The Next Chapter: Tobias Forge And The Future Of Ghost
The WaMu Theater, Thursday 19 September. Last night this venue – attached to the side of CenturyLink Field, the home of the Seattle Seahawks NFL team – played host to the ‘Groover from Vancouver’ himself, Bryan Adams. Tomorrow it’s the turn of the Pacific Northwest city’s beloved sons, grunge legends Alice In Chains, for their last show in support of their sixth album, Rainier Fog. Tonight, though, Seattle gets the latest ritual on Ghost’s extensive Ultimate Tour Named Death.
Despite this morbid moniker, the scene inside the building is one of lively activity, with techs rushing around to finish the show’s elaborate staging. The house lights illuminate the stained glass window backdrop, while the seating, flat on the floor and sweeping upwards towards the back, furthers the illusion we’re in a vast church. Just then, Tobias Forge, the man whose job it is to address tonight’s 5,000-strong congregation appears. Kerrang! doesn’t notice him at first given the ninja-like silence of his approach, but there’s an intensity to his presence in these make-or-break moments of preparation.
“I’m interested in tour production, so I get to know a lot of these things,” he offers matter-of-factly. “I’m sure I only get to know about 40 per cent of it, but I notice if things aren’t in place.”
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As a nine-year-old child, Tobias used to watch the documentary 25x5: The Continuing Adventures Of The Rolling Stones on repeat. The film charts the rock legends’ genesis in 1962 and their steep, heady ascent to becoming the biggest band in the world, circa their 1989 album Steel Wheels. Tobias considers their subsequent Bridges To Babylon Tour (1997-1998), which made more than $274 million and became the second-highest grosser of all time, to be the greatest ever piece of rock staging, and he was evidently taking notes even then. As a result of the level of professionalism he aspires to, you get the distinct impression he’s not a man who suffers fools gladly in this setting – an idea he doesn’t go to great pains to dispel.
“I want to know who’s in the shit today,” he explains. “Who has been put in the situation where his or her job is compromised, because I don’t want to start yelling if it’s a case of, ‘Oh my truck didn’t arrive in time today,’ because then I’ll know what the problem is. If you want to be a good boss, it’s very important you keep things on your radar.
“I’ve definitely got into trouble over the years by being too nice to people and giving them too much slack,” he continues, surveying the operation. “When you do that it’s like with dogs: if you don’t tell them what the rules are, they start making up their own. That sounds horrible, but there are 40 people on this tour, so there has to be a line and a curriculum. I’m adamant about getting my vision through, especially now we’re in this transitional phase between theatres and arenas.”
This increase in scale reflects the continued upswing in Ghost’s popularity, which has seen them go from misunderstood cult band to metal superstar status in the space of less than a decade. Despite this success, Tobias clearly isn’t taking anything for granted. Ghost haven’t played Seattle for three years, but this time around they’re doing two shows in Washington State, the other being the one they played at the Toyota Center in Kennewick two days ago, which has a capacity of 6,000 – almost eight per cent of the city’s 80,000 population.
Tobias may or may not be referring to that show when he discusses his unbridled joy at recently playing in an unnamed city that doesn’t get a lot of large-scale entertainment coming through town, save for appearances from KISS, singer-songwriter Pat Benatar and a touring production of the musical Wicked in recent years.
“None of us had ever heard of this place, and I’m pretty good at geography,” he explains. “But I loved being the singular moment somewhere, instead of the seventh show they’d had there on that particular week.”
And while Tobias describes the resulting night as “phenomenal”, earlier in the day there was an “unforeseen curveball” when the company who were meant to be selling merch at the show pulled out at the last minute, citing Ghost’s satanic image for their decision. This was, of course, a throwback to earlier shows, such as one in the Texan city of Odessa in 2018, when a minister attempted to dissuade people from attending because of the band’s threat to the morals of good God-fearing people. Unsurprisingly, this outburst resulted in an increase in ticket sales.
Despite this more recent – and, these days, more unusual – blip, Tobias’ desire to cover as much ground as possible on tour this time around is inspired by his heroes in Iron Maiden and Metallica, who have long provided him with the blueprints for achieving and navigating monumental success. In this case, the lesson he’s putting into practice is that every location Ghost visit, without exception, should be treated the same.
“The most important thing to me on this tour is that we bring the same production to everyone,” he says. “They all get the full-fucking-monty, whether they’re in Sioux Falls [South Dakota] or New York.”
The walls backstage at the WaMu Theater are lined with Seahawks jerseys, personalised with the names of acts that have performed here, including The 1975, Bastille and Nas, and the rockier contingent featuring twenty one pilots, Halestorm and Dropkick Murphys. Various rooms lead off from these labyrinthine corridors, providing sizeable production offices for the band’s tour management and crew, all of who wear dapper black shirts, trousers and braces affixed with silver broaches of Ghost’s upside down cross insignia. They affectionately address Cardinal Copia as ‘Cardi C’ when he appears later for a fan meet-and-greet. Here, too, are the dressing rooms for the headliners and the opening act for this tour, San Antonio rockers Nothing More.
