The unmasking of the man behind Ghost was a necessary evil. Not just for fans with an insatiable need to know the secret identity of the group's architect, sharing clues and insane theories online, but also for the man himself. Last summer, midway into the annus horribilis of MMXVII, Ghost's mastermind was officially revealed as Tobias Forge.
The revelation came during a fervent monologue on Swedish radio, as Herr Forge recounted in detail the musical and personal history that led to the creation of Ghost. It had become inevitable once he was publicly named in a lawsuit filed by former band members over profits from album sales and concert tours. That was alarming enough, but his mother had already been proudly telling friends about the ghoulish metal band and her son, the wicked Pope, standing center stage.
Now that his name, and many of the players once known only as "Nameless Ghouls," are forever inscribed on Ghost's Wikipedia page — along with Forge's extensive musical credits as a member of Repugnant, Magna Carta Cartel and more — the singer welcomes his newly public profile. Keeping things a secret was a lot of trouble. "For a long time, even dating back to when the band started touring," he says now, "it has been in my mind that this doesn't really hold water."
Since then, Forge has been at work recording the band's fourth album, still untitled, with producer Tom Dalgety. Sessions began last year at Artery studios at home in Stockholm, and by January he was mixing in West Hollywood, where Forge sat with Revolver for his very first North American interview session as himself.
He also shared some tracks-in-progress, beginning with "Rats," which opens the album with a wall of hard-edged guitars to assert Ghost's heavy-metal bona fides, as Papa Emeritus warns of the Black Death: "Them filthy rodents are now coming for your souls!" There are medieval creep-show rhythms and soaring guitars on "Faith," and layers of piano and voices "Life Eternal," with lyrics that contemplate a choice between immortality versus death: "Is this the moment of just letting go?"
At Westlake Studios, Forge is not exactly the ominous presence of Papa Emeritus as he sips from a paper coffee cup. He's got short black hair and wears a Misfits skull T-shirt with a motorcycle jacket covered in pins and medallions showing his hard-rock allegiances: for Kiss, King Diamond, the Stooges and Venom. Each plays a part in continuing to inspire Ghost, as Forge evolves the music and the concept another step further. "It's expected to have a little bit of a renewal every time you make a record," he says. "Sometimes you write songs that don't necessarily work so much live, but work very good for a record. It's fun! I like trying to have a little purpose with things."
THIS IS YOUR FIRST INTERVIEW WITH ANYONE IN THE U.S. AS YOURSELF AND NOT IN CHARACTER AS PAPA EMERITUS. HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THAT?
TOBIAS FORGE The original idea of being anonymous — it was a great, naïve idea on paper in 2008, not knowing to what degree we'd be touring or to what extent this was going to be a professional operation. That regimen is very hard to live by. What I hadn't foreseen was the fans and their willingness to embrace that and play along. [Laughs] I guess that's the whole thing with showbiz and magic tricks: It's like you have a silent agreement with your audience.
Now, I feel like this has already become more of an entity on its own. As long as I don't go onstage completely normal and then jump into character onstage, I assume that most fans would be able to accept me as the creator. I can comment on the work the same way a director would on his movie.
SO YOU'RE NOT INTERESTED IN CHANGING THE IMAGE OF THE BAND ITSELF?
No, no, no. The exact opposite, actually. The plan is for it to be even more theatrical and even more dressed up.
NOBODY KNEW WHAT KISS LOOKED LIKE IN THE SEVENTIES, SO IT WAS THIS BIG MYSTERY. BUT ONCE THEY BECAME KNOWN, IT DIDN'T REALLY CHANGE A WHOLE LOT IN TERMS OF PEOPLE LIKING THE BAND.
Growing up being a Kiss fan, I definitely didn't have a problem with it. Granted, I was so little and I basically started liking Kiss just when they had taken their masks off. When I was five years old, in my room I had Kiss posters all over the place and it was masked and unmasked. I had the poster with Paul Stanley touching his nipple and they looked like this horrendous aerobics masquerade. I didn't think anything about it. Why would Ghost be any different than any other band? Why would this be so strange that any knowledge about its true identity would tarnish it to the point where you cannot like it anymore?
NOW THAT YOU'RE SPEAKING OPENLY, ARE THERE ANY MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT GHOST THAT HAVE ALWAYS BOTHERED YOU A LITTLE BIT?
Over the years there have been several oddities that have been hard to handle. What we did — and trying to do it anonymously — goes against the idea of being an exhibitionistic rocker wanting to entertain people and to be seen. It's very much theatrical. Punk rock and rock & roll have always been about being real. And this has been about escapism and not being real. When those collide, it's been in limbo.
I CAN SEE FROM THE PINS YOU'RE WEARING — YOU HAVE KISS AND THE MISFITS — THAT YOU'RE INTERESTED IN BOTH THE THEATRICAL SIDE BUT ALSO THE RAW SIDE OF THINGS. HOW DO THOSE THINGS OVERLAP FOR YOU?
