They don’t look much like this anymore
On albums like 1987’s Into the Pandemonium, Celtic Frost introduced the world to an omnivorous, all-over-the-map take on speed-metal: orchestral interludes, postpunk bass-popping, primitive samples, stuff that no other metal bands were trying at the time. But the band broke up in 1993 after dealing with constant label problems and intra-band beef for the entire length of their career, all of which is entertainingly documented in frontman Tom Gabriel Fischer’s memoir Are You Morbid? Four years ago, though, Fischer decided to reunite Celtic Frost, enlisting original bassist Martin Ain, who had started out with Fischer in Celtic Frost’s forbearers Hellhammer in 1982. Fischer and Ain have spent the past four years working on Monotheist, the first Celtic Frost album since 1990’s Vanity/Nemesis, and the result is pretty much what you’d expect Celtic Frost to sound like if you reformed them after ten years and gave them four years to work on a new album and access to better recording equipment than they’d ever had before. It’s enormously heavy and ambitious, with huge serrated industrial guitars and ethereal wordless operatic howling and eerie swoops of electronics, and Fischer’s throaty bark has gained heft and presence. I’m not really an expert on these things, but it sounds to these ears like one of the metal albums of the year.
Monotheist drops in May, but Fischer and Ain were in New York yesterday to do press. These days, Fischer’s hair is shorter, and he dresses in totally evil black suits with big gothy amulets, and Ain has grown a big beard and gained weight and added about a half-gallon of tattoo ink, but they’re as intense and well-spoken as they probably always were, and I really liked talking to them. Century Media, the label that’s releasing Monotheist in the US, had rented them an apartment near Grand Central Station, where I sat down with Fischer and Ain for an hour or so yesterday. This interview is pretty long, but I still ended up trimming it down heavily; they had a lot to say.
This new album, is this the first since…
MA: Fifteen years.
How did it come about?
MA: Four years ago, Tom approached me to see if I would be interested to restart working, re-envisioning Celtic Frost, and I was foolish enough to say yes.
So you guys have been working on the album for four years now?
MA: That’s right.
How does it feel to have it all done like that?
MA: It feels real good. I mean, it was hard work, those four years. It’s difficult to bring it across.
TGF: It was radically hard. I know it sounds like a cliche, but it was radically hard, and it first has to sink in that it’s actually finished. But we’re very happy it’s finished.
Tom, I read your book…
No, I liked it! But it seems like you guys have had a really tumultuous history. What made you want to re-envision Celtic Frost like that?
TGF: It all came out when we did the reissue albums with the record company in 1999 and 2000. That was the first time we actually in a concentrated form talked about Celtic Frost in many years. It felt so good, and there seemed to be such a common rapport between us. There was also a creativity in the air that there was no way to put all in the reissues. And I was thinking about approaching Martin to see whether we could actually do something new with this creativity that was so overpowering. It turned out to be far more difficult than it seemed in these first few minutes, but I’m really glad we did it because the creativity has turned out to be real.
When you were first together, you worked at a really fast clip, putting out five albums in five years or something. What do you think has changed?
TGF: We have proven ourselves. We have established a name for Celtic Frost, and we don’t need to rush out things just to prove we can do it. Nowadays, it’s much more about the essence of things; when we do an album, it has to be a real Celtic Frost album. It’s not about the time; it’s about the content.
What would you say the essence is, then? What have you been working towards?
TGF: The essence to me personally is that it’s an honest band and a band that’s not afraid of taking a risk, a band that has the courage to pursue new things, a band that doesn’t want to repeat the same album perpetually, a band that wants to stir a little bit, that has lyrics that have an actual meaning, whereas you can still headbang and everything to the material, but if you actually desire to have a little more, it’s all there. You can go as far as you want to; it never stops with this band.
MA: And that was completely different than how we started off with Hellhammer or with Celtic Frost, because now there is this legacy that’s out there. It’s not anything to do with us as we are sitting right now. Of course, we created it, but it’s something of its own. We had to take this into consideration as well when we started out, but we didn’t want to come out with, like, “Oh, that riff was great, so let’s do this.” It was about finding us. Everybody that came on, especially me and Tom, we brought our own dreams and fantasies and especially our own inner demons with us, and we had to learn to deal with each other, and that was as much part of the process of the creation of this album as the process of creating Celtic Frost. You should take consideration of when we began, when we released Apocalyptic Raids, we were already two, three years into forming the band. And we had the advantage of youth, and also the disadvantage. We wanted to prove ourselves and do everything, whereas now we took the different approach: there was no stress, we were going to do this on our own terms, and we’ll work this out until it is what we think it should be. It wasn’t easy, and we took the time, but I think it was necessary, and I think the essence that you’ve got here on this album makes it.
I haven’t heard the album yet; how would you describe it in relation to the older material and in relation to music as it’s changed?
