We set up our conversation with Tom G. Warrior of Celtic Frost and Triptykon after his little trip to a local record store. I start thinking about the factors that shaped the musical climate in Switzerland after Tom shows a bunch of already-bought albums: The Kids Are All Right, Nazareth’s Show No Mercy and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors.
Despite the sum and the variety of musical influences, the name of Tom G. Warrior always been associated with the extreme-metal scene – after the merciless brutality of Hellhammer and numerous experiments of Celtic Frost or the recent releases of Triptykon, Warriors’ current project. At the end of the month, Monotheist – the final studio album of Celtic Frost celebrates its 15th anniversary.
In the interview for Louder Than War, Tom G. Warrior speaks about getting back to writing with Martin Eric Ain and his work on the newest Triptykon album, about performing with an orchestra at Roadburn Festival, death, about H.R. Giger and writing lyrics.
LTW: At the beginning of your career with Hellhammer you talked about more concrete things, rather than something metaphoric. These days your lyrical focus is different – you’re touching upon more abstract things, focusing on feelings and expressing them in quite an interesting way. Lyrically, stylistically. How long it did it take for you to make this transition?
TGW: “Well, this is an interesting question! It’s actually connected to what we just talk about before the interview started. In the very beginning, we were only learning English. Of course, that made it difficult for us to write good lyrics because we didn’t know much of the language yet. And at the very beginning, we, of course, looked at our idols – Black Sabbath, Angel Witch or Venom. And we got inspired…Or maybe even more than inspired. Maybe, sometimes we practically copied our idols at the very beginning.
But of course, then, you grew up, you become mature, you start learning and also, the better you become as writer, the better you become as musician, you are also able to express your own feelings better. So, at the end of Hellhammer/the beginning of Celtic Frost, in 1983-84, we began [to examine] our own interests for lyrics. We no longer copied our idols. We started with our interests that were, of course, history, occultism, religion. Sometimes social things.
Just things that interested us as private people anyway. And again, the process of learning, the process of growing, the process of maturing. There’s a huge difference between when you’re a teenager and who I am now – a 57-year-old man, who has lived and travelled, had relationships…All these things. And the more mature you become, the more personal, I think your lyrics are as well. Because you just have lived much more than you were able to when you were 17-18.”
LTW: At the same time, I think, all these different periods of your creativity can be united with inevitable things you have been either speaking of or referring to in your lyrics. Is this just your lyrical focus or do you personally feel the presence of death in life?
TGW: “That’s actually one of the topics that interests me the most! Some of my friends have problems with this, because, I always speak about death. And I speak about death very openly. It’s not something I push away, It’s not something morbid. Me and Martin Eric Ain, we always looked at death as an integral part of life. There’re a few things that are equal between all human beings. No matter if you live in Russia, in you live in Switzerland or America, no matter if you’re black or white or whatever…One thing that unites us…There’s sex, having to eat and having to die.
Those are the things everybody would experience. These are parts of life. That’s why we never understood why it’s so difficult for many people to speak about death when it’s a part of EVERYBODY’S existence. This of course goes even beyond human beings. Everything on this planet – every animal, every tree would eventually die. Even a stone would eventually become dust. Everything will perish eventually. To me, it’s a very fascinating concept that basically…We come from nothing, we come from Earth, we born, we develop, we can create things and we become dust.
To me, it’s not something negative. It’s actually something totally interesting. And because it is a part of our life, it’s also a topic Martin and I had always discussed. You find it in history, you find it in religion, you find it in occultism. It’s a highly intriguing topic. Because, we always talked about it, because, we always read about it also found its way to our lyrics. Later on, when we became friends with certain artists, like H R. Giger, for example, I found out that he was criticised too for showing some aspects of death in his art. And he said too that: “This is the most natural thing in the world! Everybody experiences death…” – I think, the key to not being afraid of death is to actually live your life.
If you waste your life, the decades we all are given in the best case, if you waste these cases, then you, of course, fear death. So to make the best of life you have to really use your existence on this planet before it’s over. And then you won’t be afraid that it’s over. Because you actually did something!”
LTW: When you write the lyrics, do you think about words, their sounds and shape? Like some of the writers occasionally come to brilliant combinations of words based on this criterion. Or it has to deal more with the general concept you have in mind?
TGW: “I don’t really think too much about these things. This year is 40 years since I first started playing on the instrument. After 40 years, you, of course, start developing your own processes. By now, I’m very used to writing lyrics. It has become something I almost do automatically. Not because I’m not focusing on it. I know exactly how to write. It fits me and it fits some music. And when I write a song, when I hear music, it instantly creates a mood inside of me.
