Ghost on how their satanic cathedral turned into a family affair
Ghost have created something so special, you would almost think they struck a deal with the devil. Since their 2006 formation, the Swedish metal outfit have turned lyrics about defecating the holy eucharist into quaint singalongs, sold marital aids sculpted in the shape of their frontman’s head, performed on late-night TV to an audience of the demonically possessed and are currently playing stadium shows with Metallica—and all the while, they’ve only been giving it about 20-30%.
“This sounds like a joke, and I’m saying it sort of smiling, but it’s true—everything you’ve ever seen us do has always been a lesser version of what I had in mind. Always. 100%. So my original vision for everything is always twice as ambitious and goes through so many changes that we usually end up with 20 or 30% of it,” Tobias Forge says, also currently known as Cardinal Copia.
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Forge, 38, is the Walt Disney figure “band boss” who conducts the decadent dark magic and weird whimsy that are Ghost—a band as humorous as they are blasphemous; as Beach Boys as they are Black Sabbath. They’re arguably the only group who can make an ABBA cover feel like it belongs on a record that contains a track about the conception of the Antichrist.
For those still uninitiated in the theatricality of the band’s iconography and public persona, Ghost are a band of nameless ghouls adorned in uniform black clerical garb and chrome-plated devil masks that are blank-eyed and devoid of mouths and any distinctive facial features. Forge has portrayed a different persona for each of the band’s records, always the demonic leader of the group. He’s been four versions of the satanic antipope, Papa Emeritus, over the course of their first three records and currently assumes the role of Cardinal Copia for their latest release, 2018’s Prequelle. Copia is a loose-skinned, expressionless creature of the Id decked out in a lavish tuxedo and inverted crosses galore, but regardless of the persona, the man behind the unholy imp strives to fully embody his role.
“What I like, especially when you’re stepping into a character, is never to be forced to step out of that character, which you have to do at times,” Forge says. “You allow yourself to become that weirdo onstage that dances ridiculously and does those things, and it just comes naturally. That gives me a kick because I personally transform into someone that I’m not really myself, at least when I’m sober. I’m not very much like that guy onstage in real life, but I can invoke that person by getting all that shit on, getting into character and going up onstage and that thing just happens. All of a sudden, I think differently, I say almost whatever comes into mind...it’s allowing yourself to just go on every impulse, and that’s what makes that character funny as well—he’s obnoxious.”
Throughout the history heavy music, there have been many theatrical bands, but Ghost are not only theatrical, they are theater. The band members are fully committed to their parts. The Nameless Ghouls are truly that—Nameless Ghouls; when onstage, Forge is absolved of himself and exists solely as Cardinal Copia. Forge’s full commitment to concept and character requires him to not only assume the roles of songwriter and frontman, but he also serves as the band’s chief playwright and director. Regardless of role or job description, Forge is, more than anything, an artist possessed by one thing: the idea of finding an unpremeditated flow.
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“There is a narrative for every album cycle, and I do envision every show as a play, slightly more than your traditional rock ’n’ roll show even though we are a rock ’n’ roll band,” he explains. “It’s also, to the point, theatrical improvisation, in the vein of Bruce Springsteen where he asks the crowd, ‘What do you want to hear?’ That would not work with Ghost. It would disrupt the flow. It’s just not orchestrated that way. It’s not written that way. The setlists would crumble as soon as someone would yell out ‘Monstrance Clock,’ which is our last number. If we played that second, it would fuck up the whole thing. Whereas other bands and other artists, like Bruce Springsteen, have such a massive [catalog] of songs. He has so many ballads and so many uptempo songs that he knows that ‘I can play seven of them in the beginning, and it doesn’t matter because I still have 14 of them in the end.’ So he get away with doing four hours of that.
“As I said, I’m a stickler for flow,” he continues. “I really want it to flow like a Karate kata. I really want it to be like The Matrix when everything just slows down, and he just stands there. It just flows right through me. That’s what I want to achieve every night. So therefore, I regard it as a little bit more of a theater play where there’s a script, and my goal is to do it as fluently as I can without thinking. I don’t want to overthink things at all, and once I step into the character, I preferably want to stop thinking, because if I start thinking, then I start going through the moves, and I start faking it, and that’s what I want to avoid. By having a rigid setlist and a plan, I’m able to get myself and everyone else to do that.”
To many, the early allure of Ghost was how fully devoted the group’s players were to their parts, predicated on the clandestine charm of no one knowing the identities of the band’s members. The faces and names of Papa Emeritus and his Nameless Ghouls were completely shrouded in a secrecy that helped ease their fans into fully suspending disbelief and treating the presentation of the music with as much gravitas as a satanic clergy would command. In deep pockets of the sect, the name “Tobias Forge” had been whispered and attached to the Papa Emeritus character for most of their career, but it wasn’t until 2017 that Forge’s identity would be publicly confirmed as the ringleader of the group.
“I had come to a point in my life and in my career where not doing certain things was not doing me any favors,” he reveals. “It was making life hard, harder than I felt was necessary, and I just felt like now, almost 10 years into my career, the time and effort that I’m putting into the visual presentation should be so strong and so overshadowing whatever I do as a person on the side. So far, I’ve gotten the impression that that’s still the case. As long as I don’t overcompensate that, I don’t think that I will ever do anything that will overshadow the real focus of what I want Ghost to be.”
The 2019 Grammys provided Forge an opportunity to further challenge the public’s perception of Ghost. For the first time, Forge appeared in public as himself—stripped of all elements of pagan pageantry and accompanied by his wife. The couple walked the red carpet, posed for photos together and Forge conducted interviews without any trace of his Cardinal Copia alter ego.
