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Ghost’s Tobias Forge talks about being sued by Nameless Ghouls, spurned by the Vatican and immortalized in plastic effigy

Rebirth of the ghoul

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Tobias Forge’s latest iteration of Papa Emeritus comes with moving parts. - MIKAEL ERIKSSON
  • Mikael Eriksson
  • Tobias Forge’s latest iteration of Papa Emeritus comes with moving parts.

When it comes to Swedish bands, Americans tend to think of pop icons like ABBA, black metal acts like Bathory, or the odd alt-rock band like The Cardigans, after which we stop thinking about them at all.

But that was before the band Ghost began its slow yet inevitable ascent. Hailing from Linköping, a city in Sweden known for its ornate cathedrals, the bandmembers concealed their secret identities beneath elaborate costumery, a time-tested tradition fostered by bands like Kiss and The Residents. 

Occupying centerstage was Papa Emeritus, a skull-faced character fond of ghoulish corpse paint, a high-pointed hat and ornate papal vestments decorated with upside-down crosses. Standing stock-still at the microphone, his face frozen in a miserable scowl, the singer appeared, for all intents and purposes, to be hovering at death’s door or just beyond it. His bandmates, unceremoniously referred to as “Nameless Ghouls,” wore hooded robes and black masks, a look that soon began showing up at European cosplay conventions. 

While this combination of corpse-paint, national origin and grinding guitar riffs led some critics to liken their sound to Swedish death metal, the keyboard-heavy liturgical vibe of Ghost’s early music arguably owed more to classic Pink Floyd. 

That’s especially true of “Secular Haze,” the breakthrough single from their 2013 sophomore album Infestissumam. Following its release, the band put out the Dave Grohl-produced If You Have Ghost, a five-song covers EP that includes the Roky Erickson song of the same name, as well as renditions of Depeche Mode’s “Waiting for the Night” and, appropriately enough, ABBA’s “Like a Marionette.” 

Tobias Forge’s latest iteration of Papa Emeritus comes with moving parts. - AGWILSON / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
  • agwilson / Shutterstock.com
  • Tobias Forge’s latest iteration of Papa Emeritus comes with moving parts.

But 2013 also had its share of disappointments, including the ascension of Pope Francis, who was elected on the fifth ballot, thwarting Papa’s hard-fought and highly publicized campaign for the position.

The rest is history, of a sort. Following a series of European dates with Metallica, Ghost are now embarking on an arena tour of their own that will include an Oct. 1 concert headlining the Broadmoor World Arena. Their single “Cirice” won the 2016 Grammy Award for Best Metal Performance, while their most recent album Prequelle and its single “Rats” were respectively nominated in this year’s Best Rock Album and Best Rock Song categories.

Along the way, the band has gone through a succession of Pope characters —  Papa Emeritus I, Papa Emeritus II, and Papa Emeritus III — who have since been replaced by the far more kinetic Cardinal Copia, who has more of a mafioso image and hyperactive stage presence. All four frontman roles have been played by Tobias Forge, whose identity was outed two years ago when four former Nameless Ghouls filed a since-dismissed lawsuit alleging unpaid wages.

Ghost have also undertaken a series of musical transitions that became especially obvious with last year’s Prequelle, a concept album that employs the 14th-century black plague as an allegory for our current troubles. While Forge hasn’t fully abandoned his band’s past sound, tracks like “Rats” veer toward the ’70s arena-rock sound of Def Leppard, Foreigner, and even Journey, with whom the band toured last year.

In the following interview, Forge holds forth on a wide array of subjects, including litigious ex-Ghouls, the Swedish anti-vaccine movement and his alter-ego’s forthcoming immortalization — alongside legendary artists like Prince and Jean-Michel Basquiat — as a Funko Pop! figurine. 

Sweden’s metal band Ghost will bring “The Ultimate Tour Named Death” to the Broadmoor World Arena on Tuesday, Oct. 1. - RYAN CHANG
  • Ryan Chang
  • Sweden’s metal band Ghost will bring “The Ultimate Tour Named Death” to the Broadmoor World Arena on Tuesday, Oct. 1.

Indy: Let’s begin by talking about the concept behind your most recent album. It opens with that really creepy version of “Ring Around the Rosie, ” which is always a good way to start an album about the bubonic plague. Was there any specific reason why you chose that theme at this particular point in history?

Tobias Forge: Well, I think there are important lessons to be learned from all chapters of history. The plague was an epidemic that wiped out half of Europe, and, we can assume, traumatized the Asian population as well. And back then, people in general were uneducated, they were superstitious, they were religious, they believed in hocus-pocus. So it must have literally felt like the end of the world was just going to happen tomorrow. And that is always an interesting concept. Because we know now that it was not the end of the world. You know, mankind persevered. So while I believe in environmental issues, and that there are a lot of things that can be done in order to make the world a better place, I also think there’s not as much doom and gloom as it may appear.

So what would you say are the lessons we can learn from that period?

I guess the most simple and most obvious one is that we can debate forever — all day and night — about what happens after we’re dead. But I can promise you that we do not know. We can hope for there to be an afterlife, or 72 virgins, or whatever else is on your wishlist. But there’s no way of knowing. And anyone who tells you that they know, they are lying because they want something from you, or they want you to believe in something. And so I think your time and your energy will be better spent trying to embrace life instead of being wary of death. Because life is fragile, and you don’t know if you’ll have another one.

