An Interview with Michael Poulsen of Volbeat - Kool Haus, Toronto - June 18th, 2012
One of the bands on the Orion Music + More Festival I’m most looking forward to seeing (aside from Metallica) is Volbeat. Volbeat touched down in Toronto to start a lengthy run of North American tour dates with HellYeah and Iced Earth on June 18th. A conflict in shows in Toronto prevented me from seeing Volbeat on this evening, but knowing I would be seeing the band this coming weekend at Orion eased the pain of missing them live in Toronto.
Ironically, it was easier to do press here in Toronto than it would be in Atlantic City at Orion. While talking with Volbeat’s tour manager before this interview, he said the press interest for Volbeat at Orion was crazy. I was super lucky to be able to stroll into the Kool Haus, sit down with lead singer and guitarist Michael Poulsen for twenty minutes and not feel rushed in chatting with him. I can’t imagine trying to do this interview on the weekend at Orion, and I likely would have gotten half the time, another band-member, and a wash of background noise.
We did the interview in the backstage area of the Kool Haus. Michael had a retro Iced Earth tour shirt on and was tinkering around with a guitar and amp and a recording device when I walked into the room and greeted him.
MB: It’s great to see you back in Toronto.
MP: Thank you. It’s great to be back here.
MB: If I have my information correct, this will be the second time you have started a tour off in Toronto.
MB: I think Heavy T.O. last year was you starting a run of dates in North America as well.
MB: Do you like it here, or is it just a starting place of convenience for Volbeat?
MP: Well, what we’ve quickly found out is that the fans in Canada are really good Volbeat fans. We’ve been here a couple of times now and I can’t really remember any band shows here in Canada. And Toronto has always been really good. It’s going to be really good to start this tour here. It’s something we’ve been looking forward to.
MB: How long will the tour keep you on the road in North America?
MP: I think this will be five and half weeks; something close to that.
MB: That’s a good run.
MP: Yeah, it’s ok.
MB: Nice touring line-up too - diversified.
MP: Totally. This line-up I’m really digging it. I’m very proud of it, because when we decided to do this run, our touring management sent out emails to different booking agencies saying that this Volbeat run was going to happen, and that they (we) were looking for support bands. There were some really great names on that list. I was surprised because many of the names on the list that came back could easily do their own run, you know? That was a huge compliment. When I saw Iced earth and HellYeah were on the list, I went “What!?” I’m a huge Iced Earth fan. I’m really good friends with Jon Schaffer. For some time now we’ve been talking about doing something together, but I wanted to bring Iced Earth to Europe. We play arenas in Europe and it would be cool to have Iced Earth with us there. Iced Earth can headline themselves in America, and do well… do really well. So I was feeling, “You guys don’t have to support us”. The same thing goes for HellYeah. They’ve got something cooking now, and they of course have Vinnie Paul. They’re our good friends as well and they do good albums.
The whole thing was that we’re friends with those guys. I think they all felt like, “We didn’t care if it was a supporting show. We just want to play with you guys. It’s a great package”. We’d been talking about doing this, but every time I brought it up I was talking about Europe. Now that they want to do it in the USA, it’s a compliment to us that they want to do it together. We’re very, very thankful for that. It’s going to be great - great to be among bands that you like and that you like personally. It’s friends, and it’s really nice.
MB: I’ve had the unique opportunity to see you in Europe and here in North America. I know that your following is just growing here, but every show you’ve done in Toronto has been a bigger show. Mod Club, Sound Academy; you’re coming here (Kool Haus) to headline – all gradually bigger shows. Your audience seems to be growing every time you come to town so you’re doing something right.
MP: It seems like it. That’s basically, as you said, the way we’ve been when we come back. The venues are getting bigger and there are more crowds and more ticket sales. Hopefully it’s because people talk together and say, “Check this band out’. We’ve been very actively touring America and Canada the last couple of years. It seems like we’ve got something going. We’re very proud of it. It couldn’t be better than to start here.
MB: Like many people in North America, I was introduced to Volbeat at a Metallica show.
