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Interview: Tom G. Warrior (Triptykon, Celtic Frost)

Photo by Shelley Jambresic

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Tom G. Warrior released two towering metal monuments this year. The first is the book Only Death Is Real (reviewed here), which details his time in Hellhammer. The second is Triptykon’s Eparistera Daimones (reviewed here), an album that is a man among boys.  Both works are bookends to Warrior’s legacy in Celtic Frost. They are also mundane yet dramatic case studies in band mechanics. Only Death Is Real is a lavishly packaged version of many bands’ stories – early embarrassments, lineup changes, sundry difficulties. Eparistera Daimones is perhaps the heaviest hate letter ever composed, aimed mostly at Celtic Frost’s final drummer, whom Warrior blames for the band’s demise.

In lesser hands, such self-reflexiveness would be navel-gazing. But from petty personal conflicts, Warrior has abstracted a pure yet dynamic strain of darkness that has been vastly influential. In his early Hellhammer days, such darkness was a primitive noise. It embodied Edison’s aphorism about genius being one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.  Decades later, Triptykon presents darkness as sophisticated doom metal, minimal yet massive. Some ornate touches – keyboards, female vocals – color the attack, however, and longtime collaborator H.R. Giger complements it with beautifully horrific visuals. Eparistera Daimones has some of the best liner notes of late. Fonts are legible, lyrics are complete, and Warrior adds essays explaining their inspiration. Surprisingly, he doesn’t think they’re that important. Find out why in this interview.

— Cosmo Lee

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Eparistera Daimones liner notes, detail

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Much of this first Triptykon record is about the turmoil of Celtic Frost. After doing this record, do you feel like you’ve moved on from that turmoil?

Yes and no. In many ways, it will be impossible to move on for me. Celtic Frost was my life. It wasn’t just a band. Celtic Frost has been the center of my life since 1984. It has defined who I am, and I have defined what the band was. In some ways, it will be truly impossible to leave this behind, especially given how the band ended.  On the other hand, I think my immediate hatred and anger at the person I accused of destroying Celtic Frost has abated a little bit. But this person is still trying to spread intrigues here in Switzerland, where we both live, so I’m frequently reminded why Celtic Frost has been destroyed, and how it happened. Sometimes it seems very difficult to leave all this behind, even though I should.

Some musicians don’t print the lyrics to their albums because they want listeners to make up their own minds. This Triptykon record is very personal and very specific. Do you aim for that type of universality, or do you want us to hear your vision?

It’s basically up to the listener. Art should evoke pictures inside your mind, personal pictures. When you listen to a piece of music or when you look at a painting or when you read a book, it should form your very own world shaped by your very own perception and your own mind. That’s the fantastic thing about art, that it has that power.  On the other hand, I’ve always been interested, ever since I was a teenager getting into heavy metal, in reading all the credits on an album and reading the lyrics. I was always interested in reading the interviews as well, and finding out what was behind the songs, what was behind the albums.

So I think both approaches are completely legitimate. I simply give the listener of Triptykon, and earlier of Celtic Frost, the chance to pursue his or her own way, to follow his or her own preference. I do include the lyrics, I do include detailed liner notes about the songs, but that doesn’t mean you have to read them. I think the album is strong enough and intense enough that you can simply put it in your record player or your MP3 player and listen to it and immerse yourself in your own world without reading any of the liner notes.

At the end of the day, we’re all heavy metal fans. And we’re fans of that music not because of the lyrics or anything like that. We’re fans of that music because it’s so extreme. Whether you hate or love Triptykon, it is extreme.

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You recently curated an event (“Only Death Is Real”) for the Roadburn Festival. Do you follow contemporary heavy metal closely?

Intensely so. Heavy metal is my life. I’ve had my ups and downs in my life and the scene, but heavy metal is my life. I listened to my first heavy metal album when I was 10, and I was hooked. I don’t see any change coming. It’s been the essence of my life for the past 36 years now, and it will continue to be like that.

I’m an information junkie. I read books constantly. I follow the news online and everywhere else. And of course that goes for my main passion, which is this kind of music.

When I listen to your music and when I read your blog, you don’t seem like an information junkie. Your pace of life seems slower than ours in American cities.

The pace of my life is extremely hectic. It’s just hectic in a different manner. I’m not on Twitter, and I don’t own an iPhone. But I do very much own a cell phone. I’m online almost every day, and almost everywhere I am, I carry a laptop like everybody else.

