By Aaron Small
While VOLBEAT is from Denmark and their new guitarist Rob Caggiano, formerly of ANTHRAX and THE DAMNED THINGS, is from the United States, the band’s just released fifth album, Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies, has an undeniable Canadian connection. The song ‘Pearl Hart’ is about a female outlaw of the American Old West who was born in Lindsay, Ontario. Pearl committed one of the last recorded stagecoach robberies in 1899, to get money so she could buy medicine for her dying mother. Armed with a Colt 44, Pearl netted $430; after which she returned a dollar to each of the three passengers.
Volbeat vocalist and guitarist Michael Poulsen tells BraveWords.com how he learned of Pearl Hart’s story and what made him want to share it. “I started writing those kinds of lyrics and I locked myself into this bubble. It is a process where I read a lot of books and get inspired by movies. When it comes to Pearl Hart, she was a character that I was reading about way back. I had forgotten all about her, but when I started writing material for this new album, I wanted not only to bring up some of the legendary male gunslingers; I wanted to look into the shady ladies as well. I remembered reading about Pearl Hart, so I got back to some of the old books and there she was.”
The other Canadian element on Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies is Sarah Blackwood from Burlington, Ontario, who sings in WALK OFF THE EARTH; Sarah guests on ‘Lonesome Rider’. Michael reveals how that pairing came together. “We continued playing the song in rehearsal, as we did with all the other songs. The thing is; if we have a feeling that a song is not interesting after playing it 100 times or whatsoever, we trash it. A song should keep on being interesting. It just came to a point where something’s missing; I didn’t know what it is, but I’ll figure it out somehow. We kept on rehearsing it, and I said, I think it needs some kind of female vocals on top of the verse. For such a long time I wanted to have some gospel singers on one of the records. I really wanted to find a good gospel choir, but I never really came up with the right idea. I still have elements where I want to use a gospel choir… it’s definitely not the type of song. ‘Lonesome Rider’ is a rockabilly country song, and I was just asking myself, who the hell? I’ve got to be honest, I’m not that impressed with white female singers. I don’t know why? There’s probably a lot of white chicks out there saying, ‘what a fucking idiot!’ But that’s just the way it is. I’m always digging black singers, black blues gospel singers."
"But when it came to ‘Lonesome Rider’, which definitely had that rockabilly feel… of course, now I know – Sarah Blackwood, because I have all the CREEPSHOW CDs, and she’s one of the only female rockabilly singers that I really like. She has a really beautiful voice and she’s so good at rhythm. So I said to the other guys, Sarah Blackwood would fit this song perfectly. We called her up and she knows Volbeat from way back when we wanted to take Creepshow out (on tour), but they were not available. So I sent the demo to her and she was very excited about this song. Now she’s on the record and she sounds amazing.”
Returning to the theme of the Wild West, Michael has called ‘Black Bart’ Volbeat’s “country MOTÖRHEAD song.” Black Bart was known as the “gentleman bandit” because he wrote poems for the people he robbed on Wells Fargo stagecoaches in California and Oregon between 1875 and 1883. Quite surprisingly, Black Bart was terrified of horses, and therefore committed all of his robberies on foot. Black Bart is pictured on the cover of the limited book edition of Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies, his head covered in a flour sack with eye holes, wearing a bowler hat. “Black Bart was also a character I got into way back when I was reading those books. He was always a character I wanted to write about, but it had to be at the appropriate time. Since at least half of the album has those inspirations from western soundtracks, it was about time to bring him to life. He fit the title so well, because he was an outlaw gentleman; he’s one of my favourite characters on the album.”
The character on Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies that everyone is familiar with is Doc Holliday, who lived from 1851 to 1887, and was part of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Val Kilmer portrayed Doc Holliday in the 1993 movie Tombstone, as did Dennis Quaid in the 1994 film Wyatt Earp; even Willie Nelson donned the role in 1986’s Tombstone. Michael admits he thought about not including Doc Holliday because he’s so famous. “Yeah, exactly, he’s an easy target. But I love his character and I love the name Doc Holliday. It’s also a way to have something that people can recognize, it was a balance.”
But who is the character on the cover of the album? “He could be anyone; he’s just covering all of it. But the thing is… there’s a song called ‘The Nameless One’, which will continue on the next album. Who knows, that man on the front cover might have a name at that time.”
