"I have a hard time explaining what could have been. I just know that I was put in a situation where I felt that it was the time to do this because I have no choice anyway."
Tobias Forge is talking about the fact that he's speaking with Revolver as Tobias Forge. He's sitting in the upstairs lounge at a Los Angeles photography studio. He's wearing jeans and a leather jacket. He's sipping coffee. In the past, this scene would look very different. Forge would only be wearing street clothes if he were being interviewed over the phone. If we were talking in person — as we are now — he'd be wearing the full facemask and tailored tunic of a "Nameless Ghoul," the interchangeable stage moniker he gives to all of the musicians who play with him in Sweden's Grammy-winning occult-rock act Ghost.
Forge doesn't even look like a dude who might be in a band, much less a band like Ghost. He's got short hair. He's clean-shaven. He's well manicured. He's exceedingly polite. He speaks with a Swedish accent and could easily pass for a grad student at UCLA, albeit a particularly pale one. You'd never know that he's secretly into Satan. You'd never know the truth.
As Ghost's vocalist, songwriter and all-around mastermind, Forge dreamed up a successive string of satanic popes — Papa Emeritus I, II and III — one for each of the band's first three albums. The characters appeared onstage in skull makeup and three-cornered papal mitre, singing odes to Lucifer and songs about zombie queens, about imaginary schoolgirls with psychic powers, and about very real Hungarian countesses who bathed in the blood of virgins. But Papa never gave interviews. For press purposes, Forge would pose as a Nameless Ghoul instead. And now, on Ghost's fourth and latest album, Prequelle, a "new" frontman has emerged: Cardinal Copia.
Confused yet? Well, that's because it's supposed to be confusing — or at least misleading. For the first seven years of the band's public existence, Forge did everything in his power to preserve his anonymity. Obfuscation, denial and misdirection were the orders of the day. He was — and is — the rarest of rock stars: Rather than craving the spotlight, he actively avoided it. "It goes against the idea of being a person onstage: wanting not to be seen," he observes. "And that proved to be more or less impossible. So that makes the story a little different because we weren't building our brand on the indulgence of sort of masturbating in the personal cult."
But now some former Nameless Ghouls have filed a lawsuit. They're suing Forge for money they say he owes them. Naturally, his real name appears in the legal documents. As a result, Forge's astonishing run of anonymity has come to a close. His hand has been forced. He's been outed. But the devil, as usual, is in the details. "Once the spotlight is cast on you, you can either step out of it and hope it won't follow you, or you have to speak," Forge acknowledges. "But you have to do something because people are watching. And I definitely know that I'm too far from the shore that I started off from to not realize the severity of the situation. I felt like if this is as good as I think it is and what I've made people believe — and what people in turn have made me believe that it is, it should stand for a little bit of remodeling."
The "it" he refers to is Ghost. And the remodeling is extensive, cosmetically speaking. As of last year, Forge has an entirely new cast of Nameless Ghouls. Papa Emeritus III, singer on 2015's Meliora and 2016's Popestar EP, is no more. Cardinal Copia is the new frontman. Of course, Forge is the Cardinal. And he still writes all of Ghost's songs. But while many fans have suspected this for some time, now they know. "If there is anyone who's sort of questioning the new stance, [Ghost] is still based on the same modus operandi," he says. "The only difference is, I've sort of mentioned my name."
In the spirit of full disclosure: I've known Tobias Forge since April of 2013. That was when my band, Ides of Gemini, was the support act on Ghost's second North American tour. In those days, very few people knew the true identities of the group's members. As part of the tour arrangement, my bandmates and I had to sign a contract agreeing not to take photos of any member of Ghost while they were out of costume.
Of course, the band's fans signed no such agreement. Which makes what I witnessed on that tour all the more fascinating. On most nights, fans would wait by Ghost's tour bus after the show to meet the band and shag autographs. Forge and his bandmates would stroll out of the venue in their regular clothes, fully acknowledging that they were the men behind the masks. They'd shake hands, sign records and chitchat. Not once did I see a fan reach for a phone or a camera to snap a photo. Not once in an entire month, in 22 cities across the U.S. and Canada. And yet the social media age was well underway. The general public did not hesitate to post close-ups of the soggy burrito they ate for lunch, much less photos of an encounter with a prominent musician. But the folks who came to those gigs had no desire to expose anyone. They didn't want to demystify the show they had just seen. They wanted to share the fantasy.
