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At Vance

The Brave And The Strong

Of the great number of bands playing neoclassic heavy/power metal, Germany's At Vance really stands out. On the one hand, guitarist Olaf Lenk has been firmly leading his band through whatever comes in their way, be it line-up changes or label disturbances, and has always stuck to one firmly established style. On the other hand, At Vance has always been much more that supersonic guitar solos and classical themes here and there - they have composed a bunch of truly fantastic songs that will with time definitely be regarded as power metal classics. Now At Vance are ready to unleash onto the world their sixth CD titled "Chained", which is their second one with new singer Mats Leven, and the band's mastermind Olaf is calling us from Germany with stories and jokes to tell about At Vance and his numerous side activities:  
At Vance have been around for quite a long time, "Chained" is your sixth album. Looking back, can you say which of your albums was the hardest one to write and record?
I think "The Evil In You" (2003) was a pretty hard part of my life.

And how much difficult was the work on the new CD?
It wasn't that difficult, because I took my time during the second half of 2004 and started to write new material. This time the work was progressing slower, because me and my wife decided to get another baby, so I took the second half of 2003 and the first half of 2004 off to get the baby number three.

"The Evil In You" was a very dark record, many songs were about a relationship gone bad and other dark topics. What about the new album - what are the lyrics about this time?
It's very cool that some people really realize the meaning of lyrics, they surely were about some disappointments in the relationship. Everybody can imagine who was meant in those lyrics. The new album is actually a bit more positive, even though I don't like to have cheesy meanings in the songs, there should always be some deepness in the compositions. Mats and me wrote the lyrics, and as the title "Chained" suggests, a lot of them deal with depression, how to be chained to bad feelings and to get out of them. It's got more positive vibe, but there's still a bit of dark mood into that. It doesn't mean that I'm always a sad person (laughs), but I don't want to be cheesy in my music, to sing that everything's alright. I try to write about the things that disturb me in life, about the things in the society that I don't like.

As you said, Mats Leven was involved in writing lyrics for the new record. How did that happen? Previously you wrote all the songs on your own:
Mats is a very cool professional musician, he knows what it's about, and it's very easy for me to give him a song and tell him, "That's the basic meaning, now get some vocal tracks together." And he does it, he writes great lyrics. He's much more into words than I am, he's good at that, he can put two meanings into words, so it's very easy for me to give the song away and let him do his thing. That was very different with the old singer (Oliver Hartmann - ed.).

At Vance have gone through a lot of line-up changes lately. If we compare the current line-up with the one that recorded the album "Only Human" (2001), you are the only person that remains in the band. What is the reason for so many line-up changes?
It's because I need musicians for only one album, and then I just trash them. (everybody laughs) No, I really believe in personal relationships in the band, I need to have a good vibe in it, and after we parted with Olli, it was kind of weird with the other band members. They didn't understand that I wanted to keep the musical level of At Vance and they couldn't deliver that, so I really had to make that decision. It doesn't mean that it's very easy for me to do that, but I had to do what's best for the band, and that's why the drummer and the bassist had to go.

Your current line-up looks like a supergroup - every member of At Vance previously played in famous bands. Mats Leven used to sing for Yngwie Malmsteen and is now touring and recording with Therion, the new drummer Mark Cross previously played with Nightfall, Metalium and Helloween, and bassist John ABC Smith is an ex-member of Scanner. Was that intentional - did you specifically want musicians with a name for the band?
I really like musical bitches who played everywhere. (everybody laughs) No, Mark just auditioned like every drummer did. We posted some news in the Internet, and he wrote me an e-mail saying, "Yeah, I'm free, I like your music, I think you suck as a guitar player (laughs), and I definitely wanna play with you." I sent him a track, he recorded it within two days, and it sounded very cool. I gave him a call and said, "Hey, that sounds good, you have a job." So it was very easy. But apart from that, we received many drum takes from drummers. That was really entertaining, to be honest. I don't know what the people sometimes understand about playing the drums, but we received some funny versions of our songs. (laughs) But Mark did a really cool job, he's a professional, and he knows what it's about.

