About 20 years ago, Michael Poulsen pedaled his bike around Copenhagen, Denmark, delivering free demos to any record store that would take them.
“Just put one of my CDs down whenever a guy comes in to buy something similar,” the local musician told the shop owners.
It was a big ask, but the stores obliged. They all knew Poulsen; he was an avid collector, not only of the day’s heavy metal that had informed his Danish death-metal band, Dominus, throughout the ‘90s, but of classic pop and rock LPs from the ‘50s, too: Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry.
Poulsen’s parents raised him on the American standards, and as his then-new band Volbeat cut its teeth and hawked its demos in the early ‘00s, those major melodic influences bled deeper into his obsession with thrash guitars and hurtling punk.
Fast-forward nearly two decades and Volbeat is hard-rock’s preeminent psychobilly freight train, masters at melding traditional pop progressions, blazing riffs and singer/guitarist Poulsen’s soaring howls for a sound that speeds in a dozen directions at once. Volbeat’s blistering seventh album, Rewind, Replay, Rebound, drops Friday (Aug. 2) and further concentrates the band’s hybrid style, paying greater homage to Cash, Lewis, Metallica and Motörhead than ever before.
As the four-piece embarks this week on its latest summer tour, supporting Slipknot across the U.S., we caught up with Poulsen to discuss the new tunes, his wild introduction to fatherhood — and how a sea monster story just might save the world.
Let’s flashback to your last major tour, supporting Metallica in 2017. How on Earth did you manage to fly home to Denmark between American stadium shows to meet your newborn daughter?
That was intense. When we got offered the Metallica tour, I told our management that there would be a part at the end of the tour that I’d have to skip to go back to Denmark and be part of the birth of my first child. They said “no problem, we’ll fix that.” But then my girlfriend gave birth two months before she was supposed to — in the beginning of the tour. I was in bed in my hotel in New York when the phone rang and my girlfriend said “I think my water just broke!” Lucky for her, she was at her parents’ house, so her mom took her to the hospital.
I couldn’t go back to sleep, so I went to the hotel gym and I was running on the treadmill and the phone rang again and, it was my girlfriend holding our daughter and saying, “You’re a daddy!” I almost flew off the treadmill. I had to knock on the door of my tour manager and say, “I’m going home.” A few hours later I was in the air. I got to the hospital, stayed there for a day and then flew back to America. A car picked me up at the airport, and I got to the show like 20 minutes before stage time. It felt like I’d drank 7,000 beers and 10,000 sleeping pills at the same time.
The new album, Rewind, Replay, Rebound, begins with a big, fun banger called “Last Day Under the Sun.” The opening riff sounds like The Rolling Stones, but I heard Johnny Cash actually inspired this one.
It was inspired by a story about Johnny Cash where he’d become so sick and tired of life, because he was so intoxicated by drugs and alcohol, that he walked around in a forest and into a cave Nickajack Cave in Tennessee] to basically lay down and die. He wakes up a couple days after and feels like he’s been given a second chance. There’s when Johnny Cash changed his life and became a new man, a believer in God, I guess.
And I could totally use that, because I think we as human beings struggle with different things in our lives — be it drugs or alcohol or a loss of a family member — where we dig ourselves into that dark place and don’t know how to get out again. I’ve been there with alcohol and mourning the loss of my father. If it wasn’t for a strong mind and some really good friends, I don’t know where I’d be. But I found a way out of that dark place and now I’m enjoying life. So (“Last Day Under the Sun”) is a song about hope and forgiveness and the way to come out on the other side, where there is light.
Beyond Johnny Cash, there’s so much to Volbeat’s catalog that screams ‘50s and ‘60s pop melodies, even with the heavy guitars. How does that all fit together in your brain?
When I write, it comes very natural, because I’m not painting myself into any corners where I have to stick to one style. I grew up with parents who were constantly listening to that era of music… As a child, that music was as normal as drinking water. Then, when I was old enough to get my own place, something that was missing was my family’s record collection so I started buying those vinyl albums I used to listen to at home. When I started to write the Volbeat songs, all those melodies that I grew up with very naturally became a part of the music… mixed with all the heavy stuff I heard as a teenager. With Volbeat, there were no rules, it was just mixing all the influences that I grew up with.
I remember when we were trying to shop the demo to the record company, they were so confused about it. They said, “We like it, but we just don’t know what to do about it — we don’t know who’s going to buy it.” When has that ever been a problem for a record company, that they discover a band that doesn’t sound like anybody else? Luckily a guy from Holland at Mascot Records knew what to do with it and signed us.
The new album’s title, Rewind, Replay, Rebound, is sort of cryptic, isn’t it? Or are you talking about popular music’s cyclical nature — how all that’s old becomes new again?
When I write, I write straight from the heart. Rewind, Replay, Rebound is kind of trying to tell the listener that Volbeat] still goes back by rewinding to our old back-catalog, and back to the ‘50s, and we’re replaying it in 2019 and making it stronger, and that’s where we rebound. We also rewind in the lyrics because the album brings back memories from my own childhood.
Is that where the lead single, “Lethan,” comes from? Were you a kid reading about the mythical sea creature?
The “Lethan” lyric is taken from the perspective of a young boy standing in his bedroom, and out the window he can see the ocean and Lethan. And he already has a feeling that the world can be an evil place, full of bad people. He wants as a youngster to try to clean up the whole world, but he knows that he can’t do that. But he believes that he can contact Lethan the sea monster, and together they could clean up all the bad things. There’s a place in the song where I sing, “It’s time to wake up.” The song is taken out of a small boy’s imagination.
I’m sure it’s hard for you to believe that Volbeat is almost 20 years old. What keeps the fire lit for this band?
It’s actually an easy question to answer, because I found out quickly in life what I was supposed to do. It was either being a boxer or being a musician. I chose musician because I was kind of thinking I could get drunk and get a lot of hangovers and do this, and with boxing I couldn’t. Laughs.] But that was back in the day — I take good care of myself now.
Anyway, I knew I was supposed to write songs and play music. I had so many different jobs just so I could go on the road and play music, because that’s what I really wanted. Some people go their whole lives not knowing what they want to do or what they’re good at. But for me, music became the thing — and it’s still my thing. I share that with the band, the music we love and what it means to all the listeners. Sometimes when you’re on a tour bus and so far away from home, far away from family, you can go “I want to go home,” but as soon as you hit the stage and you get the reaction from the crowd, it’s all worth it. This is what I’m supposed to do.