Rakkatakka being heard on the horizon can only mean one thing; acapella metal warriors VAN CANTO are back and they have released their latest record To The Power Of Eight. Rock Out Stand Out’s Lotty Whittingham spoke to Stefan Schmidt about the new album, arranging vocals and how we listen to music these days.
Hello Stefan, thanks for joining us today. Let’s talk about To The Power Of Eight, for this album Sly came back. Was this something that was planned for a long time or was it due to being in lockdown where a lot of us are at home at the moment?
I think it was a mixture of everything. He left the band back in 2017 but we are also friends so there was no comeback for us personally as we are in contact all the time. He appeared as a guest at our Summer Breeze Festival show in 2019. This was a spontaneous coincidence, he had time and he was visiting that weekend anyway so I said to him “why not come to the gig with us and appear on stage” which he said “yeah why not, that will be fun” It felt natural with three singers and then we decided to ask him to be a guest singer on one or two songs. It then turned out we had a lot of time during the recording and the song writing sessions due to the pandemic. We then decided to extend that guest appearance so that was the development behind it.
I bet the fans loved his guest appearance at Summer Breeze Festival.
Yes they did. It was not announced in any way so it really was an in the moment type thing when he appeared on stage and the reactions were great. I also think for Van Canto, it’s friends playing in one band so it’s good that there’s no competition between different lead singers and that we are all friends. It makes it easier when it comes to deciding who sings lead on which song.
When it comes to arranging who is lead on each song, do you already have in mind who will take lead or is it a case getting each of them to sing and agree what works best?
When we decided on having three lead singers, it was about writing songs with a specific voice in mind because that’s a luxury of a song writer where you can think of something and choose between Inga [Sterzinger], Hagen [Hirschmann] and Sly which was great. In the songs where all three lead singers sing together, it was about trying out what works so does it sound better if one started and the other comes in or the other way around. We also changed some keys of songs so it could happen one way. It was fun to play with and it’s a very creative process.
Let’s talk about the covers on this record, in particular Amon Amarth’s Raise Your Horns. This was the first time I had heard growls done on a Van Canto album.
We had a preview of growls on the song Dessert Snake from the last album [Trust In Rust] but it was more like rough, deep singing. In this album, it was the first time using growls yes. That’s actually a good thing if you have three lead singers who can also pick some sweet spots of each singer rather than if you just had the one singer so it made sense to do an Amon Amarth cover.
Would you say these covers were the most ambitious ones you have done? Listening to your cover of AC/DC’s Thunderstruck, it was almost like listening to Brian Johnson.
Hagen is singing that one as he also did a cover of Hells Bells on the last album. This was actually meant as a bonus track. When we were choosing the covers, we decided that Hagen can take the growl part because we have never done it before. Inga will do the Iron Maiden track and Sly will sing the more hard rock Queen song. We then recorded a bonus track with Thunderstruck only to learn in 2021 that bonus tracks are needed anymore so you put an album with everything out. We thought the recording would be too great to just leave it at home so we wanted to put it on the album.
Thunderstruck is one of my favourite hard rock songs.
Yes, it’s one of those songs where you’re sitting in the car, you put down the window and turn the volume up. It also works in an acapella version.
When I saw it listed, I did wonder how you were going to do an acapella version. Especially with the guitar riffs.
It was a challenge but if it were too hard of a challenge we wouldn’t have recorded it. Of course you only listen to the result that somehow work out. You don’t see the covers we have tried out and we don’t feel fit Van Canto. From an arrangement perspective, we notice quite early and then we skip the work so it’s not that we try over and over again. As soon as it feels natural for us, the covers are quite easy because we love the original songs.
Did you manage to record everything before we went into a lockdown or did you record during the pandemic?
We recorded during the pandemic but it wasn’t that much of a difference compared with other recordings. We were lucky during the drum recordings that the pandemic slowed down a little bit during August last year so it was possible to enter the studio. After that, the vocal recordings always happened at my place and we’re used to singing one after the other. So the only thing that was different, was only one singer was allowed to enter the studio and we weren’t able to party together or do choir recordings together, we were separated from one another. The first time we met in over a year was to record the videos.
Was 4th June the intended release date for To The Power Of Eight? I know some bands had to postpone their album release dates because of Covid restrictions.
It was the other way around for us. We thought we would wait with the release until we can announce a tour and then when Covid had a comeback in Germany, we realised the tour won’t happen in 2021. For a musician, it’s hard when you wait too long with a release as you don’t have a connection to the songs you recorded. So we decided to put the album out and then wait until we can play live again.
I’d like to talk about the song Hardrock Padlock. What were the influences behind that song? I got an eighties rock vibe.
