DATE OF INTERVIEW:
4th March 2010
METAL DISCOVERY: Hi, how you doing?
STEFAN SCHMIDT: Great, thank you.
(Stefan Schmidt on the demand for a cappella metal)
"It’s much easier getting gigs with this band compared to our former metal bands, which had been regular metal bands."
Van Canto - promo shot, 2009
Photograph copyright © 2009 Angst-Im-Wald - www.angst-im-wald.com
Interview by Mark Holmes
German band Van Canto, formed in 2006, are entirely unique in their approach towards the metal genre in that, apart from drums, it's all a cappella. That is to say, guitar riffs and solos, basslines, and keyboard parts are all replicated solely with their voices and, together with male/female lead vocals, they have an overall refreshingly original sound and an arsenal of infectiously catchy tunes. With their third album, 'Tribe of Force', recently released on Napalm Records, I spent some time talking with 'Rakkatakka' vocalist Stefan Schmidt on the phone to quiz him about Van Canto's chosen style of musical expression...
MD: Good. Right, I’ve got a few questions for you here. When you originally formed the band, was it difficult finding like-minded musicians who wanted to be in an a cappella metal band?
SS: Not that difficult because we knew each other from other bands. For example, I played together in a band with the drummer, Bastian, and I also founded my first band when I was thirteen or fourteen with Ike, the bass singer. So I knew them, and we knew the other singers from gigs we played together with other bands. When we started this as a vocal-oriented project, we remembered all the better singers we played gigs with, and asked them, and they joined.
MD: Great, so quite easy then.
SS: Yes, a private casting among friends.
MD: Right, pick of the best!
MD: ‘Tribe of Force’ is a fantastic new album - how have media reactions been so far? Have you read many reviews yet?
SS: Yeah. Since this is the first time that a Van Canto album has been released worldwide, the reactions are from all over the world which is very interesting for us, of course. As always with Van Canto, it has been like that with the first two albums in Germany, you get very positive reactions or more negative reactions; not so much in between. We think that’s a good thing because the worst thing that can happen to a band is that everybody says “well, it’s okay, but it’s not interesting for me”. We’re somehow in the extremes - there are many people who really like the different approach of instrumentation and who think this is a unique, original idea and there is also people telling us that we are ruining metal and we’re not allowed to do it!
MD: Really?! That bad?!
SS: Oh yeah, metal fans in metal forums and on Facebook and stuff. The journalists themselves, they are much more positive than generally metal fans because it’s their job to write about new things, and write about different bands, so I think that explains why they are perhaps a little bit more positive. But, to sum it up, we get a lot of great reactions and people who have known Van Canto since 2006 recognise that we have some evolution in our band sound, and some progress in our song writing, and that’s a good thing.
MD: Yeah, it’s quite a new discovery for me, actually, but I rated it 8 out of 10 in my review. I thought it was great.
SS: Thank you.
MD: You have some guest musicians on there as well. I understand you’ve got Victor from Rage, Tony from Sonata Arctica, and Chris from Grave Digger, of course. How did they become involved on the album?
SS: Well, three different people, three different stories! When we decided to cover ‘Rebellion’ by Grave Digger, the record company asked us to do a collaboration with Chris because Grave Digger is with the same record company as we are, Napalm. And, of course, that’s a great thing for us because when I first listened to ‘Rebellion’, I was sixteen or seventeen years old and it really was my summer hit in this year! So it was a great thing to work with the original singer of that one, and it was a great opportunity for us. Because of the contacts of the record company it was quite easy to ask him. With Victor from Rage, he produced the current Rage album together with Charlie Bauerfeind in the Blind Guardian studio, just after we finished drum recording. When we left the studio, they arrived, and I finally managed to ask him if he could imagine doing a solo guitar duel with a guitar singer and he quickly agreed, and did a great job. And Tony is the most incredible thing for me because I just wrote an email, and I never thought about getting an answer anyway, but we had the luck that he knew our ‘Wishmaster’ cover from the second album because he goes hiking with the Nightwish guys. So he knew Van Canto and he quickly agreed, and this was a special treat for Inga as well because she’s the biggest Sonata fan in Van Canto. She was very happy that she could do a duet with Tony Kakko.
