Interview with Ross Thompson and Stefan Schmidt
24th March 2016
Interview by Jacob Ovington
Van Canto are the only acapella metal band in the entire world. We don’t know of any others, anyway. In the beginning people laughed at their idea, but they kept on going. Having recorded six albums in ten years while steadily building up a fan-base, they’ve proved that thinking outside the box can pay off and that metal acapella is possible. We caught up with Ross and Stefan of the band before their London show to get an insight into one of the world’s most unique metal outfits.
Ross: Hi, my name’s Ross. Great, the first three days were like any start of a tour. You get into it, and by the third day we were established old-school singers. It just went fantastic. The crowd was great, the venues were awesome and it was really, really, really hot.
Stefan: This time we managed to have a three day rehearsal before starting the tour, and not a one day rehearsal. On the very first gig it felt quite good.
R: It felt quite comfortable, instead of being like “what am I doing?”
S: Ask us again after this gig.
You recently released ‘Voices of Fire’, how do you feel about people’s reaction to it so far?
S: Great, great. First and foremost it’s always a good thing if artists do whatever they like, so this was also our idea with ‘Voices of Fire’, it’s the first output of the band’s side project which is called ‘Vocal Metal Musical’. So, it’s a concept album, it’s a bit more sophisticated story-wise, but it was important for us to keep the basic Van Canto sound and just add something to it. In this case the concept, the choirs and the speaker. I guess the fans love it.
R: So far the reaction’s been good. Overwhelmingly positive so far.
S: We love it as well. It’s too close to the release to tell, you’ll have to ask me again in a year or so.
R: Initially it was good.
How did the band first start and what gave you the idea to create an acapella metal band?
S: It’s ten years ago now.
N: Yeah, ten years ago. I can remember darkly that you wanted to something with a vocal project and it expanded from there.
S: The more often we get asked these questions, the less we know the answer to them. It wasn’t planned to be a metal acapella band, it was planned to be a vocal orientated metal project. With the more singers we recorded, the more noticed that it really sounds cool.
R: We just kept it that way.
You’re the only band in the world that does this.
R: The only one we know of.
S: Perhaps there have been some bands trying and dying after one rehearsal
R: *dying sound effect* You had Jud Jud, two guys that were doing it for fun and someone else, but they didn’t do anything…
S: And this doesn’t have anything to do with Van Canto because they’ve been there before, right?
R: Yeah, that’s nothing to do with us. But that’s the only similarity I’ve ever found anywhere on the entire planet.
What were people’s reactions like when they first heard you?
R: Mixed really, a lot of people were like that’s cool, that’s amazing. Some were like what the hell are you doing there? To oh my god. In the beginning it was mixed and then the fan-base just grew and grew and the negativity just got less and less, so we just carried on doing what we’re doing.
When the band first started, did you think you’d get as far as you have done now?
S: We didn’t think anything really, we didn’t plan. We didn’t expect anything, which was a good thing because then we were surprised over and over and over again. Of course, after ten years and having the fourth headliner tour now, you get some kind of routine and that’s why it was so important for us to add something to the music with ‘Vocal Metal Musical’, to have a new impact on the sound. But still, there’s no master plan when it comes to the band.
R: We play it one day at a time, we see what happens and if somebody offers us something great we’re going to take it.
In the band, do you all have a specific vocal role or are the instruments you perform interchangeable?
R: We all stick to one thing.
S: We have higher guitar voice, lower guitar voice, bass. Of course if we have acapella vocal parts singing lyrics then it’s just like an arrangement for a five-piece choir. But, during the regular songs everybody has their role, we are the instruments. We are the guitars.
Instead of having vocal percussion, drums are the one instrument you do use, why is that?
R: That was the plan from the beginning. It sounds heavier than someone going bm bm ch bm bm ch, try doing that double bass.
S: We never really tried it because we all have our background in regular metal bands, and if you start a new production you always start with the drums, so…
R: And apart from that it would be very impolite not to have a Bastian on-board.
S: If you have the option, then you should take it.
So, you play instruments other than your voices?
S: Of course we do.
R: We all play normal guitars, piano, keyboard, drums, everything…
S: Only the lead singers don’t play anything, the instrument singers have backgrounds in those instruments. You can check out my side project Heavatar where I play guitar.
A lot of the sounds you make must be pretty straining on the voice, what do you do to ensure you keep your voices in good shape?
R: Whisky and revoice.
S: Or only revoice. The secret is to do only ten minute interviews… we can play three or four gigs in a row and then we have three or four days break and we can’t do the rock n’ roll thing too much on tour so we keep that until the end of the tour.
You must also need a lot of stamina to do full concerts in the way that you do, was this a challenge when you first started?
R: Of course, yeah
S: The advantage at the beginning of a band is that you play a lot of support slots, so we had half an hour or gigs that were only 25 minutes and then while we grew into a headliner state we could..
R: We built more stamina, you’d get more practice, more stamina, more air…
S: We expanded the set length over time, 90 minutes is still the upper limit, we can’t do a 2.5 hour show yet.
When you’re composing music, how do you start?