“A lot of fans seem to embrace a lot of things that are mine, like my personal traits, and I’ve tried not to bring that into my presentation,” he shares. “But if they hold on to those and want to include it in their perception, there’s really nothing I can do about that. As long as they find that enriching or interesting, then...fine. The only thing would be those fans, who liked Ghost on the premise that it was something that they knew nothing about, and seeing my face on the red carpet may have destroyed all that and they don’t listen to Ghost anymore...OK. Too bad. These are the turmoils and tribulations that you stand in front of as an artist, you know? [Laughs.] You can’t let that dictate your life just because you’re aware of it.”
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The meteoric rise of the band’s notoriety is nothing short of stunning. Throughout their career, the throughline of their material is the one thing they’ve never attempted to keep secret—this band make music about worshipping the devil. There’s nothing discreet or hidden. There is no veil of metaphor to pull aside, no subtlety. They write songs about Lucifer, and they perform on a stage that’s designed to give their audience the experience of attending a satanic church service. Throughout their catalog, they have songs that romanticize plagues, call for the coming of the Antichrist and very literally glorify the dark lord Lucifer, yet their latest release was sold in Target stores with two exclusive bonus tracks and a collectible lenticular album cover.
They’re the rare band who can fully embrace controversial and culturally taboo subject matter without listeners having to play their records backward to find it, yet they write such inherently catchy pop hooks that songs such as “Dance Macabre” are the perfect soundtrack for both your occult worship ritual after-party and something you could probably play if you were driving your mom to the grocery store. They’ve found a way to stay true to the Black Mass and still speak to the masses, and with that unique platform comes an extremely diverse audience and a fanbase who has grown out of the traditional heavy-metal demographic.
“When we’re playing bigger places for some reason, it’s a little more of a family event, to a certain extent,” Forge says. “The people are more in tune with the level that what we want to have it because we’ve been trying to get the point across that we want people to be excited. We want people to stand. We want general admission, big floor in front of the stage. I don’t like seeing frowns. I don’t like seeing feet, but you can’t start moshing. You can’t start hitting people. You can’t stage dive because there are kids everywhere, and there are small girls everywhere, and there are teenage boys and girls that cannot lift you because, you know, you’re a 40-year-old hardcore dude with a lot of muscle. You can’t jump on them.
“I think there’s often a clash sometimes—we are a metal band, originally,” he continues. “Sometimes there have been these clashes where you have the die-hard fans who’ve been with the band ever since [the beginning] who are used to going to metal shows only, and they want to claim Ghost as ‘this,’ and at a metal show, you do ‘this,’ and then you have this 15-year-old daughter of a dad, and they did not go to see Mayhem last week, and they were not at Slayer three weeks ago.”
In support of Prequelle, Ghost have been playing two-and-a-half hour sets with the ultimate goal of having their audience “come in overexcited and leave completely euphoric.” Currently, they’re touring as direct support for Metallica. The tour is further indication of the band’s rising celebrity, having earned the opportunity to play a one-hour set every night, but the gig has also posed a challenge to Forge’s ever-persistent pursuit of “flow.”
“It’s very different from the tours we’ve done so far in this cycle, because it’s supporting again,” he explains. “It’s stadiums. We’re playing for one hour, which is nothing for us. But the stage is four times bigger than an arena stage or a theater stage, so there’s a lot of real estate to cover, and it’s daytime. More often than not, it’s going to be maybe sunset, at best, but it’s going to be an afternoon or evening sun, straight in your face and also, not our crowd. It’ll be a Metallica crowd. They’re waiting for Metallica to play, so it’s a different vibe.”
Although touring in the Metallica support slot, Ghost have been afforded their full stage production setup, transforming the nightly stadium into a cathedral dedicated to Copia’s depraved church—giving the performers a fitting stage and the audience a fully immersive experience. Yet, despite the garish stage pieces and meticulously ornate sets that become more and more elaborate with his band’s growth, Forge heeds to the idea that with everything he does, what the audience sees is a compromised version of his initial vision. Whatever you see Ghost do is about 20-30% of what Forge wants it to be. Currently, Forge is fixated on the potential he sees in using the intermission during their two-hour set to elevate the show to the next level of theatricality.
“The idea with the intermission, originally, was for the stage to change so when we open up again, it would be a different stage. Things like that are what I’m aiming to do in the future if we can stay on an arena level, where we can bring our own stage. Then I would like to do that—whatever we started with ends up being something completely different. I want it to evolve. I want it to change, the same as when you go to see Phantom Of The Opera. They change the themes, and it takes you from A to F, and that’s what I’m hoping to achieve in the end. I think we’re doing a good job of getting people happy and euphoric, but I definitely think we could probably shift gears even more to get people completely euphoric when they leave. But it takes time, and there’s a lot of stars that need to align, and there’s a lot of things you need to work your way up to in order to have that consistency.”
So far, the stars have aligned for Ghost in ways that often never manifest themselves past the point of prayer. Their unlikely amalgam of occult phantasmagoria and radio-ready mass appeal is most likely a once-in-a-lifetime deal—but while it’s happening, Forge is fully devoted to serving Ghost’s congregation.
“I have no problem playing the same songs all the time as long as you have a crowd, as long as you have people there to do it with you,” he asserts.. “So that’s the one thing I’m always hoping for...happiness.”
The band’s latest Prequelle is available now here. Ghost are hitting a handful of U.S. festival weekends and returning in September for a full run. You can check out a full list of dates and tickets here.