So, I know the lyrics, I know what thoughts of mine would fit into the music. It’s a very personal thing. I hear guitars that I’m writing and I think: “Well, I have lots of notes, I have a lot of song sketches I write..” – I know instantly what sketches would fit the song. Then I start from these sketches and I work on lyrics. So it has become quite an integral process for me. I know exactly what sounds, what words, what sentences would fit into it.
When Martin used to write lyrics for me…He wrote much more difficult because he wrote what fit for him. And sometimes, it was very difficult for me to translate that into the music. I sometimes had to sit down with Martin, go for his lyrics and kind of modify that so it would actually fit for me to sing. It’s a different process from person to person. Of course, having been the singer for so many years, I know exactly how to do it, so it fits for me, by now. But yeah, at the beginning it was difficult! It was something you had to learn.”
LTW: Growing up in a small city, in a quite conservative country as Switzerland was back in the days, you didn’t have the chance to observe any of the actual musical tendencies. Unlike some artists that later established themselves on a heavy metal scene coming through punk-environment – Type O’ Negative would be a good example. How much did this factor of being isolated to a point affect you and this type of presentation that became so characteristic to Celtic Frost?
TGW: “That’s a very good question! It affected us very very much. Everybody knows, Switzerland is a very rich country. In a way, it’s of course a privilege to be born here. But when I was a child and a teenager, there was also the other side of this. Everything in Switzerland, at least, at that time was connected to money. It was a very conservative, restrictive system. Even though we were a Western country, it was basically a dictatorship of capitalism. You either go into a career with money – insurance, banking or something – or you’re completely outside out of society at that time.
When I was young, even having long hair in Switzerland was a problem. And the arts, music, lyrics – they weren’t taken seriously. So actually, a lot of conservative establishment at that time tried to suffocate this, which eventually led to unrest in the streets, when the young people eventually had enough. They went to the streets where the police were sent to shoot them. And people were killed on the streets. That was exactly the time when we formed Hellhammer. When the young people started to rebel against this INSANE pressure from the financial elite. And this mood, the rebellion, of course, was a huge influence on us.
It showed that our generation was no longer willing to live in this completely perverted dictatorship where value counts and everything else is worthless. This had a much bigger influence on us than things like poetry. And you’re right, we didn’t have much of a scene to look at! The influences we had artistically were albums from other countries – like England or something like that. And the lyrics of Black Sabbath, for example. Geezer Butler’s lyrics are phenomenal. And I used to love those! Or Roxy Music! Bands that actually had something to say, at that time. As I said, we had to refer to other countries to have some sort of an influence, to learn how to do it.”
LTW: At the beginning, your approach was very much DIY. At the same time, with To Mega Terion you started incorporating some elements of classical music. Were there different mechanics to writing involved back then?
TGW: “Well, you know, the DIY approach, we perceived it as something difficult at that time. We thought: “If you lived in London, if you lived in New York, you could see all of these bands, talk to them and find out how it’s done” – and we had to create everything by ourselves. Eventually, it turned out to be an advantage, as we didn’t sound like anybody else.
If we had grown up in New York, we’d sound like every band from New York. But this very strange form of isolation and having to do everything by yourself – DIY, and having to come with our own ideas, actually made us sound like nobody else. We thought it was a negative thing, but eventually we realised it was a positive thing even though it was difficult, it took a while…But these days, I think it was a gift. It gave us an identity and you can like our music and you can hate our music. But nobody sounded like Celtic Frost.”
LTW: After the breakup of Celtic Frost, you immediately started working Eparistera Daimones. What guided your musical decisions at that point?
TGW: “What guided me? That’s very simple – I basically, wanted to continue Celtic Frost! When it fell apart in 1993, none of us could imagine playing in Celtic Frost again! We broke apart because we felt that the band didn’t sound like Celtic Frost anymore. But then, after years and having worked on reissue albums in 1999, after the friendship between Martin and me became reconnected, we felt very creative, we felt: “Yes! We want to try it again!” – we worked for five and a half years on the last Celtic Frost record – Monotheist.
And both Martin and I said: “This is just the first of several albums…” – we felt, we had become much more mature. We both were older and a lot of the things that were unprofessional on the outside with ourselves when we were younger were different now. We had much more control. We had more life experience. And we really enjoyed working with each other.
