Metal music without guitars? eGigs takes the opportunity to talk to vocalists Stefan Schmidt and Ross Thompson from a cappella metal pioneers Van Canto at their first London headlining show about how to create power metal without guitars or bass and what extreme metal band they would like to cover in the future.
How are you guys doing?
Stefan Schmidt: Good, brilliant, psyched for the gig definitely.
How has the tour been so far?
SS: Very successful.
Ross Thompson: Brilliant.
SS: It was always a good idea for Van Canto not to expect too much.
There was a large queue outside the venue.
RT:Yeah, we're waiting for it to come around this corner now[laughs].
SS: We're very happy about it.
How did your fans and critics react to your new album 'Dawn of the Brave'?
RT: Quite well. The majority of critics were positive. Obviously you've got the fraction that's negative about what we do because they don't believe it's real metal. 99% were very positive reactions and it's been pleasing.
How would you say it compares to your previous albums?
SS: Yeah, for me it's the most compact, when you can have each and every song as an opener for the second song which is always a good sign that there are no fillers on an album. This time it was very important for us to make sure that we were completely happy with the album because then it's easier to have critics that do not like it. But if you're writing an album and you don't know if it's good or not, it's much harder to reach bad critics so this time we said that it doesn't matter because we are happy with it.
Could you explain a bit further what you mean when you say it's more 'compact'?
SS: I think that if you listen from the first to the very last song of the album, there's no song that you want to skip because it doesn't fit into the album concept or: "Another ballad? I just had a ballad." It doesn't have this feeling because there's a faster song, there's a more hard rocking song and then you have a ballad.
RT: It's a rounder album.
How did you decide which songs you wanted to cover?
SS: First of all, we have to like the song and then it has to have some melodic and harmonic approach that can be arranged metal a cappella, then it has to fit into the concept of the album, for example we have 'Holding Out for a Hero'. We wanted to expand the range of Van Canto covers from pure metal songs to more hard rocking songs. That's why we have 'The Final Countdown' and 'Holding Out for a Hero.
You did two videos for Badaboom' and 'Into the West'. Why did you decide these two songs?
RT: 'Badaboom' was an idea for the superhero concept from Sly [vocalist]. He had an idea for a crazy professor who was saving the instruments and the musicians. Because we know this German comedian, he gave us a contact for the make up and the idea expanded to our heroes, so to say. It's ironic that we got made up as the heroes to become our heroes to save heavy metal music. That was the entire concept for the whole video and it was a hell of a lot of fun to do.
SS: It would have worked with another song as well but 'Badaboom' is also catchy from the title.
RT: It's a comic song. It's definitely a superhero comic song.
I know you guys are quite close with Sabaton. Have you heard any feedback from them?
SS: Of course. They said they almost freaked because we told them: "We just did our music video for the upcoming album. Please watch it. There might be some scenes of interest to you." They didn't know what to expect. They said: "We've never seen anything like this before! You're so fucking crazy!" We know them and they know how to take it. We didn't get that much response from Metallica though [laughs]. We're still waiting. They lost my number.
RT: Ozzy hasn't got in touch and Tommy hasn't got in touch with me personally either, which I think is a bit off [laughs].He's obviously got his own life to lead and I respect that.
Yeah, of course! How long does it take you to take a cover and transcribe all the instruments into vocal lines?
SS: I've never counted the hours or anything.
Yeah, it varies on the song.
SS: Yeah, it varies and it's much harder for the covers than the original songs. For the covers, if you notice it's the wrong range for the singer, you rearrange it and write another part. Everyone knows the originals so it can be hard work.
RT: You've got to stay true to the original, the melody, the structure.
SS: 'The Final Countdown' is definitely the song with the most recording hours on the new album but ballads like 'The Bard's Song' or 'Into The West', they go fast because it's not that complex.
What about 'Master of Puppets'? That must have been
RT: Oh yeah [laughs]!
SS: We have grey hairs because of this one.
RT: How long does 'Master of Puppets' go on for? Seven and a half minutes?
Around eight minutes.
RT: Eight minutes. It's hard to do that song live completely.
SS: We never did and we know why [laughs].
RT: We've done it once live. We've done it live before. We did it on one of the first tours.
SS: Yeah, but then it was once. Once in a lifetime.
RT: Seven minutes of not breathing. Try it once [laughs].
When you're transcribing the instruments into vocal lines, there must be so many words you can choose. Instead of just trying 'rakattarakatta', do you try lots of different sounds and choose the best one?
RT: One day, we're going to write a Van Canto dictionary [laughs]!
SS: That's a good question. For 99% of the parts, the first idea is what you hear on the album. It feels quite natural when you think like a guitar player and you have open chords and you know "BAAW!" and if you palm mute, you go "Moh-moh-moh-moh-moh." It's quite logical when you think like a guitar player so there aren't so many syllables left after that. The only thing that we changed during the years is that we used more soft consonance like "Mom" or "non." In the beginning we had more "Kuht-kuht-kuht." The only thing the audience recognises is "Kuht-kuht-kuht" and not anything else. So we changed it to "Mom-mom-mom-mom." We have a steady and continuous sound.
That makes sense. I know you guys play instruments but did you have extensive vocal training?
