by Niklas Göransson
German label Ván Records strives for musical excellence through artistic authenticity – founder and manager Sven Dinninghof shares his thoughts and experiences from twenty-five years of stalwart underground metal dedication.
– Ván is a label for genuine, dark, and valuable music; timeless and not driven by fashion, hype, or trends. This ’Acherontic Audio Art’ moniker we use is appropriate in a more metaphorical manner of speaking.
Ván Records was founded in 2004 and became a full-time operation for its owner, Sven Dinninghof, four years later. Acting as catalyst for this venture was the new musical undertakings of his former band-mate Alexander Meilenwald, with whom he played in German black metal band NAGELFAR.
– Even before NAGELFAR split up, Alex was always composing and experimenting with music and sounds. The 2003 demo (“The Furious Waves of Damnation”) he made with his new solo-project, THE RUINS OF BEVERAST, never saw a proper release but was only forwarded to comrades. Once he approached me with the advance tape for “Unlock the Shrine” (TROB debut), my opinion was that it needed a proper release – to be spread beyond the circle of our local comradeship. After some ’strange’ experiences with record companies we had with NAGELFAR, Alex stated that the only way it was ever going to be released was if he could find the right label, so that’s how it went.
Without mentioning any names, could you elaborate a bit on these hassles?
– Nah, we just had good and bad experiences, and expectations might not always have been fulfilled. But this is a topic Alex can tell you more about, I left NAGELFAR before things got messy in that regard. It must be said though, we were super-happy and thankful for all the work Andreas Lacher did with Kettenhund Records. Those were very strong bonds of visions and comradeship – Andreas became a real close friend, with many mutual visits and holidays until he was ambushed and stabbed to death.
In January 2002, Andreas Lacher was murdered by a random stranger after accidentally bumping into him whilst at a nightclub earlier in the evening
– When operating a label, I think communication is key – the sense that you’re on the same frequency as the artists in terms of expectations and visions. Mutual sympathy. But of course, I cannot ensure anything – just try not to waste too much energy and efforts and thoughts into wrong things. I want to team up with bands that I like, creating together as opposed to simply working in parallel. It should be hand-in-hand, interwoven, at least in a best-case scenario. But yeah, I doubt it’s easy to deal with Ván; strange views, emotions, very personal dedication… for sure nothing that makes surviving in the music industry any easier. Neither for us nor the people we deal with, I guess.
I must say that this article was a bastard to research, with no interviews or even a label biography available. When I approached Sven about writing a feature, he didn’t exactly leap with excitement.
– Ván is too interwoven with me personally and I’m not particularly interested in broadcasting my personal views and visions to the general public. I have strong opinions and don’t mind sharing or stating, but rather face-to-face and when needed – not for entertainment or satisfying the curiosity of strangers. And of course, my views are continuously changing and evolving along with experiences and knowledge. Besides, only a few people read carefully and take the relevant circumstances into consideration; most will just use parts out of context or their own interpretation to annoy me with later… useless.
The first time I recall noticing Ván Records was upon spotting a statement they issued in the wake of a 2012 controversy featuring one of their contracted bands: THE DEVIL’S BLOOD. Guitarist Selim Lemouchi had been caught on video clobbering a disruptive heckler, which some people found gravely upsetting. Ván’s declaration mentioned having been asked for comments by several media outlets, which is why they now wished to set the record straight by expressing their full support for Lemouchi and the manner with which he remedied the situation.
– Sympathy and a general view of life is mandatory for me to cooperate with a band, and with THE DEVIL’S BLOOD we have very strong and personal bonds; really close and intimate friendship. I accompanied them to a lot of gigs and they were bothered many times… people throwing glasses, assaulting and all those things. It was common at festivals with mixed audiences, and we always tried to escort such individuals to the exit as soon as possible. Not everyone appreciated this of course but I think it was a good way of keeping the atmosphere as suitable as possible for the people who came to enjoy and join – not to disturb. I wasn’t attending this particular gig however…
If I remember the story accurately, some drunken cretin who didn’t think THE DEVIL’S BLOOD belonged at a metal festival intentionally sought out the front row to harass the band. When subsequently having his objections duly noted, he scurried off whimpering to the authorities seeking to press charges.
