[Q&A] One of GHOST's nameless ghouls pontificates on Satan, macho insecurity and passing as their own roadies

There are countless occasions when we speak to a nameless stranger on a telephone -- but usually conducting an interview with a quasi-celebrity of the rock world isn't one of them.  And yet, when the publicist for Sweden's GHOST connected me to the band, on a cell as they toured around the UK, I was literally told "Ok, Daniel, here is a nameless ghoul on the other line."

I emerged from the conversation relatively unscathed, although I am probably damned for all eternity from even cellular proximity to such an unholy being, if you believe in that sort of thing.  Although I have to say, for a nameless ghoul, the voice on the other end of the line sounded remarkably dorky.  By a small coincidence, "remarkably dorky" was what I thought when I first heard Ghost's 2011 debut album, Opus Eponymous (Rise Above) -- although hyped on a bed of whispers and rumors of Satanism and pure metal evil, the record is surprisingly held-in-check, rock-wise, and features not just acoustic passages and involved orchestration but four-part-harmony choruses whose sweetness belies the nastiness of the lyrical odes to altar sacrifice.  But the record's infernal power is infectious, and grows with repeated listens, as warhorses like "Elizabeth" (a love song written to the blood-of-othe-innocents-bather Bathory of the title) and "Ritual" (a bitchin' BOC-meets-BOC rocker that tricks you with its catchiness into humming "This chapel of ritual/smells of dead human sacrifices/upon the altar" to yourself for weeks afterward).  In a metal landscape where real-life murder and madness is practically passé, the most scandalous part of Ghost is their slick sound and polished melodicism, where the brutality of the lyrical themes is juxtaposed against the sunny majesty of the delivery.  Amidst a 2011 metal field notable for its monotone bleakness, Ghost's Satanic majesty stuck out as oddly cheery and chipper.

We ran a feature in this week's issue on Ghost, in anticipation of tomorrow night's gig at the Middle East Downstairs (as they headline a killer bill with Blood Ceremony and the witchhouse-ily-spelled Ancient VVisdom), as these anonymous Scandinavian oathbreakers plan to emerge from a wall of dry ice and transport us into their theatrical miasma of devilish blasphemy.  But so many wonderful bon mots had to fall on the cutting room floor -- so as an added bonus, whilst you apply your corpsepaint in getting ready for tomorrow's festivities, why not enjoy the complete transcript of my bewildering talk with, uh, a nameless ghoul...

How’s it going?
Everything is fine.  We are in Newcastle.

So, uh, Nameless Ghoul, thanks for talking to me.

Are you speaking in the “we”, for the collective, here?
Well, I guess I’m a representative of the band.  It depends on what you’re asking.

I guess I’m needling as to which Ghoul I’m talking to.
I’m basically just one of the faceless members of the group.

Ok, I’ll take that.  I was wondering if you could elaborate on how this project come to be?
One of the things that differentiates the band from the norm of what bands usually are is that it was pretty evident, early on, that this was going to be a very very thematic band, with a lot of theatrics involved.  We decided early on that we should make a lot of the baby steps in order to become a band in the dark instead of getting songs and covers together for some show at a pub.  So basically Ghost took about two years to sort of announce the band, so it was two years in the making.  And that’s obviously a quite weird way of starting out a band, planning, creating and having a lot of sets made as far as theatrics and doing everything, and that’s probably one of the reasons we went from Point A to Point B relatively fast.

When you guys were formulating things, was there a conscious effort to contrast the sound of the band with the dark themes?
We knew that we were a band that an extremely occult aura around it, but we never deliberately wanted to be part of anything.  And I guess during those two years that we were planing and forming, there were a few bands that came out and by the time we were announced we were sort of part of something that we didn’t really know had existed.  Many of us in the band come from either a metal background or a hardcore background, whereas all of us have played a lot of different music, non-metal music.  Apart from wanting this whole band to be a very occult, horror themed thing, we wanted the band and the music to be very playful and not try to look too heavy or tough.  We wanted to sound passionate, I guess, and dramatic.  Which is sort of a contrast to a lot of doom influences that we might have, whereas your stereotypical doom band is pretty much the same thing all over and it’s supposed to be very groovy and natural, where we wanted to have something that’s a lot more dramatic and thick.  In addition to that, now that we’re in the process of creating a new album, we have more deliberately tried to ignore everything that’s happening around us.

