Volbeat: Inside the unlikely rise of The People's Band
"We're playing to 37,000 people"
Cross the courtyard beneath the hazy Copenhagen sky where the sun looks like it’s been put through a filter and head through the door into the city’s Lidkoeb whisky bar. Take the stairs going ever upward in a tight coil into the gloom above. Foreboding portraits in oil line the walls as you reach the top floor; a long room lined with dark wood houses an array of tables and cabinets lit with orange light, every available surface filled with whisky bottles from around the world. One table is reserved exclusively for Japanese liquor; beaten-up green, black and brown Chesterfield sofas and chairs litter the room, and beneath a sign that reads ‘Dispensing Chemists’ is a sealed cabinet with the more rare and expensive bottles. Volbeat guitarist Rob Caggiano indicates one such exclusive label from the Ardbeg Distillery.
“They sent a bottle of that into space to see how zero gravity would affect its flavour,” he says, “to see how it’d change its composition.” Band singer and leader Michael Poulsen snorts derisively, “I could piss in it and it’d change that!” Rob, a regular here, remains undeterred, unscrewing the top of another, less expensive bottle and pouring himself a shot. “This,” he says, waving his glass around, “would make a great rehearsal room.” “Yeah,” nods Michael. “We’d manage two songs maximum.
Volbeat are no strangers to dimly lit bars. They dragged themselves up through the club circuit, all across Europe and into America. “People call it ‘doing things the old-school way’, we call it ‘normal procedure’,” says Michael. “Bands who do the whole, ‘We’re on Facebook’ thing,’ I hate that crap. We’ve all travelled around in nineseaters paying to play – that’s how it works in the beginning. You actually save up to go on tour. You came home, there was no money left, but that was our holiday. We were having fun.” Their hard work paid off handsomely. The last time Volbeat played in their native Denmark (Rob aside – he’s a transplanted New Yorker who keeps his apartment back home even if he rarely gets to see it), they entered the record books for the biggest-ever show by a domestic rock band.
“Yeah, we’re part of Danish history now,” says Michael of the night that rounded out their world tour in support of 2013’s Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies album. More than 37,000 people packed out the open-air show at Tusindårsskoven in Odense on August 1, 2015. It had just two support bands – Accept and Danish death metal band Konkhra. “We couldn’t imagine doing another show after that one,” says Michael. “You’re looking out and there’s 37,000 people, it’s insane. It got me thinking, ‘We should probably do that new song…’”
Which is why they decided to debut The Devil’s Bleeding Crown, the opening track of the band’s latest album, Seal The Deal & Let’s Boogie. Later, we crowd around a borrowed MacBook Air, to marvel at the rough footage of the song, which received the kind of rapturous reception reserved for homecoming heroes.
“We couldn’t do any more shows on that tour after that one,” says Rob, with something approaching understatement. Volbeat have been a big deal in Denmark since day one. All five of their albums – from 2005’s The Strength / The Sound / The Songs to the aforementioned Outlaw Gentlemen – turned gold, with most of them far exceeding that. While Michael started out in death metal band Dominus – whose third album was called Vol. Beat – he’s long eclipsed his past, with albums that combine his love of artists such as Elvis Presley (James Hetfield refers to him as “Little Elvis” and is a longtime fan of the band) and Johnny Cash, as well as bands like Motörhead and Metallica. He also harbours a deep admiration for the band Death, though that might not be immediately obvious if you’re only familiar with albums like Outlaw Gentlemen, even if King Diamond did cameo on that album’s Room 24.
With Seal The Deal, they hope to expand on the ardour that countries like Denmark, Germany and America have for the band. Michael talks of raising their profile in the UK, while Rob says he’d love them to play the auspicious Royal Albert Hall. Michael raises an eyebrow. “How many does that hold? We could put a load of mirrors in there so it looks busy!” By his own admission, the frontman is as driven now as he was when he formed the band in 2001, though sitting in the lower and well-lit reaches of the Lidkoeb bar after his photo session, he’s expansive and open, joking around, especially when Rob (who became a member of the band in 2013) joins us. At 41, Michael and his band (and it is his band, more of which later) have made their most rounded and cohesive record to date. It’s muscular and melodic, occasionally introspective and built to thrill crowds on an international scale. Subject matter includes Jack the Ripper’s last victim (Mary Jane Kelly) the world of voodoo (Marie Laveau, The Loa’s Crossroad) as well as a handful of covers in the Georgia Satellites’ Battleship Chains and Teenage Bottlerockets’ Rebound. And, much like older Volbeat songs such as Fallen and Dead But Rising, the ghost of his father drifts through some of the album’s tracks.