Stefan Schmidt Discusses New Power Metal A Capella Album "Dawn Of The Brave"
Nobody can accuse Van Canto of being cookie-cutter imitators. Being the only power metal a cappella band in the world, they are truly one of a kind. However, there is a valid argument about whether the band is metal or not. I mean, the group doesn't use a guitar player. Distorted guitar is a defining characteristic of metal music. Crunchy guitar riffs are nowhere to be found, but the group utilizes other elements that draw head bangers to this type of music such as thunderous war drums and rafters-reaching vocals.
Just like any power metal group of worth, Van Canto features a strong voice in the front of the mix. In this case, there are five strong vocalists. Also the group has the majesty and might of power metal's fantasy-based lyrics, often paying homage to the great J.R.R. Tolkien. On "Dawn of the Brave," the group's fifth full-length recording, Van Canto once again offers its choirs of voices on original and cover tunes. They get the guitar outta here on "Badaboom" and give their listeners an empowering anthem with "Fight for Your Life." Covers wise, Black Sabbath's "Paranoid" gets their special vocal treatment while the lovely Inga Scharf revisions Annie Lennox's "Into the West" from the final "Lord of the Rings" film.
I spoke to Stefan Schmidt on the phone concerning "Dawn of the Brave." He is the band's "rakkatakka" singer--the group's bassist, if you will, as he provides the bottom end sounds. Although this was his last interview of the day, Schmidt spoke with much excitement on the forthcoming recording. Due to the response garnered by sneak-peak tracks, he feels fanfare is reaching critical mass. This topic and much more on the career of Van Canto is revealed below.
Rex_84: "Dawn of the Brave" comes out next month on the 7th. How do you feel about the album?
Stefan Schmidt: I feel very good about the album because we did something right, I guess. There are many songs that could have been chosen as the opener or the second song. This is always a good sign if a band has a good feeling about each and every song. Everybody is saying what their favorite song is, "no, this one has to be in the front row of the album." I guess we did something right. At least we are 100% satisfied with what we have done. We're kind of relaxing and waiting to see what the reviews and the fans will say when the album is out.
Rex_84: You're in familiar territory working with Charlie Bauerfeind (Blind Guardian, Helloween) recording the drums. Is this the third or fourth time you've used him?
Stefan: It's the fourth time. The second album was completely produced by Charlie. He did everything--recording voices, mixing, etc. On the third album, when our own studio was finished, we decided to do the vocal production on our own, but stick with Charlie concerning the drum production because he definitely knows what to do, and it's easier for us during the drum production to focus on playing drums and listening to them, but not taking care of all the technical stuff. So yeah, Charlie is the right choice for our drum production.
Rex_84: Van Canto seems to have a good relationship with Blind Guardian. Charlie works with Blind Guardian and you have worked with Hansi Kürsch on past albums (see "The Bard Song" on their "Hero" album). What is your relationship with that band?
Stefan: We got to know them while recording our second album ("Hero") because we recorded it in the Blind Guardian Studio. Of course, I knew of Blind Guardian before because I'm a big fan. I started listening to them around '95. It was quite funny, when we were recording the second album, we had been in studio for about eight days when Hansi came in and said hello. I sat there and didn't know what to say because I was so excited that one of my biggest idols had just stepped into the room that I didn't manage to say a single word. Hansi was like, "oh, I'm sorry. You speak English. I'm Hansi from Blind Guardian." I answered in German, "I know who you are, but I don't know what to say." This was the start of something good because, as you mentioned, we had a Blind Guardian cover on our album. We also had Hansi sing on one of our own songs, "Take to the Sky." Two years later, I was invited to join the Blind Guardian production as a choir singer, and we provided support on their German tour, so it's really great what has happened since then. Blind Guardian is still one of my all-time favorite bands, and it's good to know them because they are really nice people, as well.
Rex_84: From Iron Maiden to Metallica and onward, Van Canto covers many of metal's greats. You dress up your members like these stars on the "Badaboom" video. What's going on with these disguises?
