Latest release: To the Power of Eight (Napalm)Website: vancanto.de
Formed in Berlin in 2006, Van Canto is both one of the weirdest and most interesting musical entities. A seven-piece heavy metal acapella group, the band has made eight albums and appeared at Europe’s major festivals. With current release To the Power of Eight bringing them wider international attention, we got in touch with producer, arranger, songwriter and “guitarist” Stefan Schmidt to discuss this unique and fascinating concept for a metal band.
Van Canto has to be one of the most absurd things I’ve ever heard, but it’s also amazing!
Yeah! You understood the concept!
How did you ever come up with such a crazy idea?
It’s already been 15 years so I can’t remember all the details, but we all played in regular metal bands before and we wanted to do something more vocal oriented, with several lead singers and backing singers. It was quite clear from the very start that we needed real drums, because we all came from the metal world, not the acapella world. Beatboxing was not an option! With the studio project evolving and with friends adding some vocals it just sounded like, why don’t we leave the instruments away and do a drum/vocal thing? From that point on we started to record our first songs back in 2006 and it sounded good and we wanted to be a real band, and so Van Canto was born.
Moving on to the current album then, how was this affected by the pandemic? Was it done pre-COVID or did it have to be pushed back because of it?
It’s a little bit of both, I guess. We planned to record an album in 2020 anyway, even before the pandemic. We only has three or four festival gigs planned by for 2020, so we weren’t hit as hard as perhaps some bands who had world tours planned. But it affected our songwriting to the effect that there was no deadline. Every recording before that had a deadline because there was a tour coming after the release. So that was a positive thing. Another positive thing was that we invited our former lead singer, who was with us for the first six albums, as a guest on this album for one or two songs. And then, as we realised there would be no live action, we had a lot of time to produce the songs and we changed them to using three lead singers across all songs. So that was positive. A negative was we had to organise more so only one singer could be in the studio at a time and there wasn’t really any hanging out together.
How did that affect the working dynamic? Was it difficult not being able to work together in the studio?
From the production side of things, that had no effect, because Van Canto was never a band that, like, meets in the rehearsal room every Wednesday and starts jamming around. This acapella thing needs a lot of arranging and planning, and that’s why Van Canto’s songs are usually written by one musician and then when it’s 80% finished the arrangement is presented to the other band members. Also, we’re spread all over Germany and Europe, so there’s always some logistics involved to piece it together, so we’re used to that. The only thing was not having that feeling of encouragement from the other members as it was only me as the producer and one other member at a time. When it came to shoot the video, it was the first time we had all come together after a year.
When you first started doing this, you must have come across a lot of people who really didn’t know what to expect, or to make of it?
Yes, of course. And I also enjoy this kind of feedback now because I am sitting here in Germany, doing interviews in Australia where that moment of surprise is still there. We have eight albums in Germany now, always the same five or six metal magazines writing about us for all these years and they all know Van Canto and it’s not so surprising for them. In the beginning we expected nothing, so we were really surprised how many reactions we were able to get. Also it was easier for us to book gigs and find a record label because we had something special. So I enjoy the situation when someone is still surprised by what we are doing.
How long does it take to put together a song for Van Canto?
It doesn’t take that much longer than it does for other bands, I guess. I’m also a guitar player and I have a “regular” metal band as a side project, so compared to that it doesn’t take much longer. The process is comparable to starting with a riff on guitar, or chords on piano and vocal melodies. The difference is in the arrangements. Distributing the notes of the composition to the different singers, and as we know each other very well after 15 years, it’s quite fast after that. I would say that once the song is done, I don’t need more than a day to make an acapella arrangement out of it. The recording is a little bit more exhausting, because you can’t just play one guitar chord. You have to sing every note. But of course there are bands that aren’t singing their instruments, and they record over and over again because they are perfectionists, perhaps, or they have new ideas, so you can also do endless recordings with a regular band.
Are there ever times when you’ve had to start again because of a new idea, or decided to change something?
The only thing we change when the arrangement is presented to the rest of the band is maybe we change the key sometimes if we know it’s maybe too high for the lead singer, or the bass singer is not getting all the low notes. That is some of the adjustments we make – tempo, of course. Everything with the drum arrangements comes from the drummer. Me, I’m a guitar player and a singer, so I can arrange something with the drum computer, but then the drummer says, “Nobody can play that!” so we have to redo that. Sometimes we have to rearrange the riffing as well, but that happens with a regular band, as well. The drummer always complains about what the guitar player says is right, and then we have to do it again.
A real challenge must be that, unlike in most bands where you get to rest your voice a bit, in this band you don’t really get to do that.
Yes, that’s true. It’s really a challenge, especially when playing live, because I am the rhythm guitar so for me, doing the [guitar sounds] all the time, if you want that constant flow of sound you can’t take long breaks to breathe. That’s a real challenge, ninety minutes with very small gaps in the arrangements where you’re allowed to breathe. That’s also why we learned, after five years of the band, not to book the typical five-week tours where we have one day off a week. We can only play from Thursday to Sunday and then we have to take a break. So it’s always three or four show days, then three or four off days.
I imagine that you have to do a lot of rest between shows and exercises with your voice. I talk to singers quite often and a lot of them say they try not to even talk on the day of a show, and m os to them aren’t singing continuously for 90 minutes. What do you do about resting your voice?
That’s a very good question. When the band first started we expected the lead singers to do all the announcements between songs, but in Van Canto the lead singer has more to do that just the lead vocals because they also imitate keyboards and higher sounds and things, so they’re always out of breath. So we spread them out across the band. The really tough part starts after the show because you are talking to the fans, which we always want to do, and you have two hours of talking and there’s music in the background so you are shouting. There’s not much talking in the tour bus with Van Canto because of that.
It’s fascinating that this concept even exists. I hope you get some attention from Australia because I’m sure that when you can tour again and you’re able to come here, there would be a lot of people with no interest in metal who would come along just for the curiosity factor who would end up loving Van Canto.
We’ve been to Tasmania in 2015, on the Festival of Voices, and it was very special for us. It was not only two or three shows around that festival, but also a workshop with an 18-person choir who all wanted to sound like guitars! Looking back over 15 years, that was one of the major highlights of the band. Traveling from Germany to the other side of the world and meeting people who wanted to sound like Van Canto. It was really great and we would love to return at some time.