S: 99 percent it’s the same as a regular band would do. For the last album actually, we really had jam sessions. It was the drummer and me, with me playing the guitar and then putting together the song structure and lead melody.
So you actually use other instruments to write your songs?
S: Yes, and the vocal metal acapella arrangement comes afterwards.
What do you do when you’re not doing Van Canto?
S: There’s no place for hobbies (laughs). You can’t earn so much money these days with music, so if you want to keep music on a very professional level…
R: You’ve got to put everything into it.
S: And, the rest of your time you have to stay alive and earn some money to pay for the next microphone.
What is the favourite cover you’ve done so far?
S: Personally I love them all, otherwise we would not have chosen them.
R: I like doing ‘The Bard Song’ live because it means I can breathe for like half a second, at least once in a gig. ‘The Bard Song’ is just one of those songs that I just love to relax with for the covers. For power, I like ‘Speed of Light’, personally from our own songs.
Have any of the bands you’ve covered before ever reacted, if so how did they respond?
S: Of course, we asked them if they’re fine with our covers, so we got reactions from all of them.
What was their feedback like?
S: From a very technical feedback view, “yes you are allowed to cover the song.” To, “wow that’s great, let’s invite you to our own festival,” in the case of Manowar. With Nightwish we also had this collaboration with Tarja afterwards because she got to know us from the ‘Wishmaster’ cover. Blind Guardian appeared on our album. Gravedigger, we did choir songs for them. So, it’s just fine.
R: All of the bands get together, and we just help each other out, even the upcoming bands as well or the growing bands, the established bands already help them. So it’s really good, especially in metal community, you’ve always got people helping everyone else out, it’s really cool.
If you could choose five vocalists to put together your dream acapella band, who would you choose?
S: We could only choose lead singers, because I don’t know any other singers.
R: Russell Allan, Eric Adams
R: I would personally choose just as a backing vocalist, Myles Kennedy/Alter Bridge.
S: We should add Tarja, one female.
R: Who would we have on drums?
S: There’s one singer missing. I think I’d go for Tony… and we need a drummer.
R: Dave Lombardo.
S: I’m fine with that.
R: No, Vinnie Paul. He’s a lot more metal.
Is there anything you’d like to achieve that you haven’t done so far in your career?
R: 17 girls in a row…
S: To be honest…
R: A complete world tour
S: We ticked off a lot from our personal checklist, especially my personal checklist… working together with Blind Guardian and meeting Manowar and having a gig with them together.
R: And mine was sitting in an exotic palm tree somewhere in the middle of nowhere, in an exotic country because of the band. Sitting on a balcony with palm trees everywhere… thinking, I’m here because of the band.
What have been the worst experiences of being in a band?
R: Lack of sleep, that’s it really. There’s nothing bad about being in a band. Anybody who says it’s bad being in a band shouldn’t be in a band.
S: Perhaps you have a venue where the catering is that not perfect, but if you thought it was that bad then you should just sit at home…
R: We’ve never really had any bad things, we’ve had mad things happen like filling up hotels with water and stuff, but apart from that nothing really very bad. We’ve had no terrible experiences…
Is there anyone you haven’t worked with that you’d like to work with?
R: Russell Allen
S: We could ask him actually. Doing a Symphony X cover would be quite fun rhythm-wise. I guess it would also be good to have a guest appearance by Eric Adams, but I’m totally fine if he manages to do a new Manowar album.
R: I don’t know if there’d be anyone special that I’d love to work with, it would depend on whoever is available and the style of the songs.
S: It’s not that important if other singers want to join us or not.
Are there any upcoming plans you’d like to talk about?
S: The plan is being on tour. The shortest plan is being in London today, so there’s not that much of a plan. We’ve had six albums in ten years, so I guess it’s ok for this tour to have one week of getting new things into our brains, right now I can’t tell you…
R: We play everything by ear, especially with Van Canto. So, we’ll plan this, the tour and see what happens afterwards.
So you think it’s better that way?
R: It’s easier, there’s less stress. If someone phones up and says in two weeks there’s a concert, can you be bothered? Yeah we can, or we haven’t got time
When you’re touring in the UK and Europe do you think there’s a big difference between the audiences and the way people respond?
S: It’s our third time, so we don’t have too much experience but the two times we’ve been to London were great.
R: The only thing is the food and the language, that’s the only difference really. The food’s better over here, this is open to argument. Joke’s aside, there’s no difference to the public or the crowd or venue, or the atmosphere of the gigs.
S: For this tour it’s very important for us being in London because it had such a big impact with recording the Metro Voices, which is literally just down the street so, for me personally it’s a very important gig to have some kind of surrounding connection. At the beginning of the production with the choir, and then being on tour with this album…
R: It puts the ending brackets on it… it closes the circle.
Thank you for taking the time to talk to Metal-Rules.
S: Thank you for taking the time to come along and ask us the questions.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
R: Yeah, If you got something and you wanna do it, we do metal acapella and people laughed at us a couple of times and then left it because the fans thought it was cool. So if you’ve got something to do, and you’re scared of doing it… just do it!