Crank Elvis Presley up to ten. Substitute James Burton's Fender Telecaster for a Gibson SG and pump it through a Marshall JCM 800. Speed the tempos up to metal speeds and you'll have a basic understanding of the music of Danish band Volbeat
. Fronted and founded by Michael Poulsen
, the quartet has just released Rock The Rebel/Metal The Devil
, a new CD released in America full of this crossbreeding of musical styles that pulls from the 1950s and 1960s and mixes these more organic elements with the full throttle frenzy of modern thrash.
Here, singer Michael Poulsen
talks about the music he's been creating for many years now. Though he speaks very fluent English, the native of Denmark sometimes falls into the cadence of someone speaking a second language. Many of those idiosyncrasies have been left in and only add, in this writer's opinion, to the charm and sincerity of this tattooed rocker.
UG: It's strange enough that Volbeat's music relies heavily on American elements: music of the 50s. Elvis and Chuck Berry and Johnny Cash, country, and all of that. But if you add to that the fact that you came from a metal band and live in Denmark, it makes it all the weirder. Can you shed some light on how you came to create this strange blend of Americana and metal?
I think it has something to do with my former band was a death metal band but I was doing that when I was 16 years old. Before that I was coming up with music from the 50s; my father was listening to it all the time: Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, all the great legends. It was like all these songs were always stuck in my mind. Even though I got out and bought the heavy metal and death metal records as a teenager. It was like when I moved out of the house of my parents, it was like I was still buying all the old records with Elvis and Little Richard and all that; all the rock and roll from the 50s.
So, when I formed my first band, it was four records with very extreme metal but I don't know, I just somehow got tired of it because I had so many ideas doing other songs. And I really didn't think that it would fit into Dominus. So then I started to write songs and I was not thinking too much about what style it was because it was not being part of the metal scene again or anything. It was just about writing songs and see where it took me somehow. So, I was just writing a bunch of songs and I called up my good friend on drums, Jon (Larsen), and suddenly we had ten songs. And we were thinking why not go out and play those songs but it was like, Who the hell's going to listen to it? Because it was really not one hundred per cent metal and it was not one hundred per cent rock and roll or anything. It was a combination of everything from metal to punk to rock and roll to rockabilly and small country influences.
So, I don't know, I've always been listening to very different kind of music but generally I always been very interested and fascinated by the songs from the 50s and 60s but I still like the sound from a distorted guitars and heavy bass and drums. And so, it was like, I'm gonna keep that sound but I'm gonna write songs that's more melodic in the way of the 50s. And suddenly it turns out to be Volbeat and maybe Volbeat were here at the right time.
What was it about hearing Elvis and Johnny Cash that so touched you? Those are such mainstream American artists but you were still able to identify with them as a musician from Denmark?
It was definitely the rhythm, the feeling through it all. It was very primitive and it was very simple and very catchy. I still think that the best songs been written in the 50s. I just got stuck by looking at Elvis in his costumes was really something; it was like a Superman standing there and singing. There was something special about this guy and later out I found out he was pretty interesting as a person; it was not only his music. It was a feeling; it was always about when music touched you, you know? When you can almost hear your heartbeat and there was some kind of honesty about that music from the 50s. It was very simple; it was love songs and good melodies, good rhythms, good chops, everything. I just got stuck pretty much on Elvis and later on all the other legends came in under my skin.
Did you actually go so far as to study the guitar styles of James Burton and Scotty Moore and all those players who were supporting these artists?
Of course, yeah, because suddenly it was not only Elvis that was interesting; it was also the musicians. Suddenly you can hear, Oh, this guy was actually a good guitar player; Ronnie Tutt was a pretty good drummer. I was really getting into it.
A couple of years ago, I was actually performing with some of Elvis Presley's musicians here in Denmark: Jerry Carrigan, Bob Moore, and Jeff Young; some of the musicians Elvis used back in Las Vegas days and he also especially used them in studios to record albums. I got a phone call from a guy who has a fanclub called Elvis Unlimited; he also got a museum of Elvis here in Denmark. He said, Michael, these guys are touring and they like different kinds of celebrities to do a version of Elvis songs. You want to do that? And I was like, Holy crap! What is happening? I remember when I was five years old sitting in front of the TV trying to dye my hair black and then suddenly so many years after being able to be on stage with those guys is really something.
But I was really stunned so I said, I really have to think about it. Even though I had a big Elvis collection and I have around five Elvis tattoos, it's just like you don't touch the King's work. I hated every time I saw other people doing Elvis songs. Shut up, man! But it was also like, If you don't do this, you will regret it the rest of your life. So a couple weeks later, I gave him a call and said, Yeah, I'm gonna do it.
