Tobias Forge: ”If you don’t have a great melody, you might as well forget about it”
Robyn. Avicii. Tove Lo. They’re no little league players. And they are all previous winners of the Platinum Guitar, a music prize Stim introduced to the industry 15 years ago. But in 2019, for the first time – a pure bread metal artist won it.
There might be some obvious differences between Tobias and the other winners, but their music all have one thing very much in common. Strong melodies. Even though he operates in a rather conservative music community, where almost anything beloved by the general public is deemed as ”sell-out” and ”fake”, Tobias finds melodies inspiring. To him, they are everything.
– If you can’t compose a great melody, then you might as well forget about it. That’s my credo. Where I’m from, writing catchy songs were often seen as fake and too commercial. But it’s like, why write jokes if they’re not funny? What’s the purpose of making music if the listeners doesn’t enjoy it? I have always written music to entertain the listener. Even on our most dark album with Repugnant, I tried my absolute best to write catchy songs!
According to Tobias, a good song doesn’t have to be anything more than what it is.
– It’s a big issue, that so many music-loving boys and girls out there have all these kinds of ideas about musicians intentions and agendas behind their songs. But it’s really straightforward: Morrissey wanted to write hits. Pink Floyd wanted to write hits. To even believe anything else is nonsensical.
Tobias wants total creative freedom. But he identifies and embraces the power of a universal dramaturgical pattern that works on almost every cultural expression there is.
– It’s in all the movies, songs, games or whatever. It’s a recipe for entertainment. You learn it and then you tweak it. But you have to be careful not to remove all the ingredients coming from yourself. If it’s too mechanical, people will tell.
For the general public, Tobias Forge is Ghost. But he has, in fact, played and written metal music for a couple of decades now, for instance in the band Repugnant. But with Ghost, Tobias found complete creative freedom for the first time.
– I used to limit myself quite a lot, to avoid doing things that were seen as ”wrong” in the genre – just like everyone else does. That’s why I got excited doing music with Ghost – there where no limitations at all. That’s why I don’t feel the urge to start another band now, I get to showcase all of my ideas right here. But of course, there’s consequences. At times, we release music that doesn’t fit the frames of what the fans automatically approve of. But we have to.
To challenge the preconceptions of metal music is Forge’s hallmark. Like many other great artists, he’s built himself a distinct sound identity with his band; you don’t need that many seconds of listening to grasp that it’s a Ghost song playing.
– You have to master a ”go-to” language in order to find your audience. I mean, even if you’re a chef cooking a carbonara you need to throw in some secret ingredients to make it your own, says Tobias Forge.
While listening through all Ghost records, you quickly identify Tobias Forge’s influences. He tends to keep one eye on the rear mirror when steering his songwriting forward.
Are you nostalgic?
– Young people today can’t even imagine the effort it took for us, during the ’90s, to find cool experiences. Today those are just a click away. I know I sound old, but damn it, I truly believe it was better and more exciting back in the days. When so much of the allure of a favorite band was based purely on your imagination. Take the story and ”mystery” of Mayhem. It’s completely debased because we already know everything about it. During my teenage years, all we had were rumours. And that sparked the imagination.
One of the key ambitions of Tobias Forge when it comes to Ghost has been to keep things mysterious.
– I don’t wear a mask to be anonymous – I’m just as much of an exhibitionist as everyone else in this industry. I just want to give the listeners the same uncertainty I learned to love.
Tobias Forge’s writing is inspired by a wide range of music with, some more or less, unexpected sources of inspiration. Like ABBA, Nick Cave and Rickard Wolff.
– My mother used to buy a lot of records when I was young. So, I grew up with music and I got inspired by her collection. I wanted to bring her kind of music into the world of metal, without other band members noticing, haha.
How did you do that?
– Those bits were quite subtle, but obvious once you knew of them. I once did a guitar solo based on a vocal piece from the musical song ”The Boy on the Moon” by Rickard Wolff.
Adolescence is when you chose sides. You have to take a stand for something, but at the same time that makes you take a stand against something else. That’s just how the unavoidable crossroads of teenage years works. And under the pitch-dark, spiky and metal surface, Tobias Forge had to keep these odd sources of inspiration hidden from everyone.
– If I allow myself to dig deep into my teenage years, in the middle of the ’90s, I was both very sensitive and quite clueless. I didn’t have anyone in the metal scene to talk about the broader things with. Even though I was stuck in the extreme metal genre, both in my appearance and approach, and felt that harsh alienation – I still appreciated and enjoyed the music my mom brought home.
