Intimations of Immortality: An Interview with Wilderun

A very strong argument could be made that the Boston-based Wilderun are the finest, most professional sounding unsigned metal band on the damn planet. For the uninitiated—which seems to include every lazy-ass A&R person at every metal label out there—this five-piece play a heavily orchestral brand of prog- and death-tinged folk metal. Think Deliverance-era Opeth—musically and vocally—combined with Blind Guardian’s Nightfall in Middle-Earth grandiosity and latter day Amorphis and you have a reductive but effective idea of where this massively talented band are at stylistically.

The word “orchestral” scares the shit out of most metalheads crammed into ill-fitting Slayer t-shirts. But having Dan Müller and Wayne Ingram (both of whom work/have worked professionally on film scores outside of the band) handle the symphonic weight in Wilderun, means that this major sonic aspect is integrated flawlessly and completely devoid of the kind of cheesy string embellishments that make most average metal fans lactose intolerant. 2019’s widescreen Veil of Imagination is the current apex of their collective artistry (the band is rounded out by vocalist and rhythm guitarist Evan Berry, lead guitarist Joe Gettler, and drummer Jonathan Teachey)—an album that was without a doubt one of the grandest metal LPs of last year, yet unfortunately, critically unsung for the most part.

We here at Decibel always try champion the underdogs of the underground, so in order to right some wrongs, we caught up with Wilderun and went deep into their creative process for Veil as a means to give this independent and deserving band whatever platform we could so that more ears out there hear their elaborate, evocative and wholly engrossing compositions, best exemplified to date on their masterful third studio album.

Decibel: Every time I listen to 2019’s Veil of Imagination the first question that loops in my head is how in the blue hell are you guys not signed to a major metal label like Nuclear Blast or Century Media right now?! What’s been happening with the business side of things?

Berry: Yeah, it’s been a decently long, independent road for us. It’s hard to say why exactly. Our first record [2012’s Olden Trails & Deathly Tales], and our second record [2015’s Sleep at the Edge of the Earth] to a lesser extent, were more rooted in the folk metal world, and I think there’s a chance it was just bad timing. That whole scene seemed to die down a few years back, so maybe we were just missing the tail end of it. I also imagine it’s not the easiest task to promote 8-10-minute long songs! Luckily we’ve gotten a bit more attention lately, so I think the future is looking more bright in that regard.

Wilderun pulled out the big guns when it came to mixing and mastering Veil, by hiring Dan Swanö and Jens Bogren—two of the leading men in their fields. Presumably neither man’s services come cheap. So how did you guys fund the recording and mix/mastering expenses as an independent act?

Müller: We were actually lucky enough that this was the first album we did where the entire production and pressing was paid for purely by sales of the previous records and money we made from touring. So to be able to hire two of our favorite engineers to work on a record of ours and to have it all be “paid for” was really quite an experience.

What made you feel the need to hire such expert technicians like Swanö and Bogren—did your confidence in the material you had written influence the decision? Was there any albums in particular that drew you to their work?

Müller: We definitely felt good about the material and we’re constantly looking to grow as a band, so seeing about hiring some big name engineers was the next logical step for us. We also felt like experimenting with having different engineers on every part of the process in order to keep perspectives objective at every stage. It’s so easy to lose that objectivity when you’re working with the same material for weeks or months at a time. I’d say for me, it was Dan and Jens’ work on Insomnium’s Winter’s Gate and Opeth’s Ghost Reveries, respectively, that sold me on that team.

Since this is our first piece on Wilderun, can we go back in time to when the band formed. How did you guys meet and settle on your sound, which seemed realized from the beginning?

Ingram: Back in time to 2010, I was walking through one of the halls of rehearsal rooms at the music school we were attending—keep in mind none of us knew each other yet. On a bulletin board full of the ever-common posters and flyers for “jazz quintet seeking bassist” or “keyboard player needed for funk cover band,” I saw a lone flyer that said something like, “Looking for members for symphonic folk metal band.” That was right up my alley, so I feverishly tore off one of the little tear-off tags that had Evan’s email on it and contacted him. At that time Evan had been experimenting with a certain type of live setup with a few early versions of songs from Olden Tales and decided he was gonna be the only guitar player.

Cut to about a year later, Evan emailed me telling me that that previous live setup hadn’t worked out, and since I was the only person that contacted him about his symphonic folk metal project in a whole year, that maybe we should meet up. We got together at my apartment and he started showing me all of the songs he had been working on. Other than me playing guitar, another big reason Evan reached out to me was because he also wanted to work with someone who could do the orchestral-composition side of things. We thought we would record a small demo, with both of us playing guitar, and me fleshing out his orchestral ideas for a few songs.

Once we started working on what would become “The Cracking Glow,” we both came to the conclusion that this shouldn’t be just a demo and we should actually make an album for all of these songs Evan had written. And for that you need a band. So Evan knew Jon [Teachey, drums] already, and oddly enough, at this point Jon, Joe [Gettler, lead guitars], Dan and myself were very leisurely jamming together at school as an old-school metal band which we dubbed Chalice. So we got Jon and Dan to come record on Olden Tales, and then eventually absorbed the whole Chalice consortium on Sleep when Joe came in to take over lead guitar duties.