And who's gonna play the second guitar at your upcoming shows?
I'm gonna play it with my feet. (everybody laughs) Actually I think I don't need a second guitarist. Rainald (Konig, ex-guitarist) didn't actually fulfill his part, to be honest, h
e didn't wanna put into the music the effort that I really demand. And I can't lower the level of the music just because he didn't wanna practice the stuff, that's something I really can't do to the fans. If we played three-chord songs, then we could call ourselves "Green Day Part 2". (laughs) That's what I didn't want to do.

Your website says that you will be giving private guitar lessons during the upcoming tour with Brainstorm. How are you going to combine these two things - will you teach guitar all day and then go up on stage and play all night?
It's no problem to me, because normally during the tour when we arrive at venues we have enough time to go round and see the town or do some skating. But what I do is I let people send me their phone numbers or mobile numbers and tell them that I'll give them a call when I'm in town. We can arrange a certain time and place, say, in the afternoon, so they can come over, bring their guitar or trombone or whatever (laughs), and we can have a musical lesson, I will teach them some things that I think are right to do. Many people ask me about guitar solos, how to do them, how I approach harmony and other stuff, so I thought it's a cool idea to tell something to the people.

How many students do you have when you are at home?
Usually I teach during the week in the afternoons. I like to give my kind of approach to the music or discipline to the people, because I think the next generation is really weak normally. They see some musicians, like I hope I am, see their approach, and it's not like getting up at one o'clock in the afternoon, smoking water pipes of pot and being stoned. (laughs) It's not like that, because if you work as a musician, it's a really hard job. It seems good to me to give that to the people. Some people really accept and understand that, they practice really hard, and some people don't understand that, they do whatever. (laughs) I think more musicians should really try to give their approach to the younger people, to develop culture, which is normally not guaranteed, because of all the Internet. People nowadays are only getting things without giving anything away to the other people, there's no real interaction with musicians like I hope I am.

How does your current setlist look like? Will you mostly play songs from the last two records, or will you choose the best songs from all periods?
Oh, I can tell you the setlist, just give me a second. We're gonna open up with "Tell Me", then we have "The Evil In You", "Fallen Angel", "Heart Of Steel", "Rise From The Fall", "Chained", "No Speak" from the first album, "Broken Vow", "Right Or Wrong", "Now Or Never", "The Curtain Will Fall", "Take Me Away", and maybe as an encore, if the people want us to play one more song, we have "Only Human". It's a mixture of some old songs and stuff from the last few albums.

How did At Vance fans react when Mats Leven became the singer? Did you receive any negative feedback or was he accepted univocally?
No, I actually didn't get any critics, everybody seemed to say that Mats really takes the cheese out of the music. Olli has the tendency to sometimes sound too smooth and too much like David Coverdale, and Mats sounds as if he has a kind of sore throat, if I can say so, he's really rough. It's good for the music - I write such nice melodies and Mats interprets them in a rougher way. And he's a good performer.

Yeah, we saw him in Moscow with Therion a few months ago, and he was fantastic:
Indeed. It takes him about one minute for a soundcheck, he just screams into the mic! (laughs) He knows what it's about. It's sometimes hard for other people to get, because he's got so much power in his voice, and he's so straight and so easy to handle. It's basically the same approach that I have - just go out and play. If you don't get your stuff together, you shouldn't go out and play. It's a really straight and hard approach, but I think it's really cool, I like it. Some people should really think about their approach, you need some kind of honesty to yourself - if you suck, you shouldn't go out and play for the people. I know it sounds really hard, but it's good to be honest to yourself.