I performed Suspicious Minds, Little Sister, and Don't Be Cruel. Bob Moore, the bass player, came up to me after the show and said, You know, Michael, you've got a pretty powerful voice; you can do it, you can really make it. And I was really so emotional about it, I had to lock myself into the toilet and sit and cry for five minutes. It was really something.
I was very interested in Elvis' musicians so be able to stand there on stage with those guys I have looked at on TV was really something special. It was really something that I will remember back as being one the greatest things.
Back in early 2000, you released a couple of demos (Volbeat in 2002; Beat the Meat in 2003) before putting out your first real record. On those early CDs, was it difficult to merge the two styles? Were there some songs that worked and some that didn't?
|"We can easily go out as headliners and pull a very big crowd."|
I don't know; it was like I told you before it was a matter of just playing straight from your heart. I was not thinking too much about, Now I need to do a rock and roll song; now I need to do some country or punk stuff. It was always like, Why not combine it? I never thought about it. I remember when we tried to get a deal with our demos. There were certain record companies that were real interested but they were like, Who the hell is gonna buy that? So, Mascot Records came in, they believed in the band, and a lot of big labels said they really wished they had done that from the beginning. But Mascot has been doing a very good job so far.
As I said, we've been struggling with this music since we were 16 years old; we're all in our 30s now. But maybe we are also here at the right time because I think if Volbeat were in the 80s, people would not think about it because different things were interesting in the 80s. But right now maybe it's time for Volbeat to shine.
You can sense that your music is reaching beyond Denmark and other countries in Europe? They've been playing your music on American radio stations as well.
Yeah; it's amazing. We've been touring in Europe a couple of years now and we can easily go out as headliners and pull a very big crowd. The next step for us is to go into the US in the new year, maybe in April or something; we're trying to find the right (tour) package. We already heard that an American radio station is playing our songs and we've done a lot of interviews with American radio stations. So we're pretty eager to go over there and show that the US need Volbeat!
US radio is playing tracks from your new CD, Rock the Rebel/Metal the Devil. Is the title intended to provide a glimpse into what kind of music might be inside?
Of course! I'm trying to show some kind of balance somehow that maybe people will be able to understand or maybe just ask themselves, Is this rock and roll or is it metal? Or is it both? Rock the Rebel says something about the 50s perhaps or (maybe it's) just a rock and roll band; Metal the Devil says something about the heavy metal scene. So, it's also a way to express the music as a mixture of different styles.
The Human Instrument, the opening track is a mixture of those styles. It opens with that lazy pedal steel riff and then bangs into the rock feel.
It was never about having a plan or something; it was always about tons of songs and pick the best one out. Of course, when you sit and write songs you have ideas and maybe you're inspired by a certain song, by a certain artist, so you get the right beat to start with. It's not like baking a cake or something; it's all about a feeling that you have in your body and you're trying to get it out of your system.
It's not actually that easy for to explain how I write those songs. It's just I always sit down with an acoustic guitar song and start to sing. And I have ideas how it will sound on an electric guitar so I can easily just sit on a couch and write a couple of songs on an acoustic guitar. And then I can actually hear up in my head how the drums is going and the guitars. It's not that easy to explain.
And I completely understand that. On a completely technical level, how do you lay down Volbeat tracks in the studio?
It's always me bringing a song to the rehearsal room and me and Jon, the drummer, I show him the riffs and I tell him my ideas for a beat or something or he comes up with a beat on the drums. And then later on when we think we have an idea for the song, we show it to the other guys and they just get along. And sometimes they will have small ideas or something. Sometimes I actually bring a whole song to the table and then that's it and other times I bring only half songs and we will try to write it to the end together or something. But it's very random actually; ninety-nine per cent of the time I'm bringing the song to rehearsal room and me and Jon will start jamming the song and later on the guys will learn how to play it.
Mr. and Mrs. Ness is a serialized song that actually began life as Danny & Lucy from the The Strength/The Sound/The Songs CD? This is the second part of that song? That is such a 50s concept of the cliffhanger television episode.
Yeah, it started with Danny & Lucy and continues with a song called Fire Song (also on The Strength CD - curiously enough, Danny & Lucy, the first part of the serialization is track 10 and the Fire Song, the second part of the song, is track 9). And then it continues on Rock the Rebel album as Mr. & Mrs. Ness. I was watching a channel called TCM (Turner Classic Movies) and it was showing a very old black-and-white movie and I only saw 10 or 15 minutes and then I had to leave my home because I have to do something. And I was thinking about that and I didn't know how it ended or anything so I said, Well, I'm not gonna see that movie again but I'm gonna write it to the end! So, I got the inspiration from a very old black-and-white movie.
The Garden's Tale is a really different sounding track. It's mournful and dark and the way your voice sounds against the track is really haunting.
