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"I really, really hope that this record is not as clairvoyant as Prequelle turned out to be." That's Ghost mastermind Tobias Forge talking about how the band's plague-centric 2018 album served as an ominous portent of the COVID-19 pandemic. He's also talking about how its follow-up, Impera, offers some grim end-game observations about the ongoing political turmoil that ramped up during that same period. "We already made a record about physical annihilation," he says of Prequelle. "This one is more about spiritual annihilation."
With Prequelle vocalist Cardinal Copia having earned his promotion to the esteemed position of Papa Emeritus IV, Ghost are in prime unholy form on Impera. The band's latest full-length — a critically acclaimed chart-topper that would go on to win Ghost an American Music Award for Favorite Rock Album — includes the Halloween Kills end credits song "Hunter's Moon," the infectious, Blondie-inspired "Spillways" and standout single "Call Me Little Sunshine," a sinister yet oddly comforting track that recalls the lyrical tone of their Grammy-winning 2016 song "Cirice" (which had also earned the band another Grammy nomination for Best Metal Performance). Thematically, Forge explores the perilous correlations between the 1920s and the 2020s, the ongoing effects of the Industrial Revolution and a world teetering on the brink of disaster.
In a pair of wide-ranging conversations taking place both before and several months after the album's release, we spoke with Forge about the making of Impera. We've combined the highlights and key observations into one comprehensive piece that details the philosophical origins, historical backdrop and artistic approach behind Ghost's fascinating fifth album.
HOW DID YOU APPROACH IMPERA DIFFERENTLY THAN PREVIOUS GHOST ALBUMS?
TOBIAS FORGE Conceptually, I had the idea years back. So the lines were drawn up. I even had conversations about the front cover with Zbigniew Bielak, the artist, when we played in Poland in 2019. We were sketching the front cover. So the title and the concept were already in place.
Prequelle was a little bit stricken with the circumstances around me at the time. This is not me saying that it's a subpar record. I think Prequelle is really cool, but I won't neglect to say that it was put together and largely written in a state of weakness, if you will — or in a weakened state. Even though I was on the mend, there were a lot of things going on around me at the same time. Looking back on Prequelle in the rearview mirror, you could really tell that I was going on fumes.
ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT THE LAWSUIT [BROUGHT BY FORMER MEMBERS OF THE BAND IN 2017], OR MORE PERSONAL STUFF?
It was a combination of both. It was several things collapsing at the same time. And there were a lot of positive things that happened as well, so just because I'm saying things were hard at the time or it was tumultuous, doesn't mean that it was just a complete sobfest. It just means that it was hard to find energy to, for example, write two more songs. Looking back on Prequelle, I think it's a little instrumental-heavy. It's a little ballad-heavy. And if I had been completely there with no problems, the record wouldn't have sounded like that at all, probably. A lot of the good things on it are actually a result of that, but some of the execution and the reason why I didn't find strength to write at least one more hard-rock song to put on there was because I couldn't. I was not in the state where I could do that.
SO YOU WANTED TO REMEDY THAT WITH IMPERA.
Yes, because Impera was done in a completely different state of mind, a completely different place in life. That alone felt like a big comeback from the whole vibe that was surrounding Prequelle. And also, I got more time. I did not know that in the beginning of writing Impera, but by the spring of 2020, obviously that coincided with news that the world is just going to shut down for an unspecified amount of time.
And I feel now — especially now — like one of those stock-market people who just accidentally made the right prediction. I saw a lot of people around me who were panicking, and rightly so. That was justified because a lot of bands had records coming out in a week or two. They had tours that were just being canceled. They had not planned for this at all. They are depending on those 70 shows to happen. They are depending on that money coming in. These are people with no formal education. These are people that have no plan B. Their last job was 20 years ago. But still, they have a house, they have two kids, they have this, that and the other. I was not in that position. I was so lucky that I had already planned this. Our last show was March 3, 2020. Then our album cycle was done.
YOU COULDN'T HAVE PLANNED IT BETTER.
Yes. So I am going to embrace this fucking great deal that I got from someone. If you want to call it [from] above or below, or whatever, I got dealt this great hand. I am not going to pester my kids, my wife, my friends with anything but happiness about being able to be home for the first time in 10 years, being able to work without pressure and just enjoy what I've accomplished. Because of that, I was able to step out of a lot of the fucking horrible things that a lot of people were going through at that point. Now, in hindsight, we know that this or that program saved this and that money from here got transferred to there — and the world didn't end. But at that point, we were told that it was going to maybe never come back. And that was also what a lot of people even in showbiz were saying.