One of the shady ladies Michael has thrust into the spotlight is Lola Montez, who lived from 1821 to 1861; she was an exotic dancer best known for her Spider Dance. “She’s very interesting if you look into all the details around her; she was definitely shady. I just thought, how the hell? If you read about her, there’s so many things that come up. She’s been all around, flirting with a lot of royal men. At that time, having the kind of act that she had with her Spider Dance… people were coming to her show, the miners were throwing their gold in front of her because she would be lifting up her skirt so they could see everything. She was very controversial, but at the same time she was very beautiful and all the men were totally drawn to her. It’s a very interesting character.”
The biggest surprise on the new Volbeat album is the cover of ‘My Body’ by YOUNG THE GIANT. “We were just talking in the band about doing a record like Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies, people would probably expect a cover song from a country western singer: HANK WILLIAMS, JOHNNY CASH, whosoever. It would not be a challenge for us; it could be fun but we’ve done it before. We were also talking about, mostly all the cover songs we’ve done are by dead people. We still love to give our respect to the dead, but it’s about time to give some respect to people that are actually around. We were sitting in a cab, in a taxi, listening to the radio and that song by Young The Giant came on, and I was like, who is that? That’s an amazing song! I just got so fucking addicted to that song; I thought it was one of the best songs I’d heard in a long time. The cab driver didn’t know who it was, but he said, ‘they’re playing it on the radio all the time.’ I’d never heard it. My tour manager was sitting next to me and he said, ‘I’ll find out when we get back to the venue.’ He came back and said it was a band called Young The Giant, so I Googled them. The other guys in the band said it was definitely rocking."
"So when we started talking about what cover song to put on this album, ‘cause we really like to have one cover song, it’s always great fun, especially live. You feel more loose and you can fool around with other material. I said, what about the Young The Giant song? I’m so sure we could do a really good heavy tune out of that, raise the tempo a little bit with our guitar sound, it’d be very interesting. Everybody was into it. It was a way for us to… again, as a lot of things with this new record, to step a little bit out of our comfort zone and do something fresh. We just heard a couple weeks ago that our American management played the song for the guys in Young The Giant, and the guys were totally psyched about it. They thought it sounded really good. Not a lot of people know them in Europe, so hopefully we can help them to get recognized.”
Just prior to the release of Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies, Volbeat offered fans a free download of ‘Room 24’ featuring KING DIAMOND. Guest appearances are something King Diamond rarely does, yet it almost seems overdue as two of King’s guitarists have Volbeat on their resumes: Michael Denner appeared on ‘7 Shots’ from Beyond Hell / Above Heaven, which was released in 2010, and Hank Shermann toured with Volbeat in 2012. Did those two push King to do this? “Not at all, King is the King and that means he rules his own nest. It was more of… I met King Diamond the first time in 1995. One of his really good friends was working at a record store, and King was coming back to Denmark to do some shows. It turned out his friend hooked me up with King Diamond, at the time I was playing in a death metal band called DOMINUS; we released our first CD in 1994. So we talked about music and how much I was inspired by King Diamond and all the concepts he used. Later on, I met him again in 1997, when I had released my third album with Dominus which was a concept album called The First Nine. So we talked a lot about concept albums. When I formed Volbeat and we started touring America, we were in Dallas, Texas; King has been living in Dallas for many years, so he wanted to drop by. He knew we were in town, he knew Volbeat and he remembered me from back in the days. He was so proud that we were only the second band in heavy rock history who made it out of Denmark; MERCYFUL FATE was the first one, and there’s been nobody else since. We have some of the same crew guys that King has been working with, so he just wanted to hang out and see how we were doing, have a good time.”
“Then the second time we were in Dallas, Texas, we had Hank Shermann with us, so of course King wanted to say hello to his old pal; that was on Gigantour with MEGADETH and MOTÖRHEAD. That’s where it started, that we should do something together. He was really into the Volbeat music, and we were huge King Diamond fans. So just talking in-person about music; and that it would be cool to do a song together. I told him I had some ideas if he wanted to listen to it; I actually wrote ‘Room 24’ on Gigantour backstage. When I sent the demo version to King, he was very excited about it; he thought it sounded heavy. That’s what you do when you write something for King Diamond, you don’t write a country song; you write something really heavy. That was pretty easy for me because I listen to a lot of heavy metal and I have a lot of heavy riffs, at the same time it was a great challenge. It was really cool to have that in mind; King Diamond’s going to sing on top of this.”