Stefan: (laughs) We wanted to have fun. That would definitely be the most important part of it because we think it's good to have fun. We're not a band singing about depression and death all the time. We try to spread a good mood to all the people listening to our music, so we thought it was a good idea to have more fun in the video. It's the same as with the music of Van Canto. It's okay for us if someone has fun listening to it, but it's important that we do it on a very professional level, and make sure we're not making fun of anybody. It's the same with video. We wanted to do something original and unique so we thought it was a good idea to invent this superhero story where Van Canto turns into superheroes and brings the stolen instruments back to the world-wide famous metal bands. Therefore, we did a joint venture with a German special effects team that works for a German TV show where famous people are imitated. All the actors dress and get special effects masks like the original people. We asked them if they could join the video and turn Inga into Ozzy Osbourne and Sly into the singer of Sabaton and the rest of the band into Metallica. It was very fun to do. The video has been quite successful. It has been online for four weeks now, but there are many people watching it.
Rex_84: They did an excellent job transforming Sly into the singer of Sabaton. I thought that was the actual singer.
Stefan: We don't have the personal phone number of Ozzy Osbourne or James Hetfield or we would tell them about the video, but we are in good contact with Sabaton all the time. We didn't tell him anything. The day the video was released we sent a link to Pär [Sundström] and Joakim [Brodén] telling them to have a look at the new video. There are some scenes that might be of interest. They answered a couple of hours later, saying, "you're going crazy! We've never seen anything like that before!" It's a cool thing and they know how to take it. They're really cool guys.
Rex_84: Going back to what you said earlier about having a good time, your official Web site has a disclaimer stating "WHAT ARE YOUR LYRICS ABOUT. ARE YOU A WHITE METAL / CHRISTIAN BAND? Our lyrics are about inner strength. We are not a religious band, but it’s not a problem for us if any religious people find something interesting in our lyrics." Can you give us some insight into this statement?
Stefan: That's part of the FAQ section. Randomly, we posted one of the FAQ questions at the lower bottom of the Web site. We've often been asked if we are a Christian metal band because we have lyrics that tell you to believe in yourself. The words "believe" and "faith" are words that are used very often in Van Canto lyrics. For us, it's important for people to understand it's not motivated through a religious view. For example, I don't know what band member is of what concession because we do not talk about church or religion that much, but if someone believes in a cultural or religious thing and he finds something in our lyrics that is good or important, than we are fine with it. It doesn't make sense for us to claim we don't like any religion at all or say "hey this is metal, SATAN!" That just doesn't make sense to us because we just don't deal with those things. We want to write lyrics that make the listener feel good. Best case, he feels stronger after listening to a Van Canto album. If we reach that, our goal has been completed.
Rex_84: How does that equate to your live show? It seems like your music would be great beer hall kind of stuff.
Stefan: Every place we play in Germany is a beer hall so what are you talking about (laughs)? Playing live is a different thing. Van Canto is one of the few bands left where a live gig sounds different than the album because there are so many bands around that are four musicians on stage. It's when you're standing in front of the stage and you're listening to a full orchestra, thousand-man choir, organ, keyboard and even a lead guitar player that is not on stage only to reproduce the album sound. We do it a different way. We produce albums with overdubs and background choirs to have a full sound. When we're playing live, it's a different thing. You only hear six voices. We try to close the gap between the live sound and the album sound by our enthusiasm on stage, and we try to give full power. I think it's much more of a rock-n-roll show than our albums because our albums are German power metal. Some people call it cheesy; that's what German power metal is all about, I think. The live show is much more grounded and much more rock-n-roll.
Rex_84: The covers on the album are really good. "Final Countdown" has one of the most recognized keyboard parts in any rock song. Please talk about making that song and the reason for picking it.
Stefan: We have a very personal reason for picking it. It was the first single I ever bought on my own. I was about six or seven-years old in 1986 when the album came out. I bought the album with money from my grandma, so I went into the local store and this was the first single I ever bought on my own. Since then, Europe was one of my favorite bands, not only for "Final Countdown," also because the following albums that are not that world-wide known. I really like the song writing that they introduced. I really like Joey Tempest as a singer. I love John Norum and Kee Marcello as guitar players. It was a very important band for my musical development, so the logical thing to do was, if we finally felt good enough we would record "Final Countdown." I figured we were finally good enough to at least try it on the fifth album. We decided to leave the synth trumpets of the original as they are. We didn't try to imitate trumpets on this album because the original has its own touch. It's very Eighties-based, you have the synthesizer sound. We wanted to do something different and show not only the sound of the original is unique, the melody itself. The melody works, no matter if you play it on piano, trumpet or synthesizer or if you sing it, it works because it's a great song. We're very proud we're able to cover it.
