Danish Metalheads Volbeat Explain Breaking Through in America & Their Awkwardly Awesome Coachella Show

Nathan Gallagher
Volbeat

If you didn’t realize Volbeat was on its sixth album, you’re forgiven. Still, American rock fans would be wise to have Seal the Deal and Let’s Boogie on their radars -- the new Volbeat album recently debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard 200, selling 48,000 copies in its first week

The June 3 release was Volbeat’s third on Universal, but its top 5 debut -- a personal first -- is the result of dedicated touring and artist development. Their first label, the Dutch imprint Mascot Records, had only a small distribution deal in the U.S., leaving it up to Volbeat to make an early impression. The first time they toured the United States, in early 2009, was as support for Finnish symphonic metal band Nightwish. “The Nightwish tour wound up doing really well,” frontman and guitarist Michael Poulsen says. “We didn’t think anyone would know who Volbeat was, but we had our own crowd and we won over a lot of Nightwish fans. The package was a little weird, but it worked out really good.”

Volbeat capped off 2009 by returning to the States for another tour, this time opening for Metallica. “To go out with the world’s biggest heavy rock band is the best promotional package you can ever get,” Poulsen says. After that tour, the band came back to the same cities they’d played with Metallica, noticing their audiences growing each time they returned. By then, the band was signed to Universal, and their hooky, major key hard rock was getting radio airplay.

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Poulsen describes Volbeat as a hard rock band influenced by metal, and while they’re Danish, he says the only homeland influence they draw from is King Diamond and his earlier band Mercyful Fate. “I grew up with parents that were constantly listening to music from the ‘50s, like Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash and Little Richard and Chuck Berry and Fats Domino, and you can definitely hear that in Volbeat songs,” he says. “At the same time, as a teenager, I discovered heavy metal because one of my sisters’ boyfriends was really into metal. So very early, I was listening to Dio, Black Sabbath, Rainbow, Deep Purple, early Metallica and early Iron Maiden. If you analyze the Volbeat style, you can definitely hear that mixture of the old school heavy metal and 50s rock music.” He eventually formed a death metal band, Dominus, whose last record, 1997's, Vol.Beat, gave his current band their name. 

The metal influence carries over to their other guitarist, Rob Caggiano. Formerly in Anthrax, he’d been producing the band’s 2013 album Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies, and Poulsen says that their chemistry led to the band asking him to join. “At one point, I said, ‘You shouldn’t sit here in a dark room turning knobs producing, you should be in Volbeat,’” he remembers. “He laughed because he thought that everyone was joking until we looked at each other and said, ‘If you want the job, it’s yours.’ It was late at night, and he said he wanted to sleep on it. The day after, I said, ‘Are you ready?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, I’m ready, let’s do this.’ We stepped into the studio as a three piece and left as a four piece.” 

Volbeat was the only metal band to play Coachella in April, but that didn’t mean much to the non-Americans in the band. “We’re just hillbilly Danes, we fucking never heard of Coachella,” Poulsen says. “Rob and Q Prime were just laughing, saying, ‘Are you crazy, it’s the most important show in America!’ Me and [drummer] Jon [Larsen] and [then-bassist] Anders [Kjolholm] were like, 'We don’t know the festival, we don’t know any of the names of the bands playing the festival.' We were not that impressed. For us, it was just another festival in America. But we could see and hear how important it was for everyone that knew the festival. We did it, and it seemed like people liked us. So at the end, we’re glad we did it, even though it’s one of the more awkward festivals we’ve played.”

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Another difference between the Netherlands and America is the power of radio. Volbeat have had five No. 1 singles at Mainstream Rock, and “The Devil’s Bleeding Crown” has topped the chart for the past seven weeks. “It’s not really the same thing in Europe,” Poulsen says. “The radio stations don’t have the same kind of power as they do in America and the radio stations have nothing to do with the festivals. It means a lot that the radio stations have interest in Volbeat in America, because that means more opportunities for us to play shows and get the right radio airplay. We’re thankful and very much aware of why a lot of bands are trying very hard to get some kind of radio airplay in America. It seems like a good way to get shows and on the road.”

What advice does Poulsen have for those aspiring to be the next Volbeat? Only do it if you feel like it’s your destiny, and learn the business aspects. “If you feel like you’ve been put on this earth to play music and entertain, you should chase the dream until you can’t chase it anymore,” he says. “It might end up good, it might not. We had all the odds against us when we started. Nobody wanted to sign Volbeat. We believed that what we were doing was right for us. We were stubborn and did everything ourselves. We did all the booking, all the transport, all the management and the taxes, because there was no money to hire anybody. Concentrate on the music and concentrate on the business, because one day you’ll need to understand how all of it works. There will be no time for being drunk every day and no time for being hung over every other day. Take good care of your dream and follow it as long as you can -- and it might come true.”