SS: No special training, just training not to breathe [laughs], which is important.
RT: I've actually [tried] holding my breath for as long as I can, breathing out and then pushing down on my stomach and see how long I can hold it before my head explodes [laughs]. I've gotten up to two minutes 40 seconds so far so I'm not quite at the three minutes yet.
Have you ever had a situation live where you desperately needed to breathe at the wrong time?
RT: Every single time [laughs].
SS: It's a live concert.
RT: There's always one part in a song where you think "Oh god, there's that part again! I hope I get it right this time."
SS: And how hot the lights are, it gets horrible.
RT: Some clubs don't have the proper fog; they have really thick smoke as well. You can't sing. Even a normal singer finds it difficult to sing.
Wow, dedicated guys! Do you have any vocal warm ups that are quite unusual?
RT: Just normal warm ups, going through the scales or singing a song types in the sound check.
SS: A lot of the time, the warm up is a mental thing to get in the mood, nothing special.
That's really impressive that you go out there and do it.
SS: Perhaps we should think of a crazy story but there really isn't any.
Have you noticed any issues with your voice since you've started doing this because it's so strenuous?
RT: No, just that it's got better, it's improved, especially with holding a note. When I'm singing as a normal vocalist, I notice when I hold a note, there's a flat moment. I don't do that anymore because I've had the chance to record with absolute professionals and with the practice over the past eight years with this band, it's helped improve the stamina as well, which is really cool. That's the only thing I've taken out of it really, nothing specific.
It's incredible. Obviously, this is a very unusual thing to do and you guys have had the same line up for almost ten years, which is rare for a metal band.
RT: we only had one line up change and that was the drummer at the very beginning after the fifth gig and that was it.
SS: He only played four or five gigs.
Hopefully it doesn't happen touch wood but if you lost a band member, do you think it would be easy to find a replacement?
SS: No, not at all, especially the rhythm singers.
RT: They synchronise with each other.
SS: It would be difficult. Perhaps it might work. There are also some singers who are imitating guitars but it's not only a unique concept but it's also a band among friends and that's why it works. We didn't plan anything we just said: "Let's record one album and let's do a video. Hey, there are some live requests! Let's play one show."
RT: The first four songs when I came down for that one weekend and recorded my part we listened to it, looked at each other and thought we could actually do something with this [laughs]! The light went on then.
SS: It's always been a good choice for the band: not to expect too much but just go and do it.
And you've had an overwhelming reaction.
RT: We're overwhelmed!
SS: Every time we come back to the same city, all the people from the last gig are there and half of them are bringing friends and it still grows. It's a good thing not to expect too much and then be happy with everyone interested in Van Canto. It's great.
Nobody's doing anything similar to Van Canto.
RT: Not on this level, no. You've got Jud Jud. Dokaka do this kind of thing but that's one man doing multi-track overdubs. Then you've got Jud Jud who have become a lot more professional over the years. They started doing it as a joke on YouTube and then they hear out stuff, thought "We can't let them get away with that," and started being more professional with their songs and song-writing.
SS: But they're not touring heavily.
RT: No, it's just two guys and they don't tour at all. It does sound a lot better than it used to.
SS: That's true.
But you have five people, which is very impressive. As you say, it's hard to find people that can do this.
RT: There was a lot of luck, right place at the right time.
SS: It was a good thing not to plan too much but also after the second album, somebody says "I've done this. It's okay for me; I have another band." We always decide [only] for the next tour and the next album. Nowadays, I can imagine we will be doing this for ten or twenty years because we're only focussing on the next thing to come.
RT: In twenty years, we'll have oxygen bottles on the rider [laughs]!
All your songs will start to get shorter and you'll gradually end up doing one minute long songs!
RT: Napalm Death, the three second song. "ROAR! That's it. Good night. Oxygen."
Have you ever thought about covering a more extreme metal band?
RT: I've thought about it but I didn't think it would be taken seriously, something like 'Roots, Bloody Roots'.
SS: I would like to cover a Testament song with you [points at Ross] on lead vocals. I only had the idea one week ago. I didn't tell you.
RT: This is the first I've heard of it, so obviously! If I can get Billy's range, you reckon?
RT: We'll try it out.
Which song would you do?
SS: Something from 'The Gathering'.
RT: That's their best album to date.
SS: Very interesting with the drumming so Bastian [Emig, drummer] would like it as well but this is inside information [laughs].
What are your future plans after this tour?
SS: As we say, we don't know.
RT: We don't plan.
SS: Play some festivals.
RT: We've been confirmed for Falun rock festival, Falun Rockstad. We've got possibly in November another one and that's it really.
SS: Perhaps we're showing up at some bigger German festivals.
RT: We'll find out at the end of May, June.
SS: We won't play twenty festivals but perhaps two or three selected ones. Perhaps we will have more shows in Winter but we'll see. We'll focus on London today.
RT: Today and if it's good today, we'll move on to tomorrow. One day at a time.
Those are my questions. Do you have any final words for the readers?
RT: Yeah, keep listening to heavy metal a cappella. Make it more popular than it already is because we would be more than happy to go on a world tour. Stay safe, everybody out there and rakkatakka.
Thank you very much for your time.
RT: Thank you very much for your time.