WHAT DID YOU THINK WOULD HAPPEN?
I was never that bleak, ever. I thought they were wrong when they said, "Your live shows will never come back." Or, "This is the new normal." I was like, "Well, we don't know that." I know that the entertainment business works in a different way. As soon as the world can come back, it will. I'm talking not only about music, but wrestling, football, soccer. We're talking [millions] of people on a weekly basis buying parking spaces, popcorn and tickets. Are you fucking kidding me? There's no way that capitalism is going to let that slip through their hands. Fuck off. It's going to be rocky, but we're going to be rocking.
I actually had an excellent time at home with my family. I wrote a record, and we watched a ton of series, and I got a lot of time with my kids, so — all good.
ON IMPERA, CARDINAL COPIA FROM PREQUELLE GRADUATES TO BECOME PAPA EMERITUS IV. WAS THAT DEVELOPMENT INEVITABLE, OR DID YOU HAVE OTHER POSSIBILITIES YOU WERE TOYING WITH?
It was always the storyline. You could toy with the idea of things being another way, but I thought of it as a nice experiment to see this morphosis of the character that we hadn't done before, since we've always encountered a new character with each album. But it felt fun on Prequelle to introduce this understudy who's sort of a loser in a way. He's not really there yet, and things are unclear. But when you see this person go from one thing to another, that was something new. It felt fresh.
THE TITLE, IMPERA, IS A REFERENCE TO IMPERIALISM. WHY IS THAT THE UMBRELLA THAT THE ALBUM SITS UNDER?
Whereas Prequelle was more about individual, faith-seeking annihilation, this is more about empire and its mechanisms of self-destructing — and how that is not a new thing in any way. People here in the West have always looked back on anything before, say, 1984, as barbarism and a thing of the past, whereas everything that happens now is a new world where everything is status quo. And that is obviously not true. Empires rise and fall.
WHAT GOT YOU THINKING ALONG THOSE LINES?
You know, I'm very Western. I love pop culture. I love modern life. I love electricity and all of that. [When the pandemic started], it was a nightmare to understand just how extremely dependent I am on pop culture, basically, for everything to work. Two years of not going to shows and not playing shows and not functioning… It's scary to understand how much the things that we love and do and hold so dear are still frail.
But I do have faith in mankind. I think it is somewhat rooted to persevere. But the last couple of years, there have been strong signs of someone or some kind of mechanism pushing buttons that are insanely destructive. It's kind of throwing back time about a hundred years in so many ways. I mean, I understand why you would want to do that, in a way. I would love to build a time machine and go back to 1985, but I don't want to go back to 1926 or 1939.
YOU'VE MENTIONED THAT THE THEMES OF IMPERA ARE ISOLATION, DEMI-GOD WORSHIP AND COLONIZATION OF BOTH SPACE AND THE MIND. IS THE ISOLATION PART RELATED TO THE PANDEMIC?
I've said in the past that our albums are thematic more like Iron Maiden albums rather than King Diamond albums. That means the songs are loosely based on a theme or a frame of mind, and all the songs are reflections from within that empire, if you will. That also ties in with the visual aspect of the album, which is Victorian, Gothic, kind of late 1800s — when the industrialization of the world basically made people redundant, and how that affected them. Today, a large [part] of the turmoil we're experiencing in the West, specifically, comes from the fact that so many of us have been made superfluous. People don't have a purpose anymore — their sense of meaning is gone. And when you take that away from people, they sit around and think about shit that is not necessarily very good to think about.
THERE ARE TOO MANY DARK RABBIT HOLES TO GO DOWN.
Yes. And as much as I am an advocate for freethinking and liberalism, I also know that too much thinking will fucking kill you. It's not necessarily a good thing to be a philosopher all day long. Sometimes you just need to do physical chores and let steam out. Finding that balance will make you a better person and allow you to be friends with more people. It's like dogs: A nice dog is a dog that has been running a lot and spending time with other dogs playing and humping teddy bears — and then relaxing by the fire. And people are generally the same. So that's how isolation plays into Impera.
WHAT WAS THE FIRST SONG YOU WROTE FOR IMPERA, AND HOW DID IT SET THE TONE FOR THE RECORD?
