DATE OF INTERVIEW:
4th March 2010
METAL DISCOVERY: With the original music you compose…I’m sure you get asked this question a lot…what kind of writing process do you follow, and do you have to envisage how the riffs and bass parts would sound on actual instruments before you arrange the vocal parts?
STEFAN SCHMIDT: With the third album we are really used to writing a cappella songs so it’s not that difficult anymore, and the writing process itself is not that different from a regular band. There are songs which start with a hookline, and then play some chords on piano to work it out until it’s a song, or there are other songs starting with the guitar riff. What’s always first is the song, so when the song structure is done and we know the basic hookline of the lead singers, we arrange the song into our a cappella metal style. It also could be arranged into a true metal or power metal instrumentation. Most of our songs would work as regular songs too.
(Stefan Schmidt on maintaining the a cappella essence of Van Canto)
"...the closer we get to the original sounds, the less sense it makes having this band...We love to sound like a guitar or bass for perhaps a part in a song or for half a minute, but then we always try to arrange the songs in a way that we fall back into a real vocal arrangement..."
Van Canto - promo shot, 2009
Photograph copyright © 2009 Angst-Im-Wald - www.angst-im-wald.com
Interview by Mark Holmes
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VAN CANTO DISCOGRAPHY
Thanks to Andy Turner for arranging the interview
A Storm to Come (2006)
Tribe of Force (2010)
MD: Do you know if anyone’s actually covered any of your songs with actual instruments?
SS: We’re still waiting for Blind Guardian, Iron Maiden, Metallica, Manowar! [laughs]
MD: Of course, to return the favour! That would be an interesting experiment.
SS: It definitely would be interesting if somebody covered it or it definitely would be interesting having another a cappella metal band around so we could talk to them and share our thoughts and experiences. We are still the only one around, at least as we know.
MD: Yeah, I did a bit of digging on Google, and I couldn’t find anything. If you type in “a cappella metal”, apart from some strange sites I came across, all the references are to Van Canto, so I think you probably are unique.
SS: Yeah, that’s a good thing to be unique but, on the other hand, it would be great to do a tour, perhaps, with two or three vocal-oriented metal bands. They don’t have to be a cappella bands…but we could do so many things with exchanging singers and doing guest vocals on each others albums and stuff. But, we’re still waiting! [laughs]
MD: On some of your tracks the guitars and bass are imitated quite authentically so it does actually sound like guitars and bass, I think, but other parts you can clearly hear it’s voices. Is it your ultimate aim to get as authentic a sound as possible or do you try to keep a more human aspect audible in the voices?
SS: That’s a very, very good question. We talked about this in the very first week of Van Canto; we talked about it and said the closer we get to the original sounds, the less sense it makes having this band. If you sound exactly like a guitar, exactly like a bass, all the time, then we could use a guitar. We love to sound like a guitar or bass for perhaps a part in a song or for half a minute, but then we always try to arrange the songs in a way that we fall back into a real vocal arrangement so that everybody remembers - “oh wow, they’re just singers”. So it’s always a thing of how long you do an imitation part and then you have to break it down with a real, good, recognisable vocal part to keep up the illusion.
MD: Definitely. There’s a very good balance, I think, because it’s nice to have the parts in there which do sound like…I guess even to prove that you can imitate the guitars and bass which you are trying to do to a degree but then, like you say, it would defeat the point of being a cappella if it did just sound like guitars the whole time. There’s a very good balance, I think, in there.
SS: I think, now when I listen to the third album, we shouldn’t get any closer to the real sounds because it’s not that fun anymore. Especially when talking about the guitar solos, we are taking a microphone and plugging it into a real guitar amp with distortion and everything so the difference between the guitar signal coming into a guitar amplifier and a vocal signal is not that different. So that’s definitely a point where we can’t get any closer, at least I think so, so the solo parts in a song are always good to make people have this unbelieving look in their eyes. When the solo is over, it’s good that you hear real singers and real voices again.
MD: You call you vocal style “Rakkatakka” - is that an established style, or was that a word you invented to describe your voices?
SS: On the first album we didn’t experiment much with taking different syllables for imitating guitars. We only had “rakkatakka…rakkatakka…rakkatakka…rakkatakka” and, after we did it, we thought that was a cool word, or slogan, for describing our style. On the second album, we tried a lot with different syllables, like when you're imitating a palm muted guitar, you have more “mom-mom-mom-mom-mom”, and a bass guitar things like “dumma-b-dumma-b-dumma-b-do”, but still we kept this word “rakkatakka” for describing our style and, on the third album now, we have also tried to bring the syllables back into our arrangements. There are some parts starting with “rakkatakka-rakkatakka-rakkatakka”.
