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With darkness, division and diabolical leaders everywhere, the world appears to be turning into one giant Ghost song. As they reappear with their new album Impera, we find Tobias Forge harking back to the Victorian age and finding it not so dissimilar. He takes us through the band’s fifth offering, and how their empire continues to grow…
The St Pancras Hotel in London is a beautiful building. An enormous, red-brick work of architectural art, designed by Gothic revivalist architect George Gilbert Scott in the 1860s to be the elegant and extravagant frontpiece of the capital’s new railway station, the expensive luxury within is equalled by the impressive structure that houses it.
Even during a long period of disrepair in the 20th century, when it was used as railway offices and cottages, its looming, cathedral-like presence over King’s Cross has proven magnetic and inspirational. In the ’80s, British sci-fi author Douglas Adams found its run-down grandeur to be the perfect alternative Valhalla in the novel The Long, Dark Tea-Time Of The Soul. Later, its facade was used as Sir Ian McKellen’s castle in the 1995 film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Richard III, and with glamour restored, its massive staircase and entrance were the setting for The Spice Girls’ Wannabe video.
It was also here that Tobias Forge figured out the next stage of Ghost. The idea for Impera had already begun to percolate: the falling of empires, periods of great change, seeing things become too powerful and collapse under their own soporific weight and ushering in the start of a new era in the fallout. To cast Papa Emeritus’ cynical eye over corruption and madness and observe how, for both good and ill, everything, everywhere eventually ends.
Staying at the hotel during a recent-ish trip to London – and, if you’ve ever looked it up on Expedia, this very detail should give you an indicator of Ghost’s fortunes, whichever way you like to read the word – he was struck by the aesthetics of the place. “I love how they've taken these old stone church-like sort of Gothic elements and mixed it with industrial beams and rust,” he says.
He was also hit by a bigger idea: a Victorian era, in which great change was afoot, should be the one to follow the rats, plague and sinners of 2018’s Dark Ages-set Prequelle.
“There was a lot of change,” he explains. “A lot of dangerous work that could have killed you, that could be done by machine and make life a little bit easier. But fast-forward 100 years, and we’re phasing out every person ever. No-one is needed anymore. I think a lot of the Victorian times are similar to what we're experiencing now, in the sense that industrialism is phasing out mankind.
“We live in a time right now, where we believe that history is a thing of the past, and everything that we live through here and going forward is eternal. Which is not true,” he continues. “Maybe we have the foundation of a society that could remain for some time and function. But unfortunately, if you look through history, there's a natural cycle where a society is built up, and then it's sort of perfected, perfected, perfected. And then it usually falls apart. Even the ones that are dictatorships, they also crumble. Everywhere where there's a dictator, and everywhere where there's the system, it usually falls apart after a while because people always want to build where they're standing. And any tower that gets too big or too high, it falls over. That's the cycle of things.
“So, in a way, you have to destroy to rebuild. But that doesn't mean necessarily that you have to level everything into gravel.”
Several hundred years on in the timeline from Prequelle, we find Ghost (with their new steampunk-looking Nameless Ghouls) at large in a world of industry, change and crumbling status quos. There is religious intolerance, injustice, corruption and murder. There are also good times, hope and a pursuit of some kind of enlightenment. And if that all sounds familiar, then you’re grasping onto the point.
“The past couple of years, we've been regressing so hard,” he ponders. “A lot of the things that almost felt like fiction, like a lot of our lyrical content that seemed like we were singing about things that happened in the past and way in the distance, now are, like, ‘Wow, this is all over the place!’ People are really working hard to destroy progress and ultimately create a time machine that will set us back hundreds of years in terms of mental evolution.”
Welcome, then, to the age of Impera.
For Ghost’s own empire, things are currently looking very strong indeed. When last we saw them, they were headlining the SSE Arena, Wembley in November 2019, a show at which the queues for merch would set you back the thick end of an hour. Next time they hit the UK in April they will be ascending to the even bigger arena, The O2.
Right now, the band are in Reno, Nevada, putting the finishing touches to the pre-production for their U.S. co-headlining tour with Volbeat, due to start this week. As a man with a painstaking eye for detail, the logistical issues thrown up by COVID – supply-chain interruptions, moving a band and crew around safely – are causing Tobias a few headaches, but they’re tempered somewhat by having a shorter set “of just bangers” meaning a smaller production and softer landing for getting back on the road.