Forge has a theory about this phenomenon. While other groups that came up during the early days of social media relied on those platforms not only for promoting the band itself, but for promoting the members individually, Ghost short-circuited this process by not allowing the individual members to publicly acknowledge they were even in the group. "[Usually] you have a band and then you have four or five members who are posting photos of everything that they're doing, and that combined creates this public image of the band," he explains. "And since that was obviously an absolute no-no with Ghost — still is — and we were overcompensating with an image, people started focusing on the image [instead]. And I guess they were appreciating the fact that we were creating this forum in which they could, in a slightly old-school way, imagine things rather than having it sort of smeared in your face the way that you would if you were a fan of a sentence-for-a-name band where you know everything [and] there's no secrets whatsoever."
PAPA COMES ALIVE
Ghost was born in 2006, when Forge wrote a song called "Stand by Him." A chugging, melodic paean to Satan that fused the metallic guitars of Mercyful Fate with the sunny vocal harmonies of Blue Öyster Cult and high liturgical atmosphere, it was unlike anything he'd written in the past. He called his friend Gustaf Lindström to help him record it. The two had played together in the short-lived death-metal outfit Repugnant, which at one point included future members of In Solitude and Tribulation. "Stand by Him" would later appear with English lyrics on Ghost's 2010 debut, Opus Eponymous, but at this early stage its words were in Swedish. "It sounded great, but I didn't really know what it was," Forge recalls. "Occult rock is now obviously a very common term but at that point [the song] just felt oddly attractive. I told Gustaf, 'If I can write two more like this, we can definitely call it something and do something with it.'"
In early 2008, the duo hit the studio to record the first three Ghost songs: "Stand by Him," "Prime Mover" and "Death Knell." "I write everything on drums and bass [as well as guitar], so I'd already sort of figured the songs out," Forge explains. "We had a drum station, a bass station, a guitar station and a vocal station and just circled around. At the end of that weekend, we had three songs recorded."
Immediately obvious: The material's satanic lyrics and vintage horror-movie vibe were at odds with Forge's choirboy looks. "This definitely does not sound like two dudes that look like you and I," Forge remembers telling Lindström. "With my other projects, I was definitely missing that horror aspect. For me, this needs to be a theater band. And if we're gonna do a theater band, we should be anonymous. It was completely juxtaposed to normal rock showmanship, I guess. It was very clear to me that we cannot just get a band together and rehearse and then go out and play live. We needed to maybe get a whole record recorded and release something and then maybe we could play at Roadburn."
He already had the band name. "We gotta call this Ghost," Forge recalls. "That was more or less simultaneous to the recording."
There was a snag, though: Forge had no desire to be the singer. He wanted to play guitar. "Even when I was a kid, I always sort of identified myself with Keith Richards and Slash more than the singers of the bands," he says. "And even though I absolutely adore Mick Jagger in 1982, the way he looked and the way he performed, I wanted more to be the guitar player who was cool and smoked a cigarette without coughing. And so I was like, 'These are just demos with my vocals.' They were gonna be guide vocals."
Forge's first choice for the vocalist position was Messiah Marcolin, former singer for Swedish doom masters Candlemass. But Marcolin turned him down. Forge then approached Mats Levén, a veteran Swedish vocalist who did a brief stint in guitar wizard Yngwie Malmsteen's band and has since become the latest singer of Candlemass. But Levén passed, as well. So did Christer Göransson of Mindless Sinner, Eighties metal heroes from Forge's hometown of Linköping, Sweden. ("He said, 'I have my own band and this seems a little bit goofy,'" Forge recalls.) So did JB Christoffersson of Grand Magus. Forge became Ghost's singer by default.
At the time, Forge was in his late twenties. He was married, with twin infant daughters. He worked at a call center for a Swedish mobile phone company. Ghost was his sixth band. "You can regard my life and say that not a whole lot happened before that," he says. "I had two kids and a social life and [getting married] was a big step in life, but career-wise and [in terms of] fulfilling yourself and touring goals, it was definitely 29 years of what felt like non-activity."
Then he posted the Ghost demos on MySpace. "This page we had was all very, very clandestine," he recalls. "I think it said 'Ghost,' but from what I remember, it was a picture of a cathedral in the moonlight and it just said 'satanic doom' or something like that — very, very simple. I really tried to narrow down the demographics so it was people [who] were into bands that I sort of figured that we were, in one way or form, similar to. That was anything from Blue Öyster Cult to Pentagram to Saint Vitus and that whole doom scene — Candlemass, obviously — Angel Witch, Demon … You know, anybody that liked dark rock with some sort of melody in it."
