It's been a long time, but influential avant-garde metal legends Celtic Frost are back, with a new album Monotheist, as well as a cross country North America tour. Sea of Tranquility Publisher spoke with guitarist/vocalist Tom Gabriel Fischer on the eve of the tour to bring the fans up to date with the facts regarding the new album and how it all came about. In addition, Sea of Tranquility had a surprise for Tom, as former drummer Reed St. Mark was also able to take part in the interview.
Read on as Tom and Reed share thoughts on the glory days, as well as stressful times, of Celtic Frost in the 80's, as well as where the band is today in the metal world.
Sea of Tranquility: Let me just say on behalf of all longtime Celtic Frost fans worldwide that we are so happy for the band right now. You guys are back, rocking hard, on a great label in Century Media, so things really seem to be looking up for the band right now!
Tom: Thank you very much. We feel great to be in this position. I see our new CD was rated pretty high on your website-what's the maximum amount of stars that you give a CD?
SoT: 5 out of 5…Monotheist received a 4.5 out of 5.
Tom: Wow, that's not bad!
SoT: When an album is deserving, it gets a high rating, as I'm sure you know.
Tom: Well, thank you.
SoT: Can you talk a bit about the early stages of Monotheist, and take us through the recording of it and eventual release?
Tom: It's a huge and complex story, but I'll give you a very brief version. In 1999 our former record company Noise Records approached us to participate in a reissue of the classic Celtic Frost albums. We agreed, and it wound up being the first time that former members of the band got to talk to each other in many, many years, about Celtic Frost again. It was particularly fruitful for Martin Ain and I, who hadn't been in touch since we quit Celtic Frost, and we've had completely different lives, lived on different continents, and had only spoken maybe twice in ten years. We came together and worked on these reissues and discovered that our friendship that had started back in the days of Hellhammer and lasted throughout our days in Celtic Frost, was strong again, or still strong, and an immense chemistry was still between us, as well as an immense creativity. Once the reissues were completed we stayed in touch very intently and talked about writing new music together. We discovered that the ideas we had about new music were practically identical, which was quite astonishing given our very varied lives before then.
SoT: Regarding the reissues, you did a great job on those. It was nice to see those on the shelves again, and the packaging and amount of bonus material was nicely put together.
Tom: Thank you.
SoT: The new album is actually heavier than anything the band has done previously. Did you set out to put something together this heavy?
Tom: No, the album is very honest, and reflects the way we are, or have been the last four years. From the early design, or the drawing board, the album is really our most personal and intimate album, the most revealing album ever I believe. If it's heavier, then that's because that's the people we are now, that's the frame of mind we are in. The album reflects, like no other Celtic Frost album, the experiences of our lives, the events, which for some of us have been rather traumatic, and that of course comes out when you write music.
SoT: It's actually a good time for Celtic Frost to come out with an album like this. Extreme metal has changed a lot since the 80's. Now the bands are more brutal than ever, more extreme than ever, more technical than ever, and I think Monotheist kind of falls right in line with what is popular in metal right now. You also worked with Peter Tagtgren on this album, who I saw a few months ago and mentioned what an honor it was to work with the band on this album. How was it working with Peter?
Tom: It was equally an honor working with Peter. You know, our album is a really unique album. For one thing, it's not a technical record at all, it relies more on emotion, groove, and atmosphere, which differs from a lot of the bands of today who rely on technical playing, which I often find rather sterile and grooveless.
SoT: Well the technical thing was never Celtic Frost's style anyway.
Tom: Correct, but I just want to underline that the reason the album comes out now is because we were finished with it. We began writing and recording in parallel in late 2001 and we continued for almost 4 years, every day, with only one break, till November 2005. The goal that Martin and I had was that we were not going to leave the studio until the album sounded like a Celtic Frost album, as opposed to the old days when the record company would like force us to terminate the recording sessions. So, the album was finished when it was finished, and if it fits well with today's sounds then I'm happy, but it could have been different too. Working with Peter was fantastic. We wanted someone who was really cutting edge in today's studio technology, because Celtic Frost have always embraced modern recording technologies and recording procedures, but of course you need someone who can handle that. At the same time Peter is a Celtic Frost fan from the early days-he even jammed on Hellhammer tracks in his basement when he was a kid, so it was a perfect combination to us.
