The Swedish rock band Ghost will be performing at the TaxSlayer Center on October 8. Coming off a European stadium tour with Metallica, the group has headlined summer festivals and has embarked on a massive North America tour that includes New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Toronto, Boston … and Moline.
Tobias Forge is Ghost's creative force, front man, singer, songwriter, musician, and architect of the storylines woven through the band's albums, videos, webisodes, and live shows. Although Ghost has been awarded a Grammy and had three consecutive number-one songs on the Billboard mainstream charts, it is the musicians' tongue-in-cheek anti-pope appearance that truly defines them. In a July 30 interview, Tobias spoke about developing the band's visual identity and his aspirations as a filmmaker.
Visuals define Ghost’s image. Are they as important as the music?
Oh, absolutely. Even though I don’t sit down and specifically draw and paint our album covers, I’ve always been very specific in what I wanted. And how I wanted the record sleeve to embody the record I made.
As a record collector, I am more than often compelled by the artwork of a record. I’m a firm believer in a really nice-looking record sleeve. And that makes me want to like the record more. Today, even though people might not consume a recording in the physical way we used to, it’s definitely a case of your visual presentation that accompanies whatever file they are going to listen to. If the graphic content is aesthetically pleasing to the eye, it opens up an avenue into people’s souls. I know this because I’m so easily charmed by record sleeves.
Are the album titles also important?
Absolutely. There needs to be a sort of a narrative between the artwork and the title of the record. And, of course, its content. In some way or form, it helps if the title summarizes a little what the record is about. Usually, most good records have some sort of theme – even though the songs might be about different things.
A lot of singer/songwriters go through phases: it’s the “divorce” album, it’s the “I’ve just gotten married” record. “I’ve just became a father or mother” record. And “now I’m older” record. And “the midnight crisis” record. And “the beard” record. In some way or form, it’s good to communication a little of what kind of state of mind you were in while making it or which state of mind you want the listener to think you were in. As opposed to just leaving it blank.
There’s a fascinating word play in your titles. Do you enjoy playing with words? Creating a sense of mystery through words?
Very much so. I’m also very much influenced by cinema. Even though I know there’s no film called Infestissuman (the title of Ghost’s second album), I also try to come up with a title for a record that could be a film as well. Like a big epic, three-hour mastodon matinée film. (Laughs). I’d like to make a film called Meliora (the title of Ghost's third album).
I understand that you have aspirations to be a filmmaker. That you’re working on a film. Could you speak about the film?
About a future Ghost film?
I cannot speak about it in detail. But, yes, I’ve always been very fascinated with the art of filmmaking.
I definitely am in the process of exploring the possibilities of combining my musician career with a film project. Let’s put it that way. And as with anything cinematic, it takes a lot of time – and way more politics – than making a record.
In the process of this, I’m trying to vet my brain and my ideas into being super-sober about making a film that is actually needed and called for and will turn out really great – so that it doesn’t just became a really confusing project.
Over the course of rock history, there are a few films that have been made that are really cool. Even though many of them end up in more of a cult section because they are … weird. I don’t mind weird at all. I grew up watching a lot of films like that.
I would love to make a film. I would love to make it good-weird, but it needs to be good as well. It needs to be something that people can watch. I’m currently in the process of learning if I can.
The humor in your webisodes complements your albums, which sound epic. That’s a fascinating combination.
Yes. Just to give you a hint of what I spoke of in my previous answer about a possible film: a full-length film would be in that vein. Based on that sort of mythology. I believe that there is something more to tell within the storyline – within the concept of what we’ve outlined briefly – in those episodes.
Most of my favorite films have some sort of absurd humor in them.
I think it’s important for films, too. Just as with any dish at any restaurant, there are certain ingredients that you need to have. Even if its just a pinch of salt. Usually you need that. There are certain aspects in there that make it a consumable plate.
Even if you’re making a horror film or drama or thriller, there needs to be some sort of comic relief at some point. I guess what would change in a long format, is that it wouldn’t be as comedic every minute as it is in the short form.
As there is comedy in a horror film, your music has a unique dichotomy. You have metal riffs and an understated singing style. That’s very appealing to me. Was this natural to you? Is it something you developed?
Everything develops on the basis that it is being received. So I believe that to a certain degree if you’re an artist – be it a musical artist or a filmmaker or a writer or a painter – you need to be somewhat auditive when it comes to the needs and the wishes of your receiving part. As much as any aficionado of subculture, I like a lot of artists that just go against everything and make whatever that comes into his or her head regardless of what a public thinks. But most successful artists have in some way or form nurtured the relationship they have between themselves and their audience. The way that you would nurture any relationship with another part – be it a partner in life or a partner in work. There’s some sort of collaboration.
