Tobias Forge of Ghost talks about bringing humanity to Clearwater's Ruth Eckerd Hall

Meet the person behind the mask.

click to enlarge Ghost, which plays Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, Florida on November 25, 2018. - Mikael Eriksson
Mikael Eriksson
Ghost, which plays Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, Florida on November 25, 2018.

Nothing can humanize a macabre, outspoken, unapologetically flamboyant and possibly undead metal band frontman like a yawn, and that’s exactly what Tobias gave CL when we caught up with Swedish musician and songwriter via phone as he prepped for a show at the Kiva Auditorium in New Mexico on November 8.

“I wouldn’t say that it’s taken its toll, but you can definitely feel it after a few days,” Forge said, alluding to the more than two-hour show he and his band put together every night. No need to crucify the 37-year-old mastermind behind Ghost, however, because he’s had a whirlwind year. Since opening for Iron Maiden at Tampa’s Amalie Arena last summer, Ghost has given fans an ambitious new album (Prequelle, released in June) and embarked on its own journey toward arena-rocker status.

In the months after that Tampa show, four of Ghost’s “Nameless Ghouls” sued Forge for 200,000 krona (approximately $22,000) in unpaid compensation. The foursome received a fixed salary, but argued that it had not received a rightful share of Ghost’s profits during their tenure. The Ghouls lost in November 2017, but Forge, who had enjoyed performing anonymously as different characters in the Ghost story, was forced to reveal his identity.

Since then, he’s diminished the role of Ghost’s anti-Pope, Papa Emeritus, and taken the onstage identity of Cardinal Copia, who is the toastmaster and ringleader of Ghost’s current arena and theater tour, which is coming to Clearwater’s Ruth Eckerd Hall on Sunday. Forge now takes interviews as himself (in the past he’d either come dressed in all black and wearing the menacing, metallic mask of a Nameless Ghoul or appear as Papa, robed with religious miter thurible in hand), but he also has a new devotion to making Ghost the most entertaining thing his fans have ever seen. The physical pain feels good.

“Everybody is working their hardest. Not like we’re breaking apart, but it feels like we’re adding a lot of value to the ticket, which is a good feeling,” Forge said, adding that the crew spends its days off doing very little.

“It’s a strong show, man. Getting better and better all the time.”

Prequelle, Ghost’s fourth album, is arguably its best to date, too. On it, Forge (as Copia) has assembled a new cast of Nameless Ghouls and doubled down on the hook-laden, anthemic hard rock from Ghost’s 2015 breakthrough, Meliora. Forge has admitted to never being an ‘80s or ‘90s kind of shredder who plays a million notes a minute; he actually cops to style that’s more ‘60s and ‘70s. Prequelle’s melodies are almost as catchy as those from another Swedish export, ABBA, but the rest of the big lead guitar lines and soaring singing feel like a mishmash of everything from Def Leppard and Judas Priest to Blue Öyster Cult and Alice Cooper.

All of it, of course, is largely occult, and that’s always drawn the interest of religious groups obsessed with thwarting the devil at every turn. Less than a week ago, community members in Midland, Texas gathered to pray over Ghost’s concert at the Wagner Noël Performing Arts Center. Pastor Larry Long didn’t want to cancel the show and expressed concern for Ghost, but he was more or less wondering why the venue would want to book the act.

“We have a freedom of religion in America, which means a freedom of irreligion and anti-Christian faith,” Long told a program on the city’s 107.1-FM, adding that the show was not healthy for his community.

“I’m not in favor of outlawing the band per se; what I’m in favor is finding out from Wagner Noël what in the world they’re thinking… I’m sure the band believes the devil’s real,” Long said. “I doubt that they’re just doing this as a part of their shtick for music and music they produce and so on. And if you were to read some of the lyrics of their songs, they’re really quite disturbing.”

Forge, for his part, has always maintained that the band uses the imagery because “it looks awesome.” Ghost has no intention of trying to send impressionable young kids to hell, and if Long would listen to the message behind Prequelle highlight “Rats,” then he might even find the message of hope and salvation that Cardinal Copia preaches every night.

“In times of turmoil, in times like these, beliefs contagious — spreading disease. This wretched mischief is now coursing through your souls, never to let go,” he sings. “Into your sanctum, you let them in. Now, all your loved ones, and all your kin, will suffer punishments beneath the wrath of God — never to forgive.”