In what sense?
Well, basically the formation of the scene that we found ourselves in some ways part of.  Now we have tried to create something equally pulverizing and confronting.  As opposed to making a record with ten “Ritual”s on it, because that’s the easy way out, isn’t it.  When we started out, we had absolutely no interference because no one knew about it, and having that clandestine behind-the-curtain thinking was one of the things that makes the new record a challenge now.

Is that why you guys have continued using a cloak of anonymity with the band, to preserve this clandestine feel even once your band has become well-known?
The initial thought of doing this anonymously was because we didn’t wanna sort of have any personality and we didn’t want to have faces interfere with the reaction and the overall mindframe that we wanted for the crowd to be in, and ourselves to be in, in a Ghost context.  Whereas I really don’t think that any of us could have understood that the anonymous thing would be such a turn-off.  So when we actually really go at length to be anonymous just to focus on the music, whereas now there are a lot of people focusing on the fact that we’re anonymous and it sucks.  On the other hand, I think that being a band with the ambition of taking what you’re doing to someplace else and levitate, I think that now with a bit of hindsight we see that what goes around when you’re in a band that’s sort of semi-successful, I think that being anonymous really helps you focus on what really matters.  Putting on a good show, etc.  There are a lot of bands out there, especially young bands, they seem to forget about why they’re actually at the place they’re at.  Because there are so many other things that you can dive into when you’re a band on the road, doing festivals, etc, there are a lot of other things that can occupy your time.

Yeah -- I can see how for a quote-unquote normal band, you think that everyone loves you for you, but when you’re a branded anonymous band, the focus has to be on the band as a unit and a concept.
Yeah, well, that’s sort of a positive quirk, that you are seldom approached by anyone -- in the backstage area even.  It can be hard to be in a band when nobody recognizes you.  But it has its benefits, especially when you’re on tour with other bands and you see how they’re approached by other people, what’s expected of them.  Whenever there’s a crowd outside a venue, waiting for the bands to hang out, we pass as roadies.

How did the concept of the occult, and Satanism, come about for the band?
I think that conceptually, it’s pretty strong at this point, because there are patterns that will continue throughout several records.  Obviously we have painted ourselves into a corner -- there are so many quirks and angles that you can approach traditional superstition, religiosity, etc.  Just for example: the Opus Eponymous record is written in a pre-antichrist state, where all the lyrics are about something impending, something coming further on, close upon us.  Whereas the next record will be very much focused on the present of the Devil and the Antichrist and how mankind relates to that present.  From an insider point of view, it’s extremely easy to see that and it seems really natural, whereas from the other side you might not think about it.  And there will be yet another turn on album number three!  So there’s still a long way to go.  In this past year, where we’ve done a lot of gigs, and with this American tour, this band is still in the early stages.  We haven’t really shown what we’re capable of in terms of production, and that will be more evident a year from now.  You know, more lighting, props, etc.

You’re talking about production in the live show, right?
Yeah, exactly.

How seriously is Ghost supposed to be taken?
If you’re speaking philosophically, I think that the themes and what is actually in question and what is being brought to light, or into darkness if you will, are very current and very serious things.  However, we present them, admittedly, in a very over the top, tongue in cheek, manner.  But then again, but what we’re saying is very blasphemous, and we play rock and roll, which is very blasphemous.  We promote disobedience, we promote sex, we promote a lot of things that, from a church point of view, are extremely blasphemous.  And we promote laughter, which is highly highly highly blasphemous.  So regardless, we are still sort of the antithesis of what could be regarded the norm according to Christian dogma.

