The spaghetti Western existed for years prior to the famous Sergio Leone ‘Dollars Trilogy,’ but it was this film epic that placed the pseudo-genre on the map. This is not the big country classics released by John Wayne and the mass-manufacturing cookie-cutting molds that went behind the majority of his projects. This is raw, hard, intelligent, and character driven. This is the famous and inventive showdown between good and evil, Clint Eastwood’s nameless anti-hero and Lee Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes – and the morally grey smoke between them that seeped through the entire loosely connected series.
I say all this to paint a picture of the metaphoric relationship between, say, mainstream country rock and the innovative sound of the long-standing rockabilly/metal foursome, Volbeat.
Volbeat is from Denmark, a country not necessarily known for their laid-back country/rock swagger. Yet since 2001, Volbeat has been picking up Italian influences as well as Americana Neil Young country to deliver something that manages to capture both imaginative idioms. Volbeat is five albums deep into their career, having just released ‘Outlaw Gentlemen and Shady Ladies. Perhaps it was the cover of this record that spawned the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly comparisons. The cover features a man, both sinister in his gaze yet heroic in his determination. A man merging heroism and hard-earned toughness into a whirlwind of the desert landscape. This is reflected in the sound of the record. ‘Cape of Our Hero’ is a big arena rock power ballad. Black Bart sounds almost like a thrash metal song, channeling something more akin to Iced Earth or Megadeth. ‘The Nameless One’ sounds almost grunge-like in its approach, a leftover from Pearl Jam’s ‘Ten’ re-imagined with a country/rock twang.
Through all these different styles, the band deploys big heroic rock ethos with some dark undertones. It is that Leone duality- what is good and what is bad and knowing the most important parts of it lie in the space-between. It may be a bit ambitious, considering the thrash metal guitar work of ‘The Hangman’s Body Count’ sitting next to a cover of ‘Young the Giant’s 2010 indie pop hit ‘My Body’ (a bizarre inclusion if I have ever seen one), but Volbeat manages to make it work and work incredibly well.
Volbeat manages to seem both calculated AND organic. This is largely because rockabilly as a whole seems so loose and ‘whatever,’ as if the creators of the music hardly care about their image at all. As if they are entities predestined to play the music they were always born to play. Taking a page from Charlie Daniel’s ethos on otherworldly possession, it doesn’t need to be the devil in Georgia…it just needs to be smooth and fun; the way it was always meant to be.
Yet, Volbeat is not a conventional rock group. They blend sounds so well, seeming to be both natural as well as highly intentional. It is as if one moment the band is laying out their ‘marketing’ strategy on a corporate white board in the afternoon, and being possessed by Rock Gods in the evening. The juxtaposition is truly enlightening.
Michael Poulsen graciously shares time with The Levity Ball’s own Marc Boriosi to explain more.
The Levity Ball: Thanks for doing this.
Michael Poulsen: “You’re welcome.”
The Levity Ball: When you tour in the states, like Pennsylvania and such, how different from Copenhagen is it?
Michael Poulsen: “You know, somehow it is a huge difference, even though a lot of European countries are now starting to copy America.”
LB: Oh, really? Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
MP: “I guess a little bit of both? You know, you’re gonna always find good stuff and you’re gonna always find bad stuff.”
LB: So who is Michael Poulsen, and when did you first consider taking your love of music and making it into your life?
MP: “Who am I? You know, sometimes I even ask that after tour, because most of the time I’m Michael from Volbeat, and sometimes I just wanna take that hat off and be, you know, Michael Poulsen at home.”
LB: You’re touring so much right now.
MP: “Yeah, you know, but we’ve basically been doing that since forever ago. But you know, we should not complain, because getting shows and jobs in this business is tough. You know, you cannot take that for granted. So we truly appreciate being able to do what we do, but basically I’m a humble country boy. I come from a very small country, Denmark, from a small countryside, and I lived there until I was 17 or 18.”
LB: And you’re not from Copenhagen?
MP: “No, when I was 18 I moved into Copenhagen, you know, the big city.”
LB: Where is your home town?
MP: “The town I was growing up— it was Ringsted. Yeah, and then I moved into Copenhagen. But now, I’m actually, you know, I’m moving out of Copenhagen. I want to go to the countryside again, you know, the simple life. But basically, I just— when I’m not on tour, I like probably what most people love. You know, being together with family and friends, walk the dog and you know, basically just very normal things. Fix the garden. I’m a big boxing nerd, so I use a lot of time on reading boxing and training. My father was an old fighter, and I have a couple of friends who are professional fighters.”
LB: I just started boxing a few months ago.
MP: “You did?”
LB: Yeah, to lose weight.
MP: “Oh, okay then. It’s the best way to do it— you know, I lost over 40 pounds by training boxing.”
LB: And diet.
MP: “And diet, that’s the most important thing to do. If you’re training you have to eat well too.”
LB: Realizing that, as far as metal goes, the big crossovers to the U.S. are King Diamond, Mercyful Fate and as a stretch Lars Ulrich. Did you ever worry about global success or did you not even care?
