Vietnamese Progressive Metal Band DaVang Breaks Into the U.S.
Interview with Ross Knapp and Dat Nguyen
Written by Alison “MetalBabe” Cohen
DaVang, who is extremely well known in Vietnam, moved to the States in 2010 to break into the U.S. market. They definitely found their missing piece with American drummer Ross Knapp, who was already emerged in Asian culture. It was so educational and interesting to learn more about DaVang, Vietnamese culture, and the similarities and difference between Vietnamese fans/venues versus the States.
Metal Babe: Ross, tell me a little about your background as a drummer, bands you were in before DaVang, and any professional training that you’ve had.
Ross Knapp: I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio before moving to California. I graduated from the College Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati. I played in several bands in Ohio, including The Haymarket Riot. We had a record contract with London records and our keyboardist, Gary Griffin, went on to play with The Beach Boys. He is out touring now with Brian Wilson to promote The Beach Boys ‘Pet Sounds’ album. We booked A.J. Entertainment, who was the same agency that handled Adrian Blue and Seymour Duncan. Adrian was a drummer long before he became a world famous guitarist for King Crimson, Frank Zappa, and David Bowie. He was my role model because he was one of the first singing drummers I ever saw.
Metal Babe: DaVang came to the U.S. in 2010. How did you end up being the drummer of the band? Did you know about them when they were in Vietnam?
Ross: I came into DaVang knowing one thing…they were a Vietnamese metal band that was famous in Vietnam and Southeast Asia. Their Vietnamese drummer had become very ill and ended up in emergency surgery. The doctors told him he would not be able to play for possibly a whole year. DaVang had booked several months worth of upcoming shows, so they put out a call to audition drummers. After working their way through all the Vietnamese drummers that were available, they opened the scope to non-Vietnamese drummers as well.
I got a FaceBook message from Dr. Phil (bass player) about the audition and signed up. They sent me an MP3 of all their tunes and I immediately decided there was NO WAY I could ever learn their songs in time to pass an audition. The songs had more twists and turns than anything I had ever played. Whoever they had playing on these recordings was one of the best drummers I had ever heard. Only about a year later did I learn it was actually the lead guitarist, Dat Nguyen using a drum machine to create some of the most challenging drum parts ever recorded. Anyway after almost giving up on the audition, I took a car trip to Las Vegas and back and listened to the songs for almost seven hours. By the time I returned to back to L.A. I had decided to give it a shot. I went to the audition and after making it through the majority of the songs they said they would contact me later. That night Dr. Phil let me know I was the new DaVang drummer and to be ready to play in one week. After a few rehearsals they found out I could sing lead AND play drums, so I got assigned some harmony parts and a lead vocal on one song.
Metal Babe: Wow, that’s such a great story! What’s it like being the only American in the band? Do you know any Vietnamese?
Ross: If I had just moved from Cincinnati and joined DaVang I would never had made the journey, but luckily my move to CA made the experience very easy. My wife (who I met in CA) is Asian. My day jobs were all working for Asian companies (Japanese and Chinese). I had traveled extensively through China, Hong Kong, Korea, Philippines, and Japan. I even learned to speak some conversational Japanese. I got used to eating all types of Asian food and in fact my favorite foods are Asian. I got to learn a lot about Asian culture and customs.
Metal Babe: Wow. That is so interesting! It sounds like this really was meant to be.
Ross: It’s like I always say, “life is all about timing.” So, by the time I met DaVang I was already up to speed on what Asia was all about. That is not to say there are not some very unique Vietnamese customs but they were all great to learn about. I would have to say that the DaVang band members are the most thoughtful, considerate, and supportive musicians I have ever played with. They speak only in English when I am around and all of our group conversations by FaceBook are in English. Rarely do I hear them speaking in VN unless we are being visited by a VN guest. Then they must show respect to the guest by speaking in VN. After four years I am embarrassed to admit that I only know a few words in VN one being “Cheers.” And that is because I learned to drink very expensive single male scotch VN style once joining the band. A band tradition I now treasure.
Metal Babe: That’s definitely a good word to know! DaVang puts on such an amazing live show and is so full of energy. How would you describe a live DaVang show to someone who hasn’t seen you play before?
