"Spending time writing on Zoom is just boring, it strips music of its soul and its spirit..." - Volbeat's Michael Poulsen talks getting productiv in Covid times and new album Servant Of The Mind
Danish metallers Volbeat were only a few dates into touring their Rewind, Replay, Rebound when the Covid-19 pandemic forced them to pull the plug on a planned two years on the road.
With a huge US tour and a summer of festivals shelved, as well as a string of tours that were booked, but yet to be announced, the band returned home. Three of them, frontman and songwriter Michael Poulsen, drummer Jon Larsen and bassist Kaspar Boye Larsen back to their native Copenhagen, while guitarist Rob Caggiano went to his home in New York.
Poulsen wasn’t sure what he’d do next but figured he may as well use the time he’d suddenly been gifted to try and get a start on their next album. He picked up a guitar and things just flowed, very, very quickly.
The result is Servant Of The Mind, an LP that finds the group bringing together their signature brew of signature heavy metal, psychobilly and punk ‘n’ roll. Written in three months and recorded in just under three weeks with producer Jacob Hansen, the album is a breathless listen. It includes a duet with former Alphabeat singer Stine Bramsen, and, unfortunately, a remote performance from Caggiano, who completed his guitar pars in the US.
It arrives in stores this week and we spoke to Poulsen about how he harnessed a sudden burst of creativity…
Had you planned to make a record or were you given the time because of Covid-19?
“It was Covid. Suddenly I had all the time in the world. Normally, it takes me a year, maybe two to write an album because we’re constantly on the road. You’re writing while you’re rehearsing, it’s hard to balance. So I had all this time and I told our management that I was going to write an album and they cancel all the shows we’d postponed and agreed it was the best thing to do.”
That can’t have been long after you put out your last record…
“No, we’d barely closed the door on Rewind, Replay, Rebound. I really didn’t know if it would feel inspired or if it was close to the last album. But as soon as I picked up a guitar it really did feel like starting all over again. The stuff that came out of me was really back to basics, heavy songs were in the driving seat again. I was so inspired. I stayed at home and I just kept writing."
"It felt like I was writing the first album again, I loved writing heavy stuff again. This band is full of people who’ve been in punk bands, thrash bands, death metal bands, we like to play heavy things, we’ve just gone exploring in recent years.”
So you worked fast?
“Very fast. I wrote the whole thing in three months and we recorded it in two and a half weeks. Our producer Jacob Hansen said it was like when he first met us when we’d just show up and go and be finished before we’d loaded out all our equipment.”
It’s great that you were able to be so productive, lots of musicians have found being shorn of a deadline has given them songwriting paralysis…
“Normally I work well under pressure, I like doing that. This time, with no pressure and no timeline, I was still able to work. Even though we had all the time in the world to make the record, we didn’t actually end up using that much time. I had so much energy that I’d been ready to take out on tour, I had to put it somewhere. This record really feels like the band being reborn. At the end of the last album, none of us had any idea where we wanted to go next and whatever hang-ups we had about that, the pandemic just solved them.”
How did the rest of the band fit into the writing? Were you doing things virtually?
“The three of us were rehearsing twice a week and I had a new song for every single rehearsal. Me, Jon and Kasper then went into Jacob Hansen’s studio, we demoed 13 songs and gave it to our management and then sent the files to Rob. He was stuck in New York and couldn’t travel."
"I’m not interested in a recording process where you spend your day exchanging links. It’s not for me, I think it kills the spirit of the music. I like to write in two places, at home or backstage. Then you go straight in and record. Spending time writing on Zoom is just boring, it strips music of its soul and its spirit.”
Was everyone okay with that?
“Everybody loved the demo. Even though we’d recorded in about two days, I was so happy with it I think we could have released it as an album. In the end, we went back and re-recorded it and sent all the songs to Rob and he put his guitar solos over the top.”
Given you don’t like working over the internet, it must have been hard to send the tracks away like that…
“For me, it was done. I just pointed out where I wanted the solos to be. I trust Rob. I’m not a lead guitar player, I can’t do what he does. I layed down all the rhythm tracks, all the layers of guitar, but I left the lead guitars to him, he’s so good at what he does, he doesn’t need much direction.”
You’ve worked with Jacob Hansen on every album you’ve ever done, is he going to be your guy for the rest of your career?
“We’re so comfortable with him, he’s really the fifth member of Volbeat. He’s the guy who discovered us. He heard our first recordings, which we’d made in this tiny studio in Roskilde, and he told me that we hadn’t captured what we do live. He offered us his studio and to produce us for free, just to understand how to capture our live sound. You heard the difference straight away. It changed everything."
"We totally trust him. He can do everything, producing, mixing, mastering, and he’s shaped the Volbeat sound. Management have tried to get us to go to the US to record with some big-shot producers, but we don’t see any reason to go. It works with Jacob. Why force yourself on a new path?”
There’s ‘Dagen Før’, a track with former Alphabeat singer Stine Bramsen on the LP, how did that come about?
“I wrote that song for the Rewind, Replay, Rebound album, I just never got to finish it. I’d wanted to just put it out in the summer, just because it has that summer feel. But, in the end, after I finished writing Servant Of The Mind, my fiance said to me ‘Are you done writing? What about that song?’. And then she suggested doing it with Stine. I was done with it, I was in a heavy mood then."
"She persuaded me to finish it and I went down to the basement and I finished it in about half an hour. I love little challenges like that. I gave Stine a call, I just heard her voice on top of it and asked if she would try. She loved the song and she came to Jacob’s studio and nailed it. It’s this great pop/rock song and it’s been a real radio hit here in Denmark.”
When did you decide that Servant Of The Mind was the right fit for the album title?
“I’d almost finished writing it and I landed on it. It fits the lyrics. I think we’re servants of our mind, when we’re awake, when we’re asleep, always. Your mind can play tricks on you, it can make things worse than they are and it can move you away from reality. I dig into a lot of dark themes on this album and your mind can take you to so many dark places, but some inspiring places too. It was a perfect title for the album.”
How are your live plans coming along? How’s 2022 stacking up for you?
“Busy, if Mother Nature will let us. We’ve got 85 shows booked for 2022 and the same again in 2023. If Mother Nature lets us tour, there will be a lot of Volbeat shows and a lot of festivals.”
You’ve got eight albums now, how are you going to get what you want into the setlist?
“It’s definitely a challenge and not an easy one. I want to do songs from every album, I think our fans all have different favourite albums, there isn’t one everyone would choose. It’s a luxury problem and a puzzle to figure out. I want to play at least five new songs from the new record. Hopefully, we can shake it up each night and play the whole album during the tour. It’ll take us a few shows to find the right set, but we always find a groove.”
You must be excited to get back out there...
“This is what we do. It’s what we’re supposed to do. So many people struggle to find what they want to do with their lives, some people never get there. Everybody in Volbeat knew when they were very young that they were going to be musicians and they were going to be dedicated to the road. We’re still eager to perform, even though we don’t have to anymore. We love it. We’re still like caged animals at the start of every tour, just waiting to rip down the fence…”