Volbeat: Inside the unlikely rise of The People's Band

Michael Poulsen
(Image: © Steve Brown)

Cross the courtyard beneath the hazy Copenhagen sky where the sun looks like it’s been put through a filter and head through the door into the city’s Lidkoeb whisky bar. Take the stairs going ever upward in a tight coil into the gloom above. Foreboding portraits in oil line the walls as you reach the top floor; a long room lined with dark wood houses an array of tables and cabinets lit with orange light, every available surface filled with whisky bottles from around the world. One table is reserved exclusively for Japanese liquor; beaten-up green, black and brown Chesterfield sofas and chairs litter the room, and beneath a sign that reads ‘Dispensing Chemists’ is a sealed cabinet with the more rare and expensive bottles. Volbeat guitarist Rob Caggiano indicates one such exclusive label from the Ardbeg Distillery.

“They sent a bottle of that into space to see how zero gravity would affect its flavour,” he says, “to see how it’d change its composition.” Band singer and leader Michael Poulsen snorts derisively, “I could piss in it and it’d change that!” Rob, a regular here, remains undeterred, unscrewing the top of another, less expensive bottle and pouring himself a shot. “This,” he says, waving his glass around, “would make a great rehearsal room.” “Yeah,” nods Michael. “We’d manage two songs maximum.

Volbeat are no strangers to dimly lit bars. They dragged themselves up through the club circuit, all across Europe and into America. “People call it ‘doing things the old-school way’, we call it ‘normal procedure’,” says Michael. “Bands who do the whole, ‘We’re on Facebook’ thing,’ I hate that crap. We’ve all travelled around in nineseaters paying to play – that’s how it works in the beginning. You actually save up to go on tour. You came home, there was no money left, but that was our holiday. We were having fun.” Their hard work paid off handsomely. The last time Volbeat played in their native Denmark (Rob aside – he’s a transplanted New Yorker who keeps his apartment back home even if he rarely gets to see it), they entered the record books for the biggest-ever show by a domestic rock band.

“Yeah, we’re part of Danish history now,” says Michael of the night that rounded out their world tour in support of 2013’s Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies album. More than 37,000 people packed out the open-air show at Tusindårsskoven in Odense on August 1, 2015. It had just two support bands – Accept and Danish death metal band Konkhra. “We couldn’t imagine doing another show after that one,” says Michael. “You’re looking out and there’s 37,000 people, it’s insane. It got me thinking, ‘We should probably do that new song…’”

Which is why they decided to debut The Devil’s Bleeding Crown, the opening track of the band’s latest album, Seal The Deal & Let’s Boogie. Later, we crowd around a borrowed MacBook Air, to marvel at the rough footage of the song, which received the kind of rapturous reception reserved for homecoming heroes.

“We couldn’t do any more shows on that tour after that one,” says Rob, with something approaching understatement. Volbeat have been a big deal in Denmark since day one. All five of their albums – from 2005’s The Strength / The Sound / The Songs to the aforementioned Outlaw Gentlemen – turned gold, with most of them far exceeding that. While Michael started out in death metal band Dominus – whose third album was called Vol. Beat – he’s long eclipsed his past, with albums that combine his love of artists such as Elvis Presley (James Hetfield refers to him as “Little Elvis” and is a longtime fan of the band) and Johnny Cash, as well as bands like Motörhead and Metallica. He also harbours a deep admiration for the band Death, though that might not be immediately obvious if you’re only familiar with albums like Outlaw Gentlemen, even if King Diamond did cameo on that album’s Room 24.

With Seal The Deal, they hope to expand on the ardour that countries like Denmark, Germany and America have for the band. Michael talks of raising their profile in the UK, while Rob says he’d love them to play the auspicious Royal Albert Hall. Michael raises an eyebrow. “How many does that hold? We could put a load of mirrors in there so it looks busy!” By his own admission, the frontman is as driven now as he was when he formed the band in 2001, though sitting in the lower and well-lit reaches of the Lidkoeb bar after his photo session, he’s expansive and open, joking around, especially when Rob (who became a member of the band in 2013) joins us. At 41, Michael and his band (and it is his band, more of which later) have made their most rounded and cohesive record to date. It’s muscular and melodic, occasionally introspective and built to thrill crowds on an international scale. Subject matter includes Jack the Ripper’s last victim (Mary Jane Kelly) the world of voodoo (Marie Laveau, The Loa’s Crossroad) as well as a handful of covers in the Georgia Satellites’ Battleship Chains and Teenage Bottlerockets’ Rebound. And, much like older Volbeat songs such as Fallen and Dead But Rising, the ghost of his father drifts through some of the album’s tracks.

“As I see it, it’s a very spiritual album,” says Michael. “There are lots of different cultures and lots of ways to get in contact with people or the past or spirits, and the voodoo theme on the album is just one part of it. Marie Laveau, she was this priestess, a voodoo queen of New Orleans, the highest one in the coven. It’s not so much that I’m singing about her in the song – I’m using her as an element, in a way.

“She was really good at getting in contact with different spirits, that’s why people would bring her gifts, and that’s what I’m trying to do in the lyrics and with the song – I’m trying to get in contact with Marie and ask her if she can get into contact with my father.”

Get in touch with your father? “He passed some years ago now. I used to play him the songs I’d written and ask him what he thought, and I was just thinking that if people go out and buy the album, they’ll listen to it, and that song is like a ritual, so if that song is getting played around the world then there’s a chance that my father will hear it. Music goes out into the sky, out into the universe. I’m trying to use it as a kind of homing beacon.