Within two days of posting the tracks, Forge was being contacted by record labels and managers from around the globe. "We went from absolutely nothing, a complete unknown — maybe 10 people in the world knew about it before that — and 48 hours later the band was already being approached by all kinds of people," he enthuses. "My career trajectory changed more in those 24 to 48 hours than I had ever experienced in my life."
Ghost premiered on March 12th, 2010. That's when Forge posted the first songs online. It's also the day his brother Sebastian died. "I didn't know at the time, but he had a heart disease that was, there's an elegant word for it that I don't remember, but apparently there's a condition where your [heart] muscles basically stiffen up," he explains. "So unfortunately, he passed away literally on the day Ghost went public. That night, my whole life changed."
A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG SATANIST
Tobias Forge is standing in a church. He's six or seven years old. He's with his mom. She works in a gallery. She appreciates art. She wants her son to appreciate art, too. "She was always very keen on taking me to churches," he explains. "She might say now in older age that she's sort of borderline religious, but back then it was just treating churches like museums."
One particular church in Linköping stood out. It was built in the 1500s. It was Catholic. It was creepy. "It had that evil feel, with a lot of old, scary paintings and big stained-glass windows and all that stuff I've sort of carried forth with me," Forge says. "It felt like a magical place. On the other hand, I think it triggered a lot of the opposition that made me, in my adolescence, so unquestionably throw my hands into the hands of Satan."
Of course, there were other triggers, as well — namely a wicked stepmother and an ill-tempered schoolteacher. "I didn't see my stepmother very often, maybe every other weekend," Forge explains. "I understand now that I was the kid that [my father] had from a previous relationship and I was an irritation in their new family, but she just happened to be religious, as well. And she was very strict. And sometimes she sort of did that in the name of Christ, which did not paint me a very nice picture of Christian people."
The schoolteacher was even worse. Forge was in her classroom for the first and second grades. She was in her sixties, bordering on retirement, and she regarded the era of corporal punishment in schools as a lost golden age. "She was very sour, very strict, very mean," Forge laments. "Had it not been for the fact that it was illegal, she would have definitely hit us. She was a no-bullshit sort of woman, but completely without humor. There was no charm whatsoever. What I remember is that she imposed a lot of religion classes on us — more than I think was according to the curriculum. She just represented this sanctimonious authority that I hated. And that in combination with the alienation I felt every other weekend going to [my stepmother's] home that was also sort of infiltrated by religion definitely made me run headfirst into the arms of the devil."
Luckily, Forge's older brother, Sebastian, was there to provide some rock & roll rebellion. "When I was three or four, my brother gave me a few records that I guess he bought for himself," he explains. "A Siouxsie and the Banshees record, a Kim Wilde record, a Rainbow record and a Kiss record. That was Love Gun and I was like, 'Whoa!' And he just said, 'Uh, you can have it.' Technically it was just staying in my room, you know, so it wasn't going far. He was very cool."
Forge says his childhood revolved around his mother and brother. But Sebastian was 13 years older. When Sebastian moved out at age 19, Forge essentially became an only child. "I've always spent a lot of time in my imaginary world with records and films and in books and papers and magazines," he says. "And maybe it goes without saying, but there was very little censorship in our home. There was a little bit of a guiding hand or someone explaining the horror film I'd seen on TV. It was like an explanation of what we're seeing: 'It's fake. That's not real blood.' So from very early on I had a very deep fascination with cinema."
By now, it's 1987. Forge is just six years old. But the key components of Ghost are already starting to converge. Rock bands wearing makeup? Check. Horror flicks? Check. A fascination with Christian symbols and architecture? Check. An ever-increasing sense of religion as a control mechanism? Double check. But you can thank his big brother for making the final connection between rock music and Satan — with an assist from Nikki Sixx. "Sebastian also gave me Shout at the Devil by Mötley Crüe," Forge explains. "That was a record that actually scared me. I loved it, but I found it very, very terrifying — especially the intro. A little bit later, I also started liking the Rolling Stones a lot, and with their discography you had 'Sympathy for the Devil' and Their Satanic Majesties Request."