Ross: Playing a DaVang show seems like a complete blur because if you focus on anything but the music you are playing, you will become totally lost and never recover. After seeing many live tapes of our live shows I would describe our music as being progressive metal with very strong melody lines and amazing guitar and bass work. Dat handles most of the lead vocals while playing harmonic guitar leads along with the second lead guitarist Khang. Dat is in constant motion when he is away from the microphone, as is our bassist Dr. Phil. Khang tends to find a comfortable side section of the stage to shred nonstop while burying his face in a mop of hair. I tend to make very serious facial expressions as if someone had pissed me off throughout the performance. But it’s really just me trying to concentrate on the next 180 degree change the song is going to take. And I get to sing some really great harmony parts that Dat wrote.
Metal Babe: Great description! I’m really excited about DaVang re-recording their album to include lyrics in English. Can you tell me more about this process? Has the band written English lyrics for the full album?
Ross: Yes the English translations for all the songs are complete and what is amazing is how timely all the songs are. They were written in the 90s, yet they hit on almost every important social issue of the 21st century. Additionally, the English is SO poetic, flowery, and very deep. “Blood of the Motherland” deals with treating the environment with respect. “SOS” deals with the horrors of a Nuclear war. “Magic Mirror” is a song about seeing yourself as you really are not your self-perception. And “Tear Down The Wall”… Could there be a more timely song???
Metal Babe: That is amazing. Any idea when you plan to re-record and release the album?
Ross: We are hoping to get into the studio in June. We will be taking off the month of April to tweak the songs and decide if any new songs will be added. Also we may decide to release a single first and then go for the entire re-recording of the ‘SOS’ Album.
Metal Babe: Sounds good. What else can you tell us about the album itself?
Ross: The album will be an acquired taste. There are some first-listen likes with catchy melody lines like “SOS” and “Magic Mirror,” but most of the songs will require a couple listens to get used the very unique sound that DaVang creates.
Metal Babe: I can’t wait to hear it! It’s great that DaVang is playing so many live shows! We would love for you to play Vegas sometime. What would be your ideal Vegas show for the band?
Ross: Two places come to mind Count’s Vamp’d and Las Vegas Hard Rock. The ideal show would be to play in support of the North American launch of the DaVang SOS Album and to have our friends Tyrants by Night who live in LV open the show.
Metal Babe: That would be great! I have a few questions for Dat… How would you compare a live DaVang show in the United States to shows that you’ve played in Vietnam?
Nguyen Dat: That is an easy one… In Vietnam our shows were much bigger with 30,000 to 40,000 people at a live show, and everyone knew our songs and who the band was. Here in the U.S. the shows are much smaller, no one knows anything about us and we have to prove ourselves to the audience from song one. But at the same time it really has helped the band feel confident about our mission to breakout here in the greatest rock n’ roll country on the planet.
Metal Babe: How do the fans/crowds/venues seem to differ?
Dat: We love the American audiences because they genuinely accept the band on what they see and hear without any influence of reputation or preconceived notions of the band. It’s a pure response and the American audience is much more energized and outgoing than VN fans. They are not afraid to show it if they like what they hear.
Metal Babe: Was it challenging to rewrite the songs in English and is it challenging to sing them live?
Dat: Actually these songs were made to be written and performed in English because it was always my dream to play them for American audiences. Singing in English is actually much easier than in VN. There are seven tones for the same word in VN and each tone has a different meaning. If I do not sing the exact tone the whole meaning can change. In English I can bend notes and phrases depending on the occasion and the meaning remains the same.
Metal Babe: That’s true. When you rewrote the lyrics, did you keep similar content/meaning lyric-wise?
Dat: Yes even though some of the words needed to be changed to fit the melody and exact translations were not possible, the meaning stayed the same.
Metal Babe: Perfect. What final words would you like to say to our readers?
Ross: We are nothing without the support of our audiences. We appreciate every bit of support from “likes” on social media to listens of on songs on YouTube and the C4OC Radio network. It’s all a building process and getting exposure one show after another. Even this interview that was arranged for us by MBM Music LLC is one more step to bring DaVang and its music into the US Market.
Dat: Please come see DaVang perform LIVE when we are in your city and please give our music a listen. Without your support we cannot survive.
Metal Babe: Thank you so much Ross and Dat. I’ve really enjoyed doing this interview, and look forward to more live DaVang shows and the upcoming album.
Visit DaVang’s MBM Music LLC: https://www.mbmmusicllc.com/the-mbm-musician-network/da-vang
*Originally posted in Sin City Presents Magazine