Underneath The Robes: Terrorizer Uncover The Seductive Mystery Of Ghost

By on 14 May 2014

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With Sweden’s mysterious Ghost currently on the road, touring in support of their 2013 opus ‘Infestissumam’, we decided this would be a fine time to catch up with the band and find out where they’re at. Joy Shannon cornered one of the band’s Nameless Ghouls to discuss the band’s extravagant stage show, the problems of remaining anonymous as their profile rises, and what they’ve got in store for us on album number three…

The painting ‘The Rokeby Venus’ by Velázquez in the National Gallery in London perfectly illustrates the phenomenon happening around the Swedish metal band Ghost. Velázquez’ painting is a depiction of a beautiful nude woman shown completely from behind. We never see her face, but for a blurred and mysterious image reflected in a mirror placed suggestively by her hip. Though Velázquez’ painting is from the seventeenth century, its appeal speaks of a timeless truth of human nature that might be one of the secrets behind the success of Ghost: the seduction of mystery.

Perhaps it is human nature that makes us dream of what we can’t quite see. Perhaps this is part of what is behind the especially fervent devotion of some of Ghost’s fans. Ghost, who have miraculously kept their real identities secret by wearing masks and hooded cassocks in all public appearances, have harnessed the concept of mystery for their benefit. Since the release of their debut ‘Opus Eponymous’, Ghost have garnered acclaim from everyone from James Hetfield to Dave Grohl for their horror rock aesthetic and immaculately conceived pop songs. Also known for their stylish covers of classics like the Beatles ‘Here Comes the Sun’, the band released an EP last November called ‘If You Have Ghost’ produced by Dave Grohl, featuring covers of Roky Erikson’s ‘If You Have Ghosts’, Abba’s ‘I Am A Marionette’, Army of Lovers’ ‘Crucified’ and Depeche Mode’s ‘Waiting for the Night’. Ghost have made each song their own, adding their signature atmosphere, showcased by Grohl’s production.

When I first encountered their debut, they had me at ‘Elizabeth’, their clever and almost loving tribute to the late sixteenth century historic countess Elizabeth Báthory who is rumored to have killed and bathed in the blood of an unknown number of young girls. A Nameless Ghoul mused on this character saying “You don’t really know, so it’s better to feed off the legend of what she was”…much like the seductive mystery of Ghost itself.

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I had first seen Ghost during the tour when they opened for Opeth and Mastodon in 2012 and it was populated by a more typical metal audience, mostly male, sporting the more common metal show attire: black band shirts and jeans. Ghost performed a skilful and intriguing set then which made me feel that much more was on the horizon for the band. Much more has indeed happened for the band since that time, with the release of their second album- and foray into major label production- ‘Infestissumam’. While grander in production than the first album, this album still maintains the raw vitality captured on their debut. Meanwhile, the band have certainly garnered a more rabid following. Now, seeing Ghost headlining at the Observatory in the greater Los Angeles area, I witnessed a flurry of costume-clad fans, many of which were corseted fan girls, adoringly gazing up at the skull face of singer Papa Emeritus II and singing along to the band’s Satanic chants.

Perhaps it is the combination of catchy nostalgic riffs, the mystery of never seeing the band members, and the fetishising of the Satanic Catholic imagery that creates the perfect storm of intrigue that seduces fans – and especially female fans – into loving the band. When I asked a Nameless Ghoul about this theory he responded “I suppose… that’s something we can debate on” but he added “initially there was never a thought of necessarily attracting females… we just wanted to do something cool and fantasy-like, which is not necessarily a huge pull for women.” And yet, by their second album, Ghost has attracted a lot more female attention and they have added more eroticism thematically to their imagery.

This eroticism can be seen in their music video for ‘Year Zero’ which summons early 1970s Satanic horror films like The Omen’ and porn like ‘The Devil in Miss Jones’. This video features full frontal nudity of one of the band members, along with the female cast being shown topless. The band even put out Ghost-themed sex toys which either deepens the fetishising of Catholic imagery or just simply celebrates sexuality, in opposition to the historic condemnation of it by Christian institutions.

