Interview: Wheel (Engl. version)

Last week Aidan and I published our “half-year best lists“ on the Epic Metal Blog. At number 1 for both of us was Wheel’s masterpiece Preserved in Time. With this in mind, we had been planning to interview guitarist Benjamin Homberger for some time to ask him about his doom band from Dortmund. We hope you enjoy reading it!

André: Benjamin, thank you for your time. There are probably a few readers who didn’t know Wheel before your current album Preserved in Time.

Benjamin: Oh, there were quite a few of them!

André: So let’s start with the basics: How did you actually come up with your band name?

Benjamin: Until 2009 we were called Etherial Sleep. Even today you can find a lot of funny spellings on the internet, like “Eternal Sleep“. Nobody could remember that, let alone write and pronounce it. At some point we didn’t want to do that any more. Cazy, our drummer, came around the corner with Wheel. We liked that, also because we already had the song “Mills of God“, released on our first album – there is this grinding mill wheel in the intro. If you imagine that figuratively, it’s a very doomy affair. So we thought Wheel is a great thing!

André: If we stay with your band history, the big time gap between Icarus (2013) and Preserved in Time (2021) is striking. How can that be explained?

Benjamin: There are several factors to be mentioned. Looking back, we would have liked to have done a few things differently on Icarus. The whole album could have been a bit more coherent – there are really many different things on it. In the context of the album, we don’t like everything on there so much anymore. That’s why we said to ourselves that we would basically like to take more time in the future, among other things for pre-production. There was only a rehearsal room recording of Icarus as a demo, but nothing else. Another story that played a role: We didn’t have a rehearsal room for half a year – so we had to find something else first. Then we started changing jobs, I was the first one to become a father, and the others followed suit. These are all points that slowed the whole thing down. In addition, Arkadius left in 2018, for a year, so to speak. We then tried to restart with Micha Baum from Midnight Rider, but that didn’t work out. At some point you reach the point where you say: Hey, the new songs we have now, we’ve been playing them for so long – the fact that we still haven’t thrown them out of the set shows that we’re up for it and they’re album-ready. After we had recorded the numbers, we first sat down together and thought about who could do it best for us. We tried out different producers – until we came back to Dennis Koehne, who already did the bonus track of our debut album, “Night of the Vampire“. And that worked out really well with him.

André: But you were still quite active live between Icarus and Preserved in Time? How often did you perform?

Benjamin: I can’t really estimate that. We generally don’t play live that often – also because there aren’t many stages for doom bands like us. But we have played live a few times, probably about ten to twenty gigs. Sometimes there is just a billing where everything doesn’t fit. We told ourselves anyway that we don’t want to play at every outlet, for example in a youth centre in front of a hardcore punk band, that’s really rubbish. Around the Hammer of Doom 2013 there were a few gigs, there was just interest in us, we also had a new album with Icarus. Then it died down: If you don’t have any current material, no one wants to book you.

Aidan: When you ask about favourite songs, there are many different answers. André names “Aeon of Darkness“, I’m more with the opener “At Night They Came Upon Us“. What is your favourite track?

Benjamin: My favourite track is probably “At Night They Came Upon Us“. It’s one of the younger songs, I had a phase where it was a bit more forward. I had listened to a lot of Epic Metal back then and wanted to do something that went a bit more in that direction. I’m really enjoying that at the moment. Apart from that, it’s difficult to pick out a single song. Some of them we’ve been playing for such a long time, for example “Daedalus“, which is the oldest song on the album. In between we even thought about throwing it out. It was somehow too long for me and I thought it was all too repetitive, even the chorus is a bit off-putting. But that’s always a personal perception and you always have to look at how it’s perceived in the band as a collective, what’s the mood like in relation to the song. At some point you just don’t have any distance to the things yourself.

Aidan: You can’t deny that the feedback for the new record is excellent, it was also reviewed very well by Ansgar. How did you perceive the feedback? And what did you expect beforehand? Did you think that Preserved in Time could be your best work, which is also classified as such by others?

