Interview: Thomas Gabriel Fischer (Triptykon, Celtic Frost, Hellhammer)
The enlightenment tradition in heavy metal begins with the work of Thomas Gabriel Fischer, better known by his stage name, Tom G. Warrior. He is not only one of the (if not the sole) progenitors of extreme metal though his time in Hellhammer and Celtic Frost; he’s also one of the first artists to try and stretch the genre’s lyrical and philosophical tropes into something that captures the human condition.
That was in the ’80s; Fischer is still creating forward-thinking metal in his current band, Triptykon, who were scheduled to play Maryland Deathfest in 2014, but were forced to back out at the last minute so that Fischer could help coordinate the funeral of artist H.R. Giger. The shadow of Giger’s death loomed over Triptykon’s set at Maryland Deathfest 2015.
After that show, Fischer and I sat down for a conversation about his art; a conversation which quickly shifted gears to encompass the struggle of maintaining one’s humanity in the modern world, and a brief search for the meaning of life.
I’m way more interested in having a conversation with art and about art than asking anything in particular.
That sounds good to me.
This blogging/writing thing has become so processed. I’m sure you get the same fucking questions over and over again.
Yeah, but I’ve been very fortunate — the interviews here have all been very interesting, actually.
This is a good fest for that sort of thing.
Exactly. Usually it really is the run-of-the-mill [questions], which becomes very tedious.
I read so many interviews that you did when Melana Chasmata came out, and the one thing that people kept talking about was that you kind of didn’t like that album.
I have my taste, too. I’m a music fan, too. I can dislike an album.
You only played the one song off of it. “Tree of Suffocating Souls.”
In a week we’ll play more of it because we’ll have more playing time. That’s not really a factor of that. When you play it live it has a completely different vibe. I don’t hate it. I take a critical stance towards the album. I think some of the songs are not finished and the album was created during an extremely difficult time in my life — three very, very difficult years. That’s reflected in the album and makes it very difficult for me to actually listen to it and be reminded of certain things. The album languished for over a year because I had to take time off to see whether my life could continue like this and to sort certain things out. That was also a very testing time for the band because they didn’t know whether I was going to come back or not. The album just languished, half-finished, at the time. When we reconvened we decided to finish it. We gave ourselves a deadline which we upheld because we knew that if we dragged this album on forever it wouldn’t be good. We eventually needed to finish it, leave it behind and look to the future. As it is, of course, certain things on the album seem unfinished and tainted by my personal experience. It’s really a personal thing. I feel extremely happy and fortunate that people like the album but, to me, there’s lot of baggage attached to certain things on the album. That’s the story behind it.
I feel like a lot of extreme metal is afraid to express emotion. It’s all fairytale fucking nonsense. Like, Satan isn’t real. But you express yourself in an artistic way, like a classic blues or country singer. I think it’s very brave of you to do that.
Well, what else am I going to do?
Talk about Satan, burning churches and how you’re so tough.
I do talk about Satan, but in a very cynical way because of my cynical stance towards religion. Satan does appear occasionally, as does God, but as a satirical observation of human behavior. There was a time, in 1982 and ’83, when we ourselves also sang, “Burn a church / Strike it down” in a Hellhammer song. We were little kids and we, too, wanted to sound tough. It’s exactly your analysis. By now, I’m 52 years old. I’m an adult man. Yeah, emotions are real; no, I’m not afraid. That’s exactly what makes you a man: [being] brave enough to actually show your emotions. It takes courage in this society, where everything has to be perfect and as a man you always have to be strong and this and that. It makes you a man, just like burning a church — for which, by the way, I have the greatest respect.
But hardly anybody does . . .
But I don’t have respect for somebody who says, “This is a thing that I do and you don’t do.”
Having said that in an interview will probably make it even more difficult to get a visa next time around. Whatever.
Should I apologize?
Fuck no. It is as it is. Does it really take Tom Warrior to tell human beings how much damage religion has caused on this planet? Or how much suffering, torture and pain religion has caused for thousands of years? Does it really take me?
Of course you have to burn the signals of it. You have to eradicate it because religion is probably the single most destructive force on this planet. That’s just a fact. I didn’t create that fact. It was created thousands of years before my birth.
You can eliminate Christianity. You can probably eliminate Islam and Judaism, too. You can probably eliminate all the religions that currently exist. But I wonder, “Won’t something else just rise and take religion’s place?”
