The Emperor’s Shattered Throne: A Conversation with Tom G. Warrior (of Hellhammer, Celtic Frost & Triptykon)
by Kim Kelly
Tom Warrior at Gramercy Theater (more here)
Thomas Gabriel Fischer – Tom G. Warrior to you – is one of extreme metal’s truly legendary figures. He is the definition of a lifer. From the first primal screams of Hellhammer through the incredibly influential and ever-tumultuous Celtic Frost to his latest endeavour, the darkly cathartic Triptykon, the man has spent well over half his life creating, appreciating, and inspiring metal, and his fans love him dearly for it. However, as he was quick to remind your humble narrator, Tom is still a mere mortal, made up of the same flesh and blood and heartache as you, me, and the legions of metalheads the world over that call him their hero. He has had his doubts, his failures, and his own demons to fight, but has risen above to offer us yet another chance at redemption.
Our interview took place in a cramped office backstage at New York City’s cavernous Gramercy Theatre. As paint-streaked members of 1349 wandered by and the dull roar of excited fans outside filtered through the door, Tom offered up an deeply personal and intensely honest look at his new band, his past, and himself. It was an honor and a great pleasure to speak with him, and I hope you enjoy delving into this admittedly gargantuan account. Only one question remains…are you morbid?
So, he last time I saw you and your cohorts it was at Roadburn. How’d you feel about that performance? It went off, it was triumphant, and everyone was so into it. How’d you feel when you were up there playing, as a culmination of your efforts?
It was very good to play there, of course. But in Triptykon, of course, this was only our third show ever. We had only done two very low-key warm-ups before so it was basically our first official concert and our third time on stage as a band, and of course things are still a bit rusty and cold when you do that. I think we’re much better off now. But Roadburn has this may sound cliché, Roadburn has a really special light out of all the festivals. Festivals are really big in Europe but most of them are very commercialized huge, huge operations, all geared towards maximizing profit, and Roadburn was completely different. It has this jazz festival feel, meaning everything’s kept to a small level and it’s really about the enthusiasm for the music. So when you’re there as a band and you’re with all your peers and then you go on stage and you’re on, it fills you with magic. It was fantastic to play there.
So is that what inspired you to do this tour? Maybe something about that performance, having it go off so well and seeing all the fans being so into it, made you think, “All right, maybe I’ll take it on the road”?
No, I mean we wanted to tour to begin with. I formed Triptykon specifically to be a live band. When I reformed Celtic Frost we did the biggest tour Celtic Frost had ever done, 125 shows a row and then were offered like 100 more, but the other two members of Celtic Frost didn’t want to do it and I wanted to do it. That was one of the many conflicts that arose.
And so when I formed Triptykon I made sure I was doing it with people who actually wanted to play live. I enjoy playing live and there’s so many cities, so many areas that I haven’t played yet where I know we have fans and everything. So this tour was planned from the beginning. Of course, as a European band, you want to come over to the States and play, just like an American band would like to go to Europe.
How did you come across the other members? On stage, it seemed like you really jelled and that you were all really on the same page.
The break up of Celtic Frost was due to human reasons, not musical, creative reasons. And I had to deal with a lot of ego problems, a lot of “penis problems.” That’s really the truth. I know everybody laughs but that’s probably the best description. And when I left Celtic Frost, which was the most difficult decision I had to make in my life and I formed a new band, of course, I paid great attention to the personalities of the members I would assemble for a new band. I didn’t want to create yet another ego-riddled unit. I wanted to have something that you could actually label a replacement family, a circle of friends.
And that’s what these people are. Vanja, the bassist, is my best friend in Switzerland. And V. Santura, the guitar player, has become a friend. He was the live guitarist for Celtic Frost all over the world and we bonded very tightly on the Celtic Frost tour. I knew he had absolutely no ego problems, he was the one in Celtic Frost who always had with two feet on the floor and was always professional. The only person I didn’t know what the drummer, Norman, and he was a recommendation by our management and our manager, she knew exactly who we were looking for, kind of personality. We made a session together and after 30 seconds it was clear he was the drummer.