Benjamin: After the last albums, I didn’t really expect much. After the deal with Cruz del Sur I had hoped that they would push the album. Our old label Northern Silence didn’t do any promotion, until recently there wasn’t even a Bandcamp page, let alone something like Spotify and the like, that simply didn’t exist there. Things like doom simply don’t work at Northern Silence, which is why some bands from our genre eventually left, such as Apostle of Solitude. Therefore, against this background, I didn’t expect anything at first. I had hoped that the record would be noticed in insider circles – that it was received so well so widely surprised me. An example: When Deaf Forever puts us at number 3 in the soundcheck, then that’s something completely different than when it happens in Metal Hammer, whether you like it or not. People simply have completely different criteria internally when it comes to evaluating an album. When I saw that we were so well received in both magazines, I was really proud.

André: When I look at the reactions of our readers on Facebook and Instagram, I also notice that many people who are not really classic Doom listeners are totally into your record. That’s certainly a good sign! You just mentioned Spotify, so I’d like to come back to that. What is your opinion of this platform as an artist?

Benjamin: The topic of Spotify is always discussed very controversially. The fact is that such companies don’t pay artists fairly. However, I think that nowadays it is essential to be represented on such streaming platforms. I can see that with myself: I only listen to vinyl and cassettes, I’ve packed almost all my CDs into the cellar, also because I don’t have any space for them here anymore. And apart from that, I use streaming, often on the road, because I always get to know new things – but I also buy them if they’re cool. Most records don’t come with a Bandcamp code, so you can’t listen to them on the road. Streaming is simply ideal for that. On the other hand, I can’t understand people who only have a streaming account and say that’s enough for me. I think in our Metal scene – I don’t know other scenes well enough to be able to judge – it’s like this: most people use these services, but in the end they also buy the music. So both parties have something to gain from it – and with Spotify you also earn a few euros, unlike YouTube, where you as an artist get nothing when someone uploads your album.

André: Let’s move on to another point: the artwork of Preserved in Time. It appealed to me right away. Can you tell us a little bit about it?

Benjamin: The title of the album came first, it came – like the band name – from Cazy. He also had the picture of an old mummy with it. We wanted to go in that direction at first – not only because Powerslave is an awesome album, but also because not so many people have used it yet. We didn’t think of something horror-like, but it should be more quiet and dark. But somehow we didn’t find anything suitable, i.e. we would have had to have something made. But that wasn’t possible because we didn’t have any money in the band’s coffers at the time, and Cruz del Sur didn’t want to put that much into it either – after all, a commissioned work like that costs a few hundred euros. That’s why we thought we’d draw a connection to the first album – also because it’s nice to have a recurring theme in the artwork. That’s why we looked again in the Art Nouveau area – when I did a Google search, I came across Koloman Moser. This is an Austrian artist who had published this picture as part of a calendar illustration. It appealed to me immediately. Since the artist has been dead for over a hundred years, there is no longer any copyright on it, so you can use the picture for your own purposes. That’s always quite grateful, as far as the financial side is concerned. So that’s how it came about – it also fits the title, with this hourglass with it and the Ouroboros snake around it. It all has an epic scope, you can interpret a lot into it.

Aidan: That already touches on our next question. The album cover radiates something mystical, of course, and the same can be found in the lyrics. You also touch on mythological themes, such as Daedalus, which is also connected to Icarus. What is your approach to the lyrics? How do you decide which themes are suitable for you?

