Ghost: “Working on covers can be euphoric; it’s fun to understand a song”

From his early days of deconstructing and rebuilding classic songs to his ongoing obsession with learning and absorbing new techniques, as they prepare to drop new covers EP ‘Phantomime’, Ghost‘s leader Tobias Forge sees each new track as a fresh puzzle to be solved.

Like an apparition manifesting within a dense fog, it was through radio static that Swedish rockers Ghost were formed. In the kindergarten he attended as a young boy, Tobias Forge found himself enamoured with the music crackling through the little toy speakers. From this point forward, he began picking apart the notes and melodies – his journey toward the lore and canon coming into focus as he sat, trying to figure out how this black magic could be summoned.

While it would be many years before he would don his garb as Papa Emeritus, the essence of what his future would sound like was being set through his exposure to a wide variety of music. If any proof were needed, just look to the impressive list of covers Ghost have put their ghastly mark upon, including 2016’s ‘Popestar’ EP, which included the band’s takes on Echo & The Bunnymen (‘Nocturnal Me’) and Simian Mobile Disco (‘I Believe’).

Ghost’s latest EP is another covers bonanza. A five-piece offering of Tobias’s backstory, ‘Phantomime’ plays out like a Greatest Hits radio playlist – a fitting throwback to Tobias’ first dalliances with music. Of course, when a group more aligned to the metal/hard rock community bust out covers, including Genesis and Tina Turner, eyebrows are raised. To this reaction, Tobias scoffs. “In 1991, Genesis was one of the biggest bands on the planet! That was a huge hit. In the mid-80s, when I had an older teenage brother who rented every VHS movie that came out, of course, we saw the fucking Thunderdome, and that was a huge hit, and it’s still being played on Swedish radio. It’s an evergreen; it’s not an eclectic choice at all,” he declares. “I grew up listening to Stranglers because my brother liked them. What else do we have, Iron Maiden – I mean, are you kidding? I’m a metalhead!”

“Whilst my whole adolescence was in the name of extreme metal, I always had a soft spot for Top 40 rock and pop”

Originally conceived during the sessions for their fifth album, last year’s ‘Impera’, there were two folders on his computer’s desktop: one named ‘Impera’, the other simply ‘Covers’. As the ideas for ‘Impera’ grew, Tobias would enter his usual routine of working on a cover or two. “At any point, when you lose a little wind in writing your own things, it’s quite nice to say, ‘Today let’s go in and work on the covers’; you can choose anything you want, you can work on absolutely anything you want. And you don’t have to finish it, you don’t have to release it, you don’t have to do anything, but just continue working.”

He likens it to the freedom of being a theatre owner who, instead of trying to pen the next greatest Broadway phenomenon, opts to have a go at something already timeless and perfected. “Maybe you’re like, ‘Okay, so this fall we’re just going to do a reinterpretation of Hamlet instead, that’s going to be fine, and that keeps everyone working, and that keeps a project moving along’. And I find a similar thing with working on covers. So as I was writing ‘Impera’, the covers folder was also growing exponentially and at a point, I had this idea that was going to be a full-length album.”

With COVID restrictions meaning the original producer for ‘Impera’ was stuck in the US, Tobias had to source a replacement. It would be Klas Åhlund who stepped up to the plate. But, on one condition. “He was pretty upfront. He was like, ‘Yeah, I only want to make the record; I don’t want to work on covers’,” Tobias remembers. “Fine, fine, fine, that’s fine,” he shrugs. “So, after the ‘Impera’ recording was done, I felt as if making a completely different, whole record again; I didn’t have time for that. I didn’t have the energy for that. But once I trimmed down the number of songs to only these five to make a very rocky record, it loosened up the screws a little bit for me in terms of like, ‘Okay, so now I know what the EP is going to be’ – it’s going to be a full, full-throttle rock one.”

Ditching some rumoured softer covers, including U2, Misfits, and Motörhead, ‘Phantomime’ is instead a delectable slice of Ghost doing what Ghost do best: creating theatrically big rock. It’s Tobias’s mark upon some bonafide classics, including Iron Maiden’s ‘Phantom of the Opera’ which feels as befitting to Ghost as it does seeing Papa Emeritus kick the bucket ready for his next iteration. While the focus was on creating this small dose of Tobias’s musical DNA, it also served another purpose; to simply be “not very complicated.” The project began with the mindset of “we can make this recording loosely – quick but stress-free – as opposed to making a record, which is your hard fifth record that needs to live up to certain standards. So it was just a very inspired, very simple recording, actually.”

After the complexities of ‘Impera’ – which wound up requiring two studios simultaneously running in parallel “to be able to work efficiently” – Ghost was morphing into a taxing experience for the band leader. “It was just a bigger thing, [and] way more stressful.”