Is the search for that feeling of a “replacement family” something that you think is more prevalent in our subculture than other ones? Is that one of the things that draws you to this world? The fact that we’re sort of – at the risk of sounding like Manowar – a brotherhood?
No, no, no, that’s exactly what it is. It’s also had a deeply personal aspect in my case. I had a very challenging youth and very early on I sought refuge in music. Music was to me like a parallel world where I could completely relax, feel beauty, fulfillment and happiness as opposed to my real life as a child which I was powerless to influence. So the only escape I had was music.
And when I became a teenager, this heavy music kept evermore people away. I was deeply drawn, I guess, due to the darkness in my life, I was drawn to heavy music and the heavier the music it was that I listened to the more people wanted to stay away from me and of course I hated people because of what they did to me. It was a perfect circle of events.
I think a lot of people can relate that.
And later I found friends who had similar experiences and felt similarly so of course this became like a replacement family for the family that I never had. And I kept all these, and normal human beings that hurt me, away. It became like our fortress, our haven. And of course in the larger sense, that’s also what the whole metal scene is. A lot of metal fans feel like they’re outcasts and they’re not being taken seriously by normal society. And of course you feel a bond, and it is a brotherhood, you don’t have to be a Manowar fan to feel like that, it’s exactly how you were saying.
Triptykon’s album art
So now that you’re coming from that experience and now, you’re Tom Warrior! You’re a hero to many.
I’m a human being, just like everybody else, and like you, too.
Well a lot of people really love and respect your work, I’ll give you that at least!
Which is extremely flattering to hear but if you’re in my position you hear that like every day, it becomes a very strange thing. You should never forget that I’m only here because of people like you. You know, it wasn’t like I was born Tom Warrior. The only reason I’m Tom Warrior and you say my work is whatever, is because people actually bought it and listened to it or wrote about it in fanzines back then and to later magazines. I could’ve done whatever because nobody would’ve given me the chance. I would still be in that stinky rehearsal room in a rural Swiss farm town. It’s not me who has created this. The respect of the owner has to go to the audience who have listened to the music and have made all of this possible. It’s really important to remember this. It’s not me who is doing the big things. It’s them who have enabled me to do this.
That’s a wonderful way to think about it.
No, it’s reality. I’m not saying that to gain sympathy, it’s simply reality and I hate when I go on tours where fans have told me, “Well, the other band doesn’t talk to us,” and stuff and I think, “What the hell?” You’re only because of these people. We flew across the Atlantic yesterday, do a U.S. tour and this is like my I don’t know seventh U.S. tour. Why can I do this? Because of Tom Warrior the great? It’s because heavy metal fans are the media and it’s simply reality. And I’m thinking it would be very good for some other musicians who are kind of lost in their egos to remember that.
And maybe I’m speaking like that because metal meant everything to me when I was a teen ager because before I was a musician, I was a fan. I remember also standing in the back of venues dreaming of maybe meeting a guitar player or singer and having even 30 seconds of his time for an autograph or something, and very often it wouldn’t happen because they just didn’t take the time. You know, I know what that feels like. I wasn’t born a musician.
True. Do fans try to contact you and send you letters and things like that?
All the time, yeah. All the time. It happened in the old days and now with the Internet of course it happens even more. It’s a very two-sided thing of course you’re bound to only hear the good things which is very flattering, I get a lot of gifts, books, whatever, people read what I’m into and then they come up with gifts or just a compliment or, even if it’s just discuss lyrics, it’s fantastic.
Of course with the advent of the Internet the other side has gotten a tool, a instrument to unleash their feelings too and the other side being, of course people who hate what I’m doing or hate me as a person for some reason or another. You have to realize that I’ve created extreme music for 28 years. That also provokes extreme feelings and not all these extreme feelings are positively extreme. And there’s a lot of people that have not met me for even a minute in their lives and yet they project something into me. It has reached a level at times which it’s been difficult to deal with.
