INTERVIEW: Michael Poulsen of VOLBEAT

Right now, arguably the hottest hard rock/metal band in America is from Denmark. Behind hit singles “A Warrior’s Call,” “Still Counting” and “Heaven nor Hell,” Volbeat has rocketed to stardom here in the past couple years, routinely selling out shows and seeing its latest album, “Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies,” debut in the top 10 on the Billboard 200. When its headlining tour recently brought them to Rams Head Live in Baltimore, Maryland, Live Metal’s Greg Maki caught up with vocalist/guitarist Michael Poulsen to discuss the new record, touring, King Diamond, sleep paralysis, finding the unique Volbeat sound and more.

LIVE METAL: How’s the tour been going so far?

Michael Poulsen of Volbeat

MICHAEL POULSEN: Really good. The support and ticket sales have been amazing. Everything’s going really, really good.

You started touring a while before the album came out. What is it like playing songs to people who have never heard them before?

It’s a challenge. I know how it feels like when I go out to shows and my favorite band plays a new song that you haven’t heard. But as a listener, it’s exciting, too. But of course, we’d rather the album was out, so people know the songs. But as I said, it’s a great challenge, and it’s been very good when it comes to the new songs.

Now that the album’s out, are you going to start working some more new ones into the set?

Yeah, that’s the next step, trying to put in some extra new songs.

It came out here yesterday. Did you do anything special for the release day?

We were in New York yesterday, and Rob (Caggiano), our new guitar player, is from New York, so he had his family and close friends there. We were hanging out, actually, with Rob’s friends and family, label guys and even a big TV station from Denmark was there—so a lot of people.

After the previous album was such a big success all over the world, and here really took you to the next level, did you feel any pressure following that up with the new one?

Sure. But I like that pressure because it just means that people are interested. If there was no pressure, there would probably be no interest. It goes hand in hand, so I take that as a compliment, and it’s something that I use every time I write an album. If I feel the pressure, I just feel that people are very eager to hear the new stuff. So it’s fine with me.

You kind of changed things up a little bit this time, bringing in another producer—Rob, obviously—and you recorded in a different place. Why did you decide to make those changes?

I just think that we were too comfortable somehow. There’s nothing wrong in being comfortable. It’s a good feeling, and we all know how it feels like. But thing was, Jacob Hansen, our producer, was actually leaving his old studio and building up a new studio. So somehow we knew that we were about to enter a new studio. At the same time, we also wanted to work a little bit more intense this time, because we’ve always worked from 9 to 5 in the studio, because then Jacob will be going home, and we don’t want to touch any bottoms—no way. But this time, we wanted to just isolate ourselves in the studio where we could work from early morning until we drop dead. So there will be a lot of recording sessions where we end at 12 for bedtime.

And it was the middle of nowhere. It’s a legendary studio in Denmark called Puk Studio, and it sounds good and the rooms are good. It was good for the band to leave the comfortable zone, because we have all the songs ready, and we knew pretty much how the songs will sound like. But we also had a great challenge getting into new rooms, bringing in Rob Caggiano as a producer, too, because he was a huge fan of the band. It was interesting for us to see how a new producer who’s also a fan of the band, how he would like to work with us, and together with Jacob Hansen, who just knows the band inside out and everything. So to have these two guys working together was something that I found very interesting. We all think it is the strongest work we’ve ever done so far—a lot of details and great guests, and it’s a great studio. It was just about time that we got a challenge from ourselves.

How did it go from Rob producing to joining the band?

Rob Caggiano

I had a guy with me in the studio, one of my really close friends. He’s a really great guitar player, and we talked about him putting down solos and going on the road with us. When we started working together in the studio, it really didn’t sound the way we wanted to. I think, at the end of the day, we are too close friends, and we didn’t want to mix our close friendship with business. So we just sat down and said, “Let’s not do this. It doesn’t feel right.”

