jamming like we did with our very first metal band

Van Canto

On April 15 I had the pleasure of interviewing a band I’ve been following for quite some time. Their music intrigued me from the first time I heard it, because it’s so different. I mean, an a capella metal band? There’s only one, as far as I know! I’m talking of course about Van Canto. They just released their latest record: Voices Of Fire: Vocal Metal Musical. This is a very special release, consisting, for the very first time, completely of their own original work. And of course, it’s accompanied by a book. Reason enough to go have a chat with them!

The interview took place in the Turbinehallen in Oberhausen, a few hours before their show. It turned out to be a big, old building. Me and Dennis, my photographer apparently entered the building using the wrong door, which led us straight through the stage set where Overkill was practicing for the next day. Some days are just too perfect.

After finally finding the right part of the building, we sat down with Stefan Schmidt in a small corner of the complex, next to a freezer, for a very pleasant conversation.

First of all, thank you for taking the time to talk to us!

Thanks for finding this venue and this room! *laughs*

Yeah, it was a bit of a challenge, but nobody stopped us at the door, so we made it.

Yes I told them that there would be some interviews.

Actually there was nobody there. Anyway! How is the tour going so far?

This is the last leg of the tour, so it’s one month of Europe, and in the end we have some German shows as always. We love it, it’s great! And in the cities where we have been before, when we come back we have more visitors than the last time, so everything’s fine.

How is the new material working out for you?

Better with each show. To be honest, this is the only thing that we would change if we could do it again, we would have one or two weeks more between the release of the album and the start of the tour. Because we noticed that each week that is between, people are getting more and more used to the material, and they sing along and everything, so right now where at the stage where the new material just works as good as the old material.

So you rather have the album out there for a little bit before you go on tour, that makes sense.

Yeah, but since it’s a concept album, it was important for us to have the start of the tour at the German book fair in Leipzig, so dates were quite fixed on that, but it’s nothing to complain about. It works really well, but we noticed it works even better with the later dates.

How is the reception of the album so far? Do the fans like it?

Yeah, very good, the fans love it I guess. We also get a lot of good response from those people who think it’s very good that everything is our own original material. There’s no cover on it and the concept behind it is also made by us. So the whole concept is 100% Van Canto, and that’s really good for us.

This was the first time that you did a whole original album, wasn’t it?

Yes. On the first album we only had one cover, and we always tried to have two or three own songs, and then one cover. Of course, if you cover songs from bands like Maiden or Metallica, it’s obvious that many people know us from the covers, but our goal is always to have them attracted to Van Canto by a cover, and then getting them into our own material as well. Which works quite well.

It’s a good way to do that. Your new album is a very different record from your previous work I think. Is it a soundtrack to a book? Or is it a book with an album?

You can’t tell which way around, because both of the se things have been created simultaneously.  There have been some chapters in the book that have been written, sent to the composers, and we came up with ideas on how to write a song about it, and there also have been parts of songs composed, that were sent to the author who worked out how it would fit to this scene, or that scene. So we always were in good contact, and we started from scratch. In the end we have an album and a book and ebooks.

Is there a physical book yet?

Yes, there’s a physical book all in German, but there’s an English E-book.

That explains it. I tried to find the English book, but I couldn’t find it.

Ah, there’s no printed version yet. That’s always a matter of costs, so we decided to start with an electronic version for the international market. It works quite well.

Are there already plans for a printed book in English?

Well we have the translation, for the E-book, but the decision if it’s printed just depends on if we sell hundreds of thousands of copies. And the book is out for just three weeks now. Ask me again in half a year!

I’d love to have a limited edition album with the book included to be honest.

Yes, but with 500 pages it’s not that easy. *laughs*

How did you land on the idea to do a book together with an album?

The basic idea of the world, and the concept, and the characters came from our lead singer Sly, and we quickly noticed that this is a huge project. If you do something in fantasy it’s always epic.

Yes. thick books, multiple volumes.

Yes. And we quickly decided it would be a good idea to focus on what we’re really good at, recording voices and singing, and to have professional support for the writing side. Sly took his basic ideas, and discussed them then with the author, Christoph Hardebusch, and they did some brainstorming and after that Christoph took over and did the complete writing of the novel himself.

Did you know the author before this project?