And then there’s this myriad of human instincts that comes into play when apocalypse is near, and one of them is who’s to blame for this, that, and the other. Back in the plague days, as I said, there was this predominance of religious people who believed in hocus-pocus and were pretty uneducated and pretty fucking dumb. They believed that female sexuality was to blame for essentially God abandoning mankind. So while you had people dying off in droves, you also had these people killing women because they were good-looking or, in one way or another, enticed some sort of sexual arousal. And that was obviously the work of the devil, and while they were alive, they would interfere with the survival of mankind. But unfortunately, those kind of very uneducated and outright stupid people are still well-represented in the world, and it’s very important that we address that. 

Since you’ve researched and written about all this, I’m curious what you think about your country’s decision, back in March, to ban mandatory vaccinations.

Oh, that’s a good question, but I don’t really have a good answer. But I do think that there is a dichotomy between what the population might need, and what a pharmaceutical company needs for its own benefit. I’m trying not to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but about 10 years ago, there was an outbreak of a flu, and companies would have entire offices vaccinated. And, on first glance, it’s like, “That’s great how society and all these bosses and corporations came together.” And I’m aware that the number of people that actually came down with it was not that many. So was that because of this shot, or was it because maybe the threat wasn’t as great as they were saying it was? Because, more often than not, there’s an economic incentive somewhere for someone. But not being a biologist nor a chemist, I don’t know anything about stuff like that. So, as I said, I don’t have a straight answer. 

On a happier note, Funko’s Papa Emeritus II doll came out last month…

Yes, speaking of monetaries. [Laughs.]

That’s right. And I have to say, I’m really impressed by how realistic it is, especially in the way it just stands there and doesn’t do anything. How does it feel to be immortalized in that way?

I don’t really see it as that. I mean, when I sort of regard anything that we have done, even a photo, I don’t necessarily think of it as me being in that photo. I’m just sort of detached from the character on the visual side, which is to my benefit, actually. I’m way too vain, so I would have had a problem if it was my face that we were working with. So having the sort of official visuals of Ghost is actually quite liberating.

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I understand that you started out playing in punk and death metal bands. Was Ghost the first time that you got to indulge your pre-The
Wall Pink Floyd side?

No, I have played non-death metal in other bands before. But when Ghost started taking shape, I think I just found a way to write songs that sort of tick both boxes — one box being melodic pop-rock, or whatever it is, and the other being sort of metal. It felt playful, and it felt intuitive and progressive, for lack of a more fitting word. Whereas in the past, it’s like the metal bands were metal, and the rock bands were rock, and they didn’t combine the two. So I definitely found it more effective, and way more fun, to do something in between.

Your stage presence is way more kinetic these days, although pretty much anything is more kinetic than standing in front of a microphone and scaring people. But you’re reaching the point now where the choreography in a video like “Rats” is borderline Michael Jackson. Is that the result of having more personal confidence these days?

Yeah, I would definitely say that. There are critics of the band who feel that the less animated version in the beginning was better and more ominous, and that we should still be embracing that. But a lot of the cryptic nature of Papa I was due to being constrained by the costume and the size of the stage. 

And now we’re playing bigger places, where there’s way more ground to cover and there isn’t a single cord onstage that you can trip on, so of course you have to move around, right? I mean, if we were onstage now for two hours with that sort of unanimated version we were doing back in 2011, people would be demanding their money back. It’s just part of growing. You can see the same thing if you look at a clip of the Rolling Stones from 1964. Mick Jagger is Mick Jagger, but he’s definitely not the Mick Jagger that you see in 1969 or 1972. It takes time to build that confidence and find your own way of moving around.

I know you campaigned really hard for the pope’s job back in 2013. And I think a lot of your fans were really disappointed when the smoke came up the chimney and it turned out you didn’t get it. Do you think that your losing out to Pope Francis was the result of Vatican corruption?

Sure, most things going on there are because of corruption anyway. So I’m sure that was one of them. Or it might also have been my lack of faith — or my lack monetary means at the time — that prohibited my exaltation within the ranks of the Vatican.

And finally, I have a question about that lawsuit. Do you think that if you’d given names to your Nameless Ghouls, they would have been less vindictive?

You mean, if I’d given them names instead of making them completely anonymous? Probably, I guess. It’s hard to say. Because with most people that are drawn to the performance stage, you do so with a certain inclination to be seen and appreciated. So maybe if our positions were reversed, I would have felt the same way. Until seven or eight years ago, I really wanted to be famous, so my idea of being in a band was definitely different from what it turned out to be. 

I’ve been in charge and working on this full-time, nonstop, for 10 years. Other people in Ghost would work a few hours every day, and then, during the four months between tours when I was making a record, they weren’t really doing anything that had to do with Ghost. And since I was representing the band at all of the meetings, I was getting pats on the back and feeling like what I was doing was good. Whereas, if you had nothing to do with the day-to-day stuff, you maybe didn’t get the pat on the back that you needed in order to feel fulfilled in life. So, you know, maybe if they had gotten their name on there, and could at least be recognized in the street, maybe that would have changed things. But on the other hand, I’ve played with others who didn’t give a shit about that happening.

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