Tom G Warrior: “We played radical music that pushed everybody away and we loved that… fuck them all!”
Black metal may have got its name in Newcastle, England in 1982, borrowing the title of Geordie diabolists Venom’s second album, but it was in Nürensdorf, a small village in Switzerland, where metal found its rebellious spirit and a very real sense of darkness.
Inspired by the energy of NWOBHM and punk, in tandem with the artistry of The Beatles and Pink Floyd, it was here that the young Thomas Gabriel Fischer found his calling – initially with Hellhammer, then in Celtic Frost, two bands whose names have become cornerstones in metal. As an outlet for the frustrations of a childhood in which he was neglected in his own home and an outcast in the wider world, the former were unlike anything else on Earth, with a sinister thread running through songs like the truly morbid Triumph Of Death. Celtic Frost, meanwhile, took those ideas and ran with them into uncharted territory, incorporating strings, keyboards and female vocals on records like 1985’s To Mega Therion and the untouchable, groundbreaking Into The Pandemonium, two years later.
Though at the time Tom – operating under the name Tom G. Warrior – says Hellhammer were “hated” in his homeland, and essentially had to split and re-badge themselves to try to get ahead, both outfits would have an enormous, crucial effect on the global metal underground. The blooming death and thrash metal scenes of the ‘80s and ‘90s would take enormous influence from Tom’s riffing and vocal style, while black metal as a genre simply would not exist without their harshness, strong individuality and sense of otherworldly darkness. Beyond metal, countless punk and hardcore bands have also given props to the aggression and realness of the music, while To Mega Therion was one of two tapes Nirvana played in their van on the drive to Los Angeles to record Nevermind. Years later, Dave Grohl saluted his hero by inviting him to be part of his 2004 metal project Probot, on the song Big Sky.
For all this, Tom remains incredibly humble. A deeply enigmatic man, he’s also impressively ego-free. He’ll gratefully thank you for any compliments offered, but talk of his tremendous influence is brushed off with doubt. But the fact remains that from difficult roots, through Hellhammer, Celtic Frost and now Triptykon, the dark side of metal simply would not be what it is without him.
Sadly, following the falling apart of their incredible ‘00s reunion, and the death of bassist and artistic partner Martin Ain in 2017, Celtic Frost can never walk again. But on the eve of the release of Triptykon’s ambitious Requiem live album, Tom remains a master of all he turns his hand to, and a truly fearless visionary…
How did you get into music?
“I grew up in a very music-oriented family. For as long as I can remember there was music around. When my parents divorced when I was six years old, my mother was constantly gone, smuggling diamonds and watches around the world. I was left at home alone at seven, eight years old, and I felt so lonely in that big quiet house. So I listened to the records that she had saved from the divorce, and I got even deeper into music. This is why I’ve been torturing the rest of the world ever since…”
What was it like having a mother who smuggled goods?
“She started smuggling when I was very young. After the divorce she rented this huge old farmhouse which had no central heating. She would travel the world smuggling, sometimes for up to three weeks, and I would be on my own. Sometimes there would be thunderstorms and the electricity would go out, which was scary. It took me a while to get used to that, but I had no choice. I couldn’t go to a neighbour if anything happened – nobody gave a shit about me. Nowadays you would call it child abuse or neglect, but back then nobody gave a toss. But then again, if I hadn’t lived through that terrible situation, I probably wouldn’t have formed Hellhammer, Celtic Frost or Triptykon, or be who I am. As absurd as it sounds, I have to be grateful. Involuntarily, I paid my dues.”
How did you start finding music for yourself?
“In 1975 or ’76 I met another outcast who had moved to my farming village. He also had long hair, like me. He had a sister who was into heavy rock, so we stole her cassettes to listen to. On one side of one of them there was Black Sabbath’s Vol. 4, and on the other side was On Your Feet Or On Your Knees by Blue Öyster Cult. It literally changed my life, as clichéd as that sounds. I recognised myself in it. It became a fanaticism, and the louder and heavier it got, the more fanatic I became, with bands like Motörhead, Venom and Discharge. So in my teens I had a vision to create such music, too.”