I think the first song was probably "Call Me Little Sunshine." I did a demo of that in 2018 or '19. It set a tone because it was a slow song. I knew that I needed to ramp things up from there. "Hunter's Moon" was next, and that was obviously a more upbeat song. As soon as you've got one scene down, you know that you need to build that scene into a bigger concept. So when you start with a song like "Sunshine," you know that you're gonna need a little bit more power in other songs.
WAS THERE A BREAKTHROUGH MOMENT FOR YOU ON THAT FRONT?
I think the big moment for me was when "Kaisarion" was in place. I wanted to have a big opener — again, something that we didn't have for the album yet. I wanted to write a song that was in a major key, which is also unintuitive for me. But I wanted it to be like [Iron Maiden's] "Run to the Hills" or "The Number of the Beast," sort of a happy-sounding song with a negative sort of meaning. I like that "crazy smile" thing, if that makes sense.
IT DOES. AND I REMEMBER YOU TELLING ME THAT "KAISARION" WAS MEANT AS AN ELEGY FOR MANKIND. DO YOU THINK THAT IDEA WAS A PRODUCT OF THE PANDEMIC, OR DO YOU JUST HAVE A GENERAL SENSE THAT WE'RE DOOMED?
It didn't have a whole lot to do with the pandemic, but it had to do with current events. On the other hand, if you mean the isolation and therefore a certain degree of insanity erupting because of the pandemic — then yes, you'd be correct. I mean, there's a lot of contemporary comment or reflection in Impera and the lyrical themes. But I stress — and have stressed ever since I started talking about this record — that you can choose to call it contemporary or historical, because all of these things that we're going through have happened before. They just have a new name.
YOU ADDRESS THAT IDEA SPECIFICALLY IN "TWENTIES," WHERE YOU MAKE ALL THESE CORRELATIONS BETWEEN THE 1920S AND NOW.
Yeah. So it's not just that I took a newspaper and started writing off of what I saw there. It's reflections of things that I've been thinking about — historical accounts that I've known for a long, long time — and just comparing them to things that I've seen in the last five years.
"SPILLWAYS" WAS RELEASED AS A SINGLE AND VIDEO. WHAT WAS THE INSPIRATION FOR THE SONG?
I was intrigued to make a song that had a very frantic speed and a lot of info in a short window of time, where it's verse/chorus/verse/chorus to the point where it pops off. Because the song is slightly frantic, the lyrics need a similar desperation, I think. It's like [Blondie's] "Hanging on the Telephone." It's a very sad song when you think about it. "I'm hanging around by the telephone here. I want you to call me." It's very sad but also very fast.
THAT'S GREAT. I WOULD'VE NEVER MADE THAT CONNECTION.
A lot of the nice love songs by Blondie are slower because they're more set in their self-confidence or the idea that love is secure. But the title "Spillways" came from… I had this idea of spillways being a thing for the mind — it needs to come out somewhere. Again, you can draw comparisons to real life and how things are going in the political world, or what people think is going on politically. A lot of the not-so-flattering elements of society become the spillways. People that lack a sense of purpose or don't know how to handle things and don't know how to read things… I don't mean that as a literacy thing. I mean not knowing where you are and where you're heading. Like a dictator who feels cornered. It's a similar thing. The reason why it's gradually getting more irrational and more dangerous is because he is losing, and that is a problem when you have a person growing more and more desperate with their situation.
THAT WAS CERTAINLY ONE OF THE BIG POLITICAL THEMES IN AMERICA IN 2020 AND 2021. AND NOW AN EVEN WORSE VERSION IS HAPPENING IN EASTERN EUROPE.
And the same feeling might occur even if you're just a clerk living in a suburb. It's the sense of not being where you are. Your compass is not pointing you straight to a destination where you think you're at and you want to be heading. It's just circling around, and you don't know what you're doing, and you think you're about to lose everything. That's when you start doing dumb things either to yourself or to someone else.
So I just thought that "Spillways" was a nice analogy for something that I wish was a little bit more like an actual tool that people used. A lot of people do it when they go talking bullshit or drink beer to get really drunk. You feel worse the day after, but you also feel like you got something out of your system. And that's what spill-ways are. They make the overflow spill sideways so you don't have an implosion.
