As the lights go up in Los Angeles’ Kia Forum, Papa Emeritus IV surveys the thousands of people in front of him and beams as widely as a man in a full-face mask can beam. “Go home and fuck somebody!” says Ghost’s singer, his voice crackling with elation. “And if you can’t find somebody, go fuck yourself!”
This is the second of two consecutive nights the Swedish band have played in this 17,5000-capacity arena, bringing the US leg of their current Re-Imperatour tour to a close. Even by Ghost’s own standards, the Forum shows are outrageously entertaining: part joyously unholy communion, part retina-searing high-camp heavy metal revue, with Papa Emeritus as the snake-hipped MC.
There are eight Nameless Ghouls up there with him, while the set is punctuated by various explosions, curtains of sparks, double-digit costume changes for Papa Emeritus and a cameo from a sax-playing Papa Nihil, the decrepit and quite possibly dead elder statesthing of the Ghost universe.
There have been surprises, too. There’s the smaller second stage at the far end of the arena where Papa and a strippeddown backing band perform an emotional version of If You Have Ghosts. And there’s the troupe of eight skeleton suit-clad dancers, unveiled for the first time at these two shows, who writhe and pirouette through Impera track Twenties – making its own high-kicking live debut at the Forum – and Dance Macabre from 2018’s Prequelle.
On both nights, the dancers’ performance culminates with Papa being hoisted above their heads, like the strangest Strictly Come Dancing final ever. Except anyone who isn’t here won’t have seen that, at least not yet. No filming is allowed at these shows. Fans are asked to place their mobile phones and smart watches in grey Yondr pouches that remain locked until the end of the gig. Warnings around the arena threaten that anyone caught surreptitiously filming or taking photos will be ejected.
Draconian? Sure. But there are two reasons for it. The first ties in with the sense that this chapter in Ghost’s career, which started with 2022’s blockbusting Impera album, is coming to an end, and with it Papa Emeritus IV’s time as the band’s frontman. The second is no less exciting. Tonight’s gigs are reportedly being filmed, though for what is a mystery. It could be a video, it could be a concert film, it could be a full-fledged movie. No one is certain, and Tobias Forge – the man in the mask at the centre of it all – isn’t letting on.
It’s three days after the second and final Forum show when Hammer speaks to Tobias. He’s 25 minutes late to our midday Zoom call. “I am so sorry,” he croaks when he eventually appears. It turns out he’s just got out of bed after deciding to let his hair down last night. “I had a complete blow-out,” he says. “I don’t normally party on tour, because you want to be in great shape every day. But after four days of really hard work to do these shows, I just wanted want to cleanse myself.”
Groggy or not, he powers through his hangover like the trooper he is. Understandable, since he’s still basking in the triumph of pulling off such an audacious show. “When I first started putting it together, I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m going to faint because there’s so much to think about,’” he says. “Then it was, like, ‘No, no, just don’t think about it at all.’”
If he’s relieved and exhilarated about the shows, he’s exultant and unrepentant about the decision to ban mobile phones from the shows. “I have never seen a crowd interact the way that they did since I was in a club band,” he says. “They were the best shows I’ve ever done with Ghost, just because I didn’t have to see those fucking mobile phones.”
He’s less forthcoming about the reason behind the nophones edict. In an interview earlier this year, he hinted that a film was on Ghost’s to-do list, teasing that the LA shows would “be different to the others”. “We were essentially shooting a film,” he says now. “And we used two nights of crowds as extras."
Are you talking about a traditional concert film, or were you shooting something else? “It’s going to be a film with a concert element. So a lot of what you experienced [at the two LA shows] is going to be part of this project.”
OK. Is it kinda in the same ballpark as Metallica’s 2013 Through The Never film, which combined live footage with a movie-style narrative? “In the sense that it’s a concert with something else combined,” he says.
Pushing any further is pointless. Not for the last time in our conversation, he’s given up as much as he wants to about what Ghost’s future might hold.
On March 12, 2010, Tobias posted three songs – Prime Mover, Stand By Him and Death Knell, which he had written and recorded a couple of years earlier – to MySpace under the name Ghost. He was 29 years old at the time, with a string of largely unsuccessful metal and rock bands under his belt. He had recently become the father of twins, and Ghost - essentially Tobias and whichever musician friends he could rope in to help him out – felt like the last roll of the dice.
It paid off. By most measures, Ghost are the breakout metal band of the last decade, building an ardent following that was swollen even further by the belated viral success of 2019’s single B-side Mary On A Cross, after it became the unofficial occult metal anthem of TikTok. Is it a surprise just how big this weird, occult metal band have become or did he secretly always expect it?
“Not always, of course not,” he says. “When I started writing songs for Ghost, I felt that it was a great way to combine the music styles that I loved: melodic music, but also metal – and specifically darker metal. On the one hand I wanted it to sound like early NWOBHM, bands like Angel Witch and Demon and Warlord. But also for it to have a dark touch that lent credence to black metal and death metal.”
