"Heavy metal is about having the biggest ****. Indie is the opposite": Tobias Forge went from being a teenage headbanger to the arena-conquering mastermind behind Ghost. These are the lessons he's learned

Ghost Tobias Forge
(Image credit: Press/Loma Vista)

Tobias Forge is the mastermind behind one of the 21st century’s hottest metal bands, but even he’ll admit that success was a long time in the making. Hailing from the Swedish city of Linköping, the Ghost frontman dabbled in everything from death metal to glam before donning the iconic Papal attire and paint to transform into Papa Emeritus, transcending his roots to become a largerthan-life character. 

Here are the key parables he has to share, gleaned from more than 25 years on the heavy metal frontlines.

Metal Hammer line break

Music and movies are gateways to other worlds 

“Linköping was a nice city to grow up in. It wasn’t so small you felt like you were cramped in a village, but it’s small enough that you’d still want to eventually move somewhere else. You’d have access to all these gateways to other worlds through the record stores and the local video store. My dreams started there – everything I do now, I dreamt back there.” 

I was a teenage headbanger

“I had a teenage brother growing up, so I had a free pass into teenage culture. Whatever they consumed, I got a whiff of – how they dressed, what they watched on TV, what films they rented… The lifestyle and expression that meant most to me was shock rock. Twisted Sister were a wrecking ball into my life with I Wanna Rock. That song made me want to bounce!” 

The heavier it got, the deeper I wanted to go

“When I first heard Candlemass, I was eight and I was blown away. I already liked Black Sabbath, Metallica and Motörhead through my brother, but Candlemass were local and sounded so heavy, it was like doomsday. King Diamond and Candlemass served as a segue for me to discover death metal and black metal in the early 90s. It became my calling. From the ages of 12 to 22, I spent my life in death and black metal bands.” 

Follow your heart (sometimes your wallet) 

“My mom is from Stockholm, so when I was 15 and started saying I wanted to move there, she was just like ‘Finish mandatory school’ and we moved together [after I graduated]. I moved back to Linköping when I was 25, because Stockholm is a big metropolitan place and it’s not fun living in those places if you don’t have money. Now I’m in Stockholm again; it’s more fun now I can afford it!” 

Head in the clouds, feet on the ground

“I learned the hard way in the late 90s that wanting to play 80s-inspired death metal with my band Repugnant was painfully out of touch with what was going on at the time. It broke my heart; I wanted us to be signed to Roadrunner and support Slayer. That never happened unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately, as it kept me grounded for a few more years and if those things had happened maybe I wouldn’t be here today.” 

Take chances, but stand your ground

“Repugnant had a close shave with success. We signed to the label Hammerheart, which at the time felt like we’d made it because the first thing they did was take us out on our first tour, supporting the American band Macabre. They were a favourite band of ours – still are, and whenever we play Chicago they come to the shows – and at that point it felt like we might be going somewhere, but we quickly parted ways with Hammerheart because we couldn’t agree. It felt like our chance and we’d blown it.”

Not all 80s bands were created equal 

“With Crashdïet, we never really went beyond our home. I can’t say how many shows we did, but I don’t think it was more than a handful. For me especially there was conflict with the singer, Dave Lepard. We were friends, but he clearly wanted to take his band into some sort of glam-sleaze direction, whereas when I think of ‘glam’, I’m more Hanoi Rocks and Guns N’ Roses – never, ever the other bands. I know Poison kinda came before a lot of the latecomers, but to me they were repellent. Dave wanted to go all neon and I wanted it so that if we were glam, we’d be Hanoi Rocks meets Lords Of The New Church or The Dead Boys. I don’t want to be fucking Stryper! Fuck that!” 

There's no point trying to follow fashion

“It was a confusing time in the early 2000s – rock was all of a sudden in fashion because of bands like Franz Ferdinand and Kaiser Chiefs. Everyone was always looking for the next big rock band and in Sweden The Hives were huge, as were The Soundtrack Of Our Lives, The Hellacopters, Backyard Babies… so many rock bands! But there we were in Subvision, influenced by The Dead Boys, with a little-too-long hair, leather jackets, just a little too ‘metal’… yuck! You’re supposed to be more indie; heavy metal is about having the biggest dick and indie is the opposite.”

First impressions really do count

“I hated The Strokes when they first came out. Back then, everyone described them as being so natural, that they weren’t interested in being rock stars, and I was like, ‘No. They didn’t wake up looking like that.’ They chose to do that to be rock stars. And they can really play! Then when First Impressions Of Earth came out it was like, ‘There you go! That’s what they really sound like! After that, I loved The Strokes, because they were showing they actually did love the music, but a lot of indie rockers treated it like it was their sell-out record.” 

Have a vision in mind

“Ghost started with a song, Stand By Him, which ultimately came out on our first record. I wrote it spontaneously, as an experiment – almost a joke, if you will, in 2006. When I recorded it the first time, I had no equipment in my home, so I had to go to a friend’s house. We did this very rough demo. He said it was great. He’d been in Subvision, Repugnant and Crashdïet with me, but we’d stopped playing together. He was like, ‘Can we form a new band?’ and I was like, ‘This song is the only thing I have. If I can come up with two more songs and there’s a pattern, then of course.’ But they needed to be as playful and spontaneous, and sure enough they were.” 

Pressure can do wonders 

“Around 2008, when Ghost were first getting properly started, my girlfriend told me she was pregnant with twins. I never said it out loud, but I was preparing for my dream not coming true – maybe I wouldn’t become a rock star, I’d never be successful… So I had to at least have something that I could live with, a hobby that I could feel strongly about and get all my inclinations filtered through. I wanted to play metal, but also write pop music, have this horror rock show with theatre… Still taking inspiration from Venom pictures in 1982 where they looked like bikers surrounded by smoke and red lights. Ghost felt like a combination of all those things. Lo and behold, when I didn’t have all the time in the world, like I had before and gotten nowhere, when I could only put so much effort in, everything changed.” 

The mythos is nice, but only the music matters 

“It was so weird, being threatened with a ‘reveal’ [Tobias’s public identity was revealed after ex-members took legal action against him in 2017], as if people knowing who I was would be such a turn-off that they’d never listen to Ghost again. Here I am, most of my life wanting to be known, but then I was fighting to be unknown? What a paradox!” 

Roll with the punches

“I’ve always tried to be like a general – have a goal, like, ‘Let’s take that castle’, but knowing that things can change in the field. You need to conduct yourself with a certain level of elasticity. I know I’m a control freak and want things to be done in a certain way, but I’m also aware things never work out that way.” 

Challenge yourself 

“One of the biggest weaknesses with modern metal – and horror – is that it’s being created and curated by people who only like that thing, so it becomes regurgitation. The best horror movies I’ve seen – Jaws, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, The Exorcist, The Omen – were made by people who never made horror films elsewhere. They wouldn’t limit themselves. If you don’t like other things, that’s fine, but if you ever feel stuck creatively it might just be that you’re sticking too close to home. I can’t even imagine just sticking to one lane these days.”

Rich Hobson

Staff writer for Metal Hammer, Rich has never met a feature he didn't fancy, which is just as well when it comes to covering everything rock, punk and metal for both print and online, be it legendary events like Rock In Rio or Clash Of The Titans or seeking out exciting new bands like Nine Treasures, Jinjer and Sleep Token.