Rex_84: Speaking of Eighties, "Holding Out for a Hero" was the theme song to a television show I watched as a kid called "Cover Up." Did you pick this song because it works with the superhero theme that continues throughout the album?
Stefan: Definitely, it was the main reason we took the song into view. The most important thing for Van Canto when covering a song is we really have to like it. It would have made no sense if the record label said, "Hey, there is this song with hero in the title called "'Holding Out for a Hero'," they play it for us and we tell them it's a shitty song and we don't want to do it. The song itself has to be in our imagination that it can be done with Van Canto, especially when you think of lead singers. When you have lead singers like Joey Tempest of Europe or Bonnie Tyler for "Holding Out for a Hero," you should give 100% percent to, at least, try to keep up with them because they are such great singers. It's very important that we really like it. The fact that it fits perfect with the album was an argument to try to do the song. It worked out so well because we like the song.
Rex_84: It has very memorable vocal and synth hooks. Now, I see your rationale for picking some of these songs. The other cover I wanted to discuss is the "Lord of the Rings" soundtrack song. Tell us a little about Inga singing this song and how it fit into the album?
Stefan: This song is special to Inga, Van Canto, and it's special to me. We are German and we play power metal, so of course, we are way into fantasy, especially Tolkien. This song caught Inga from the beginning when she saw it for the first time watching the movie. She always had this song in mind whenever she thought about music because she'll play piano and sing it--she uses it for practicing. We never thought about covering it because, even though it's a great song, we always chose our covers from metal songs. When it came to the new album, I proposed "Final Countdown." Inga said, "Okay, when we do "Final Countdown" we also have to do "Into the West." As soon as she stood in front of the microphone and did the first take we all knew doing it was a good decision because she totally feels the song; therefore, she can perform it honestly. That's important for such a feeling song. The song was taken from the part where Frodo and Bilbo were entering the ship to sail into the West. That's why it's called "Into the West." They leave Middle Earth and sail into the West where the elder elves live. That's also why it has a very emotional side, especially for Inga, because whenever she has to say goodbye...it's too personal to go into detail. For Inga, it's a very personal song in her life. Although she didn't write it, it always felt like her own song for her, so it was easy for her to perform it.
Rex_84: Lastly, Van Canto has a few tour dates on the horizon. Please tell us more about these shows and if there is a chance of Van Canto hitting the States?
Stefan: First of all, we keep on trying to come to the States. I have to say, we're getting a huge response from the States for this album. I did about eight or ten interviews for the last album in the U.S. I did about thirty or thirty-five right now for the new album. We have a feeling that the response is really good. We don't know why yet because so far it's only about the new songs, perhaps it's the covers, but we have the feeling that Van Canto is more important now than before, so we will definitely have another try at setting up a U.S. tour. We did so in 2012. We were close to doing a North American tour, but it didn't work out in the end because of the fact that we can only play three or four shows in a row, and then we need two or three days break. That's not a very good argument for promoters, telling them "we can play eight shows, but you have to pay us for sixty days." We still have to work on that. Therefore, we start our tour in Russia and go to our European leg of the tour. We'll keep on trying so we can one day make it over to the States.
Rex_84: Coming over to play summer festivals might be the way to go.
Stefan: That's the way we did it touring European countries such as Sweden and Italy. We were first invited for a festival where we knew there would definitely be people around, no matter if we play or not, so it was a good thing to show the promoter Van Canto's worth in these countries; therefore, they booked headline shows for us afterwards. We haven't played any festival gigs in the States yet, so we haven't had that chance to spread the life work of Van Canto. But like I said, we'll keep working on it and it will happen someday. I'm sure.
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