Yet beyond all the smoke and mirrors of their image, Ghost has incredible musical substance and far more conceptual and lyrical depth than might initially meet the eye. While a superficial read of their music could solely focus on the Satanic imagery, those are the symbolic motifs this band has chosen to tell a far more complex story about mankind. Like a series of horror films, Ghost’s ambitious albums are unveiling an intriguing story of “the relationship man has to the spiritual world”, which include some fascinating insights into cultural trends like Western man’s historic subjugation of women through means like witch hunting.

Intriguingly, even the band’s contemporary controversies have mirrored the historic Western trend to blame women for “sin”. US printers refused to print the band’s album art forInfestissumam’ and a Nameless Ghoul recently reflected to Artistdirect that “the whole record is about the presence of the devil… Historically, it’s always been the female body that has taken the fall for that, which is what happened in this case. The problem was a vagina in the art, not the inverted crosses.”

The band is currently working on their third album, already with visions of the concept behind their fourth. While their first album ‘Opus Eponymous’ foretold the coming of the antichrist and their current album ‘Infestissumam’ heralds the antichrist’s arrival, the third album is centred around “the absence of God and how people respond to that as a species and as individuals.”

Ultimately, the Nameless Ghouls and Papa Emeritus II are like actors performing the soundtrack to a glorious horror film series and their anonymity is a delicious part of that vision. Ghost have done what very few bands have been able to accomplish, especially without an arena-sized budget. Similar to watching an imaginative film, their shows allow an audience to forget themselves and give into the fantasy world they’ve stepped into for an hour and a half.

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When the show I attended was over, costumed fans lingered outside the gate guarding the band’s tour bus for hours, seeming to not want the fantasy to end. Yet, in so doing, these fans could actually shatter the fantasy by catching a glimpse of the real band. Unlike Velázquez’ ‘Rokeby Venus’, which as a two-dimensional painting we can never see more than what we’ve been allowed to by the painter, the band Ghost are living, breathing human beings, which could one day be revealed. But I sincerely hope not. Theirs’ is a delicious, seductive mystery we should just enjoy, alongside its glorious soundtrack.

Before the concert, I was enlightened by a Nameless Ghoul in his tour bus. Meeting this particular “Nameless Ghoul” and being given a rare glimpse under the robes, only deepened my respect and admiration for what this band has been creating. I came to understand more clearly how their music is a critique of mankind and what a Nameless Ghoul meant when he recently told the Phoenix New Times: “That’s why being a devout Christian – with everything that comes with it – is regarded as being slightly handicapped [in Sweden], because it means you’ve failed to understand certain aspects of what life is about. I did not just say that having a belief is being handicapped, I’m just saying that some people as devout Christians miss that, because they are blinded by what they are choosing not to see.”

Ultimately, after meeting this “Nameless Ghoul”, I came to observe that through the medium of well-crafted metal, Ghost is doing something that is culturally vital. They are questioning cultural belief systems and addressing historical Western power structures, whether it is within the dynamics of the church or the dynamics of gender roles. Like performance artists creating a multidimensional show that can potentially facilitate audience members questioning long-accepted belief systems, this band is not merely creating rock music.

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Interestingly, after the interview, I came away understanding more about myself, realizing that it was my eight to twelve-year old inner self who initially fell in love with the band’s music. I was raised in an Irish Catholic and Protestant home which proliferated religious abuse through negative superstitious belief systems. As a child, I rejected these beliefs by becoming the black-wearing, metal and goth-music listening kid, who refused to be baptized at eight years-old, researched medieval torture methods and historic figures like Elizabeth Báthory and formed my first band at twelve called the Virgin Marys just to be purposely sacrilegious. Even nearly twenty years later, my current band Joy Shannon and the Beauty Marks still holds a reference to this defiance against historic religious abuse of women, referencing the birth mark that could condemn a woman to being executed as a witch during the centuries of witch hunting.

