The Enigma of Ghost: A Nameless Ghoul Speaks (INTERVIEW)

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To be into Ghost is to step into a world of blurred lines and enigma. The lines between reality dissolve just enough to distort the wall between truth and make believe. Looking at the band, presented as a horror-film mockery of the Catholic Church, with its leader, Papa Emeritus, at center stage, you expect to hear metal in the traditional sense. Incoherent screams, loud, buzzing guitars, off tempo syncopation. You wouldn’t expect something so…tame.

And even the surface level poppy sound of Ghost belies the message of their lyrics. Satanic imagery and exaltation of Lucifer has never been so radio friendly, the celebration of evil never so infectiously catchy. And yet here we are, three albums deep into a career that both caters to and defies the conventions of metal in such a way that the definition of metal almost needs a philosophical reconsideration. Black Metal bands don’t tend to cover Abba, or work with the likes of Dave Grohl. Ghost, however, have done both.

Along the way, they’ve achieved a level of success uncommon in the metal scene. With every subsequent release, their acclaim grows; so too does their draw. And, somehow, they’ve managed to keep their identities (mostly) anonymous. To be into Ghost is to recognize that you’ll never get the full story. You might never know who’s behind the masks; you simply accept that “all music is performed by Papa Emeritus and a group of nameless ghouls.”

I recently had the chance to speak with one of these Nameless Ghouls, and even then the enigma remained. Reality was blurred. I was told merely that the Nameless Ghoul I spoke with was a guitar player; which of the two guitar players it might be remained a mystery. In our brief conversation, we spoke about their latest EP, Popestar, and their new North American tour, which is going on now. In our conversation, I realized something. There was a kind of freedom in this ignorance. Knowing little about who might be on the other end of the line revealed a truth to me, one more powerful than fortune or fame. The only reality of Ghost is the reality of the music, of the art. Everything else is just a hazy, arbitrary line.

James Roberts: I wanted to start off by seeing if I could get a statement from the clergy about Papa Emeritus III and how he’s doing. I know that his older brother was fired for failing to sow discord by spreading anarchy and toppling governments. Watching the news these days, it seems like there’s a nice little correlation between the rise of Papa Emeritus III and the state of the world today.

A Nameless Ghoul: He’s doing fine, we think. He’s an entertaining chap and we hope he can stay up for another, what is it, seventy shows? As with most things in the world, nothing lasts forever. That’s the same with [Papa’s] reign. The idea is each Papa stays for one album cycle. There’s really no change in that. Just as Papa III will be exchanged for someone else, that’s also the way of the world.

I’m curious how you guys feel about the level of crossover success Ghost has had since the release of Meliora. Ghost seems to be breaking through to a mainstream audience and getting wider acclaim. You’ve won a Grammy. You’ve appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Is that a weird place to be as a band?

For our everyday life, especially on tour, it doesn’t really change our lifestyle much, because we tour all the time. What it does change is what you see every night. The venues are getting bigger, the crowds are getting bigger. I must say, and I’m trying to say this in a very non-prejudiced way, if you go from a very hardcore background to something more of like a mainstream turn, sometimes you change your audience from a bunch of record collecting dudes to, I don’t know, the opposite? Ever since we’ve started touring, especially here in America, where we really started touring heavily, it seems like the crowd is basically the same demographics, they’re just more. So we still have a lot of people coming that are clearly not there for the mainstream elements of what we’re doing. Obviously when you’re being played on the radio and you’re on TV, you will end up having a few fans that might not have heard your first or second record, or at least not until recently. We’re not really that kind of band that just has that one song on the radio, but as long as people are enjoying the full show and are not just there waiting for that one song, I’m really fine with having people coming that have just heard our songs on the radio or on Spotify or whatever. I feel that our mainstream success is definitely not negative.

Is it getting a little weird maintaining the horrific image of Ghost balanced with the poppier sensibilities since you’re bigger?

I think we’re equally melodic as we were. I think that the only thing that really changed is that we put more time into making records nowadays, which adds a certain polish. I think that our newest record, which is our most “sellout” record, or bestselling and most critically acclaimed and [getting] the most airplay, from a production point of view it’s a lot heavier than our previous records. It sounds more muscle-y and more metal in its sound, I think.

One thing that’s always fascinated me about Ghost is that there’s an element of playfulness and humor to everything you do. Papa’s funny on stage, a lot of your interviews are funny. Is that a conscious decision or is that something that developed over time?

In all anonymity and in everything that we’re concealing, I think that there’s a lot of personality that sort of leaks through. I think that generally we are a very humorous bunch, I think that’s the crack where the light goes through. Also I think that even philosophically, and I know that we spoke about this early on in our career, for some reason, especially in the more philosophical circles of underground metal, there is some sort of misunderstanding that everything diabolical is far from humor. It’s supposed to be very serious and I beg to differ. I think that if we want to be super Biblical, it’s laughter and fun and satire that’s definitely anti-Christian. Obviously from a modern point of view, we can debate this forever. But from a hardcore, super Christian point of view, satire and laughter is a tool of the Devil to trick people into not focusing on their suffering.

I’ve always found that humor in music is very natural, not because of the diabolical, not because of the Devil in it, but it’s very organic. We are trying to—and I think we’ve done somewhat of a good job—make the records little bit more straight and our live shows and the way we sort of carry ourselves in the media might be a little more tongue in cheek. That’s where the humor sort of takes a bigger part. There is a big difference between the recorded Ghost, what you hear on the record and the pictures that you see on the records, and when you see it live. Usually the record’s a little bit more serious.

