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A Quietus Interview

A Perfect Noise: Thomas Gabriel Fischer Of Triptykon Interviewed
Toby Cook , August 8th, 2014 11:04

With Triptykon playing Bloodstock today, the man otherwise known as Tom G Warrior talks to Toby Cook about the evolution of his current band, collaborating with the late H.R. Giger and the legacy of Celtic Frost

Photograph courtesy of Ester Segarra

"I'm a living, seeing, thinking human being and if you don't block out reality, if you're actually open to reality, it's my opinion that you must come to the conclusion that it's not a very pleasant reality." Thomas G Fisher, 2014.

Happiness is in reality a very abstract concept, but when the Quietus meets the man they used to call Tom Warrior he certainly looks pretty happy. And why wouldn't he be? As the former Celtic Frost frontman reveals, he's currently in the midst of a period of immense creativity and his current band, Triptykon, are in the middle of a lengthy touring cycle which has seen them playing to ever greater crowds around the globe, while their most recent LP, Melana Chasmata, has been hailed by critics and fans alike as some of the finest work Fischer has ever produced. Yet anyone who knows anything about Tom G Fischer will know, such positivity and acclaim have not always been part of the story.

Born in Switzerland Fischer's childhood was one of isolation and rejection, yet it was exactly this disconnection with the wider world around him that led to him forming the latterly highly influential - but at the time totally ignored - blackened death metal band Hellhammer in 1982, inviting the soon-to-be Celtic Frost bassist Martin Eric Ain to join a year later. Cutting several demo tapes in the subterranean bunker that served as the group's practice space, Hellhammer soon disbanded, with Fischer and Ain regrouping almost immediately to form Celtic Frost.

Perhaps one of the most influential metal bands of all time, Celtic Frost's first release proper, 1984's Morbid Tales, a ferocious snarl of punk attitude and lo-fi, left-hand path riffs, is arguably the Black Sabbath of extreme metal. A year later followed the imperfect Emperor's Return, and then later the same year the band, now rounded out by American drummer Reed St. Mark, released what still stands out as one of the finest death metal albums ever made, To Mega Therion, an LP which also began Fischer's long and personal relationship with the artist H.R. Giger, a relationship which survived right through to Giger's death earlier this year. Throughout their career Celtic Frost were never ones to stand still, however, and moving on from the comparatively straightforward death metal of To Mega Therion, 1987's Into The Pandemonium saw the band, and Fischer in particular, starting to flex their experimental muscles; amongst the neck-breaking riffs were orchestral, choral pieces, love songs and even a cover of Wall Of Voodoo's 'Mexican Radio'. Far from continuing this experimental path, though, it was about this time that Celtic Frost started to crack and thaw.

Relocating to the US in 1988 Fischer assembled a new line-up and eventually released arguably one of the most infamous metal albums of the last… well, ever: Cold Lake, an album that Fischer himself has described as "an abomination". Battling personal problems and disenchantment with music in general, Fischer handed over almost total control and songwriting duties to guitarist Oliver Amberg. Barely qualifying for 'shit sandwich' status, Cold Lake was little more than a poorly executed, cynical attempt to ape the then thriving glam rock scene - lacking the passion, drive and uniqueness of its predecessors, Cold Lake all but killed Celtic Frost dead. 1990 saw an attempt at rediscovering their roots via the heavily thrash influenced Vanity/Nemesis, but it failed to resonate with much of the metal community. The band split in 1993.

Fischer later went on to form the industrial-based project Apollyon Sun, before shocking the metal world by reuniting with bassist Martin Eric Ain in 2000 to reactivate Celtic Frost and work on new material. Eventually, by 2006, that material would become the band's final album, the outstanding and legacy-restoring Monotheist. The more doomy, more gothic-sounding record served not just as a crystallisation and refinement of all that had made Celtic Frost so influential in their earlier incarnations - the bleak subject matter, the almost operatic experimentation, and the soul-crushing heaviness of the riffs - it captured a tone and an atmosphere utterly distinct in metal at that time; leading, rather than following, once more. Unfortunately, it wasn't to last, and as relationships within the band broke down, Fischer disbanded the group for the final time in 2008.