In what ways, as musicians, would you say you evolved between Sleep and Veil?

Müller: Sleep was a major learning opportunity for us. It was the first album we worked on that we had an audience for so we kind of knew that when we released it, it would rub people differently depending on what aspect of Wilderun hooked them in in the first place. Veil was more of that in a way, but we also felt more comfortable just writing what felt natural to us. We became more confident in ourselves after the release of Sleep, I think.

Some of us also got married and had children in that time so knowing that you have people in your life who are dependent on you makes you really hunker down and work hard to make everything worth your time. At least it did for me. I spend a lot more time nitpicking my orchestrations and bass lines because I really wanted us to outdo ourselves this time around.

Your song-writing in its final outcome sounds extremely labored over. Can you tell me how you wrote for Veil? Do you write as a collective or does Evan take the lead?

Ingram: It’s definitely more of the “band” demos that come first, and then Dan and I orchestrate off of that. The guitar and drum demos play out all of Evan’s ideas for song structure and harmony and melodic stuff. But there definitely have been times when while writing orchestral parts, Dan or myself will come up with a French horn part or inner string line that we all like so much that we will go back and alter the band stuff.

The orchestration on each track gives a very cinematic effect to the progressive arrangements. Which comes first, the heavier, more guitar based passages or the orchestral embellishments?

Müller: It’s all more or less written simultaneously. Evan had rough demos for all the songs going in and we orchestrated and wrote our individual parts based off of that, but this time we really made sure we didn’t let anything stay set in stone. We made sure that if we had an idea with the orchestrations or anything else that we could change things up in the guitar demos and vice versa. In the end, everything needs to be feeding off each other. Nothing exists entirely on its own.

How were the orchestral passages conceived ? Is there a major film soundtrack influence underpinning the band?

Müller: Our main goals with the orchestrations this time was to not overcomplicate them and to treat them more as part of the band than their own separate thing. On Sleep we had so many interesting countermelodies happening simultaneously that they ended up getting lost in the mix. And that was not a fault of the engineer. We just packed too much in that bag. This time around, we decided to keep things a little simpler but really beef them up and figure out the best instrumental combinations to enhance each individual part.

I think too many symphonic metal bands get too much in the mindset of, “Here’s the band and here’s the orchestra playing behind them.” Wayne and I are trained film composers and orchestrators so we naturally think of how every element of the orchestra works together to create the whole. So for Veil, we took that same approach with the band/orchestra dynamic. We made sure that if the orchestra was going to be big on a section, the band would make room, and if the band was the focus, we’d keep the orchestrations minimal. This was also the first time we experimented with working synths into the orchestrations to fatten up the bigger moments or to simply change the timbre of the orchestra a bit.

Ingram: Dan and I definitely have varying symphonic influences, but I really like that about our orchestra writing. There wasn’t one main soundtrack influence on Veil, just Dan and I taking our favorite usages of the instrument families in the orchestra and molding them to fit around the metal band. It really always comes out being greater than the sum of its parts. Also it seems that every album we do, both Dan and myself are always upping our sample library game, which in turn inspires us in new ways when we write. There were some brand new choirs and string libraries on this new record. Dan mentioned using synths on Veil as a new texture, and alongside that I also made a couple of small custom sampled instruments for some of the non-orchestral textures on the album.

Did the complexity of the arrangements cause any difficulties during the tracking? There’s so much space given at times and the swells of instrumentation that come in… it sounds like it would be very hard to capture and sensibly arrange in the studio.

Müller: Surprisingly no. We had been working on the orchestrations for almost nine months before tracking so we were intimately familiar with every detail. If something sounded off in the orchestrations during the tracking process we’d make a note to adjust it after tracking was wrapped up. Of course, simply adding the final tracked instrumental and vocal takes to the album helped influence the changes we made to the orchestra to compensate.

One seemingly major influence from your music is Opeth’s old approach to progressive death metal. Which era of the band is your favorite? What’s your opinion on that influential band dropping the death metal?

Müller: Ghost Reveries is probably my favorite. I think it’s got some of Opeth’s riffiest moments, and that always appeals to me. I appreciate what Opeth is doing now because they are doing what speaks truest to them and I think in the end, that’s what’s most important.

Not to limit your sound in any way as there are a lot of differences, but it’s as though you guys could fill the void missing in the hearts of old Opeth fans who miss the heavy. How would that feel?

Müller: I’m glad we can fill that void for some people but it’s definitely not our goal. Personally, I’m not really thinking of Opeth when I write anything for Wilderun, but I can’t deny their influence on me, so I guess it just happens naturally. 

I’m also getting Blind Guardian bombast from the arrangements, as well as influences from folk metal like Amorphis or Insomnium, and even old prog like Yes, Camel, Jethro Tull. Am I close to any of your influences here or have I missed the ballpark?

