“Image is very important to everyone,” starts one of Ghost’s Nameless Ghouls. “Even the artist who doesn’t have an image has an image. Adele has an image. In the indie world especially, people think that bands are so great because they don’t even want to be stars,” he explains before lowering his voice to a whisper and leaning across. “If they didn’t want to be stars, they wouldn’t stand on stage.”
Later tonight Ghost will take to the stage of KOKO, in London, for a long sold out show. It’s their final live date of a year that’s seen them nominated for a Grammy, release their best and most successful album yet and seen them properly crossover from being a big fish in the world of metal to being a mainstream concern. They tread the boards knowing they’re stars. The band have already announced, and sold out, their next London show and plans are already afoot for the one after that.
“Image is very important,” the Ghoul repeats before asking why people like bands that dress in every day clothes. “It’s because they look like you. It’s because you feel you can grab onto them and what they’re doing,” he ventures. “It’s one of the reasons we end up in the limbo. Nobody dresses like we do.” Ghost use their individuality to their advantage though. At the moment they’re sat backstage at London’s KOKO and, even though doors won’t open for a good few hours, there’s a queue of people standing outside in the miserable winter weather. We’re not talking a straggling group of enthusiasts and bad-timekeepers. We’re talking a mass stretching around the building. “Nobody dresses like we do onstage so that also lends itself to the diversity, it leaves us able to pull a diverse crowd because we don’t ask people to take a stance.”
Ghost aren’t your typical heavy metal band. Formed in 2008, the group remains anonymous despite demanding more attention with every release. Rumours suggest that Dave Grohl once dressed up and performed with the band but that’s neither here nor there. The five Nameless Ghouls and current vocalist Papa Emeritus III (the younger brother of previous vocalist Papa Emeritus II by three months) aren’t trading on masks and face paint. The theatrics and smirking characters of Ghost are only part of their story. In a world that can’t keep a secret, there’s an unspoken understanding that we’re all in on Ghost.
“If we had not had the image, the music would have stood on other legs,” continues the Ghoul. “If they’d been as attractive legs though, I have no idea. Our anonymity is very important as long as we keep it official, but the further we drift into being a band and the more people that know about us, obviously that’s going to be very tough. Society isn’t built like that anymore.”
During tonight’s set the six-piece band will lead the room in a joyful, unifying affair. Costume changes, incense burners, spotlights and podiums all provide backup to the monster anthems that flood latest album ‘Meliora’. At one point there are bearded men dressed as nuns handing out communion to the front row but every grandiose moment of the show feels like an extension of Ghost. There’s a powerful cohesion to band’s dark pomp and their grand stage show. The band are sheer theatre. And they know it.
Despite the relentless and full-bodied belief in the character of Ghost, it was never an overtly calculated move. “It was a business model that sounded very good in the summer of 2010 when we were just about to release one record on a small indie label in London. The goal was to maybe to sell the first 1000 records.” As it so often happens, things snowballed. “That doesn’t translate to now, where we’re doing completely different things. We thought by November 2010 it would be completely destroyed. Every day since, we’ve been like ’alright, another day.’”
Since that first record ‘Opus Eponymous’, Ghost have been the subject of more and more eyes their way with every passing day. From their every-growing, hard to pin down fanbase to those less impressed with their tongue-in-cheek critique of religion, their many references to the devil – Papa Emeritus is basically a “demonic anti-pope.” Despite their image, Ghost aren’t the Satan-worshipping Black Metallers they’re painted as. They’re much cleverer than that. Nothing wears that better than 2015’s ‘Meliora’.
‘Meliora’ is Latin for “Better” and “there’s a duality to the title. Yes, we were making a better record so the joke was ‘hah, this is better’ but it’s more a comment to the lyrics and the idea of this suburban society that we are living in. The question is, is this better? Is what we’re doing better? As an individual, I’m completely absorbed in all my own undertakings and goals. Obviously I am as big a part of the problem as anyone but we’re not providing any answers. It’s just a mirror reflecting questions. The lyrics are more biographical than people know.” The words that point do so with Ghost in front of a mirror. “We’re ambitious people but the problem is, I really hate ambitious people. There’s definitely a lot of reflection to the lyrics that aren’t routed in God or Satan, but more towards the human psyche.”
Formed with the idea to create, “some sort of proto-music,” Ghost have always been different and on ‘Meliroa’, the hybrid nature of their sound comes out swinging. With references to Rainbow, Chris Isaak and French dance music, the Ghoul explains, “the key to understanding what we’re doing is to understand that we listen to a lot of different music. That’s why it sounds different because the influences and references are not what most other rock bands would refer to or listen to.” Even the heavy elements of their sound are nurtured away from what’s going on around them.
“However big our record collections are, many of us come from a hard rock, underground background so obviously, we have a strong love for that. Whenever we want to lean towards something more brutal, we tend to disregard what brutal music is now and imagine we were a band jamming in a circle in 1974. Then we ask, what would be the most creepy riff we can come up with?” Learning from the mistakes of second album ‘Infestissumam’, the band took classic equipment and set out to make this record ”sound crystal clear. The loudest record in the seventies.”
The band has different launch pads for the inspiration of their music and in return, the penetration points for the audience vary. “I’m always very glad when I see that the crowd is still so diverse. That’s probably one thing that led to one or two sleepless nights before the tour started,” admits the Ghoul before going in on the sensitive nature of the heavy metal community. “I’m sorry to say it folks but the metal crowds are one of the most close-minded; as a group and as a movement. Most metal dudes that I know come from the same background that I have. You were the only metal guy in school. You were alone in loving Celtic Frost and no one else knew what Venom was. That was it.” Brought up on music that traditionally is “so much about liberation and being your own person,” in a world that derides that causes an outsider mentality. In turn, that forms “part of the reason why people are so protective now. This is my band and I don’t want that fucker to know about my band.” Anxiety about how the disparate elements of their crowd would interact soon disappeared though when the band same the communal spirit they inspired. “Every year, every show that I see that, I’m very happy because it feels unifying. I don’t know if it creates any rings outside of our shows but it still seems like our shows are one of these occasions where there’s just a very wide range of people. That’s very strengthening for us as a band.”
“I think we took it several steps further this time,” says the Ghoul of the band’s constant growth. “We have a concept for the next record,” he teases before adding, “obviously it isn’t carved out yet. I think it’s interesting when you build in multiple messages in a song. It can have a literal meaning that is graphical, cool and tells a horror story for the entertainment value. I hate to say moral here, but when there’s an underlying message that’s supposed to reflect on something that’s contemporary and real, then it’s up to the listener whether they want to suck in both things or whether they just want to be entertained.”
“I like records that are almost filmic. You get sucked into a universe where, as opposed to a film, you can create your own space and time,” he ventures. “At the end of the day though, we are definitely a live band. Our job is to make a show people enjoy. We are an entertainment act. We’re here to entertain people, to make them feel better about themselves and their lives, not to make them feel worse. Sometimes I think that’s one of the distinctions between us and a black metal band or those bands that hover around the same subject. We come from the same scene and the same background but whereas we want people to be happy, it seems as though they want to do the exact opposite.” As the grinning faces of KOKO turn to leave hours later, entertained by the spectacle, the personality and the glimpse into Ghost’s glittering world, you can bet that somewhere in the building, beneath masks and face paint, five Nameless Ghouls and one demonic anti-pope are smiling too.
Taken from the February issue of Upset, out now – order your copy here. Ghost’s album ‘Meliora’ is out now.