“It was inspiring to see how Metallica worked. I had their posters before I had my first guitar”: how Volbeat’s Michael Poulsen stepped up to metal’s big league

Volbeat’s Michael Poulsen
(Image credit: Press)

Born from the ashes of death metal band Dominus, Volbeat’s mix of metal and rock’n’roll caught the attention of the world – and Metallica frontman James Hetfield in particular. As the Danes geared up to release their fifth album, Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies, in 2013, mainman Michael Poulsen told Hammer about the personal loss that drove the band.

Michael Poulsen has a tattoo on the back of his hand that reads ‘Little E’. It’s one of countless pieces of ink on a body that’s no stranger to the tattooist’s needle, and like all the other designs that adorn every square inch of visible flesh below the Volbeat frontman’s neckline, there’s a story behind it.

“We were on tour with Metallica, and one day James Hetfield comes in our dressing room looking for me,” he says. “He said, ‘Where’s Little E?’ Our drummer, Jon, went, ‘Who’s Little E?’ And James said, ‘Little E. Little Elvis, man’.”

Up until this point, Michael had been engrossed in a film on his laptop, headphones on, oblivious to the fact that the Metallica frontman was hunting for him. The next thing he knew, Hetfield was looming over him, brandishing a gift for the singer of his new favourite band.

“He’d bought a painting of Elvis and written on the back, ‘To Little E, here’s Big E, with love and respect, James Hetfield.’ That was a really cool gift. So when I came home, I got ‘Little E’ tattooed here. Why not? That’s what tattoos are about: stories. I want something to remember.”

That he says this with no small degree of pride shouldn’t come as a surprise. His band have spent 12 years carving out a place for themselves as the missing link between Elvis Presley and Metallica, channeling the outlaw spirits of both of those iconic acts into a gas-guzzling noise that distills metal, rockabilly, country and western and shit-kicking rock’n’roll. 

The hard work has paid off. Their record label are expecting the album to go straight to No.1 in Denmark, while a series of electrifying live shows and festival appearances have sent their profile skyrocketing in Britain and America. The patronage of the world’s biggest metal band hasn’t done them any harm, either.

“It was inspiring to see how Metallica worked,” says Michael. “I had Metallica posters in room as a kid, even before I had my first guitar. And then, years later, you’re on the road with them. I had to ask myself, ‘Is this real?’”

Volbeat in 2013

Volbeat in 2013: (from left) Rob Caggiano, Anders Kjølholm, Michael Poulsen, Jon Larsen (Image credit: Press)

You can read plenty about Volbeat in the title of their fifth album, Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies. It’s a phrase that evokes another time altogether, an era when elegant lawbreakers were the rock stars of the day. It’s a celebration of the bad men (and women) of the Old West and the old-school metal bands who influenced the young Michael Poulsen to form his first band, Dominus, back in the early 90s.

Today, sitting in his management’s office on one of Copenhagen’s main drags, the frontman looks every inch the rebel: greased back black hair, black T-shirt, black jeans, black shoes. His speaking voice is low and quiet, a world away from the wolverine howl of his singing voice.

“I’d just isolate myself in my living room, in total darkness,” he says of the writing process for the new album. “I’d watch a lot of Italian spaghetti westerns – Once Upon A Time In The West, those kind of films. Sometimes it’s just about the right feeling – the scenery, the lines, the dusty look. I have my own soundtrack when I see those kind of pictures.”

These cinematic influences paid off. Volbeat’s new album is as vivid and colourful as the tattoos on their singer’s arms. A parade of characters march through its songs, some real, some fictional, some supernatural. The galloping Pearl Hart is the tale of a real-life 19th century stagecoach robber; The Nameless One sets Tarot cards, time travel and a sinister, cane-carrying antagonist to an steel-plated backdrop; Doc Holiday celebrates one of the more marginal characters of the Wild West, lacing its old school metal groove with some nifty banjos.

The most personal track on the album, Dead But Rising, takes a very real figure as its starting point and turns it into something more spiritual. Jørn Poulsen, Michael’s father, was an amateur boxer and a fan of Elvis Presley, and he passed a love of both onto his son. When he died four years ago, his son promised to make a pilgrimage to Elvis’s home, Graceland, in his memory.