“He’s all over the place on this record, even coming back from the studio and listening to the record, there are lines that weren’t meant to be about my father, but they clearly were. Sometimes you know where song lyrics come from and sometimes you have no idea; you get inspired by living, emotion, books and movies, and you’ll discover sometimes that you’ve been in a bubble of your own making, your own world, talking to your father sometimes. Now reading my own lyrics and analysing them helps me a lot. For me, lyric writing is like therapy.” Michael’s father was a boxer, as is the character featured on the album’s cover. Though Michael never saw him box; he was still too young by the time his father had given it up. And while Michael has trained with fourtime world champion boxer Mikkel Kessler, he never got into the ring to fight.

“I only ever boxed on the street!” he says. “It came to a point where I had to choose between being a boxer and a musician, and I chose the musician route as I figured it’d be easier to get drunk. You can’t do that if you’re a fighter, but I was thinking about it at one point. I was young and partying was a lot of fun! And playing music seemed like a good fit.”

Michael stole his first guitar, but after an attack of conscience he returned it. Was he a bad kid? Rob leans across the table: “Yeah, were you a hoodlum?” This makes Michael furrow his brow in confusion.“Was I a bad kid? I guess it depends who you’re asking,” he says. “I’ll say no, but at the same time I’ll say yes and still be proud of it. I don’t know, it depends what kind of level you’d put it at, but as a kid you have to be a bad boy – how the fuck else will you learn anything?”

Volbeat: sitting pretty as one of modern metal's biggest bands

Volbeat: sitting pretty as one of modern metal's biggest bands
(Image: © Steve Brown)

It’s clear he’s learnt plenty. For example, the band’s summer dates will culminate with a slot supporting Metallica and Avenged Sevenfold at the brand new Minneapolis US Bank Stadium (the new home of NFL team the Minnesota Vikings) on August 20.

“Our American management, Q Prime [who also manage Metallica], were doing a press release for the show,” says Michael, “and it said something like, ‘Volbeat are helping Metallica out!’ I said, ‘It doesn’t sound right, we’re not helping Metallica out, unless we decide to load their gear or carry their guitars! We’re proud to be part of it, but it’s not like they need us.’ Then Q Prime mailed back and said it had sold out in 45 minutes, and I said, ‘Oh, so we did help out?!’”

He’s smiling, assured, the one constant in the band. He writes the majority of their material, and while he may be reluctant in front of the camera, he clearly leads Volbeat from the front. The half-joking suggestion that he’s something of a benevolent dictator is met with a cheery, non-committal shrug.

“If that’s the way that people want to think of me, then that’s fine,” he says. “I created the band, I write the music, I had a vision. I know exactly where I wanted the band to go, I’m very happy to work with people who share my vision and I can be inspired by them, too. So without sounding too cocky, I’m proud to be able to have brought us to this level. We were just some bar band and now we’re talking about playing to 37,000 people. I can’t do that alone, but there has to be one person with a vision. At the end of the day, I take the big decisions and the band don’t have to agree with me, but sometimes I can be convinced that we can go another way.”

He sits forward in his seat as if to emphasise the point: “And I treat my crew well, I treat my band well, everybody’s doing good. Sometimes I can be an ass, but sometimes I can be pretty lovely, too!” he exclaims with a laugh, slapping an open hand down on to the table. By his own admission, the younger Michael Poulsen couldn’t have written Seal The Deal, each album being a “reflection of who I was at the time”. Through its underlying themes of spirituality, life and death, and facing down your demons, it rings of a man in his early 40s taking stock, stopping to look around him, reflecting on what’s been and what’s yet to come. Make no mistake – Michael Poulsen’s still coming out swinging.

SEAL THE DEAL & LET’S BOOGIE IS OUT JUNE 3 VIA SPINEFARM

Volbeat: ready to rumble

Volbeat: ready to rumble
(Image: © Steve Brown)

ROLLING WITH THE PUNCHES

Michael’s not the only metal heavyweight who likes throwing haymakers…

ALEX VARKATZAS,
ATREYU

When Atreyu went on a break in 2011, frontman Alex kept himself occupied by opening a gym in Costa Mesa, California. He knows Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Muay Thai. “I’m a motivated guy – I like to set goals and achieve them,” he explains. He closed the gym in November last year, but still works as a personal trainer.

KARL SANDERS,
NILE

Karl is a master in Dragon Sen-I Jutsu, a mixed martial art, which involves technical drills and lots of live sparring. It’s geared towards defending yourself, and is, um, a little brutal… “If I needed to gouge your eyes out, or if I needed __ to smash you in the groin, that’s part of my script,” he reveals. Ouch.

ANDY WILLIAMS,
EVERY TIME I DIE

When he’s not destroying stages as the guitarist in Every Time I Die, Andy is a pro wrestler for Canada’s Smash Wrestling. Unfortunately, he lost his debut match in March. “Tonight I fought hard, but not hard enough,” said the imposing six-stringer. “You must destroy to rebuild.” No doubt he’ll soon be back in the ring.

MATT HEAFY,
TRIVIUM

Anyone who read last month’s Trivium tour diary will know how dedicated Matt is to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. He learned karate as a child but abandoned it to learn guitar, and became interested in martial arts again while watching UFC with David Draiman during the recording of 2013’s Vengeance Falls. He practises every day.