Ghost, live in Amsterdam (c) Hans Peter van Velthoven

In Conversation With Ghost’s Tobias Forge

Tobias Forge is a charming man. Seated in the bar of Amsterdam’s well hidden Hotel van de Vijsel, he’s just finishing a cup of coffee as rain batters the windows outside. It doesn’t faze him, though, focussing on his phone as I sit down at the small table. We’re here today to discuss Ghost‘s fourth studio album, Prequelle, which just celebrated its first birthday. Over the course of the last twelve months, former man of mystery Forge’s band Ghost have undergone one hell of an impressive campaign trail, taking on bigger stages than ever before with one of their most ambitious productions to date. Everything about Ghost is magistral, and so as they prepare to continue touring with Metallica, Forge tells Jack Parker all about his vision, the future and his personal ambitions.

Hey Tobias. You’re on the road with Metallica at the moment, how’s that going?
Very, very cool. I mean, it’s cool from so many aspects because we’re playing in front of fifty, sixty thousand people every night, which is unbelievable. You could talk about being the rock dream, but it’s also very educational. When you look at where we are right now, basically being in the process of playing between the smaller clubs and bigger stadiums, it’s definitely very educational to go up against these huge crowds. It takes time, it takes training, and it takes practice to learn how to do this. Just the fact that you’re focussing your energy in so many different directions, with all these people in front of you. And if it’s big enough, there’ll also be a camera in front of you somewhere which you have to look into and communicate with. All these people in the back need to look at what you’re doing.

Of course.
There’s a lot of things like that. But to be honest, you couldn’t ask for a more hospitable host. Hosts. Metallica have been so nice and supportive, you know? We’re treated fantastically; it’s a great summer with a lot of days off too!

Prequelle is now a year old, congratulations on that little milestone. How do you feel about that collection of music, looking back on it a year later?
I don’t think that much of the record. To use a very business-oriented term, I think more of the entire album cycle and where that record has gotten us as a band, and what we’re doing tour-wise. From that aspect it’s been phenomenal, really good. Because it’s wrapping now, I can definitely see the end of the cycle coming up. I can look back at it now and think to myself, “We’ve achieved exactly what we set out to achieve with the record”. The record was very honest and not a repetition of anything I’d done before, and that’s good. I like it! I don’t listen to the album, but that’s the same thing with all of my records. As soon as I’m done writing a record and we’ve started playing it live I already stop listening to it. I honestly can’t, because it makes me slightly nauseous.

Ghost, live in Amsterdam (c) Hans Peter van Velthoven
Ghost, live in Amsterdam (c) Hans Peter van Velthoven

So at what point do you start looking towards that next cycle in a more concrete manner?
I usually start when I’m wrapping up the recording process for the previous album. There’s already things I leave a production with which I know I want to do differently or improve for the next time. I’m not trying to sound like a killjoy, but there are always things in a production which you eventually realise were not necessary. Like, “that was not good”, or, “we could have done that better”. It’s not necessarily simple stuff like doing a chorus differently, but more a case of, “Ah! I wish we’d spent two more days playing bass” or “I wish we would have tuned that tom or snare better“. I hear it all the time.

The little things, basically.
Yeah! But you see, I’m a control freak and a perfectionist, and I really, really want to feel like I’ve done everything in my power to create as good a product as possible. Again, product.

A business term.
Exactly, a dumb word. As good an album as possible, as good of a craft as I can. That’s why I walk from a production telling myself that I want to do certain things differently next time round. As far as writing goes, though, the cycle starts a lot more modest and at a lower frequency. I end up with a few things I’d left out of the current record, and then I add a lot of new things. And that’s everything, from small snippets of music that I might have recorded to things I have in my head, or notes. I have a lot of notes with titles and lyrics, conceptual things. Just ideas, really. Knowing now that we’re gonna wrap after this year, I’m gonna go into the studio in January 2020. By then, I will be deep in the process and ready to start working on album five. Touring life is very teenage in how we’re so free and that there’s a lot of late nights – you just can’t be sick! And you have to play, haha. When I make a record, I’m usually quite routine. I like routine, so it’s Monday through Friday from nine to five. You show up for work, drink a coffee and get going.

Yeah, I want it to be like a normal job. When I start doing that, it usually falls into place quite quickly.

I see. Prequelle ends on Life Eternal, which is very much a grandiose and bombastic piece of music. How does this song feed into what you want to explore musically and conceptually during the next cycle?
The next record is definitely conceptual.

They all are.
Yeah, they are, but not in a King Diamond kind of way where there’s a storyline that starts with Character A and Character B getting rid of Character C. It’s not a rock opera in the classic sense, it’s more a general vibe. Not too dissimilar to what Metallica or Iron Maiden used to do on their albums; they do still, sometimes. Powerslave, for example, is an Egyptian sort of record, but there’s a lot of songs on it which have nothing to do with Egypt. I am conceptual more along those lines, than by trying to write my own Tommy. In this particular case I dare to say that the next album won’t start where Life Eternal leaves off.  The record that I have in mind is very different. Being a Ghost album, it’ll obviously have something to do with Prequelle, but I’m not trying to write a Prequelle 2. It’ll be a completely different record.

