Ghost: The Hellbound Interview

By Justin M. Norton

If you follow metal it’s highly unlikely you haven’t heard of Ghost. The group – led by an Undead Pope vocalist sporting Satanic vestments – might be the metal band of the moment. Their album Opus Eponymous, which mixes infectious riffs with 1970s trappings, received critical raves. Their shows are packed. They were forced to cancel an American tour due to visa problems and able to book their own headlining tour months later. Fans write Facebook postings offering to work as servants. Rabid detractors only seem to add to their publicity. It may be closing in on Armageddon but it’s a great time to be an anonymous Swede in a cloak.

Interviewing Ghost, however, is a dicey proposition. Rules about transparency and traditional journalism go out the window. You’re told you’ll be interviewing a nameless ghoul, meaning it could be the guitarist or drummer or maybe a janitor at Metal Blade Records. We’re assuming it’s a member of Ghost but skeptical. But we’re hooked when said ghoul tells us a story about the troubles of being confused for a roadie or crazed fan.

The ghoul in the spotlight said it’s been a busier year than anticipated, one that began with a modest record release and ended with endorsements from Metallica and prominent positions at festivals worldwide. “I think a lot of what happened in the past year has forced us to catch up,” he said. “Most bands you consider being really successful have been planning years ahead. We’ve just been busy trying to look like a band that is slightly bigger than we are.” Ghost is writing their second album and hopes their infernal congregation grows even larger.

How did you decide to cover “Here Comes The Sun?”

We’re huge Beatles fans. One of us figured of that if you take a beautiful song and transpose the melody to minor and change the chords all the lyrics turn into something slightly uncomfortable. Whenever we get those ideas it’s usually a good thing for Ghost. “Here Comes The Sun” is a song people hear on the radio and associate with spring. We tried to make it sound like midwinter, doom.

Taking an ode to hope and making it sound hopeless.

Exactly (laughs). I couldn’t have said it better. Good!

How did Ghost get together?

Everything started with a bunch of songs. We knew very early that to make this material work we needed to fulfill our dream of putting a horror show together with music. In order to successfully do that, we needed to erase any real identity in terms of individual faces. What we wanted to make, to achieve, was a theatrical experience. What made this difficult but also interesting was that we knew we’d want to let this build for a while and make it special. We knew it would take a while to get things assembled, get the imagery in order. It ended up being two years of planning before we made the announcement that the band was active. That led to a very fast signing with a record label and our first show. The plan wasn’t to take baby steps. But we ended up taking a lot of baby steps in the dark before we went public. That, in turn, led to people being overwhelmed by the fact that a band could be so unknown one day and known the next.

What kind of theatrical music – metal and otherwise – did you look at when you were putting Ghost together?

The easy ones to mention are KISS and David Bowie and Alice Cooper. But we draw more influence from Pink Floyd. Even though they were on stage as individuals Pink Floyd live was very theatrical. We wanted to take that a step further and build a world you could step into without having an experience polluted by faces. Obviously, we each have names and faces so we’re not Nameless Ghouls. But that’s part of the dramaturgy that you become part of when you need to build something that’s accessible for humans. The human psyche works that way – you need faces in order to believe in something, you need eyes to look in to comprehend what someone is saying. At least most people need that.

We realized that we needed to leave stuff up to the imagination. We want to leave things to the listeners and fantasy. We want people to think, feel something, let go. A lot of bands feel like they need to be ‘real’ and be one of the guys. We’re quite the opposite.

One of the powerful things about Ghost is that we live in a worldwide culture where it’s all about ego, your identity as an individual…I’m a Kardashian or a rock star. What you are saying is that our identities aren’t as important as the message.

Obviously, trying to pull off something like this today with all the hysterical updates and computer clicks is hard. But thematically, it’s important for people to understand that we want our shows to be enhanced by the fact that you don’t know. At every show we play or success we achieve it’s surprisingly relieving not to be part of what everyone else in the music business wants to be a part of. It allows you to differentiate between yourself and your life and the role you enter. When we’re in cloaks and wearing costumes we enter a sphere. When we enter this sphere it’s highly real. We want people attending the show to enter that sphere as well. When we leave, when we exit that bubble, we are no longer a part of Ghost. That might sound pretentious or naïve but that’s the way we want it.

Were you taken aback by the band’s almost immediate popularity?

It’s hard to say. We knew what we were doing was outside the box. We expected something. But again the album was released in Europe by a small label known for putting out curious, weird stuff. The commercial expectations weren’t high. We did do this with the intention of turning heads, but all of the success we’ve had in the past year has been unexpected. But again, it gets back to being anonymous. When you are experiencing these breakthroughs and traveling and doing it as an individual you aren’t gaining a bunch of new friends or experiencing carnal pleasures you might experience if you were suddenly recognized.

