Bombastic, theatric, operatic metal Swedes have become unlikely Grammy darlings, winning Best Metal Performance in 2016 and scoring two nominations at this year’s upcoming 61st Annual Grammy Awards for Best Rock Album and Best Rock Song. But not everyone’s a fan. “We obviously are a polarizing band,” Ghost’s fearless leader Tobias Forge — alternately known as the diabolical priest character Papa Emeritus or Papa’s panda-eyed successor, Cardinal Copia — tells Yahoo Entertainment.
Though Ghost’s over-the-top, presumably tongue-in-greasepainted-cheek satanic imagery has always drawn detractors, the band has finally started to gain widespread acceptance. Aside from its multiple Grammy nods, its fourth album, Prequelle, went to No. 3 on the Billboard album chart and made Yahoo Entertainment’s list of the top 10 albums of 2018, and that album’s monster single, “Rats,” spent an incredible seven weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Songs chart. However, as Ghost’s fame has grown, so have some of the protests targeting the band — including a bizarre one that took place last year in Midland, Texas, during Ghost’s “A Pale Tour Named Death” U.S. arena trek.
Last November, Larry Long, the pastor of the Fellowship Community Church, said Midland needed to be protected from the supposedly devil-worshiping group, warning a local CBS affiliate, “This kind of band will bring spiritual influences into this area. We’re concerned about it, because we believe the devil is real, just as we believe God is real. … I think if [young fans are] singing along to those lyrics, who knows what in the world they’re opening their hearts and lives up to?”
Ghost’s Midland show went on as planned, of course. “At the end of the day, what [the Fellowship Community Church] caused was more tickets sold — so thank you very much,” Forge chuckles.
Still, although Forge says such outrage is “to an extent, amusing,” he adds, “To a greater extent, I think it’s sad. … I find it saddening thinking that there are people who don’t know f***ing bad from good and s*** from Shinola. I find it saddening that people would choose to stand out in the cold [protesting Ghost], thinking that they’re making a difference. I think it’s sad that people are wasting their time thinking that we’re bad for people, when actually what we’re really trying to do is make people happy and make people feel good about themselves when they come to our show and have a good time.”
Although certain PMRC-baiting shock-rockers that paved the way for Ghost — Ozzy Osbourne, AC/DC, Judas Priest, Marilyn Manson — have been accused of encouraging suicidal or homicidal tendencies among impressionable fans, Forge believes that “dark music, everything from gothic to death metal and black metal and hardcore” can, on the contrary, be a source of celebration and even salvation. “There are definitely rock fans over the years that have done negative things toward each other and or towards themselves, but I don’t think that’s because of the music. That’s because they were in a bad place in their lives,” he stresses. “Actually, it might have even been the music that made them live so long, that kept them going. Hard rock, in general, does not promote that you should harm anyone.
“I definitely think there are other music styles that promote a way worse lifestyle, that you could look upon as being more negative,” Forge says. “Other music styles that promote a way of living that their fans will never have — when music is all about ‘making it’ and wearing ‘bling-bling’ and ‘all them bitches,’ and the idea that without that stuff you’re nothing — that is a bad influence for your fans. At least with most gothic or hard rock music, it’s about feeling good about yourself.”
Forge instead sees Ghost as following in tradition of “the big shock-rock bands of 1984” that his much older, punk-rocker brother introduced him to when he was growing up in a liberal, pop-culture-savvy home in Linköping, Sweden. “The artists I immediately grasped onto were when I was 3 years old,” Forge recalls. “[Motley Crue’s] Shout at the Devil, [Twisted Sister’s] Stay Hungry, KISS, stuff like that. My brother was so nice and just passed those records on to me, like, ‘Here, you’ll like this more.’ I played them all the time. Then it just blossomed from there.”
Now Ghost is being heralded as the imagination-sparking band that will serve the same purpose for today’s rock-starved youth. “I do believe that there is a glimmer of hope in what we do with regards to the fact that there are a lot of kids coming to our shows. We are the first band that they see live. That is a really good thing, thinking long-term,” Forge muses. “I don’t mind being that glimmer of hope. I do believe that the more exposure we get, the more time that we spend in people’s ears, I hope that the interest in analog rock will be kept alive or awoken or might find a way into kids of today. I guess we could be a little bit [for today’s young fans] what KISS was in the ’70s.”
That being said, Forge is reluctant to accept the pro-Ghost media’s proclamations that Ghost are the new saviors of rock ‘n’ roll. “I’d love for the mainstream music climate to steer back towards rock, and I’m sure it will at some point. But does that mean there will be image-driven shock-rock bands, as far as a movement? I don’t know,” he says. “I do believe that the rock bands that will be big in the future are the ones that are being formed by kids, the 18-year-olds, today, right now. They are the ones that will rock the future, because that’s how it always is. The bands that will be big in five or 10 years, when there might be a big domination of rock again, will be bands that we most likely don’t know as of right now.”
But those bands, as Forge hints, may very well be Ghost disciples, because today’s kids, despite the handwringing of concerned conservatives like Long, are loving Ghost’s epic live shows — in which a Pope-robed Papa Emeritus, flanked by horn-headed and occasionally keytar-wielding Nameless Ghouls, perform anti-authority anthems like “Satan Prayer,” “Depth of Satan’s Eyes,” “Death Knell,” “From the Pinnacle to the Pit,” “Witch Image Life Eternal” and the undeniably earwormy “Dance Macabre” in a rock ‘n’ roll church bedecked with inverted crosses. Such imagery and song titles may be alarming to some, but it seems the little kids understand.
“The biggest misconception [about Ghost] is that the lyrical content is being provocative because it’s about God. And it’s not. It’s not about God at all,” insists Forge. “It’s about man, mankind. I use language and analogy to make it seem that it is about other things, but the songs are usually, they are about very real things. Sometimes I think it’s almost laughable to the point of annoying that protesters are just picking up on the literal meaning.
“There are many misconceptions about who I am or how I think, and of course it’s annoying. But that is just part of being in a band nowadays. If I didn’t want any of this, I shouldn’t be in a band. But I want to do this. I want to rock.”
This article originally ran on Yahoo Entertainment.