Horror, Satanism and the female orgasm with Ghost's Tobias Forge
This article first appeared in The Big Issue for Halloween 2019, just before Ghost's incredible Ultimate Tour Named Death hit the UK.
Thirty-one years ago, in Linköping, Sweden, a mean old teacher stood in the way of her young freedom-loving pupil. She was condescending and bitter; she didn’t like talking back; she didn’t like heavy metal… and she was deeply Christian. She also inadvertently provided essential kindling for the biggest, most theatrical, occult rock act in the world today.
That student was Tobias Forge, now the mastermind behind Grammy-winning metal band Ghost. “I found it so weird that she was supposed to be representing good and she was just a mean, backward-thinking bag of shit, basically,” he tells The Big Issue. “That was generally my impression of Christianity, and of Christians: they were mean and stupid and didn’t like fun things. And so, fuck them.”
Steeped in infernal imagery and horror movies, Ghost is precisely the band you need at this most haunted time of year. Revelling in a backstory based in a semi-fictitious cult, they’ve been fronted by a series of Satanic priests (each of them actually Forge) with the rest of the band made up of masked musicians known as Nameless Ghouls. After cycling through four incarnations of skull-faced Pope Papa Emeritus, Ghost’s frontman is currently rejoicing in the persona of ambitious and light-footed Cardinal Copia.
Their live show – due to hit the UK in its biggest-ever incarnation very soon – is as much ritual as gig. Recalling the dark pomp of Alice Cooper or Kiss, they leave a wave of ‘Grucifix’-wearing converts in their wake.
We spoke to Tobias Forge between shows on the American leg of their Ultimate Tour Named Death…
Can you tell us a bit about what we can expect for your upcoming UK dates?
You will have basically the tour that we are on now – we’re just shipping that over to Europe. So, it’s a full production, arena show. Which is very, very cool. I am very happy about that because we’ve never really done like a full show in the UK ever.
For a long time we were stuck in the academy circuit. The academy circuit is so whimsical, it’s like, one venue might be okay – like the Manchester Apollo is nice and then you go to other cities, and the stages are just absolutely bullshit. So small, you can’t do anything. My motto is that if you pay the same money to see the show, you should get the same thing. Right?
That seems fair.
I’ve always been extremely adamant about moving into rooms where we can bring our own stage and bring our own production. And that’s what we’re doing this time. And I’m very happy about that.
It’s almost Halloween… do you have a favourite horror film?
I don’t have one favourite horror film, I have many. I generally believe that the best horror films were made by filmmakers who did one horror film and the rest of them they did was thrillers and drama. One example is Stanley Kubrick. The Shining is definitely one of the best horror films ever made. And so is Jaws. And so is Silence of the Lambs. The Exorcist. Dracula, Ford Coppola’s version, is one of my favourite films of all time.
A horror film shouldn’t just be about that spectacular death or that jump scare. Now, everything is just about jump scares. That’s not cool.
In Rats [the lead single for latest album Prequelle], you sing about living in times of turmoil, which we certainly are. Do you think that Ghost has a message for us in those times?
I think that there’s a message there if you want. Ironically, we’re not trying to preach. We’re here to entertain, to make you feel better about yourself, to feel content with life, and inspire you to live. And, to whatever extent we can, aid people and the world to either become a better place... or to not become a worse place.
In the greater scheme of things, I don’t think that we’re, you know, significant enough for the world to change, but who knows?
You attract a larger female contingent than we see for most metal acts. Do you have a theory about why that is?
A few years back when we were a little bit more clandestine, and people in general didn’t know who we were, I believe that part of the attraction was the fact that you could place whomever you wanted underneath that mask. [Forge’s identity as the leader of Ghost was only unveiled in 2017 as a result of a court case filed by his former bandmates over their share of revenue for the band.] So, whomever you fancy you can just pretend that was the person. But on the other hand, I also think that there’s the same rules of attraction – the music probably attracts people and the show probably attracts people. I don’t see that there’s that big of a difference between boys and girls.
And there are not many bands that finish their gigs with an ode to the female orgasm [the song Monstrance Clock]. So that has to help.
Right. That’s important stuff.
Do you miss the greater degree of anonymity that you used to have before you were ‘unmasked’?
I still have the luxury of being able to differentiate between myself and my onstage character, which is a luxury that many artists don’t have. I am not expected to be anything like my character in private. So, I’m still very fortunate.
I did not choose to dictate the imagery of this band based on the fact that I was shy, or I didn’t want to be famous. I wanted to be as famous and recognised as anyone else putting a guitar onto his or her crotch. But over the years of having both – being in a famous band, but not being super famous myself – I’ve come to enjoy the fact that I can go in and out of that.
I am not asocial but I definitely have an asocial streak, that I need to be by myself. I like to just go around y myself and I like to do simple things. I like to go to dive bars to play pinball. I like to go to record stores – and I like to do it by myself or in the company of a few friends. If I can still do that, I’m a happy boy.
Of course, to those of us watching closely, it wasn’t a full surprise whenever when you were unmasked. There were a few leaks. Rob Zombie memorably posted an Instagram photo with you without your mask. I wonder, did you rap his knuckles afterwards?
No. He explained it as just a mistake. He has no reason to flaunt a picture like that. It doesn’t serve him, his purposes. And he’s not a junkie, that way. You know, of ‘like’s, or whatever. I really, really didn’t feel in any way that he was doing it with any malice or any intent.
He seems like a cool guy.
Oh, yeah. He’s a very cool guy. Very nice.
I wanted to ask you about Satanism, because it seems to be having a bit of a moment just now, especially following the release of The Satanic Temple documentary Hail Satan? I know that many of the followers of The Satanic Temple are big fans of yours. Is it welcome to have to have them in your corner?
Anything that has to do with – loosely coined – ‘Satanism’ is, of course, up my alley. It’s part of my DNA. As long as, the peddlers of whatever faith that is are still positive – and it doesn’t involve certain negative elements, and it doesn’t involve violence against innocents – I am for it.
Prequelle has seen Ghost grow even bigger – how do you plan to follow it?
I won’t go into detail. But let’s just put it this way… the next must be built on the momentum that we’re leaving off now. And where we’re leaving off is playing arenas. We need to make an album that sounds like an arena band. I cannot just phone a record in and pretend that I have nothing to live up to. It doesn’t work like that.