He’s antsy to get started, though. Just as he’s starting to get impatient for Impera to finally come out so he can put a proper full-stop on it. “I know a lot of people that are creative, like myself, feel when you finish something, you're always a little bit cloven,” he says. “When you make records, it feels so good. And all of a sudden, I get to a point when I make a record when I'm like, ‘I don't like this record anymore.’
“You just get tired of it, because you've worked so hard on it for months. And after a while, you lose your plot a little, and you just have to rely those decisions that you made. ‘That's probably the right one, I don't know, I can't hear it anymore.’ That usually changes once the record comes out, because then it's out of your hands. It becomes whatever it is destined to become, in the eyes of the beholder. Or, the ears of the beholder. That makes me feel good. It's kind of kind of like seeing your kid succeeding.”
Despite Impera emerging later than intended, Ghost did actually manage to inadvertently have the jump on COVID in making it. Once touring for Prequelle had wrapped up after the final show in Mexico City in March of 2020, the plan was for Tobias to go straight into the studio, work intensely for the next three months or so, and then spend the rest of the year on an overdue extended break with his family. “A year of abstinence,” he calls it.
Even as things started shutting down, Ghost were still on track. Tobias would write in his home studio, being “super productive,” ready to hit the studio proper eventually. But as a return to normality grew further and further away, plans got more and more vague.
“Suddenly it was like, ‘Oh, it's summertime, I was supposed to be recording now,’” he says. “This year was great for me and my family, because we got to hang out and we got to spend so much more time together than we have done for the past 10 years. But me personally, I had a little bit of angst about it. ‘Shit, I should be recording, I should be working, I should be doing these things.’ I don't want to say it was a struggle, because people really struggled this year, but creatively, when you get a little bit too much time, that’s not really my cup of tea. I like having a deadline. I like having some sort of end date.”
Now it is complete, Impera is Ghost in all their resplendent glory, as already heard on Call Me Little Sunshine and last year's Hunter's Moon. It gathers the enormous, stadia-strafing sounds of ’70s AOR with one hand, while the other deals in a dark, sinister sense of doom with a sugared topping. Papa charms you one moment, and snarlingly delivers an acid punchline the next. It is Ghost distilled to something absolutely fabulous.
Tobias calls the subject matter “dark shit”. Take Respite On The Spital Fields, an examination of the fear around Jack The Ripper. Because he was never caught, he lived on through unease and worry, possibly long after he’d died.
“He did the people of Spitalfields and that part of London an enormous disfavour, because he was never caught. Which meant that even though he had technically stopped killing at some point, they were never sure that he was not going to do it again,” says Tobias. “So, for a long time after, there must have been fear, especially among women, that it could happen again, because you don't know where he is. You don't know where he's hiding. You don't know what happened.”
In Ghost’s way, these things are not always delivered squarely on the nose, but often as a bigger picture from which you have to take a step back to notice it was staring at you the whole time. Take Kaisarion (actually not set in the Victorian age, but ancient Alexandria, still eyeballing the notion of forcing change at great human expense). Rushing along on a melodic, theatrical wave that also calls to mind the thrust of Foo Fighters, Papa IV proudly declares that ‘We’re building our empire from the ashes of an old’. It sounds like a brilliant flexing of Ghost’s muscle as one of the biggest – and still impressively growing – rock bands of the past decade. In fact, it’s more to do with intolerance, and replacing – erasing – the old by force.
“There was a building called Caesareum in ancient Alexandria,” he explains. “Roughly what happened was that the teacher and philosopher, Hypatia, was murdered by Christians. She was molested and murdered inside the building, because of her pagan beliefs, because she was a believer in science and real things. This was in the beginning stages of Christianity, when it was just an insane cult, before it got the mandate of a book put together by Romans in 325 to harness that shit. This was like an underground group of terrorists, basically, who couldn't stand to see some female smartass preaching or telling people that the world wasn't flat. And it didn’t happen at the same time, but they also burned down the big library in Alexandria, which must have been an enormous, enormous loss for mankind in terms of knowledge and historic accounts. There you go – for the greater good.
