The Gospel of Cardinal Copia began barely a year ago, his birth as the new frontman of Ghost neither virginal nor particularly miraculous. But there he stands, a religious man of style and mystery: left eye icy blue and blazing, dressed in fine liturgical threads, leading a band of Nameless Ghouls in silver masks through songs of plague and vermin, love and death.
In the eleven months since the beatific release of Ghost's epic fourth album, Prequelle, much has happened in the world of this wildly theatrical metal act from Sweden. The first of these events was the reveal of Tobias Forge as the living, breathing mastermind behind the masks and papal vestments. Though he's never explicitly stated as such, it's widely understood that it's been Forge all along behind the mic, disguised in corpse paint and/or latex masks, first as a series of consecutive demonic popes called Papa Emeritus (Nos. I-III), before reemerging in 2018 as the grimly debonair Cardi Copia.
Prequelle was a medieval concept album that became a hit, spreading the word of Ghost to a growing congregation, in the U.S. reaching No. 3 on the Billboard album chart, and the Top 10 across most of Europe. An American tour filled theaters and last year delivered Ghost to select arenas in Los Angeles, New York and Montreal. It was all a preamble to Ghost's upcoming Ultimate Tour Named Death, a true arena tour of North America, where the band will deliver a fully realized, theatrical rock show of stained glass and fireballs this fall, beginning Sept. 13th in Bakersfield. (Ghost is also opening for Metallica this summer on a "WorldWired" European stadium tour.)
"For some reason and luckily for me, I have never really crumbled in front of challenges — maybe going to the dentist," Forge tells Revolver. "I've always got a kick out of doing challenging things. More than anything, it just forces me to go further."
As a lifelong devotee of Queen and Kiss, Forge is a true believer in the power of rock's epic sweep. Taking Ghost to its fullest potential as operatic spectacle is the ultimate fantasy-come-true for Forge, who birthed the band with few expectations a decade ago with a trio of satanic metal tracks.
"There were definitely moments where I had to walk into the arena in the morning and pinch myself a little bit: All these trucks are ours? All this is just for us?" Forge says of his experiences at the handful of headline arena shows Ghost performed last year in America. "I've always wanted to do this since I was a child. I've envisioned it so many times that I don't know really where the dream ended and it sort of went into reality."
Out of costume and out of character, Forge is a friendly and contemplative figure, a seemingly humble rocker and family man behind Ghost's larger than life image. And there is much still to be done as he heads into this final leg of Ghost's Prequelle cycle. To accompany the tour, he's just completed a new series of online video "webisodes" that dive deeper into the mystery of Copia through Gothic intrigue and comedy.
"There are a few episodes coming in the future that might bring some clarity as to who this fucker is," Forge says of Copia, without offering details. "My hope is that he gets to become Papa Emeritus IV. That is the goal. It just takes time and it takes effort. And that is what he's proving now."
The videos are an essential part of the band's mythology, and now Forge is close to realizing his ambition to create the first feature-length Ghost movie. If all goes well, the film will be shot before the end of the year.
"If it wasn't for the fact that I ended up finally being a musician, the one thing I really, really want to do in my life is cinema," Forge says. "Any chance I can have to do that, I'm definitely grabbing it."
There had been discussions about this over the years. As an especially visual band, with its own cavalcade of insane characters, the potential was obvious, but things often got stuck on the form a movie might take. "Most films about bands are biographical, and I see no reason to tell our story yet," says Forge, who still considers Ghost to be in its early years. "It's a little bit like premature ejaculation. You have to have a career first and then you can tell the real story, so that was never an option. And when you yank away that, what do you have? Well, that would be a fictional story."
He's confident that the story of the film has now been figured out, and would partly take place around a live concert. Figuring out the location, budget, etc. will make all the difference.
"The cog wheels are turning on that one," he says. "We're just trying to figure out a lot of the practicalities. Making a film is a big endeavor. Another problem that I have had over the course of my career is that I don't have a shit-ton of time. I am also a father of two kids and I'm married. I try to not to break my back. I've been so close so many times to overworking and I said yes to everything just because I was so keen on not losing momentum. I've learned over the years that it's really important not to do everything at once."
Beyond the film and the final leg of this tour, Forge is contemplating what comes next when he returns to the studio in 2020 to begin work on a new Ghost album. He's leaning toward a harder, riffier sound this time. He'll start in January and finish that summer.
"I want to make a different record from Prequelle. I want it to feel different," says Forge, being careful with his words to avoid misleading fans. "If I dare to say heavier, people think that it's going to be Mercyful Fate all the way ... but I definitely have a darker, heavier record in mind."
Prequelle, he says now, was "a little ballad heavy." The next one will lean more in the imposing direction of 2015's Meliora without repeating the same ideas. He's worked to make each album different, starting with 2010's gloomy, metallic debut, Opus Eponymous.
While the sound and message of Ghost remains rooted in the initial ideas he first had when he wrote the riff to "Stand by Him" as a mostly unknown metal player in Sweden, years before first trying on the pope attire. He's also made a point of evolving as a lyricist.
"I have always pushed myself to write the songs that we don't have instead of going back — it maybe would've been a smart move to just try to replicate Opus," he explains. "I can regurgitate. I grew up with metal. It's in my DNA, so I can formulate death-metal lyrics easily. But I try not to repeat myself on that.
"I like to make the Metallica comparison — where Kill 'Em All is a little bit more crude, on Ride the Lightning they started writing about more real things. It had more depth," he adds. "I'm not going change everything and just talk about politics, but I believe that if you have people's attention, you have responsibility to weigh with your words a little. Sometimes that is hard. I find that harder than the musical challenges."
Even so, the unexpected opportunity to take his vision of Ghost to ever larger scope across multiple albums and now onstage at arena-scale is a challenge he welcomes.
"I try to remind myself every day that it's pretty mind-blowing that we got to this spot. You need to try to appreciate 100 percent and do the best every day and nurture," Forge says, then adds with a laugh, "At the risk of sounding a little religious, this is a gift that you've been given."