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How Ghost became the face of the new generation of heavy metal

Paris, tell me… did that make your asses wobble?” It sure as hell isn’t “Scream for me, Hammersmith!”  but somehow, inexplicably, this flirty, moustached, makeup-splattered dandy wiggling about in a tux and leather gloves has 9,000 people in the palm of his hand like he’s Bruce Dickinson in ’86. Hammer is at hallmark gig venue Le Zenith in France’s capital city, witnessing Ghost deliver their latest sermon. 

The City Of Love might be frozen solid on this chilly February evening, but the unstoppable Swedes are heating things up in style – fire, steam cannons, confetti, a dazzling light show and enough costume changes to make Lady Gaga dizzy are just some of the ingredients reaffirming their status as one of metal’s premier attractions in 2019. 

It all makes a two-hour set fly by in no time, guided masterfully by that  aforementioned, ’tache-donning Daddy. Cardinal Copia, Ghost’s Master Of Ceremonies, raised a few confused eyebrows when he was unveiled this time last year, breaking an eight-year streak of Papa Emerituses who’d fronted Ghost since its inception. But he’s since become the beating heart of a band that have continued to evolve, grow and adapt beyond all expectations. 

He’s also a world away from the blue-eyed, slick-black-haired, quiet and thoughtful man we spent time with two hours earlier, dressed in jeans and a hoodie, decidedly sans-moustache and doing much less wiggling. 

When Hammer last spoke to Tobias Forge, he’d recently (some may say forcefully) been outed as Ghost’s resident mastermind – its very own Wizard Of Oz, working behind the scenes and behind the mask to help orchestrate one of the most unlikely success stories of recent times. 

We are creating a dynasty.

Tobias Forge

Soon after our last conversation, Ghost dropped their latest album, Prequelle – an instant classic stacked with playful menace and 80s-tinged pop-rock bangers – and have pretty much been on the road ever since.

“Hey, if you wanna rock, you gotta rock,” shrugs Tobias of his relentless schedule. “It takes a lot of effort, a lot of cogwheels spinning and turning, to make all this work.” He’s not kidding. 

A weary roadie will later inform us that it takes almost four hours to pack up Ghost’s monstrous set each night – a towering, multi-platformed, chapel-esque set-up that recalls the kind of backdrops Maiden have made home for decades. “But, once you’ve got that whole machine rolling, you don’t wanna stop,” Tobias adds. “At some point, we will have to wind down a bit, but we’re not there yet. 

If you wanna be comparative, look at all the big bands; even though they made it in a different time, statistically it takes five records, about 10 years, to go from nothing to something to something great.”

(Image credit: John McMurtrie)

And that, right there, sums up Tobias Forge. The reason Ghost have been such a triumph isn’t because of great songs, a good live show and a savvy gimmick – metal history is littered with bands that never made it despite boasting all those things. 

The difference is that Tobias is the man with the plan. He may not be the tortured artiste or swaggering hellraiser that rock’n’roll loves to stick on a pedestal, but he’s a leader: a brand ambassador with a calculating mind and a shrewd business acumen who knows exactly what needs to be done to immortalise Ghost’s legacy. 

He’s playing the game, and he’s winning. And if you look hard enough, the seeds for it all were being sown right at the very start.

“You can find all the details in my record collection,” he says with a knowing smirk – and he’s not wrong. Before Cardinal Copia, there were Papa Emeritus I, II and III – a line of frontmen that not only enabled Ghost to set up a deep-running narrative, but change up the formula and the image for every album cycle. Sound familiar? It should – it’s what rock’n’roll superstars have been doing for decades. 

"I’ve always been a big fan of Kiss,” he continues. “Most Kiss fans can tell the era [of the band] by the photo, what they’re wearing. You can say, ‘That is ’75, that is ’76, it’s in the spring, it’s in the fall, it’s Rock And Roll Over, it’s Destroyer.’ So I figured that in order for this band to age, we need to create dynasties. 

"And that way, there’ll also be nostalgia. Because I come from a heavy metal background, I know how important nostalgia is, and the attention span nowadays is so short, so you need to create it quickly. You need people to be able to say, ‘I was there when this part happened.’ That’s why it was always Papa Emeritus I, right from the start.”

It’s a meticulous level of forward-thinking that has come up trumps, but amazingly, you’d have been hard-pushed to find anyone who’d have backed Tobias to carve such a path 10 years ago. 

Before 2010, it was with respected Swedish death metallers Repugnant that the Linköping native had had his most ‘success’, his love of rock’s theatrical side flirted with via a splash of corpsepaint and a drop of fake blood here and there. 

A spate of EPs and splits and one well-received album, 2006’s Epitome Of Darkness, ensured a small part in heavy metal folklore was guaranteed, but it was what happened next that changed everything. 