I’m a person with emotions too and personal feelings and it doesn’t go by me without any damage. On the Internet there’s fake e mails of mine, there’s fake events that I’ve supposedly done. It’s really difficult to deal with that because people read and think they don’t know what’s true, what’s not. They only have the information that they read and some of it will always stick and you as a real human being, with a real life later have to deal with that.
And then you go there and you’re basically already defending yourself even though you haven’t been anything. You’re saying, “Well that’s not true, I never wrote this, or I never said that, I never did this.” And then you have people who will never believe you, who will always be skeptical. And that’s also the reality of “fan interaction”.
That’s true. People sometimes seem to forget that the musicians and bands they admire are human beings, are people, and so they put you on a strange pedestal or tear you apart and don’t realize like there’s a human being in there.
Well one could say look, I chose this public life so I have to deal with it. It’s a legitimate point of view, perhaps. But at the end of the day, you know, I’m a human being. And if I wouldn’t have emotions and feelings I couldn’t create music. I create very honest music; my music’s always coming from my emotions. I never write out of routine or according to a formula. But having these emotions, being a man who has feelings, you can get hurt like everybody else who has emotions.
I’m not superhuman. Like I said at the beginning, I’m a human being and it has become very difficult to deal with. It has reached a level, especially after the reunion of Celtic Frost when I became much more public than I was years before that, it has reached a level where it becomes very difficult to deal with.
Do you think it will every reach a level that it will make you not want to continue doing what you’re doing?
It’s come very close to it. There’s just many solutions to this and complete withdrawal from anything public is one of them and I’ve toyed with this many times. It’s not what I want to do, but I have to keep my emotional sanity at the end of the day. And I have to say my band has been a huge support in this. I probably would’ve taken some irrational decision long ago but my band has been an amazing support.
It sounds like a really healthy environment for you to be in.
It’s like day and night to what Celtic Frost was at the end. And one thing that too, not to bash the former members of Celtic Frost, everybody can do whatever they want in this planet, but the fact is it’s very different to what Celtic Frost is. Celtic Frost at the end was a congregation of enemies and this is a congregation of friends.
Tom Warrior on stage with Celtic Frost
I think that is reflected in Triptykon’s music. It seemed like Monotheist was sort of a difficult birth – the way it was received, the way it came out. But now, the new record you put out with Triptykon, as soon as it came out, people got it this time. The songs really seemed to touch people, and the fans got really excited about it.
It’s very organic record, and was created with friends. I’m very proud of Monotheist and regardless of some of the personal issues I think it was probably one of the best albums I’ve ever made, if not the best musically speaking. But this album turns out everything because it was the first album I was able to make with an organic band, with a band that’s actually pulling in the same direction. It makes a huge difference and that’s why Monotheist took five and a half years to make and Triptykon first album took like ten months to make.
And now you’ve got a brand-new release coming out soon, right?
Yup, we have a new EP coming up called Shatter. There’s also going to Triptykon’s first video clip; I’ve just viewed the first footage today, it looks absolutely amazing. As usual, as we did with Celtic Frost we were trying to do something different. We didn’t want to do the 500-millionth video clip of a band thing in an empty factory head-banging. I mean, again, everybody can do whatever they want, but I try as least I try, I don’t always succeed, but I’ve tried to do something different.
[editor’s note: the video has since been released:]
TRIPTYKON – Shatter
You’re clearly very interested in art. I’ve heard, and it might not be true, but when you’re not on the road, you work with H.R. Giger?
Yeah. It’s true and I’m working with him even when I’m on the road! In his museum there’s also an art gallery where he exhibits other artists and I just did a press kit for his next big exhibition while I’m here on the road. His wife does all his administrative affairs and they’re both very close friends of mine, I’ve worked with both of them and I’ve just did this with her while I’m actually touring.
That’s really cool. Giger’s got a very famously distinct aesthetic. In working so closely with him, would you say that has influenced you at all?
