As he prepares to launch a tour of France, Ghost singer Tobias Forge aka Papa Emeritus IV talks about the metal band’s newfound popularity after they went viral on TikTok last year.

Every time we speak, you’ve played an even larger venue and achieved even larger success. Last year you played Accor Arena in Paris, and now you’re heading back to France in May to play seven shows in the Zenith Arenas. You’re playing everywhere, from Rouen to Nice. Do you ever worry that this upwards trajectory might start to slow down?

When everything feels simple and is going well, it’s easy to fool yourself into thinking that things are predictable and nothing can surprise you. I don’t wish such a fate on us, of course, but if it were to happen, I hope Ghost would be able to react quickly and change its modus operandi. I imagine it would be something that would prompt us to completely overhaul our working methods. I’m not the only person on board today, either. Even if I have a plan, I have to be responsive and willing to call the troops back; I can’t sit back and wait for a potential decline.

So, you’re a bit like a general?

Yeah, I guess so. I don’t think I can afford to stay too attached to my beliefs if things go wrong. I have to be ready to move. All the decisions we’ve made over the last thirteen years have been made whilst everything was going really well for Ghost. Every decision was based on that premise. A lot of people would be tempted to see only the positive in such a situation, but we’re already changing a lot of things on a regular basis to make sure we stay on track.

Are you referring to what happened with the song “Mary On A Cross”, the 2018 B-Side that went viral on TikTok in 2022?

We really didn’t see that coming. Honestly, it was great. However, taking everything into consideration, it was a blow to Impera. How should you handle something like that? Because you’ve got to handle it somehow. Going back to your previous question, if things started stagnating tomorrow and we were no longer deemed “relevant” (laughs), if we were relegated to the past and seen as a nostalgic act, I think we’d slow everything down. I’d just keep everything super comfortable.

What do you mean by that?

Take the band Marillion, for example. I really admire the way they manage their career. They only do the stuff that matters! It’s the same with Faith No More; these bands don’t ask too many questions. They just do what feels natural, fun, simple or necessary—sometimes all of the above. There are no time constraints; stuff happens when the time’s right. So if I were faced with such a situation, I’d probably decide to put on fewer Ghost shows, for example.

My job as the leader of this band is to know when these things are happening. To be aware of the issues and how they can evolve at any given time.

Distance makes the heart grow fonder?

There is that, yes. Not that Ghost’s current career allows for that. We’re a band that’s been growing and growing and growing for thirteen years, and fortunately so! We haven’t yet reached the point where things start to fade, change and stabilise, so I need to stay alert because this can be misleading in both positive and negative ways. I mean, just look at the Red Hot Chili Peppers—after Blood Sugar Sex Magik, I think they thought they were heading for a dead end, and then boom! Californicati

You mean the return of John Frusciante!

(laughs) Yes! You’re right; that’s the real reason, John Frusciante is the real star of the band. But don’t get me started. I could talk about him for hours. He’s a rare gem, a prodigy even—no disrespect to Flea, Chad and Anthony. I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but it’s the truth.

These are two different circumstances, though. You’re Ghost’s only master.

As a creator and an ego-driven human being, you might well be able to work miracles and create these wonderful things, but at the end of the day, I also need to be a leader, a manager, and make sure people keep their jobs. If I get just one thing wrong, the consequences might not just affect Tobias Forge.

You mentioned the “Mary On A Cross affair”. This huge success caused Ghost’s fanbase to evolve, enticing a new, younger audience.

I’ve really been trying to figure out the significance of what happened with that song, at least with the “TikTok” chapter of its existence (laughs). When I recorded it a few years ago, it ended up on the B-side of a single that I literally conceived as a parody. That didn’t stop me from putting my heart and soul into it, though, and I recorded these tracks with all the passion I could muster. Anyway, I had the files on my computer, and I played “Mary On A Cross” to my friends and family, who instantly thought it was great. I did too. I still do. I think it’s one of the best songs I’ve ever written.

And yet it ended up on the B side of a Maxi?

Yes, it’s a real shame. I think it annoyed me a bit deep down. I think that’s why I instantly thought that if I wanted to give it value, we had to play it live. So I played it at all the Ghost shows. It was my way of saying, “I want you to hear this, and I want you to love it!”

So you’d sort of accepted the song’s fate? How did you find out about what was happening on TikTok?

I’m really out of touch with social media. It’s not that I hadn’t heard of TikTok, but it was just a word to me. The label was talking about it quite a lot and seemed pretty interested in it, but I didn’t really understand why. After all, we’re talking about a concept where you only hear twenty seconds of a song. What the fuck is that? I’d had enough of hearing about it!

