By Brian F. Johnson
Their costumes, theatrics and musical themes are exceedingly witchy.
The Swedish occult metal group Ghost is made of up five anonymous and masked musicians, each known as Nameless Ghoul, and fronted by Papa Emeritus III, a dark, seemingly anti-Pope.
But beyond the façade of unholy, masked and robed boogie men, lies an insanely “normal” group. In 2013, the group famously recorded a covers record, tackling such artists as Roky Erickson, Abba and Depeche Mode. The project If You Have Ghost, was produced by Dave Grohl, and allegedly the band once had Grohl join them onstage dressed as a Ghoul.
Their latest album Meliora is a retro-futuristic vision that starts with a creepy organ whistle — like a campy horror film — and takes listeners down a decidedly dark hallucinogenic trip of devils and demons. Guitar World called the album a “wild, theatrical and blasphemous ride.”
Still it’s more than a bit unnerving when guitar Ghoul, with a very normal voice and calm demeanor, started to talk about the group and their recent album. There was no gravelly demonic voice, not even a smidge of any hellcat sorceress-ness, just a dude talking about his band in the most ordinary of ways. “We had done a few shorter sessions with a producer that was more of a trial,” the Ghoul said during a recent interview with The Marquee. “We were adamant about trying things first, because once you’ve gotten into bed with someone it’s really a pain in the ass to switch.”
The Ghouls and their Papa spent two months in Stockholm working on the album’s pre-production before heading to Los Angeles to spend another two months, working on a 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. schedule, dialing in more pre-production. “Then we finally recorded the album, so it was like six months of recording and going back and forth when all was said and done,” he said.
The Ghoul went on to explain that while the group had pondered taking full control of their third full-length and recording it all themselves, as it ultimately turned out they were glad that they had brought in producer Klas Ahlund. “We were in a limbo that many bands get to where, you know, you think, ‘We know our shit. We’re pretty good and we don’t need a producer. We can just get an engineer,’ which was a thought that went through our heads many times. But at the end of the day, as much as I like to beat my chest and say that I’m good, I know that I’m not good all of the time. Any band that doesn’t realize that is just cartwheeling the void basically because there’s always things that you can learn and things that you can do better,” he said.
And ironically that ethos — more than the boogie-man imagery and twisted theatrics — is not only a major theme of the album, but also the name of the album. Meliora in Latin means the pursuit of something better, and for a band who had spent countless months slaving over the songs on the album, working toward something better became the daily quest, and it meant being able to abandon ideas that they had spent months working on. The instrumental “Spoksonat,” for example, was originally written for piano but while the band was in the studio in Los Angeles a unique opportunity presented itself that they immediately jumped at. The band was recording drums at EastWest Studios — originally United West Recorders, one of the most successful independent recording studios in the world during the late 1950s and 60s. “It’s a place that historically recorded a lot of rock records, but considering the state of the music business these days there’s not a lot of rock records being recorded. So it’s more of a symphonic studio where a lot of scores are being done, and while we were there, right next door was a big symphonic orchestra. We saw this lady wheel in a harp and the producer and I were immediately like ‘There we have it.’ We gave her the sheet music and that’s how we got ‘Spoksonat.’ We were in the same studio where the Beach Boys recorded Pet Sounds and she recorded that piece in there,” he said.
That track, the album’s following song “He Is” and the almost Styx-like “Absolution” work together, along with many other moments on the album, to create some of Ghost’s most approachable and non-spooky songs to date, but that doesn’t mean that the band is in any way ready to drop their masks.
“That’s not desirable for anybody to unmask,” Ghoul said. “But I can on the other hand guarantee that one day when either Ghost is not around, or when we happen to feel like doing something else for a while, our next band, or our parallel band, will not be masked. There are definitely times — and they’re few and short — but times where I have the inclination [to unmask.]There’s definitely times when I just feel like I want to be in a three-piece and I want to play punk rock and I don’t want to have anything remotely gimmicky. And one day, sooner or later this will go tits up. Everything does. It’s the rule of empires.”
But almost as if he’d said too much, been too normal, Ghoul quickly went back to talking about Ghost as a character, and the regime change within the empire. Earlier this year — oddly during a late-night VH1 airing of the movie Caddyshack — a commercial break featured a grainy, 1984-like propaganda film where it was announced that the “miserable, wounded and bitter old man,” Papa Emeritus II, had been replaced by his younger brother with new lead vocalist and head boogie-man Papa Emeritus III.
“As a Ghoul, I’m just as confused as our fans are,” said Ghoul, reigniting the theatrics of the band, while semi-answering the question of whether or not Papa III is just Papa II in a new mitre. “Just as Roger Moore and Sean Connery and Timothy Dalton and George Lazenby, they all represent and sort of embody an idea of a person and the person that we know as James Bond, this sort of super human, uber cool, womanizer agent. And just as James Bond, Papa also is a stereotype and you can find Papa. Everybody knows someone who is very much like Papa: this older, besserwisser, wounded, you know, has a little rain cloud over him, has seen all, known all, doesn’t learn anything — or he does, but still he’s intuitively too macho to acknowledge it. He will. Eventually. He’s a sensitive guy too. He cries. He cries.”
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