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Ghost's Tobias Forge On 'The Essence Of Evil'

8 May 2023 | 4:09 pm | Mary Varvaris
Originally Appeared In

"We haven't really done a proper show in Australia. That's the thing; we've never really done that. I think that what you're finally getting is a real Ghost show.”

(Source: Supplied)

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Ghost have been one of the most successful bands in hard rock and heavy metal spaces since 2013. Of course, the Swedish band’s growth took time – it wasn’t until 2015, when they released their third album, Meliora, that they crash-landed at #8 on the US Billboard 200. The album debuted at #20 in Australia.

Ghost are a true spectacle: part rock band and part performance art. The band have become one of the most influential acts in metal today. 

Helmed over the years by Tobias Forge and an ever-shifting identity as various incarnations of the demonic Papa Emeritus, and briefly as Cardinal Copia, Ghost’s fluctuations also burrow deeply into an ambitious and innovative story arc.

Spanning everything from heavy metal to hard rock, doom metal, psychedelic rock, pop and more, Ghost have never stuck to the script, creating a new world for their fans to explore and gathering a loyal following of over 9 million monthly listeners on Spotify alone. 

The band were awarded Breakthrough Band at 2012's Metal Hammer Golden Gods Awards and took out the Grammy Award for Best Metal Performance in 2016 with their single Cirice. Last week, they won the Swedish Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock/Metal Album for last year's Impera.

In 2018, Ghost released Prequelle and were nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Rock Album. Greta Van Fleet took home the award with From The Fires. While Ghost’s fifth album, Impera, was released last March, the record was ultimately delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The album hit #2 in the US and #3 in Australia.

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Last September, the B-side to the Seven Inches Of Satanic Panic, Mary On A Cross, went viral on TikTok after a user uploaded a slowed-down, reverb-heavy version of the song to the social media platform. An unexpected breakout hit, Ghost suddenly featured on over 300,000 TikTok videos and burst onto the Billboard Hot 100.

The band’s enigmatic singer and songwriter, Tobias Forge, or as you may know him, Papa Emeritus IV, was shocked by the turn of events. “I was aware of its [the app’s] existence, and I've heard people whisper in my ear for a few years that we’ve got to do this, we’ve got to be on TikTok, blah, blah, blah. I'm just not really interested,” he admits over Zoom. “I’m old; I've never been interested in social media.”

Forge continues, “I don't have room in my life for social media. That would be an intrusion into my life that would disturb me. So, therefore, I've never fully understood it. I had to quickly learn what it meant as the Mary On A Cross thing happened.” Of course, as an older adult who’s never had space in his life for social media, Forge has no idea what the allure of TikTok is.

“My first experience with that app and similar apps was through my 14-year-old kid,” he shares, “So I was always wondering, why do you listen to 20 seconds of a song? Like, that's crazy. I understand listening to one song on the record, but not 20 seconds of it. And then I understood, ‘Okay, that's the format; you just listen to a snippet’. But it [TikTok] works as a commercial campaign tool, and you get people pushed in different ways. For a brief while, we had people being pushed in our direction and that has definitely changed a lot of things for us.

“So, no complaints here. I can't complain about it. I think it's fabulous. So, if it works that way, I think it's phenomenal. I don't really understand how you create something like that yourself, because I know that our phenomenon was completely organic. We didn't do anything about it; it was completely the kids themselves that did that.”

Where Forge has an issue with TikTok, and social media in general, is when it’s weaponised by people who target young, impressionable people online. “When you're trying to fucking destroy the world and you're trying to cut people's rights back and turn people against each other and then strip away women's rights to control their own bodies, then I think it's a fucking disaster,” he states. And that belief and observation bled directly into Ghost’s cover of a Genesis song that would have been considered dated just ten years ago.

The band’s cover of Genesis’s 1992 track, Jesus He Knows Me, was the first single from their fourth EP, the Phantomime covers EP, due for release on Thursday, 18 May. You can pre-save the release here. The subject matter of that track – a satirical look at televangelism – inspires much of our chat with Tobias Forge.

“It’s frighteningly horrible. It's easy not to laugh about the accuracy in which Phil Collins wrote a lyric that ten years ago felt almost dated, even outdated, which now feels so contemporary and important,” Forge says about the band’s motivation in covering Jesus He Knows Me.

