Interview with Van Canto — “We don’t want to repeat ourselves.”

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Louder than any guitar, German acapella metal act VAN CANTO return with their dynamic rakkatakka power with their eighth album offering, “To the Power of Eight,” out on June 4, 2021, via Napalm Records. We had the opportunity to chat with lower rakkatakka Stefan Schmidt about the upcoming album. Watch the interview here, or read the complete text below…

Hi Stefan and thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview, how are you doing and how have you been during this crazy year?

Stefan: Yeah, first of all, thanks for having me on and thanks for your interest in VAN CANTO. On a day-to-day basis, I’m doing very well. I think the pandemic – with all the downsides to it – at least for VAN CANTO opened up the opportunity to really work on an album very extensively, without any pressure of “oh, we have to release the album on that date because one week later the tour starts.” That’s basically it with the advantages. The rest are more or less disadvantages with all the missed festivals, not playing live, and not meeting people. It is the way it is.

Well, let’s talk about more positive things then! Your new record “To the Power of Eight” is going to be released in some weeks; how are you feeling about the approaching release?

Stefan: Yeah, it’s always an exciting time between when the album itself and the recordings are finished, and the album is officially released because, before that it’s a little bit like having private time with your own music. So, this is the state we’re currently in. I personally really like listening to it still on a daily basis. I think the band can be very proud of the album and I’m really excited how the fans will react once they get to listen to the complete album.

The record is called “To the Power of Eight” and coincidentally it’s also your eighth album. I was wondering if you guys came up with the title first before starting to write new music?

Stefan: Oh, I cannot remember 100% exactly, but [we decided on the title] very early on. At least I think perhaps the first idea was already in our mind. On the other hand, VAN CANTO never had – with one exception of our concept album “Voice of Fire” – that really super deep meaning in the album title. For us, it is more about creating a world and creating a cover around it, the picture around it, but the actual message lies more in the music and in the songs and not so much in the title.

The reason why I was asking is also because your previous lead vocalist Sly joined again for this album and I was wondering if it was kind of… maybe symbolic for you to have an eighth member in the lineup?

Stefan: Yeah, we would have [asked Sly] even if it was our ninth or tenth album. It would have been very stupid not to ask him if he wants to join, so it was not part of the concept like this is the eighth album we need an eighth singer! Who could we ask? No, but Sly, I mean, although he left the band, of course, we’re not only bandmates we’re also friends, so for us, he never left because he’s just part of our personal life. This was also part of the reason why we joined forces again for a festival in 2019 where he joined us on stage. Then we had the idea to invite him as a guest appearance on our next album. When the pandemic came and we had way more time and way more creativity coming up by writing songs, we all decided together that it’s a good idea to write an album for three lead singers because we haven’t done that before.

It seems like the reactions from fans, from what I grasped, were overall positive with Sly’s return. Is that correct?

Stefan: Yeah, I mean I can only tell from the internet comments basically because as I said, face-to-face reactions are not possible, we just don’t meet any people. I think it’s clear that Sly‘s voice had a defining character on how VAN CANTO sounds like, just as Inga and Hagan also have a defining sound but it’s, of course, different and just came with the seventh album. So the idea of this album was really to show the sweet spots of every singer and put them together in the songs so that everybody can shine the best way, and then it’s also an album you are not getting tired of listening to because there are different things happening. That was the idea.

Now, obviously having the three lead vocalists is already quite a big change in comparison to the previous album; what would you say is also a bit different than the previous album?

Stefan: I mean we tried to do some things differently with every album a little bit so, for example, you can see that with different cover artworks, or artists we have been working with, or different mixing styles and different sounds, different drum recording styles, and so on because we don’t want to repeat ourselves. So, because that always happened with VAN CANTO, the biggest change in the eighth album really is the arrangement and composition style for the lead singers because this [three lead singers] doesn’t happen so often, perhaps more in rock operas or in something like AVANTASIA. I’m sure Tobias Sammet is very used to writing music for different singers, but in a regular band, it’s already something special if you have two singers and now we have three lead singers and five other band members that also sing so this was the challenge of the album.

Was it interesting for you to write music for three singers? Is that something that you maybe would like to do again for some songs in the future?

Stefan: For me, it was a dream scenario. I’m very honest about that. It’s not that… Writing music let’s say only for Inga or only for Hagan or only for Sly is also fun, but writing and thinking of an album where you think about let’s say ten or eleven songs or twelve, and then being able to pick the perfect singer for the perfect sound you want to create is like a dream for every composer. Deciding, “oh I want to have growl vocals so just let’s take Hagan, now I need some hard rock vibes oh we have Sly. Oh, this should be a real powerful female voice. Hey, let’s ask Inga!” So, it’s the jackpot for a composer, of course.