We knew him from our bookshelf, so we didn’t know him personally. But the contact was quite easy. We wrote an email to introduce Van Canto, and told him about the idea. Thirty minutes later we had the answer “yeah hello Van Canto, I love it, let’s do it!” and two weeks later…

Those are the best kinds of projects. Can you tell us a bit about the story and the songs on the album?

Well, the story as I said is a fantasy story. Its an epic story about an old forgotten, evil Myth that rises again. The difference to existing fantasy is that the main fight, and the main battle is not fought with weapons but with their voices. We have some bards in the story and their main weapon is their voice, so of course as an a capella band we wanted to have the voice as a center part of the story as well.

It’s a very cool idea!

Yeah yeah. So we have a bard, and the queen, and they are searching for support from bards from all over the world, from different kingdoms that used to fight each other, but then join forces for this Myth. But I won’t spoil too much.

No, exactly. It already sounds pretty epic! Was it hard to write all your new songs within one theme?

No, it was very inspiring, because if you know the next song should be about a huge, epic battle scene, then it’s easy to write a song like Battleday’s Dawn, because you have some way to…

You have something to build on.

Yes, exactly. We often get asked this question, if it’s too restricting to have such a subject, but personally for me it’s easier to have a subject and then to be creative than to have a white piece of paper and someone tells me to paint something.

Yeah, it kind of gives you a direction to head into.

Yes, exactly.

That’s very nice. You have a narration on your album and in your video by John Rhys-Davies, that’s a very well known actor! How did you land him?

Ehm, we asked him! Yeah, basically it was the same as with Christoph. Well okay, it was a little bit different because he did not know Van Canto before, but he checked out what we are doing, and he loves it. I think this is important, because if you have someone like John Rhys-Davies, we would not be able to pay him the fee that he usually gets when he’s playing in Hollywood blockbusters, so he has to somehow love what he’s doing. And he did, and he did a great job.

But how did you choose that particular actor? Was it because his work in the fantasy scene, like his role in the new TV series Shannara?

No, we wanted to have an actor with a native speaking accent, a British actor, and we wanted to have an actor that is known for the fantasy world, who also has experience with voice projects. Since in the Lord of the Rings movies he did the voice of Treebeard, and this is a very low voice, I remember sitting in the cinema and having the sub-woofers shaking while Treebeard was speaking. So he’s somehow connected to pushing his voice into directions and that was a good thing if you have an album called Voices of Fire.

He’s got a great voice, for sure. How was it working with him?

It was great. Of course I was pretty excited as you can imagine, when I met him in the studio, but he’s such a nice kind and very very relaxed guy. And of course he’s so professional, I don’t have so much experience working with actors, but I think we booked the studio for about eight hours, and we were done with the whole job in about four and a half hours and had some time left to talk and sit together. Real professional, but really with passion. He also told me that he really loves the outcome.

Where it comes to the book, how important is the book to appreciate the album, is it a must read or a nice to have?

No, it’s not a must read. I think the basic impact of a song, catching you with a melody even works if you do not listen to the lyrics at all. This is the same with every album. But as soon as you are willing to get into the book and into the story, you might notice even more to the music. Because you can recognize the different characters, and the different roles that they’re playing. I think it’s better to know the book, but it’s definitely not necessary to enjoy a metal-a capella album.

It just gives some extra dimension to it, like watching a movie with 3d glasses on.

Exactly. *laughs*

The sound on the album is also a bit different this time around, more diverse. Could it be that you had to let go of your Metal focus a bit, to fit in the fantasy theme better?

It’s not about metal and fantasy, it’s more about the Van Canto voices imitating instruments, and having the choirs on top. The choirs have a more light feeling for us, so the Van Canto rimme-dim-dimme-dim voices got a little bit deeper on this album. And of course, with all the voices on it, like the choirs, it’s also a wider sound and perhaps not that punchy-heavy, but as I said, this is not a decision between fantasy or metal. It’s more like having a deep rhythm guitar with a choir on top.

You have a lot more extra elements this time around.  

Yes, yes. Exactly.

Every element mixes in the sound, I can imagine that. How does a typical writing process work for you? In your head, do you work with the vocal melodies already, or do you think of a guitar flow and convert those into voice?