If you look at big bands that went from debutantes playing clubs to big arena acts, their first records are usually slightly more raunchy and maybe faster in tempo and might include a little bit more complicated arrangements. What you usually find over the course of time and further into their careers, they start making records that are more moderately paced. Or they are paced in a different way. Certain songs don’t really translate very well in a very, very big room in front of thousands and thousands of people. Common lingo among rock fans is that, “Oh, they sold out. They just want to sell records.”
No, they write music that will feel comfortable in the setting – in the forum in which they are performing these songs.
You do what you feel is good for both parties, and that’s how you develop your relationship with your crowd. You don’t do this 100 percent all the time. But you should be aware that if you start doing shit that your significant other – in this case the crowd – doesn't like, you’d be stupid if you continue doing it.
Coming out of a Swedish metal tradition, your music is surprisingly melodic. Sometimes hauntingly beautiful tunes with beautiful choirs. How did this sound emerge?
I have always listened to lots of different music styles. Everything more or less oriented in punk and rock. Except for my love for underground extreme metal from the '80s, most of the other types of music that I listen to are actually quite melodic. I’ve always been melody driven. Ninety-nine percent of the time, my way of listening to a song is to listen to the melodies. It doesn’t hurt if there’s a really good rhythm.
For me, melody is like the dialogue of a film. If you just make a film with just background, it might be an interesting idea. But if you want the film to be of value, you definitely need to have someone within frame saying something. And it’s important what he or she is saying. That, for me, is the melody of a song.
But then you can pimp the song out in so many ways and that’s part of the craft of songwriting. But without a melody, the likelihood of a song being good is not big.
On your first album, I understand that you played all of the instruments except the drumming. Is it hard to only be the front man in live performances?
No, I’ve learned how to deal with that. I just had to sort of disregard how I viewed myself. I always thought that I was going to be the lead guitar player of a band. A Keith Richards in the band. My intention with Ghost was the same. During the first four years – between 2006 and 2010 – up until the very last moment of recording the album, I still thought that, just before mixing the record, that we better find a singer. We never found a singer. So we kept my demo vocals basically. I re-sung them to get better takes. They were on the demos just to explain how the song goes.
That’s the way I’ve always worked. When I write a song I always play everything. So regardless of who might have executed it on a record or executed it on stage, it’s always my way of playing. If I were to play a bass in another band, that’s how the bass would sound. If I were to play drums in a band, the basics of how I arrange songs, that what you hear in Ghost. That’s how I play the drums. Then I get a really good drummer in to play really well, but that’s how I approach thought in all these different instruments. And that has become a signature thing for Ghost.
That makes writing records easier. That makes having a band together very hard. But that is just the nature of the beast. It’s just coming to terms with accepting and owning that. It has definitely taken some time.
Fame doesn’t seem to be your prime mover. What do you think of fame now that your identity has been revealed?
I have, as much as anyone who has any inclination to rock in a band, always wanted to be in a well-known rock band. What comes with that is fame. Up until I was probably 30 years old, I wanted to be very famous. And I wanted to be known. After I started working with Ghost, I was definitely enjoying … . I wouldn’t say anonymity. I was never anonymous. But Ghost and the visual side of Ghost was definitely overshadowing anything that I was. Over the years of being in a well-known band without being a very well-known person myself, I actually started to prefer that over being a recognized person myself. Despite having wished for that before, there are definitely two sides of being recognized. When you dream about it, you only see the upsides. It’s only about the perks of fame.
I don’t feel in any way or form that my so called “coming out” was negative. It was just a weird thing having to deal with a higher level of recognition so far into your career. That was a little bit weird because it usually comes gradually.
For example, for seven years I never took photos of people. If you ever saw a photo of me, it was always a friend of mine that took a photo and I thought it would never be posted online. Or it was someone taking a photo of me without me knowing it. So all of a sudden, when I was out of the closet, you couldn’t really tell people any more that you wouldn’t take a photo with them. All of a sudden, you can’t say no to anyone.
That is something I suddenly had to adopt to because it was very easy earlier to say no, no, no, no. You know how it is. Now if I say no, someone could be very offended. Which is a little sad because I might be on my way into a car that is leaving in 10 seconds and we’re in a hurry. And there are 10 people by the car and you’re like, “I really don’t want to do this to you but … .” And I can’t even finish that sentence before the door is closed. And people get offended. I don’t want people to be offended and sad.
Fame is something that sort of came overnight. But it’s a good problem to have.
Ghost plays the TaxSlayer Center (1201 River Drive, Moline) at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, October 8, with special guest Nothing More. Admission is $29.50-69.50, and tickets are available by calling (800)745-3000 or visiting TaxSlayerCenter.com.