King recorded his parts in Texas and sent them to Michael in Denmark but, “all the times where I have guest singers, I’ve been writing their lyric and melody. This time, King wanted to write his own lyrics and melody – fine by me. I don’t tell the King how to work. So we were waiting in the studio to get that file in, everybody was wondering what it would sound like? The thing was, we had a small problem before we started – how could we work around the lyrics? I needed my own words, and he needed his own words; how do you mix that? I had an idea. I had a terrible experience in a hotel in the US while we were touring on the Gigantour. In the middle of the night, I wake up and I cannot move my arms or legs. My eyes are wide open and I’m trying to reach out to my wife, but I can’t move anything. I almost feel like I’m choking. I was struggling and there was nothing I could do. The room suddenly became more dark, I felt like there was something in the room, I just couldn’t figure out what it was. There was pressure on my chest and I was really hurting; I was thinking I was about to have a stroke or a heart attack. I was very convinced I was about to die. Somehow I fell asleep again, I woke up and it did the same thing; I couldn’t move anything. This time, the pressure on my chest was even heavier; it almost felt like somebody was sitting on top of me. I just couldn’t figure out what it was. Again, I’m so sure I’m about to have a heart attack; this is how I’m dying in a fucking hotel room in the US. It was really, really spooky because I was trying to reach out to my wife and I couldn’t move.”
“I told King about that experience and he said, ‘that’s some heavy stuff. You’ll never know if there was something in the room, but have you ever heard of sleep paralysis?’ I said, no, what the fuck is that? He sent me some links so I could read about it, and a lot of people tell the exact same story. It’s something to do with your mind; your brain wakes up and is not communicating with the rest of your body. It’s fucking creepy! You have no idea what’s going on because your eyes are wide open, but you cannot move. The most spooky thing about it is, a lot of the people are talking about the pressure on the chest, like somebody’s sitting on top of you, or there’s some kind of dark force in the room. It’s really weird, but a lot of people have the same experience and story as I did. So I said, ok let’s use this. I’ll try to tell my story in the song, how I’m trying to move, and King Diamond will be that dark force in the room. So that’s how we worked it out.”
Just as ‘Room 24’ is a departure from the Wild West theme, so is the first single, ‘Cape Of Our Hero’. Initial thoughts are of caped superheroes such as Batman and Superman, but the video is a pretty emotional piece. At the onset the kid is happy reading his comic books, then he loses his Dad in the war, and it becomes very sad. “It is a very emotional story or song, perhaps a little bit too much for some people; but that’s their problem. It’s a personal thing for me, and I think a lot of men – or just people in general, can relate to a story or song like that. It is about this kid who believes in his superheroes, and plays around with his Dad with his dolls, action men; he believes in those heroes. He looks at his Dad as a superhero as well, but when the Dad passes away, he stops believing in his heroes. His Dad is not around anymore, and he tries to figure out if there’s such a thing as angels. They all have wings; maybe they could carry me up and show me where my superheroes are. Maybe I can even have a cape like one of my superheroes and I can fly around looking for my Dad. So his imagination is still working, but he’s just stopped believing in his heroes.”
Along somewhat similar lines, dealing with the loss of life is ‘The Hangman’s Body Count’, which brings up the death penalty. Somewhat hesitantly, Michael offers his take on this highly controversial topic. “The death penalty is a very heavy subject… I’d just like to say there’s a lot of innocent people been killed by the wrong manipulated law enforcement; it’s a fucking sad thing. But these days where you have DNA, if the evidence is so strong, and a guy or woman has caused other people’s death by purpose, I don’t see any reason for them to be around. But to say I believe in the death penalty, that’s a question I cannot answer because it’s heavy stuff. I’m just saying people who cause other people’s death by purpose… it’s not like I’m talking about some kind of revenge, it’s just a waste of fucking space to have people walking around like that. So put them to rest, they’re probably better off finding that peace in their minds.”