Deciding to strip that covers folder down to the five tracks, by all accounts, ‘Phantomime’ was a measured and reserved effort. “It ended up being me, an engineer, and an occasional musician coming in and doing something. It was so much looser, so much more mentally Feng Shui,” he smiles, relief glowing in his voice. “And I think that that reflected a little bit on the two different records. They’re meant to be related – they are definitely related – they were made roughly in the same time, but they’re completely different things.”

‘Phantomime’ plays out like a ghoulish social commentary. Starting with a searing rendition of Televison’s ‘See No Evil’, the journey traverses the scourge of Televangelism (Genesis’ ‘Jesus He Knows Me’) with a delightfully-fitting NSFW video, the instant gratification humans require to feel (The Stranglers’ ‘Hanging Around’); the pull back into cruel reality (‘Phantom Of The Opera’); and the resulting undying hope from a degraded society (Tina Turner’s ‘We Don’t Need Another Hero’). Each offering is bolstered with Ghost’s dramatic, theatric rock licks and Tobias’s powerhouse vocals. 

With ‘Phantomime’ in the bag and the European leg of the ‘Impera’ tour imminent (Tobias is currently holed up in preparation), the idea of reflecting on how he came to go from a young boy listening to the static sounds of pop hits on the radio to orchestrating not only a feverishly adored band and its lore but finding the capacity to embrace his inner music nerd, couldn’t be more timely. 

Tobias’s relationship with music has always been one of intrigue. He’s a pop songwriter with the ambition and ideas of a stadium rock band, which, in essence, explains perfectly why Ghost can sit in a unique, exponentially growing and expanding space.

“My earliest inclination of wanting to transform into something else was definitely Twisted Sister,” he recalls. “You know, ‘I Want To Rock’ and ‘We’re Not Going To Take It’ – that was a huge record in 1984, and in 1984, I was three years old,” he says. “My brother was 16, so everything that was going on pop-culturally amongst teenagers was happening in my home.”

It was thanks to his brother that much of Tobias’s relationship with music was formed. He’s introduced him to various giants of the time, like tectonic plates being pushed around, impacting and shaping his musical landscape. Translating for young Tobias the attitude of punk at the time, as well as everything else that was ‘in’, he remembers, “When I was a kid, and he was supposed to babysit me, as a pacifier he would put me in front of [Sex Pistols mockumentary film] ‘The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle’,” he laughs. “And then when that was over, he would just switch to [X-rated cartoon] Fritz the Cat. And I loved that stuff, of course. That was as much [about] the expression and the attitude. Of course, I loved the songs, but it was also filtered or combined with big songs for me.” Those big songs (“Men At Work ‘Down Under’,” he initially cites, “those sort of songs still have a unique place in my in my writing”) would eventually entwine with his darker side that he’d explore as he grew older. “Whilst my whole adolescence was completely in the name of extreme metal, I always had a very soft spot for Top 40 rock and pop radio always,” Tobias explains. “And I’ve listened to that all my life. So it’s almost equal portions of Venom as it is anything that was on the radio.” 

Also, witnessing shock and glam-rock bands explode intrigued Tobias. He became swept away in the idea that not only could you push a boundary to its absolute limits with convictions and over-the-top grandiosity, but you could do so with songs that quantifiably bop. But, as time has gone onto prove, it wasn’t pop music that enamoured Tobias enough that he wanted to become a pop star. It’s the mythology and mystery that has become his calling card. 

Tobias remained an enigma under the disguise of an evolving form of the iconic Papa Emeritus (now in his fifth incarnation) until 2017, after a lawsuit from a previous iteration of his backing band’s rotating cast, the Nameless Ghouls. Visual and video components to releases are often hoovered up by the fandom, stripped apart for meaning and potential. Instagram posts are referred to as a ‘[Message From The Clergy]’ (a phrase later claimed for 2022’s Best Of playlist), and lest it is forgotten, the Ghost ‘Grucifix’ – the prominent crucifix deconstructed into Tobias’s gothic ‘G’ logo – which ties together the vision, religious imagery and satire that would become a core part of the Ghost experience. 

His musical ambition and education colliding in the middle of his Venn diagram between dark metal and pop magic is thanks to the likes of the aforementioned Twisted Sister and W.A.S.P., as well as his teen years in the black metal community. “Their first record was also a huge impact in Swedish media,” Tobias remembers. “There was this big sort of Satanic panic thing going on at the time in the fall of 1984. Where you had essentially all those things happening. You had Mötley Crüe ‘Shout At The Devil’, which came out a year earlier, and they were there because they toured with Iron Maiden in 1984, so there was a lot of focus on these shock-rock bands. I saw that as a kid, and I was immediately blown away – it was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. And I think that that was the trigger that made me identify as that is how I want to express myself.”