Alright! I don't know. When I did the into for that song, I was sitting and just for fun was doing some Danish lines. And I thought, It's not gonna work with my voice; I need someone else to do that. And I was really into a Danish band called Magtens Korridorer; they have a good frontman who was singing in Danish and we were just at an award's show playing with these guys and we got very good friends. And were getting very drunk. And we know we like each other's music and when I suddenly start to write The Garden's Tale, I somehow heard the voice of Johan Olsen from Magtens Korridorer. I called him up and said, I have this crazy idea with a song and I hear your voice all the time and I need you to sing in Danish. And he was like, Yeah! Let's do it, let's do it. I said, Yeah, but you have to listen to the song. (He said), No, let's just do it. And I brought him into the rehearsal room and he really liked it. I showed him the melody lines and the lyrics and everything and the same day he said, This is going to be a big hit. I said, You think so? He said, Yeah, I really mean it.
It got the biggest hit in Denmark and we went number one in all the charts. It was crazy. It was like something you can't foresee; it just happens, you know? That's the funny thing about inspiration; sometimes you really don't know where it comes from and other times you're pretty much aware of where you're stealing from. It was just me getting very much into this Danish band called Magtens Korridorer and I just heard his voice. I truly appreciate him doing that; he's a very good guy and he has a very good band. And I also think it's a very strong song.
It's one of those melodies where when you hear it the first time you say to yourself, Oh, I've heard that before but you never have.
|"It's all about a feeling that you have in your body and you're trying to get it out of your system."|
Yeah, yeah, I know what you mean. People think they've heard every song with Elvis but they really haven't because this guy was recording 700 songs. I remember when I came home with some records to my father and said, I'm going to play some songs that you've never heard before. And he said, Oh, I know that song and I said, No, father, you don't know that song because you've never heard it! And the only reason is the melody just sounds right. So, that's why some people said, Oh, I've heard that song (The Garden's Tale) before. And I said, No, you haven't.
You just talked about sometimes not knowing where a song comes from and other times knowing exactly who you just copied. Sad Man's Tongue is an obvious nod to Johnny Cash and you even mention that on the CD. The banjos and acoustic guitars and slide really set up Johnny Cash-type textures.
Yeah, I was listening to the Folsom Prison Blues song and I was just getting into the mood. I said, I'm gonna sit down and write a song that's halfway Johnny Cash and halfway Volbeat. Somehow I didn't want to do a full cover song. I was asking myself, Hey, Michael, if you were supposed to write that kind of song, how would you do it? So, I borrowed a little bit from Mr. Cash and then turned it into my own stuff. And of course that's also a tribute to Johnny Cash. That's just being in the moment and getting something out of it.
You've really created that Cash feel with banjos and acoustic guitars and everything.
The producer, Jacob Hansen, had some friends; he said, I know some guys who can play banjo and slide guitar. Jacob said this song is really asking for it. I had the same idea but I can't play the banjo, I can't play the slide guitar, but I actually had the same idea. And he said, Yeah, I know some guys around here who can do that. So he called up those guys and they heard the song and they said, Yeah, this song is asking for it. We (recorded) during the middle of the night and they did some great work; I'm really proud of that song.
Radio Girl and Soulweeper #2 really have a traditional 1950s feel to them. They both follow that sort of I - VI - IV - V pattern or more simply, if the song is in C, you're using a C Am F G progression. And those changes have been used a million times before.
Of course you can easily hear that I'm inspired by the 50s, 60s melodic tunes. It was like, if you have those three or four chords, there are so many different kind of melodies you can actually sing on those. It's again all about getting in the right mood maybe. Maybe I've been walking around for five days only listening to stuff from the 50s and you know you get inspired and maybe you sit with an acoustic guitar playing the songs. And then suddenly you've got your own idea and like, Why is he doing that? If I twist it a little bit here, I can do it my own way. Generally, it's just the love for music and finding your own way to do it but still giving the compliments to the writers.
Michael, is there some part of you that wishes you were James Dean? Or you were some 50s rock and roller back in the day?
Of course! I've been traveling in my mind for many times; going way back to the 50s, the 60s. Imagine me walking around, walking into Sun Studios and tell him I need to do a record or something (laughs). I'm very fascinated by all this great history, this rock and roll music history. But also it was a tough way to make a living and there were tons of good bands standing in the shadow of Elvis and Cash and Jerry Lee who actually never made it but they were perhaps very close to be just as good. Maybe they didn't have the charisma, maybe they didn't have the last thing to actually make it but they really did some good songs. And I'm also very much inspired by that. But yeah, sometimes I've been going back in time and wished I could be part of (that).
When you finally come over to America, Sun Studios and Graceland will definitely be on your itinerary?
I have a plan that I maybe go to Memphis in February next year.
Would you actually like to record in the States?
I don't know; right now we're doing good recording with Jacob here in Denmark. I've never really had any plans of recording over there but I don't know. If someday I have ideas that really could make a good doing it, then perhaps.
Are studios in Denmark comparable to American studios? Can you describe the type of recording gear you used?