Channelling his love of catchy NWOBHM mainstays like Angel Witch and Demon, Tobias wrote what would become Stand By Him – an irrepressible schlock-rock anthem a world away from the guttural noise of Epitome… 

He called up former Repugnant bandmate Gustaf Lindström to help record it, and more songs quickly followed in the same, earwormy vein – “I’ve always liked the NWOBHM bands that had melody and pop sensibility,” he says today. 

But there was still something missing. The songs Tobias was now writing were following a formula that had been laid down since the 70s. It needed something different. Something fun. Something… metal. 

Deciding that this new project should carry an image that’d bring it a world away from its influences – a band that, in Tobias’s words, should “sound like Angel Witch but look like Death SS,” he began doodling some ideas. One scribble stuck – the image of a Pope-like character, plastered in ghoulish corpsepaint. Papa Emeritus was born. 

I was 29 years old. I wasn't going to get another chance at this.

Tobias Forge

“And as soon as it was confirmed that he’s gonna be a Pope… well, when a Pope dies, you have a new one!” adds Tobias with a laugh. Soon after Papa I came the idea for the Nameless Ghouls – masked, anonymous backing musicians that’d add to the band’s hokey mystique. 

By 2009, the project had an image, some songs and a name: Ghost. But it’d be a little while before things started to move forwards, and Tobias’s grand plan would take shape.

Between 2008 and 2009, there were maybe 20 people who knew about Ghost,” says Tobias, who ended up fronting the band through default after unsuccessfully offering the gig to a variety of names from around the metal scene. 

“The guys in In Solitude, the guys in Tribulation, the guys in Watain… they were the only people who knew about it! But I knew at that point that it was gonna have the ability to turn heads, because it made everyone [excited]. 

"Repugnant were popular, but nothing I had ever done had had such an immediate impact on people. They were all like, ‘Ghost! I wanna hear more!’ I knew that there was gonna be some sort of buzz.”

A “buzz” is an understatement. When Ghost’s first songs were finally made public – on MySpace, no less – things began to move very, very quickly. Metal messageboards were set ablaze with excitement and offers came flooding in. 

“I was quickly in touch with Will from Rise Above,” notes Tobias now, and he would eventually accept a deal with Lee Dorrian’s much-respected label. An album, Opus Eponymous, was recorded, and the metal underground waited with baited breath for its new favourite band to deliver on the hype. And yet, even at this stage, Tobias wasn’t totally certain just how far things would go.

“Originally, I thought that Ghost was gonna become more like a theatre/installation sort of band, like Sunn O))),” he reveals. “We would play Roadburn, arthouse concerts, five dates at the London Scala, that sort of thing.”

So a kind of ‘event’ band. You’d show up to play special shows and residencies.

“Exactly,” he confirms. “I never thought we would be the band that would play metal festivals, play in daylight, play with other bands.”

(Image credit: John McMurtrie)

But then more offers started steaming in. Suddenly Ghost – with not so much as a gig to their name – were being asked to go on tours, play festivals and do interviews. For Tobias, there was a straight decision to be made: keep this project as a ‘cult attraction’, stay within the underground and become everyone’s favourite ‘Oh, you wouldn’t have heard of them’ reference point, or take a leap into the unknown and reach for greatness. 

For a man that had spent years keeping a lid on his grand ambitions, now was the time to sink or swim. And, really, there was only ever going to be one option.

“I wasn’t gonna get another chance,” he states flatly. “I was already 29 years old at the time, so it was like, ‘This is the train and it’s leaving now.’ You can choose to stay, and sit there and fucking wonder all your life, or you can get on.”

Tobias got on the train, and it hasn’t stopped rolling. Opus Eponymous was released on October 18, 2010, and within three years intimate club shows became packed-out academy shows in front of 5,000 people, and soon after that the band could be seen supporting everyone from Metallica to Foo Fighters to Iron Maiden. 

They won a Grammy for Cirice (and have been nominated for two more); they’ve been championed by everyone from James Hetfield to Phil Anselmo; their merch has become obscenely big business, t-shirts selling out in no time at gigs (including the show Hammer attends tonight) and the Ghost IP being plastered across everything from baubles to butt plugs to custom plague masks. 

Tobias has manoeuvred that quick sketch of a spooky lad in a Pope hat into a machine Gene Simmons would be proud of, all underpinned by a storyline that has fans salivating as they wait for the next chapter to be revealed.

And if there was any doubt that this is still very much Tobias’s baby, you need only look at the casualty list littered with names that have crossed him. There are the disgruntled ex-bandmates who attempted to bring a lawsuit against Tobias in 2017 after claiming they were denied their rightful share of the Ghost pot. 