MP: “Of course I care, you know. I’m very proud to say that Volbeat is only, if you look at is as a Danish heavy rock band, we only did the second band in Danish heavy rock history. We made it out of Denmark. You know, Mercyful Fate was the first one. You cannot consider Metallica as a Danish band, you know. We do have Lars Ulrich and we are very proud of that. So, yeah, being only the second band coming out of Denmark and having a career in the U.S.—that’s something that we’re very proud of. You know, a lot of our music is inspired by American music or artists, and you know, since we started touring in America we have been very comfortable being in America. I could easily imagine living here, but since I still have a good amount of family members in Denmark I’ll stay there. But we love being in America and we can see every time we come back for a new tour that the venues are getting bigger, the ticket sales are getting better, and we even sell records, you know, and that’s tough these days. So we’re very thankful for the situation we’re in right now in America.”
LB: I’ve read many interviews with you— interviewers ask you what’s your favorite show, your favorite song, your favorite album, your favorite producer, and even your favorite band mate and you consistently answer the same way; saying you don’t pick favorites, you love them all.
LB: Do you ever get sick of hearing those questions? And why don’t you think people will accept the fact that you just love what you’re doing?
MP: “You know, I have lots of respect for every kind of work that people do, you know, no matter what it is. Work is work. Sometimes you can ask yourself why they happen, you know— if you have a job like you have—now, you’re actually putting up some really good questions— but you know, let’s say that you had this job for 20 years, and you meet the same guy 10 years after and he still has the same 15 questions… you go, really? Haven’t you heard what I said the last time we talked? So it can be a little bit boring, but then it’s my job to diversify it and twist it around. But you know, I have respect for every kind of people who have something to do. Work is the most important thing in the world; to wake up and have something to do— do something for your country. So, picking favorites has always been tough because what I’m doing is— Volbeat is my kid, that’s my child. So all the songs that I write, those are my children, and you don’t want to point and say, that’s my favorite child. You don’t do that.”
LB: I find it interesting that no matter what you seem to do, fans love it. Banjo, harmonica, metal, country… I mean, it makes it hard to categorize you, because it’s like, there’s no real genre. That’s why; I think Metallica, James Hetfield, referred to it as Elvis Metal or something. It’s like you have to create a new name for what you do because you just bring everything together so well.
MP: “Yeah, you know the compliment in all that is that we don’t have to create a brand or a name; it is Volbeat, that’s what it is. So it’s quite fun to go into those record stores, and you can actually find our records in different categories. I like that, you know. For us it’s never been important to be 100% metal, even though I love metal, or 100% rock and roll, or rockabilly, country, punk. I love all those styles, but it’s never been important for me to be 100% something. I want to be 100% honest to what I’m doing, you know, music has to come from your heart, and that’s honesty, that’s 100%.”
LB: I think it comes through in the music, it really does.
MP: “Exactly, and I think that’s why people can relate to it. They can definitely see hear and feel that it’s honest, you know. It’s not fabricated, it’s not forced. It is because I grew up listening to so many different styles and I couldn’t really make up my mind when I was asking myself, what kind of style do you want to play. And I said mine. It’s not about style; it’s about what comes from the heart. I just picked up an acoustic guitar and I started writing for Volbeat, and just combined those styles. That’s the Volbeat style.”
LB: How did you go from loving the fifties music?
MP: “That was because of my parents.”
LB: Parents, yeah. When did that switch to death metal?
MP: T”hat was mainly because I became a teenager and— I have a twin sister and then I have two sisters who are twins, so we’re two pair of twins. One of my big sisters, her boyfriend, which is now her husband, he was listening to a lot of heavy metal like Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath, Dio, Rainbow, Metallica, and those kind of bands. So when I saw his record collection, I was very, very, very young, so those record sleeves almost scared the living crap out of me. But they were interesting, so to sit there and put those records on and, you know, see if the music was just as good as the front cover— that was exciting. So that’s where it started, you know, him playing those records. And by the time I figured out what I really liked. And then later on the more extreme bands came, like death metal and thrash metal, and I just became very obsessed by the whole scene. It was such a great universe, so many great doors to open. Tape trading and buying those underground magazines—I was totally into that. And I miss those days, you know, with the tape trading and the obscure magazines. I could take a train and go to different small city country sides just to find the right records and magazines and then— I loved that, and I miss it so much. I still don’t have a single downloaded record on my computer. I still go out and find those records in the stores.”
LB: Yeah, lately I’ve been going back to vinyl.
MP: “Yeah, I still buy CDs, but I also still buy vinyl. I like both. But I miss those things.”
LB: Outlaw Gentlemen and Shady Ladies is a retail success and the tour is going extremely well. I already know you don’t define success by awards.
MP: “No, no.”
LB: What has to happen, from your perspective, for you to say, “I’ve made it, I’m successful?
MP: “Wake up happy.”
LB: That’s a great answer! Together since 2001, how would you describe the band’s musical progression up until now?
