VAN CANTO - Seven Will Get You Eight
July 12, 2021, a week ago
In much the same way Finnish cellists Apocalyptica rose to fame in 1996 by throwing the metal rulebook out the window, Germany's Van Canto had the audacity to release a full-on a capella album in 2006, A Storm To Come, featuring original material and a cover of Metallica's "Battery". While the album did make a dent, it was the brazen next-level attack of Hero in 2008 that cemented Van Canto's place in metaldom. Hero boasted covers of some of the biggest anthems from Manowar, Iron Maiden, Blind Guardian, Deep Purple and Nightwish, earning Van Canto equal amounts of praise and scorn. At the very least it was a clear statement that they were dead serious about their craft and would not be ignored. Fast forward to 2021 and the band's eighth album, To The Power Of Eight; their line-up has grown to seven, founding members have departed and returned (to one degree or another), and Van Canto's a capella "rakkatakka" concept is fully intact. They haven't caved and added real instruments to their repertoire in the interest of accessibility, and they remain good natured towards their haters, knowing Van Canto is not everyone's keg of beer. And nothing makes Stefan Schmidt - responsible for lower guitar vocals and solo guitar vocals - happier than when the critics call Van Canto out for adding real guitar solos on the new album, when in fact it's his voice with some added distortion making the noise.
BraveWords: Van Canto is similar to Apocalyptica in that it could have failed miserably at the outset. But here you are, 15 years later...
Schmidt: "Absolutely. I think the idea that Van Canto could have failed epically was part of the inspiration. Back then I really had the feeling that the intention to do something that is not allowed, and metal being 25 or 30 years old back then, it was part of the Van Canto concept to surprise people. And if nobody knows you it's easy to do, because if it's a shitty concept nobody will listen to it and you can still walk down the street and nobody will recognize you (laughs). After it became successful we had to think twice about what we were doing and worry about the possibility of an epic fail, so that is really what changed for us since the beginning."
BraveWords: As Van Canto's "lead guitarist", was there any pressure going in to record the covers of "I Want It All" and "Thuderstruck"? You're only paying homage to the brilliance of Brian May and Angus Young... no pressure.
Schmidt: "(Laughs) With Queen it's really something special because over the years we've made a lot of progress when it comes to imitating rhythm guitars, but if you cover a Queen song it's really like working with two lead singers. One is singing, the other is playing guitar, so it was something special, but I leave the judgment as to whether it actually worked up to you (laughs). But, it was a lot of fun."
"We discussed doing 'Bohemian Rhapsody' for the very first Van Canto album - it was the record company's suggestion - but we said no because the voices on it are perfect and we can't do it better. Doing 'I Want It All', we at least had the feeling that we had some room for - let's call it improvisation - when it came to the metal feel of the drums and the interpretation of the lead guitar. But, we didn't want to move that far away from the original. There was a thin line when it came to approaching the song. It took us eight albums to do a Queen cover, so I guess that says it all (laughs)."
"Doing 'Thundesrtruck' was easier, to be honest, because Hagen (Hirschmann) is in the band and he can sing that lead vocal AC/DC style, so nobody is listening to how we are imitating Angus Young's guitars (laughs). We noticed that when we perform 'Hell's Bells' live, which is always killer, so we thought why not give AC/DC another try with 'Thunderstruck'. We thought the approach would be good to not have the lead guitar as prominent in the mix as the original because the human voice is always, by nature, more attractive to the ear than anything else. It's how human beings are built. So, I recorded two lead guitar lines; one with distortion and one very soft one where the notes are being sung so you get the melody. We mixed that together and that is what you're hearing."
BraveWords: The vast majority of metalheads are open-minded, and the fact you've been able to release eight albums and tour regularly speaks volumes with regards to your original material.
