When your day job requires you to dress up as a satanic pope, you’re going to have a complicated view of Christianity. But that doesn’t mean Tobias Forge, the creative mastermind behind the occult-rock band Ghost, can’t appreciate the religion’s artistic and cultural beauty.
“In the same way that I would not hang out with an alien from the film Alien, but I love the look of it? That’s my relationship with Christianity,” Forge tells Rolling Stone. “I’m a big fan of the arts treasures that are in there and it’s always had a great impact on me, even if I use it as a repellent.”
Since forming Ghost in his native Sweden in 2006, Forge has concocted an entire upside-down catechism that pokes devilish fun at the teachings and rituals of the Holy See. As Papa Emeritus, the dark frontman who takes a new form with each album, he performs in a miter and papal robes. Lyrics are rich in Christian allusions to transubstantiation and the resurrection. The band, who conceal their faces behind elaborate masks, have even distributed unholy communion to fans at their concerts. Were Tipper Gore to lay eyes upon Ghost back in the Eighties heyday of the PMRC, she’d turn into a pillar of salt.
But after the release of their 2010 debut album Opus Eponymous — a theatrical metal masterpiece about the coming of the Antichrist — something peculiar began to happen with Ghost: Forge dipped a cloven hoof into social and political commentary. Their 2018 album Prequelle told the prescient story of a plague that spreads not only disease across the world but contagious schools of thought. “This wretched mischief is now coursing through your souls,” Forge sang in the single “Rats.” On Friday, Ghost go a step further with the release of their fifth album, Impera, a sobering look at the fall of empires. If Prequelle inadvertently yet accurately presaged the Covid-19 pandemic, then Impera foretells an even more dire future.
Calling from a hotel in Ohio where Ghost are on tour with the Danish metal band Volbeat, Forge snickers when it’s suggested that the “plague record,” as he calls it, predicted 2019’s sweeping global health crisis.
“In hindsight, yeah. But everything in nature and time and our behaviors is very cyclical. It’s almost eerie how we’re basically repeating the 1900s again,” he says. “We have just gone through what would be an equal to Spanish flu in the beginning of 1918 and, currently, we are on the brink of what could become World War III.”
According to Forge, Impera isn’t about any specific empire, but rather the “concept of empires and their self-destruction mechanisms.” Still, it’s easy to pluck out lyrical references to a post-Trump United States, a country where civility and even the peaceful transfer of power are in danger of becoming relics. “We’ll be grabbing them all by the hoo-hahs!” Forge shouts in “Twenties,” a chugging Broadway thrash number that fantasizes a boom time of lawlessness, lust, and greed. In “Grift Wood,” he skewers the false piety of a power-hungry leader like Mike Pence. Lyrics about a “Mother” who “shine[s] like the sun and the moon” read like a jab at the one-term vice president and his pet name for his wife.
“Let’s just say that it can be about someone like him who is ready to serve his entire life’s work in pursuit of power, and then justify it by claiming some sort of a religious connection,” Forge says when asked directly about Pence. “He’s a great example of someone like that. Every basement he has reached, he miraculously finds a new one. It’s one of the most evil things I’ve ever seen — tricking people into believing that they’re on their side.”
Born and raised in Linkoping, Sweden, in 1981, Forge consumed a steady diet of American entertainment as a child — very little of it, he stresses, overdubbed in Swedish. “As part of the Cold War in the Fifties, because of our proximity to the Soviet Union at the time, there seemed to be a large influx of American culture. If you went to Sweden in the Fifties, there were American cars everywhere, jukeboxes, Elvis Presley, American films,” he says. “We watched the same TV shows that you did when we were kids in the Eighties: Sesame Street, Kermit the Frog, The Cosby Show, Dallas, Twin Peaks. I don’t find superlatives strong enough, but I’m an absolute devotee of Americana. It’s part of my DNA.”
American culture may be part of Forge’s makeup, but organized religion is not. He wasn’t raised under a specific faith, nor does he subscribe to any now. “I’m not against religion or faith systems,” he clarifies, but he can’t abide what he calls “linear religions” built on the idea of a beginning (birth), an end (death), and an afterlife where good behavior on earth will be rewarded. “The idea of linear religions has infested our ways of thinking and that’s really detrimental. They are obviously created by man to control others.”
After stints in death-metal, glam-rock, and power-pop bands, Forge fused elements of all three into Ghost. Along with the satanic trappings, however tongue-in-cheek they may be, the band was defined by its anonymity. The musicians — referred to as an indistinguishable Group of Nameless Ghouls — wore masks to hide their identity, and Forge fully transformed into the Papa Emeritus character, wearing his own series of highly detailed face coverings and makeup.
Since then Ghost have played festivals like Download and toured with Metallica (they covered “Enter Sandman” on last year’s Blacklist tribute album). Their concerts are euphoric spectacles of fire, smoke, and confetti, with Forge changing costumes regularly — out of Papa’s pope get-up and into sequined sportcoats. Onstage he shimmies like an old-time vaudeville star. It can be mesmerizing.
Halestorm’s Lzzy Hale, who once administered wine and bread to fans at a Ghost show as one of the band’s “Sisters of Sin,” says the group’s commitment to performance makes them an important figure in the heavy-metal landscape.
“Beyond their brilliant art they create, they are bringing theater back to heavy music. Part of the appeal of Tobias and his band is their unapologetic use of humor and storyline,” Hale tells Rolling Stone in an email. “It’s only rock music; we need not take ourselves too seriously. Tobias’s vision attracts a wide spectrum of fans, and I’m inspired every time I see Ghost live.”
When Hale made her onstage cameo with Ghost in 2015, few knew the real identity of Papa Emeritus. For years, that anonymity provided fans with one of the most satisfying rock mysteries since Kiss took off their makeup. But following a legal dispute with former band members over royalties in 2017, Forge outed himself as the man beneath the miter.
“When I made Prequelle, my life was kind of shaky, but the world was ironically in a more steady place. Whereas making the new record, I was in a very good place personally, but the world was the opposite,” he says. “We now have mechanisms within our own Western empire who are actively trying to, and to some degree have, created this time machine where we’re regressing. We’re flattening the earth. We’re submitting to stupidity, which is fucking unbelievable.”
On Impera, Forge calls out the ongoing war on facts by retelling an ancient story. Explosive opening track “Kaisarion” is a tribute to the philosopher Hypatia, who was murdered by Christians in Alexandria, Egypt, during the early fifth century.
“They killed her because she was a woman exercising her rights as a human being to spread some sort of wisdom that is not in accordance with a bunch of angry men, who wishes to control females in particular and are burning and destroying things that does not belong to them,” Forge says with a dramatic pause. “Sounds like ancient times, doesn’t it?”
Or, some might say, modern-day Texas.
While Impera marks Forge’s most overt stab yet at social commentary, he maintains he’s simply writing heavy-metal fiction. He likes the refuge of Ghost’s remaining anonymity and its creative freedom — any similarity to divided modern-day empires is purely coincidental.
“At the end of the day, it’s an escapist rock & roll album,” he demurs. But one that even Papa Emeritus hopes doesn’t come true.