But after Monotheist came out, and after we toured for two years, Martin came to me and said he felt very burnt out. He said: “I don’t really feel like doing another album…” – which was a completely different story to when we reformed the band. I was actually very disappointed! I had already written so much material for the next Celtic Frost album. And to me, it was a shock. I wasn’t prepared to stop.
I felt, Monotheist was among Celtic Frost’s strongest albums. I felt that people, the whole structure we had built up behind the band when we reformed the band – the management, our own record-company, our own music publishing company, our road crew, our concert agents, those all are very very good people, people we would love to have in 1980’s – now we had all these people! I wasn’t prepared to just stop.
When Martin said he wasn’t gonna do another Celtic Frost album, I was like: “I’m gonna continue having all these songs that are written.” I basically reformed the band. I simply wanted to be honest, I didn’t wanna call it “Celtic Frost” just for financial reasons. I thought it would have been a lie to the fans. There were some people in the music industry who said: “Well, you wrote all the music for Celtic Frost. Why don’t you call it Celtic Frost ?” – and I said: “No, it would be a lie. Because, Celtic Frost are Martin and I”. I called it Triptykon.
But of course, as an actual fact – it was basically a continuation of what we had started when we reformed the band. I had written some of the songs on two Triptykon albums in 2002. Almost every song from that period I submitted to the band for Monotheist album. But we had so much material for Monotheist so we had to make a selection. These all were great songs. I wanted to use them. So I basically just continued Celtic Frost with a different name.”
LTW: I guess it’s such a general creative challenge. Once you find the point of balance – between elements you work with or peoples’ strengths – you should move to anther thing. And then, try to find this balance again. Does this make sense?
TGW: “Of course, it makes sense. But you see, the difference between the bands I have been in, and some other bands is almost all the albums I’ve ever done sound different to each other. I have absolutely nothing towards bands like AC/DC that sound the same on every album. I love them! I absolutely love them! But I think, when I was younger, in school I noticed that I had lots of difficulties with focusing on something and saying something for a long time.
Nowadays, you’d call it Attention Deficit Syndrome. It has almost become a fashion. When I was in school, there was no name for this, there was no diagnosis. I just realised this. And I think because I get bored very easily, that’s why all my albums sound different. I always like to try something new. Of course, when I was younger, I didn’t understand this. It just happened. Now, when I look back, I think, it probably has to do with it. So every album I have ever done sounds different to the next even though, with every of them you can hear it’s that band.
I’d probably get super-bored if I did the same song in different versions on several albums. So sometimes, I work with electronic, heavy guitars, sometimes, I work with classical music… I’m curious! I wanna hear these things! And I listen to all kinds of music. You just saw these albums I’d shown you before – from Fleetwood Mac to Discharge. This is the music I like! This is how I grew up. Of course, it manifests itself and the things I’m writing.”
LTW: On the very recent Triptykon release, Requiem, you re-interpreted two songs from different eras of Celtic Frost and the latest, Grave Eternal. What made you get back to those things and complete this triptych?
TGW: “Oh, that’s another thing…When Martin and I re-formed Celtic Frost in the early 2000’s, we said: “We need to finish the requiem!” – we wanted to finish it for so many years. But then we said: “Ok! Now the band is back together. One of the things we’ll do is finish the requiem…” but as we talked about it, just before, the band felt apart again. And I felt terrible!
I really wanted to finish the requiem while I’m still alive (laughter)! But, once Triptykon established itself, I’d always planned on finishing the requiem. We had actually talked about it, in Triptykon many times! And then, in 2018, Roadburn Festival contacted us: “Would you like to do something with orchestra ?” – they knew I had worked with classical musicians before.
They said: “Would you like to do this thing with your orchestra ?” and I said: “You know, what? If you actually help us with this, then maybe we should do The Requiem! If you have access to the orchestra, maybe this would be the moment to actually finish The Requiem!” and Walter, the founder Roadburn, he was excited about that. It happened a little earlier than I thought. But it’s just a perfect moment. And, actually, the people from Roadburn are such artistic and professional. It was an absolutely perfect partnership to do this.”
LTW: Over the years of your career, you’ve played all over the world on various stages and festivals. But how did it feel to record The Requiem with an orchestra, having so many people sharing the stage with you?
TGW: “It was very mixed! It was of course, on the one hand, a fantastic experience. Something you’re gonna know you’re not t gonna do many times in your life. Maybe just once in a while. It was an honour to do this. Every single musician was better than me! They all studied, trained musicians. And I’m self-taught. I looked up to every one of them because they’re phenomenal musicians.