All these years later, after leaving that past and those religious doctrines far behind, Ghost actually offered me a surprisingly joyous healing reflection upon who I am and what I believe or- perhaps most importantly- do not believe. For that, I am eternally grateful and, in return, whatever of their secrets may or may not have been revealed or implied to me, I will eternally keep.

For all the analysis of the band’s use of Satanic imagery, a Nameless Ghoul reflected on the fact that it really becomes “non-intellectual… because Ghost derives from a pop-cultural world where rock n’ roll, vinyl, and horror movies is a religion. And that’s why it’s so hard to speak of all the ingredients (from) a grown-up person’s point of view… Ghost comes from the sort of devotion only a thirteen year-old can have to goat, God, man. And it’s a sort of devotion that only youngsters can have of horror and rock.” Ultimately, beyond all the intellectualizing about the innumerable reasons why Ghost have garnered such a following, my inner twelve-year old self who loves their music gets this…

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Do you wear anything under your robes?
A Nameless Ghoul: “I actually go commando. 2 or 3 of us do, I think.”

Just like the music video (‘Year Zero’).
“Yeah.”

Have your costumes posed a problem in regards to playing in the heat?
“The worst occasions where it has been a real difficulty has actually been indoor shows in summer time. We did a show in Vienna, I think it was, last summer where we were all on the brink of fainting. It was so hot and there was no air in the room and it was a sort of a dingy club place. Whereas if you are outdoors in the middle of the summer, it’s not necessarily as suffocating as it can become like when you play New York in June. That can be enormously hot.”

I’ve noticed you have some costume variations.
“We tend to have just one theme per record, or have been so far.  As we are potentially going into the future with with a bigger repertoire, we might broaden the show a little bit which might open a window for costume changes during the show, just to make it a little bit more happening.”

What are your future plans for the band?
“In my book, from a planning point of view – where everything is based on a vision or a lot of visions – what we are doing now is just halfway to where we actually intended to be 5 years ago. So there’s always a downsized version that people see… So even though we have taken big steps, probably quicker than your average band, still (there’s) the loss of gravity in terms of monetary and venues. If you want to do a really cool show that is supposed to live up to a lot of expectation you basically need to be an arena band. So, obviously we are not really there yet.”

That’s the ultimate goal?
“Yeah, for lack of a better phrase… to become an arena band. The prime reason for that is to just be able to do a more or less limitless show.”

So, have the money behind you like a Lady Gaga show?
“Yes, why not! Yes, obviously for monetary reasons as well… As soon as you are confined to venues in general… they all come in different forms- different sizes, different shapes. There are a lot of oddities that make shows difficult if you are not just a rock band with Marshall walls and a drum kit. So, yeah for practical reasons and for the reasons of wanting it to be big and overpowering, rather than a sweaty punk show. Yes, our goal is to become slightly more…”

Operatic?
“Yeah.”

What you’re talking about is very theatrical. Do any of you have a theatre or performance art background?
“Not really.”

So you just have a lot of ambition?
“Yeah. (laughs)”

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Well, what you’re doing is very creative- I’ve always liked that about your band. I also appreciate how your band has played with our society’s “cult of fame” by remaining anonymous. When you first started the band did you think that remaining anonymous would actually work?
“That’s a very good question. There are definitely a lot of things that happened that seem paradoxical now, because the idea was definitely to become a big band. In order to accumulate “x” you need to do “y”… You have to do a lot of things in order to make that happen. But I think that there was a naive ambition that we would be able to maintain anonymity. Which after 4 years of touring obviously we understand what that would have required would have been Metallica status… you know, flying privately everywhere with bodyguards… in complete seclusion. And the loss of gravity meant that we had to have a bus outside a venue and eventually we had to step out of that bus into the venue or back. We have been forced to have very unofficial meet and greets, which we like. Anybody who has chosen to be in a band and stand on a stage obviously sports some exhibitionistic inclination. So we have not chosen to be anonymous or nameless in the Ghost essence because we’re shy and we don’t want or need appreciation.”