He continues, “When we started touring America, I was asked so many times, ‘Do you have a problem with the Christian fundamentalists or picket fencers or any of that stuff?’ I was like, ‘No, never.’ Like, there seems to be a sort of undercurrent of that stuff over there. I didn’t see that, we were all over the place, even in the South, and definitely a lot in the heartland.

“My impression of those cities is just wonderful, a lot of nice people who come to rock shows, and they're super friendly, and everything is just fucking dandy. And then, obviously, the last five or six years, the people are still the same, I still feel that they're in the same climate. But obviously, parallel to that, there is this complete Flat Earth cult that has just decided to throw in the towel. I don’t know what their aim is.”

But, like all cults, Forge acknowledges that if these leaders have a lot of followers, “I cannot neglect to underline the fact that the followers, they are people who don't know better. I pity them – they are being used and humiliated and the leaders are just completely exploiting them,” he explains. Worse, he says, is that it’s just a grift attempting to pressure impressionable people into handing over their money.

Forge adds, “The exchange is supposed to be: 'Give me money, and I will give you the past back'. Look, I'm a nostalgic person as well. I wish it was 1985, too, believe me. But if anyone would come to me and say that, 'If you pay me $1 or $10 – anything you can spare, and I will give you 1985 back,' I would know you're lying. You're obviously lying. You're obviously telling me something that is not true. But yeah, such is the world now.

“You never reach the status quo. Unfortunately, the pendulum swings and sometimes you're in the shitter and sometimes the opposite side, that's how it's always been,” he says. Time and trends, belief systems and music, all move in circles. “That's the horrid thing about the shit that they're trying to sell you, especially when they're trying to sell it as some sort of religion sandwich because they're telling you that the world is linear, and time is linear.

“In this case, they're talking about heaven or hell,” Forge notes, but “That is not how it really works. Everything else in this world is circular. So why wouldn't that also be circular? That's the true essence of evil – tricking people into believing something in order to get something out of them and trying to sell them salvation.”

It often feels like we are in the worst possible timeline, but luckily for Forge, he’s found a kindred spirit in Adam Darski, aka Nergal, the Polish musician and vocalist of the extreme metal band Behemoth

Forge features on Under The Spell, a track from Darski’s solo album, New Man, New Songs, Same Shit: Vol. 2, under the moniker Me And That Man. The Behemoth frontman has faced trouble in his native Poland numerous times. Last May, was acquitted of blasphemy charges in his home country in a win against censorship in art. 

“We're friends, so he [Darski] very simply just asked me [to collaborate] and then we did what we could in the midst of Covid,” Forge shares. “It was a miracle that we actually ended up being in the same room together at that point. He came to Stockholm and we hung out for a couple of days. Absolutely, we have a kinship. Our backgrounds are very similar – at least pop-culturally – he grew up in the 80s in Poland, which at that point was behind the Iron Curtain. Obviously, there's a difference there.”

But in terms of pop culture and who they are, Forge notes, “Our backgrounds are very similar. We started playing death metal, black metal, that sort of stuff. And then we've both achieved careers within music. He's obviously very entrepreneurial with all of his side ventures, which I’m not really able to match. I don't do a whole lot of things that he does, professionally, but in so many ways, we are very similar in what we do and what we value about life and how we value life. At least, in practical philosophical things, I believe that we're similar.”

The last time that both Behemoth and Ghost were in Australia was for the short-lived Download Festival in 2019. Neither headlined the days in Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane, but the curiosity of Ghost certainly drew crowds to their tent while headliners Slayer were performing. This October, the Swedes will return to Australia for their first-ever headline run in the country.

The headline tour will be very different to what fans remember from Ghost’s Download appearances, “The biggest difference between this time and the previous times that we've been there is that we're bringing a full production,” Forge says. An album and a half would have been released by the time the band lands down under, and that obviously means songs they haven’t played in Australia before making the setlist.

“Last time, we played a festival – I don't remember the exact length of the show, but we probably shaved off a lot of material that we would have been able to play,” he adds. “I don't want to, in hindsight, posthumously kill any memories of what people have seen when we have been there before, but we haven't really done a proper show in Australia. That's the thing; we've never really done that. I think that what you're finally getting is a real Ghost show.”

Ghost are touring across Australia this October. Tickets are available via Destroy All Lines.



Tuesday, 3 October - Hordern Pavilion, Sydney

Wednesday, 4 October - Margaret Court Arena, Melbourne

Saturday, 7 October - Riverstage, Brisbane