MD: Yeah, a great guy to get on the album then. Was it the first two albums you released on your own label, or was it just the first album?
SS: Only the first album. The first album was re-released by GUN records, the sub-label of Sony BMG in Germany, and they also released ‘Hero’, the second album, and they were closed by Sony BMG at the beginning of 2009. That was when Napalm Records came back because they had been in contact with us since the first album, so we finally managed to get over to Napalm Records and they also signed the first two albums for worldwide release.
MD: Brilliant, yeah. So you only formed in 2006, and you’ve kind of risen quite fast to prominence in the scene - have you been surprised by how quick that’s been?
SS: Of course, because in the beginning it was planned as a project as a fun thing among friends to try something out in the studio and then we noticed, okay, this sounds interesting, we could do a video. That’s when we shot the clip of ‘The Mission’ and put it on the internet, and about two months later we had about 100,000 views. Then we decided it seems to be interesting to the metal scene, and we had fun singing, and we had fun performing metal songs a cappella, so we tried to play some gigs. It’s much easier getting gigs with this band compared to our former metal bands, which had been regular metal bands. I played with a band and we did something like…it’s hard to describe, but like modern Metallica…so a thrashy sound but with seven string guitars and a bit more modern and, although we got good reviews from journalists, we never managed to play any bigger festivals because there were about a hundred bands sounding the same, to be honest! With Van Canto, it’s much easier because we have this unique approach of instrumentation.
MD: Definitely. You’ve become quite renowned for…obviously you do a lot of original material too, but you’ve become quite renowned for the cover versions you do of well known metal songs. Have there been any songs you’ve tried to do in your own style but you’ve had to abandon those because they don’t really work in a cappella arrangements?
SS: You mean cover songs?
MD: Cover songs, yeah.
SS: Well, I can’t really remember…we quickly decide which bands to cover because we wanted to cover our favourite bands and we wanted to cover really big metal songs, because we wanted to show that even with big, well known metal songs that we can reach the same heaviness and the same sound with doing it a cappella. So we quickly knew that we should cover something from Iron Maiden, and something from Manowar, and Nightwish, and Blind Guardian, and Metallica…and the songs of each band, I know that with Iron Maiden we started with ‘Only the Good Die Young’ - that’s a favourite of mine - but with Iron Maiden we quickly noticed that you can’t do it any better if you compare to a singer like Bruce Dickinson. So what we decided was doing a different approach and we decided to do ‘Fear of the Dark’ and give it a more doomy atmosphere and give the lead vocals to our female singer, Inga, so that it’s clear that we do not want to do a hundred per cent cover, but an interpretation of the great, great song that you can do better. But the other songs were the favourites - ‘Kings of Metal’, of course, if you talk about Manowar you should have ‘Kings of Metal’, I think. Blind Guardian, we decided ‘The Bard’s Song’ because we wanted to have a great ballad that is known for working great live, because even at Blind Guardian gigs the band actually doesn’t sing it, the crowd sings it all the time. We thought that was a good cover song for a band with five singers! So it was quite clear which bands to cover and which songs to cover as well.
MD: So everything you’ve wanted to cover, it’s always worked out?
MD: Apart from ‘Only the Good Die Young’!
SS: Yeah, it could’ve worked a cappella but if it doesn’t sound as great as the original then you shouldn’t do it.
MD: Have you had any feedback from the original artists of the songs you cover? Like, I don’t know if you’ve heard from Metallica at all…
SS: We’ve had reactions from all artists. Only Metallica and Iron Maiden we didn’t get any response from the original artists, but only from the publishing company; we had to ask them for permission. They responded but I don’t think they passed it over to the original composers. We talked to Eric Adams from Manowar because we played the Magic Circle Festival last year last year with them; we talked to Hansi of Blind Guardian because we produced our album in the Blind Guardian studios; and we talked to Nightwish because we played a gig with them. We managed to get good reactions and they all think that it’s a really good thing. What we noted is the more famous the band is, the more relaxed it is with such experiments like Van Canto. There was no artist saying “oh, what did you do with my song?” All were really, really happy about it and really, really interested. Hansi of Blind Guardian, I think he’s a Van Canto fan! [laughs]