Now you are listed in the lineup as “lower rakkatakka” and basically I’ve been always really interested to know more about your songwriting. I was wondering if you plan who is singing what very carefully? For instance, when you sing, either rakkatakka or like bom bom bom or whatever. Is that something you actually have to agree on and do you write lyrics for that?

Stefan: Good question. So, there are several answers. First of all, who is singing in terms of vocal range, after 15 years, we know that, so our bass singer Ike and then, my voice is coming, then Ross‘ voice, and then Jan somewhere in between. And the syllables are often synced so if one singer sings rumadundum, then the other singer also sings rumadundum so it gets more powerful and it feels quite natural for us. I do not experiment too much with it, it really comes while songwriting… I have a feeling, which syllables make sense. Then, we do not change so much. Sometimes we change small parts when the lyrics are written and the lyrics end on a big “oh” or “ah,” then of course we adjust the syllables there. It basically comes from out of nowhere, I don’t know, the initial inspiration and not so much experimentation.

Interesting! If you, for instance, have the cover songs, does it have to do with what kind of sound or riff maybe the guitar makes?

Stefan: Absolutely. There are two approaches for cover songs. One is where we really try to take the original riff or composition and try to match it just with voices, so for example with “Master of Puppets” or with “Thunderstruck” now and also “Raise Your Horns.” And then there are songs where you more have, like the original song and want to take the spirit or the mood and transport into our world, so for example the IRON MAIDEN cover on this album and also “Fear of the Dark” some albums before was more that you take the composition but we transform to a little bit more of a vocal style, and both approaches really are fun. I think for the fans, it doesn’t make so much difference because they just love the original and they like it when VAN CANTO does them and when they come to concert, so the combination is what’s really interesting for them.

Speaking of shows, that’s also something I’ve been always wondering – how difficult is it for you guys to also stay in sync. I mean obviously you’re professionals, so it shouldn’t be too hard, but I think that with a cappella, it’s so easy to hear when there’s a mistake, for instance.

Stefan: No, that’s true. I mean, the biggest part is when you really come to the drummer. So in the past, the drummer is not only giving the rhythm but he’s really holding on to it. We all play with in-ear monitoring and we all have a click track and also a lead piano, which gives the chords so that we all stay in the same pitch. And actually the drummer has to play to a backing track consisting out of piano and click, making it sound like metal and at the same time dealing with seven singers that do something crazy all the time. So yeah, but with the three hundred gigs that we’ve played, of course, there’s some routine at one point and now it just feels natural and we don’t have to think so much.

When you think back to your first show ever, is that an experience you’re proud of, or was that a struggle for you guys somehow?

Stefan: Yeah, of course it was a struggle, in that we were very excited. I mean we all played in metal bands before but it was very easy to spot that with VAN CANTO. It’s something special because there was so much more interest from booking agents and everybody was interested and our first gig was at a festival in front of more than 2000 people. We did not have the chance to practice everything in such a situation, so of course we were completely overwhelmed, we were completely out of breath. We had several technical problems and we thought, “this was a mess,” and people just freaked out, so that we noticed, okay this band has something special, let’s work on it to make it more professional. It only took us, I think, four gigs and then we were already opening for NIGHTRWISH in front of ten thousand people. So by then we had to manage to make it more professional, I guess. [laughs]

Going back to the new album, I was wondering, when you went to the studio, did the pandemic have an effect on that or is that something you already kind of always have done separately?

Stefan: Yeah, it was not that much different. When we record the drums, that’s the only point in the production where we have to go to an external studio, because my studio is very good for vocal recordings, but it’s not big enough for drums. We were lucky that (back then) the pandemic took a small break in August/September last year. The only difference was that I was sitting next to the producer with a facemask on, but Bastian was able to drum like he was used to. Then we recorded the vocals one after another – and even if we did not manage to come together, we did remote recordings – and these days they feel so close and so real, as if the singer really is in the next room. For me, it was not so different, but the difference really was that we could not meet each other and listen to the songs together or have a small recap party. We met for the first time, after this complete year of recording, at the video shoot. So this was really something special that we did not experience before and I want to redo it. It would be better to have the next recordings without another pandemic situation, of course.

Now, when you record an album, this album, for instance, how do you guys usually go about it? A lot of bands obviously start with drums and bass, it’s different for you, even though you have bass vocals. What do you guys start with?

Stefan: I think you have to take a look at our official YouTube channel because we just released a workshop with 6 episodes where we exactly explain that. In short, it’s really very comparable to regular bands. We start with drums, we then do the rhythm guitar, singing, and then bass is something that regular bands also often do because it’s easier to spot if the bass is in perfect pitch if you already have some guiding guitars, then lead vocals, and then backing vocals, and all the filler stuff. Then, mixing so it’s really very comparable to to regular metal band recordings.