Benjamin: Arkadius decides that for himself, more or less. He writes the lyrics on his own, the same goes for his vocal lines. Speaking of songwriting: I prepare most of it at home, with programmed drums on demos. Then the whole thing is picked apart in the rehearsal room and put back together again. Then everyone is basically responsible for their own instrument. For example, I don’t tell our bass player Markus to play this and that. He usually comes up with his own ideas, as does Cazy on drums and Arkadius on vocals. I think that’s what makes a band. If I were to dictate everything, it would be a solo project, and I don’t want that. A band lives from the fact that four guys get together and creatively do something together. To come back to the lyrics: Arkadius always writes quite personal lyrics, not typical fantasy stuff – that doesn’t happen with us. I also like bands that have such lyrics, but I also find it quite refreshing when you don’t and deal with other topics, for example from everyday life. We also deal with death and loss. It has to fit the way of singing in general, Arkadius has to feel what he sings. And then it doesn’t make sense to conjure up themes that he doesn’t feel anything about.

André: Now we’ve already come to the singing. Aidan and I were completely blown away by Arkadius.

Aidan: Yes, absolutely! You already said how important it is that these themes touch you. The emotionality with which Arkadius sings definitely stands out. I somehow immediately had to think of Warrel Dane.

Benjamin: We really put more time and effort into the vocal recordings this time. On the first album I did it completely alone with him. We dealt with that relatively quickly. And because we weren’t that experienced yet, looking back, some things could have been done better vocally. On the second album we actually went into the studio only for the vocals. I wasn’t always there, someone else recorded that with Arkadius. That’s quite okay. Only now we did it ourselves again, we really went through everything piece by piece, we recorded everything sentence by sentence so that it fits 100%. We’ve never worked with a second voice before, so it took us a long time to find the right second voice for each part. It was a lot of effort, but it paid off in the end.

André: Definitely! If you listen to your entire discography, Arkadius gave his best performance on Preserved in Time, to my ears. Of course, it has to be said that this is always very subjective, especially when it comes to vocals.

Benjamin: Exactly! It’s always very difficult for me, because I’m a guitarist and not a singer. It’s always difficult for me to say which take is the best after you’ve heard it five times. It’s really hard to judge sometimes.

André: Would you generally describe you as perfectionists in the studio?

Benjamin: Not at all! Once you’ve found a good sound, you don’t have to try 1,000 other things. I like to push a few mics and if it sounds good then, great. I’m not someone who then has to spend hours changing the angle or something. It’s the same with the amplifier: once I’ve found a good setting, it stays that way. That’s sometimes fatal: dust always accumulates there. If you then make the mistake of turning the knob again, it creaks – you might know this from your stereo at home. Then the sound is gone because the contacts have become clogged. As far as the sound of Preserved in Time is concerned, I already had very concrete ideas. It should be a balancing act between a modern production and a production with oldschool charm, so it shouldn’t be totally smooth and sound artificial.

Aidan: Yes, the record definitely has character.

Benjnamin: Yes, we also gave the mixer some templates, the last records by Smoulder and Cirith Ungol served as a reference. In the end, Dennis was able to implement it – other mixers said that the records didn’t sound good. Then I just thought, yes, well, then you didn’t understand, because that’s exactly how I want it. Either you feel that it’s so cool or you don’t.

André: Now you’ve already mentioned a few bands. Which artists are actually very important sources of inspiration for you? Solitude Aeturnus is mentioned in almost every review as a reference. Did this band influence you a lot?

Benjamin: Actually, not so much. But that’s very different for us in the band anyway. Markus, the bass player, and I listen to a lot of current bands, also from the doom area. Cazy is a bit more selective, he also likes to listen to Swedish death metal, real banging. Arkadius listens to the least current music of all of us. Solitude Aeturnus is a good intersection, we all like that band. I always listen to so many new things – and that always influences me in the same way. So Solitude Aeturnus is certainly an influence, but you don’t sit down and try to write a song in such and such a way. It comes out of you, out of your subconscious, things that you are processing – and that is reflected in the songs.