You had to play the TikTok game against your will in the end…

One day, I was summoned for a crisis meeting with the label, and there was this weird vibe in the room. They said, “Are you aware of what’s happening on TikTok?” My daughter had told me that the song was doing well on TikTok, so I knew something was going on, but I didn’t realise the extent of it. I remember them saying to me, “What’s going on here is every label’s ultimate goal, but we’ve got nothing to do with what’s happening with “Mary On A Cross.” (laughs)

“We wish we could say it was us!”

Exactly! They explained exactly what I needed to do to ride this TikTok wave, as you’d expect, I suppose. I just asked them to keep it as simple as possible. I didn’t want people to think that we were abandoning our album just because TikTok was working so well. I didn’t want us just to cater for the new fans. We didn’t spend years constructing the immense, multi-layered cake that is Ghost just to make moves like that! We already have millions of people behind us; we don’t need to look elsewhere. I want other people to join us without us needing to target them exclusively.

Perhaps people came across Mary On A Cross on TikTok and then dug around to discover a band with an Anti-Pope for a lead singer, and they just thought it was really cool?

I get the impression that our “new” fans understand that we have a lot to give. Maybe some of our “old” fans won’t respond well to the new fanbase, but I also know the opposite can be true. I’m not an idiot; I know there will always be the infamous contention between old fans and young fans. Metallica experienced it between the die-hard fans of the Kill ‘Em All era and the newer fans who came in with the Black Album: it’s inevitable (laughs). When the Black Album came out in 1991, the fanbase that came with it was incredible—and it’s still there thirty-two years later! It makes you wonder who the die-hard fans really are: the Kill ‘Em All fans who have supposedly jumped ship or the Black Album fans who’ve stuck with them through everything? I’m not talking about the ones who left after the release of Master Of Puppets in 1986 because the band opened for Ozzy, and they thought it was too mainstream. “Oh no, they’re becoming a normal metal band!” At the end of the day, I try not to worry about it too much. As long as people join our ranks for similar reasons, everything should be fine.

People often reference Metallica as THE band that perfectly represents what you’re talking about, but it was the same for many people to varying degrees.

Very true. Look at Nirvana. Kurt Cobain was at odds with himself and then with the people who loved Nirvana. He craved success more than anyone, and he did everything he could to make a rock record that would really shake things up. The problems started when people who used to make fun of him in school started to like and sing his songs. In our case, I think our community is made up of people who are on the fringes of society, the ones who embrace a more alternative lifestyle, for want of a better word. I think a lot of them are outsiders who feel like they don’t fit in with “normal”. I sincerely hope our older fans understand that some of these other fans of ours might feel like outsiders. A helping hand costs nothing. If there’s one thing The Cure has proven, it’s that there are a lot of people out there who feel just like Robert Smith. (smiles)

Yes, and they’re still around, all having shared something indescribable for decades now.

Exactly! It just goes to show that there’s no “set amount” of people who are allowed to feel the same way you do. It goes far beyond that. It’s neither quantifiable nor controllable.

Are you perhaps a little insular yourself?

(silence) I know it can be difficult to open up to other people who are similar to you. That was definitely the case for me when I was a teenager. I was a real rebel willing to do anything to embrace and advance an alternative lifestyle. I wasn’t a “metalhead”; I was a Death Metal fan. I didn’t dress like anyone else, and I always ended up doing my own thing. And I was fine with that. When you finally meet someone who looks like you, your first instinct is to treat them like a complete stranger, an enemy almost, “This is my world! My Death metal, my Black metal, my Thrash metal!” (laughs) I could only see things through the lens of the universe I’d created at home with my VCR. That was it; my world was entirely within my head and my heart.

What did you think about school then?

I wasn’t that interested. For me, school was a break from my real life, which started again once I got home. I just passed through the classroom because I had to, really. I had friends all over the world, a lot of pen pals. I felt like a globetrotter (laughs). The other kids in class didn’t understand why I was so interested in that stuff; they liked “normal” things and came to school to get good grades. Personally, I stopped giving a damn about my grades pretty soon after my English teacher gave me a low mark because he didn’t like me. I definitely wasn’t bilingual when I was fourteen, but I wrote some damn good American English. I wrote all my lyrics in English. My best friend Kyle was from California, and we wrote to each other all the time; plus, I had a lot of other contacts who were American. So, well, screw the teachers. I knew what I was worth. School just wasn’t for me. I belonged in my own world, a place that was all mine. I know what it’s like; sometimes, the people who are most like us are far away. Not to mention the fact that it’s hard to let them into your world anyway. (smiles)

Are you still in contact with Kyle?

Unfortunately not, but I’d love to be! I think about him now and then. I hope he’s doing well. He must be 42 by now. I should try to get back in touch, but then again, there must be a lot of Kyle Williams’ in the US (laughs).