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"We already made a record about physical annihilation. This one is more about spiritual annihilation." That's Ghost mastermind Tobias Forge talking about the band's new album, Impera. As Forge points out, the Swedish occult-rock sorcerers covered death and decay on their 2018 album, Prequelle, which featured songs about the bubonic plague that served as an ominous portent of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It's late January, and Ghost are just two dates into their co-headlining U.S. tour with Danish rockers Volbeat when we catch up with Forge in Nampa, Idaho. The costumed Swedes already made a big splash on opening night in Reno, Nevada, by debuting the song "Kaisarion" from Impera. The album also includes their Halloween Kills cut "Hunter's Moon," the infectious Hollywood rock–inspired "Griftwood" and lead single "Call Me Little Sunshine," a sinister yet oddly comforting track that recalls the lyrical tone of their Grammy-winning 2015 song "Cirice." Thematically, Forge explores the dismal correlations between the 1920s and the 2020s, the ongoing effects of the Industrial Revolution and a world teetering on the brink of disaster.
Ghost being Ghost, the night included a few optical surprises, as well. Mirroring the record's visual themes, Forge's faceless bandmates the Nameless Ghouls appeared in gear that combines a nearly century-old military look with an unlikely Star Wars–inspired style (more on that later), while Prequelle vocalist Cardinal Copia — having earned his promotion to Papa Emeritus IV — also showcases new stage attire and slightly different makeup.
In our in-depth conversation with Forge, he discusses Impera's astute sociological themes, the looming specter of history and Ghost's support of transgender youth.
THE TITLE OF YOUR NEW ALBUM IS A REFERENCE TO IMPERIALISM. WHY IS THAT THE UMBRELLA THAT THE ALBUM SITS UNDER?
TOBIAS FORGE 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. I really, really hope that what this record is about is not as clairvoyant as Prequelle turned out to be.
YOU MEAN THE PLAGUE THEMES OF SONGS LIKE "RATS"?
Yes. 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 PANDEMIC-RELATED?
I've said in the past that our albums are thematical 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 free thinking 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.
YOU'VE RELEASED "CALL ME LITTLE SUNSHINE" AS A SINGLE. TO ME, THE SINISTER BUT COMFORTING VIBES RECALL "CIRICE" FROM MELIORA. IS THERE ANY CONNECTION?
Yeah, I think like "Cirice," it falls into the role of something that tries to be equally enthralling and comforting but also menacing and dangerous. I've always liked that dichotomy. To me, that's always a pleasing concept. The song and video for "Call Me Little Sunshine" are meant to illustrate the isolative human being in her own little bubble, comforted by — in this case — opium. But she's on this train and, in the end, she meets her people. There's going to be a continuation of that in other videos. It's a little bit of a story.
I FEEL LIKE THERE'S ALSO A THEMATIC CONNECTION BETWEEN YOUR NEW SONG "TWENTIES" AND "MUMMY DUST" ALSO FROM MELIORA. THEY'RE BOTH TALKING ABOUT GREED AND MONEY.
That's absurd! [Laughs] Yes, they are similar in the sense that they are both the violent song on each record, with an uptick of aggression that the other songs don't have. "Mummy Dust" is speaking the words of the demagogue and the machinery of men promising you wealth. "Twenties" is similar in that there's this demagogue promising you dystopia or utopia, depending on how you're wired. They are speaking in the same voice, if you like.
DO YOU SEE ANY PARALLELS BETWEEN THE 1920S AND THE 2020S?
Absolutely. There are several things that seem cyclical, almost to the year, in terms of a hundred years ago because of the Spanish flu and — we're obviously not there yet, but there are world war vibes. Luckily, we seem to know a little bit better now. There seems to be a concept that because of trade and our fondness of our lifestyles, war is extremely impractical. But right now is very similar to the early 1900s, where one wrong decision could start off a really not good situation.
"GRIFTWOOD" IS MY FAVORITE TRACK ON THE ALBUM — AND IT SEEMS LIKE THE SONG IN WHICH YOU'RE HAVING THE MOST FUN. WHAT INSPIRED IT?
It's a fun song because it was written deliberately as, like, a concentrate of Hollywood rock. I'm not a huge fan of the sleaze metal that came after Guns N' Roses, but I love Mötley Crüe and Guns N' Roses and WASP, if you want to include them as sort of a shock-rock band from Hollywood. But I do love Van Halen, also, so you can see the palm trees in that song. You can feel the night breeze and summer wind in your convertible car. But it also has this other section that's like nothing a Hollywood band would ever do that made it feel very interesting. I feel like I haven't heard anything like it before, even though it has elements that already existed.