I’m a guitar player and a piano player as well, so eighty or ninety percent of the Van Canto songs are written on guitar or piano, and then I translate it to the metal a capella arrangements. But this time, although the sound and the arrangements are quite bombastic, the songwriting process was very reduced. So we just had Bastian the drummer and me in the rehearsal room with a guitar, just jamming like we did with our very first metal band twenty years ago, because we knew that if the sound will be a little bit more bombastic, it would be good that the song structures are quite tense and easy. That’s why we chose this way of songwriting. It was real fun.

Have you ever encountered things in music, that you could not translate into voice?

Yeah. Are you a guitar player?

I’m not. My brother is.

Well, there are some playing techniques, for example sweeps, where you go over the different strings and you have very large steps between each note. Of course it’s not a problem to do it by hand, but singing it’s just not possible to have each note. So there are playing techniques that are not so good for singing them, and of course there are some riffs that we played on guitar that did just not work so well with voice. But it’s also the other way around, we have parts that sound really great when we do it with Van canto, but perhaps playing them on a guitar wouldn’t be so exciting.

You can get really creative as well. With songs like the Battery cover, where you use the word battery as part of the rhythm.

Exactly, the sound is so percussive. Bat-te-ry-bat-te-ry, of course it’s luck that they named this one Battery.

You were first known for your covers. Have you ever encountered songs that you liked to do, that you just could not cover?

Perhaps, I don’t remember. It’s not that we started recording them and in the middle of the recording noticed that it doesn’t work. As soon as we decide on one cover, then it works. But it might be that one band member had this idea, and the other that, and we just didn’t do it, but perhaps in the future we will.

So it’s not that you thought, let’s do a Megadeth song, awww shit. *laughs*

No. Of course we have to have some kind of connection to the original band, and of course it’s easier for us to have some melodic stuff to cover. For example, Battery, although it’s a thrash metal song, there are so many harmonic things going on in the Master Of Puppets era, that it’s easy to have it translated into a capella. But for example, a Kill ‘Em All song from Metallica would not work at all, since you only have this one rhythm.

I can see that. Coming back to the book. Will there be other platforms for the E-book than just Amazon?

Yes, the E-book is also on iTunes and on some German providers like Thalia, we have all the links together on our Van Canto homepage.

I tried to find it for my Kobo, and I couldn’t find it. Perhaps I did not look long enough.

Okay, I’m not the most dedicated specialist in E-book platforms to be honest, check out http://vancanto.de/ebook and there we have all the places you can get the book.

I had a lot of trouble finding your material this time around! You released this album on a different label. What’s the story behind that?

The whole project is called Metal Vocal Musical: Van Canto, because it’s a different thing with this whole concept, and we wanted to have a partner that has a focus on books and e-books as well. So, it’s not a classical record label, but one that also has a books department attached.

Is that also the reason the album is not on Spotify?

It’s on Spotify, but you have to search for Van Canto Metal Vocal Musical or voices of fire, and it will show up.

That explains it. I searched for Van Canto and I did not find it. If I look at the number of guests on this album, it might be your biggest production to date. How do you compare this album to your earlier work?

It’s too early to compare it. We are so much into this tour and into doing interviews for this album over and over again, we have to have at least half a year’s rest to really be able to compare it. I think, from the composition, from the concept, of course it’s the album where everything makes sense, because everything fits together and sticks to the next song. But we noticed live that now after ten years of Van Canto, when we are about to choose the setlist, we are happy that we have so many songs that we and our fans like, that I would not compare the new album to the other ones in terms of better or worse. It’s just a little bit different because of the sound and the concept. I think in five years it will be just another Van Canto album and we take the best songs of it and play them live.

When listening to your earlier work I always have to smile. There is a lot of humor in your music. How important is humor in your work?

Humor is important in our life. I think if you sing guitars, you cannot avoid that there is a little humor in there. I always say, this is what every metalhead does taking a shower, going rang tang tang taa. The only thing that we did, was doing it on a more professional level perhaps. It’s okay if you really have fun with it visiting our concepts, and it’s also okay finding it funny what we’re doing, as long as it’s clear that we are not making fun of everybody. We do not make fun of Metallica when we are covering the song a capella, we really try to keep it up with the original. But as I said, if you think it’s funny that grown up men are imitating guitar solo’s with their voice, it’s totally fine.

This album does have a bit of a more serious side to it. Was that necessary to tell the story?