MP: Oh yeah, that’s where it actually started because not many people knew who we were at that certain time. There was some underground buzz going on, but after those shows with Metallica, that’s when people starting talking like, “Wow, that opening band was actually pretty good”. So they started coming to the Volbeat shows when we started headlining and they’d say, “The first time I saw you was at Metallica”. That’s the biggest promotional tour and band that you can go out with; the biggest heavy rock band in the world. They’re great guys. We still are very inspired by those guys. For us, it was good to be part of that package. A lot of guys came back to us and said that they first saw us at a Metallica show.
MB: They’re not an easy band to open for, either.
MP: No. You know, there are certain bands that you just cannot open for, like Metallica, Slayer, and bands like that. But we had a good run and we felt very comfortable. We knew we were going into a heavy task, but we really had a good time.
MB: You did a really smart thing when you were opening for them. You stopped one of your songs and you played about a minute of ‘Master Of Puppets’ (I think), and then flipped back into the song you were originally playing.
MP: We did? (Laughs) Ok.
MB: So from where I was standing – I was in the crowd of people… and they are all like this (I cross my arms and stand stoically posed) waiting for you to finish; waiting for Lamb of God to finish… waiting for Metallica to come on. And you play, sound perfect, one minute worth of a song they KNOW, and the whole crowd just erupted into: “Right on – you guys can play!” And I think that if nothing else, that probably won over the majority of Metallica fans because if you can do their (Metallica’s) music great, then they should also be paying attention to the music you make as well.
MP: Yeah, you know, it’s not like I really remember the situation, but sometimes stuff just happens. But yeah, that’s the whole beauty of it. You know you’re going in there. You know people are waiting for Metallica, but if we, during halfway through the set can win them over, then we can nod and look them in the eye and know that they were having a good time. That’s all worth it, you know. We’re not trying to ruin anything for them, you know? We’re there for 45 minutes and we do our job and we did it really well. It seems like the greatest challenge is to play for the people who are really going to just stand there, like you said. And when the set is over and they cheer, not because it’s over, but because you did something good for them – that’s when you really feel good when you walk off the stage. “Well, we did it. We convinced them without being something that we are not. We were ourselves - no posers, no bullshit - being who we are and appreciating being on stage.” That’s where we won over a lot of people.
MB: I don’t know a lot about your early days - how you disbanded Dominus and how you decided to form a band that was a little more influenced by country music and rockabilly. How did that come about, and what were your thoughts behind that decision?
MP: Um, I’ve always been listening to a lot of music from the fifties. That was because of my parents. They were always playing it in the house where we lived. My father was a big collector of Elvis records and videos. The Elvis songs were always in the house, you know? He was also listening to a lot of Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino and a little bit of Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, and stuff like that. All the performers from the fifties, he was really into, and those songs just became the songs we were listening to. Later on as a teenager, one of my big sisters got a boyfriend who was listening to heavy metal. He was listening to Dio, Black Sabbath and Rainbow and Metallica and Maiden. I started to look at those album covers and think, “Wow, that looks pretty tough, scary and interesting.” I started to really go into the underground scene and find out what I liked and what I didn’t like; finding all of the underground magazines. I formed my own death metal band called Dominus and started tape trading; being a part of that whole underground family. That was some really cool interesting days, promoting your band with just flyers and sending letters out. There was no internet, so it was all about tape trading, and trading flyers and everything. We released four albums, and I could definitely sense in myself that after four records with Dominus, those melodies from the fifties would keep on popping up. I couldn’t really do anything about it in Dominus, because Dominus was more death metal.
MB: Yes, you’d already established your sound.
MP: Yeah. I wouldn’t fool around with the fans so its better to just say goodbye to Dominus and let it go. And then I just started writing songs, other songs that became Volbeat songs. That was more about just trying to get all of those melodies out of my head - the fifties melodies. Again, I wanted to stay with the sound I had in Dominus, with distorted guitars and double bass drums and I thought, “Well, since you really can’t figure out if you want to be 100% this or 100% that, why be 100% of anything? Just play. If you like the sound you have, then use that sound and just write some songs.” That’s what I did. A lot of songs we could have intros that sound like country, burst into a metal song, and then it became punk, and suddenly it was rockabilly. You know, all those styles blended together, and that was because I was listening to all that music. The love of it was just the same. There isn’t something in there I love more than the other. I listen to all of it. It really didn’t matter what music it was as long as it did something to me. I was trying to write songs where I could put all these things in the same band. For me, it was never important when I came up with Volbeat, it was never important that it be 100% metal. It was all about: “this is Volbeat and we blend it all together. We know it sounds ridiculous on paper, but actually it works out pretty good live.
