Volbeat could possibly be the biggest Danish band that you’ve never heard of but that’s about to change. Having achieved notoriety and success in Europe, Volbeat has come to the U.S. to support Metallica with an opening slot.
December 8 found the band in frigid Sacramento where I sat down with Volbeat front man Michael Poulsen for a chat deep in the bowels of the Arco Arena backstage. Winding our way from the Volbeat dressing room, past Metallica’s “tuning and attitude” room (door closed … volume high), through the center of the arena where the crew was in the process of hanging the coffin-shaped lighting rigs we settled smack dab in the middle of the not-so-quiet room being used for crew catering. During the walk through the Arena, we discussed mutual musical interests and one thing was clear: tThere are no rock-star airs here, just a down-to-earth guy who, as evidenced by the tattoos up and down his arms which pay tribute to his idols, is first and foremost a fan of music.
You guys have been very successful in Europe.
Gold, platinum as well, but remain relatively lesser known in the U.S. For those people that haven’t heard about Volbeat, what can you tell us?
So far we did three records and they are all released now in the U.S. after some certain time. We toured America in May and that was with Nightwish and actually had the opportunity to go to the U.S. before that but it really didn’t make sense because the records were not out and it was all hardcore bands who were asking us and we really didn’t fit that package. So when we started with the right distribution that’s when it made sense to tour in the U.S. We started out with Nightwish. That was a really good tour, people were really into it and we got our own crowd and they started to play us on the radio. So it was a good small kickoff to make some noise in the U.S. Style-wise, I don’t know, I never thought too much about it but it seems like a lot of American interviewers think we’re an American band because of the style of music … because it has a lot of influences from American artists or bands. You can definitely hear the inspiration from Johnny Cash and Elvis and Metallica. So what we do you can hear the melodies from the 50’s, you can hear the country inspiration from Johnny Cash, you can hear inspiration from Elvis but you can also definitely hear the inspiration from the metal scene like Metallica and Black Sabbath and all the oldies. So you blend those kinds of things and then you probably have Volbeat.
I describe it as if Elvis had written a heavy metal record.
How did that sound evolve? Because it’s a very unique sound and the first time I heard it I thought, “whoa, what is this?”
It’s a really fun compliment because there’s something that a lot of people actually [unintelligible over the espresso machine]. It’s not a secret that I’m a big Elvis fan. I’ve got him tattooed a lot.
Yeah, I think I saw one over here [pointing at Michael’s left arm]
Yeah, here and here [pointing]. I’ve got his dog tags from the army. I grew up with a father listening to Elvis all the time and started to collect my own records from the 50’s and especially Elvis. If you ask me, I don’t sound like Elvis at all … nobody does. I think it’s something to do with the rhythm in my voice and small parts where you can hear the inspiration and that’s the key.
There’s a bit of crooning in there.
Yeah, exactly. And I take it as a very big compliment. Inspiration is everything when you write material so it gets me proud that people that name him.
You’ve also got some more subtle influences, a little more obscure in particular growing up in Denmark. You’re covering Misfits songs, you’re covering Social Distortion. How did that come into the mix? Is that something that you grew up with?
No, you know I grew up with music from the 50’s because that’s what my parents were playing all the time. But as a teenager I discovered the heavy metal scene because one of my sisters had a boyfriend who had lots of records with Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, Dio, Ozzy, Metallica, Megadeth … all the classical bands. So I start looking into that, finding my own favorites. The beginning was all about the covers … looks good … and then I start actually listening to the records and I got really into Dio and Black Sabbath, I remember, Rainbow, later on I discovered Metallica, Iron Maiden. And that was heavy metal. Suddenly the death metal scene was exploding in the 90’s so I got really into that as well. So when you start buying your underground magazine and tape trading and everything you discover some other kind of styles like punk music and thrash music, grindcore … whatever it is I was just exploring it. The key has always been that I like melodies but I also just like really [unintelligible] rhythm … whatever it is. And I remember the first time I heard Social Distortion. I had some friends talking about Social Distortion and I was just thinking that name sounds like a noisy band and I thought it’s probably not me but when I heard it I was like, “man, that dude’s got soul.” He’s got spirit and I was really digging it so it’s all about getting the music under your skin that you have this kind of feeling and you fall in love. So a lot of those kinds of situations have happened with my favorite bands like Social Distortion, Manic Street Preachers, Metallica. But I’m also very much into blues music and gospel and stuff like that.
Your prior band was a death metal band so you made a pretty big transition from Dominus to Volbeat.
I think that when I formed Dominus I was 16 years old.
You were angry?