Decoding the songs he’d hear also became an integral part of that expression. “That was the only thing I did for years before I started writing my own songs.” Recalling his time in kindergarten, they had a piano and guitar, which Tobias became infatuated with. Instead of playing with the other students, he would find himself enraptured, listening to the radio or flipping over whichever cassette happened to be loaded at the time. He would then imitate the sounds he was soaking up. “A lot of those early beginnings of how to learn and how I’ve learned how to understand music filters through everything I do now,” he explains.

“I’m slowly preparing for making a new record that’s going to come out in 2024”

The early records he’d find himself trying to unpack included KISS ‘Alive’ and Pink Floyd’s ‘Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’ – disparate matches, but undoubtedly Ghost fuel with hard rock melodies and psychedelic tendencies. “I had the first and the second Pink Floyd on a double LP that was called ‘A Nice Pair’. And that’s the shit that I sat and listened to and played guitar to,” he says proudly. “That’s weird music, that’s really weird chord sequences and melodies that sort of went nowhere. And, that coloured me a lot in my vision of this is how you write a pop song. Of course, I knew more conventional writing as well. But I figured that this resonates with me, and I want to write more like that.”

Tobias is the first to admit that the influence his musical exposure has had on him isn’t the most straightforward. “For all the years that I was in bands, up until Ghost, basically when I was in bands not doing well, I got a lot of, I wouldn’t say stick, but it was always like, ‘You write weird songs, there’s something weird about them, and it will never really become anything because it has that sort of weirdness to it’.”

As he grew, the songs he’d heard reflected this inherent strangeness he’d constructed. Before the days of mass formulaic pop factories, the music emanating from the radio abided by the strictest rule of needing to at least be approachable, but within these confines, artists of the 70s and 80s would push the envelope as far as they could. Citing Nik Kershaw’s ‘The Riddle’ as one example, “Holy shit, if you would have taken that song and taken it to a chord structure masterclass amongst pop writers now who want to write songs for Miley Cyrus or The Weeknd or any of that sort of level they would say, no, no, no, no, that this will never work. It’s too strange. It’s too weird. You can’t do that; it doesn’t have the normal chord progression.

“There are a lot of songs from the 80s that are like that,” he reckons, “compared to the now, more informative way of writing, the 80s was braver actually, and it worked well. And those songs are evergreens in a way that a lot of the top radio shit from seven years ago is forgotten, and that’s the stuff that I grew up with when I started playing the guitar.” 

Having made that inner sanctum, he would enter kindergarten a reality, one where he can explore those recesses of his mind shaken by the musical earthquakes he experienced; now, he’s matured and deeply entrenched in the reality. “Throughout the modern day of pop writing, I know a few professional pop songwriters, and we continue having these conversations because in pop,” he says, “where some of them work prolifically on really high releases, they’re like, it’s strange how the business wants everything to be so informative. Everybody wants a weird song, but still, all the big songs are usually very, very formatted [and] very, very simple.”

While unpacking the songs he’d heard back in the 80s offered Tobias a chance to comprehend what makes a good song, it, more importantly, helped him to set out doing it on his own. When digging into crafting a new Ghost number, Tobias explains that “each new song is a little bit like virgin territory with its own riddle to be solved, and is always a combination of the horror of maybe not solving the puzzle, with the thrill when you do. And it’s never easy because each new song needs something new. And so you constantly need to feed your ability with knowledge about how other things are.”

Breaking it down into a figurative example, he likens it to being like a detective. “I’m assuming that part of being a great detective is to constantly have an open mind, but also constantly learning about human behaviour and what people do. If you just had 100 forensic classes, but you know nothing about people and how they live their lives, it’s gonna be hard to solve crimes.” The same rings true for writers who have to read to improve and further understand language, while comedians pull from real-life experiences – music is no different. Tobias’s early days of stripping down songs to their basic parts and then rebuilding them have remained a constant endeavour. “But that’s how you write songs as well; you go and absorb new things.”

The covers process, as mentioned, is a release for Tobias. When things are stuck when trying to piece together a new chapter for the Ghost bible, a cover offers up a chance for something lighter. “Working on covers can be equally euphoric,” he confirms, “because it’s fun to understand a song whereas, on the other hand, it can be almost demoralising because you’re like, I can’t believe that this song is so much better than anything that I’ve written! And it’s so much easier. It’s so simple.