You see, that’s what I like about Ghost. There’s a thread of similarity feeding through each record which gives off that whole “this is Ghost” vibe, and yet no two records are the same.  As you said earlier, you’re a control freak and a perfectionist. On the record you play all of the guitar and bass lines yourself, but when you look towards that live show how do you go about finding musicians who match your vision?
The band I have now are very good examples of exactly what I’m looking for. They execute what is already there, and they do it very well and do it successfully. They have also adopted the songs a little bit, and changed their physiques to play the songs as intuitively as possible. They’ve gotten into the roles so well that they deliver the lines believably. It sounds authentic, and that’s great. What’s needed is not only mindset and ability, but also time; it takes time. Practice makes perfect, a very worn out term! It takes a very long time for a band to warm to one another, so after little over a year of touring together you can now tell that they’ve gelled. That’s why I think we now have those moments where we listen to a clip and go, “Wow! It sounds really good now”. Everyone’s attentive to the details; they know the songs very well. They did their homework immensely well before we started touring, not just in learning the lines but also in feeling them. That’s two different things! In order to play Ghost music, it also helps if you have a bit of a similar musical background to me, and that you haven’t only played black metal before. It helps if you have been in a pop or rock band, you know? You don’t have to be schooled. Let’s say that we jammed Summer of 69 and you can play it so that it sounds like a rock song, that’s great. You need to be able to play rock and roll, and do it wholeheartedly. You shouldn’t be the kind of person who regards an AC/DC song as not technical enough for you to play good.

Ghost, live in Amsterdam. (c) Hans Peter van Velthoven
Ghost, live in Amsterdam. (c) Hans Peter van Velthoven

You just have to feel it.
Yep! You see, I experienced this problem when I had my own metal band, Repugnant. I know how old and fucking backwards I sound by saying this, but the last time I was embracive of something contemporary was in the early 90s. That’s when I still liked records that came out! Before and after that I’d always been embracive of things which came before, like in the 60s, 70s and 80s. By the mid-90s, like 94/95, I started thinking that most death and black metal bands had completely shat themselves. I started excavating a lot of the death metal stuff that I liked in the mid-80s. If you’d have met me in 1995 then all of my favourite things would’ve been from a good ten years earlier. Celtic Frost, Destruction, Bathory, stuff like that! My problem in the late 90s, when I had bands playing that sort of music, was that a lot of people my age grew up listening to the later bands. I had to force them to listen to and not think of Possessed as a band who didn’t sound good enough, you know? Just because they liked “new”, well-sounding, later-90s shit. For most of my life I’ve been in bands trying to educate other people on what I want to do, just because it wasn’t in trend with what was going on at the time. I don’t even know how old you are?

I’m 22.
22, oh shit. It doesn’t matter! You see, the difference between people your age and people my age is that people nowadays have far broader and fresher music tastes. They’re way more educated in music, and they have different points of view which are accessible. Back in 1995, people my age and older chose their own records. You had to choose your own path in a different way!

There was obviously far less instant access to music in 1995. You’d have to trawl through record stores, and now we’ve got streaming.
Yeah, and that has been a constant thing for me. Not a struggle, though! Nowadays it’s evened out because I play with people who are ten years younger than me, and I am ten years older. When I was 18 or 22 there were a lot of people who would just turn to you and say, “Oh, I’ve never heard of that band”. People whose first album was a Korn record. Not that I have anything against Korn, but for me that’s just alien. In 1995 I was already knee deep in trying to educate myself with the old school ways of death metal and Satan, so I fucking hated anything that was considered modern, or “nu-metal“. I couldn’t stand it! Anyone wearing shorts spoke of a life and style that was not me. Do you know what I’m saying?

Yeah, I understand.
For me, it was very hard to find people I could play with. That’s because of all the musical shit that was going on back then, which is natural of course.

You’ve always been a very ambitious person, and it shows. But where do you want to take that ambition next?
If we’re gonna be a bit more broad stroked in terms of life ambitions, then I think that Ghost will obviously always be my claim to fame. I don’t have any dreams of making it artistically in another way, like with Dave [Grohl] playing drums in one of the world’s biggest bands and then becoming the singer of an even fucking bigger band. I don’t have that ambition, but in the future I’d love to play in some different bands and do different things. It doesn’t have to be huge, though. One very basic ambition that I have in order to achieve the things I want to explore is to reach a point of no economical pressure. For me, that would be the luxury. That’s my vision of making it. If I can form a band with people that I like and I’m just gonna be the guitar player or drummer, then to be able to do things like go on tour would be great if I didn’t have to worry about the monetary side of things. That for me is a dream come true, especially now that I’ve spent a decade doing a band which is very money and career-driven. If I ever started a band now, then I’d know what I want to do better. Therefore I feel very excited about the possibility of playing in another band at some point in my life. Hmm, what else? I’m a very cinematically interested person, so I’m really into the idea of scriptwriting. I would definitely start my own production company either alone or with someone else, but only if I had the money, the means and the time. I wouldn’t say I’d produce films, because then people would think of big blockbuster stuff. That’s not what I’m talking about; I’m talking about being able to make short films or series with the sorts of ideas I have. Given the proper time and opportunity to cultivate that, and without having the economical pressure, that would also be a big ambition of mine. Ghost are currently on tour with Metallica.