It was exactly that. The lyrics are about music and hard in our case as we are all around forty so the eighties were the first time we got close to music. I think the music you listen to in your teenage days is always something you can go back to if you feel down, it’s always something you can rely on. In our case, hard rock was the music of our teenage years so that was the idea behind the lyrics and it was obvious to take some musical motives that are a bit of cliche or a trademark of a certain area in music.
I could hear songs like Bon Jovi’s You Give Love A Bad Name and other classics.
It’s very Desmond Child inspired, that’s the composer who wrote a lot of those songs for the likes of Bon Jovi, Alice Cooper and Aerosmith back then. He is still active and writing great songs, it’s a dream to write a song with Desmond Child for Van Canto. Perhaps I can send him Hardrock Padlock as an application.
Once bands get back on the road and start touring, which songs from To The Power Of Eight are you looking forward to playing live the most?
That’s a good question, we haven’t discussed this yet within the band as the live world is far away. I think Hardrock Padlock would be a great choice, the covers are always good choices and I also think Dead By The Night would be killer live just from the intensity and the power behind it.
Speaking of covers, how do you go about choosing songs to cover?
I think what we touched upon earlier is that we have to really love the original, that’s a vital part. I mean the personal music tastes are different with eight people in a room but at least the lead singer has to have a very close connection to the original otherwise it makes no sense to perform it authentically. One decision we have to make is that is it a cover we want to re-create most closely to the original as possible where we sing every note including the guitar riffs or is it a cover were we just pick the song writing and try to transport it to our world.
For example, our cover of Iron Maiden’s Run To The Hills is not one hundred percent close to the original. There are tweaks on the harmonies, the tempo is a little bit different and it’s a different arrangement. With Raise Your Horns, we take the notes from the guitars and sing those. So those are the two approaches we have, as long as we feel comfortable with one of them we found a cover.
I personally think the best covers sound like you have written the song yourself. I also don’t mind if the cover sounds more like the original.
I agree. The cover also has to make sense in an album context. I understand these days people listen to playlists with one Van Canto songs alongside other bands. But, if you really listen to the album as a concept from the opener to the ballad in the middle and then to the very last song, then the covers make sense in terms of do we pick up speed again or now after this progressive song, do we add Thunderstruck because it’s easier to follow. These thoughts are present in our minds although we think the usual listener doesn’t usually appreciate all these thoughts, I’m not sure. Most listeners listen what the app proposes they listen to next and so much if it’s the next song on the album.
That’s an interesting point, over the years do you think this is why people perhaps don’t listen to albums much these days?
I think it depends on generation. When I really picked up metal, I was sixteen or seventeen so going from hard rock to metal and then of course back in the nineties, the concept was to wait for the new album to go to the record store and to buy it. These days, I think it’s more about having a constant schedule of releases. So being present not only every two or three years with a new album but basically being present on social media every week.
That’s why the concept of constantly releasing singles is nowadays very prominent like it was in the 1950s with Elvis and The Beetles where they first released singles then somebody decided to pick the last ten singles and create an album out of it. These things just change, I personally think it’s that this change is there because I still like albums, that’s how I learned about it and the next generation has to find something they love and they can tell their kids that this is the best thing.
I think with heavy metal it’s still possible to release an album because heavy metal fans are still interested in the album covers to look at, read the lyrics and to take their time to listen to an entire album so it’s still good for our audience. In the long term, I think the concept of an album will not last forever as there will be new concepts.
I got a couple of questions from a fan. First one being, what is the fondest experience you have shared as a band?
If I would have to pick one, that would be really difficult. For me it has changed through the years because at the beginning, everything we experienced with Van Canto was also a teenage dream coming true. For example being on the big stage for the first time, being able to tour on a tour bus or having some of our idols as guest appearances. I think the most impact on me personally had these moments, I wouldn’t know which one to pick. Generally speaking, I am always impressed and it’s hard for me to understand that there are so many people who listen to music that we think about. We think of a new song, we record it and there are people on the other side of the world listening to our music which is the most fascinating thing with Van Canto. It’s a cool thing that hasn’t changed in fifteen years.
The other question is if a fan invited you to play Dungeons & Dragons, would you accept?
Personally, I don’t have a huge relation to role playing games be it card, board or software. I think Ross and Jan would be interested, maybe Haggen and that’s as far as I know. It doesn’t play a big part in the tour bus.
I can imagine it would be a good way to pass time.
Yes absolutely and I know that our music is very prominent in that scene so it’s interesting that we don’t have many touch points with that.
Do you have a message for fans and readers?
First of all, thank you for the interest in Van Canto. As I mentioned before it’s impressive that there are people all over the world that are interested in a metal band without guitars. Keep it up, stay open minded, stay healthy and hopefully there will be a time where all of meet in real life in 3D at a festival. Looking forward to that.
Thank you for talking with Rock Out Stand Out today and best of luck with the album.