“I was driving to Mississippi, where Elvis was born, when the navigation in the rental car just went out,” says Michael. “Then I noticed an eagle that had been following the car for a while. I said, ‘What is it with that eagle? Is my father trying to tell me something?’ I got emotional about it and I decided to follow the eagle. And that’s what Dead But Rising is all about – it’s about me, today, trying to reach out for that eagle. I said, ‘When I come home, I’m gonna get that eagle tattooed on my hand as a memory.”

He nods to another pair of tattoos on his hands: one is an eagle, the other is his dad’s name. “My dad had this eagle tattooed across his chest,” he says with quiet pride. 

Like everything on the album, there’s a clarity and muscle to the track. This is in part down to new recruit Rob Caggiano, who co-produced the album with longtime Volbeat associate Jacob Hansen. Until very recently, Caggiano was a member of Anthrax. Then, in January, it was announced that he was quitting the thrash titans. His reasons were vague, though he admitted that “Anthrax was never a creative outlet for me.” A month later, he announced that he would be parlaying his production gig with Volbeat into a full time job as guitarist.

Today, Rob's cautious when it comes to the subject of his old band versus his new one. “There’s been a bit of a misconception,” he says. “When I put out the press release about leaving Anthrax, it wasn’t really about me wanting to stop touring. I thought it’d take a little time to figure out my next move as a guitar player, and that the producing thing would be the perfect way to bridge that gap. A lot of people read into that the wrong way.”

Is Volbeat a permanent thing?

“Yes,” he says, no hesitation.

Volbeat at Download 2013 festival

Volbeat at Download 2013 festival (Image credit: Future)

It’s ironic that a man who left an outfit he claims he felt “stifled” in Anthrax ended up joining Volbeat. Without actually saying it, Michael Poulsen makes it clear that he’s the boss of this band. “I write all the material,” he says firmly at one point, while bassist Anders Kjølholm and drummer Jon Larsen are noticeable by their absence today. But then every band needs its leader, and Poulsen is Volbeat’s James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich rolled into one.

You have to admire his ambition and his will to succeed. Denmark is hardly a hotbed of metal: aside from Lars Ulrich, the only other artists of note to emerge from this small, damp but utterly charming country were Mercyful Fate and their sometime leader King Diamond. Indeed the latter even crops up on one track, the characteristically theatrical Room 24, a song based on an experience Michael had when he awoke in a hotel room in the middle of the night to find himself unable to move and feeling like someone – or something – was sitting on his chest, the latter presence voiced by the King himself.

“Michael is a fan of Mercyful Fate – he even has a Mercyful Fate tattoo,” says King, speaking from his home in Dallas. “I met him a couple of years ago, and we became very good friends very quickly. He approached me to sing on the track, and said, ‘It would be super cool if you were interested.’ I don’t really do that for anyone any more, my voice is very difficult to handle for other people. Michael’s very Danish, like I am – does things his way.” 

The presence of King Diamond tells you as much about where Michael Poulsen is coming from as all the quiffs and Elvis tattoos. For all their retro stylings, they’ve got a metal heart – the frontman started his musical career as a teenager in the death metal band Dominus, who released four albums during the 90s, the third of which was titled Vol.Beat (a portmanteau of the words ‘Volume’ and ‘Beat’). Michael still cites Slayer as a major inspiration, alongside Mercyful Fate and, of course, their unofficial mentors in Metallica.

“When I was growing up, my dad and mum played a lot of old records – Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry,” says Michael. “I love that stuff – it’s a drug somehow. My own record collection growing up was metal. But I listen to a lot of different styles of music. If something moves you, I don’t care what it is.”

Elvis Presley, and James Hetfield, would be proud.

Originally published in Metal Hammer issue 244

Dave Everley

Dave Everley has been writing about and occasionally humming along to music since the early 90s. During that time, he has been Deputy Editor on Kerrang! and Classic Rock, Associate Editor on Q magazine and staff writer/tea boy on Raw, not necessarily in that order. He has written for Metal Hammer, Louder, Prog, the Observer, Select, Mojo, the Evening Standard and the totally legendary Ultrakill. He is still waiting for Billy Gibbons to send him a bottle of hot sauce he was promised several years ago.