A face-to-face interview with Ghost used to be shrouded in mystery. There would be secret codes, secret meeting places… you probably didn’t even know who you were going to be speaking to, given the band was primarily made up of nameless ghouls named… well, Nameless Ghouls. Have you ever had to ask for Nameless Ghoul in a hotel lobby? Exactly; now you’re getting it.
Of course, anyone who has followed the trajectory of Ghost knows what happened next – the curtain was lifted in 2017 to reveal Tobias Forge, the man behind the band who also portrays its leader, Cardinal Copia. It’s the latest in a series of characters Forge has used when fronting the band, playing into the band’s mythological canon with additional backstory and history while also keeping the band’s identity under lock and key. These days, there’s no magic word to get past the gate – the publicist just introduces you to Forge, who’s in his street clothes – a Queen shirt, leather jacket and black jeans – while in the lobby of a Sydney CBD hotel. There’s no Ghost regalia, and no obvious symbol that the man transforms into a twisted clergyman by night to perform in front of a band whose fanbase could literally be described as a cult following.
Forge and co. are in Sydney as a part of the Download Festival, having performed at The Tivoli in Brisbane the night before. Forge describes the show simultaneously as “fun” but also “ quite small.” It should be noted that the Tivoli is a 1500-cap room – hardly a dive bar – but, compared to the arenas the band regularly play throughout Europe, it’s easy to have your perspective shifted. With a Grammy win under their belts and four acclaimed studio albums – three of which have gone to number one in their native Sweden – Ghost are easily one of heavy metal’s biggest exports. In a candid conversation with Music Feeds, Forge takes us behind the scenes of their current run – entitled A Pale Tour Called Death – and the ins and outs of the band’s literal identity crisis.
Music Feeds: It seems like it’s a logistical nightmare to get the band anywhere, but Australia in particular would surely be the toughest.
Tobias Forge: Including layovers and changeovers, you’re looking at 25 hours in transit from Stockholm over here. It’s funny the way that this tour is planned out – we fly out from here, go home, and then in a few weeks we fly over to play Japan. [laughs] If I were a single man, it would make sense just to maybe take a holiday in the Philippines or something like that. Because I have a family, though, I try to make a point of spending as much time with them as I can – even if it’s only for a week or so at a time. I need to go home.
MF: How old are your kids?
TF: 10. They’re twins.
MF: Obviously, at this point, they’ve clocked onto what Dad does for a living.
TF: I guess they would have been about three years old when they realised that what I did for a living was pretty different to all the other mums and dads of their friends. When they started pre-school, we were living in a small city, so it really stood out. [laughs] We live in Stockholm now, so I suppose the ceiling is a little higher in terms of the professions of the parents. They have a lot more friends whose parents are in creative fields now, so it’s not as big of a deal.
MF: Were they intrigued – or even scared – when you explained what Ghost is to them?
TF: They’ve responded to Ghost really well. They like the music. So far, at least. [laughs] They’re very supportive, which I am incredibly thankful for. I feel, as a parent, it’s important to be as transparent as possible with your kids. I want them to understand what I do, and what it means. I don’t want them to always be asking why I’m away so much, or why they won’t see me for eight weeks. I want them to realise it’s not as if I’m going away on a fishing trip – this work isn’t entirely recreational. At the same time, I want to show them what a blessing this job can be, for lack of a better word. What many people only ever get to consider a hobby, I get to do for a living.
There’s two key sides to it – there’s the creative part, and there’s the work part. The creative part is everything you get to do in the studio – it’s basically like playing with toys, and making shit up as you go along. When you go out on tour, though, it becomes this repetitive and hugely physical labour. I love it, so it’s not labour in the negative way. At the end of the day, though, it’s still incredibly hard work.
MF: How would you describe the way that Ghost tours to someone who’s never toured?
TF: Imagine you’re a chef, right? You have this restaurant that you’ve worked really hard to open up, and you’re there every day and every night. You’ve come up with this brilliant dish. You’re really good at it, and people are coming from all over to try it. The hard part is that you have to make it, the exact same way, every single night. It doesn’t matter if you’re hungover, or if you have the flu. You need to be there, and you need to make it happen. It’s a quality control thing.
MF: How do you navigate breaking the monotony of doing that, then? Is there something about the element of performing live that allows you to keep things interesting?
TF: I find pleasure in when the performance is flowing accordingly. When you know your routine, the same way as if you would if you were working at a factory. [acts out working] Screw goes there, screw goes there, up, across… done. When you have that flow, you can start focusing on other things – not in the sense of daydreaming, but more in the immediate sense of interacting with the crowd and being present in the moment. It’s almost like a tai chi thing – if my concentration gets broken, or something interferes, then it disturbs my inner peace.
There are exceptions, of course – if something fun or funny happens, that’s always great. For the most part, though, I prefer performing when it’s in a fluid motion. It means I’m not overthinking it – which is something I never want to do when I’m trying to put on a show. That’s when it becomes paralysing.
It’s something where the tradition of this line of work – that is, theatrical rock music; or even just rock music in general – meets the modern world. There are certain aspects that you have to block out.
MF: In what way? How do you mean?
TF: I’ll give you a classic example: Metallica. When they were touring The Black Album, they basically played the exact same set for pretty much three years straight. No-one complained, because no-one knew it was the same show. I went to see them on the Load tour when they came to Sweden in 1996, and they had this bit in the show where a spotlight operator fell from the rigging. We had no idea that it was part of the show, and that they were doing it every single night. That was only something we found out much, much later.