"GRIFTWOOD" IS MY FAVORITE SONG ON IMPERA. WHEN WE LAST SPOKE, YOU MENTIONED YOUR LOVE OF GUNS N' ROSES, W.A.S.P. AND MÖTLEY CRÜE, AND HOW YOU WANTED TO CAPTURE A LITTLE BIT OF THAT SUNSET STRIP FEELING IN THE SONG. WHAT DO YOU LIKE ABOUT THOSE BANDS?
My fascination with those bands is very narrow. If you look at the entire Sunset Strip phenomenon, I am very specific. In the early Eighties with Mötley Crüe and W.A.S.P., there was something dangerous. They were these semi-Satanic bad boys. Then Guns N' Roses really screwed people up with their [less-cartoonish] dangerous image. But all of a sudden, Poison came along and just fucked it up with these neon colors. This has nothing to do with sexuality; I just don't like those colors. And I don't like how they sound, with songs in major keys about stupid things that are not meant to be funny.
I like it when it's cerebral in some way, like Devo or [Frank] Zappa or Talking Heads. Or you can write dumb songs and be smart about it, like the Dickies. But if you're just dumb and write dumb songs in a dumb way with unintelligent thoughts, it just annoys me. After Guns N' Roses, there was this surge of bands that just sucked so much. They were caricatures, like a joke. And now Steel Panther does that, but really good. That's how it should have been. They do it in a hilarious way.
Yeah. But the real danger of the original era came from the first two Mötley Crüe records, the first W.A.S.P. record and [ Guns N' Roses'] Appetite for Destruction, obviously. Those records are phenomenal, and when I'm walking down the Sunset Strip — as if I do that all the time — that's the sort of shit I think about.
"CALL ME LITTLE SUNSHINE" HAS THE SAME COMFORTING-YET-SINISTER TONE THAT "CIRICE" HAS, AND "TWENTIES" HAS A SIMILAR LYRICAL TONE AND THEME TO "MUMMY DUST." BOTH OF THOSE SONGS ARE FROM MELIORA, AND YOU ACKNOWLEDGED THE CONNECTION LAST TIME WE SPOKE. BUT WERE THEY DELIBERATE THROWBACKS?
No, that was something that I reflected on as it came about. They're similar songs, but I'm never trying to write a re-press, or anything like that. It just happens sometimes. To compare it to making a film, it's hard to say, "Oh, we had a car chase in the previous film, so I can't do that again." OK, but how are they going to get away from the cops? Or even more basic: "I had cops in the previous film, so I can't do that again." I mean, you still need to have a story. It needs to take place in a world.
So just because you write "Call Me Little Sunshine" and it accidentally has a similar slow, creepy vibe, doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. That itself will summon at least my inclination to write something that is a counterbalance to that. And I guess "Twenties" became that counterbalance, even though it wasn't until I looked back on the record a little bit and realized it was kind of the "Mummy Dust" of Impera because it doesn't involve real singing. It's not my tonal singing. It's a little bit more of a satire song, a little bit more metal, a little bit more violent or aggressive.
"HUNTER'S MOON" APPEARED IN THE END CREDITS OF HALLOWEEN KILLS. YOU'VE TALKED ABOUT HOW THE ORIGINAL HALLOWEEN IS ONE OF YOUR FAVORITE HORROR MOVIES, SO HOW DOES IT FEEL TO BE A PART OF THE FRANCHISE?
Oh, it's really cool. That song was so inspired because I knew where it was going. It's so much easier writing if you know where the song is going to be. I've talked about this with songwriters who write songs for other people. If you know who's going to be singing it, it's so much easier to write than just sending song after song out into the darkness. Because then you can tap into elements and ingredients that might not be your go-to if you were just writing a song for your own catalog. I had a little bit of that feeling with "Hunter's Moon" when I was asked to contribute a song to Halloween Kills. I already had a few songs I was working on, but I immediately knew which one would work, and knowing its destination really opened up the writing process. I'm really pleased with the way the song turned out, and the film came out quite good.
YOU ALSO GOT TO VISIT THE SET. HOW WAS THAT?
I'm very enamored by the film world, so it was so cool to be in that world for a while. When we were touring, I flew down to [North Carolina] on a day off to visit the set. I walked into this giant film studio, where they had built the houses on the street that you see in the movie. I got to see the Myers house and the hospital and a lot of the soundstages where they shoot.
Unfortunately, I didn't have an opportunity take a photo with Michael.