Ghost interview: the masked metal band on their new “positive” record about The Plague

To begin, a horror story…

It’s chilling to think how The Black Death arrived in Ghost’s native Sweden. In fact, there’s a deeply upsetting story on the website Gizmodo that can be summarised thus. After marauding through Asia, by the late 1340’s, the plague arrived in England. A decade of horror followed. Then a ship left England for Scandinavia; it’s cargo, a shipment of wool. The plague killed every man aboard. The ship then drifted for a few years or so, the disease feasting on the rotting corpses of the crew, until it ultimately ran aground near Bergen, Norway.

From then the plague spread into Sweden. Then into Russia. By 1353, one in three Europeans had lost their lives. It would take two hundred years for Europe’s population to return to pre-plague numbers.

“I think this record might be the first positive record ever written about the plague,” says Tobias Forge of Ghost, describing his fourth studio album ‘Prequelle’ with just enough levity in his voice to acknowledge the ridiculousness of that statement. “Essentially, it’s a record about survival, start to finish. The record takes you through the idea of mortality, before ending on the question, ‘if you could circumvent death… would you?’ I come from the metal underground, and the subject of The Black Death has been excavated many times. But those records are about the decimation of everything, and little light is shown to the survivors. There’s an argument that mankind learned a lot of good from what happened…”

This talk of the Bubonic Plague is almost certainly allegory. ‘Prequelle’, see, is the follow up to 2015’s ‘Meliora’, the record that dug Ghost out of the metal underground, and anointed them a pretty big deal. This meant tours with Iron Maiden and Slayer, Avenged Sevenfold and Deftones. It meant acclaim from the fuzzy lips of Dave Grohl – not in itself especially impressive; like an alt-rock Bono, Grohl knows the cool bands he needs to anoint and when – the masked Foo Fighter being rumoured to have sat in on drums for the band on a variety of occasions (as we’ll get to, you wouldn’t know otherwise), as well as producing their ‘If You Have Ghost EP’ in 2013. ‘Meliora’’s stand-out song, ‘Circice’, even won a Grammy for Best Metal Performance in 2016. ‘Prequelle’ arrives with much expectation. It also arrives with Tobias bruised and battered by its creation.

Ghost the band

‘Prequelle’ is a record about looking forward. But first, a look back. Early 2017 saw Tobias sued by former Ghost personnel, claiming the frontman had, “in an underhanded and shameless way, attempted to transform Ghost from a band into a solo project with hired musicians”. Tobias responded that “no legal partnership” ever existed between him and the other members, that they were paid a fixed salary to perform as his wont, that they were essentially session musicians. Like everything does now, this all played out in public, with opinion welcome from anyone. Where this gets really messy, is that unless you had an in, nobody really knew who any of Ghost were. Tobias performed as a variety of masked cardinals; three iterations of the demonic anti-pope Papa Emeritus, changing each record. The band performed in masks as the Nameless Ghouls. They were sort of like KISS if that band sang about Satanic scripture instead of shagging. Legal proceedings forced Tobias out of the shadows and shot mystique in the head”

“All things considered, a year down the line, having been through so much turmoil,” says Tobias, with acceptance that he now only has to pretend to be an actual ghoul onstage, not off it, “I’ve come to realise that what happened needed to happen. Also, I’m a big fan of rock, of rock history, and I’ve read every classic rock biography of every band I’m a fan of. You know what? The same shit takes place in every single one. A friend of mine, a very successful songwriter, said to me, ‘you’re not really in the game until you’ve been sued, so welcome in!’ and I think he’s got a point. I’ve been in lots of situations in my life where I’ve managed to turn pain into growing pains. Really, what happened was a receipt that things are going well.”

Tobias takes a deep breath.

“It’s fine. It’ll be over…”

It is unquestionable this experience shaped the record’s DNA, even if, with the lengthy process of litigation dragging along in the background, there is a limit to how much Tobias can say. Freely, that is. It’s all there on ‘Prequelle’. “The song ‘See The Light’ (a stormer of a power pop metal song, it should be said) sounds like it’s about people who’ve crossed you,” we say, thinking of lines such as, “Many a rat I’ve befriended” and “Of all of the demons I’ve known, none can compare to you”. There is a pause so pregnant, metaphysical wet towels are piling up all around us, before Tobias responds, “Yes”. We ask if it’s a song that relates to his current situation. He replies, diplomatically, “I think it’s a song that can apply to any situation in which you’re surrounded by enemies. Really, it’s a song about redistributing anger and negativity.”

As of writing, ‘Prequelle’ isn’t released for another couple of weeks, but you will most likely have already heard its lead-off single, ‘Rats’, which also debuts Tobias’ new rubber faced persona, Cardinal Copia, sort of the midpoint between a deranged Satanic preacher and a used car salesman. If you’ve seen the video, it turns out that the Cardinal can bust a move (Tobias: “Have I ever had dance lessons? I’m mobile, but not nearly as much as our promotional videos lead people to believe…”). ‘Rats’ is also, perhaps, the most direct comment on what Tobias, and the Ghost that’s now been repositioned as a vessel for his self-expression (he prefers ‘project’ to ‘solo’ by the way) have been through during its parent albums creation.

Ghost the band

“It’s a song about public trials,” says Tobias. “Rats traditionally were what carried the plague. But they’re also a good analogy for something that’s all around you. I mean, one thing that’s annoying about rats, is they can hide in your walls. They can come up through your toilet. They sort of eat their way into your life. And so I think about the kid getting bullied, and how in the past, the bullies were just at school, or on the way to school. Now they’re there all the time. Online.”

“We look back on ancient times,” he continues, “and we like to think about how sophisticated we are now, whereas in the past we were barbaric. But in the last ten years, I think we’ve regressed back to such a stone throwing, stupid, superstitious, nincompoop way of thinking. It’s fucking horrible…”

So you’re referring to social media? I’m thinking of the line in Rats, “they’re still coming after you, and there’s nothing you can do…”

“Well, as much as I’m an advocate for whistleblowing culture in the modern era – and of course I’m for that, things that are bad for the world should be exposed – I’m not sure that’s the forum for it. All those people just… shouting…”

Does this relate to your personal experience in wake of the lawsuit? When that story broke, it felt like everyone had an opinion on you…

Another pause. Then finally, “Yes”.

“So many people have opinions based, not on fact, but spite,” Tobias continues. “There are people who just love to destroy other people. It saddens me to admit, that I think at whatever state of human civilisation we arrive at, the will to destroy other people, is something that is innate in some people.”

There are of course moments on ‘Prequelle’ that are filled with joy too. A kind of dark, sticky, oily joy, yes. But joy none-the-less. There’s a reason Ghost’s aesthetic riffs off the ecclesiastical after all. All their best songs are big, bold, searching. Take Dance Macabre. Far closer to Duran Duran in their pomp than it is Carcass, if there is a death disco somewhere, an actual one with skeletons and tasty alcoholic beverages that are slime green and taste of formaldehyde – the best night of your death, so to speak – it’ll surely be the most requested song all night.

“I really wanted to explore the use of piano on this record,” says Tobias. “Take the song, Life Eternal, the last song on the record. I wanted it be very ambitious, almost classical, and the piano gives that song air and clarity…”

He concludes. “Like I say, I wanted this to be a positive record, a record about survival…”

‘Prequelle’ by Ghost is out on June 1