MP: “Basically I just think that— I don’t think we really changed, we just got better by doing what we do, and if there’s a reason for that it’s because we’re so much on the road, so we play a lot of shows, and when we’re not doing shows, we’re working on new songs, being in rehearsal, or going to the studio. So when you are more buys with what you do, it’s just like a football player. If they keep on doing it, they become better. So I guess… what was the question?”
LB: Well, you said Volbeat is like your child, and it’s growing.
MP: “Yeah, yeah…exactly. And it’s tough to see the child grow, at the same time, because it comes to a time where you have to give some responsibility for other people to take care of that child because—you know, and I’m talking about management and record labels and the whole machinery—it can be tough to leave that control. In the beginning I did everything. I was booking our shows, I was doing the merchandise, I was doing our taxes, I was doing everything because there was no money to hire anyone. So basically I had ten different hats on. But I kind of liked it, because that gave me that—”
MP: “Yeah, but it was not so much about control, it was more about experience and confidence in what I was doing. And that means a lot when you go into a business like this today, with a lot of vampires. So it’s good to know how the business works, you know, so I’m kind of proud that I did all the things in the beginning.”
LB: Any artists that you’d like to work with in the future?
MP: “Artists? Many. There are a lot of great artists out there, you know, from small to big ones. The list is huge. There are so many great people, and of course if I mention someone now, I’ll forget alot of them. There are so many great names, like Mike Ness of Social Distortion, Lemmy, David Grohl of the Foo Fighters, Hank3, James Dean Bradfield, Manic Street Preachers and you know, the list just continues. Yeah, it’s a long list, you know. James Hetfield… the list is just very long. And then there are just very cool underground bands that would be very interesting to work with. But you know, we actually met all of our heroes and idols, and they’ve been so kind, and it’s a little bit weird, you know, going back and remembering when you were in your own room at your parents’ house looking at all the posters, and you didn’t even have your first guitar at that time. And now we travel around the world and actually meet our idols, and they tell us, hey man, we got your record. And it’s like, wow, I didn’t see that coming. It’s amazing.”
LB: What musicians are you listening to now? Any new bands up there you like?
MP: “I’m always listening to a lot of stuff. I like to buy records when I’m touring, and if I’m not learning boxing on the net, we try to go out and find record stores. But right now, what I’m listening— I just, ten minutes ago, because our management from Denmark came in, and he gave me, Tourniquets, Hacksaws & Graves, the new Autopsy, which is really, really great. I’ve been a huge Autopsy fan since they released their first album. What else I’ve been listening to lately— a lot of Suicidal Angels, a thrash band from Greece, really, really good. This morning when I was exercising, I was running, I was listening to Toxic Holocaust. What else am I listening to… I just bought a new record with some young Finnish guys who play old school thrash metal called Lost Society. I’m listening to a new Hank3, the new Manic Street Preachers is about to be released. I just heard the new single, which was really good. What else have I been listening to… there’s this really cool female band, young girls from Brazil, that plays old school thrash, called Nervosa. What else… the new Arctic Monkeys is pretty cool. I’ve been listening to JD McPherson; he plays some kind of fifties. Yeah, bought the Jukebox CD with Jack White, you know, some of his favorite artists. I just bought the new Young the Giant. That’s some of the stuff I remember right now.”
LB: All over the place, I like it! Will we be hearing any new songs tonight that might be on the next album?
MP: “Yeah. I guess, you know— we’re working on new songs right now, trying stuff out in sound checks, and putting pieces together. Right now we can almost play two new songs. I haven’t written any lyrics yet; I always improvise words until I find the right melody. But there will probably today be two small snippets of two new songs.”
LB: I read somewhere recently you liked the movie “The Iceman”?
MP: “Oh, totally.”
LB: Your albums have a storyline to them, so I was thinking, “Volbeat: The Iceman Cometh.”
MP: “HAHAHA…Yeah, who knows! That’s a good one.”
LB: Michael, I want to thank you for being such a fan-based artist.
MP: “Oh, thanks.”
LB: And I hope you continue to have fun, because I truly believe that’s where your success is.
MP: “Yeah, you know, Lemmy told me that when we were touring with Megadeth and Motorhead, and I had the opportunity to talk with Motorhead and sing “Killed by Death.” And I was so frightened about it because, man, I’m going to be on the stage with Motorhead! So I was like, what words do I sing? And I was all confused, and Lemmy just said, Michael, just remember it has to be fun. And he taught me right, to loosen up. It has to be fun and he’s right, you know. The first time I actually met Lemmy was, I don’t know what year it was. We were playing on the same festival and we’d just been on stage before them, and he was about to walk up the stairs to the stage. And I was only, I was only a few meters away from him, and I just yelled at him and said, “Hey… HEY FATHER!” And he looked at me and said, “YEAH, I MIGHT BE!” He has great humor.”
LB: Yeah, I’ve seen him in a few movies. He loves funny cameos.
MP: “Yeah, yeah.”
LB: Thank you, Michael.
MP: “Thank you…and have a great show!”
LB: Yes, you too! HAHA