So I just kind of asked Rob to put down solos. He’s really good at that. So he just continued putting down those solos, and after that, he came up with some ideas for a couple of the songs, and I said, “Well, let me hear what you got.” There was three songs I opened up. I said, “OK, you’ve got one minute in this song, 45 seconds in this song and a half minute in this song. Let me hear what kind of idea you are thinking about.” It was really good, so I said, “I would like to keep that. That sounds good.” And I think he was very surprised by that—“Wow, they’re using some of my ideas.” Then I started changing some small bits here and there, because I wanted to add more solos. I said, “Can you just play solos on the whole album?” “Yeah, I would love to.”

And then, after I talked to the other guys about it, I said, “You’re already playing all of the solos, you have a few ideas here and there. You should be in the band. Why should you just sit in a room producing?” He just laughed, because he thought I was kidding. The day after, he said, “The thing you said, was that serious?” “Of course it was.” “What about the other guy?” “It’s not working. He’s too close of a friend, and I don’t want to mix it up. So there’s a spot open, and you should take it.” And he said, “I would love to.” So [snaps his fingers] let’s get to work. (laughs)

The album is not necessarily a concept album, but there is a theme, similar subject matter that ties it all together. Did you decide that ahead of time before you started writing the songs?

It all started with some of the first songs. I could hear that some of the melodies and themes I was writing—I could hear I was inspired by these old Western movies, the soundtracks. I said, OK, let me see how far I get into this. I could just sense that a lot of the songs keep on bringing those melodies into them. I said, OK, this is the right time to bring those legendary outlaws and gunslingers to life, because I’ve been watching those movies since I was a little kid, and I think have something for this new album. It’s gonna be about outlaws and shady ladies. Since those melodies came very organic to me, that was perfect.

What were some of the movies, some of your favorite old Westerns?

The thing is, I don’t remember the titles, because it’s videotapes that I have from my father. But one of my favorites that I’ve been watching lots of times is “Once Upon a Time in the West” with Charles Bronson. I love that. All the characters are great, and the soundtrack’s great—the whole movie’s just great. “The Wild Bunch” is also one of the good ones.

One of my favorite songs off the album is “The Hangman’s Body Count.” I just got the album yesterday, so I haven’t really had a chance to sit down with the lyrics yet. What is that song about?

It’s very primitive. I think we all heard about the hangman, but there’s a lot of different versions of the hangman. I just made my version of the hangman—a guy from the Wild West or the 1800s, and he will be walking through the valley and picking out the sinners and taking them to the gallows. When he enters the alley, people can only hear his boots. They cannot see his face; his hat is all the way down to his eyes. He cannot see, so he has this raven on his shoulder who will fly out and actually knock on the door, on the sinner’s door, and the raven will take the sinner to the gallows, where the hangman is waiting for him. So it’s just a song about the hangman, him going through the valley and picking out sinners.

The first single is “Cape of Our Hero.” I know it’s a serious song, but when you were a kid, what superhero did you want to be?

It was not like I wanted to be a specific superhero. I was just very into it like so many other kids. I liked the Phantom and, of course, Superman and Batman. I think we all have that imagination. We wish we could fly and have those superpowers. And yeah, that song is about a kid who really strongly believes in his superheroes, and he sees his dad as a superhero, too. He and his father are playing around in that superhero universe, their own little bubble, and when the kid loses his dad because the dad goes into war and dies, the kid stops believing in his superheroes. He doesn’t understand why he lost the belief in his superheroes, but it’s probably because he lost his dad. So he started to think that if he could catch an angel, because angels have wings, then maybe the angel could fly him up to where his superheroes are, or maybe he could get a cape from one of his superheroes and fly around the universe and look after his dad. That’s basically what the song is about.

As you mentioned, you have a couple guests on the album. King Diamond—you don’t see him doing that too often. How did you first meet him and then how did it come about for him to be on the album?

The first time I met him was in 1995 and later on in 1997. I had a band at that time, a death metal band called Dominus, and I had the opportunity to meet him a couple times. When I formed Volbeat and, later on, when we started touring America, we were in Dallas, Texas, and King Diamond’s from Dallas, Texas, and he wanted to hook up with us and just hang out. He heard of Volbeat, and he remembered me back from the days. We were just hanging out and talking. He was just going through this triple bypass operation, so we talked a lot about that. He was very eager to get back to the music scene, and he had so many ideas about his coming album.