You use the word ‘outcast’. Was that an easy thing to become, living in rural Switzerland?
“It was very easy. I lived in a farming village, with about 1,500 inhabitants. We were the only divorced family in the village, and at that time, long hair wasn’t welcome in Switzerland. Adults would threaten me with violence on the streets because I had long hair. We were also thinking differently, listening to different music, and we didn’t play soccer. Instead, we built rockets and bombs. We wanted to be a part of normal society, but nobody allowed us to be. Now I see that was an advantage, because it forced us to be ourselves and discover our own identity. But we also suffered. It felt terrible being pushed away.”
When you started a band, did you feel like you’d found your place in the world?
“From the beginning, music was a replacement family for me. Even before I formed a band. The band just made it even more pronounced. When I discovered the scene in Zurich and found like-minded people, I actually understood where I came from. I felt like I finally belonged.”
Hellhammer were one of the most extreme bands on the planet for their short life. How did that go over with people?
“Well, they hated it, of course. In Switzerland, the cutting edge at the time was Krokus, who were a copy of AC/DC, and all the other local bands that I saw in basements were trying to copy them. What Hellhammer were doing was such a stretch for these people that once again we were outcasts, only this time we were musical outcasts. But we liked that. We didn’t want to associate with what we felt were musical peasants. Everybody in Hellhammer had some form of difficult youth, so we all felt attracted to music that was equally problematic. It’s clear to me now why it pushed normal people away; people who, in our view, caused the situation we found ourselves in. We wanted to create our own world with our own people and our own music, and fuck everybody else. The normal people who made us outcasts? We were glad if they didn’t want to hang out with us. So we basically closed the circle, and far from suffering for it, we became outcasts who enhanced it by playing radical music that pushed everybody away. We loved that. Fuck them all!”
The darkness was also creative and artistic, though. Hellhammer were one of the first bands to use horrible screaming vocal sounds and create genuinely morbid music…
“Well, that’s very flattering, but I don’t know if this was a higher aesthetic. I think we were quite amateurish and primitive, and we stole a lot of things from our heroes. A lot of it was ham-fisted. The reason why we created our own logos, flyers, photos and album covers was because nobody wanted to help us. That made us original, because we couldn’t derive it from someone else. We had no collaborators. It certainly wasn’t because we had some God-given talent; it was a situation of necessity. If we wanted something, we damn well had to come up with it ourselves.”
You did find some friends, though. Notably, H.R. Giger, who designed the visuals for Alien, allowed you to use his painting Satan I on the cover of Celtic Frost’s To Mega Therion album. How did you come into contact with him?
“Martin Ain and I were both Giger fans, and that was one of the things that connected us. In our youthful dreaming we thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fantastic to have artwork of his on an album?’ We thought in our own little way that our musical landscape matched his visual landscape. Of course, we knew that he was a genius and we could never reach his talent, but we thought there were still parallels. We tried to convey this to him in a handwritten, embarrassingly insecure letter that he actually read and replied to. So we had one collaborator! He was one of the only people in Switzerland to give us a chance. He was the only mentor we had at the time, and he was from outside the music scene.”
Why do you think he understood what you were doing?
“I think maybe the outcast thing. He started in the underground, too, where he was also ridiculed. His art was deemed ‘unacceptable’, just as our music was, and it took him many years until he found some acceptance, which was largely outside of Switzerland. He wasn’t a metal fan – he liked jazz – but I think he saw his younger self in us. In the beginning he had also struggled to find somebody to believe in him.”
With Celtic Frost you started work on a three-part requiem, which was finally finished with Triptykon and recorded live with an orchestra at Roadburn last year. Was this always meant to be added to as it has been?
“Of course, but I didn’t think it would take 35 years! After Celtic Frost fell apart it would take many years until the band in some recognisable shape would reconvene [in 2001], and it was one of the first things Martin and I talked about addressing. Then the band fell apart again and it remained unfinished. When I formed Triptykon I always intended to finish it, but there was no urgency. You can’t force something of that magnitude.”