Wide-eyed screenings of a few of the Eighties' most entertaining satanic-panic movies followed, as did trips to the sci-fi bookstore in Stockholm, where Forge purchased a copy of the dubious black-magic grimoire, Necronomicon. By fifth grade, he was drawing upside-down crosses on his notebooks like the card-carrying hesher he had become. But he traces most of it back to Sebastian, who provided him with the building blocks for Ghost at a ridiculously early age. "My brother had an immense impact on me," he concedes. "He had a massive music interest, he always rented films. He had a lot of friends who were also in bands and so there was a great influx of teenage culture in our house. When I was three, he was 16, so I was exposed to a lot of things that you might not normally be exposed to when you're three years old. He was very kind and very caretaking and, I guess because of the vast age difference, he didn't object to me being around."
When Sebastian passed away unexpectedly on the exact day Tobias posted the first Ghost songs online, Forge felt a distinct transference of energy. "Ever since then, it's hard not to feel that there might have been some sort of universal trade-off, like he was just giving me a big push in the back and it hasn't stopped since," he ventures. "To take one loss and then you accumulate the worth of that and sort of bake it into, like, a power bun. You remember in Back to the Future III when he has those logs of wood that he spiked with some sort of shit that makes the locomotive move faster? So far it feels like that's how I've been able to sort of redirect. It's like a mental aikido."
If there's a recurring theme on Ghost's new album, it's rats — of both the long-tailed rodent and human-garbage varieties. Prequelle songs like "See the Light" and, uh, "Rats" feature Forge singing about the toothy little fuckers that carried the Black Plague through Europe during medieval times. But he's also talking about the proverbial rats of the here and now: politicians with the power to kick off the apocalypse, nuclear or otherwise. "I think that there's a similarity between today and what went on in the 1340s and 1350s in the sense that it feels like our world is just about to end," he says. "On a brighter note, that has happened many times. It happens as we speak: I mean, if you ask someone who is from Aleppo, he or she will probably tell you that his or her world just disintegrated. So the end of the world happens every now and then in someplace. But between Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, North Korea, ISIS, the world economy, China and all these things, there's an overall sort of feeling that we don't know what's gonna happen."
That uncertainty is only exacerbated by the widespread regression of human discourse via social media. "For many, many years in modern life we prided ourselves on greater morals and being smarter than we were in the Middle Ages," Forge explains. "But I think that online mannerisms are very close to open-square stonings many hundreds of years ago when people were fucking barbarians."
He points specifically to online bullying. "Twenty years ago, before the internet and before social media, if you were a kid who was bullied, at least you had the luxury of being able to shut the door and leave the bullies outside," he says. "It was something that took place in the confines of school or [on] the way home from school. If you were spoken of in negative terms, it might not reach you, whereas now you cannot hide. You're constantly in the spotlight, open to anyone's spite. And I don't think that that's necessarily a good power to hand over to man."
Ultimately, then, the rats are us. "Rats are a disease-spreading enemy in great numbers that come from all over, that surround you," Forge offers. "Rats come from the sewer. They can come up from your toilet. They can come up through your sink. They're in your walls, if you're unlucky."
He's sure it's all leading somewhere, but Forge doesn't claim to have a crystal ball. "We're at a point where something needs to shift, but I don't have the answer," he concludes. "I don't think the world will implode or disintegrate, but I think that it needs to shift somehow. And it will."
There's another aspect to Prequelle that might not be immediately apparent: the age-old story of the master and the apprentice, of the older generation passing the torch to the younger. "That's why we have a new guy," Forge explains. "The Cardinal is not the boss. He's just the toastmaster. A cardinal is junior to a pope figure. We still have Papa Emeritus [Zero, a.k.a. Papa Nihil] but he's passing on. He needs to teach the Cardinal to become a pope, to earn his skull paint."
Forge says it was always the plan for Ghost to have a succession of Papas. Each one has a built-in term limit — kinda like presidents. "And then there was gonna be a moment in time where you have to sort of chew through a little bit of an underdog person that you might not like," he says with a laugh. "So we end up with this character that I'm not even fond of myself. He's new and he is an imposter and he hasn't proven himself yet. But if he does, he will become Papa IV."
As for the previous Papas, Ghost revealed in an April video that they'd been slain to make way for Copia; their bodies have been on display for VIP ticket-holders on the band's trek in support of Prequelle. "They're gonna be put back in use now on tour," Forge says playfully, "but slightly less animated than before."
It's all part of his grand plan. "Obviously Ghost and everything that comes with it is based very much on a rock fan perspective," he says. "It's my way of trying to procreate with rock history. I've achieved so many things now that 10 or 15 years ago were inconceivable. And I'm not at all talking about monetary gain. I'm talking about just merging with the night, like with a dream of whatever it was that I encountered as a child. That's still the thing I'm trying to capture."