By the way, you said that Mats was the only one whom you wanted to be the singer after Oliver left. But why him? What is it that impressed you so much in Mats when you heard him for the first time?
He's got a range of five octaves, which is really cool to use. Five octaves is OK for a man. (laughs) It's very easy to work
with him, he knows what it's about, he's creative and as a musician he knows many styles. He's not big-headed, he's a very straight person, and that's exactly what I want the singer to be like. I don't like to fuck around with like, "Oh yeah, I like this song and blah blah blah," I'm too old for this kind of shit.

Another question about Mats - was it intentional that the person on the cover of "The Evil In You" looks like Mats so much?
No, I wanted him to look like Olli, but he's got hair, so: No, that's just a joke. (everybody laughs) This song is about a relationship, I was kind of disappointed, because Olli and me had been friends for such a long time, since we were about 16 or 17 years old, and we played together. A lot of the lyrics - "Fallen Angel", "The Evil In You" - were about how I take the situation. I was disappointed and very sad about how it worked out, so the person in my lyrics suddenly faces the evil within himself and works with that, it should help. Some people don't manage to cope with that, and you see them really pitiful. But everybody has a dark part, and if you try to fight that and become a nice and cool guy, it's worth it, and that how I think life should be.

And more about covers - have you seen the cover of the first album by the German band Messiah's Kiss ("Prayer For The Dying", 2002)? They used the same picture as you did on "Only Human":
No, I haven't. Was it released later or earlier than our record?

Yours came out first.
So I'm the winner. (laughs)

You used to record a lot of covers of both pop and rock hits. But why did you stop doing it after "Only Human"? A lot of people thought it was your trademark to put a rock cover and a classical cover on every album:
We did record "Highway Star" as a bonus track for the Japanese version of "The Evil In You", but on the new album I didn't feel like doing another version of ABBA. I had some ideas for covers, but it just happened: The ABBA thing is really cool to do, but then it became a fashion. I think we were one of the first bands that covered songs by the band with an absolutely different approach and put them in a metal context, that was really cool. But then everybody started doing that, each and every band, and I said, "There's no sense making it anymore."
You once said that you don't like the ABBA tribute that Nuclear Blast released a few years ago because it doesn't represent the spirit of ABBA very well. But are there any ABBA covers that you really like?
No. (laughs) I think they suck.

Have you seen the musical "Mama Mia"? What do you think of such an interpretation of ABBA songs?
I have heard about it, I think it sounds really cool. It's a great thing that somebody wants to bring the songs to the people who don't listen to this kind of music, to the next generation, because these songs are really great.

As far as we understand, in the song "Only Human" you say that nobody is faultless, nobody makes mistakes. What are the mistakes that you have done with At Vance?
I think it's believing and giving people a helping hand to the musicians that can't really deliver their parts, helping them with their parts, actually playing their parts for them. They don't understand that you can't offer them a helping hand all the time, they don't understand that it's just a helping hand for a certain point in time. It takes a lot of efforts if you're gonna play all the bass parts, and sometimes bass players don't wanna do anything about it. I used to believe in the people a lot, but nowadays what I do is - if you wanna play with me, just play for me, either you can do it or you can't, there's no excuse for not doing something. Nobody tells me any longer, "I don't know if I can do this or that," I can't take it any longer. Just imagine a classical composer like Prokofiev doing his concerto and telling the first violin how to play his stuff. That's embarrassing. This guy should get down to notes, and if he makes a mistake, Prokofiev would just look at him and say, "Hey, what the hell are you doing here?"

And signing with Shark Records for the first three At Vance albums - was that a mistake?
Oh yes, really. Nobody needs this type of person in the music business, sorry. This guy (Shark Records owner Axel Thubeuville - ed.) is a real asshole.