The lawsuit was thrown out in October last year, his former colleagues ordered to pay Tobias’s legal costs (around $145,000, if you’re counting). There was also the Sister Imperator incident, where the elderly Ghost matriarch and star of their ongoing vignette series had to be swiftly recast after a mysterious falling out.

“All of a sudden, you’ve an actress who decides to start making fucking trouble and makes herself unemployable,” Tobias says. “Well, then you have to do what they do in any soap opera… a car accident.” That’s not allegorical, by the way. 

Tobias literally had a new vignette made revealing that the Sister was in a car wreck and needed reconstructive surgery. The new actress was brought in so smoothly that many Ghost fans assumed it was the same person with a different haircut. How’s that for efficient?

“That’s how you solve things,” the frontman shrugs. “But that was not planned at first, because we’d been working with the same actress for three years, and then all of a sudden, things fell apart. But, you have to roll with the punch, you have to bite your finger, and come up with another plan… car accident. Boom.”

That Tobias won’t be moved on what actually happened between he and the original actress is understandable – after all, this is a man that spent years holding his cards close to his chest. 

That this all managed to play out under the noses of one of modern metal’s most fanatical fanbases, however, is pretty damn impressive. Basically: don’t cross the boss.

Would Lars shy away from people talking shit about Metallica?

Tobias Forge

While Tobias’s masterplan may seem iron-clad, he will at least admit that there is room for fine-tweaking along the way. He recently revealed that Cardinal Copia’s character could stick around for another five years and multiple albums – a first for Ghost, who have thus far changed up their protagonist for every record.

“That’s just because of the potential of him being a ‘Pope’ or a Papa Emeritus IV,” he explains, before adding: “If he becomes a Papa Emeritus.”

So there could be multiple endings planned for Cardi C?

“Absolutely. All of this is an organic movement, and that is one of the biggest paradoxes for me, as a control freak. To be part of this living world, I can’t control everything. I can control a lot, and I can influence a lot, but I can’t control it [all]. And coming to terms with those things and accepting that is a big struggle for me.”

He’ll also admit that being the mastermind behind a machine as big and ever-evolving as Ghost has had a serious impact on his personal life. Being a part of a successful band is one thing, but having that success rest almost entirely on your shoulders is something altogether different.

“It’s very hard to do this without any casualties,” he muses. “It takes a toll on your surroundings, your crew, your parents, your children… I have two kids, 10 years old. They were toddlers when this whole thing started. My family’s had to endure a lot for this to happen.”

He’s also had to face up to the reality that being in a big rock band means you’re going to attract the attention of 

a fair few haters – and Ghost have an army of them. Check out Hammer’s Facebook page to see the dizzying levels of vitriol that a post about Ghost will attract. Recurring issues seem to be accusations of selling out, anger at Tobias’s treatment of his former bandmates and, most commonly, whether Ghost belong in our world at all (and to be fair, you’d be hard-pushed to describe Prequelle as a true heavy metal record by any standards).

“I’ve noticed it,” says Tobias. “I noticed it in the beginning. I think that it’s the same old discussion. ‘Is Ghost a metal band?’ ‘Are we a clone of Mercyful Fate?’ It’s the same old thing. But now these people are saying the new record is not as good because it’s not as much of a clone of Mercyful Fate! OK…”

Why do you think Ghost wind people up so much?

“Because we are ever-present, all the time. We are being shoved into people’s faces, and we’re rubbing it in. They wouldn’t talk about us had we not been successful. Does it worry me? Not really. If they’re talking shit about me, that’s one thing,  especially if it’s someone that I know. That can hurt me deeply. When you’re at the beginning of your career, especially nowadays, you spend a lot of time surveying what’s going on, because you need to feed off anything that’s happening to the band. So I noticed there was a lot of ‘controversy’, a lot of mixed opinions. It’s surprising they don’t understand that the more they talk about us, the more traffic there is about our band. More than we would have had had they not spoken!”

Once again, it’s there: the unnerving feeling that Tobias is metal’s modern-day puppet master, pulling the strings above a performance that we all continue to play our parts in. Whether it’s the media, his fans, his critics or the few who have attempted to foil him, everything only ever seems to play into his hands, and the Ghost train rolls on. 

“A few months ago, based on metadata alone, a website made a list 

of the biggest bands in metal,” Tobias reveals as a PR informs us our time together is up. “We were number four! Right up there. And that’s thanks to these people that keep on fucking hating. So I have nothing but great feelings for them.”

He makes to leave before adding: “That’s how all these bands made their careers. You think Lars would shy away every time people would talk shit about Metallica? Fuck. That.” 

Hated, adored but never ignored. This summer, Ghost will play in front of stadium crowds with Metallica once again – something Tobias calls a “PR exercise” – before more global dates and, eventually, a new album that’ll reveal the next chapter of his grand plan. You can imagine that people will have plenty to say about it. And you can imagine that Tobias Forge is going to relish every second.