Its conclusion takes on a special significance as a requiem, after the passing of Martin Ain and H.R. Giger. Presumably that added to the weight of premiering it live?
“Yes, we all had Martin Ain and H.R. Giger in our minds, because it was a requiem and the concert was dedicated to them. It went from far-fetched concept into something very real. Playing it live was overwhelming, because there were so many emotional and mental components to it. We wrote the most complex piece ever for our band, and played it onstage with an orchestra of 30 musicians far more capable than any of us. We didn’t want to let them down or look like fools. Normally when I’m onstage I’m in a different world, but for this there were so many things. It wasn’t the easiest thing I’ve ever done, I can tell you that.”
You’re very vocal about animal rights and you adhere to a vegan lifestyle. When did that start for you?
“I have to qualify this a little bit: I’m very vocal about animal rights, but not about veganism, because I personally believe that it’s counter-productive if I act like a missionary. But animal rights, I am vocal about. What the fuck gives us the right to treat animals as slaves, to abuse them, to torture them, to hurt them, and to kill them so we can have a few minutes of fun? It’s despicable. It’s a new form of slavery, and everybody frowns at slavery, but what we do to animals defies description. Veganism is a logical extension to this, but it’s my personal choice. Many years ago I became a vegetarian because I felt that if I was having these thoughts, then I couldn’t possibly eat meat. Once you’re vegetarian, I believe that eventually veganism is unavoidable. I don’t want to be the reason that a cow is raped and inseminated, or the reason chickens are exploited for as many thousand eggs as possible then discarded. I don’t want any part of that cruelty.”
A few years ago you made death masks of yourself. Why?
“I was always fascinated by death masks, ever since I saw my first one in a Time Life book as a child. There was this morbid fascination, somewhere between being scared and a little bit attracted. As I got older and we reformed Celtic Frost, I started taking pictures of my corpsepaint every night. After a while I thought it would be fun to make a painting of every corpsepaint I ever wore. But it was too boring for me to do it on canvas, so I thought it would be interesting to do on my face, for which I would need a death mask. At the end of a U.S. tour I asked H.R. Giger’s American agent if he could facilitate some people to do a face cast, and he organised it. A friend saw these various death masks at my home, and asked if he could buy one. So, from a totally personal, private project, it became something else altogether. It’s also funny to see my postman’s face when I open the door and he sees my face hanging over the doorframe with horns!”
You also created crucifixes made of dildos. That’s quite a statement…
“Yeah, well, that’s a statement which is simply an observation. We humans like to treat fictitious ‘god’ figures as a phallus. We like to dance around them and worship them like one, and that sculpture is basically my representation of this. This, too, was just an idea I had – I’m a cynical person, what can I say? – and again, against expectation they have ended up around the world. One even got Nergal from Behemoth in legal trouble [in Poland]. But, again, I only did it for myself, to make me smile.”
You’ve got a hell of a legacy – in extreme metal where Hellhammer and Celtic Frost are cornerstones, but also with people like Dave Grohl citing your influence. How do you feel when people say you’ve had such an impact?
“It’s a bit difficult to accept. I live a simple life. I’m a working class child from a very poor background, and when I was in my teens I was training to become a mechanic. That simplicity and being down-to-earth is still a big part of me, even though people may find that difficult to accept, because they only know me through my albums or onstage persona. It’s difficult for me to accept that I have influenced anybody; it feels pretentious and uncomfortable to me. I prefer to remain somebody who critically self-analyses frequently. I think that’s healthy. Of course it’s hugely flattering when members of our audience or my musical peers shower me with compliments, but I find it extremely difficult to accept and to believe.”
Triptykon’s Requiem (Live At Roadburn 2019) is out on May 15 via Prowling Death/Century Media.
Here are 13 times that metal bands proved they were still changing the game.
Bernie Sanders (and his mittens) graces the cover of albums by everyone from My Chemical Romance to Metallica to Jane’s Addiction to Fall Out Boy…