It has influenced me from the very first day. I’ve known Giger’s work years before I even touched an instrument. I’ve discovered his work through two of his earliest books in the 1970’s when I was a child and I grew up to actually understand his art and when I got into music I discovered a lot of parallels between the darkness in his art and the way he manages to combine darkness with beauty, with esthetics. It’s not harsh and an ugly darkness, it’s always a beautiful darkness, it’s always very aesthetic darkness.
Which is precisely what you aim for with your music.
Exactly. We’ve tried to do the same. Of course we did it much more haphazardly and much more amateurish than he did it. He’s a genius, we were just people trying to do something. But on our tiny, tiny little scale we thought that there were some parallels and that’s how we first contacted him. We sent him our demo in Hellhammer and explained him that and he was actually kind enough to write us little teen agers and said he could actually see that too and that’s when our friendship began.
That’s got to mean everything to a young band like that.
Can you imagine? We didn’t have a record deal back then, we were nobody. Everybody laughed at us. There was no extreme metal scene at the time, nobody took us serious. There was just a small circle of friends who actually came to rehearsal. Everybody else hated Hellhammer. And Giger, who had just won an Oscar and we all admired him, actually took us seriously. It meant the world to us and he became one of our most important mentors. And that’s why there’s a lot of significance to Triptykon working with him after all these years. It was very symbolic for me. I started a new band and I had put everything at stake leaving Celtic Frost. And him supporting me again meant the world to me again.
It came full circle.
Absolutely. That’s how I felt, that’s how he felt.
Have you guys ever thought about doing a collaboration together? Like a musical/artistic collaboration?
I have toyed with the thought many times but to be quite honest, I’m too respectful to approach him. He’s given me so much and I know him fairly well, I know that he hardly does any new work right now anymore. Right new he’s in a phase where he takes his work, his existing work and turns it into 3 D work for somebody that takes paintings of his and works it into sculptures or jewelry.
So I’m extremely hesitant to go and ask for yet another contribution, because I know it’s not really what he does right now. And I really don’t want to overstretch my welcome. I owe him so much. If anything, I feel it’s up to me to give him something, that’s also why I work for him. It allows me to repay him in some way by doing something for his museum, for his career, in my small tiny way.
And everybody who walks in Giger’s house feels such a huge effect. It’s almost like a religious experience. When he enters the room you feel like throwing yourself to the floor. Not because he demands it but he has such a presence, you feel immediately you’re in a presence of a genius. So I’m not going to go and ask and ask and ask, you know? I don’t like the capitalist approach of never having enough. I’ve been blessed with working with him twice and that’s more than enough.
That’s wonderful you have a presence like that in your life.
Absolutely. He’s given me far more than art work. I count him and his wife as among my very closest friends. And when I left Celtic Frost I was on the floor, both career-wise and professionally. They saw me in a condition personally, emotionally, that was really bad and they stood by me. They stood by me on a personal level when some of my so-called friends stabbed me in my back. That meant the world to me. So should I go ask for more? They gave me everything they could already.
It seems like the demise of Celtic Frost really showed you who matters in your life.
Very much so.
The Gigers, your new band, it seems like it was almost a reverse of sorts.
The interesting thing is you never get too old to learn. I’m 47 now and I’ve been doing this since 1982, 28 years. And one could think I’ve seen it all and I’ve experienced it all. But then you discover that you’re never too old to learn new things and to completely refurbish your life and actually work these new things into your life.
Tom Warrior at Gramercy Theater (more here)
That perspective may be the key to your career’s longevity – the fact that you’re willing to keep growing and evolving and acknowledging mistakes and growing and going past it and trying to do more and more. I think that’s one of the things that makes you such a special figure to some people. You’re still around. Hellhammer, Celtic Frost, Apollyon Sun, and you have Triptykon. You never stop, you keep going, and people still listen to you.