My life isn’t confined to the events posted on my blog. There’s a lot of things I don’t post on my blog. [As] the date of the release of the Triptykon album has come closer, the pace of my life has picked up at such a rate that it has become very difficult to maintain [the blog].

There’s only so many hours in a day, and since I’ve been elected the main person in Triptykon by the circumstances of my life and by the record company, I cannot share all the responsibilities with Martin Ain anymore like I did in Celtic Frost. I have to handle everything myself. Even though I involve the band as a whole as often as I can, and our guitar player is also doing some interviews, of course right now most of the people want to talk to me.

Would you let any member of Triptykon assume a role as important as that of Martin in Celtic Frost?

Definitely. I’m not an egomaniac, and I don’t have control issues. But at the same time, you don’t just take such a role. You have to grow into such a role. Me and Martin didn’t just fall from the heavens and were born with that. We created the band, and this band became more and more important to us. We shaped every little detail of the band.

With Triptykon, I’ve told the band from the very first day that everybody should be equal. Songwriting is open to everybody. We arrange all the songs together. Every step of the band is being discussed as a band. It’s not a decision by Tom Warrior. It’s not a Tom Warrior dictatorship at all. I feel much more comfortable working in a team.

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Photo by Peter Beste

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In your new book, you say that Hellhammer viewed bands like Metallica as competition. Do you have that mindset these days, that you are in competition with other artists?

There was competition, but only theoretically so. Of course, Hellhammer was minute compared to what Metallica did at the time. We weren’t really in competition at all. It’s meant in the way that it was the modern metal of the day. We were a band in the same scene at the same time. In that respect, [Metallica] was basically our competition. There was no way we would have been able to compete with Metallica as far as being technical musicians or professional musicians. At the very beginning in Switzerland, we didn’t have any connections. We didn’t have any examples, there was no club scene, and so on. So we were only theoretical competition, not real competition.

But of course if you desire to make your life in the music industry and the heavy metal scene, even if you are a diehard fan of so many bands, these bands are in a way also competition. There’s only so many fans, these fans have only so much money, there’s only so many concert venues, there’s only so many tours that can be sustained by the market, and everybody’s essentially in competition with each other, even though in most cases it’s luckily a friendly competition.

Tom G. Warrior on his celebrity status

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Your public words are very humble. You always say that you’re honored and grateful for the good things that happen to you. Of course, you have to realize that you’re a very influential figure. You’re one of heavy metal’s most important musicians ever…

I don’t have to realize that, and I refuse to realize that. That’s a very awkward part of my existence, that everybody always brings this up. No, I don’t want to realize that because it has nothing to do with the life I’ve lived. It seems completely absurd. I was this little kid from a farm town of 1,500 inhabitants. I had a shit youth, I had no money, I had no connections, I had no peers. I had these daydreams, and I was realistic enough to know that they would never become reality. And for some reason, they did become reality, which blew my mind, and it still blows my mind. It seems completely far-fetched, all the things being carried towards me by the fans and by the media. It seems so far-fetched if I compare it to my actual life. All I am is a heavy metal fan who had this dream to play music.

You’re the musician I’ve talked to who most references his childhood. Is your music a reaction to it?

It will always be a reaction to it. I don’t think I will be able to shape that. I have, of course, full control of my life now, and I’m no longer a victim to my childhood. I think it’s terrible [when] criminals, when they’re placed in court, try to blame everything on their childhood. Of course, childhood is a reality, and if you had a drastic childhood like me, a certain part of that will always remain with you. But at a certain point, you have to become an adult, and you have to take responsibility for your life. You cannot use that as an excuse for the rest of your life, and I’m very aware of that.

But in certain ways how I perceive music, and how I view darkness and the extremity of metal, of course, are completely shaped by how I grew up. What was terrible at the time, I now am very happy about. Otherwise, I would have never been able to have this creativity, these ideas, these lyrics, and I very likely would never been able to live my dream of being a musician. So what was once terrible has, in an absurd, probably perverted way, become my advantage.

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“Procreation (Of the Wicked)”, Original, 1984

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W5sSOni66C8

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“Procreation (Of the Wicked)”, Live, 2007

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In Celtic Frost’s final years, the band was playing “Procreation (Of the Wicked)” much slower than the original version. Did your conception of the song change?

To be quite honest, yes. We had played it much heavier already in the old days in Celtic Frost, much heavier than on Morbid Tales. The heavier the song was, the more I liked it. I got into heavy metal because of the heaviness. When we recorded Morbid Tales, Martin was just a teenager, and I had just grown out of being a teenager. We were completely different people. We’re talking about an album that was recorded 26 years ago. In 26 years, your life changes massively. We were at the time teenagers, basically still in our puberty, full of testosterone, and eager to prove ourselves in a world that was musically much more fast-paced. If you listen to a lot of old albums, they are very, very quick. They’re very hectic, which is probably an influence by punk music.