When we came back to Dallas, Texas, we had Hank Sherman with us on guitar, and King wanted to say hello to his old friend, and some of our crew guys have also worked for King Diamond. King Diamond is really proud of what we have accomplished as a band, because we are only the second band coming out of Denmark who made it to the U.S. Mercyful Fate was the first one, and Volbeat is actually only the second. He’s really into our music, and he knows that all the people in Volbeat are huge King Diamond fans and we’ve been King Diamond fans since we were back in school.

That’s where it started, where we started talking about doing something together. He was, as I said, very eager to get back into his music and everything. So I started writing “Room 24,” and we sent a demo version to King, and he loved it. He said, “That’s really heavy. I would love to do that.” We started talking about how we should divide up the lyrics, because he wants to write his own melody and his own words. We sent the files over to King in Texas, and we’re waiting for the files to get back in the studio, and we have no idea what he will sound like. But he blew us away; he sounds amazing.

There’s a spooky story behind that song. What happened?

It is actually very spooky. It’s freaking me out every time I talk about it, because it’s taking me back to that day. When we were touring with Megadeth and Motorhead—we were on the Gigantour—that’s when it happened.

I wake up in a hotel room. I cannot move my arms or legs. I’m totally paralyzed. My eyes are wide open, and I’m trying to reach out for my wife. But she’s snoring, and she can’t hear anything. I can’t get anything out of my throat. It’s almost like I’m choking. I feel some kind of pressure on top of my chest, and the room becomes more and more dark. At that time, I’m thinking that I have a stroke or some kind of heart attack. So I’m definitely sure that I’m dying.

Somehow, I fall asleep, and I don’t know when—it could be minutes or hours later—I wake up again, same thing happens. I cannot move my arms or legs, and this time, the pressure’s even more heavy on the chest. I feel like somebody is sitting on top of me and pushing me down and trying to choke me. And I still can’t get in contact with my wife, because she’s sleeping. I just sensed there was something in the room.

I don’t know how long, how many minutes, I’m struggling with it, but I managed somehow to catch my breath, and I wake up my wife and tell her what happened. (She says,) “Don’t you think you have been dreaming?” I said, “No fucking way. This was too real because my eyes were open.”

I told King about that experience, and he said, “That’s strong stuff.” We will never know if there actually was a kind of spiritual force in the room. But he said, “Have you ever heard of sleep paralysis?” “No, what’s that?” He said, “I’d like to send you some links, and you can read about it. It sounds like sleep paralysis.”

And I was reading about it, and a lot of people from ages have been going through the same thing, and they tell the exact same story, that they wake up and they cannot move their arms or legs, and they feel like some kind of dark force is choking them and putting pressure on their chest. Very few people have died because of the shock of it because it’s so strong.

So I was googling the phenomenon of sleep paralysis, and I could see a lot of people had the same story about waking up. There’s also some doctors that tried to explain it has something to do with the brain; the mind wakes up before the body and is not communicating with the rest of your body, but your eyes are open and somehow your brain is half sleeping. You should read about it. It’s really spooky.

So I said (to King Diamond), “OK, let’s use that. I’ll try to tell my story, and you will be that dark thing in the room.” So that’s what it’s all about, King being the thing in the room.

The other singer you have on the album, I know almost nothing about her, Sarah Blackwood. What can you tell me about her and how that happened?

She had a really great band called The Creepshow, which was a Canadian rockabilly, psychobilly band. I love their records, and back in the days, we were in contact with those guys for bringing them out on tour. It didn’t happen. She’s one of the very, very few female singers that I really like. When I wrote “The Lonesome Rider,” I said to the other guys, “I feel there’s something different that should happen on this song. I think it needs a female voice. I’m gonna call Sarah Blackwood, because she’s so good at those rockabilly/country songs.” She was totally into it, because she loves Volbeat, and she also remembered when we were talking back in the days. We sent her the song, and she loved it. I think she sounds amazing on that song.

