Interview with Tobias Forge | By Christopher J. Harrington
The middle point of eternity is where the heart finds art. This special void is unmistakable. Curved and tailed, rising circular and strong, it bends the will from the pains of humanness. It is life, interrupted. When rock bands tap into this eternal spirit, they do so by fusing disparate elements. You know it when you hear it: typically challenging, often odd, and always spiritually fluttering, this is not a safe direction, but rather, one for individuals who need to express the true reality of their experience.
Enter Sweden’s Tobias Forge, the mastermind behind art-rock heavy metal legion Ghost. Recently confirmed as the band’s creator and main songwriter, Forge spent roughly a decade behind the various masks of the band’s demonic anti-Pope frontman in nigh-complete anonymity. A recent lawsuit initiated his desire to reveal his identity, but it’s a moot point. For Forge, Ghost were always about going beyond the individual and bringing a much-needed spark of mystery to the masses.
“I just wanted to create something that was really cool, something that I would appreciate seeing,” he says. “I wanted it to have certain elements that I felt were missing in today’s music scene, where everyone’s always available and everyone’s always tweeting something when they think or eat or take a shit. I just wanted there to be some sort of mysticism, some new artist with something clandestine going on that makes you fucking imagine something.”
Ghost provided that, with an exclamation. They stood out as a unique band in a sea of heavy metal normality. The extremeness of the group was centered on juxtaposition, not complete annihilation. It was a call to the past, an offering to the old gods. Forge revealed himself because it was time, but it changed nothing about the band’s rough-hewn attack on contemporary norms.
“For me, it’s not important that people talk about me,” Forge says. “I want people to talk about Ghost. It just got to a point where I needed to explain a few things to a few people and address a few things that have been miscommunicated. That’s it, basically. I just feel like I started this, I’m the responsible one. [If] anyone should comment on it, it should be me.”
Ghost’s newest record, Prequelle—out June 1 via Loma Vista Recordings—continues the leap toward levitation. Its beauty sparkles around its dark subject matter. The ability to birth music that sinks deep into the soul while still maintaining its complexity is a special trait. What Ghost have always done well is to stretch the canvas: to keep the listener centered while still enmeshing them in a drifting fantasy. There are the riffs and the melody, but then, there’s the intricacy and headiness that bands like Genesis and Pink Floyd excelled at. Ghost are about taking a journey, spiritually and intellectually. They are a throwback to Romanticism. The painting and writing is a narrative, as much as it is a shock of intensity.
“I listen to a lot of prog music,” Forge says. “I’m very, sort of, smitten by instrumental and vocal music that takes you on trips.”
Prequelle, indeed, contains two completely instrumental tracks, a first for the band. The songs help complete the mentality of Ghost’s inner-structure, extending their visual landscape and making the yellow brick road all the more vast.
“We spent a lot of time talking about having instrumentals on previous records,” Forge explains, “but it never turned out to be more than a minute of a section. So, upon making Prequelle, I definitely felt that, now, I needed to have more than just the token plug excerpts,” he laughs.
Ghost’s 2010 debut, Opus Eponymous—on which Forge debuted his papal alter ego, Papa Emeritus—was flush with devastating end-times themes. For 2013’s Infestissumam, his successor, Papa Emeritus II, sang about the inquisition, while Papa Emeritus III used 2015’s Meliora to discuss societal greed and material gain. Prequelle introduces Forge as the ominous Cardinal Copia and covers the Middle Ages and the Bubonic plague. Its dark nature is akin to the previous records’ overall narratives, but there’s much more light here. This devastating piece of human history has been a popular theme for many a metal band, but Prequelle offers a different, more personal take. Forge focuses on the individual, human aspect of the period, pondering what it meant to have death literally at your doorstep.
“I was more interested in tapping into the human mechanism, the human psyche being face to face with the turmoil of that,” Forge offers, “seeing the complete destruction of your whole world, because that was what they were facing—but, mind you, though half of Europe’s population was wiped out, half of the population actually survived, and I wanted to make a record about that.”
Forge also found a mirror image of those times right before his very eyes. He hunkered down on the physicality of the Middle Ages, but he extended it toward a greater analogy and metaphor.
“I sort of wanted to medically explain what happened to your body when you were stricken with Bubonic plague,” he says. “Then, the next step was sort of working with the Middles Ages and how it mirrors a lot of states of the world: the state of my world and the state of people in my age. It’s a record about mortality. It’s a record surrounded by death, but, essentially, a record about survival: coming to terms with mortality and, yeah, basically surviving and trying to have a more positive outlook on life.”
When Ghost scatter their psychedelic ashes over you, baptizing your musical soul, it’s easy to be swept away into oblivion, but they are a very human band. The group remain centered on the Earth, using its symbols, elements, and abstractions to ruminate on the nature of existence.
“With Infestissumam onward, the satanic bit, it’s more symbolic,” Forge says. “It’s not really about God. It’s about mankind and how [individuals] interpret the ideas of God and an un-God, what the knowledge of those things causes us to do and how it causes us to treat each other.”
Regardless of where the listener’s faith lies, Prequelle is a beautiful record. Let’s concentrate on that.
Photo by Mikael Eriksson