I’m not even sure if I have the talent in music, but what else am I supposed to do? As I told you earlier, even when I was young, I made this choice and I find my refuge in music and it’s been like that all my life. I’m at odds with the world as it is. I don’t like the way human beings behave in this planet. I don’t like how they destroy animals, how they destroy the environment, how they destroy each other, how they lie to each other. I don’t like egotism, I don’t like greed. But that’s the world I’m living in so my escape from all of this is music. It’s my world and it keeps me somewhat sane, I suppose. And if music’s taken from me I have nothing left; I don’t really have a place in this planet without music.
So now what are you going to be moving forward with in regards to your music? Is Triptykon your main focus or are you going to be doing anything else on the side? It seems like the band is gathering a lot of steam.
Triptykon is the focus of my life, absolutely. I know it’s become much more commonplace nowadays that everybody’s in like a million bands. I’ve never approached it like that. If you’re going to do a band right and do if deeply, then you have to be in one band. If you want to do something really artistically on every level then you have to focus all your energy. So Triptykon is that for me, that’s my project and I do that. I’m doing some production work now and then, I might be working with a Norwegian band next year, we’ve been talking about it, it’s probably too early to announce who it is. I enjoy producing albums but it’s just a side thing.
On the record, the production was really raw, but still kept a deep aura of darkness about the whole thing, it was the perfect production for what it was. I wanted to ask how you went about achieving that.
Well it’s because Triptykon is a very open environment. I’ve worked with other bands from the studio, where they hired me specifically for that sound, and then I’m in the studio and I find that they’re not open enough to achieve it. I’m telling them how to do it and then they’re kind of scared to go that far. And that’s fine. It’s their prerogatives. But if you want to have the darkness there that you hear on a Celtic Frost album or on a Triptykon album, you have to go all the way, you have to actually listen to me. I know how to do this. But I cannot do it if you refuse it, if you resist it.
Sometimes it takes a little bit of unconventional thinking, abandoning your established ways. It also takes something from ourselves. In Triptykon, we formed a band to be daring, to be courageous, we’re not afraid of experiments. And I’ve done a lot of other bands, unfortunately, are set in their ways. And then sometimes I find myself in the studio telling a band, “Well why did you hire me if you’re scared of going that far? You told me you wanted me exactly for that and then you’re scared of going that far.” But they hire me, they pay me, so I’ll do what they want. If they want to use me to my fullest capabilities, fine. If not, that’s also fine.
There are a lot of bands who are afraid to take that step out of the box. They’re content with being “just” a death metal band, or “just” a black metal band.
Yeah, I’m not talking from the high horse, it takes a lot of guts, even for us. There’s moments in the studio when I was with Celtic Frost, and now with Triptykon when we have to think very hard to do, do we want to do this or do we want to try this.
The easy way or the hard way.
Yeah, but to be art it’s not about photocopying yourself or playing it safe. True art is risking your career occasionally. True art is not scratching the surface, art is actually trying it with all the risks, with all the consequences involved. That’s art. Playing it safe has nothing to do with art. If you look at all the great artists, I mean going back to medieval times, they were all revolutionaries in one way or the other, in a small sense or in the big sense. People who photocopied themselves or copied others are not regarded the great artists. That applies nowadays as well.
That being said, are there any other bands out there, right now, that you think are doing that, are trying harder, are pushing that envelope? That you’ve noticed that you just really respect and think are doing it right?
There’s a number of bands who do their own thing which is already a big thing. You have to consider it gets more and more difficult. Heavy metal now is like 40 year old music. There’s been a million bands, a million risks, I think everything’s been done. It was much easier in the early 80’s to create something new than it is nowadays, so it has to come in all fairness it’s become much harder for new bands to create something truly unique.
There’s a number of bands whose try and I have huge respect for them but it is a difficult thing and it’s only going to get more difficult.