"HUNTER'S MOON" HAS BEEN OUT FOR A WHILE BECAUSE IT ALSO APPEARS IN THE MOVIE 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 GOT TO VISIT THE SET, AS WELL. WHAT WAS THAT LIKE?
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 last time, I flew down to Wilmington [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 to take a photo with Michael.
YOU KICKED OFF YOUR TOUR IN RENO A COUPLE NIGHTS AGO BY PLAYING A NEW SONG "KAISARION," WHICH HADN'T BEEN RELEASED YET. WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO DO THAT?
Because it's the opening of the record, and it's such a call to arms. It feels like an obvious starting track. It has a real euphoric feeling. But as happy and uplifting as the track is, musically, the lyrics are extremely sad. It's one of the most bitter tracks ever. [Laughs] It's a big elegy for mankind. As the song says, I'm not good with deadlines or memories or regrets. But those are the basic elements that trigger a lot of people to either work on themselves — or work on other things.
YOU ARE ALSO PLAYING YOUR "ENTER SANDMAN" COVER LIVE FOR THE FIRST TIME. THE STUDIO VERSION IS PART OF METALLICA'S BLACKLIST COVERS COMPILATION. DID THEY ASK YOU TO COVER THAT PARTICULAR SONG?
In 2018, when they were going to be given the Polar Music Prize, we were invited to play for them at the ceremony. I immediately said yes because they've been so instrumental for me, mentally and career-wise. Then they asked if we'd open the whole ceremony by playing "Enter Sandman" because that's their biggest song. And then I was like, "Uh … do we have to play that? There's so many other songs that would feel more comfortable." That's like playing "Smoke on the Water" or "Highway to Hell." I felt we would just look like a bad cover band. But they said that's what they wanted, so they asked us to consider it.
Then I went into the studio and recorded a demo because I had an idea of how to develop the melody into more of a harmonic passage. When I listened back, I felt like we could pull it off. So we did it for the ceremony [with Candlemass as the backing band] and everyone was happy … and I didn't think much else of it. Fast forward to when they asked us to be a part of the Blacklist record. We'd already done a version of it, so I felt like if we could do one that could rock even more, it would be OK.
THERE'S A CHARITY COMPONENT TO BLACKLIST AS WELL, RIGHT?
Yes, they also asked us to pick a charity to support. I had heard about this organization called Camp Aranu'tiq that was organizing summer camps for transgender kids. I felt that was a cool little connection because the track is being sung to a child, and also has that threatening but comforting hand being sort of held over the kid. So, it felt like, "Fuck yeah — that's something we can completely support." And the way royalties flow, the more we play it live, the more money is generated for them, so we knew we had to play it on this tour. Every time we play it, more revenue ends up in their hands to allow these kids to go to these camps. Many of these kids don't dare to be themselves where they live, so these camps are good for that.
WHAT A FANTASTIC CAUSE.
It's ironic because we're dressing up to become what we want to become. We have to transform. So that's an additional little connection there. And I love the song, and we're doing it for the kids.
YOU MENTIONED DRESSING UP, WHAT INSPIRED THE NAMELESS GHOULS' NEW STAGE ATTIRE?
I wanted a sort of militant look, but any time you have people in uniform and in plural, you end up with a slight military vibe. But I wanted to progress that from cult members to more like an army. So you have a little bit of Thirties European there, and also old air-pilot helmets. As a Star Wars fan, I've always been into the Tusken Raiders [who appear in the films as a culture of nomadic indigenous warriors on their desert planet] and their sort of lifeless look, so that was also part of it.
GHOST HAS COME A LONG WAY SINCE RELEASING A DEMO IN 2009. HOW DOES IT FEEL GOING INTO 2022?
Had I known almost 15 years ago that this band would've become something, I would've chosen a name for the band that was more like Cirice — which means "church" — to sum up what we're doing. We're emulating a religious experience by simply doing the same things as a church: gathering people, overpowering them with sensation and trying to make them feel something. The only difference is that we try to make people feel fucking good about themselves instead of making them feel like shit.
CREDITS: Photography assistants: Matt McGinley and Robert Nelson; production coordination: Sammi Chichester and Rob Menzer; local production: Jennifer Pio; wardrobe and makeup: Shelby Gallagher; events & space use manager at St. Ann & the Holy Trinity Church: Lauren Bakoian