But that’s not really a recipe for success on this scale, is it? “No, but at that point I was feeling like I might never become a professional musician, which was always my lifelong dream. I thought, ‘I’m probably not going to be able to live off music, but if I’m going to live with myself, I need one band that I can make fucking count.’ I thought it would be cool to do a theatrical band, maybe do a show here and there… But I never thought it was going to be big. I thought it was going to be this little alternative thing that could develop a cult following over time.”
Except Ghost have become so much more than Tobias’s “little alternative thing”, even if he’s not always been aware of how crazy things have become. “You don’t necessarily see how things are growing,” he says. “You don’t wake up and go, ‘Wow, I can’t believe that.’ But there have been pivotal moments, like playing with Metallica or Iron Maiden for the first time, where you go, ‘Fuck, I can’t believe this is happening.’ So yeah, it has surprised me.”
In one of the stairwells of the Forum, two 20-something Ghost fans dressed as nuns are talking sex. “Papa is definitely sexy,” says one of them, Lisa. “It’s the pants. Tight.”
“I’m down with that,” says her friend, Ryan, his wimple offset by a thick beard. Papa Emeritus’s elevation to the status of sex symbol is definitely one of the more unexpected developments in the Ghost story.
The first two incarnations of the character were imposing, scarily solemn figures in papal robes and mitres. Things began to change with the release of 2015’s Meliora and the introduction of the ‘younger’ Papa Emeritus III, all thrusting hips and Elvis wriggles.
Papa III and his replacement, Cardinal Copia – later upgraded to Papa Emeritus IV – brought an undeniable sexual charge to Ghost performances. Combined with frequent references to “tickling your taint” – the particular activity beloved by Papa – and fan fiction that ranges from the sweetly innocent to the impressively profane, it’s turned the masked frontman into an unlikely sex symbol. Did Tobias see that coming?
“Not at all,” says Tobias. “Originally, I wanted the show to be all horror – Venom in 1982 meets Alice Cooper meets [early 80s Italian occult metal pioneers] Death SS, that whole thing. Which was very short-sighted of me! Ha ha ha!”
Whether it’s linked or not, there’s certainly a higher proportion of women at both nights at the Forum than at some metal shows. In the rows around Hammer’s seat, it looks to be at least a 50/50 split, maybe even skewed a little more to women over men. This has not gone unnoticed.
“We had Amon Amarth supporting us on this tour,” says Tobias, and those guys were raving: ‘Fuck, there’s chicks at the show!” He laughs. “Which might be a little different to their usual sausage-fest.”
Ghost’s female fanbase may have been boosted by the TikTok success of Mary On A Cross, itself a gleeful mix of blasphemy and innuendo, as myriad creators got involved. But if the viral hit hasn’t shifted the gender balance, it’s certainly shifted the age balance.
“The whole TikTok thing has definitely attracted new fans, and those new fans are energetic,” says Tobias. “It lends a slew of youth to the show. Some of them are so young that they don’t have the preconceived notions that the older ones have – they don’t know the bands who influenced me. They don’t care about that stuff. Or maybe they’re learning about it because they’re interested in Ghost.”
This newer, more youthful contingent of Ghost fans is in evidence at the LA shows. On the first night, a girl sits with her father a few seats behind Hammer. Wearing Papa-style make-up, she can’t be much older than her early teens. When the lights go down and the Imperium intro begins to play, she lets out a series of shrill, ear-piercing screams that wouldn’t sound out of place at an Olivia Rodrigo or BTS show.
There’s an unexpectedly tender moment two-thirds of the way through the Forum shows when Papa suddenly materialises on a smaller, ‘B’ stage at the other end of the arena. He’s accompanied by a different set of Nameless Ghouls: a pianist, two cellists and a backing vocalist clad in white. These are the Ghoulettes, and they’re there to back him on a stirring cover of If You Have Ghosts, originally by troubled Texan garage rocker Roky Erickson and covered by Ghost themselves on 2013’s If You Have Ghost (sic) EP.
The band have played this song live before, but not previously on this tour. At the song’s conclusion tonight, Papa gives an impassioned, compassionate speech centred on mental health and personal happiness. “Life is full of ups and downs – if you don’t have the lows, you can’t reach the highs,” he concludes, sounding surprisingly paternal.
“Over the years, I’ve come to understand that a lot of our fanbase are, in one way or another, outsiders or that their lives are lonely or they’re struggling with something,” says Tobias a few days later. “It feels like there’s a lot of hurt among our fanbase, and I want to address that. They’ve found a kind of belonging being in this group of Ghost fans.”
Not everyone is onboard with the idea of such a community. Fans attending the band’s show at St Louis’ Hollywood Casino Amphitheater in August were ordered by the venue’s security staff to remove any Papa-style make-up they were wearing. Tobias says he noticed that there weren’t any made-up face in the audiences, but didn’t make the connection until after the show.
“I was furious,” he says, the annoyance still audible in his voice. “The story that I heard was that it was an initiative taken by some of the security people, who didn’t approve of the band. They didn’t like what we were doing so they wanted to be mean to these kids, and those kids were really, really upset with that. They told them it was a band requirement. That was upsetting to me. We would never ask that of our fans. We want them to dress up, we want them to come and have fun.”