Only Death Is Real, the book based on the early days of Celtic Frost and Hellhammer
Your first band, Hellhammer, its one of those bands that everyone seems to build upon. Like whole swaths of genres built upon the riffs from Satanic Rites and it’s gotta be a little funny, at this point, to think back when you said nobody was into your band. Now your patch is on everyone’s jacket, you’re quoted in everyone’s liner notes…
It’s a strange feeling. For about 10 years most of the world hated Hellhammer. Hellhammer only became a worldwide existence when there was the black metal wave in Norway in the 1990’s. That’s when Hellhammer started become accepted. Before that there was a small circle of enthusiasts and everybody else laughed about Hellhammer.
And on a personal level, most of the former Hellhammer members also have problems acknowledging Hellhammer, including myself, for many reasons. For me it was because I associated it so closely with events of my youth which had nothing to do with Hellhammer itself, but of course have affected my whole existence. And for a long time I think I pushed away my youth, I didn’t want to be confronted by it by all of this anymore. My youth was so dire, so difficult that I was more than happy to just push it completely away and never talk about it again.
And also, in regards to some of the events that happened in the early 1990’s in Norway and the crimes that happed – all of us were approached by a million journalists saying well there was a murder, there was church burnings, all kinds of things, and Hellhammer was mentioned as an influence and that was very difficult for us because Hellhammer was such a personal force and seeing it basically taken away from us and globalized was almost impossible to deal with for Martin and I, for example. So it wasn’t just the world that pushed away Hellhammer, it was also the former members of Hellhammer who pushed it away for a long time.
And now it’s accessible again.
I can only speak for my personal view, I know Martin’s path as well because we’ve talked about it many times, but my personal path, of course, has to do with age and probably life experience. As I’ve entered my 40’s it became finally possible for me to actually address the issues of my youth and to work them out; sometimes with help, sometimes without help. And of course that makes facing Hellhammer much easier too and I know of course I was always right. A lot of fans knew that way before me, I was probably the last person to discover it. But I think it was such a deeply personal thing, it took a while, I guess.
And now you’ve brought it all out your book, Only Death is Real, and it’s really delved into that story. Was that a healing process?
The book actually arose at the end of this whole thing. Reforming Celtic Frost, and Martin I talking about our early days almost on a daily basis was a huge part of this. And eventually we just decided to put this into words, into print. Ian Christie from Bazillion Points was actually here tonight and told me the book’s going into third printing which completely blows my mind. Again, Hellhammer was only hated in the early days and now the book about Hellhammer is a success. It completely blows my mind. We would’ve never have believed this in Hellhammer, none of us.
So I guess the humility that being in Hellhammer in the 80’s instilled in you helps with being in Triptykon now.
There was nothing else but humility, we were nobody’s. We were nobody’s in reality and we were nobody’s to the scene. The only thing we had left was humility. There was no reason to have the big ego. It was a circle of like 10, 15 friends, that was it.
And all trading tapes and writing zines all the stuff that no one really does anymore. Do you think people cared more about bands back then when you had to work for it and try really hard to find that one demo from Germany or Brazil when now, you can go online and have it in four minutes?
I don’t know if you can care more for it. It’s something I think about on both terms because I have experienced both eras. I think what’s lost a little bit is the magic. Like I said, you had to go through a huge effort to get all, or even a single track back then. You heard from friends that this and this band was super extreme, that it was worth checking out and you couldn’t just click and check it out. For us in Switzerland we have to go sometimes for weeks to any obscure record store in the country, of which there were many, and hope that these people might have ordered one copy of some obscure single from America or England and that you would be the first to discover it, that some other metal fan would not discover it before you. And you had to drive for miles and miles to get that, there was no online search, no nothing. So when you finally got that track in your hand it was something really magic, it was an achievement. And that magic is kind of lost nowadays because everything is at mouse click.
On the other hand it’s fantastic to have everything at mouse click and a lot of music that I missed back then because I could never find, I have found now and I have now. So how’d you rate which time was better? It’s impossible to rate that. Both times, both eras have their positive points and negative points. I’m probably blessed to have experienced both, both eras. That’s the good thing, but I can’t really make a decision. I think it’s terrible if some musician my age live in the past and say it was magic back then and it’s not now because that’s simply not true.