But what is really surprising about Shark is that they have managed to stay in the music industry (though under various names) for so long:
The thing is tha
t he has so many young bands, and young people are pretty naive or whatever, they just want to bring an album out. And he uses that to get hold of their music, but he really fucks them up, and that's not right. They have so many feelings and emotions in their music, and they're so true and in a way so pure and innocent, but he fucks them up, that's really embarrassing. You know, I've been in this business for quite a lot time, and I did believe him, too, but he tried to fool me. I had to do two more albums for him, but I just said, "Hey man, you suck, you can get the fuck out of here." He was like, "But you have to deliver me one more album, blah blah blah," but I said, "You can do whatever, but I won't play any more music for you except for the German national anthem." Everybody should be really careful about this guy.

Apart from At Vance, you have two solo records - "Sunset Cruise" and "Olaf Lenk's F.O.O.D.". Are they still available anywhere?
No, but I plan to re-release them, even though it's a different part of my musical influences. It might not really appeal to At Vance fans, because it's got some jazz influences or whatever, and there are no vocals there. The audience became so small for this type of music, because you really gotta listen to it a couple of times, it's not like an American type of thing. It still has some juggling guitar parts, but I do pay attention to melodies, themes, chords and all that. Comparing this music to what is normally being done around these days would be like comparing Russian composer Prokofiev to Vivaldi, these are like two different worlds. Prokofiev had such a higher level in his compositions, Vivaldi was more like Enrique Iglesias for that time. I don't know, maybe it's because you have so many dark hours during the day. In Germany it gets dark at six o'clock in the wintertime, but as far as I know, in Russia it gets dark around three o'clock. People are sadder and maybe poorer, and maybe because of that Russian music has much more sadness and deepness to it. I really like Chaikovsky, Prokofiev, Mussorgsky and all these composers. The thing is that if I would really play a composition of Prokofiev, one of his concertos, and transpose that into rock music, I don't thing that people would get this nowadays, because it's a very high level technically- and composition-wise. The culture of the people is kind of going down, they don't dig deep into the music. But I try to do my thing and bring the classical thing into rock, this time I chose Bach's "Invention No. 13", because Bach was just a genius. Maybe some people will realize that and get into this music just a little bit. Stuff like "Pictures At An Exhibition" or "The Gnome" is really heavy to me, that's heavy metal of that time.

On your second solo album "F.O.O.D." the keyboards were recorded by the famous Don Airey (ex-Rainbow, now with Deep Purple). How did you get to know Don? Was it easy to persuade him to appear on your album?
I got to know him through Uli Jon Roth, who we jammed with two times. Don amazingly liked my playing, which I was really honored by, because he's such a cool guy. I sent him two tracks, and I called him up, and he said, "No problem, I'll come over." I think the music speaks for itself - he liked the music, and he just came over and recorded the thing. We're still friends, we talk every now and then, send each other Christmas cards, and I celebrated my birthday last year with him, when he played with Deep Purple. He's a cool guy, a great musician and a very straight person, just like I am.

Can you also tell us something about other projects you have been involved with, such as Tiefschlag?
It was done with a good friend of mine (singer Tobias Lorsbach - ed.), we wanted to do some really heavy stuff with low-tuned guitars and not that much melody in there. We wanted something really heavy that was going against this stupid German vibe about the Second World War that we have nowadays. I thought this vibe is so embarrassing for the Germans, I just can't say how embarrassing how it is. I wanted to tell some of the people of the next generation that stupidity really leads you to this kind of thing, because people really voted for Hitler and his regime, and after they voted for him, they went like, "Oh shit, we made a mistake," but it was too late. The people don't think too much, they let themselves be ruled. If you can do nothing, you can change nothing, and if you don't think, you're a slave to somebody else, that's what we thought. We wrote a song called "Soldat fur wen?", or "Soldier For Whom" in English, just showing all that in the lyrics, and the vocals were so ugly that I thought they really fitted into th
is ugly and horrible part of Germany, which I don't have anything to do with. Even though I speak German, I feel I have nothing to do with this. And the same goes for the English - they don't have anything to do with the American type of approach to politics.

