Having your first child is undoubtedly right up at the top of the list of massive, life-changing, shit-your-pants-scary experiences. Imagine, though, that said seismic event clashed with a monumentally massive date in your professional calendar. Like, oh I don’t know… a fucking tour with Metallica.
That’s the situation that faced Michael Poulsen, Volbeat’s unshakable leader, back in 2017. Thankfully, his partner’s due date meant that the Danish psychobilly rockers would have enough time to wrap up opening duties for all of ’Tallica’s US run. Unfortunately, the memo didn’t reach Michael’s unborn offspring.
“It ended up that my girlfriend gave birth two months before she was supposed to, so I was still on tour,” he says, picking up the story with a sense of astonishment in his voice even two years on.
“I was in New York. It was late, I was already in bed at the hotel and she called saying her waters had broken. There was nothing I could do. I got up because I couldn’t sleep and I went to the gym. I got a phone call from my girlfriend on FaceTime and she said, ‘Now you’re a daddy’. I almost fell off the treadmill! I was like, ‘What the fuck?!’”
With two months of shows left and a brand new baby girl named Ea Abigail waiting at home, the choices were: A. Get fatherhood off to a pretty darn shaky start by seeing out the tour and meeting Poulsen Jnr aged eight weeks, or B: Sack off dates with the biggest band on the planet. Proving himself to be absolutely batshit crazy, Michael hatched plan C.
“I flew home to Denmark that day so we had to cancel a show with Metallica,” he explains. “The day after, I flew back to America and to the tour. When I arrived at the airport a car picked me up to go to the arena. I got to the arena with 15 minutes until stage time. Talk about crazy jetlag!"
This story illustrates the things that characterise Michael – his ridiculous work ethic and his unwavering commitment to family. Our chat was originally meant to take place in his small hometown of Næstved in Denmark, but he cancelled due to a childcare issue, so we’re chatting on the phone.
Growing up around 40 miles from Copenhagen in the somewhat sleepy town of Ringsted, Michael’s father Jørn quickly instilled in his son the importance of hard work and a tight- knit home life. Michael says that his father, who remained a staunch supporter of Volbeat until his passing in 2008, fled from an unhappy home when he was just 14 years old. Unsurprisingly, Jørn’s survival skills and attitude of doing whatever it took transferred into his parenting style when Michael and his twin sister were born in 1975.
“He came up a tough way,” Michael says, speaking of his father with warmth. “He came from parents who were drinking and fighting, and he decided he wasn’t going to have that lifestyle, so he lived on the streets for a while. I was brought up not to moan about anything; you should enjoy life, figure out what you want to do and then do it. When my father heard I wanted to get into music, he accepted that but said I had to do it 100% and not listen to what anyone else said. He said I needed to get up three or four hours earlier than everyone else to be ahead of them.”
He may have picked up his dad’s driven attitude when it came to powering Volbeat, but that doesn’t mean Michael has seen his band’s triumphant rise from tiny clubs to packed arenas as a quest for perfection. Songs like Rewind The Exit and Die To Live, both from new album Rewind, Replay, Rebound, reference that such a goal might just be an utter waste of time. This inkling is confirmed for Metal Hammer as soon as we utter that word: ‘perfection’.
“I don’t believe in perfection,” Michael interjects. “I think that’s a terrible word made up by a terrible human being. It’s terrible because kids are striving for perfection that just isn’t there. If you reach perfection, what do you do afterwards? You climb to the top of the mountain and then what? You climb back down and climb up again? The top of the mountain doesn’t exist.
“I don’t try to find perfection when I’m in the studio. If you end up with 500 takes of something you’re shooting the spirit of the song and you end up with something dead and fabricated. I want a soul to my music. Perfection? I’ll never go there.”
Perfection may be a metaphorical destination that Michael has zero interest in, but one actual place that he was keen to reach once Volbeat took off was the familiar surroundings of home. After moving to the relative bright lights of Copenhagen at the age of 17, he has now switched to Næstved, just 15 minutes or so from his childhood house.
“I’m more of a countryside person,” he explains with a half laugh. “I moved to Copenhagen because all the great record stores were there! When I came home from touring, the last thing I wanted to see was a big city. My childhood was in a small city, I have a lot of great memories and they are experiences I want to pass onto my daughter. Having a child makes me feel like I can go through my childhood again. I’ve gone back to where I grew up, it’s wonderful.”
It seems that familiarity and fatherhood are two of the drivers of Rewind, Replay, Rebound. The album, the band’s seventh, cranks their rock’n’roll influence up a notch by further embracing heroes of the ’50s. Die To Live (featuring Clutch’s Neil Fallon) shows this perfectly, thanks to its Jerry Lee Lewis-inspired piano line and Little Richard-esque sax section.
The entire record brims with a sense of fun as early rock’n’roll smashes head-on with Volbeat’s darker modern metal edge. We put it to Michael that it’s surely no coincidence that his first record since becoming a father features the sounds that filled his own childhood home.
“Those childhood influences are absolutely more in your face on this album,” he says. “When you have kids, you remember stuff from your own childhood that you hadn’t thought about for a long time. This helps the music become honest and emotional.
“This material would not have been written if I was not a father. But at the same time, there’s a lot of typical Volbeat in there; that is just in my DNA. I don’t need a child to tell me how to write like that. It’s a great combination of the two.”
The theme of harking back to childhood runs through the heart of the record. Michael suggests thumbing through the album’s lyrics will allow fans to “go on their own rollercoaster trip back through their childhood”. It’s a point overtly displayed on the handily named When We Were Kids.
“On the cover for that song, it has three kids in the woods playing in this hourglass. They think it’s sand or snow running through the hourglass. What they don’t know is they’re playing with their own time and they’re getting older.
“There’s something scary and beautiful about that. I remember being that kid playing in this huge forest; nobody ever went there, we could be outlaws there. In the distance you’d hear your mom screaming, ‘Dinner!’ You’d go eat something fast so you could get back to this huge forest.
“As kids, we thought we were immortal and nothing could stop us, there’s something great about that innocence. If I go back to that big forest now, it was never a forest, it was four trees by a small road!”
In acknowledging the notion of immortality as a folly of youth, Michael is touching on the enhanced focus on mortality that adulthood, and particularly parenthood, brings. It delivers with it the suggestion that the themes of our conversation – hard work and a strong family – could be a paradox for a touring musician. Luckily, the band are now in a position to fly home on days off, or bring their partners and children on tour with them.
“Even though you can see your band growing from club shows to stadiums, you’re very proud of that, but being away from home leaves some scars and it really has to be worth it,” he says. “We’re not getting any younger, and suddenly our parents and family members will all be gone one day, and you’ve just been touring all around the world. We take more time now to get home.”
Michael Poulsen; a family man who just happens to front one of Europe’s finest rock bands. And we bet he has a shitload of air miles to show for it.