Volbeat’s Michael Poulsen and Rob Caggiano on Chasing Pandemic Anxiety with a Boss HM-2 and the Rush for a New Album
In March 2020, when it became clear that Volbeat (and all other artists) would be away from touring for months due to the Covid outbreak, frontman Michael Poulsen began writing the follow-up to the album. 2019 of the group, Rewind, replay, bounce.
As a gift for the fans, Volbeat released two songs from the album – wait a minute girl and Dagen For — June 2, 2021. The first is a ramped-up psychobilly slab that sounds like the Misfits crossed with the Cramps (filled with piano and sax solo). The latter is a passionate rock ballad with female vocals, light arpeggios and long slow guitar hooks.
Both songs were released before the pandemic and were two of the first recorded for Volbeat’s eighth studio album, servant of the spirit. The upbeat tunes were well received; wait a minute girl became the band’s ninth single to top the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart.
Anyone who thought the rest of servant of the spirit would offer more of the same – when it surfaced six months later – was a surprise. Almost all the songs on the new album are as heavy as Metallica’s black scrapbook (one of Volbeat’s biggest influences), and almost as dark.
“I had a lot of energy to vent, and I think that’s where a lot of the heaviness comes from,” says lead guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Poulsen. “First you get really frustrated with the cancellation of tours because it’s always a lot of prep for a tour and you’re rehearsing, and it’s a lot of work to do. And suddenly you’re told that you can’t tour.
“So there was this. But at the same time, I was watching TV and thinking, ‘Oh my God, what has the world become? People are dying from this pandemic. Why is this happening?’ So you get a little sad, frustrated and angry at the same time, and worry about your family and friends.
“So picking up the guitar and writing riffs and working on the lyrics, I really think I was expressing everything that was going on. If the pandemic didn’t happen, I’m not entirely sure that the disk would sound like it does.
There’s another reason servant of the spirit is Volbeat’s most aggressive, consistent and fluid release to date. Unlike the band’s later albums, which Volbeat wrote between tours and took up to 18 months to complete, Poulsen released the songs for the new record in 10 weeks and finished the lyrics in another two.
Add that to the two and a half weeks Volbeat spent in the studio with producer Jacob Hansen and the result is a spontaneous back-to-basics album that Volbeat (Poulsen, lead guitarist Rob Caggiano, drummer Jon Larsen and bassist Kaspar Boye Larsen ) did not have time to insist or think too much.
So why did Volbeat work with such a tight schedule when they’ve been off tour for so long and haven’t released servant of the spirit until last December? Simple. They thought they were under pressure to release a new album and resume touring.
“No one had any idea how long the pandemic lasted,” Poulsen says. “We thought we’d be back on the road after four or five months, so I thought I only had four months to write and record it. So that’s what we did.
Although not interested in creating the band’s next album on such short notice, Poulsen enjoyed creating servant of the spirit.
He worked methodically, and every time he picked up a guitar and plugged into a practice amp, riffs of molten metal, rock and rockabilly poured in, accompanied by a long string of unmistakable melodies. He was almost always happy with the original arrangements, so as soon as he finished a song, he moved on to the next.
“It was really fun and rewarding because it was like being back in the good old days,” he says. “When we started the band [in 2001], we were 17 or 18 years old and nobody knew who we were. There was no work there for us, so it was just us and the rehearsal room. It was the only thing we could do, so we did song after song.
At the same time as Volbeat was laying the foundations for servant of the spiritCaggiano, who has co-written with the band since joining in 2012, was stuck in New York — not that he wanted to hop on a plane to Copenhagen to collaborate with Poulsen.
Before the Covid vaccine became available, Caggiano spent most of his time cooped up in his friend’s music studio fearing for the future of humanity as the death toll rose exponentially every day. His guitars barely come out of their cases.
“My headspace was upside down, and it took me a while to feel creative again,” he says shortly after the release of servant of the spirit. “Your headspace is everything as an artist, especially with music, and New York was weird and scary for a long time.
“It was like I was in a bomb shelter. Normally I would be blocking ideas and working on things. But it took me a long time before I could do it in a real way.
Caggiano’s withdrawal from the company prevented him from wanting to work remotely. When he felt a little inspired, servant of the spirit was recorded entirely without tracks.
At the end of 2020, Volbeat sent Caggiano the album’s stem files and Caggiano picked up his signature Jackson Shadowcaster, plugged into a Fryette Sig:X amp – which he’s been using since touring Anthrax on the Big 4 tour – and started playing. At first it was slow and his solos didn’t match the galvanic crackle of the songs.
“I didn’t feel inspired at all. It’s crazy, and I really had to force myself to file some parts. I ended up playing it all and listening again a few days later. And I was like, ‘I have to do this again.’ What I had done was not wrong; it just felt forced to me. So I dropped everything and redid every song and it went much better.
Poulsen agrees that servant of the spirit Could have been more sonically diverse had Caggiano helped write the songs, but he says giving Caggiano sole responsibility for all tracks on the record put the guitarist in a position to shine. “I think the solos he put on this album are some of his best solos in Volbeat,” says Poulsen. “It happened as it happened, but we all made the best of it.”
Caggiano still doesn’t know why he had a false start before he could nail his roles. But even before he heard the songs, he knew he wanted his tracks to be different from what he had done in the past. The solution involved a slight change in equipment and practice styles that he hadn’t relied on in the past.
“I got addicted to these picks called V-Picks that some guy from Nashville makes,” he says. “They’re thick and stiff and they make the notes sound better to me. And it changed the way I hit the strings and, really, changed my picking technique. So I just worked on the ups and downs of the economy mixed with some legato stuff. I also really wanted to emphasize the melody, so each track was like a song within a song.
For Poulsen, the follow-up Become was one of the highlights of the recording sessions. The track opens with thrash drums and a dissonant guitar riff.
Before the band plugged in, Poulsen dug into an effects box and was delighted to see a Boss Heavy Metal HM-2, the signature pedal of the Scandinavian death metal scene he was a part of in the 90s in as a member of Dominus.
“Just for fun, I put it on and turned up all the buttons and played, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, it looks like Dismember right now! I love it!’ So we used the pedal for that part, which could easily be a death metal riff. Then when we got to the verse, I went back to my standard guitar sound. It was so much fun.”
As for the rest of his gear, Poulsen used several Gibsons and… a few other tricks.
“I have Gibsons. That’s all I know,” he says, then he laughs. “I know exactly how I want my guitar to sound, and we have people who make sure my gear is up to date and working. As long as it sounds good, I don’t care why. Rob is totally in on it. opposite, but I’m just not interested in guitar geeks.