Do you consider Tiefschlag a serious project, or is it just a one-time thing?
I actually talked to some people, but they wanted me to change some of the lyrics, to be not so hard and straight. But I said I can't do this. They should be the way they are. If I say, "Fuck you Hitler!", I mean it, I'm not gonna say, "You're not a cool guy, Hitler!" (everybody laughs) It's what I feel, and I don't wanna make compromises and say, "Yeah, you weren't that cool, it wasn't that wise what you did." I'll say, "You're fucking: whatever." Hitler was a drug addict, he had the Parkinson disease in the end, that was embarrassing for the Germans, and they were so stupid to do that. That's embarrassing for me to be part of that culture, honestly.

Prior to At Vance, you recorded two albums with a band called Centers. What do you think about these albums now - would you like to change a lot of things on them, or do you think they survived the test of time?
It was kind of more progressive music, but I found out that it didn't appeal to many people. The music was too complex, the drum parts weren't that straight, that's why I decided to stop this project and start At Vance - to make it more straight and more people.

Does it mean that you intentionally write more simple music with At Vance?
Yes, that's true, of course. You can see the development of the culture at the moment if you look at the charts, there is so much music that is embarrassing. If you can increase the number of people getting into more complex things from one to 50 and then to 100, this is fantastic. You can't expect people who listen to Enrique Iglesias to change to really complex Malmsteen stuff, it's too much for them, they don't get it.

How did you get involved in the band Velvet Viper? And how long did you stay in this band?
I stayed for one year. I remember I played "Caprice No. 5" by Paganini for Jutta (Weinhold, Velvet Viper singer - ed.), and she was like, "Wow, that's so classical!" so she took me for the job. I composed all the album ("Velvet Viper", 1991) and played on it, but after the management did some very strange things, I said, "You can do whatever:" I don't like to use mean words: OK, I just left. But I played all the guitars and some leads, even though there was somebody else pictured on the album. A friend of mine, Zeno Roth, the brother of Uli Roth, plays some solos, too. We still know each other very well today, even though it was 10 or 12 years ago, and we both said back then that it was a fuck-up situation. I don't know, maybe I'm too straight sometimes. I always tell my children, "If you can't do anything, you can't change anything. If you develop your abilities and talents, you can do whatever you want, but if you don't, you will have a shitty little life. That's not the thing for me, and I think my children understand that and do that. They are very happy with that, because it's good to develop your brain and culture, to stand up for your right and for what you think. You can have any opinion about things, but it's cool if you have thought about it.

You also work as a producer in your own studio quite a lot. Is it real for a band from Russia to come and record an album in Guitarland Studio?
Yeah, I've just done an album of a Hungarian band called Demonlord. They sent me some mixes, and they really sucked. They asked me to do the second mix, and I did it, it was fine. It's not the question of equipment, I think, it's more of knowing what you want. They told me what they wanted, and I just did it. I didn't do it the way I would do it, but they wanted to have their own sound, and that's what I tried to keep for them. They were really please.

Now please tell us about your future plans. We know that you will be touring with Brainstorm soon, but what will be next for At Vance?
I thing we will conquer the world and make a global career. (everybody laughs)

That's a really good masterplan!
(laughs) Oh yeah, I know Roland, he's the same type of guy that I am, really straight. Some people don't get our sense of humor, because it's sometimes too hard, but why should I talk bullshit, I don't know. (laughs) OK, I just want to reach a couple of more people with the new album and see how the band grows. If it comes to a big success with this album, it's really cool, but it if doesn't, I'll do the next one, and the next one, and the next one. Most composers became famous only after their death. I hope it doesn't happen to me, but then my kids will get something out of it. (laughs) But I still want to have my little island in the Bahamas before I die.

Special thanks to Irina Ivanova (CD-Maximum) for arranging this interview.
Roman Patrashov, Natalie Khorina

March 31, 2005
5 май 2005
the End


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