You also mentioned the workshop you made for your YouTube channel; I was wondering if it’s interesting for you to share the whole process behind VAN CANTO with with your fans?

Stefan: What is very interesting and what was really interesting when shooting those episodes… Did you watch it? Did I tell you some news that it’s there or did you know it? [laughs]

I knew it I was there! I did watch a couple of episodes, but had no time yet to watch the rest.

Stefan: It was really funny because I know that it sounds stupid but I also learned something about VAN CANTO‘s songwriting because there are some things that you just do for now… for one and a half decades, we just do it. When explaining it for the first time to somebody else or to an audience, I realized exactly what way we do this. So I also learned that we really do some things always the same or that there’s some plan behind it. It was fun to record it, also the feedback was very positive and I did not expect that anybody would be interested in that, but it turned out to be a good thing.

Are you maybe planning to make one day make a documentary, or something like that?

Stefan: We had small documentaries, with for example TV stations when we were on tour or when we were, for example, in Tasmania or also in Brazil, but I think VAN CANTO is a band that really works best when there’s something special happening, so for example, if we have a show, then we really can focus for these 90 minutes, but apart from that, I think it’s just not your regular band where you can see all of this rock and roll lifestyle all the time, but it’s really that there are many band members who value their private time. So we decided that it’s not the best idea to do VAN CANTO video documentation because it’s just not interesting enough perhaps. We focus on the music side of things.

Let’s talk a little bit about the original songs that you made. What are the lyrics about? What are some of the themes that you talk about on the record? I’m assuming that this time it’s not an album that has a bigger concept?

Stefan: “Voices on Fire” was the only concept album we did. The album before that, “Trust in Rust,” was the first album where we really split the songwriting effort between the members, so there was also no concept. For this album, it’s again the topic of all VAN CANTO songs, which is positive thinking and believing in yourself. There are more or less motivational lyrics that are not too spot-on on a specific topic, so we don’t have any political messages or something like that. That’s why we really call ourselves hero metal. The idea was that the listener should feel like a hero when he listens to our lyrics because he feels empowered and this is the guiding subject.

Do you feel like, especially during this whole year, that aspect of your band got a different meaning… maybe that you tried to focus on even more positivity with your music?

Stefan: I love that you ask that! [laughs] I think so, yes. We had talks about that too because there were times where it felt a little bit like “Okay, I have the feeling that I wrote these lyrics before” and it felt a little bit like “okay, people know what we think and that we want to make them feel like a hero,” so it felt a little bit repetitive. Then we did the concept album. This time, it really felt fresh to do these motivational topics and I think it’s because of the pandemic, because there was so much insecurity around. Also on a private level; you are so isolated and just see your friends by using Zoom or having a phone call. So, this time it really felt natural to have those uplifting topics in the songs again. I don’t want to say that we need another pandemic to write the lyrics, but at least this time it played out quite well.

Yeah, let’s not hope for another pandemic [laughs]. I’m sure you’ll get a lot of inspiration from this year in the future anyway.

Stefan: Hopefully, we forget about the details and just look back only to remember “when was this 2020, I don’t know… this crazy pandemic” and we all laugh about it. That would be my desired outcome, but I can’t tell.

I believe it is also the first time that you guys are covering a death metal song, “Raise Your Horns.” Where did the idea come from to do that song?

Stefan: The covers are selected for VAN CANTO in the context of an album, so that they fit the rest of the album. Of course, we had three lead singers, so we wanted to do covers that show each lead singer’s sweet spot, so to say. The problem with Hagan is that he has several sweet spots – a very low register and the very high one, so we had to pick two. This time we had Sly back on the album with a more hard-rockish medium range, then of course, it’s even better if you can show the other singer in a specific range, and AMON AMARTH‘s “Raise Your Horns” is actually a great song, so there are many bands around that have a special type of singing, but it’s still something different to really write smash hits. This one is just a great song so it was an honor to do it. All we wanted was to do it some other way and do it in a great way because we think it’s a great competition!

Now, I assume that it’s a little bit easier for you guys to cover more melodic tracks, but would you say that there would be a genre of metal that you would be interested to cover a song from one day? Like black metal or less melodic stuff?

Stefan: First of all, you are right, the more melodic information there is in the original composition, the easier it is to spread those melodies over different singers, of course. So, for example in something like “The Bard’s Song,” it just perfectly fits because it’s called “The Bard’s Song,” and it’s also arranged in a way that you hear voices in the original, even though it’s a guitar lead. With something like AMON AMARTH, it only worked because there are some melodic parts. If it was only riffs and growling then it would not have worked out, but with that choir in the middle and the chorus it works out well. Apart from that, we have to like the music we are writing and if you take a look at some songs we covered, so far there’s a clear area of style somewhere between hard rock and not too extreme metal. I think when we covered ANGRA 12 years ago, this also had some progressive touch where the singers really had to be on spot with different complicated rhythms. This was very fun to make, but it’s also very hard to sing. Most probably we are not go for any extreme technical mathematical death metal with VAN CANTO, that would perhaps not be the best choice.