He had a cultural heritage from his mother and brother. And an internal rage that was more fitting to the sub-culture he gravitated towards.
– I was a kid with divorced parents and angry most of the time. That type of anger matched very well with hardcore rock and extreme metal. I have always taken an interest in anything with attitude. It became my outlet and ventilation, just like a boxer has his punching bag.
Are you still angry?
– Haha. No, I’m almost 40 years old now. But of course, I can still get angry and relive those feelings when I listen to music. If I play the first Morbid Angel record, then everything comes right back. But it’s not the same naive and angry teen emotions, if you know what I mean. Luckily, I don’t think you could ever re-create that sense of time and emotions as back then.
While on the subject of angry emotions, Tobias Forge has gotten himself the public opinion of being difficult. It’s no secret that he has had conflicts with previous band members, who have painted him out to be an obstinate control freak. An opinion he doesn’t resonate with.
– It’s taking an easy way out, claiming that someone is impossible to work with – period. Most of the accusations have come from members of my bands. Bands I started and set laid out the blueprints for. And intuitively, I don’t believe in everyone’s right to have an opinion simply by default, just because we play music together.
– Very few bands write together. Simply because it’s difficult to move forward as one unit with several leaders. Led Zeppelin is pretty much the only band I can think of who pulled that off. It’s just like any writing; it’s hard to finish someone else’s sentence in the same style and tone as the origin.
It’s even harder when you have a strong vision of a song, as Tobias Forge almost always have. A vision he rarely let go of.
– If I allow myself to let go of my vision, that equals to giving up on the song completely. In the end, sadly, it became something I started to accept: ”I guess I can’t collaborate with anyone then”.
That’s how his thoughts went. At least until he met Klas Åhlund. When the legendary producer, of both Robyn and Teddybears, stepped into a meeting – they connected immediately.
– He was very straight-forward and asked: ”Have you written the album already?”. Nah, I said. I’d written a few songs, but it was still unfinished. ”Good, because I’m going to have a lot of opinions”, he continued, and that felt great – since I love the things Klas do.
I knew he had a little hardcore rocker within. After all, that’s how Teddybears started out. The entire production and demo period was so damn inspiring and releasing to me, we spent a lot of time together and wrote tons of music. It just proved to myself: I too can work with other people!
Or, as he describes it in a significant nostalgic comparison.
– It’s exactly as it was with girls at the school dances. You don’t want to kiss just anyone. Just because a certain person wants to kiss you, that doesn’t mean that it will automatically be enjoyable. You have to feel the urge to kiss them back in order to create something special.
What was it that connected you guys so much?
– Chemistry. And we talked about music we always used the same references. He understood me, whether I referred to a certain base-sound from a Boomfunk MC’s banger or a drum-swirl from an old Rainbow track.
The successful collaboration with Åhlund allowed him to do even more high-profile collaborations. A couple of Ghost’s latest singles are co-written by Tobias Forge, Salem al Fakir and Vincent Pontare. Collabs that resulted in hits like ”Dance Macabre”, ”Mary on a Cross” and ”Life Eternal”.
– It was my A&R, Nicholas Johansson, that thought it would be a good idea for me to meet them. And I felt the sparks right away. And we’ve got started with the music within a couple of days. Now, we’ve written 5-6 songs together, which more or less all have become hits. You just know it’s going to be good when we step into the studio together. It’s a feeling of confidence knowing that everyone just wants to create something awesome. You can’t take that for granted with everyone.
Hits by all means, but there are more layers to his music than just pure joy.
– I hear music all the time, and not necessarily from my earphones. My head’s always spinning with ideas and I always need to eject them somehow. So in a way, you could say that my music is based on obsession rather than passion. But I also find the process to create music really fun. And I’m never content. I know that I can do better, each time. So I have to keep going.
Do you ever doubt yourself?
– Sometimes. Or…I actually doubt everything I do. But I never doubt my ability to do better next time.
He’ll soon return to the studio. To once again prove to himself how good he is.
Lives: Södermalm, Stockholm
Ongoing projects: New record for 2021
Songwriter he admires: Frank Zappa
Music he currently listens to: Iris Vijanen
Tobias best tip for other songwriters: ”Don’t limit yourself to your own idol, try to get inspired by everything you hear.”
Songwriter/artist he would like to collaborate with in the future: ”There is, of course, a vast amount of people I’d love to write with, but to write something is kind of like going on a date. Sometimes, between certain people, you feel the sparks and everything turns out as nice as you thought they would – but you can’t count on it to happen, regardless of how many good things you or the other person has written prior to this special date.