SoT: It seemed like a good relationship in my mind. Peter's worked with some top bands on the metal scene over the years and helped produce some great sounds.
Tom: When that news came out, some people thought that maybe Peter's production wouldn't suit Celtic Frost, but what they didn't understand was that Celtic Frost was not a band that was going to give away control anymore. We have had very bad experiences in the 80's where record companies interfered with what we wanted to do, so we retained control of everything in this process. Peter was listed as co-producer, and he was told that we had the final decision on everything, and he was perfectly OK with that. The final mix on the album is actually ours, not Peter's, as we weren't happy with his final mix, so we remixed it twice. There was never a chance that Peter's style would interfere with Celtic Frost's style, but working with Peter was still very essential for the band.
SoT: Did Peter influence you at all on your vocal style on the album?
Tom: Quite frankly, and it might astonish you, Peter wanted me to sing less radical on the album! He said that in the old days I didn't sing so heavy, and that it might turn off a lot if fans, that it might not sound enough like classic Celtic Frost. He urged me to sing some of the tracks like I used to sing in the Morbid Tales days. So I did that, and we all looked at each other and we said that it sounded fake, like I was trying to rehash something instead of being honest with how I am now. We canned all the re-recordings and kept the original vocals that were much more aggressive. The two songs that have very high pitched screaming vocals were actually sung by Martin Ain, who has a very different vocal style from mine, more in the black metal style.
SoT: There are some female vocals, some atmospheric moments, which adds some great variety to the album.
Tom: That's exactly why we did it. There's was always going to be a counter-balance to the brutality of the band, that's why we began doing that sort of thing on our first album back in 1984.
SoT: Has it ever crossed your mind that maybe you wanted to accomplish with this album what you couldn't with the Into the Pandemonium album?
Tom: No, not really. I never thought of this album in comparison with any of the old albums. I wanted to do this completely unbiased and completely fresh. This album was supposed to stand on its own feet. I do believe though in hindsight that we accomplished a lot of things much better than we did on Into the Pandemonium, but it wasn't by intention. For example, some of the experimentation on that album, much of which I am very proud of, we failed to integrate them perfectly into our sound back in 1987. Some of the stuff, for example the electronic tracks, sounds like afterthoughts, or a different band playing. Where nowadays no matter what we use on the album it's part of the sound, it sounds like Celtic Frost, which is due to our maturity and enhanced experience.
SoT: What's the set list looking like for the US tour?
Tom: The set list is based around the first three albums, which we rate as the classic Celtic Frost albums, and a few songs from the new album. Hopefully, time permitting; we are going to incorporate a few Hellhammer songs as well.
SoT: That sounds great.
Tom: We also want to play songs that we have never played live from the old albums, or songs that we have only played a couple of times. We want to give the fans an experience that's perhaps not quite so obvious, and something that is kind of rare.
SoT: How long is the set going to be?
Tom: At least 90 minutes it looks like.
SoT: I hope to be in attendance for your New York City shows, and I will probably bring a guest with me, which is a little surprise I have for you today.
Tom: Great-what's the surprise?
SoT: I have someone here with me who you know quite well and probably haven't spoken to in a while-your former drummer Reed St. Mark.
Reed: Hey Tom!
Tom: Oh wow…
SoT: Reed and I live in the same town and have known each other for a few years.
Tom: I am so sorry for you! (laughs)
Tom: That's just fantastic to hear him laugh…this is just great!
Reed: I wish to congratulate you on everything, and I'm glad that everything is going so well and you are so focused. I'm really looking forward to seeing you, at as many of the East Coast shows as possible.
Tom: Yes, we'd love to see you, absolutely! As for us being focused Reed, this has been the most difficult album ever, it has eclipsed Into the Pandemonium as far as difficulty a hundred fold, but I'm extremely glad that we pulled through and completed it. I believe it's our strongest and darkest album so far.
Reed: Your convictions are admirable and I'm so elated for you, Martin, and everyone involved. I wish you the best and I'm sure it's going to just rock it!
Tom: We have to meet; it's been too long. You know, this album has been so draining, Martin and I have worked day and night, and also worked all kinds of jobs to finance this album, which of course we did voluntarily, but we needed to do this project.
Reed: I only hope for much success for you! I'm speechless…would you like me to make Martin speechless?
