of the key themes in the books was the notion that the ‘death’ part of being alive is as crucial as the ‘life’ part and only through having both can we fully experience what it is to be alive. I also started to think about how we are all so immersed in our own experience of this journey (and I am definitely immersed in my own) that we forget that everyone else around us is facing the same existential uncertainty, fears and limitations that we are; this really should be the ultimate leveller and is something I am trying to be more mindful of with people I interact with from now on."
"The song is about standing shoulder to shoulder, facing our inevitable oblivion together and to remind us that no matter how divided we may feel, we are all heading to the same place. Just like the conclusion in 'Dissipating', I think the natural consequence of this line of thinking is gratitude for all we get to experience."
Musically speaking, how do you think the Wheel sound has evolved on Resident Human when compared with Moving Backwards? Do you see yourself staying in this realm on the next album or evolving further?
James: "I think Resident Human has been a big step forward for us and has been a crucial part of the process of further defining what our values are and by extension, what our sound is."
"It is more vulnerable and human sounding than our previous record which we attribute to how much we performed live together before releasing the album – we are still a relatively new band and before Moving Backwards we had played around 20 shows ever. After that album came out, we played over 100 shows in 2019 and we got really used to the specific interplay between the musicians in the band; where the tempo naturally moves, where we push and pull at the groove together and where our dynamics naturally end up – we were keen to preserve these elements on the recordings."
"We tried some things that we had never done before like switching off the click track completely in 'Hyperion' and we chose to under-edit the parts, leaving more of the imperfections in the final mixes than we have chosen to previously – apart from material that encompasses a greater dynamic range and more experience doing what we are doing, this added layer or humanity is the main thing that separates the album from our previous one in my mind."
"We are always evolving as a band and are always looking for new things to try and new ground to cover – I have absolutely no idea what the next album will hold for us and I wouldn’t have it any other way. We are keen to make the next record more collaborative and I believe we will, especially as it appears touring is unlikely to return any time soon – we might as well get started on some more music…"