Schmidt: "Personally, I have the feeling that we sometimes reach our limits. I think that can be explained by the things that we've tried to do on our previous albums. For example, after Dawn Of The Brave we felt that the style we wanted to create with Van Canto had come to a point where we had learned a lot from working with Ronald Prent, one of the best mixing engineers in the world, and doing three tours. We took those experiences and decided to do Voices Of Fire, which had big choirs and some storytelling, because we didn't want to just make the same album over and over again. The line-up changes made that easy as well because we had a totally different sound for the lead vocals. We were able to try things we'd never done before, and now that we have three lead singers it's also a new way of doing things that sound like Van Canto, but with a fresh attitude."
BraveWords: Dennis "Sly" Schunke was with the band from the very beginning until 2017, didn't appear on Trust In Rust in 2018, but he returned as a guest vocalist on To The Power Of Eight. Is he back in the band full-time now or was this a one-off for old time's sake?
Schmidt: "The reason we announced Dennis as a guest singer is because his reasons for stepping back from being a professional musician haven't changed. It wouldn't be fair to him or the fans to say things are back to the way they were before. Managing the recordings over a year because of the lockdown made having him be part of the album was easy, but going on tour is a much different situation which is why he is only a guest on the album. He'll be connected to Van Canto for the rest of his life and our career, and we don't know what the future holds."
BraveWords: Being on the outside, one would think there are certain limits to what an a capella band can do compared to the traditional vocals / guitar / bass / drums / keyboards-if-necessary line-up. That said, is there anything that makes To The Power Of Eight different from your last few records?
Schmidt: "Bringing together three lead singers with totally different vocal ranges gave us good opportunities to try out new things. I think that for the male lead singers it was special because Dennis comes from hard rock, Hagen has a metal background, and on this album it was easier to put the lead singers in the ranges they're most comfortable with. I think it was a very relaxed recording experience for the lead singers because of that."
BraveWords: Was it always clear who was going to sing which parts on the new album, or was there lots of room to move when it came to arranging the songs?
Schmidt: "I don't think it has ever been as clear as on this production. We learned so much making the first seven albums, so this was the first album where we knew from the very beginning exactly who would sing which part. It took years because, with voice, there are so many options and opportunities that can be investigated. We're musicians, we like trying different things out, but this time we chose the parts that felt best for each singer."
BraveWords: Digital technology gives the saying "If you can't make it, fake it" a whole new depth. You've shown how Van Canto songs are constructed in your YouTube workshop so it's no secret that a certain amount of cutting and pasting goes on, but at the end of the day you can't fake this.
Schmidt: "We use the recordings to practice for the live shows, rehearsing for a couple weeks before we go on tour. What we noticed is that it's really makes a difference when you copy and paste vocals; even if they imitate instruments it's much easier to spot the copied and pasted vocals. That's why Ike (Ingo Sterzinger), for example, is really singing every note that you hear in a song. With drums and bass we really try to do a fully original recording from beginning to end. There are a lot of editing possibilities, but with the human voice even the uneducated listener will get the sense of something being real or fake. That's why we try not to over-edit stuff. Sometimes I hear bands with background choirs and every voice is just perfectly in place, but that's not the idea of a choir. A choir sounds big because it's a lot of different people singing together. If you edit each and every voice to sound perfect, the choir gets smaller and smaller. As Van Canto is a big choir, we should really try not to over-edit stuff so everyone sounds 100% perfect."
BraveWords: Do you create Van Canto demos that are straight instrumentation? Something we might get to hear one day?
Schmidt: "There are a lot of ideas that have never been arranged into an actual Van Canto song, but that's mainly something performed on a piano and sung into a recorder or something. We don't have this huge archive of unreleased demo material."
BraveWords: It would be interesting to hear how bands might interpret Van Canto songs with full instrumentation, like the way Powerwolf had singers come in to re-record songs from the band's catalogue for their new album. I think it's something Van Canto fans would be into...
Schmidt: "That's a good idea. I think it would be disappointing for the fans if we were to do that ourselves after 15 years of creating a capella music. If someone could ask Iron Maiden or Metallica to do that, it would be awesome (laughs)."
(Photos by: Tim Tronckoe)