Although eventually leading to the formation of Triptykon - a band Fischer describes as being as much of a continuation of where Monotheist was heading as a totally new concept - this final split took a deep emotional toll. And yet it was during this period that Fischer found himself finally able to open up about his past; his troubled childhood and the serious mental health issues suffered by his mother that inadvertently had such a damaging effect on his life. In his 2010 illustrated history of Hellhammer and the early years of Celtic Frost, Only Death Is Real, Fischer laid bare much of the distress of his youth and talked candidly for virtually the first time about how his immersion in heavy metal served as a coping mechanism. And it was a mechanism that would serve him well again with Triptykon's debut LP, Eparistera Daimones, a record born of the anger and frustration at the dissolution of Celtic Frost.

So with Eparistera Daimones's follow-up, Melana Chasmata, having recently arrived to near universal praise, and having found some degree of inner peace, perhaps it genuinely is a 'happy' Thomas G Fischer that we encounter. Sat, perched on a poorly-upholstered cube, exposed in the goldfish bowl-like environment of the foyer of a budget chain hotel in north London, he seems relaxed and at ease; unafraid to delve into his past and reveal his emotions. Sometimes, due to so much background noise, during our interview we have to lean in so close with the Dictaphone that it almost feels invasive, and yet Fischer remains at ease; warm and sometimes brutally frank, happiness may be a very abstract concept, but, as he starts to tell us, the current positivity in Fischer's life is far from abstract…

With Triptykon's first album, Eparistera Daimones, you spoke quite a lot about how its creation was heavily influenced by your anger at the split of Celtic Frost. Later, though, you spoke a lot about getting on the road with Triptykon, feeling like you were in a real band again, etc.; the band's very formation had come from feelings of anger and frustration, yet it had become something very positive. Given that, how challenging was it to create the new LP, given that a lot of that anger had been somewhat resolved?

Thomas Gabriel Fischer: Well Triptykon was actually a very positive thing to begin with, right from the very start; it wasn't only a positive thing to have done the first album, Triptykon was, is, a positive thing altogether. I took great care in assembling the band, selecting the members and putting together the concept for the band so that it would be very different from Celtic Frost, or very different from the flaws of Celtic Frost. The first album was not just anger, either, it was also frustration and pain, every emotion that I felt towards Celtic Frost was terminated due to the way they were terminated. I don't think that there needs to be anger for a good album to be made, even a dark or heavy album doesn't necessarily need anger; I don't maintain any anger or hatred right now, the new album was born from completely different feelings, it's derived from the emotions we feel in our lives - the four members of Triptykon - it's a very personal, intimate album, and I don't think that anger is as much a part of that as a certain sadness about the state of the world, as cliché as that might sound, but there's a genuine frustration there about the way in which human beings conduct themselves on this planet. And there are certain private issues in there too - it's a very intimate album.

H.R. Giger has once again provided the artwork for the record; one of his last pieces of course. I think it's interesting that there are certain bands where particular artists become indelibly associated with them - Derek Riggs and Iron Maiden for example - and there seems to be something very particular about the style that Giger worked in and the music of Triptykon that formed an almost perfect match. Is that something you feel yourself?

TGF: I agree about the connection between his visual expression and our aural expression, I totally agree that there is a connection - I felt it already when I was in Hellhammer. Of course I saw my 'talents' as minute compared to his, but in my tiny little way I feel that I was even then trying to express similar things to what he expressed in his genius ways. And of course it's still the same, and apparently he felt that too. We didn't actually intend to go with Giger for the cover, we had already talked to another artist - the album was already designed, actually, with the other artwork when Giger approached us in 2011 and proposed that we worked together again, and in the future too, which was huge honour - although tragically that won't come to pass. So apparently he felt very similar about the connection.

Was your relationship one that developed over the years, then?

