March , 2013
By David Huff
Turning Up The Noise
Drummer Jon Larsen Speaks Out - JAM Magazine Interview
Photos courtesy Volbeat Facebook
It has literally been one steady beat after another for Danish rockers, Volbeat, as they methodically built a reputation as one of the top live bands in the world. It wasn't always the case. In 2001, vocalist Michael Poulson ended a ten-year association with death metal band Dominus. Frustrated musically after years of growling vocals thrashing about, Poulson had an idea to combine elements of rock, metal, punk and rockabilly. The only thing he carried over with him from the past was a name to call his new undertaking, Volbeat. It was the combination of words to a 1997 Dominus album called Vol.Beat (i.e. Volume Beat). He was aided in this adventure by two long-time friends, bassist Anders Kjolholm and drummer Jon Larsen.
Neither Larson or Kjolholm musician had any idea what their friend wanted to do musically. Once they started rehearsing the 'ideas', the chemistry felt right and Volbeat took on a life of its own. It would take years of stubborn determination to get the sound down. The road ahead for the band wasn't easy. Band members found various forms of employment to pay the bills. They kept those jobs for years as they slowly built themselves a reputation and following touring in small clubs and playing hard rock music festivals around Europe. Word finally began to spread about the hard rocking Danish act. High profile gigs started coming their way. The band actually began generating enough revenue to pay everyone NOT to work during the day.
With the 2010 release of their fourth studio recording, Beyond Hell / Above Heaven, Volbeat raised the bar. They toured the world for two years and landed the coveted opening spot for Metallica's European tour, including a Big 4 gig stadium show in Switzerland that also featured Megadeth, Slather and Anthrax. The band's hybrid approach to metal had been refined to the point it gave the band a solid sound that won them legions of fans. The stage was finally set for something big to happen.
That something special will be released in April 2013 entitled Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies. Volbeat raised the ante in the high stakes metal game they are playing. The group even rolled the dice and enlisted former Anthrax guitarist, Rob Caggiano, to produce the album with them. The musician, now turned producer, had caught the band's eye because of the brilliant production work he had done on Anthrax's comeback album, Worship Music. As Caggiano began pre-production work on Poulson's songs, the guitarist started offering suggestions of his own. Those ideas so impressed the singer, he rewrote his original music to incorporate the new approach to his songs. In the end, the Volbeat founder was so inspired working with Caggiano, he actually talked the producer out of 'retirement' to join the band as their new lead guitarist.
JAM: Because of the Internet, the public is bombarded with more information than it's got time to pay attention to. Music today has become just as much about marketing as opposed to talent. What challenges does that pose for Volbeat?
Jon Larsen - That's a good question. We never thought about anything like that when we started this band. Our music grew out of ideas that our singer Michael Poulson had. We never really fit in anywhere. In the beginning, we just tried to mix up different styles of music and just play. When we started out, we actually thought about who would listen to what we were doing. Was the music metal, was it punk, was it rock? We didn't even know. We just said to hell with it and went out and played. People eventually caught on to it.
JAM: Volbeat came together during a time in the music business where it was turned upside down and inside out as it struggled with the harsh realities of technology. Was it easy for the band to make adjustments to the new world that the recording industry itself was having a hard time adapting to?
It hasn't hurt us, I can tell you that. I would say we've benefitted from it more than anything else. When we started out, this Internet stuff with music was pretty new. We made a pretty simple web site, and from there people were able to discover us. For us, the Internet was a good thing.
JAM: Could Volbeat have happened in the U.S. first, as opposed to Europe? I ask that because hard rock and metal has always found been received with open arms overseas. The new rock sound you were experimenting with back in 2001 may have been just what was needed then.
That's one of those questions that's hard to answer because it's anyone's guess as to what could have happened. As you know, music goes through phases. It's hard to know what America was into back when we started out. Europe has an entirely different take on music. Maybe we were a European phenomenon. I don't say that to be arrogant either. Many times in the beginning we heard fans in Denmark and other countries tell us we brought back American rock and roll. That was news to us. For people to say we were the kind of band they've been waiting to hear took us all by surprise. It was also quite flattering.
