You can count the number of big breakout rock and metal successes of the last five years on one hand (more about that here), and Volbeat is certainly one of them. Both their current album, 2013’s Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies and their last, Beyond Hell/Above Heaven, have sold over 200,000 copies and are still going strong, which would be impressive for any band, let alone a Danish quartet whose music is two parts metal to one part rockabilly. Just about to wrap up a tour with Five Finger Death Punch (another breakout act), Metal Insider caught up with vocalist Michael Poulsen at the Plymouth, MI stop of the tour to discuss their success, being joined by former Anthrax guitarist Rob Caggiano, and his (eventual) collaboration with Iced Earth’s Jon Schaffer.
Your current album, Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies, has been out for well over a year. It’s hit #1 on so many charts in so many countries it’s hard to keep count. You’re still having current singles on the radio. How has the continued support been for the album?
It seems like that album really took off. It’s a great accomplishment for Denmark. We are only the second band of Danish-rock history who has actually made it outside of Denmark. Going to America we know there’s only one guy who did it before us, and that was King Diamond from Mercyful Fate. We are very proud of what we’ve accomplished and to see how this album survived. Like you said we still have singles playing on the radio, and it’s still selling. It’s amazing you cannot wish for more. We have also been very good, constantly touring with the album. I guess that helps a lot.
Your writing aspect is very unique in today’s day and age. The lyrics have such deep meaning for you. Your inspiration comes from literally everything: your personal experiences, history, anything you read. When you’re working on a song, do you think about how the listener could connect with your music and lyrics?
Everything has to come straight from the heart. You cannot think too much about it. Well, you could… but I don’t know how to do that. I don’t want to waste my time. I wanna do something I care about and I guess that’s what everybody wants to do at the end of the day. I need to sit down and write a song where I feel and it gives me meaning. I know how it is to be a fan, to put on a good record, an old one or a new one and get those goose bumps. I need that feeling when I write my own material. I go into this bubble where I’m just working, working, working. It is a place, a bubble, full of a lot of emotion and different feelings. The music is very personal. But, you can be inspired by so many different things; movies, soundtracks, books, all the bands, artists, pictures, as long as it moves you and you’re honest to yourself. That’s what I do in Volbeat. I guess that’s why there are so many different styles. I cannot just sit and relate to one subject or style. I don’t see anything wrong with the other bands that do that, because I’m also inspired by them. I’m just saying I just write straight from the heart. Back in the days when I started writing, if I had to put it down on paper, what kind of style I was playing and say well it’s some kind of metallic pop rock and roll with a touch of the 60’s melodic tunes. People will be like “what the fuck is that, sounds like a disease.” But you know what? It works on paper and in real life. It works because it’s very honest. If I can share that with a lot of people where it does something to them, and I can see it does, it means a lot. I can’t sit down just to write to the audience. I have to write for myself first then afterwards hope that I can share it. I can definitely be inspired by the fans. They have a lot of opinions about this and that and what songs are their favorites.
A lot of artists these days, when they are writing, it’ almost like an emotional release. Saying you draw from the heart, do you just let the emotion pour out or do you try to stick to the song writing idea? Is it almost like a journal/diary on paper?
It doesn’t always have to be emotional. It can be aggressive or a good feeling. A feeling you really can’t describe but you are getting it out via your instrument. The last thing I do when I write is put words into it. I will mainly sit down with a guitar and fool around with melodies. I love melodies. I will find a good rhythm and let the vocals do the melody. When I have the melody from the vocals that’s where I start putting words into it. We can easily play a whole song where I don’t have a lyric. I can just improvise, like the rappers where they freestyle. Not that I’m not rapping but I can freestyle in my music, where I come up with words. Sometimes those words lead into a lyric. Then I’m like wow… that was pretty good! It happened when I wrote Still Counting. We were at sound check and Thomas, our former guitar player; he was trying to find a clean channel on his equipment and started playing a riff. (Hums reverse rhythm for Still Counting riff) I said turn around the rhythm; I think I have an idea. So, he started playing and just because I was watching the crew work in the hall and I said ‘Counting all the Assholes in the room’. Everyone thought that was really fun. I don’t know who from the crew said ‘you should keep that!’ We said OK sure why not. It was very spontaneous, and can happen just like that.
You guys have been together for 14 years. Over the years, out of every song you’ve ever written what has been the most difficult song you have ever had to write?
Even though I’ve made very emotional songs about losing my father, like “Fallen” and “Dead Rising,” they were songs that I wrote very quickly. “Fallen” I wrote within 20 minutes. But, when you have so much in you, it’s about getting it down on paper and recording it. There are other songs that sound simple but they can be very complicated to come up with. I like the simplicity in songs. That’s what catches me when I’m listening to other artists. But, believe it or not, the simplest songs are the most difficult to write because they have to be catchy still. So, I cannot really answer the question because I have no idea. I still have stuff on my mobile phone that I’ve been recording. Stuff from previous albums where I just can’t figure them out.
Knowing that fans connect with your music, from the fans point of view, we look at it and say we can definitely relate to that. How is it from an artist point to know that?
It’s definitely a huge compliment. I know how it feels to sit down and listen to one of your favorite bands and songs just make sense for you. Somehow its therapy and given you something where you can use during the day. You can be inspired and use the words to get stronger. I meet a lot of people when we have meet and greets or when I go outside and talk to the fans. And they tell me how important it is and it just makes me even more proud to write the songs. One thing is that you can be proud of writing a song because the song is for your parents of one of your close friends. But, when you suddenly meet strangers that are on the other side of the earth where you connect because of something you wrote, that’s strong.
Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies, was produced by Jacob Hansen who has been your producer since day one. Obviously, you brought Rob Caggiano in as a second producer, who is more like a fan boy on the outside who has wanted to help you guys. How was the mix between the original guy who’s been with you since day one who is almost like family vs. the outsider coming in for the first time?
It was interesting… a great challenge for everybody. It def took a week or two for everybody to, somehow, learn each other and get to know each other work wise in the studio. One thing is to hang out and have fun. Another thing is to work together. There is a difference. It took a week or two, until we knew where we had each other. Jake is an extremely talented producer and Rob is a new producer and he is extremely talented too. They were doing good together with the band. I’ve always been very close to the producer when it comes to sitting and working on the album. It was a very interesting process. I think it was the right time because we had been working with Jacob since our second demo. I guess we just somehow needed to go somewhere else but we still wanted Jacob to be part of the whole thing. We trust him and know what he can do with the band. At the same time, it was a great chance to have a guy like Rob who is totally brand new when it comes to Volbeat. We heard what he did with the latest Anthrax album, and The Damned Things and it sounded really good. So I figured we would give it a try and it turned out to be the perfect plan.
Originally with Volbeat you recorded all the guitar parts yourself. But, this time it’s been stated that Rob recorded his own, which kind of adds his own flair with the music. How did that come up?
I’m not taking away anything away from the other guys that have been in the band but I have always been the songwriter in the band so I’ve always written all of the riff and melodies. Here and there, Thomas, our former guitar player, had his own themes he was recording. But if you want to get the right feeling and sound, if you’re asking me, it’s always most important to have the guy who wrote it, to record it. When I was sitting and teaching Rob the songs from the guitar he is so fast when it comes to learning the guitar. He was pretty quick at catching up. The next thing to catch up was the feelings of the riffs. That took more time than learning the riffs. Feeling is the magic behind every guitar player and bass player. The feeling is what makes the sound. It’s not always the equipment. Equipment is just something it needs to plug into. The sound comes from the feeling of the guy playing the guitar. I think the more I sat down and worked with Rob he came very close to how I wanted the second rhythm guitar to sound like. It was so good, that I said there is no reason for me to record the second guitar; I think you should do that yourself. It turned out to be a good idea because it sounds really solid, and you can hear it live too. You can hear there are two guitar players. Our guitar style and our feelings fit really good together.
Coming from Anthrax, being in the same genre, but completely different than Volbeat. How does Rob fit into the group?
He fits in perfectly. Rob is dedicated to a lot of different styles. He can play a lot of different styles on the guitar. He can play almost every instrument. He can play drums… he’s an actually a really good drummer. He’s a good bass player. We all know he’s an amazing guitar player. He can sing a little bit. I don’t know if I could trust him on the whole album (laughter). He can play the piano a little. Very, Very talented. I think for Rob, looking in the window of Volbeat, what we do musically is that we do a lot of different styles. I think that was very tempting for him. It was an open door, for him to come with some of his own ideas. He probably felt that he had a little more space. I think it was tempting and he liked what we were doing.
With things being said in the media lately, a lot of bands now a day have a cookie-cutter mold, where a lot of their songs sound the same. With you guys being together for so long and being so eclectic with so many genres in your music, how do you keep things fresh?
I don’t know. You still have people out there, that aren’t much into Volbeat, that say the same thing about us. But Volbeat [fans] say the same thing you do. I don’t think too much about it. I just write. I know I found my sound very early on, even on the first Volbeat album. I just got better at writing and playing. I don’t feel any need to change anything because I already found the style and on top of that I can include a lot of different styles. To keep it fresh you have to be inspired. I always have tons of inspiration. I’m a little afraid, because every musician goes through what they call “the black hole” where they fall into it, and where nothing happens. I haven’t had that happen yet. I’m so open-minded. I love being very nerdy about the music. I buy a lot of records; I listen to a lot of music. I keep my mind inspired all the time.
Most recently Gene Simmons has said rock is dead and Lars Ulrich says appeasing fans is a lost cause. Knowing fans connect to songs, buy the tickets, buy the shirts, what are your thoughts about comments like this coming from some of the biggest names in the genre?
I know for sure Gene doesn’t mean rock & roll is dead. He’s still doing really, really good. He has been doing good since the beginning. I think he misses the way it was. I’m a fan of simplicity; I miss the tape trading days. I miss the envelope thing where you roll up to the mailbox and see which band is writing today. Even though I was very young I was still able to experience it. I had a death metal band at that time, called Dominus. So, there was different ways of working yourself up to being a success. I guess the fans and medias were working differently too. Everybody is really being drawn into these social medias. Which is both good and bad. What I think what Gene means is that it’s not like it’s used to be. Rock & Roll and metal will always live because it’s being played by human beings. Even though we are self-destructive, as long as there are human beings, there will always be Rock & Roll and heavy metal music. So I don’t see it dying anytime soon… unless something hits us that we haven’t seen from outer space. (Laughter)
You come out after the show, the tour bus is gone, there’s an iPod with one album on it to walk to the next city. What do you pick?
Wow… that’s a really good question. I think I will go with Live Evil – Black Sabbath.
Anything you’d like to shamelessly plug? Side projects?
No, there’s never any time for side projects. All I can say that, me and Jon Schaffer from Iced Earth have been talking about doing something in the future. When we find the right time to do it, we will do it. We already have the name of the band which is quite fun when we haven’t even wrote anything yet. I have a couple ideas on tapes at home which will def be part of that project. But when it’s going to happen… I have no idea, we have to find the right time. And when I say the right time, it has nothing to do with the business. It’s a question of when is Volbeat off the road, and when it Iced Earth off the road. It really seems like a hopeless project. (laughter) We even tried when we were touring together to sit down and write, but there was always something coming up and there was always something to do. All I can say is that Jon and I really want to do this… so let’s see when it’s going to happen.