MD: I heard a bit of “runna-dunna-d-dunna-dunna” in there as well.
SS: Yeah! [laughs]
MD: Do you have strict vocal warm up routines before you perform live and is it difficult to maintain that vocal style for a whole performance?
SS: No, it is not that different from doing a regular metal show as a lead singer. The only thing is that the rhythm singers - Ross, Ike and me - we can’t do that much action onstage because we always have to manage to breathe. If we take too long breaks then the whole guitar sound, if you call it that way, is interrupted. We don’t do that much show, we just stand in our positions and go “rakka-t-takka-takka-t-takka”…and we leave the show elements up to the two lead singers and to the drummer.
MD: That sounds like a sensible idea!
SS: Yeah! [laughs]
MD: Would you say the a cappella style provides you with more scope to experiment with your music than, say, your average metal band who are using conventional guitar, bass and drums?
SS: Yes, I think so, because you can focus more on the basics. When playing in a regular metal band, it’s always a difficult thing to write an easy part just with three chords. But you can always say “I can’t compose that easily because this has been done a thousand times before, I have to do something new” and, in the end, you write very complicated songs. With an a cappella band you can write very easy and catchy songs because you always have the unique approach of doing it a cappella. It gives you the opportunity to write metal songs that bands did ten or twenty years ago - just cool arrangements, and cool harmonies, and cool hooklines, without paying too much attention if the melody itself is unique or not. For me, it takes a lot of pressure away in the writing process. It’s much more fun just writing a cool metal song.
MD: Out of interest, what kind of audience reactions do you get when you perform live? Do you get a lot of surprised faces in the crowd?
SS: Yeah, definitely. We get to play gigs in front of real Van Canto fans so they know us and know what they can expect, but if we play a festival where we are just one of fifty bands on the lineup then, of course, there are many people in the audience who do not know Van Canto. It’s always the same the first two songs; they look very sceptical - they look and see no guitar and think “what’s that crap?!”. Then by the third or fourth song they try to relax and start to headbang a bit, and by the fifth or sixth song all hands are up and everybody’s having a great time. At least it looks like it when I watch them onstage! So, of course, we have to do some convincing work because it’s not usual for a metal band not to have any guitars but, until now, most of the time, ninety nine per cent, it works and the audience have a great time watching us.
MD: Cool. Finally, do you anticipate Van Canto will continue as purely a cappella with drums, or have you ever talked about progressing in the future to introduce other aspects to your music…like, I don’t know, maybe performing with an orchestra or something like that?
SS: Yeah, we have this one orchestra song on the third album, a collaboration with a roleplaying games company from Germany who do something like ‘World of Warcraft’…it’s called ‘Runes of Magic’. They have classical soundtracks in their games so we did a song based on the main theme of this game, put our vocals on it, and that’s definitely a cool thing having orchestra, drums and voices. We could imagine doing something like this again but currently I don’t think it makes a lot of sense that we record a regular album with just guitars and stuff. Perhaps this would make sense if we could mix it with real cool a cappella arrangements, like if you think of songs like ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, if you do a rock or metal opera with extra choir and vocal arrangements, I can do this in ten or fifteen years when I’m too old to get up on stage anymore! [laughs]
MD: So rather than branching out and using other instruments, you want to progress and widen the vocal possibilities of the band?
SS: We want to keep it the way it is right now because we have a tour and then festivals…I cannot tell what we might be doing in two or three years. I don’t think about it, to be honest.
MD: You’ve mentioned touring - any UK dates planned at all?
SS: We applied for Bloodstock but didn’t get any answer, so…[laughs]
MD: That’s a shame.
SS: So if you know any of the people there you can remind them of how great Van Canto is!
MD: Actually, I do know the main stage manager, so maybe I’ll get him to put in a good word!
SS: The thing is, as I said, this is the first time Van Canto albums have been released outside of Germany so we cannot expect that every local promoter is instantly calling us and booking us for thousands of shows, but we definitely try to promote the album outside of Germany, doing interviews like this and a presence on the web, and we hope sometime we will do some gigs there.
MD: Well, the Bloodstock lineup is always quite diverse, so you would go down well there.
SS: Maybe we’ll apply again next year!
MD: There are still about 5 slots available on this year’s lineup so hopefully they’ll come to their senses and realise they need some a cappella metal at Bloodstock!
MD: Okay, right, cheers very much for your time.
SS: Yeah, thank you, have a nice evening.
MD: Yeah, cheers, you too.