Müller: Blind Guardian are huge for me and I grew up on folk metal and prog so that’s definitely in there. I find my bass lines to be heavily inspired by a lot of first- and second-wave black metal bands because I have so much sonic space to fill when the guitar parts are doing all these open strumming parts. Orchestrally, I draw most of my influence from contemporary classical composers like Philip Glass or Iannis Xenakis, but lately I’ve also been experimenting with using electronic music production techniques within the context of a band like Wilderun.

Ingram: You definitely are hitting on some big common influences between all of us in Wilderun. Personally, in addition to my love of folk and symphonic metal, I have a huge soft spot for 1970’s prog like you mentioned: Kansas, Yes, Gentle Giant, Alan Parsons Project, Genesis, just to name a few. The long-form song structures are always so interesting to me, and it was like a whole new wave of experimenting with odd meters, rhythmically interesting musical ideas, cinematic sections but done within a rock band setting. Those influences are always with me when I conceive of music, especially with my guitar playing.

With orchestral stuff, I’m always drawn to Alan Silvestri, John Williams, and John Powell for their vast understanding of the inner workings of the orchestra and the bombastic/adventurous nature of their scores. But conversely, I totally love composers like Thomas Newman, Dario Marianelli, Ólafur Arnalds and Jóhann Jóhannsson for their emotional depth and nuance their music creates. Basically I’m always trying to find ways to put together all these things with a metal band and make it sound fresh and cool. I also find a lot of inspiration in creating/building my own instruments, just to make some new unique textures instead of always trying to re-invent ways to use existing instruments. This is something I am really starting to do more of for future projects.

Some of Joe Gettler’s lead-work is beyond classy. What has he brought to the band since joining?

Ingram: So this is actually Joe’s second album playing leads. I did the lead guitars for Olden Tales, and then he started playing leads on Sleep. Over the years the core line-up has pretty much stayed the same. But we brought Joe on board during the recording of Sleep because at the time, I was working insanely long, arduous hours, seven days a week, at a music composing/production house, writing music for TV. I did that for about five years, and so as you can imagine, that kind of job consumes a lot of your life. With me living on the opposite coast of the rest of the guys, getting married, and the need for Wilderun to continue to play as many shows as possible, I came to the decision that Joe should take over for me as lead guitarist and I would maintain in the band as an orchestrator and also play different oddball instruments on the albums, such as the slide guitar on Sleep. Huge shout out to Joe for taking up the lead guitar duties. In my opinion, Joe’s specific style of playing adds a classic old-school metal lead guitar sound to Wilderun, which is a really cool color to have juxtaposed to the blast-beats and open strummed chords.

As alluded to, your sound has broad appeal for fans on both the prog and the extreme metal side, and the tethered link between the two. But you seem to have received more coverage and praise from the prog side to date. Why do you think that is? Would you like more exposure to the metal world, where you appear to belong the most?

Müller: I definitely think of us as a metal band. That being said, we try not to put too many limits on our sound and we are obviously influenced by a lot of prog bands, so I’m happy to get the exposure to that crowd. It’s funny because I never really considered us a prog band. So much prog has a very specific sound that we don’t have, but I see how we appeal to those fans with the long song structures and all. We’ve always tried to branch out into different niches, though, so I appreciate that.

How do the William Wordsworth quotes which bookend Veil fit into the record lyrically? Is there a concept at play?

Berry:  A lot of Veil is about losing your grip on reality, or at least losing your grip on the true and beautiful nature of reality, and instead moving inward, viewing the world through layers of analysis and concepts. The Wordsworth poem is a brief glimpse back to the days of childhood, before our minds were really able to heavily interpret and conceptualize the world, and simply took in raw sensation at its most fundamental. The “narrator” seems to understand he’s largely lost that ability to feel the true essence of existence, which sort of leads into the album’s question of how to get back there. 

There’s a lot of naturalistic imagery in the lyrics, and hardship. How does this tie in with the multi-dimensional artwork?

Berry: I always felt like the “creature” or “man,” or whatever you wanna call it, in the center of the artwork looks somewhat deadened and calcified. He seems to be possibly blind to the colorful, vibrant world around him, even though it is literally a physical part of his being.  So I felt like this artwork [created by Adrian Cox] conveyed that struggle and longing of a dull soul to deeply feel the essence of the world.   

Are you going to tour and promote Veil, or does being unsigned impact the amount you can do given the layers of instrumentation on record?

Müller: Our plan right now is to promote Veil as much as we can through touring and such while still working hard on new material. We’re hoping it won’t be another four years before the next record.

Veil is like the totality of your sound displayed in beaming technicolor. How do you eclipse it in the future?

Berry: I think we do our best to try to not compare our albums too heavily, or think about how to do the same thing better. I feel like that’s usually a trap that will leave you creating a less inspired, more bland product that will inevitably just be forever compared to a previous album, which unfortunately so many bands seem to fall into. So I think we’ll probably just do our best to try something new with each record. Even if there are inevitable trends, and a consistency to our sound, I think the mentality of new explorations is probably the best chance we have of continuing to make cool stuff.