– Yes, that’s correct as far as I know. I’m not aware of his specific motivation and to be honest, I’m not interested. Others had reported this guy to security already before, he was being a drunken pain in the ass for many in the audience, but could obviously make it to the front row without problems where he started to assault Farida (Lemouchi, vocals). This was always the no-go-zone. No doubt she could defend herself in any verbal or non-verbal way, but there was Selim being the brother one would expect him to be. Very natural in my opinion.
Sven adds that it’s a complete mystery to him why this incident sparked so much interest and attention.
– We had way more fierce and intensive arguments at other gigs, and things like this happen every weekend at metal shows and parties. Maybe it was because of the video footage or just a ’good’ timing in social media, along with the general fascination for gossip from ’Abfallmenschen’. This seems to be the big new hobby, lamentation and complaints instead of dedicating time and efforts to topics people like and want to support. Not only regarding this kind of stuff but in general, luxury problems of a saturated society.
In March 2014, Selim Lemouchi ended his own life.
– He was a close friend so his death led to personal grief. I still miss him a lot – our talks, his flat with the special atmosphere, the evenings he played and sung while we had a few or more drinks. Selim shared and he liked it. And, of course, there were times and occasions when I was sick of the inappropriate epitaphs put on him by others based on superficial impressions and wishful thinking, in best case via social media rumours. But on the other hand, he was not only a friend but also an artist and this is the side you have to deal with as well unfortunately. I remember him as a good, honourable, authentic, funny and social person. As a son, brother and uncle. Ah yes, and he broke a lot of women’s hearts I think… haha!
Ván’s roster isn’t connected so much by music style as it is with feel and atmosphere. I read that they typically receive some twenty to thirty demo submissions each week, panning gold from that rubble must be a veritable nightmare. Especially given that most of the label’s artists are ones whose music requires devoted attention to absorb.
– Yes, this is indeed annoying on multiple levels. It’s impossible to listen to all of them, time and nerve-wise. I obviously love music and exploring new bands but most are just not my cup of tea and it’s a pain listening to them. Only a few seem to really think about which labels they send their music to. Some are really, really well-done but do not fit Ván at all. Next to the audio – a general sympathy is highly important, as well as mutual tastes in aesthetics.
Sven adds that dealing with black metal is extra complicated, since it’s the genre he comes from himself.
– Black metal was something I grew up taking very seriously, too serious maybe seen retrospectively. It’s still an important part of my life, although not quite to the extent of most stereotypical modern standards. I’m aware of its ever-changing background, and how vision and philosophy isn’t especially prominent any more. Or at least they’re different to mine.
Has it been an important factor in moulding your character?
– No, I don’t believe black metal had any role in shaping my person… I was drawn to this milieu because it fitted my character and mindset in more dimensions than others, and of course I enjoyed the music and its atmosphere. I wasn’t a big metalhead until the early nineties, but always into dark music. It was a great experience to finally meet like-minded people, with one example being the Fuck Christ Tour (BLASPHEMY, ROTTING CHRIST, and IMMORTAL) in 1993, which was my first big black metal gig. Also, if I remember correctly – that’s where I crossed paths with Zingultus, who later became the NAGELFAR vocalist.
Sven points out how back in those days, when communication to the outside metal world was mostly restricted to letters and ’zines, local scenes were more or less autonomous black metal isles with entirely unique approaches, views and philosophies.
– It was definitely independent with original visions that were often prevalent locally, but this makes sense. Of course, there were many more in Germany and beyond that we had a good contact with and met. In my home-town, Aachen, we had a quite strong and somehow structured and organised scene back then – the Wód Ván.
This was some manner of local metal brotherhood?