We live in Sweden, in a small town without a lot of people. We aren’t in the epicenter of where anything happens with the band. We go on the road, enter the bubble, then break the bubble and come home. A lot of bands living in London are expected to be rock stars all the time. That is truly diabolical(laughs) and not the way we want to live.

So Ghost doesn’t need to live like Russell Brand in Get Him To The Greek, where you need to be a persona.

I’d say so. We’re often mistaken for roadies, which is helpful. We’ve almost been thrown out of venues we’ve played. Forgetting our backstage pass is a big problem. Nobody really knows who we are. If you don’t look like a rock star who just played you might be a bullshitter trying to get backstage. That keeps things interesting. It allows us to relate in a more healthy way to what we’re doing, because we don’t need to be associated personally with what we do culturally.

Have any of you ever gone out in crowd without your outfits?

We do that all that time. Not in groups, but individually. People will come and crowd our singer when he’s offstage and take pictures. Fifteen minutes later, those same fans will go right next to him and act like he’s just a nothing. That’s happened to all of us. That’s one of the perks of being in this band. And it shows that it works.

What do you think about the argument that Ghost isn’t metal. Do you even care?

We never set out to be a metal band. For us, it’s not an issue. All of us come from a metal background. Our upbringings are rooted in metal. But we’re open-minded and we don’t depend on people to give us metal credentials. We know we already have them. It’s not even interesting to us. Obviously, I know how people think when they are an 18 or 20-year-old metalhead. People can be really anal when it comes to differentiating what’s metal and what’s cool and what’s not. I know where true headbangers come from. But what we set out to do and achieve is outside of that. We incorporate melodies and structure and riffing to achieve a horrific sound. It’s supposed to be frightening and seducing. If someone chooses to call it pop that’s their loss. Everyone can’t like the band. As long as they talk about the band, that’s perfect. When people try to slag the band it’s mission accomplished. We’ve made people turn their heads.

There are two sources of publicity…your fans and the people who don’t like the band but talk about you, anyway.

(Laughs) Correct. There aren’t a whole lot bands that are able to command that type of attention, people liking the band or just talking about you. If we made no impact no one would notice the band. It’s weird how dogmatic people become because we do something that’s sticking out.

Are you working on a follow-up to Opus Eponymous?

We are working on new material and a lot of it is finalized. We know the direction the next record is going. We’ve tried to keep the same playfulness from the first album. A lot of the songs on Opus came without a filter. We didn’t try to exclude anything, just make it challenging and dramatic. We’ve managed to put together something that comes from the same source. But we’ve also chosen to emphasize new things on this record. We’ve been using the word ‘divine’ through the creation. This record will be slightly bigger, not in the commercial sense, but the sound will be a little bit bigger than the first.

There are also different philosophical themes in the first record versus the second. The first album deals with before the Antichrist, something foreboding, something in the future. The songs are about a darkness or Antichrist almost upon us. The new record is about the presence of the Devil, the presence of the Antichrist. It’s also about how people relate to a deity or God, themes like submission and superstition, the horrors of being religious. There’s a step thematically. The third record will take it even further.

So you are thinking of a whole Ghost mythos or storyline?

Yeah, that’s the point.

Opus came out as a CD, a digital file and a picture disc. [I have it on regular LP too. - Da Ed] I thought given your theatrical bent you could do much more with your albums. Is that part of the plan for what’s next?

A lot of the band members are fanatical record collectors and think about what collectors would like. I think we might expand our horizons because there are so many things cool we could do. If you are a creative person – if you like music, art and literature — it’s a thrill to be able to add to your release, release an album that’s more than a file sent between computers. Given the chance we’re going to expand the range of physical offerings. We’re extremely rooted in what old metal collectors would want. I have hundreds of t-shirts at home.

Have some people in the metal community lost their sense of fun and humor?

I can’t say that. It differs so much. There are no set patterns. I know a lot people might have issues because they see us as too commercial. A lot of die-hards in the extreme metal scene might think you are a sell out if you turn up at a second rehearsal. I know people who are sort of like that yet they love the band. It’s hard to pinpoint the typical Ghost fan. There are so many contradictions. We can’t say who the typical fan of the band is.

Sean Palmerston

Sean is the founder/publisher of Hellbound.ca; he has also written about metal for Exclaim!, Metal Maniacs, Roadburn, Unrestrained! and Vice.