Forge has been an outspoken critic of bullying and admits to being on both sides of the torment that kids subject each other to. He softens up when talking about friends and acquaintances who’ve taken their own lives after feeling like life was beating them down.

“One thing I thought when I was getting bullied was that this is just part of life. This is not gonna last forever. That’s a hard thing when you are a pre-teen or a teenager — you can’t look beyond it,” he said. “When I look back now, it’s like what a shame that they weren’t given the tools to endure what could’ve been just a few more years before getting new and different experiences.”

Asked whether the characters in Ghost’s albums are meant to be protectors of the fans who are probably are outsiders in their own worlds, Forge offered another enlightening answer.

“I hope so,” he said. “I hope that everyone that comes to a Ghost show with the intention of experiencing something, but I really hope that they leave feeling not only the experience of having a super concert, but feeling like their lives are better, too.”

If that’s not human, then what is? 

Ghost. Sun. Nov. 25, 8 p.m. $43.25-78.75. Ruth Eckerd Hall, 1111 N. McMullen Booth Rd., Clearwater. rutheckerdhall.comListen to 'Prequelle' and read our Q&A below.

I think the Clearwater show is on a Sunday, but you’ll be just as good as you would be on a Tuesday, 15 dates into the tour, right?

Haha. Ideally, you should see us on Friday. That's when the crowd is the best, Friday and Saturday, but yes, I think it's gonna be good. We have our chops down.

The show is about two-hours, 20 minutes long. Two acts, a nice stretch that has some major cinematic parallels — it sounds like you have it pretty honed in.

With the intermission the show is stretched to two-hours and 40 minutes, I think. But we're onstage for two hours, 20-minutes, plus. I wouldn't say that it's taken its toll, but you can definitely feel it after a few days. It feels good as well. Everybody is working their hardest. Everybody feels it physically. Not like we're breaking apart, but it feels like we're adding a lot of value to the ticket, which is a good feeling. Days off are definitely spent doing very little. But it's cool. It's a strong show, man. Getting better and better all the time.

Prequelle was kind of inspired by the plague, but it’s more or less a metaphor talking about the world coming to an end over and over again, questioning the wrath of God, mortality and the mean things we do to each other. It's kind of and honest story about personal experiences, survival and perseverance — outside of the betrayal surrounding the lawsuit and maybe even the death of your brother Sebastian, your stepmom and wicked school teacher, what kinds of other mean things happened to you? Have you done mean things?

Sometimes you end up writing something, on first glance, you don't notice what it means. Sometimes you're at the end of the gun because you need to write the lyrics. You may have a chorus there, verse, but no second verse. Sometimes you feel like a song could've been better, but sometimes you write something off the cuff that has tremendous meaning. Certain words, certain sounds, certain combinations of words as opposed to others. Usually they come from somewhere. Sometimes it's good to let that intuition have free reign, then you can sort of edit it into a nice lyric as well.

I've lived 37 years. Of course I've had ups and downs. I've met both beautiful people and assholes.

We have Cardinal Copia who was planned and has nothing to do with the lawsuit. You kind of hinted at this change in the “Square Hammer” video — what’s it been like to spend time with Cardinal Copia who is toastmaster, not the boss? I’ve read that you don’t like him much, but what is he teaching you about Tobias?

I think that he is very much that person, you know, you have that part inside of you. As a somewhat normal, functioning person, there are parts of personalities that are not condoned. Some people are like that. I wouldn't want to be like that all the time. I can't. It's a lot of fun transforming into someone who is that limitless, who dares to do almost anything, maybe anything — I don't know. He feels like a very fearless person, which is great and very opposed to my own.

I'm learning that sometimes you need to dare to do things and maybe not care so much, but that's also the schizophrenic nature of having this person, this alternative person that you can form in to. He or she will always be things you cannot be yourself. And if those two converge into one, then I think one would take over, and it would probably be the worst person.

What I think is funny about Cardinal Copia or all the characters is that he is unlike someone that you should hang out with. But he's fun to look at and fun to be around for a while, but probably obnoxious.

He's not coming over to dinner every Friday night.

No, no, no. You go out for dinner with him and then you leave.