“I find myself overcomplicating things often, but you might not hear the complicated detour that I took to end up at the more understandable, straighter version that ended up being the actual recording,” he continues. “That’s a never-ending struggle because that’s how it’s supposed to be. It’s not like you write the one song. I don’t think I know anyone or know of anyone who’s content with the idea of having written one huge song. And then you know, okay, that’s nirvana for you. You don’t write the one song the same way that if you’re a comedian, it’s not like, ‘Oh, I just told the funniest joke. So now I’m done’.”

While Tobias is one for wanting to keep the ball rolling and on a constant endeavour to continue his musical evolution, he knows there’s a limit. Every release of Ghost must have a purpose. Nodding to the 60s method of firing singles out on all fronts, eventually compiling them for a full-length release, Tobias acknowledges his relationship with his fans is based on a more long-term understanding. “That’s not how we do things; we make an album, and off of that album, there are singles – it’s a 70s/80s thinking. And I don’t want to refrain from that – I don’t want too many singles to be these autonomous little creatures.” 

But the world is different now. It’s a Wild West where being in the masses’ consciousness is key, so things may have to change for him. Admitting that right now, he knows he’s post-release of Ghost’s last canon entry, ‘Impera’, which arrived back in 2022, and while ‘Phantomime’ is a reasonable enough bridge, sooner or later, he’s going to have to play the game of ensuring Ghost ramp up. Earlier this year, Ghost collaborated with Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott on a re-release of ‘Impera’ cut ‘Spillways’ which, while a fantastic addition to their arsenal, adds to the same notion Tobias is fearful of. “I’m slowly preparing for making a new record that’s going to come out in 2024, which is way too long for the current contemporary music climate; you need to be ever-present,” the last phrase hanging in the air ominously.

That doesn’t mean he has to lower his standards, however. No Ghost release will exist just for content’s sake. Everything must have its place. He even reckons a 14-track album is “a lot of music”, and he still sees an album as being “22 minutes of music per side” – true to form, currently, no standard issue of any Ghost album breaches 12 tracks. He’s even ready to aim for the likes of The Rolling Stones and The Beatles by swiftly lobbing a couple of spicy takes out. “Look, man, I don’t even think that ‘Exile on Main Street’ is that good. Not even the fucking White album is that great – break it up! Both of those records would have been better if they were trimmed down to singular records.”

That pop mind breaking through; Tobias is someone who knows that music is entertainment. Certainly, a medium which often leads to more bulky connotations, but it must entertain. It’s why he doesn’t pay any mind to those naysayers that yearn for Ghost to be more metal or to follow a different path. This is Tobias’s game; we’re just privy to the sermon. 

These days the floodgates are open and, when compared to previous decades, as Tobias remembers it, “you had to buy your own records. Whatever additional music you got, that wasn’t maybe heard on the TV or the radio, when you took something from someone else, was usually a choice, so music styles could in some way be a little bit more insular back then just because you weren’t subjected to as much.”

He mentions his beloved death metal as being a signifier of the changes happening. “Back in the day, when I was starting listening to extreme metal, that was completely embraced by a certain little subculture or group of mostly teenagers and 20-somethings. Whereas in the 2000s, when Vice started doing black metal reporting, all of a sudden you have indie personalities who were fans of Darkthrone, and so, obviously, what ended up that turned into this fusion, which was a positive and very natural thing.” 

This cultural shift is another reason Ghost’s space is widening and its success growing. “Nowadays, people are a little bit more open,” he admits. But, with this comes issues. “As time has progressed, metal and hard rock, as well as most genres that have been around for a while, [they’ve] gone from this youth culture to a conservative institution because so many of the fans are now aged.”

The passage of time waits for no one. But, more presciently for culture, it also means our understanding of what is ‘good’ and what should be where is moulded differently to when we were younger. “Unfortunately, that happens to most people regardless of who you were when you were 20,” Tobias reckons, “or your ideals when you’re like 40/50/60 years old. Your brain starts morphing into a slightly more conservative, slightly more nostalgic… You don’t want things to change.”

Tobias is the first to hold his hands up and admit the same has happened to him. He yearns for 1984 and even 1990-94. He would even be happy with 1987, back to those days with the crackling radio and a childlike spirit. “That would be so much cooler. I loved that way more than in this day and age. But I can’t sit around and mope about that because it’s not a problem that it’s not 1987.”

‘Phantomime’ is proof nostalgia can be a useful tool. It fuels with passion, and Ghost is Tobias’s Neverland. “There’s such a debate about what we are and why that is.” Ghost are a band that, thanks to Tobias’s musical education, transcend time. They exist on their own plain and with the evergreen, timeless sounds of yesteryear echoing around Tobias’s head, long may Papa reign with his gloved melodic iron fist.■

Taken from the June 2023 edition of Upset. Ghost’s EP ‘Phantomime’ is out now.