On all of the doors is a distinct A4 page, the day sheet for this show, which not only details what’s happening, where and when, but also includes a different tongue-in-cheek quote for the occasion. Today, for example, in recognition of the touring party travelling overnight to Vancouver for tomorrow’s show at the city’s Pacific Coliseum, we get this gem courtesy of Britney Spears: ‘The cool thing about being famous is travelling. I have always wanted to travel across seas, like to Canada and stuff.’
Tobias, of course, has actually travelled over oceans to be here. Nowadays he lives in Stockholm, the capital of his native Sweden, with his wife and their 11-year-old twins, but he was born in Linköping, the country’s seventh largest city, where the steeple of its 13th century cathedral dominated the skyline. That’s not what the young Tobias was fixating on, though. Instead, aged five, when he already knew he wanted to transform into another person, he’d stand outside his childhood home and gaze down the street. The sun always seemed to be hovering between the buildings at the end, like a fixed but intangible hand beckoning him to get on a plane and go somewhere else and be someone else.
“The days and options seemed limitless,” he recalls today. “For some reason I always thought of the world as being there for the taking, even though I didn’t have any access to that world.”
In spite of this, he felt a deep affinity with his heroes, like the Rolling Stones and Queen, who also came from places you didn’t automatically associate with being breeding grounds for rock gods.
“I felt similar to them, even if they grew up in Dartford [Rolling Stones] or an island off the coast of Africa [Zanzibar, the birthplace of Freddie Mercury]. I, too, felt out of touch with my surroundings, and knew I had a higher calling.”
Twenty-three years later, in 2009, Tobias realised he hadn’t made much headway in heeding this call. He’d been in bands from a young age, from death metallers Repugnant to alt-rockers Magna Carta Cartel. The latter featured Martin Persner and Simon Söderberg, who’d later appear as Nameless Ghouls in the first incarnation of Ghost. Söderberg, along with some other ex-ghouls, is now embroiled in an on-going lawsuit with Tobias over what they suggest are the rightful shares of profits they’re owed from their time in the band. Tobias doesn’t volunteer any information on this topic today, which is perhaps understandable given the considerable column inches already dedicated to it.
Regardless, none of those early bands provided Tobias with the success he needed to, say, quit the day job. He had then been working in a call centre, aiding people having trouble with their mobile phones. Despite spending his childhood endlessly sketching elaborate stage designs and lighting rigs, he still has little interest in technology, particularly mobile phones. Back in 2009 his personal life was happy and satisfying, having welcomed children with his then-girlfriend – now wife – though this potent reminder of the finite time we have drew his attention to the area of his life he recognised as falling short.
“I had an epiphany,” he explains, raising his hands as if sizing up an imaginary canvas. “I found myself very far from the path, so decided in the limited time I have to invest everything in the one thing out of all my [professional] options I believed most in, which was Ghost. I understood wholeheartedly what it was, the music and the image, and felt I could do it without my vanity coming in, because I didn’t like how I looked in pictures or the sound of my own voice. But this would be fiction, so that was fucking cool. So I took all of my eggs and put them in one basket and was back on track. For the first time in my fucking life I was really focused.”
For evidence of the dividends this paid, you need only look at the fact that just a year later, with the release of their 2010 debut album Opus Eponymous, Ghost exploded on to the scene, taking the first step to becoming metal’s hottest new hope.
Further proof of this focus comes today from interviewing Tobias somewhere there’s a screen showing news channel CNN. We’re in the band’s pre-show warm-up space, which is decked out with guitars, keyboards and an electric drum kit he removes the stool from to sit in the centre of the room. He admits if he were in a hotel room now, he could easily watch CNN for 24 hours straight. He doesn’t so much as turn his head to look at it now, though, giving his full attention to the interview at hand.
Even at 38, an age he says his kids consider “as old as shit”, he remains remarkably boyish looking. His dark and piercing eyes, however, belong to an older soul – and it may be Kerrang!’s imagination – but they appear to moisten at several points during this hour-long chat, particularly when connecting the dots between his past ambition and what he’s achieved today.
“I’m trying to recreate a lot of things that aren’t necessarily real,” he says mysteriously. “In my head they’re real, and I’ve been given this fantastic carte blanche where I don’t have to sit in a fucking call centre anymore and am applauded for getting to be someone else. It’s perfect for someone like me who has a fundamental problem with functioning normally in society. If it wasn’t for the fact I was doing this, I would be completely useless.”
When Ghost signed with their American record label, their mythology wasn’t the deep well of fascination it is today. In fact, there was nothing to it at all. They had a unique aesthetic and a sound that didn’t necessarily go with that look, something that would wrong-foot new listeners in the early days, but Tobias didn’t have an answer to why Ghost were the way they were.
“They said the music was great but asked, ‘What’s the story? What’s the biography?’” recalls Tobias. “I said there was no biography because there was no story to tell. I wanted people to throw themselves into the vision and make up their own. But in the end I had to come up with one, which is second nature to me now. Even [Norwegian black metallers] Mayhem had a story. In the early ‘90s, before the internet, there was something that compelled us to want to find out more and listen to their music.”