André: Let’s talk about the genre that we often focus on: Epic Metal. Are there any bands that you particularly like or that are very important to you? Aidan has one on his shirt, but there are supposed to be others…

Benjamin: Yes, Manilla Road. I’m very glad that I saw them in Lünen before Mark passed away after the gig at Headbangers Open Air. Epic Metal is the genre I listen to the most, there are usually not so many releases in the Epic Doom area. It started with Eternal Champion and similar bands. I recently got Starlight Ritual, for example, which is very strong. Blazon Rite is very strong, and I’m not just saying that because they come from our label Cruz del Sur – they release stuff like that all the time. If you think back to the retro rock hype of ten, fifteen years ago, Epic Metal has become something like that. I don’t mean “hype“ in a negative sense, but it’s a genre that’s very much in focus at the moment because there’s so much cool stuff coming out. So I’m following it with a lot of interest.

Aidan: In general, many Epic Metal bands have a completely different approach. What makes music epic for you? And when would you classify something as Epic Metal?

Benjamin: For me, it’s Epic Metal when I can imagine myself standing on a mountain like this at sunset [spreads arms wide]! That’s Epic Metal for me, when I have that feeling. It’s not like you think, oh, someone’s playing a Bathory riff, but it’s from the Viking era and not from the Black Metal era and so on, that’s just a head thing. But for me it’s about a feeling, about this sublimity, a horizon suddenly opens up. You just stand there and think: Cool, now a sword – and a beer!

André: Yes, I can really understand that. Recently I reviewed the Eisenhand LP. And in two or three songs you can even find the sublimity you just mentioned.

Benjamin: Yes, exactly. But they also have this cool snottiness. The sound still has this punk attitude, which appealed to me directly. The whole package of band and sound just fits, it’s coherent. That’s also very important in Epic Metal, it mustn’t be so kitschy. It has to be something real, the feeling is important, especially with the singing – it shouldn’t be a head thing, it’s not mainly about singing all the notes correctly.

André: Let’s get to a very tricky question that I always like to ask – Aidan already knows what’s coming next. Manilla Road or Manowar, in which camp do you see yourself more?

Benjamin: Manilla Road. Not because I think Manowar are stupid. Manilla Road just have this oddball character for me. I always preferred them as people. Of course, Manowar also made super strong songs and were also the blueprint for everything. But with Manilla Road I always had the image of dirty, wood-panelled cellars in which some fantasy novels are standing around. But also from the whole production and the songs, I have to say in answer to your question: Definitely Manilla Road.

André: In the last part of an interview, you’re allowed to dream a little bit. Let’s assume you had a huge budget when you went on tour. What would your stage design look like then? Have you ever thought about that?

Benjamin: No, you always rather think about what is realistic. At the last gig in Hilbeck we got some LED grave candles and set them up, that worked out quite well. I used to love Dio’s stage sets – with the castle, dry ice and all that jazz. A blue backdrop, even with a figure in the background, you could of course do something with that. You could work with several levels, the drums on top, stairs around it, an hourglass illuminated by lasers. But you have to ask yourself whether such a mega-popular show fits Doom Metal at all. After all, it’s music that touches you from the inside, so you don’t have to shake excessively. I mean, you can – I’ve done it before, for example when Orodruin played at the Hammer of Doom festival, I completely freaked out because they’re one of my absolute favourite bands. Well, we were thinking with Wheel about doing a new backdrop with the album cover and some sidestands with the hourglass symbolism on it. But that would be it. There doesn’t need to be any more fuss.

André: Let’s get to the very last question before we send you off for a well-deserved rest. Do you have an insider tip for our readers? A band they should definitely check out?

Benjamin: An acquaintance of mine, Tom Pieper, plays in a Doom band called is LOVE alive?. You might not know them yet, they also released a new album last year [Second to None]. People who like female vocals and traditional Doom might listen to it. Otherwise… well, what’s an insider tip? Nowadays nothing is secret any more! If a band is good, there’s a snowball effect and they’re represented everywhere in no time. You should also listen to Mystic Storm if you like thrash, it’s very fresh and maybe not everyone knows it yet.

André: Benjamin, thank you very much for your time. It was a very interesting interview!

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