You already mentioned that the first time you guys saw each other again was during the music video shoot; do you have any special memories connected to that day?

Stefan: Do you mean the current album’s shoot? Because what’s also part of the story is that VAN CANTO as a band met for the first time altogether for the very first video we shot in 2006. We started more as a project like singers that are my friends, but we did not necessarily know each other. Then, it sounded great, and we decided to do a video so it was… talking about it, it was actually a revival of the very first get-together of VAN CANTO at the video shoot. Instead, this time, the video shoot was really an organization overkill because we had to do so many tests, write so many documents, and plan the exact time when and which crew member comes to the set and when he leaves the set, and we had to document everything. There was just not enough time to really – let’s say – enjoy it. The enjoyable part was when we just were on stage, and it felt like we are doing what we can do best: perform our music. This was only a small part of the day, of course, and the rest was organizational overkill, I don’t want this to be a regular style of shooting videos.

Was that for you the closest you’ve been to to performing on a stage during a music video?

Stefan: Yeah, exactly. Our last gig was in September 2019. Since then, the only thing that felt like playing live a little bit was the music vdieo, and it was also that way because we talked about how people perhaps also miss VAN CANTO live concerts. We thought it’s good to have that stage scenery in the videos as well.

Now, there have been a lot of bands experimenting with live streams; is that something you guys are also maybe interested in?

Stefan: We were offered or asked if we wanted to do something, because actually the location where we shot the videos, they were also capable of live streaming everything. I personally think that the feeling of seeing VAN CANTO play live also comes from breaking with the expectation: this an acapella band and we do “bom bom bom” and it’s going to be really loud. When you do a live stream this loudness effect is not there, because everybody can just listen to it in their desired volume. For me, it’s comparable to another recording. I think there are bands that fit better into these streaming events, especially bands with great musical skills on various instruments or with great visual show elements or something. I think the best way you listen to VAN CANTO is by listening to an album. If you want to see us, then take a look at the music videos and if you really want to experience it, then you go to a live show. Perhaps I’m old fashioned.

I’m not sure how the situation right now is in Germany, but in many countries, it’s looking like gigs are maybe going to happen again during the autumn; do you have any shows planned for that time?

Stefan: The situation is lighting up a little bit, so it’s getting a little bit better, but VAN CANTO is not a band that is living in one small village and just waiting to pop into the bus. It’s a huge effort of organizing because we’re spread all over, not only Germany, also Europe. If we manage to get everybody together, we should be very, very sure that this thing happens. That’s why we also decided to release the album completely unrelated to a tour and to have a fresh feeling when promoting the album, but I think our live journey will continue on festivals, and the situation right now to us looks like that all festivals we are booked for are already postponed to next year. So I expect no live appearances this year, but perhaps there’s a surprise, I don’t know.

Are you planning to still use the free time that you can dedicate it to live shows, maybe to writing more music?

Stefan: Generally speaking, yes, but after this album personally as I had more songwriting parts again on this one… it’s really that I put every creativity that I felt in the last months and years into that, so I think I need some time to just get new inspiration. I cannot promote an album and at the same time think of the next one. So, perhaps trying some things or playing the piano, just being bored and suddenly there’s a new idea perhaps, but I can’t tell.

Now, having made this new record how do you look back to the whole experience of just making this record in comparison to the rest of your career?

Stefan: I think it was really special because of the three lead singers. And also, I mean, perhaps it’s a claim, but it’s really a band of friendship as well. So, for example, I met Ike (the bass singer) when we were 12 or 13 years old, so there’s way more time of our lives that we’ve been making music together than that we didn’t. Same with Bastian, same with Inga. For me, it was really important that when we invited Sly as a guest, it feels comfortable for all singers because Inga is also a friend, Hagan is also a friend, and lead singers are always a little bit… they have a special position as they have to lead the pack. This was the pledge to give everybody a comfortable feeling to perform 100%. I think from that perspective, this is the best album that I produced because everybody really felt comfortable in their sweet spots and we all love the album. The only thing that now has to happen is that the audience loves the album too, but we have to wait for that.

Well, I’m sure that people will love it! That’s it for my questions; do you have any last thoughts you want to still share?

Stefan: As I said, thanks for your interest in VAN CANTO, it’s always amazing for us in these times when promoting a new album, how many different people have questions or how many different countries we can talk to, so thank you for that. Yeah. Apart from that, stay safe and hope to meet all of you in a 3D world… in the real world, sometime soon!

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