TGF: It’s by far our darkest and heaviest album. It’s also by far our most personally intimate album, and I think the two things are linked. The deeper we went into our intimate feelings and emotions, it explains why the album is so utterly dark. The so-called personal demons that Martin described before are quite significant. It’s not a cliche; we’ve lived through some quite challenging times, all individually, and that is reflected on the album.
How do you feel the reputation of your band has changed? I was like twelve when you broke up, but it seems like it’s grown a lot.
TGF: I’ve tried to avoid taking notice of that for a long time because I’m in the band and I don’t think it’s my place to deal with that. But if course in the making of this album we were exposed to it a lot. It has taken on a significance, the name of the band, that was never intended, that I’d never seen when we started. It’s mind-blowing and humbling.
Do you hear your influence in music that’s out there now?
TGF: In some of the music, we do, quite clearly. In some of the bands that claim influence, we don’t, which I think is a good thing because we ourselves didn’t want to be photocopies of other bands either. If we liked something and felt inspired by it, we wanted to create something new on top of that.
MA: When a band like Sepultura with an album like Roots is stating us as part of their roots, or a band like Nirvana is stating us as a major influence on an album like Bleach, or you have Opeth stating us as an influence, and you realize that they’re entities of their own, I think that’s one of the biggest compliments you can receive. One of the major things that those artists have grasped is the issue that was central to us, that we wanted to create ourselves, and something out of ourselves. And of course it was important to be part of a scene, the entire social thing, but it wasn’t about recreating something that somebody else had already done. This is how we started out; we started out sort of as a pastiche, in the early Hellhammer days especially, but then again this is how everybody starts. If there’s something you like, you try to redo it.
TGF: But that’s a common misunderstanding; a lot of people mistake influence. To me, a true influence is not something that you listen to and you copy, but an influence is something that shapes your musical understanding, the way you actually perceive. It’s much deeper. An influence shapes your very personality, the way you function.
MA: That’s why the bands like that stayed; they’ve gone their own way and done their own thing. And you realize that if you’ve been an influence on them, it’s in wanting to create their own thing. On the other hand, I’m really fond of the entire Norwegian black metal scene, except for some misguided sheep, or I would have to say misguided goats. They say that Celtic Frost or Hellhammer has been a major influence on those bands, but they don’t care whether we care or not. They’re straight in their approach and in their views, so I have a respect for them as well.
In the 80s, it seems like a lot of bands like you guys seemed to have a real desire to reach out to larger audiences while still retaining your nature.
TGF: Which we didn’t succeed in, but the description is accurate.
But since then, it seems like heavy music has folded in on itself and built up walls. There’s a lot of room for moving around in there, a lot of bands doing interesting things, but it seems like they’re doing it for a very specific audience.
Yeah, but a lot of musical genres are very conservative in themselves, and they build up these musical walls. It’s always been one of the purposes of this band to try to pierce these walls, and whether we’re successful or not, that’s not up to us to decide. In our world, those walls don’t exist. We come from such widely varying backgrounds, both intellectually and musically, that there was never even a chance for such a wall to exist. Why would we want to limit ourselves? It’s the opposite; we wanted to incorporate all these things to make the music more interesting. We could never understand this self-censorship, especially given that heavy metal arose at the end of the 60s, from these 1968 youth revolutions all over the globe against the establishment, against anything that was established: parents, teachers, politicians, systems. It was music to change it; the power comes from there. And then, 20 years on, we’re censoring ourselves? That doesn’t make sense to me.
MA: This is generally the path of creation: something new comes out, and it is revolutionary, and then society tends to reincorporate it and make it safe and not revolutionary, so it can function and work as part of society. Rock and roll music has been revolutionary; Elvis was considered a revolutionary. And nowadays it’s established so much that nobody would consider it subversive; you’ve got a rock and roll scene that is only dealing with itself, that is not interested in what’s going on with the outside. Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, all those guys were doing something new, and it was spreading like wildfire across the globe, whereas now you’ve got 100,000 Jerry Lee Lewis pastiches repeating what’s been done, and nobody cares what’s going on outside that little small rock and roll scene that only listens to this kind of music. This is the way that units generally work; they go for the secure approach, and everything is fond memories of the past. I think people will listen to this album and be like, “Wow, this is heavy, this is great, but I would rather it sounded like Morbid Tales or To Mega Therion because this is what I like, this is what I know.” And this is what the heavy metal scene has become, just like any other scene. The punk scene, for example. The punk scene has been so revolutionary. Is Green Day really revolutionary? Is it really punk in that sense? I don’t know.
What music do you guys listen to?
TGF: We are as open-minded in our tastes as we’ve always been. I personally listen to a lot of electronic music. I listen to rave music, such as Fields of Nephilim, for example, and to various forms of heavy metal, to extreme metal or black metal. I also listen to jazz and swing and classical music. My tastes are so varied, and I think Martin’s are the same.
