Playing Those Mind Games
VOLBEAT’S MICHAEL POULSEN AND ROB CAGGIANO ON THE PENT-UP ENERGY AND FALSE STARTS THAT LED TO THEIR BACK-TO-BASICS NEW ALBUM, SERVANT OF THE MIND
IN MARCH 2020, when it became clear that Volbeat (and every other artist) would be off tour for months due to the Covid outbreak, frontman Michael Poulsen started writing the follow-up to the band’s 2019 album, Rewind, Replay, Rebound. As a gift preview for fans, Volbeat released two songs from the album — “Wait a Minute My Girl” and “Dagen Før” — on June 2, 2021. The former is a ramped-up slab of psychobilly that sounds like the Misfits crossed with the Cramps (replete 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 started before the pandemic and were two of the first recorded for Volbeat’s eighth studio album, Servant of the Mind. The upbeat tunes were well-received; “Wait a Minute My Girl” became the band’s ninth single to top the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart.
Anyone who thought the rest of Servant of the Mind would offer more of the same — when it surfaced six months later — was in for a surprise. Almost all of the songs on the new record are as heavy as Metallica’s Black Album (one of Volbeat’s greatest 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 guitarist, vocalist and primary songwriter Poulsen. “First, you get really frustrated about tours getting canceled because it’s always a lot of preparation for a tour and you’re rehearsing, and that’s a lot of work to be done. And suddenly you’re told you could not tour. So there was that. 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 bit sad, frustrated and angry at the same time, and you’re concerned about family and friends. So, picking up the guitar and writing riffs and working on lyrics, I definitely think I was expressing everything that was going on. If the pandemic didn’t happen, I’m not quite sure the record would sound the way it does.”
There’s another reason Servant of the Mind is Volbeat’s most aggressive, consistent and fluid release to date. Unlike the band’s last few albums, which Volbeat wrote between tours and took as long as 18 months to complete, Poulsen bashed out the songs for the new record in 10 weeks and finished the lyrics in an additional 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-their-roots album that Volbeat (Poulsen, lead guitarist Rob Caggiano, drummer Jon Larsen and bassist Kaspar Boye Larsen) didn’t have time to belabor or overthink. So why did Volbeat work on
such a tight schedule when they were off tour for so long and didn’t release Servant of the Mind until last December? Simple. They figured they were under the gun to deliver a new album and get back on tour.
“No one had any idea how long the pandemic would go on for,” Poulsen says. “We thought we’d be back on the road after four or five months, so I thought I had only four months to write and record it. So that’s what we did.”
Although he’s not interested in creating the band’s next record under such a narrow timeline, Poulsen enjoyed creating Servant of the Mind. He worked methodically, and every time he picked up a guitar and plugged into a practice amp, molten metal, rock and rockabilly riffs poured out, along with a long string of undeniable melodies. He was almost always happy with the original arrangements, so as soon as he finished one song he moved on to the next.
“It was really fun and rewarding because it was like being back in the old days,” he says. “When we started the band [in 2001], we were 17 or 18 and nobody knew who we were. There were no jobs out there for us, so it was just us and the rehearsal room. That was the only thing we could do, so we did song after song.”
At the same time as Volbeat were laying the groundwork for Servant of the Mind, Caggiano, who has co-written with the group since he joined 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 was available Caggiano spent most of his time holed away in his friend’s music studio fearing for the future of mankind as the death count rose exponentially every day. His guitars barely left their cases.
“My headspace was upside down, and it took me a while to even feel creative again,” he says shortly after the release of Servant of the Mind. “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’d be jamming on ideas and working on things. But it took me a long time before I could do that in any real way.”
Caggiano’s withdrawal from society kept him from wanting to work remotely. By the time he felt at all inspired, Servant of the Mind was fully recorded sans leads. At the end of 2020, Volbeat sent Caggiano the stem files for the album and Caggiano picked up his signature Jackson Shadowcaster, plugged into a Fryette Sig:X amp — which he has used since he was touring in Anthrax on the Big 4 tour — and started playing. At first, it was slow going and his solos weren’t matching the galvanic crackle of the songs.
“I wasn’t feeling inspired at all. It’s crazy, and I really had to force myself to lay down some parts. I ended up playing everything and listening back to it a few days later. And I said to myself, “I need to do this again.” What I had done wasn’t bad; it just sounded forced to me. So I scrapped everything and re-did every song and it came out way better.”
Poulsen agrees that Servant of the Mind might have been more sonically diverse if Caggiano had helped write the songs, but he says giving Caggiano sole responsibility for all of the leads on the record put the guitarist in a position to shine. “I believe the solos he put on this album are some of his best solos in Volbeat,” Poulsen says. “It just happened the way it happened, but we definitely all made the best of it.”
Caggiano still isn’t sure why he had a false start before he was able to nail his parts. But even before he heard the songs, he knew he wanted his leads to differ from what he had done in the past. The solution involved a slight equipment modification and practicing styles he hasn’t relied on in the past.
“I got hooked on these picks called V-Picks that a guy in Nashville makes,” he says. “They’re thick and stiff and they make the notes ring better for me. And that changed the way I hit the strings and, really, changed my picking technique. So I just worked on economy picking up and down mixed with some legato stuff. I also really wanted to emphasize melody, so every lead was like a song within a song.”
For Poulsen, tracking “Becoming” was one of the highlights of the recording sessions. The track opens with thrash drumming and a dissonant buzzsaw guitar riff. Before the band plugged in, Poulsen rifled through a box of effects and was thrilled to see a Boss Heavy Metal HM-2, the signature pedal for the Scandinavian death metal scene he was a part of in the Nineties as a member of Dominus.
“Just for fun, I put it on and turned up all the knobs and played, and I said, “Oh my God, we sound like fucking 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 switched to the verse, I went back to my standard guitar sound. That was so much fun.”
As for the rest of his gear, Poulsen used several Gibsons and… some other stuff. “I have Gibsons. That’s all I know,” he says, then laughs. “I know exactly how I want my guitar to sound, and we have people who make sure my equipment is updated and works. As long as it sounds good, I don’t care why. Rob’s totally the opposite, but I’m just not interested in guitar nerdery.”
“I wasn’t feeling inspired at all. It’s crazy, and I really had to force myself to lay down some parts”
— ROB CAGGIANO