Yeah, but if you take a closer look at the story, there are so many humor elements in it. For example, the song Time And Time Again where you are in a fantasy mood, and suddenly it’s a shuffle. Of course there’s a humor side to it as well, but you’re right. In terms of arrangements, and working with a classical choir it’s a little bit serious. But this should not take focus away from having fun with it.

A question I’ve heard many times when I mention Van Canto to others, I actually often mention you as being an a capella metal band, is why do they have a drum. And I always say it probably has to do with the power of the music while playing live, but what’s the official answer?

The official answer, we have it in our frequently asked questions, is we all played in regular metal bands before, so when we started this project we never thought of not having a drummer. It just doesn’t feel natural for us. The funny answer is that you could try to beatbox Speed Of Light and see any beatboxer on this world pass out after two minutes.

*laughs* Did you ever try something like that? With a beatboxer?

No. When we sing our ballads, we sometimes stop singing notes and start doing like tka tssss, but that’s the only percussive thing that will ever come from our voices.

On this album, you already mentioned this, you work with a children’s choir. I really loved the sound of it. How was it to add more voices to the mix?

The children’s choir only has parts in two or three songs, but the basic choir you listen to all the time are the Metro Voices from London, and this was just spectacular. They are very professional, they’re doing hollywood soundtracks, and suddenly they’re singing your own material.

That’s extremely cool, a great experience. Talking about other voices, last year Ingo left the band to focus on other projects. What could be more important than Van Canto?

*laughs* Well we all have a regular life on the side, of course, and I can’t speak for Ike. The only thing I can tell is that Ike and me are kind of best friends since we were twelve years old and this will remain for our whole lives. Van Canto is just an era of our lives. It’s just ten years, but I’m just 37, so it’s obvious that there are other things around. We told ourselves that if anybody feels like not going on stage anymore because it doesn’t feel like real fun, then we talk about it and we find a solution. This time it was the best for Ike to say I will provide some voices for the album, but also support the new bass singer to get into the band, so we had some kind of transition period.

How is the new guy working out, Jan Moritz?

Yeah, he’s doing great! He has a low voice, which is important for singing the bass, and we know him because he is also the choir leader of the choir that supported us on Wacken in 2014. We had a background choir.

That was a good show!

Yeah. And he is the choir leader, so he has a huge musical background and because he knew all our material so well it was quite easy to have him with the band. And he’s a very kind guy as well, so we are very happy.

Does he bring something else to the band, or does he just take over the role?

Well in the beginning of course he had to focus on his roll, but now, with each step we’re doing, we can get more impact from him as well. That’s a good thing.

Looking into the future of Van Canto, is this a one off kinda project or do you think we’ll hear more musicals in the future?

Again, we are way too much into it right now, so I can’t tell you if there will be a part two of something, because it’s just released. But it’s obvious that Van Canto always wants to do something new, for our own context. So I’m quite sure that we have the regular Van Canto way just going on, just like the last ten years, but as soon as we have the feeling that we want to do something bigger again, or perhaps something combined with a movie or with a novel, then we would revive this Metal Vocal Musical for more parts.

When you look at Van Canto live, for the ones that have not yet seen one of your shows, how would you describe a Van Canto show, what do you bring to the stage?

Lots of power, and lots of connection to the fans, because we have five singers acting like a lead singer in a regular band, so perhaps sometimes it’s hard for the audience to decide on which singer they should focus on. But on the other hand, it’s a powerful show, it’s much louder than you would expect hearing the label metal a capella, and we have the greatest fans in the world singing along with us. So lots of voices, on and off stage.

That’s one of the big advantages I think of an a capella band, everybody can sing along.

Yes, and there are many people singing the guitars along as well, so we have some people on the first round going rum dum dum dum dum! I don’t know how they manage it, because they’re not as trained as we are, but they do it.

(Dennis, our photographer: they practice at home. Secretly.)

*laughs* very cool! Where can our readers see you live this year? This is the last leg of the tour, so it’s only Germany now? Or are there other shows coming?

No for this tour, it’s the last part of the tour and it’s over. Then we’ve played in I think ten European countries. Everything else that we plan will be announced on our homepage and Facebook, but there’s nothing I can tell about that yet.

Alright. Then we have just one last question and that is, do you have any last words for our readers?

Well, first of all, thank you for your interest in Van Canto, and for being open minded to read a complete interview about a metal a capella band, and if you do not know us yet, then check us out!

Those are good words! Thank you very much! Metal On Loud!

Randy Gerritse