So your new EP, Popestar, just came out and, like your previous EP, If You Have Ghosts, it’s mostly covers. I’m curious how Ghost goes about picking songs to cover.

We’ve always had a little list of songs. I always have it in the back of my mind. Obviously songs can have different criteria. The best thing in the world is you find an obscure seven inch somewhere with a song that no one has ever heard that you can play and sort of adopt as your own, as opposed to, like, playing a Beatles song or an Abba song. There are also a lot of songs. We listen to a lot. I go a lot for the lyrics and what the song is about. It wouldn’t make sense to play “You’re the Voice,” even though it’s a great song. There are so many songs out there that you can make good covers of but thematically it needs to fall a little into the world we’re trying to create. That’s why all the songs on Popestar have a religious tension to it. They’re all about belief and mission, in a way.

Both of these EPs are done in a different way than we make our records normally. I’m not saying people shouldn’t take them seriously, but they shouldn’t be put next to our records. It is definitely more of a like a midseason theme party that we’re doing. Going in last time, with Dave Grohl, we went in and [said] ‘Here is our shortlist of songs we want to do’ and were just ‘Yeah, let’s do that, let’s do that’. Same thing here. Maybe this record should have some sort of, it sounds funny now, but some sort of religious theme. But there was a little pattern you can kind of see where that song and that song and that song, there’s a clear line. Then we shoved a lot of songs to the side like ‘That won’t work, that won’t work, we can do that next time.’ Then you go in and bang it out for a week, whereas when we record our records it takes months. Three months of pre-production and we go in and record for two months. So it’s a whole different ballpark. Completely different thing.

What did producer Tom Dalgety bring to the table sonically for the sound of Popestar?

He’s a good sonic engineer. He’s very good at putting together a very solid sound. He works a lot with bands that are more—they have a drummer and a guitar player and a bass player and that are supposed to sound loud. So he’s good at crafting that. He’s a very fun guy to work with, I must say. He goes very well with us. We always like to work with…English speaking people. It helps. I think sometimes there are a lot of Scandinavian bands throughout history, especially metal, that you hear the records suffer a little…especially linguistically. When you have a singer who doesn’t have English as his mother’s tongue…it’s good to have someone English-speaking in the room who can adjust faults.

So I know your tour is starting tonight, and Popestar has been described as an extension of Meliora. Is this tour going to differ much from your previous tour? What can fans expect from this go around?

Production-wise, we are, on this tour, now starting to do a lot of the things we hoped to do a year ago. Right now we’re at a better level, playing at better places, and have a little bit more faith from the god of money, who’s granted us a bigger budget to play with. We’re carrying around a lot of shit that we’re putting onto stages now, whereas this last year of touring has been slightly smaller in production compared to what we’re doing now. It has all the qualities of an arena show, and put all of our stuff onto the stage and it looks basically like one of those arena shows that you saw back in the day. It’s cool. It’s fun.

Ghost performs during the 2016 Rock On The Range festival at Mapfre Stadium in Columbus, Ohio.

Photography by Amy Harris

Ghost is on tour now, in support of their EP, Popestar, now in stores.

Remaining North American Tour Dates

9/21 Masonic Auditorium – Cleveland, OH

9/23 Minglewood Hall – Memphis, TN

9/24 Texas Munity – Fort Worth, TX

9/25 Houston Open Air – Houston, TX

9/27 Brady Theater – Tulsa, OK

9/28 The Pageant – St. Louis, MO

9/30 Midland Theatre – Kansas City, MO

10/01 Sonic Boom – Janesville, WI

10/02 Louder Than Life Festival – Louisville, KY

10/03 The Fillmore – Detroit, MI

10/04 Kalamazoo State Theatre – Kalamazoo, MI

10/05 Paramount Theatre – – Cedar Rapids, IA

10/07 Paramount Theatre Denver, CO

10/08 The Complex – Salt Lake City, UT

10/09 The Wilma Theater – Missoula, MT

10/11 MacEwan Hall – Calgary, Canada

10/13 The Vogue Theater – Vancouver, Canada

10/14 The Moore Theater – Seattle, WA

10/15 McDonald Theatre – Eugene, OR

10/16 The Roseland Theater – Portland, OR

10/18 Riverside Municipal Auditorium – Riverside, CA

10/20 The Wiltern – Los Angeles, CA

10/21 The Wiltern – Los Angeles, CA

10/22 Brooklyn Bowl – Las Vegas, NV

10/23 Discovery Park – Sacramento, CA

10/25 Comerica Theatre – Phoenix, AZ

10/27 City Bank Auditorium – Lubbock, TX

10/28 The Aztec Theater – San Antonio, TX

10/29 Voodoo Music Experience – New Orleans, LA

10/31 Metroplex – Little Rock, AR

11/02 The Hard Rock – Orlando, FL

11/03 Fillmore Miami Beach – Miami Beach, FL

11/04 The Florida Theatre – Jacksonville, FL

11/05 The Fillmore – Charlotte, NC

11/07 The Ritz – Raleigh, NC

11/09 Queen Elizabeth Theatre – Toronto, Canada

11/11 Metropolis – Montreal, Canada

11/12 Kings Theatre – Brooklyn, NY

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