Not really, but rebellious against everything but not to blame the music on that. It was like … I was so much into death metal, I remember, so I bought a lot of those records and started my own band and we did four records but the older I got it was like I was getting back to what I was starting to listen to … the records from the 50’s. But I still really like the distorted sound from the metal scene so I was thinking, “I have to do something else.” I split up Dominus … the material I was writing it didn’t fit Dominus. People would have said, “change the name,” and that’s what I did. I didn’t like to paint myself into a corner just doing metal or only doing rock and roll. It was about keeping it wide open and seeing what happens. It was to write straight from the heart and see what comes out and don’t care too much about it. For me it’s not about true metal or true rock and roll because, it’s bullshit. Being true is what comes from the heart and it really doesn’t matter what it is. It’s just music. I’m not into following clichés or stuff like that. I was just writing lots of material and I was asking myself, “where the hell do I go from here?” And I called up one of my friends, Jon, which is my drummer and said I have a good bunch of songs, could you please put some drums on them. And we got together and suddenly we had ten songs and we were asking ourselves, “who the hell is going to listen to this?” But let’s just try to go out to small bars and play our guts out and the crowds just got bigger and bigger. Now we can do our own European tour as headliners and do real big venues so it seems like Volbeat maybe came at the right moment, the right time, but we’ve also been working very hard and dedicated. We’ve been going into this with 100% soul and spirit. I don’t have any kind of education; it’s always been about music. I believe dreams come true and I’m living proof of it because now I’m touring with Metallica.
Let’s talk about that. So you’re here in the U.S. for 15 dates if I counted correctly. How did that come about? Did their people call your people?
I think it was one and a half years ago we had a show with Metallica in Denmark and it was Lars who called from the U.S. to some of the Danish media and asked them what’s the big fuss right now in Denmark. And every time he called up a media everybody was telling him Volbeat, Volbeat, Volbeat. They sell gold records, they sell platinums, they’re everywhere.
But Lars didn’t know who you guys were?
“I heard about that name, I’ll check it out. I’ll check it out.” And he did and we got a support slot with Metallica and James was really into it. He came over and we talked a little bit about inspirations, cars, family, whatever. And he was sitting on stage listening to the first four songs. Later on I was invited to the release party in Copenhagen and the shows in Copenhagen. I even got a call from James’ assistant and James wanted to meet with me so I had him at my own house and my girlfriend had to cook dinner for him.
How’d that go?
It went good. I had to call her up and I said, “when are you home? We need to do some food.” “Ah, shut up, I’m home when I’m home.” “Yeah, but James Hetfield will be here in two hours.” “Say what?” Of course James wanted to check us out … what kind if men we were. I think he was just curious because he really liked the band.
What did your girlfriend cook?
I don’t remember. I’m not the guy in the kitchen so I already forgot. But it was good. A couple weeks after the meeting with James we got a call from the booking agency; they want us to tour with Metallica. And of course we were totally up in the air. It’s a dream come true. I remember being a teenager lying in bed looking at my Metallica posters before I had my guitar and now I’m on the road with them and that’s crazy.
You have a relatively short set, 30 minutes to play.
You have three albums. How do you approach a set like that with an audience that probably doesn’t know you very well?
Of course it’s a little bit difficult but the thing is the latest record has been out the longest time [in the U.S.]. We have three records; the first one has just been released so that’s pretty new for people. But we actually choose to have songs from all three records but mostly, I believe, the last one. And we have these thirty minutes and it happens that we change one or two songs during the shows. We experienced so far that people like the up-tempo songs. Maybe because there are so many people in there who don’t know who Volbeat is and they are already very energetic, you know, because they are waiting for Metallica and so you can see when we play the up-tempo songs that’s what people really liked. We tried to play a few slow songs and, it’s not that we don’t think that people don’t like them, but I think when you play thirty minutes you gotta give them hell. So that’s what we’re doing. When we’re touring Europe it’s another thing where we have our own show and we’re playing one and a half hours it’s very random. Some people really like the slow songs, some really like the fast songs.
Is it by country, by venue …
No I think it’s something to do with how well you know the band.
So the people that have gotten deeper into your catalog probably have a broader appreciation.
Yeah, yeah. Exactly
So overall the audiences in the U.S. have been receptive?
Yeah, it’s been very good. We’ve been very surprised. Even though we were on tour in May, the reaction way back then was so good. We’re still surprised when we walk on stage because we know people are waiting for Metallica but we also know that people have been traveling long distances just to see our show. You know, the hardcore fans, and the reaction every night has been great. There’s been nights that have been better than others, that’s the way it is, but so far we’re really thankful for the opportunity and the challenge and we’re proud of what we’ve accomplished so far this tour and the support we get from the audience.
How do you plan to follow this up in the U.S?
Of course next year there’s going to be some touring in the U.S. We don’t know yet if it’s going to be a support tour or a headliner; that’s something we’re still working on. But definite for sure we’re going to be back.
The United States is very very big and there are a lot of places to play.