You're talking about thecharacter, and it's funny to hear you talk about this asshole that he is sometimes. But there's also this theme of rats on the new album. I like your take on bullying, the larger picture of rats. I get that you don’t have a crystal ball or big solutions, but is Papa, Cardinal, any of the characters from Ghost — are they protectors of your fans? When you go to a Ghost show are the characters people who can shut the door on the world for fans in a way?

I hope so. I hope that everyone that comes to a Ghost show is doing it with the intention of experiencing something, but I really hope that they leave feeling even better about not only the experience of having a super concert, but feel like their lives are better, too.

I've been bullied. I've been an outsider, and maybe those types gain strength from the band. Me growing up, I think I've been on both ends of the spectrum, unfortunately. I was very much an outsider. Sometimes I ended up in weird situation where I was picked on, sometimes I was also the outsider that chose to be outside, but I wasn't necessarily told to be. I was friends with the right people. Unfortunately, to my great regret, today there is a bully culture, which I feel extremely bad about.

Looking back on it, I know we were very young. We we, 11 or 12 years old. It's just a harsh environment. From a grown up perspective I guess I've seen both sides of that culture. I've also been new in school, and I've been the one who was treated, or so I felt, extremely unfairly at the time. But I've also been the one treating people unfairly. So I guess that lets us at least try to grasp the complexity of the subject, especially when kids are being like that to other kids. It's not always black and white. No one should ever... I am a great advocate against bullying. I wish I had more time work with that cause. The only thing I can do as a touring musician is to encourage people — as I hope I am — not to bully people and to tell kids who are being bullied to try to look further in life.

The one thing I've really thought about when I was getting bullied — that that this is just part of life. This is not gonna last forever. And that's a hard thing. Especially when you are a preteen or a teenager. You can't look beyond this time you have. You feel like those years are such a long time. But when you're 25 and you look back on it, and even more when you're 35 — people who I've known, who've unfortunately chose to terminate themselves, chose to take their own lives when they were teenagers for this, that and the other reason. When I look back at them now, it's like what a shame that they weren't given the tools to endure what could've been just a few more years of different experiences. Especially if you are in school. It definitely troubles my mind. Nowadays I am trying to get, in one way or form, into the music and in the lyrics.

Could you talk about your wholehearted love for Ghost? What the band's future looks like...

Nowadays as I spend most of my time very sober. Trying to be on top of as many things as possible, trying to embrace what I am doing. The extreme fortunate position that I am in. To be able to get a break in entertainment, so late in life. Having the ability to not only be with my family and be able to provide for them. I have a lot of people around me who are completely depending on my decision making to be somewhat sharp. I don't want to take this for granted. I really try to harness and try and tap into that energy that I feel like I still have. There are so many things that I have not achieved in Ghost. They've been on that to-do list for 10 years. There are so many things that I want to perfect and things that I want to achieve that we haven't done. I'm trying to stay focused on achieving those things while staying true to my family and not letting anything else dilute my vision. Those things are important. Providing, but enjoying and realizing the enormous opportunity that I've been given. To do something that I love. That is what I mean.

Had I been 22, lazy, alcoholic, drug addict, single person, I might have screwed that up. I've definitely been on the side of a rude awakening telling me that I have to stay focused. Strength, remembering... my wife my kids. A lot of people are depending on me. I am not doing all of this for nothing.

It’s a childhood dream come true, and it gives a nice group of people jobs, but you’ve also said that you can’t do it forever — but now I'm hearing you talk about it, hearing you say that you have so much more to achieve. I was wondering what point in the big cycle Ghost is in right now since at one point you said that you had four years left, that you might find a punk band to join — something simple? Sounds like you've moved away from that thought.

No, I still wish to be just rocking out in a band that is a tiny bit easier than this it. I miss aspects of that as well, but it feels like two different things. Ghost is business with a whole different set of chores and passion whereas playing bass guitar or guitar only in a punk rock band, playing dingy dives, that would be a different thing that I enjoy doing. And I hope to do that as well, but right now this is what's on my menu. This is my calling, and this is what I do. I'm not done with it. I need to do that first. I have to finish the job, you know. Then you can think about your vacation.

About The Author

Ray Roa

Read his 2016 intro letter and disclosures from 2022 and 2021. Ray Roa started freelancing for Creative Loafing Tampa in January 2011 and was hired as music editor in August 2016. He became Editor-In-Chief in August 2019. Past work can be seen at Suburban Apologist, Tampa Bay Times, Consequence of Sound and The...
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