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18th February 2014
METAL DISCOVERY: The new album, ‘Dawn of the Brave’, has just been released – have reviews and fan reactions been generally favourable thus far?
STEFAN: Yes. We got very great reviews and the fans seem to like it as well.
(Stefan Schmidt on Van Canto deriving no influence from other vocal-based bands)
"We are totally not into the a cappella scene..."
Interview by Mark Holmes
Official Van Cato Website:
A Storm to Come (2006)
Something of an acquired taste - sonic Marmite if you will - a cappella metal crew Van Canto are the sole purveyors of said subgenre. And just as that delicious-to-some, pure-evil-in-a-jar-to-others spread has persisted through the ages, likewise for the German sextet as they've just released their fifth album, 'Dawn of the Brave'. With an ever growing army of fans, it seems more and more people are acquiring a taste for metal vocalised with an array of "rakka-t-takka-takka-t-takka" and "mom-mom-mom-mom-mom" sounds. Four years have passed since Van Canto last spoke to Metal Discovery, so it was high time to quiz the band afresh. Stefan Schmidt provides the answers to dilemmas such as what happens when a band member suffers a spontaneous coughing fit mid-performance, as well as brief advice for those wishing to start their own a cappella metal band...
Van Canto - promo shot
Photograph copyright © 2013 Stefan Heilemann
Official Van Canto Facebook:
Thanks to Andy Turner for arranging the interview.
Hero (2008)
Tribe of Force (2010)
Break the Silence (2011)
Dawn of the Brave (2014)
MD: Is the album title supposed to be a self-reflective one in terms of what you do as a band?
STEFAN: We call ourselves “Hero metal a cappella”, so the idea was to have the concept throughout the whole album, starting with the title, continuing with artwork and photos and, of course, the music.
MD: I presume the cover art with the superhero standing on top of the trashed musical instruments is supposed to be symbolic of your a cappella approach… however, there’s a snare drum amongst the instruments which seems contrary to the fact you use a live drummer?
STEFAN: There are also computer keyboards, screens and so on. It just says that if there is nothing left, no instruments, no electricity, you still have your voice.
MD: There’s not just one, but two smashed up BC Rich Warlocks on the cover. Are you not a fan of BC Rich guitars in particular, or is it just a random thing that a couple appear in the artwork?
STEFAN: Wow, you focus on details, haha. There is no deeper meaning behind it.
MD: You’ve said in a previous interview that, in terms of cover versions, “if it doesn’t sound as great as the original then you shouldn’t do it.” You’ve tackled one of metal’s most seminal anthems this time around with ‘Paranoid’. Do you think Tony Iommi et al would be proud of the results, and do you think you’ve succeeded in making it as good as the original?
STEFAN: I cannot speak for Tony Iommi, but I think that we had a really good take on this song and added something special to it.
MD: I know you’ve said previously that you’ve not ruled out the possibility of incorporating non-vocal instrumentations on future Van Canto releases, so do you think the day will eventually come when you do want to progress beyond your a cappella roots?
STEFAN: We already worked with an orchestra and with an acoustic guitar. I don’t know. There is no master-plan. Right now it feels completely right to do the a cappella thing, but this doesn’t mean that it has to be like this for the rest of our lives.
MD: Although ‘Dawn of the Brave’ has seen no such progression as it’s purely a cappella, how would you say you’ve progressed within your established vocal-based aesthetic, and are you always trying to add new voice-based techniques to your arsenal of vocalised sounds?
STEFAN: It’s hard for me to judge, as I am way too deep into the process. So it would be interesting what you think about it. Personally, I noticed that we do not have to think about what we are doing anymore. It just happens; we are just singing, and not “translating” from a guitarist’s point of view.
MD: Despite the vast amount of vocal talent within the band, are you ever worried that people might dismiss Van Canto as just a novelty act with a gimmick, or do you think that you’ve succeeded thus far in transcending any criticisms of being just a musical curiosity?
STEFAN: It’s our fifth album, and with each album we reach more people, play bigger shows and get more response from people who really like what we are doing. We cannot deal with everyone who thinks we are a gimmick band. Personally, I do not care.
MD: Labelling yourselves as an a cappella metal band, do you derive as much influence from the a cappella scene as you do the metal scene, albeit the former is obviously not as wide in scope as the latter? I can hear a Flying Pickets influence on ‘Into the West’, for example.
STEFAN: Not at all. We are totally not into the a cappella scene and only played one gig on a vocal festival. We were the same “foreign” artists as we are when playing on a metal festival.
MD: There are moments on the album, such as with the Annie Lennox cover and ‘The Other Ones’, which stray from your a cappella metal stylings in favour of a more straightforward, genre-free a cappella approach. Have you ever considered recording an entire album as just an a cappella band; like the equivalent of Opeth de-metalling for ‘Damnation’?
STEFAN: You have very good ideas, conceptually spoken, haha. You should be a manager or producer! Again, there is no master plan. Perhaps we will do such things, but I cannot tell.
MD: You’re touring throughout February, March and April – I’m guessing one of the perks of what you do is that load-ins and soundchecks are generally pretty quick?
STEFAN: Yes, but not because we are 5 singers but because we played hundreds of gigs and know what we are doing. We have our own microphones, monitoring, cables, so we do not need many people of the local crew at all.
MD: As every part of your instrumentations, apart from drums of course, is reliant on vocalisations, do you take extra care to keep your voices in good shape in general, but more so while on the road?
STEFAN: Yes, that’s why we do not play more than 4 shows in a row and then have to take a break. Apart from that we try not to party too hard, only after the last show of a tour block. And we drink a lot of water.
MD: Obviously a sudden coughing fit or a spontaneous bout of the sneezes wouldn’t be so noticeable during a live show for a guitarist or bassist in a regular band, but I guess that could mar a Van Canto performance. Is this a constant worry and something that’s ever happened to you?
STEFAN: Haha, you’re genius! Spectacular question! But you’re right. Especially Ross and I have this problem as we are “distorting” our voices all the time. When it happens (about one time in 5 gigs) I always turn around to the drummer and hope that nobody notices it. But really, this is the first time that I have been asked this question, although it’s so obvious!
MD: At shows, do you ever find that people not only sing along to the actual lyrics, but also to the vocalised instrumentations?
STEFAN: Yes, that’s great! I also have been told by Sabaton that some of their fans start singing “Ran digi dan” as soon as Joakim finished his vocal line “Through the gates of hell”, haha.
MD: In the same way a guitar virtuoso might inspire someone to play guitar, are you aware, from any fan feedback, whether Van Canto have inspired anyone to take up the art of a cappella metal?
STEFAN: We get lots of feedback from choir groups who especially like our original ballads, like ‘Last Night of the Kings’.
MD: Finally, what advice would you give to anyone starting their own a cappella metal band?
STEFAN: No advice, they have to feel it. Ok, one advice: Think about breathing when you write a song, haha.