When you become older, a lot of other things take priority. You start to, at least in my experience, let the music breathe. You give the music much more room. It’s no longer that something has to happen fast, but it’s something has to happen much more deeply. This was a process that I noticed not just in me, but also in Martin Ain, and a few other musicians that are my age. That “Procreation” became slower wasn’t really a conscious decision. It was much more just being honest with ourselves and allowing the music to earn its new place in our life. It’s simply a reflection of where you’re going in your life. I do realize that probably some young fans must have felt bewildered by [the slowing down], but I think that as they grow older, they will understand it themselves.

“Descendant” touches upon the subject of mortality. Do you fear aging or death?

No, I don’t fear aging or death. I can honestly say that. I’m not saying that to seem macho and strong. These are topics that I’ve been thinking about a million times in my life. And I am aging. I’m noticing that I’m aging, and no longer the Tom that we just talked about in Hellhammer.

My health has deteriorated massively in recent years. (Pauses) I don’t even know how far I should go in an interview like this, so let’s just say [that] I was confronted very seriously with death just about one-and-a-half months ago. According to my doctor, it’s a miracle I’m alive. How can I not reflect on these realities? I’m a human being like everybody else. I once was a teenager in Hellhammer. Now I’m a mid-forties guy in Triptykon. There’s an entire life in between. I’ve lived that life very intensely.

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There’s a surprising amount of Christian imagery on your blog (see, e.g., here and here). Usually you have some sort of ironic commentary on it.

That’s the mild version (laughs).

I was wondering if you feel any aesthetic attraction to it.

My entire interest in it started with me being a teenager and being fascinated by history. Of course, there’s a very strong connection between religion and history. History was very often shaped by authoritarian political or religious systems, such as the Babylonians or the Romans or the National Socialists, or Mao in China or Stalin in Russia. There’s a million examples. I have always been fascinated [with them], not on an ideological level, but as a matter of interest in human dynamics.

The use of symbolism in these authoritarian systems is an extremely important part of gaining the people’s support. Even political systems [have introduced] a religious component to political goals. In medieval times, politics and the church were basically one unit. Absurdly, now in the 21st century, these two separate entities [have] seemed to merge once again. We’re living in a world where politics are basically a reaction to religious fundamentalism.

I view organized religion as anathema, so I tend to avoid it. Yet here you are, putting images of it up.

My hatred for organized religion is infinite. What you’ve seen on my blog is a somewhat publishable opinion of mine. (Laughs) My blog is not supposed to be swear words, but it is definitely supposed to be critical. Occasionally, yes, I notice something, and I take a picture of it, and I make a little statement, take it or leave it. I force nobody to read my blog, but my hatred for any kind of organized religion is infinite – whatever religion it is, whether it’s Satanism or Christianity or any other religion. It’s all the same, anyway.

What do you think of the black metallers, then, who take the Left-Hand Path? Do you feel that path is false?

It’s really not up to me to chat about that. I have my own opinion, and it’s a very strong opinion. But if I start to tell other people what to think, then I’m one of them, I’m one of these preachers. That’s what the church and all the other religious leaders have been doing for centuries and millennia. I’m not going to go out there telling people what they have to think. What you can do is provide incentives for them to think on their own. In interviews or your lyrics, you can at least try to provoke a discussion. But if I start to be dogmatic myself, then I become one of those popes or Hitlers or Stalins or whatever you want to call them. I’m not a preacher, I’m a musician. But I have a mind, and to me it’s never been enough to just sing about beer cans and motorcycles.

“My Pain”

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There is a lot of hate on this new album. But “My Pain” stands out, as it is almost a love song. Does including it indicate some sort of transformation or way forward for you?

It probably sounds pathetic for somebody’s who’s associated with the creation of black metal, but I wrote the original version of “My Pain” during a period of intense depression because of a lost love. I was married for 16 years, and my marriage ended very, very badly. The circumstances were such that I had no influence over the final few years of my marriage. The woman I was married to was the love of my life. She will always remain the love of my life. To see this go down in the worst possible way was very difficult for me to get through. Even years later, there were moments when it was very difficult to come to terms with my own feelings. That’s when the song “My Pain” was created. So it was shaped by love, but we’re not talking about love like in a Walt Disney movie.

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