MB: It doesn’t sound ridiculous like at all.
MP: So why change anything? It was all about playing something that we thought was fun and that felt right and felt honest. That’s what we did. We started at small clubs and playing for 50 people and now we play arenas with 16,000. I think the accomplishment and street credibility and our unwillingness to change anything – maybe we were just there at the right time, but we also like to believe that we brought something different to the table.
MB: I think you should believe that, because I think that you did.
MP: We started to believe it after the second record. People said that it was very unique. I mean, we don’t think so. We know where we got all the stuff from, but…
MB: But nobody else was doing it…
MP: That’s just called inspiration, you know? It’s been going really good since then. All the inspirations when it comes to the fifties are definitely something to do with my parents because they were always playing that kind of music, and then later on as a teenager discovering the heavy metal scene. And besides that, I was listening to whatever my friends had. If I heard something I liked, I would say, “That’s a good song.”. I was never embarrassed about it being a pop song by whomever. It was all about whether it was a good song or not. That’s how I like to work in Volbeat. There are no limitations. I am always seeking for that melody. It is what it is. Music should be about a passion and that’s what it is.
MB: Like many people, I’m going to be heading to Orion Music + More on the weekend.
MB: I think it will be great to check you out down there.
MP: Oh yeah.
MB: The press picture that is on the Orion website just has yourself, Anders and Jon. I’m assuming that Thomas is no longer in the band?
MP: Yeah, we said goodbye to Thomas…
MB: I’m sorry to hear that.
MP: Oh, yeah. Shit happens. We were about to go on the Gigantour with Megadeth and Motorhead. That was early this year.
MB: It was February for us here in Hamilton.
MP: Yes. Stuff happens. People just have to separate, you know? It’s just like a marriage. You can work on it and you can try to save it and you can really try to figure out what it is and everything, but sometimes its best that people just separate. It’s something like that with bands, too. Sometimes it really works and other times it doesn’t. I cannot go into details, because it doesn’t really help anything.
MB: That’s fair. What I wanted to know was whether Hank (Shermann) was going to play with you on this tour or not?
MP: Oh, yes, Hank is with us. He’s been playing with us since Gigantour. We’d just gotten home and we had only been home for a few weeks. There was not time to find a new guitar player. We have only been hiring hank as a stand-in guitar player because he’s busy with his own thing.
MB: It’s good though. You had Mike (Denner) do guest vocals on your last album.
MP: What? Oh, Michael (Denner), yes. Yeah, he was playing some guitars with us, yes.
MB: There’s a connection…
MP: Denner, he recommended Hank when I said we needed a player. I’m a very close friend to Michael Denner and he heard that I fired Thomas and he said, “You should ask Hank to help you out if you’re in trouble here. He might be the guy to do that.”
MB: That’s cool that it worked out.
MP: Yeah, I’m a huge Merciful Fate fan.
MB: Me too.
MP: And a King Diamond fan. (Laughter) So having the opportunity to have Hank with us is great.
MB: Now, if I look at your past release schedule for your last four albums… it’s about that time…
Are you working on some new stuff?
MP: Yeah, yeah. That’s actually why I have this amp over there (indicates towards an amp, recorder and guitar to our left). Because when I’m not doing the interviews or whatever, I’m actually composing and writing. So there is some stuff stored in that amp there, so there is a lot of writing backstage. When I come home I’ll put it all together. Now and then we jam a little bit during sound checks. We definitely have a lot of new material that we’re working on. When this tour is over we have a festival show in Germany. When that is over we will use a half year to write the songs, finish the songs and then get into the studio and hopefully early next year there will be a new album.