On the other hand, exactly because of this, it’s also very intimidating – you feel a lot of pressure. I was the composer of this piece. And I knew that the entire orchestra including the conductor, they were all were looking to me for guidance. And I was the worst musician of them all! Of course, there was a lot of focus on me and a lot of pressure. And I had to have all the answers and so on. So it was also quite a lot of work.
It requires a lot of discipline, a lot of professionalism. It’s was a very mixed experience. Something very serious, that took a lot of work. But on the other hand, I knew, It was the opportunity of a lifetime. And it was an honour to be able to play this little thing that I wrote with these accomplished musicians. And hear what it sounds live. It was amazing! I don’t need to do this every day! There was so much pressure on me – I’m glad it’s over!”
LTW: While relistening to your discography, I can’t help but notice that your work on the arrangements on Into The Pandemonium is quite phenomenal. What was your work and writing process at that point like in comparison with now?
TGW: “It was much more difficult in the 1980s even though, we’re basically talking about the same things. But number one – I was much more inexperienced. I was much fresher on my instrument. I didn’t know much at that time. Also, at that time, It was quite unusual for a heavy-metal band to play with classical musicians. And a lot of classical musicians had a lot of prejudges against heavy metal, which made working with them in the studio difficult. In the 1980s, when we recorded these things, it was a very often opposition in the studio with these musicians saying: “You can’t write like this! You can’t play like this! You can’t combine it like this!” and we were like “Yes, we can!”.
There always was this competition and opposition. These days, it has become something totally normal! Many bands have worked with classical musicians and many classical orchestras had worked with bands. So it’s something normal. And also, I’m a better musician, I’m much more experienced. I have produced albums. So it has become much easier in a way. But of course, as I said earlier, you had to take it seriously: you’re standing with the whole orchestra and everybody expects you to be perfect and be professional. It’s not easy. It takes work.”
LTW: There are lots of songs of Triptykon where your vocal is combined with either Vanja’s or additional singers – like on some of the tracks from Melana Chasmata. Even though you used to record some additional vocals over the years of Celtic Frost, what do you feel being in this creative situation?
TGW: “Oh, I think it’s fantastic! I love doing this! I don’t wanna overdo it, of course. But I think it’s fantastic! If you’re a very dark, a very heavy band that is able to add to your music some additional colours, some additional shades, some additional emotions, that you, as the musician who you are and as male, that you can’t do by yourself – I think it’s fantastic. It’s like a painting. And you add a little detail here, you add a little detail there to make the entire painting stronger. That’s how I see it.
Sometimes, you work in the studio and your work sounds fantastic. But you’re really bringing…I guess…either on a violin or a vocalist, you sit there, you hear their performance and they do something that you yourself would never think of. And that sounds fantastic. It just opens your horizons. That’s how I approach this. Anytime it’s quite inspiring moment.”
As far as I know, you’ve been working for a while on what would become the newest Triptykon LP. How would you describe the material you have right now?
TGW: “The material I have right now, it’s a very strange mixture of extreme darkness and extreme melody. It’s very dark and very heavy at times. But sometimes, it’s also very ambient and atmospheric. It’s difficult to accurately describe. If all material develops like this, I think the album will be ultra-dark but still very beautiful to listen to. At least, that’s what it sounds like in the demos we have right now.
I suppose most of the songs would go in that direction – that’s how it feels right now. But it’s very difficult. I have to admit, with every album it becomes more difficult to get another album. Because, the world is moving forward and there are so many bands out there who have pretty much EVERY SOUND, every RIFF. You become paranoic, you start wondering: “Is there still something I can say?” – it’s difficult. Sometimes, I feel like everything has been played, everything has been said. You start wondering if you’re still relevant, if you still have something to say. We shall see how it comes out! I certainly don’t wanna release a bad Triptykon album. My own expectations don’t make it easier. My expectations are that I’d create a good album. And I’d do this as well as I can. There’s no secret knowledge.”
LTW: The comparison with the art world is quite interesting since we have artists like H.R. Giger, who basically created the pieces of things and creatures people had never seen, trying to expand the borders. Having such productive creative partnership, what did you learn from him?
TGW: “Well, in our talks Giger I sometimes discovered that we have the same experiences even though he was in a different field. But we often found out that certain experiences were the same. And quite often it was exactly what we talked about before. In 1992, he felt he was no longer able to say something new with his art. He felt that he was starting going circles and he was starting copying himself. So he said: “I’m no longer able to do something that’s truly new. I don’t wanna copy myself.” – and he stopped painting. As I said earlier, in a world where everything has been said and done you really come to that point where you really wonder: Is there something new left to say? And that’s one of the most profound things that I discovered about Giger. That actually led to same question.”