So what was the original reason behind being anonymous?
“It was just the aesthetic… it was just the ingredients of the observer not knowing who you were watching.”

So the mystique was more what you were trying to create?
“I’m a big fan of musicals in general. Many of the big ones I’ve seen many times like Phantom of the Opera and Cats. There’s always an element in theatre where obviously you can just take up the brochure and look up “Cat #7” (and see the person’s name), but that’s not really the person you sort of have a crush on during the show. I think that influenced me a lot as to how I wanted this show to be perceived from an audience’s point of view, where you do not have that “person cult”. Obviously now I know that it doesn’t really work that way, but still that you would be watching more of an unspecified entity.”

Do you think this mystery inspired more interest in you or perhaps what you mentioned, a sort of crush on members of the band, even though people can’t see you?
“I suppose. I think so. That’s something we can debate on.”

To be fair, you do have that one fan website (Nameless Harem) that has that whole erotica element.
“To begin with, this is part of the naivety (of) where we thought the band would flourish.. Even though we have never confessed to being an ultra metal band, obviously we come from a metal foundation and aesthetically and the mindset is very underground metal. I think that initially there was never a thought of necessarily attracting females.”

But you did.
“We ended up doing that. But I don’t remember thinking at all about that to begin with. I grew up as a little kid listening to Kiss and Rolling Stones and Alice Cooper and stuff like that so we just wanted to do something that was cool and fantasy-like, which is not necessarily a huge pull for women.”

But those bands you mentioned still attracted a lot of female fans.
“Yes they did. But I’m just saying that was an element that first came to us when we started touring. We did everything backwards. We released our album first and… we’re from Sweden and our first show was in Germany on a festival and the day after we played in London at another festival. The German show was fine but the London show was the first time we literally saw our fans. We had never really shared our music with anybody because we had never played in front of anybody as this band.”

And there was already enough word of mouth about your band that you had a decent following in London?
“Yeah, at that point, London was sort of our stronghold because our label was from London and it was the London underground metal circuit that was first to take on the band. That was the first time, as far as I remember at least, that we noticed there’s girls in the crowd… What are they doing?”

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I didn’t really notice an erotic element in the imagery associated with your first album but it is certainly there with your second album. There is a fetish association of Catholic imagery and eroticizing it, which you guys have incorporated with this second album. Was this something you planned or did it just happen?
“I think we probably just kind of spun with it. The big difference between the first and the second record, apart from certain songwriting details, is the first record was done very minimalistically, not necessarily as a big band, with very little outside expectation. Obviously this sounds a little high horse saying this, but it was very pure, with very clean thoughts, and no boundaries. It was done with the intention of pleasing no one but ourselves.”

It sounds like that. It’s a brilliant album.
“Thanks. The second record was recorded with the band that had done a hundred shows at least, so there was a different take. Especially now that we are in the writing process for album number three.”

Do you write while you’re on the road?
“Yes, But we had some time off as well, so a larger bulk is written. As a writer you can read into, this is how the audience will react to this.”

So you have more self awareness?
“Yes, you get more aware of “that won’t work.” That is not a song that will fit in very well. So there are certain songs that we’ve been avoiding because they won’t work. But we try to do less and less of that. For the first album not being “jammed” in the sense that we tried on an audience before we recorded it, it’s surprisingly accessible and easily performed. Whereas it’s very common when music is done in the studio first and put onto a live situation, it can become “this does not work… it’s too slow or it’s too fast… it doesn’t work.”

Did you find that the second album was harder to write because of that self awareness?
“No. The thing is that the general consensus of the record didn’t turn out to be as much of a focus on the “sell-out” aspects of it, I think. There was a lot of critics thinking, especially beforehand, that record is written just to please the new plateau we have stepped up on, being on a major label. But all the songs, except for one, were recorded once already in 2011 when we were not signed to a major, when we didn’t have a producer, and when we were still on Rise Above. They are still the same songs. I can play you demos from 2011 and it’s just an audial difference because we recorded that first take of the record in the same studio where we recorded the first record. Then we recorded everything again and did it again with a producer, for major label money. But the material is still the same. You would hear no difference in terms of the songwriting.”