I think what I like most about Volbeat is that you can have a country/rockabilly song like that and then you’ve got King Diamond on another song. It’s such a wide range. When you were first starting the band, did it take you a little while to kind of find the sound, the right mix?

Yeah, it does take time. I still think we are flirting around, and I like that. At the same time, I also think that we found our style, even though it is a lot of styles mixed together, but that is the Volbeat style. And we definitely found our sound. So I just continue being inspired by a lot of different bands and genres, and I appreciate that, because it just keeps the doors wide open for a lot of different stuff. I had no idea when I started that it would end up being that mixed of a style. I was just writing.

Everything I do, I do it straight from the heart. I don’t care about being 100-percent metal or 100-percent rock ‘n’ roll or punk or country. I don’t care about that. I care about being 100-percent honest to what I’m writing, and that’s the Volbeat style.

It seems like a lot of people can relate to the music, and we’re very happy about that, and we totally understand people who can’t relate to it because they think it’s too weird. We laugh about that because we understand it. But we do our thing, and we’re very proud of it. So we’re not changing anything, but we still like to give ourselves a challenge where we can do whatever we want to do.

You’re so good at telling stories in your songs. Have you ever thought about taking that into another medium, like a book or a movie?

Yeah, when I find the right time, I have a little plan. When I wrote the “Guitar Gangsters” album, I had an idea that I wanted to open a website where I finish the whole story so people could login to the website and read the whole story from the start to the end, and there will be pictures. Now I have an idea about releasing it as a book with new pictures and putting in the CD, as well. That’s something I might do in the future when the time is right.

After this, you’re heading into some festivals over here and then back in Europe for the summer. I saw you guys play at Rock on the Range last year, and you got such a huge reaction in the middle of the afternoon. You just seem to go over really well at the festivals. Do you have any theories as to why that is?

I just think that when people are at festivals, they have some kind of freedom. They just want to hang out in the sun and have a good time, have some good cocktails and beers. It’s one big party being at the festivals. I think people are leaving a lot of problems at home for just being in that moment, the festival moment, and it seems like some of the music we’re playing fits pretty well into the mood of festivals, I guess. (laughs)

Do you have any idea when we will see you back here after this run wraps up?

Yeah, we have some coming festival shows in the summer, and after that, we will be back in the U.S. playing new shows promoting the new album. It’s gonna be a lot of American shows.

You mention promoting the new album. It’s kind of a weird situation where the new album just came out and there’s a single from the previous album (“Heaven nor Hell”) that’s still getting a lot of airplay. I’m sure it’s good to have anything out there, but does that make promoting the new album a little tricky?

Not at all. I think our label and our management over here are doing a really good job. Instead of ignoring the old records, I’m very happy the radio stations are picking up some of the old songs, because I know they will still play the new songs. So for us, it’s just double up. It’s a bonus.

Do you have any say in picking the singles?

Of course, if the band says, “This is what we think is right.” But the thing is, for us, the whole album is a fuckin’ single. We think all the songs are good. But we also know that certain radio stations pick out certain songs. So that’s where we have to trust our management. They say, “We think this should be the single,” and we say, “OK, fine with us.” The interesting thing is that it seems like there’s a huge difference in what kind of songs you pick in Europe and America. It’s not the same songs.

What’s the difference?

It seems like the Americans are picking more tough songs, and Europeans are picking the more soft songs. And for us, fine. We don’t like to be in that situation where we say, “This is a radio song,” because what the fuck is a radio song? Just listen to the album and you pick something out of it. We’re fine with every song. That’s why it’s on the album.

You’ve been playing in Europe in large venues for a few years now. Over here, it’s been building and building. You’re selling out the larger clubs and moving up the bill at festivals. What do you see as the next step over here?

It’s all up to the listeners. I can just see that every time we come back, it’s more ticket sales, the venues are getting bigger. So it just seems like more people are buying the records. I’m not the one to control that at all. It’s all up to the listeners.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

I’m totally happy about everything, and I’m very thankful for the great support people are giving us. Thank you very much.


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