LTW: At the same time, when you started your career you were pushed by some circumstances and factors – necessity of self-expression and desire to speak about actual things happening in the world around you, just like people in London in the ’70s did. And this affected your releases like Morbid Tales quite a lot. What do you feel these days, having a lack of these stimulus that were quite natural back then ?
TGW: “It makes being creative much more difficult, in my personal experience, when you are an anarchist, to a certain degree, when you rebel against something that’s something very inspiring you. If everything becomes commercialised, if everything becomes normal, that to me is not very inspiring, and it makes being creative very difficult. In many ways, the world we live in now is better. I’m saying it in quotation marks – of course, the world is completely fucked up.
But we have more luxuries, we have the internet, we have much more possibilities than when I started out. If we look back on the early 1980s or the 70s – it was actually quite primitive still. There was a sense of uprising, there was a sense of learning, a sense of trying to make things better. And it was very very inspiring to us all. The new-wave scene, punk-scene, new-wave or British heavy-metal scene. All these things go from that spirit that was in the air. And to be quite honest I miss this spirit very much!
The feeling when one goes to the Internet or one watches TV – EVERYTHING is just commercial. EVERYTHING WAS COMMERCIALISED. EVERYTHING is about business. And everything has its processes. Nothing is impossible nowadays. Everything can be…That’s nice and everything. But, Jesus Christ, that’s very far away from art. Art has become a fucking business. And that to me is not something that enhances creativity. My band is also going on stage, we make money. And I know that.
Nevertheless, in the end, art has to be honest. It has to be something sincere; it has to come from somewhere inside you. Not for financial reasons. But for honest reasons, for emotional reasons or for the reasons of anarchy and so on. And these days, everything is fucking commercial. And record companies…In this industry, there’s hardly any anarchy there because we all are in the hands of global corporations and corrupt politicians. In a way, it’s of course like in the ’70s. But back in the days, it was much much smaller. Nowadays, the whole world is completely…I find this very difficult. My creativity doesn’t arise from commercialism. That’s what makes it very difficult.”
LTW: Monotheist celebrates its 15th anniversary this month. When Martin and you got back to writing again, how did you feel about writing it? What created these incredible dynamics?
TGW: “The single most important factor was that we had both grown up, at least, to a certain extent (laughter). We had both become more mature. And Martin had become a man, a grown man. When we started out, Martin was four years younger than me. When we started, I was like 19 – Martin was only 15. So when we wrote things like Morbid Tales, Martin was very young and very insecure. And I always told myself “Write music!” – I knew, he was a highly interesting person with a million things to say.
But because he was so young, he was very intimidated and very insecure. He told me, he didn’t dare to write music. In the entire first period of Celtic Frost, he never wrote a song on his own. But when we came back as adults and we reformed the band in 2000’s I found an adult man, who had much more self-confidence, who had formed music clubs and restaurants in Zurich and made his own career. And knew his strength, his talent. He came in with very strong music. That totally inspired me! I thought: “Wow! He wrote this fantastic song! I have to write a fantastic song too…” – he thought the same.
It was a competition. A very friendly competition. I encountered a grown man, who was very creative and no longer afraid of writing music in the band. And I think, it made Monotheist a much stronger album, unlike if I would have written it all on my own.”
LTW: I guess, every person with a creative mind has this kind of sacred moment when they discover an ability to do something. When did you discover your ability to create something?
TGW:”(laughter) Well, I don’t really look at myself with this. I don’t think I have an ability…And I’m not saying it so you contradict me! I’m not fishing for compliments! I’m saying it totally honestly. I’m very self-critical. And I don’t really think I have a natural ability. Writing an album to me is a lot of work. As I said earlier -I don’t have a secret recipe for an album. It’s an intimidating, scary process.
Right now, my band, my management, everybody expects me to write a fantastic next Triptykon album. But I don’t know how to do it! Because of this, I don’t have a guarantee that it would actually turn out fantastic, even though, everybody wants it to be fantastic. I see it very very differently. I see myself as a very very normal person. And the path to the album is this endless work and very difficult. I wish it was different. I wish it was some secret commission to whatever. But I can’t guarantee you…I’ll try my best.”
Photo credits: Henryk Michaluk, Andreas Schwarber, Ester Segarra, Jozo Palkovits.
Interview by Dan Volohov. Find his author’s archive here.