Do you feel like you’ve had to justify that?
“No, I don’t think so. I’ve said it before but it’s not something I go blue saying. I’m just saying that I didn’t feel that amount of pressure because at the time when we did all those moves- like getting a new manager and moving to a bigger label- we already knew that this is our album. ‘Infestissumam’ sounds like this. I would say that it’s probably harder now. We have more to maintain. But still I’d like to believe that the original recipe form which we create songs is still untainted. I think there are still songs coming out now in the process that feel as special that I felt in 2008 on the first record. This makes me believe that we still possess that same mindset four or five years ago. The actually writing process is smaller than the band. It’s easier to conceptually get it streamlined. Generally we’re not really a jamming band.”

When you sit down to write music where do you find your inspiration?
“It differs. It tends to be very melody based. Especially the essence of the song- like this is the verse and this is the chorus- but the song might originate from the bridge part. I don’t want to dissect all songs but there are a lot of elements that we could go into an older song from an old record and I can say this was actually the first part that was written.”

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Can we talk about my favourite song of yours, ‘Elizabeth’? What inspired you to write about this historical figure?
“Coming from the underground metal scene, obviously Elizabeth Báthory is someone you bumped into via Bathory or Tormentor. I’ve always been fascinated with Dracula and Elizabeth Báthory. I know they didn’t even live in the same country and not the same age. Yet, on the bookshelf they are definitely in the same section. Lyrically, I am just fascinated by that story. You know her as a historic, actual person where there are a lot of grey zones where we don’t actually know how much of it was true and to what extent she actually did all of those things. But it’s the same thing with (Dracula), I just like the Bram Stoker version of it. I’m sorry, it’s the cooler version of him. From the historical point of view he seems to be a rad dude who did a lot of heinous crimes, but we don’t know enough about him to know what he was actually about. I think it’s the same thing with Elizabeth. You don’t really know, so it’s better to feed off the legend of what she was. I remember part of the riffing is from a Bathory song. It was supposed to be a sort of up tempo song with a disco element… It was written as a love song.”

Was it a love song to Elizabeth?
“I think that with most of our lyrics there is always a literal meaning and there’s some sort of substance to it. Some songs don’t have that. But most of them are two-faced. They are written with the intention of having a deeper meaning and a literal meaning. For example, ‘Stand By Him’ the literal meaning of that song is witches standing by Satan. Any witch that stands by him will get her revenge. Which, obviously implies a certain chauvinistic hierarchy. That is also one of the points. Whereas the song at first listen you might think it is about witches, but it is actually about superstitious males and the whole witch trials and the whole period of time was largely fueled by men…”

Being afraid of women’s power?
“Exactly. So the song is actually about men and the idea that these witches were in a pact with the devil. The lyrics are about a woman being raped because of her devilish attributes.”

So it’s about men trying to exert their power over women to keep them subservient?
“Yeah.”

So it’s a feminist song?
“Yes. I would not say no. Yes, it is written from a feministic point of view, I would assume. But as with most of the songs that we have, it is more than often about “man”, human beings, than God. It’s more about the relationship man has to the spiritual world or the lack of. And the whole (gender role power structure) in society and how that has been executed historically is a very interesting study of how man works.”

So would you say that Satan is a construct of man?
“Well in it’s most physical form, yes. As an old practitioner of teenage devil worship that derives from horror films and extreme music, I am very much fond of the idea of a devil, I like that. That gets my motor humming. But obviously I intellectually understand there’s a lot that speaks to the devil in it’s coolest form to be a product of man.”

WORDS: Joy Shannon

PHOTOS: Eric Stoner

You can find Ghost on Facebook.

 

About Kez Whelan

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