MA: It’s not the style of music; it’s whether this music can touch me. If I’m not touched by it, I don’t care. It can be technically as good as it wants to be. With some styles of music, if it’s technically good, I find it interesting because I can see that somebody’s mastered the instrument. But if it’s technically good and it’s got emotion, it’s even better.
TGF: I lot of time, people, especially younger people, listen to music because it’s like peer pressure.
MA: It was the same with us, right?
TGF: Partially yes, partially no. We wanted to be part of something, and we listened to something. But nowadays, something has to actually connect with me emotionally for me to find it good.
When you guys were starting out in Switzerland…
TGF: It’s nice that you know where we’re from, and you don’t think it’s Holland or Sweden.
Oh, um, my pleasure. But from reading your book, it seems like there was no infrastructure for a scene; you had to feel your way along. Obviously, things have changed since then, but what’s it like now? Do you feel like things are in place for you?
TGF: Compared to the early days, things have changed, and part of it is that electronic music, techno music, has was really huge in Switzerland. It opened doors for a lot of music clubs and for a much more lively cultural scene. On the other hand, it’s a very small country, and there is still a local approach to everything. There is more infrastructure, and you can actually tour clubs in Switzerland. But if you want to compete on an international level, you’re still probably better off if you expand your reach to other countries and you work with people from other countries.
What made you decide to write Are You Morbid?
TGF: I wrote the first draft after the band broke apart in 1993. It was initially to record some of the memories I had. I wrote it for the band members, just for old time’s sake. And then it became bigger; I rewrote it in the late 90s twice and completely changed it. I got interest from a publisher, and it became a book.
You were really candid in the book about disputes within the band.
TGF: I could’ve been more candid. I was very politically correct. Just wait for the successor of Are You Morbid?, which is in the works. That book is going to be mercilessly candid.
Did you have encounter any problems with people you talked about?
TGF: Of course I did. But I talked to a lot of people beforehand. Sometimes I felt as if I had to write about it because it’s a part of Celtic Frost’s history. Sometimes I agreed to their wishes and removed certain things out of personal respect. You have to be honest and candid, and of course I’m honest and candid about myself too; I often paint quite a shabby picture of myself in the book. But of course, you want to respect that people have a right to privacy. I’m not a paparazzi; I’m part of a band. I didn’t want to right a sensationalistic book, so I’ve been quite conservative at certain points, and I’m not sure this was a good decision. I’m quite sure a lot of people will dislike the successor, but if you really want to have an insight into my life, private and with the band, I need to be more open.
What about the label guy from Noise Records? Did you hear from him after the book came out?
TGF: Loosely. There’s always a little bit of contact with him because we’re always pursuing certain possibilities in recovering a lot of the stuff. But there was no legal action from him. Everything that I wrote in the book can be supported by tons of witnesses. I didn’t write about a vendetta; I wrote about facts. The guy has such a guilty conscience. It’s not just us; he’s screwed over bands like Voivod and Kreator and Helloween and what have you; this sounds like a cheap B-movie, but he’s afraid to be alone in a room with one of those bands, including us. That’s how guilty he feels; it’s ridiculous.
Throughout the history of the band, it seems like it was plagued with label problems.
TGF: But you hear that from almost every band, especially in heavy metal. It just becomes more and more severe if the band has more ambitions.
MA: This is the reasons why, with this album, we’ve done everything on our own terms. We financed the album ourselves, we formed our own production company, we licensed the album to Century Media, so we’re partners in doing this. We had the complete liberty to take the time and do the artistic work we wanted to do. At a certain point, we’ll have to deal with the record industry because we can’t release it worldwide on our own, but no way would it be like the old days. All the classic albums, the rights are out of our hand until 75 years after we’ve died. This is like selling your soul to the devil. We’ll be dealing with the devil, but this time on our own terms.
TGF: This time, we’re the devil.
Are you guys touring again now?
TGF: Yes. We’re starting at the end of May, and we’ll do the summer full of quite large festivals in Europe. And then we’ll come over here for 42 gigs that are confirmed and possibly 15 more in North America.
Have you started the live shows yet, or are they going to start with the festivals?
TGF: They’re going to start with the festivals. We figure if we’re going to embarrass ourselves, we’re going to do it in front of tens of thousands of people.
How does it feel to be gearing up for this again?
TGF: It’s hard work, but it feels fantastic.
MA: We started out with the Morbid Tales material, and it was amazing, playing our songs for the first time in fifteen years. It sounded just like in the old days. I was really surprised, really amazed. The quality of the songs has completely struck me. Back in the days, we were so in the middle of it, and so much was going on, album after album of going out there and doing everything. Nowadays we can listen to a song like “Procreation of the Wicked” or “Visions of Mortality,” it’s like, oh, fuck this is a good song. It’s great material, and it’s fun to play, and there’s a quality to it that I can understand why people enjoy it now. We’re really looking forward to playing live. We’ll be able to give people a treat.
Download: “Ground” demo