“I think that’s a nice symbol for what you can see now,” he ponders. “You can see likenesses of it in public book burnings and stoning and killing everything that doesn't match with a sort of a flat Earth reality that some people live in. Or storming the Capitol and wanting to hang people. It's a symbol for those sorts of movements that are always targeting smartness and enlightenment, and thinking.”
A similar, if more recent, target for Ghost’s withering ire are those like former Trump-era Vice President Mike Pence, on Grift Wood (“People like that get wood from grifting,” it’s noted, sarcastically). Those who would jump through whatever hoop necessary, no matter how dirty, or at what cost to any principle, to advance themselves, while at the same time preaching righteousness and goodness.
“That song’s about him and anyone like him who's willing to soil everything they've worked for. They definitely qualify for a front-row ticket to Hell. Which is so ironic, because that's what they believe in,” he says. “[People like that] completely demean themselves, and just eat shit out of someone's ass in order to achieve whatever they're trying to achieve.
“Again, he stands as a symbol for people of all times, where the end game is wrapped with some sort of religious [thing]. He's known as this sort of Bible thumper, believing that he has strong faith, and he's just this awful, awful person in any way. He tries to tell the world that he serves God, that he's part of the good side. Whereas at the end of the day, the only thing he wants is power. But it doesn't have to necessarily be all about him. It's about people like him: a lot of politicians, lot of preachers, a lot of clergymen throughout the history of time.”
If there is history, then there must also be a present, and a future. It is said by some – with no small amount of wishful thinking – that we are due a Roaring Twenties-styled upswing. That’s something to look forward to, since the 1920s ended in The Great Depression, itself the fertile soil for that most prosperous and joyous period of the 20th century, the Second World War…
With a vibe of “Slayer meets some sort of Missy Elliott thing”, and a sarcastic similarity to Killing Joke’s wry observations of 1980s excess in their song Eighties, Twenties is a rambunctious parade through sardonic optimism, in which he sleazes that ‘We’ll be grinding in a pile of moolah!’ and ‘We’ll be grabbing them all by the hoo-ha!’ Tobias calls it a “pep-talk”, but also “a paradox”.
“That song has super-aggressive lyrics, it’s very hostile,” he says. “It’s still meant as a pep-talk, but it’s basically demeaning and openly hating anyone who's listening. It promises only air, but poisoned air. And yet it still wraps it up as a gift, as something you should say ‘thank you’ for. Which is like a lot of the bullshit that we've been seeing the past couple of years.”
Cynical as these observations and musings may be – and that’s a word he uses himself – Tobias Forge also remains hopeful. And not just that Impera “is not as clairvoyant” as its plague-wielding predecessor.
He’s not a gloomy man. Good at spotting bullshit, definitely, but when he talks – about crooked politicians, about creating music, about Ghost’s massive European tour – he does so with the energy of someone who believes in better. A band rarely have the success Ghost enjoy without it. Even in the darkest of his lyrical themes, on Impera they are looking into the darkness in order to learn from it.
“The one important thing that I, as a person, want to do is sort of shine a light, and to see the fluidity of things,” he explains. “Everywhere, in one way or another, we bow our heads before the linear religions [where we live once and die and go to the afterlife]. And that is really, really, really bad for us, because it makes us believe that life is one thing, so you just have to live your life, and at the end there will come something else. We’re sort of able see similar thinking in what we do in in society, where we believe in some sort of status quo, where things can just remain. And that is not sustainable.”
That is to grow, to evolve, to push forward naturally, shedding the status quo skin as it becomes outdated and no longer functions, rather than uprooting and destroying. And as Ghost prepare for the album’s release, and to head out on the biggest tours of their lives across the U.S. and Europe, their own empire remains on the up and up. You could just call him Little Sunshine.
“I'm actually a positive guy, as much as I'm thinking about a lot of negative things,” he says. “In my hopes and what I believe in, I am actually quite positive. I think that things are going to be better. I believe in the fall of the shitty empires and the rise of the good ones – you can decide yourself which you think I'm talking about. I believe that our will to survive and love each other is actually greater than our will to destroy everything that we have.”
Even in the strangest of times, Ghost’s onward march remains unstoppable. Prepare for Papa to become Emperor Emeritus. All hail.
Impera will be released on March 11 via Loma Vista Recordings.
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