JAM: When a band releases an album, the music is capturing a specific moment in time for the group. I've always been fascinated by bands that say they have grown from one album to the next. What does that statement term mean to you?
Well we haven't changed our music style of music if that's what you are asking. I would say our sound has evolved and grown more than anything else. Every album we've done so far has been slightly different. There's no red line running through them that connects the music in any way. For instance, our first album was maybe based more on the riff than the vocals. The second album was more vocals in front rather than the music. Today, we're switching back and forth between the riff and the melodies in a song. Honestly, I don't think this band has changed at all. The crowds have changed, thankfully. They are getting bigger for us every time we go out and tour, especially in America.
JAM: That's certainly a good sign of growth. You spent a great deal of time a couple of years ago opening for Metallica. Did that experience teach you anything about dealing with older rock crowds? I'm sure many of the fans in those audiences had been following the band since the early '80s.
When you are an opening act, especially performing in front of Metallica fans, you know that those people up front are very passionate about that band, not yours. Winning them over was a great challenge for us. I know we did something right because when we came back on our solo tours, Metallica fans were showing up at our shows.
JAM: Are you still required to go into military service at a certain age in Denmark?
Now if you want to go you can, but it is not mandatory any more. The system is kind of strange. When you reach 18, you have to take a test and pick a number. Certain numbers don't have to serve in any capacity, but if you want to go you can, but it is not mandatory any more.
JAM: I don't have to tell you that lyrics are just words until the music is added bringing them to life. When you are literally creating a new sound with the hybrid approach you've taken to rock, how do you know you are creating the right music for the lyrics you have composed for any one particular song? Is there a process you go through?
That's another tough question to answer. Michael has a lot of ideas for songs we write music to that people will never hear. He is constantly throwing a lot of stuff out at us, because he has a pretty clear vision of what he wants and how he wants the music to sound. Sometimes he comes to us with an idea for a whole song, other times he has the entire tune done. Then there are times we have words and have to build the music around the lyrics. Jam sessions also produce ideas. We could be playing Johnny Cash stuff, Slayer music, and all the sudden an idea pops up. Michael will take that single idea for a piece of music and work on it overnight to create a new song. That's how we do it.
JAM: Since Denmark is such a small country, the music community must be almost non-existent there.
Not really. There is a huge underground scene. There are a lot of Danish metal bands around Europe that have tried to tour here in America. It's difficult to perform in this country because of its size and it costs a lot of money tour here. In Europe, a lot of bands travel together as part of package tours to share the expense. That doesn't happen in the United States.
JAM: Was there a healthy music scene in your country when you all got together?
If we are talking about the metal scene, it was on its way down when we started. The first generation of rockers had fallen by the wayside. The second generation was just gearing up. Our band fell somewhere in the middle.
JAM: What initially brought you all together?
Michael disbanded his old group and he called me up. I have known him since he was 16. Over the years, we had talked. The conversation was something like, "Hey, let's get together and play something besides hanging out and getting drunk." Well, one day he actually did. Michael phoned and asked if I was doing anything with a band. I told him I was not. He said he had an idea for some crazy kind of music, would I like to take a look at it? I said sure. We went to a rehearsal room and started playing together and suddenly it was there. The chemistry felt good so we just continued. Our bass player had been in one of Michael's past bands, so he called Anders to see if he was interested.
JAM: It sounds simple the way you put this band together until you realize it has taken ten yours to chase the dream and see it turn into reality.
The love of the music we're doing definitely is the glue that holds us together. The first eight years of this band, there just wasn't any money involved. There was a lot of touring and that was fun, especially since the crowds kept getting bigger, bigger and bigger for us. With all the excitement we were creating, Volbeat finally got a record contract. That made the band more exciting. Then we had a big hit on national radio in Denmark with the first album. People started buying our music. Apart from all those things that happened, again it all came down to the love of music, and following Michael's vision for us.
JAM: Can too much time together also create problems?
We had all been in other groups, so we fully understood when someone needs some space to do their thing. This band doesn't hang out once we're not on tour. We get together to socialize once in a blue moon. Everyone has their own thing to do once we're off. It helps keep the Volbeat alive.