No, not really because I'm not too technical. Of course I know what I use. The amp is an old Marshall, what is it, a JCM 8000.
800, yeah I combine it with (presumably an MXR) Noise Gate and a (BBE) Maximizer and a, what is it called? A Tube Screamer. It's actually pretty old stuff; the amp is very old. And then I play Gibson guitar; right now I play the GT model which is a newer model that came out some years ago. It seems to work for me and then I use some kind of Seymour Duncan pickups; I don't know the number of it. It (guitar) is a newer model and has a wide stripe. It's not that easy to explain but it's actually called SG GT.
Did you experiment with different guitars before settling on the Gibson? It seems like you might have been looking for an instrument that could produce both the cleaner 50s and 60s guitar tones as well as the overdriven metal sounds.
I've been playing Gibsons for many years. In the beginning when I was doing really extreme metal, I was playing BC Rich. When I started to write more rock and roll songs, I tried out the Tony Iommi guitar, the SG guitar, and it sounded beautiful; that was definitely the guitar I needed for those kind of songs. I stick to Gibson forever and I'm gonna die with a Gibson.
Franz Hellboss plays second guitar on Rock the Rebel/Metal the Devil but he was subsequently replaced by Thomas Bredahl. What was lacking in Franz's playing that made you find a replacement for him?
|"I'm inspired by the 50s, 60s melodic tunes."|
It's always me who's putting all the guitars down in the studio. Because I write all the material and not every guitar player has the one hundred per cent same feeling. And when you're recording, if you ask me, you have to have the one hundred per cent same feeling. It has to sound the right away. It's not that Thomas can't play the guitar because he can but feeling is another thing. Of course, Thomas does some of his own themes but the reason why he's in the band was because Franz was an idiot. He was very arrogant and he was really not a good guitar player and he was not treating people with respect. And I don't like to be around those kind of people. And Thomas is very humble, he gots both feets on the ground and he plays the guitar very good. He's a good entertainer and he also has his own band where he's the songwriter in his own band called Gob Squad where they do some kind of punk stuff.
So I actually challenge Thomas we just release a new album in Europe called Guitar Gangsters & Cadillac Blood which is our third record. And I actually told Thomas to play some of his own themes on top of my rhythm guitar and he did a good job. So I'm very proud to have Thomas in the band. And I'm sure as hell also proud of having the other guys around; they're my friends and have been for a very long time.
You have struck up a relationship with Metallica? Lars is actually from Denmark as well?
We had one show with Metallica in Denmark one summer and Lars was actually the guy who picked up Volbeat and said, These guys need to open up; they're great and they sound good. I had the opportunity to take to James Hetfield before we went on stage; I had a chance to talk to James for 25 minutes. He actually came over to me and said, I heard so much good about you guys; I heard you play some kind of Elvis metal, I think I like it. That was really something because I've been listening to Metallica even before I had my first guitar. So standing there talking to James Hetfield for 25 minutes about cars and music and inspiration and Metallica was really an emotional thing. He was sitting on stage with his daughter on the left and listening to the first five Volbeat songs rockin' out and that was really something.
One month ago (August) we played Pukkelpop Festival in Belgium where Metallica also played. James spotted me because I was standing almost in front of his monitors together with the guards so he spotted me and pointed at me. And I could see his lips saying, Oh, Michael!
(Recently) they have a release party in Denmark and I was invited (this interview was postponed because Poulsen blew off the talk to attend the celebration). So I talked to James again and he said, Yeah, I saw you at the Pukkelpop Festival; you were standing in front of my monitors. That freaked me out. How would you feel if I was standing in front of your monitors?
He heard our new record and said, Yeah, you guys make some really good rock songs. I hope we will be able to tour together. And I said, Yeah, you just have to call me! He's a true gentleman; I've got tons of respect for that guy and the rest of the Metallica dudes. They've just released a very, very good and strong album and I think well in the music scene have to appreciate that.
The way you talk about these experiences reveals a fan as much as someone who is in the business.
Yeah, I am; these guys they've been around for so many years and they were struggling and it's really not fair what these guys are going through. Because people really are over-hyping things. Every time Metallica comes with a new album, it's like, Here's the cure for cancer and they're only human beings; they're not Supermen or anything. I think these guys still around because they don't have to; they've got what they need. But they're still here to entertain us and you've got to appreciate that. I'm one hundred per cent truly thankful for that because I still get tons of inspiration from Metallica.
We also have the opportunity to play with Megadeth as well and I've been a big Megadeth fan for many years. I've been able to talk to Dave Mustaine a couple times and he's a true gentleman; I really like that guy. So being in that position right now to talk to those guys and tell them how much they actually mean for my career is really something I appreciate and I like to show them tons of respect.
So, we'll see you in Memphis next year!
Interview by Steven Rosen