This mythology Tobias has developed over the years was furthered with the release of Ghost’s fourth album, last year’s GRAMMY-nominated Prequelle, which introduced Tobias’ latest incarnation, Cardinal Copia, a character fans have come to love if the number of $40 plush toys sold at the merch desk tonight is any indication. More recently, a web series on YouTube has added to the intrigue, with the latest episode harking back to 1969, when a young Cardinal Nihil was fronting Ghost at the launch of their EP, Seven Inches Of Satanic Panic. That just so happens to be the band’s latest release in 2019, which will also be available as part of Prequelle Exalted, a limited collector’s edition of the album. Meanwhile, The Ultimate Tour Named Death has introduced the EP’s two new songs, Mary On A Cross and Kiss The Go-Goat, to its set list.
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While Ghost’s music has always tipped its papal tiara to the ‘60s, particularly its psychedelic leanings, the latter song in particular sees them take this interest a step further. How much can we glean from them, then, with regards to where Ghost goes next? Not too much, as it turns out, according to Tobias, who suggests, as with the YouTube series, it’s a way to deepen the story of Ghost spanning from the ’40s to the present day, without necessarily providing clues to the sound of album number five.
“It’s just there for shits and giggles,” he laughs, before revealing that Kiss The Go-Goat, a song that’s been knocking around for some time, actually had the working title ‘The Throwback Single’. “I grew up listening to ‘60s music like the Rolling Stones and The Doors, as well as metal. People shouldn’t read too much into this direction, though. The next album is going to be something completely different from that.”
Can Tobias perhaps give two words to describe where, musically or thematically, album number five is heading?
“I’d choose the words ‘fifth’ and ‘album’,” he replies with a wry smile, before justifying what seems like a diversionary tactic. “I look at many fifth albums as a guide as to the urgency for what that record will need to be, with [Iron Maiden’s] Powerslave being a great example. By the fifth album you’re at a point in your career where you have this momentum built up, and you have the expectancy of people depending on you, so you have to put something special in those many spotlights. You need to step up and make a record that’s worth it and justifies all of these things.”
Who, then, can we expect to see fronting these rituals in future?
“I just know that person will have the name Papa Emeritus IV. It will be the fourth Papa Emeritus. But who that is, we don’t know yet.”
We’re not sure we believe him, so push for more. Might we see Cardinal Copia graduating to Papa status? The latest episode of the web series seems to indicate the ‘Sister Imperator’ character and Papa Nihil conceived a child. Wouldn’t that make him part of the papal bloodline?
“I think that what you will get over the next year are a lot of answers to a lot of questions,” offers Tobias, keeping things vague.
Like the question of whether Sister is pregnant? (In the latest ‘chapter’ of the web series, Sister attacks a woman at a Ghost show for smoking next to her).
“We don’t know that yet. It would blow my mind if she was now,” he says, clearly referring to the elderly Sister in the present day. This suggests she could well be with child back in 1969, though.
Has Tobias sketched what this new Papa will look like?
“Have you ever seen The Big Lebowski?” he asks by way of an answer, referencing the scene in the Coen brothers’ classic where Jeff Bridges’ character, The Dude, spots someone drawing on a notepad. When the man leaves the room with the piece of paper, The Dude rushes to scribble on to the page below to reveal the outline of what’s been drawn, only to discover it’s a doodle of a cock and balls. “It’s something along those lines.”
Sensing Tobias is in full evasion mode by this point, we change tack. Perhaps understanding his ambitions, and whether there’s a summit to them, can shed some light on the future – especially as he seems more focused on what Ghost’s next album will do rather than what it will sound like.
“I wouldn’t necessarily compare [my ambitions] to what the Rolling Stones have done, because that was a completely different time under completely different circumstances. For the last 40 years they have sold tickets because of nostalgic reasons, and maybe 40 years in the future there would be a nostalgia element for Ghost, but I can’t count on that.”
“I regard Metallica as colleagues and friends now, but they’re still Metallica,” he says of the thrash legends Ghost supported on their European stadium tour this summer. “I am an ambassador and they are presidents. But when I look to Metallica for influence, I’m looking at what they did in 1988. We’re on our fourth album, as they were on the Damaged Justice Tour, so the next stop is the Black Album.”
Spotting Kerrang!’s obvious joy at this admission, Tobias is quick to clarify exactly what he means by this.
“You have to make a responsible record,” he adds emphatically. “That doesn’t mean to expect riffs. It’s two different things – what the record sounds like and knowing to put yourself in the right spot at the right time. When I had nothing, and lived in a small apartment that cost very little because the ceiling leaked, the dream was to be able to live off making music. When I had kids that became even more important. Now it’s about something else. I’m responsible for showing my wife and my kids that all these years of waiting for me have been worth it. And that goes beyond money, because at the end of the day that’s just seasoning. One day my kids will be grown-up and I have to be able to show them that all this time playing rock shows had a real purpose.”
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Tobias loves touring.
“I’m like a sailor,” he says. “I just love being on the ocean. I’ve not always been on tour, but I’ve always been a transient person. And the road to achieving all this is endless, just like the road I looked down when I was five seemed to me at the time.”
Ghost’s Prequelle Exalted boxset is out now.