JAM: When do you fully comprehend that what you're doing musically isn't a hobby, but the real deal? At some point, it has to dawn on you that Volbeat has a real chance of doing something unique.
I think the moment it finally hit was when I had to take a leave of absence from my day job. We actually started to make a few bucks here and there. Then our tours started getting longer. I had to take a leave of absence from work. Before long, we were making enough money as a band to pay all our bills. This happened right after the release of the Rock the Rebel album in 2007.
JAM: Six years after you started Volbeat, you are finally able to leave your day job. That's incredible. What was going on with the group at this time that changed your mind about work?
We were on the road all the time by the time I gave notice. Constant touring was the only way we knew to get our music out to the people. The first few tours around Denmark were very small clubs. From there it started growing and we ended up playing some of the better festivals in Europe. After that, we could tour more places on our own. Constant touring and with a couple of albums already out eventually got our name out there.
JAM: Does Michael still present wild musical ideas to the band, and does it make sense to follow those leads still?
Absolutely! If we could pick his brain, it might help us to understand where he's coming from. Honestly, it's exciting to see what he has in store for us. He has a very clear vision of what he wants the band to sound like. He knows how we should sound, and we're all capable of doing what he wants, so there is a clear vision for this band.
JAM: As I speak to you now, where is Volbeat at? You aren't the new kids on the block anymore.
Everything with this band has been a natural progression for us. It still feels like we're an underground phenomenon in Europe, but we have crossed over to the mainstream crowd, because now we can play the arenas.
JAM: A remarkable testament to Volbeat is the fact you have survived over ten years in this business. This past decade has been a tough environment out there for all types of bands, in particular metal acts. None of that has affected the band, or has it?
We know how hard it has been out there. When you are a band that has toured as much as we do, you have to put that out of your mind. We never put too much thought into stuff we can't control. I know it sounds cliche to say it now, but we knew starting out that we couldn't count on radio to get our music across. We had to do it live, so we hit the road. Basically, it's still what we're doing now. Yes we have some gold and platinum albums from home, that's all fine and nice, but for us it is still taking our music on the road because that's where we think we are the best.
JAM: Is it a goal for all hard rock bands in Europe to break here in the U.S.?
Yes. It is the biggest market in the world. It is not easy to make a mark in America because you have to spend a lot of time and money there to tour.
JAM: My all-time favorite band from Denmark was Mercyful Fate featuring King Diamond. Do bands like that have any influence on later generations of rock bands, in which Volbeat is one. Was the band any type of blueprint to follow at all?
In some ways they are. Mercyful Fate was one of the few Danish bands that actually made some sort of impact here in America. Maybe it wasn't so much touring wise, but definitely with their music. They have been a huge inspiration for tons of metal bands, especially in America. I know that from talking to the guys from Anthrax, Slayer and Metallica. Since we're Danish, we always heard them talk to us about how King Diamond and Mercyful Fate were big influences on them when they started out. Obviously we don't sound anything like Mercyful Fate, but they were a big inspiration. In fact, we had one of their guitar players, Michael Denner, appear on Beyond Hell / Above Heaven. The band's other great guitarist, Hank Shermann, even went on the road with us to help out at guitar. It's funny you should ask that question.
JAM: Is anyone married in the band?
Michael married his wife Lena at Graceland. The rest have girlfriends.
JAM: I guess that makes sense since Metallica's James Hetfield nicknamed Michael Little E because he loved Elvis so much.
This life we have is tough on all our loved ones. Sometimes Michael is able to bring his wife on the road with us.
JAM: Other bands in Denmark have seen what Volbeat has accomplished the past few years. Do you see yourselves as being examples of what's possible if you just stick to your guns and do it?
Well, it's a nice thought, but to be honest with you, I have no idea how this all happened for us. It would be very hard to copy what we have done. Staying out on the road was pretty much the one thing that made what we are doing today possible. I still think it is the best way to promote the kind of music you play. There is also a matter of timing, determination and luck. You either have it in you or you don't.