Yeah, you got countrysides bigger than the whole of Denmark! Everything makes sense now. We could do a headlining tour and play some club shows. And we could do a support tour if the right opportunity comes. But the most important thing is get back and keep on playing.
So that’s in the works now?
Yeah, that’s something our different booking agencies are working on … seeing the options.
I imagine that when you’re touring in Europe you’re touring in support of your latest CD. Here you’ve got three CDs…
Yeah, every record is pretty new. Playing in Europe, we still mix it up and play equal amounts of songs from each record. We always play one and a half hours [unintelligible due to enthusiastic security guard chatting up the lady behind the food counter].
So with only 30 minutes do you feel rushed?
It’s like when thirty minutes is gone, it’s like, “come on, we’ve just started.” But that’s the way it is and we truly appreciate the thirty minutes. It’s still a really big thing.
How had it been adjusting to playing in the round?
Oh my god. That was a challenge. I’ve never been nervous walking on stage because I know what I’m doing and this is my job. I love what I’m doing and know that I’m good at it. But the thing is when you warm up on such a stage which is something I never tried before; I could sense I was a little bit nervous the first night. And it’s a good sign; it’s a really good sign. I don’t use in-ears so I have to have everything in the monitors. And the first night, there were some difficult things. I needed the drums but the drums were not there so when I came over to the other side, it was like, “fuck” I could only hear my own guitar. I had to rush back to the other side just to be able to the drums. So the first show was a really big challenge. The second one we started to have what we really wanted in the monitors. Everything started to come to shape.
Is it adjusting the sound for you, adjusting where you stand or both?
It was both because you have to time the walking distance between mics because I’m singing. It’s more easy for the other guys to just turn around but I have to time it with my vocals and that’s been a great challenge. It’s really quite fun. I believe after two or three shows now we know what we’re going.
You played some shows in Europe during the break from the Metallica tour.
We went back and played seven shows. We were in Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, Netherlands … I think it was seven shows then we had four days off back in Denmark then we’re here in the U.S.
So while Metallica was on vacation you were working?
[Laughs] They’re old guys, you know.
I’m sure they won’t listen to this.
You know, we’re pretty joking around with each other the whole tour.
Are they good to tour with?
Yeah, they’re true gentlemen. There are a lot of big acts that can learn a thing or two from Metallica because they treat their support bands so good. I have so much respect. Every day James or Lars would come into the dressing room, just hanging out and ask if we need something, if everything’s alright. I gotta take my hat off to the crew too because they’ve all been treating us so well.
What do you do with the rest of your time while on tour?
As I do now, a couple of interviews. I sit back stage or the bus with an acoustic guitar, write some material, write some lyrics. But it’s also very important that you actually really relax because that’s a key for keeping yourself going strong. Eating well, getting the right vitamins. We sit on the internet taking care of our business … the lawyers and everything in Denmark we have to be in contact with. Of course there’s some work to do before we go on stage. Or else we just kill time watching movies, hanging out, seeing the city and buying lots of crap [laughs].
You don’t get bored?
No, because I believe if you’re bored then you’re not clear enough … I don’t know what boredom is because there’s always something to do. I always said that boredom is for idiots.
In terms of the new material that you mentioned that you’re writing, when can people expect a new album?
The plan is to go into the studio in April, mid of April, and so I believe a new release will be around late September, maybe the beginning of October.
And have you written most of the material … ? Part of the material?
I’m not sure. So far we’re playing thirteen songs in the rehearsal. Putting lyrics to them. I already skipped ten songs and still have around five or six songs I have to show to the other guys. A lot of material they don’t listen to because I trash them before I play it for them. I have melodies in my system and my head all the time and I have so many ideas on my mobile just walking around being inspired by all this. I’ll just sing to my mobile a riff [sings a riff] and then go to my dressing room, pick up the acoustic guitar and work around it. So far we have thirteen songs and then maybe those thirteen songs we’re playing in the rehearsal room right now, maybe nine or ten of them are going to be keepers. And I still have to show the guys the five or six songs that still haven’t matured yet.
Any more cover songs?
So far we’ve been covering all the oldies, you know. I Only Want To Be With you, Dusty Springfield. Making Believe which is an old country song. First time I heard it was the Social Distortion version but it is a Katie Wells song. A lot of country artists.
You’re doing a Misfits song in your set tonight maybe?
Yeah, that’s my old point. We’ve been doing I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry which is a Hank Williams song. Elvis was also singing that song. We did a lot of the stuff from the 50’s so we talked a little bit about it, because we like doing cover songs, what we should do for the next tour because people were expecting probably a song from the 50’s. But what we’re going to do is a Misfits song. So we’re playing Angelfuck.
Just taking a step further and showing people that we are more than just the melodies from the 50’s.
Well thank you for your time, I really appreciate it. I’m looking forward to the set tonight.
Thank you very much.
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