The role of Satan as the bad guy in popular culture has really morphed -- I mean, twenty years ago, thirty years ago, you might have been in actual trouble for making a Satanic record like Opus Eponymous, but now things seem to have kind of changed.
Yeah, I guess so.  That hasn’t really been an issue.  Basically, we come from a part of the world that is extremely secularized, where being religious is equal to being handicapped.  It sounds funny, but in Sweden if you are part of a religion, most people will regard you as maybe retarded.  And obviously that has a lot to do with what spawned this band.  But I think that, especially when the forecoming albums will be out and on display, a lot of the themes that we are trying to shed light on are actually very very human.  Very current, very contemporary, and we’re trying to mirror-reflect and image of the very weak attempt by the mundane collective to understand what divinity is.  You can kind of regard it as a horror show, because we are using what you’d classically associate with horror and terror and death, because that’s something that appeals to us, that’s how we want the whole thing to be perceived.  But a lot of the lyrical content deal with actual humanity.  For example, a song like “Stand By Him” is actually about human superstition and male stupidity.  It’s about a girl being raped because she had the black force within her, basically just by being a woman.  And I think that are lot of these things that kind of go under the radar, a lot of the things that we are portraying, especially the Christian things, come to their most horrid and dark form.

What’s interesting about your songs is that they aren’t just about terror, they’re also about power.
Yeah -- and authority.

Do you consider the message to be a subversion of authority, kind of a fake propaganda for Satan?
We’re trying to magnify everything authoritative, everything that’s basically male, macho.  Just plain power coming into life.  That’s why our singer is supposed to be this over-the-top macho dude, whereas a lot of what he’s singing about is very sensitive and passionate.  And I guess that’s even sort of androgynous.  And this is the embryonic form of all of this, it’ll be far more evident further on as we move past the first album.

Ghost using their infernal might to defeat Trivium at foosball, photo courtesy of Tim Tronckoe

It’s really fascinating the way you keep putting the album and your material to date in context of the impending album cycle you are working on.  And I feel like you guys are a real subversion of metal tropes, mostly because you guys don’t fit into world of brutality that metal has become.  The emphasis you’ve made so far in talking about upturning macho expectations is really interesting.
Well, this tour that we’re a part of right now [the Defenders of the Faith III European Tour with Trivium, In Flames, Rise To Remain and Insense], basically the other bands are pretty much similar, what you would refer to as metalcore bands.  And a lot of their main hardcore fanbase, especially their younger fans, they don’t really have a frame of reference that goes further back than 2005.  And if you don’t know who Black Sabbath or Kiss or Mercyful Faith are, you can’t relate to what we’re doing.  They want to do mosh pits and waltz-of-death dances and whatnot.  And we’re a band in dresses that sings wimpy tunes!  Because that’s what you see if you are a fourteen-year-old who thinks that the best thing in the world is to dive headfirst into cement.  Just generally, we turn a lot of heads.  A lot of it is really positive, but it’s a funny thing: being a band that’s not as tough as other bands, we are provoking more than a lot of bands who are extremely brutal.  And that is definitely one of our strengths, that we are a polarizing band, we are confronting.  We cause reactions, we make people upset for some reason.  Either because they think that we’re over-rated, or that we’re pre-meditated.  Yes, we are, we spent two years making it perfect!  Pretentious?  Yes, yes!  We are extremely pretentious!  Over-rated?  Well, maybe. [laughs]  But it’s still causing a reaction, and that what rock and roll is about.  It’s fun to see so many people be so extremely upset because everything is supposed to be revolting.  And we are subversive, and that causes a reaction, people get upset.

Did this subversion of metal extend to your sound -- which incorporates melodies and harmonies that sound somewhat out of place in the modern-day metal landscape?
A lot of bands, these stoner-rock or dude-rock bands, they want to sound like the 70s.  And what they end up with is a product where the engineer goes “Oh, you want to sound old?” and then it just sounds bad.  It’s a filter of non-connection, sort of.  Musically, there’s so many bands that sound vaguely like Black Sabbath when they are at their hardest.  So you know, they want to sound like “Children of the Grave”, “Sympton of the Universe”, etc.  And if you listen to those albums, there are a lot of ballads, and a lot of orchestra.  There are a lot of things that don’t get mentioned when Sabbath gets mentioned as an inspiration for doom rock.  We wanted to create something that was a lot more challenging and fantasy-driven, and we wanted it to sound like an extremely expensive record from 1978.  Like a million dollar record from 1978!

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