How about enlightenment and knowledge? That’d be nice. Or love! Is that so far-fetched? People say, “You’re a hippie.” But what’s wrong with actually not killing each other? Is it such a far-fetched, terrible idea to actually get along? Everybody would have to do it for it to work. But is it a terrible idea that one could actually go to a country and not just be killed because one is different? What the fuck kind of race is that where it’s normal to be so destructive?
It’s not a radical message. It’s a pragmatic message of egalitarianism.
It is a radical message in this world. In reality, it’s a message of love. But in this world it’s perceived as radical. I think, “What the fuck? You guys have been radical for thousands of years. Look at the death toll.” And we’re only speaking about human beings. We haven’t even touched upon animals and the environment that we’re destroying. We’re basically killing each other for whatever reason — skin, religion, whatever — and then we’re fucking up everything else. That’s the track record of this world. When I say that, people come up to me and say, “There are also good people.” Yes, there are. But it’s a minute amount of good people compared to a gargantuan amount of destructiveness.
Do you think people are inherently good?
Do you think we’re inherently evil?
Yes. People will hate me for that. But unlike many who criticize me, I have maniacally delved into history for all of my life. I’ve never been good at burying my head in the sand. It’s never satisfied me. I’ve always wanted to know what’s behind it. I’m a fanatical researcher, a fanatical history buff. So, no. Look at the history of mankind: ever since we crawled out of the caves, we’ve fucking killed each other. We’ve always been very good at devising reasons to kill each other and to destroy the world around us.
It’s part of the reason why I like extreme music. It’s what drew me first to Metallica, then to Celtic Frost. Slayer third, but that’s kind of silly — I think you have a bit more gravitas than Slayer does.
Slayer had their moments where they were crucially important. But, in later years, they had comical moments. I felt [those moments] were very unfortunate because I used to really love that band. It pained me to see certain decisions they made and things they said. They were an unstoppable and immensely important force at one time.
I’ve said to myself, “We know fascism isn’t completely here in America because you can still buy a Slayer record.” But it’s watered down a bit now. Anyway, what I was thinking is that Celtic Frost rang true to me when pop music didn’t. That’s what drew me to metal first. It wasn’t the distortion or the speed, but a lyrical message. I thought, “This is something that seems more real to me than a lot of other things.”
I started noticing after the Cold War had subsided — we all did after we reconvened Celtic Frost — how much our lyrics were shaped by daily life in the Cold War. It’s even explicitly mentioned in certain tracks, like “Messiah.” It’s plainly mentioned. Sometimes it’s disguised or veiled in fantasy topics or whatever, but if you actually know the condition in the 1980s and ’70s you can totally tell that these are lyrics written during the Cold War and in the political situation of the time. At any given moment, the world could have been obliterated by nuclear war.
Now, there isn’t this threat of instant obliteration. Instead, there’s this certainty of future doom. There’s this certainty that we can’t fix the environment collapse and that our parents should’ve done that. Maybe that alleviates me of guilt; maybe I’m a wuss. But it’s a different feeling of doom. I don’t feel that the end of mankind can be averted.
I’m afraid I consent with you.
I was hoping that you could offer me some hope. I guess not.
It would be very nice. I’m not a sucker for the end. There’s certain tendencies that are very fantastic, but by and large the powers that be — which, nowadays, are mostly either financial or religious — they drive the whole thing in the opposite direction. By means of their powers, they influence a great many more people than the other powers. We’ve come a long way with enlightenment, environmentalism and so on, but it puzzles me how many people simply manage to ignore, for example, how crucial the environment is for our own survival. They don’t realize that we have to change our ways towards each other, as well, if we want to survive as a race.
You reject religion. You realize religion is wrong. You reject it and then you go through the process of finding a next level of morality. I find myself agreeing with some things in the texts of Christianity and Judaism. Killing: bad. I agree. Thievery: bad. I agree. But after that you wonder, “What else is bad besides that?” One of the only things I’ve been able to add is delusion. I think that’s an even more terrifying thought.
Yeah. Mankind seems to act in submitting to delusion.
Where do you think that comes from?
Maybe we’re a flawed race. I don’t know. Since I’m not religious, I’m not one of those people who says, “I know the answer to everything.” I’m content there’s certain things I don’t know and likely will never find out. So, I really don’t know the answer to that. There’s so many flaws in our race. Maybe that’s natural. Maybe that doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. But, it would be nice if we would actually sit down, evaluate these flaws and work on them rather than use these flaws to the max for negative things.