Obviously, that is something that is impossible to get away with these days. You can’t have something be a part of the show and have it be completely new to your audience each night – once you do something for the first time, everyone who caught it on their phone is going to be putting it up online as soon as possible. It’s a problem, because six months into a tour, you’ll have people online complaining that they just saw the same show they’d seen online. “I was expecting more!” Like, are you serious? You just saw us for the first fucking time! What exactly were you expecting?
Even fucking Bruce Springsteen, who is known for calling for signs with song titles written on them from the crowd… I’m sure he has a set of songs that he plays every night, too. There’s always a limit. You need a certain routine to be able to deliver what we’re talking about – especially if it’s based on co-ordinated lights and explosives and shit like that.
MF: When it’s a festival like Download, too, you’re right down to the wire of having everything right down to the exact minute of time you’re allocated on stage.
TF: That’s right. The nature of it is quite different in terms of the kind of performance that you’re giving. It doesn’t feel right to say you’re not getting “the real thing,” but it’s definitely not the fully-orchestrated show that we just did all through Europe, for instance. When we’re doing those shows, it’s crucial for the experience that things just flow. When it does, everybody is happy – everyone in the band, everyone watching the band. It means it’s working.
MF: How early are you at a venue on a typical tour date before the show itself starts, in order to prepare everything that goes into a Ghost show?
TF: It depends entirely on whereabouts in the tour we are. At the beginning of a tour – especially if it’s the beginning of a new cycle – I spend a lot of time fine-tuning everything. It’s especially the case with the light show. I am very into the stage production side of things. Before the European tour started, we had a production rehearsal in France. The lighting guy and I stayed at the venue until about 4am, just programming lights – we literally stayed until the guard came up to us, and was like “I need to close the hall now.” We got kicked out of our own venue! [laughs]
That’s when you’re really at the point of no return. We couldn’t do anymore, because the next day I can’t be in producer mode. I have to be in entertainer mode. That’s probably my biggest problem in terms of multi-tasking. When we’re doing our headlining shows, it’s two hours and 40 minutes. It’s very demanding. It’s good for your physics, because you move around a lot. At the same time, though, it’s very taxing – my legs hurt, my stomach hurts, my hips hurt after a show. My head is light, and I’m very tired.
What I used to do – when I was a few years younger and we did shorter shows – was spend my mornings doing interviews and visiting record stores, then we’d do the show, then we’d party. These days, as soon as we’re finished, I need to go to sleep. I need to recuperate and get back on track, and allow for the day to basically pass. I occasionally get to go out and check out record stores, and there are also certain interviews I have to do, but for the most part I need to focus on the show and on my delivery.
When there are production problems or promotional things that come up, that’s when I have to divide myself into two different people. It’s part of it, I understand, but I’m doing everything that I can to not let it affect the show. At the end of the day, it’s about the thousands of people that are paying to see the band. You can’t phone that in. It doesn’t work like that. You have to deliver.
MF: You mentioned the promotional side of Ghost, and giving interviews. Ever since the reveal, has it been easier or harder to give interviews? Do you prefer there being no pretension, or did you miss having something to hide behind?
TF: There are advantages and disadvantages to both sides, I’ve found. They have their quirks. It’s slightly more practical now, sure – I can walk into this room knowing we’re going to do an interview, and there’s not that awkward moment where we pass by one another and neither of us knows who is who. The thing is, when I’m out here publicly, I’m here as a representative – as a side figure – of this band. I will never be able to overshadow the profile of the band, the figures in it and its visual representation. This is not the official representation of Ghost – if you look at our records, our videos, our Instagram, our social media, our magazine covers, I’m nowhere to be seen. That’s not me. Anything where it’s me talking, that’s just other channels that aren’t officiated by the band itself.
The funny thing has been that, as soon as I let my guard down and came out in the open about all of this, there have been a lot more media opportunities that have come my way. The metal media was basically saying, “Okay, we’ve been playing this charade with you for seven years. When are we getting the scoop? When are we getting the real you?” They felt it was their duty to cover it, and we felt as though we’d exhausted all of our options. To keep the band’s image up, we said no to so many publications. After so many years, it was down to me to question why exactly that was.
Sure, there’s plenty of trash out there, but there’s also a lot of places where we now get to speak to a lot of high-end publications. Take France, for instance. They’re fascinated by the band – to them, it’s very… [puts on French accent] cultured! [laughs] At the end of the day, my job is to promote my band. It’s as easy as that.
MF: How has the relationship with fans changed, by that same token?
TF: There were many years where the so-called anonymity was a very poorly-kept secret. It often lead to awkward, weird moments. People would come up to me, because they knew who I was. They’d want to get a photo, and sometimes I would make exceptions if it was for a kid. If someone has their son or their daughter with them… I can’t say no to a little kid, y’know? They wouldn’t understand why I would want to turn that down.
What would happen, then, would be some other guy would come up to me straight after that. “Hey man, I saw you take a photo with that kid – I want one, too.” Not even so much as a please! And suddenly I’m the jerk in that situation. I just wanted to shut the whole thing down – like, “I’m not taking photos with anyone!” It was such a catch 22 for me. Now, unless I’m like in some super shitty mood, I take photos with people. I don’t want to let anybody down. I don’t want people thinking I’m an arsehole. I’m just trying to be as cordial about it as possible.
MF: So, can we get a photo?
TF: [laughs] Imagine if I said no after all that.
Ghost’s latest album ‘Prequelle’ is out now.