Oh, they overlap. Take the Misfits for example. You could read up on the band and their turmoil, their upsides and downsides and Glenn [Danzig] and Jerry [Only] and Doyle [Wolfgang von Frankenstein] and all that. But for me, there's a separation where I can completely neglect anything I know about any band — if I like the music and the imagery — I can completely buy into listening to "20 Eyes." I can completely buy into this skull-clad steroid band and believe in it.
WHAT IS THE IDEA BEHIND THE NEW GHOST ALBUM?
It is loosely themed around the concept of death and doom. It's a themed album around medieval times, but it's definitely clinging onto a lot of very current things. The Black Death [plague] is a great example of a turning point for a whole civilization. Complete villages were annihilated. Most people knew very little, so all of it was God or the Devil — and about their faith being questioned: Why are we being stricken down by this great scourge? It must be because of our not fearing God enough and all this superstitious bullshit.
There's a lot that you would recognize today in online mannerisms. In many ways, we've gone back a few steps because now it's closer to how it was back in the old days when people were standing at the square and all of a sudden, it's like in Monty Python's Life of Brian: "Stone him! Ra! Ra! Ra!" Public trials are very unsupervised and extremely swift and speak to the most primordial parts of us.
WHAT CAN YOU TELL ME ABOUT THE OPENING SONG, "RATS"?
It's actually not technically about rodents. It's about something spreading as wildfire and completely destroying things quicker than you know. It was how the plague started in Europe. It was basically a couple of merchant ships that had been over in Crimea. A few of them sailed into the port of Messina in Sicily, and according to the legend, from the ship came rats and they were carrying the fleas that had this bubonic plague. Almost everyone on the ship was dead and dying.
THAT IS A HAPPY STORY.
It is! It's a good start. [Laughs]
WHAT ABOUT THE SONG "DANCE MACABRE?"
Europe was in this turmoil in the late 1340s. The plague is extremely fast. It starts off as the worst flu you've ever had and then it just goes worse and then you're dead after three days. So people were lying in the streets — corpses and all the surroundings were just falling apart. All the brothels and pubs were thriving because people started partying literally like there was no tomorrow because they were gonna die. They were just going for it. "Dance Macabre" is capturing that joyous nocturnal sort of life in a disco song. [Laughs]
THE ALBUM'S CLOSING SONG IS "LIFE ETERNAL."
After this whole album going in and out of that sort of mortality, let's say you were given the opportunity to circumvent the natural order of things and given carte blanche to live forever. Would you want to do that? Is that something you would be willing to commit to?
ON THE TRACK, YOU SING: "WOULD YOU LET ME TOUCH YOUR SOUL FOREVER?"
Many people can relate to that, right? As a person who is not necessarily completely atheistic and believes in somewhat of a mumbo jumbo magical thinking, it's obviously hard not to think about afterlife and how it all sort of circles around. And, you know, part of that is the whole idea of loving others and how that feels so eternal at certain points whereas if you have kids, it feels literally eternal. You cannot imagine not have them in your presence or in your mental presence at least for the rest of eternity.
Friendships and love affairs end. Some don't, and those are the ones that fuck with you. [Laughs] I can be very cynical when it comes to stuff like that even though I'm married and I have a very, very happy relationship. Before I met her, I wouldn't want to commit to anything. All I saw was marriages falling apart and I come from a broken home. I didn't believe in it.
IT'S EVEN MORE PROFOUND WHEN YOU'RE NOT EXPECTING IT.
That's the thing. I know a lot of people that have been in marriages and in relationships that feel magical up until one point and after that, they're not. I'm sure Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham felt that was going to last forever. And now they're standing there singing "Go Your Own Way" to each other 40 years after they last put hands on each other. [Laughs] So you sometimes have to take everything with a wee bit of salt. Even death — you think that to experience the death of someone close would be something you can't imagine, and when it happens, it absolutely sucks. But then years later it feels like yeah, you went through that.
YOU MENTIONED MONTY PYTHON. ON AN EPISODE OF CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM, LARRY DAVID IS RENEWING HIS MARRIAGE VOWS AND HIS WIFE COMMITS NOT ONLY TO STAYING TOGETHER TILL DEATH DO US PART BUT ALSO "AFTER DEATH THROUGH ALL ETERNITY." AND IT FREAKS HIM OUT.
But I want to believe. I know theoretically that you will die, relationships end, friendships end, band breaks up. That's so boring. It's so much more fun believing it can go on forever. Again, we're back to the thing with an entertainer and an audience. At gunpoint everybody understands this is just smoke, mirrors, pipes and drapes and shit, but we have come to an understanding. We have an agreement that you're believing what I'm telling you and therefore it becomes real the same way that I would think that Kiss Alive! is a real live record. And I firmly believe that, even though I know it's not. Magical thinking.