Have you got used to being a figurehead for those fans? “I have gotten used to it, yes,” he says. “You need to get used to it if you have people listening to you. The first album [2010’s Opus Eponymous] was written just to entertain myself. When I noticed that people were listening, I thought, ‘If they’re listening, you better fucking lead them to a good place.’ Not that I think everything I say is important. I prefer to do it via creating something that people can enjoy, rather than preaching to them.”
Proof of Ghost’s impact over the last 10 years is evident in other ways. In the wake of their success, a series of bands have emerged who hide their faces behind masks and wrap their real identities in a cloak of anonymity: Sleep Token are the most high-profile, but there’s also black metallers Gaerea, UK doomsters Sermon and several others.
None of them sound like Ghost, but the presentation is very familiar. Does Tobias ever look at them and think, ‘Get your own idea!’? “Well, I wasn’t the first either, so I can’t say that,” he replies. “But yeah, there’s been an uptick in anonymous bands and anonymous artists where the big selling point is, ‘No one knows who they are.’ [Dryly] Oh, OK, cool. But I’m not one to throw stones here. OK, great, if you want to do that, that’s all good.”
Is it flattering? “Yeah, it is, I guess. I know it’s also a gimmick, the same way it was for us. In a way, people think, ‘If we add this [masked] component, this might fast-track us from nothing to something.’ But what I’ve noticed from seeing a lot of artists doing it, is that it doesn’t necessarily have he same impact as it did for us or for Slipknot or The Residents or whoever.”
Ever since the release of Infestissumam in 2013, Ghost have operated on an identifiable cycle: album, tour, EP, big reveal, new Papa. The two Forum shows come towards the end of the Impera cycle, and there’s a sense of anticipation that something momentous could happen on the second night.
The band themselves seemed to play into the idea, with the most recent entry in their Ghost Chapter video skits dropping some big hints that Papa Emeritus was not long for this world. Except things didn’t pan out like that. Three days after the LA shows, it appears that rumours of Papa’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. He made it through both shows unscathed. At least for now.
Still, when Hammer speaks to Tobias, the Re-Imperatour isn’t quite finished. There are a handful of shows to play in South America and Australia. By the time you read this, Ghost will have wrapped it up with a gig in Brisbane on October 7. Is Papa Emeritus IV going to be killed off at that show?
“I can’t tell you that,” replies Tobias. “As always with Ghost, there will be something happening, but it’s not a given that it’s going to happen there and then. But at some point between now and when the next album comes, there will have been a change.”
You’re not going to say what that change is, are you? “No.”
What he will reveal is that the ball is already rolling on the follow-up to Impera. “I’ve started writing a few songs, and as soon as I get home, I’m off for a few days and then I’m going to go into a studio and start working.”
He’s thinking ahead to future tours, too. Not just what he can do in terms of presentation – “I’d love to have a stage set with more integration, more lifts, more effects in it” – but where he can present it as well. Rammstein’s leap from arenas to stadiums has been inspiring, he says, as has the next-level stage set that has accompanied it. Are Ghost planning to make a similar jump?
“We’re working on it,” he says, albeit with a note of caution in his voice. “There’s a process of growing. We’re looking at things that are two, three years ahead of time, so it’s a very long time away. We don’t know if it’s going to pan out yet. You can still make it. It’s hard – as hard as it’s ever been – but you need to put a lot of effort into it. But the sentiment that rock is dying, and that bands can’t become big anymore, that’s simply not true.”
Tobias formed his first band, the black metal outfit Absurdum, in 1994. He was still in his early teens, though he’d been listening to metal since he was a young kid, thanks to his older brother, Sebastian (who sadly died in 2010, on the same day that Tobias uploaded the very first Ghost songs to MySpace). He’s clearly come a long way since then, but what would the young, black metal-loving Tobias Forge think of the Tobias Forge of 2023?
“He’d be in awe,” he says without hesitation. “That boy is blown away. I know that because I’m carrying him with me all the time. He’s always here, we’re communicating. I occasionally see it through his eyes, and I think, ‘Wow, I can’t believe we’re here, I can’t believe we’re playing with Metallica, or I can’t believe I’m playing the Forum.’ That’s all so far away from those days, but then I’m sort of still doing the same things as he did, I’m still interested in the same things as he was. I’m the same person.”
If Tobias could talk to that younger version of himself, or even the one who launched Ghost on an unsuspecting and largely oblivious world a decade-and-a-half later, he would have one piece of advice: “Go with your gut feeling.”
Going with his gut feeling has served Tobias and Ghost well over the past 13 years, and it looks to continue serving them well for the foreseeable future. The music has become more popular, the gigs bigger, the ideas grander and more ambitious. The two Forum shows are merely the latest points on a trajectory that has been rising steadily for the last 13 years. During that time, there have been no trips, no stumbles, no steps backwards.
“Not yet,” says Tobias. “That trajectory is not going to go up, up, up forever. There’s going to come a point where we hit a ceiling. We haven’t done so yet, but I’m just being realistic. On the other hand, I’m a dreamer. I’m just going to run and run until I can’t run anymore.”
Phantomime is out now via Loma Vista