Do you think artists have a duty to express the truth around them?
That’s a difficult question. I’ve always been hesitant to come across like a missionary. Who am I to tell people what to do? I’m just a fucking musician.
You innovated something that has changed my life and the lives of many people. Your actions have directly influenced the path that I have taken.
The other side of that is: yes, you are given a platform to speak to the people of your generation and younger generations. Isn’t it cowardice to simply ignore that responsibility and say, “No, we’re just musicians. We don’t have to make people think.” I think there’s an argument for both things. I don’t want to be a missionary. All my life I’ve had problems with authority. I’ve always had a problem with people telling me what to do. It’s gotten me into very difficult situations. So, who am I to tell other people what to do? But yes, I tend to think that I’m a very informed person and I’ve been given a platform for a connection that reaches some people. Never on the platforms that corporations or whatever control in society, of course. But maybe I can at least make somebody think for five minutes with some lyrics. If I have achieved that, I’ve already done better than if I had done nothing. But, as I said, it’s a two-sided thing. I hate missionaries and I don’t want to be a missionary. It’s a two-sided thing.
That puts you in a sort of precarious position.
Isn’t the whole fucking existence of this planet precarious? That’s the nature of it, isn’t it? If it was easy, we would all have figured it out long ago. I certainly haven’t. As a matter of fact, the older I get, the less I have it figured out. And that’s not just a figure of speech.
That’s Socrates, right?
It’s also Tom Warrior. It’s the life of Tom Warrior, for real.
You have achieved something. I don’t think it’s all meaningless.
I didn’t say it was meaningless. My own existence and the existence of the world puzzles me as I get older and learn more. When I was younger, I thought, “The more life experience you have, the more you have it all figured out.” But the fact of the matter is the more you know, the more questions open up about yourself and about the whole rest. At the end of the day, there’s too much.
Still, I think it is better to know.
Of course. It’s not an excuse not to know. I absolutely agree.
So, the endeavor of life becomes an ability to accept questions that you can’t answer.
Yes. I always perceived it as a weakness of mankind that we weren’t able to deal with that situation and that we had to run to some fictionalized stories to satisfy our fear of the unknown. I’ve never had that fear. The unknown is attractive to me. I always wanted to find out as much as I could; I wasn’t satisfied with made-up stories. I wanted to know what facts were available. I know there are scientists and philosophers probing what is out there. Every year we know more and that’s good enough for me. I don’t need to go to people who walk on water.
Let me backtrack for a second. What would a Triptykon record sound like if you felt blissful, happy and content in your life?
Unfortunately, I don’t think that would work within the context of Triptykon. Maybe I could create other music. I have tons of songs at home — ambient, whatever — that are unreleased and don’t suit Triptykon at all. I’ve written them when I’ve felt like it. But Triptykon wouldn’t work like that. If, for some reason, peace broke out in the world and we longer exterminated animals or polluted the oceans tomorrow, I probably would have a hard time reconfiguring Triptykon. I would have to pack it in and form a folk band or something.
I’m envisioning you now with the banjo.
Triptykon is, of course, a product of this society and my thoughts on this society.
The set you picked tonight was very interesting because literally half of it was the “The Prolonging.” I love that song — it floors me constantly. But it’s a bold choice to say, “Here’s half of my time. It’s three riffs for half an hour. Enjoy that.”
I never said, “Enjoy that.” I say, “We’re Triptykon, and if you don’t want to listen to this, we don’t force you to.” We are Triptykon and if somebody books us, then what the hell: we’re playing this. I never say, “You have to like it. You have to come and listen to this.” But, yeah: that’s Triptykon. There’s enough people who play different stuff. We are Triptykon and that’s the way it is. And if we’d had more time, we would have played “Synagoga Satane” and then “The Prolonging,” so a fifteen minute song and then a twenty minute one.
I must say I was sorry that I didn’t see “Aurorae.” That song rang true with me.
“Aurorae” contains everything we discussed in this interview within just a few lines.
To me, it’s almost like the most concise distillation of what you’ve done. It’s the most concise distillation of those elements that made me stand up and say, “Celtic Frost is fucking art. Triptykon is fucking art. This is music that I would defend.”
Those are very big words, but I really appreciate it. “Aurorae” is one of the few songs that I’m very happy with on the album. It’s an important song. Musically and lyrically it expresses a lot of the things we touched upon.
This interview, and all 2015 Maryland Deathfest coverage, would not be possible without the support of Islander at No Clean Singing.