MB: Right on. I’m looking forward to that.
MP: Thank you.
MB: One thing that I like on your albums is that you don’t really go completely away from your roots. You’ll bring in a guest vocalist or guitarist. I like that. Do you think you will continue with that as you go into your fifth album?
MP: Uh, I don’t know, because right now I’m only in a writing process. Things can change so much when you’re about to close it all in. I think that songs have to come naturally. It has to come in a natural flow. I don’t want to force anything. We did this song with Barney from Napalm Death – it just popped up and it seemed right to have him on the song. It’s all about the inspiration and the songs themselves. On the last album Beyond Hell we didn’t have any ballads. We have them on the three other records. We get asked why we didn’t have a ballad on the album, but it just didn’t feel right on this one, you know?
MB: But you have that nice little thank you song at the end, basically thanking your fans, which I think is cool. I mean, it’s not a ballad, but it’s still…
MP: I know what you mean, but that’s how it works. I like things to come naturally. I don’t want to force anything. On the other way around – when I have the first half of an album written, I almost always know what the second half is going to sound like. No matter what, there will always be riffs or a sound in there that would remind you of my past. I definitely think that on the next record, and I can’t say 100% yes to this, but there should be some death metal. There will be elements of death metal influence.
MB: Right on. I would love to know some of the stories around some of the tattoos that you have. You’re covered - chest, arms; the works. Do you have any stories about some of them? Do they mean anything special to you?
MP: Oh yeah, I definitely think that if you get a tattoo you should be able to sit down and tell a story about it afterwards. These modern days, I think there are a lot of youngsters who don’t really know why they are getting their tattoos. They’re just getting them because they think that it looks good. They should get them for what they mean. For me, it’s always important to have a story to tell about them if I want to get a tattoo. So I have lots of stories and I cannot finish them all today.
MB: Of course not. You have a lot of stories on you.
MP: I have my wife’s name here (base of his forearm, above his hand) and on the other side (same place on his other forearm) it says ‘Little E’ and then you can ask who is ‘Little E’? I was asking that same question when we were on the Metallica tour. James Hetfield came into our dressing room and said, “Where’s Little E?” and one of the guys said, “Little E? I don’t know who that is?” So Hetfield says, “Oh come on! Where’s Little E?” So they ask: “Who’s Little E?” And Hetfield says, “That’s Michael:Little Elvis, man.”
He came in with a huge Elvis painting that he just bought in the city and he brought it into me and said, “Hey Little E, this is Big E!” So he gave me the name Little E and I got it tattooed here, as you can see. I’ve got Elvis’ dog tags from the army here (upper left tricep). I’ve got an eagle here on my hand which my father has tattooed on his chest. He passed away over three years ago now. So it says ‘Daddy’. He had the same eagle there and this is his name, Jern, right here (on his fingers just below the knuckles). This one here says ‘Mother’ and this is my mother’s name. That’s a good way to go to work. When I hit the strings, I feel like I have my parents with me.
MB: Nice. You have a constant reminder of them right there.
MP: There’s a good story with this eagle right here. The first time I was in Memphis, I actually got married at Graceland, a couple of years ago…
MP: They have their own chapel there. But the first time I was in Memphis I rented a car and I wanted to go to Tupelo, Mississippi, where Elvis was born. While I was driving there was this eagle that kept on following me. I thought: “Wow, that’s pretty cool.” Suddenly the navigation system turns off and that was the first time I was driving a car in the US. I wondered: “What do I do now?” I only had the address on a navigation system. Of course, there are signs and whatnot, but you can get a little bit confused, right? I just had luck with that eagle. I just followed the eagle as it took a right, and that’s what I did with my car and when I was looking up a sign said Tupelo, Mississippi. I like to believe that was my father’s spirit showing me the way, and I said that I wanted to get that eagle tattooed on my arm when I got home. So that’s what I did. So that’s some of the stories. I also have some Johnny Cash stuff. I’m inspired by him as well. I definitely think that if you decide to get a tattoo that you should at least get something where you can tell a small story. Why you did it and where you were at that certain time, you know? It will mean something to you for the rest of your life.