– Yes indeed, we started like that – with very serious background, rules and visions. Members even had to sign a ‘contract’. We had a quite strong black metal scene in the mid-90s. Over time, it became just a loose comradeship with many musicians and projects amongst them. With very few exceptions, it was bound to the Aachen region. There were even some releases later under that banner, recordings mostly distributed within the circle.
Sven adds that besides NAGELFAR and THE RUINS OF BEVERAST, Wód Ván bands that people might be familiar with include DESECRATION, HEEMAT, KERMANIA, TRUPPENSTURM, WINDVER, ABUSUS, GRAUPEL, and VERDUNKELN.
– Later, we had a website introducing the bands and even produced a ‘zine by the name of Westwall. We also organised many mutual trips and so on, everything you can imagine that’s standard among friends. I’m still hoping to realise a night of Wód Ván where leftover musicians share a stage and seamlessly transition between songs from all those projects… but it’s hard to accomplish and although I once shortly thought it was about to manifest, the endeavour failed. Instead, we made it our first Acherontic Arts Festival.
Someone I know used to work for the Swedish branch of a big German label. She told me the head-office would be absolutely furious when their albums received substandard reviews in Sweden Rock Magazine, the biggest metal publication in the country, and demanded to know how the hell this could happen after all of the advertisement they placed in said paper. My friend had to explain to them that this is how it works in Sweden. Judging by their surprise, she got the distinct impression that this is not always the case in Germany.
– There are some German magazines operating this way, it can easily happen that you book a full page and still end up at the end of a poll and never get any stories or features. There are both dependent and independent ones… when it comes to Ván, I honestly don’t care all that much. I hardly read and don’t archive or analyse reviews. Okay, if friends forward me a special one – hilarious or serious – then I do of course, but that is not the standard. I have no real interest in investing energy in other people’s opinion if they’re not super-close to me. I’m of course very thankful for every support and interest in our releases but I’m not actively looking for it.
What are your thoughts on contemporary metal media in general?
– I cannot say anything serious about it. I don’t follow them actively but still love to read hard-paper mags, and some websites are for sure interesting but I have yet to figure out how to follow them or get notifications if something new is published. I’m not interested in actively checking if there’s something once a week, month or quartal – but rather like subscriptions of complete issues, or coming across them by accident or recommendation. Any info that would be relevant to me is not time-sensitive and does not have to be breaking news.
In the case of Bardo Methodology, refer to the ‘new content notification’ box at the bottom of this page to be alerted by email whenever an article surfaces. From speaking to several German festival promoters I’ve gotten the impression that the onslaught of blogs and webzines looking for press-passes, VIP-access, and free shit in general is a substantial pain in the arse to deal with. I imagine that labels are no less assailed.
– Very true, requests for guestlists and hardcopy promos are indeed endless. None of them can apparently review a digital copy, yet most write for digital magazines… mmm. When it comes to guestlists, I think it should be a one-way decision. If I want to invite a guest, then I will extend an invitation instead of waiting for the individual to apply. People who are unwilling to spend a few euros to see a band aren’t welcome either way. Ultimately, the paying attendees have to finance the freeloaders as well so I think the more who have to pay – the better for visitors, bands, and promoters.
What do we have to look forward to from Ván Records?
– I doubt there’ll be any surprises… we’ll keep releasing dark and sinister music, mostly black metal but of course also remaining open to all other genres. I hope we cross paths with interesting bands, projects, and individuals who can help us broaden our horizons, so we don’t repeat ourselves too often. I hope we’ll continue as well with our live activities under the banner of Acherontic Arts, such as the festivals, gigs, and tours. Especially the nightliner tour – THE RUINS OF BEVERAST, KING DUDE, DOLCH, CARONTE – and minibus tour with SORTILEGIA, SINMARA, ALMYRKVI were very interesting and challenging experiences. Time will tell, and we’re enthusiastic enough to handle the one or other setback and face the risk rather then following known paths and rules.