Tom: (laughs) Please!!! I have to say the Martin of today, he still talks a lot, but he has matured so much, actually half of the music on the album is Martin's. He used to be this teenager in 1985, but now he's this powerful, determined artist, and I'm in awe. I'm learning from him everyday. This is not Tom Warrior's vehicle, it's more of a collaboration that it has ever been.
SoT: I'm so happy that I was able to bring you guys together today.
Tom: Yes, this has really spice up your interview!
SoT: Well, Reed and I have been talking about this for a few weeks now, and I thought it would be great for our readers to read some chatter between you, as many of them remember the classic line-up quite fondly.
Tom: Well so do we. Everything we do is based on albums like Into Mega Therion and Into the Pandemonium, which are milestones in the band's history. Quite simply, these are albums that wouldn't have happened without Reed in the band. When Reed joined the band, it turned everything around. Before that we were two kids who had unusually visions but we were complete amateurs, and when Reed came in, he might have been new to the metal scene, but he brought such musical technique and horizons that it catapulted the band to where it need to be to be heard. We owe so much that that line-up, and to Reed, and this is something that Martin and I still talk about. We are still very closely tied mentally to that time, and we know very well what we are facing.
SoT: Here's a question for the both of you-do you think if it wasn't for all the problems created by your label back in the 80's that you could have kept that line-up together?
Tom: That's a very hard question to answer. Looking back I would hope so. It's so hard to tell-we were completely burnt out after doing the two biggest albums of our career with Noise Records. It was 12 or 14 months of legal wrangling with the label after Into the Pandemonium. They tried to torpedo the tour, they cancelled the video clip and all the promotions, we ran into debt trying to pay attorneys, it was unbearable. It ruined everything-Cold Lake and all the other stuff would have never happened without that. It's hard to imagine what would have happened without all of this, that's how severe it all was.
Reed: I'd like to say that for the record that Tom and Martin broke their backs on the logistics end, which is where I fell short on. I'd also like to say another shortcoming for the band's future was that Tom and Martin were maturing at a faster rate than I was. They were growing and I was stagnating, so on a band level I was part of the blame. The label didn't make it any easier, but I have to take my share of the blame as well.
Tom: I tend to think it was a give and take; everyone matured, or didn't mature, at different times, it was a coming and going which is very human. But the conditions, if you tell the story these days, the conditions were so severe; I don't think anyone could imagine what we went through at the time. I mean, we were kids, including Reed even though he was a few years older than us. We were kids at the total mercy of this record label, which destroyed this band with a unique artistic vision and in doing so altered heavy metal history as it turns out now that the band has become such an influence. We now realize what this label did for total greed and total shortsightedness, in effect changed heavy metal history. It's criminal actually.
SoT: I've actually finished reading your book Tom…
Tom: Then it's probably pretty boring hearing Reed and I droning on about all this right? (laughs)
Reed: I'd rather read the book than be me! (laughs)
SoT: In all honesty, I could almost feel your pain after reading all the crap you guys went through.
Tom: Well, we are talking about events that happened nearly 20 years ago, the impact is so severe and it's something that has so severely altered our lives, it's still so emotional to talk about it even though it was like so long ago.
Sot: Any chance we can see you guys get together to play a song on one of the live US shows?
Tom: I think you had better ask Reed that! I haven't seen Reed play in like 500 years!
Reed: (laughs) I'm not that old!
SoT: I haven't seen you guys in stage together since the MTV show in Poughkeepsie, New York back in 1987.
Tom: The Poughkeepsie show-that was Reed's birthday show! Exodus and Anthrax came out on stage and we all sang Happy Birthday to Reed. It was a good show, a good tour. I think the band was very strong at the time.
SoT: So Tom, are you guys going to be touring as a trio?
Tom: (ponders) Well, I guess there is a possibility that we will be touring with two drummers now! (laughs) It's very difficult to find a guitar player who will live and breath Celtic Frost, but yes we have found a fourth person to join us on stage for the tour, and time will tell if he will become a regular member.
Reed: Tom, I plan to go to all New York shows.
Tom: Reed, whenever you show up, you will be our special guest.
Reed: Thank you, but if we play Circle of the Tyrants, I promise to play the whole song this time! (laughs)
Tom: (laughs) Oh man….
SoT: I guess that's an inside story that everyone can read about in the book!
Tom: Thank you Peter for the interview, and thanks for the surprise! See you both on the tour!
(Click here to read our review of Monotheist)