TGF: Yes, I had a very personal relationship with him - I tended to think of us as very close friends, and his wife too. But, look, that doesn't mean I was exploiting my friendship for covers - after the first album I never mentioned it again. I gave him every edition of the first album - the vinyl, the box set, etc. - and I noticed that he enjoyed it immensely, but when he approached us it came as a complete surprise. He had never approached a band, bands have always approached him - including my bands! - this was the very first, and last, time that he approached a band, and the reason that he gave me was that he was very pleased with the way that we utilised his art, how we integrated it into the album, how the music and the art worked together. He said he'd never felt so strong about a collaboration before and he wanted to attempt it again. Of course that took us completely by surprise, so much so that at first we couldn't quite come to terms with it, it caused quite a lot of discussions within the band, actually, as we tried to accept that reality. But of course it was a huge, huge honour.

I've been an admirer of Giger since I was a child - I think it was in the mid-70s that I first discovered his work - and that has never changed. And neither has my frame of mind. Hopefully I've become more mature but my music is still extreme and dark and having Giger on the cover, or not, will never stop me from doing something - I feel that no matter what I do it will automatically suit his cover art, however that may or may not happen now.

One thing with Celtic Frost was that there was sometimes quite abrupt and noticeable changes between albums in terms of musical style and the level of experimentation - I think Triptykon could certainly be seen as experimental, but those tendencies seem to have been reigned in somewhat…

TGF: I think what has changed is my attitude towards my own music, I don't really feel the compulsive need to experiment so drastically now, I've done all of that. These days, with Triptykon, I approach it completely differently, I want to simply create music that I enjoy; I want to have a fantastic time in the band and play the music that I enjoy on stage. There was a time when I really felt that I had to prove myself and explore a lot of other things, and I did that. I still do nowadays too, to some extent, but I try to integrate experiments and odd ideas, but I try to integrate them into the sound of the band and not to have them sound like they were 'glued on' from the outside, as was sometimes the case on the Into The Pandemonium album. I tend to think that my last two albums with Triptykon were also very experimental, but it all sounded like Triptykon regardless of what we were doing.

It's interesting that you talk about need to prove yourself and experiment quite drastically; obviously throughout Celtic Frost's career there were some quite drastic changes - I don't really need to mention Cold Lake, there's been enough written about that album and your attitudes and opinions towards it - but when you look back, and especially in the context of Triptykon, do you look at those missteps in a different light to what you did at the time? Do they become almost a necessary learning curve, periods you just had to go through?

TGF: Cold Lake is an abomination in every shape or form; anyway that you look at it won't change the fact that it's an abomination. Certainly, however, it's become one of the most important albums of my career in that it has made me a completely different musician; I've approached production with much greater care ever since, and I have had much higher standards in terms of quality ever since. I have taken control completely over my career and over my musical output, and I have sworn to myself that I'll only release an album when I think it is worth it. That wasn't the case at the time and so Cold Lake was a moment of gaining experience, more than anything else. I think if there's anything positive about Cold Lake - and it's very hard to find anything at all - then it's that. It made me a much more professional, and better, musician.

From reading your book, Only Death Is Real, you seem like a man who is very in touch with his past - you recently, in fact, paid a trip back to the site of the now-demolished bunker that was Hellhammer and Celtic Frost's first rehearsal space. Firstly, how was that experience, to see somewhere that had played such an important role in your life as a musician and a person destroyed? And also how much does that part of your life still impact on you?

TGF: It still has a huge impact, probably more so than ever before in my life. When I was younger me and Martin [Eric Ain, Hellhammer and Celtic Frost bassist] tried to strive away from our very humble, very difficult beginnings and we were only willing to look forward, extremely so at time. But, as I became older, it also became important for me to look back at times, to the positive but also to the negative things, because you can gain a lot of experience form analysing that. And, in addition, I had a very difficult and very unique youth, and of course that always remains with you no matter how mature you get and how much your lifestyle changes. It's not something that you ever forget. I've visited these places many times - the rehearsal bunker and other places that were significant at the time for me - and I still do, actually, many of my mountain biking trips are in this direction. It is very important to me. I have no problem accepting that it's the past, I'm not living in the past, but it's also very moving when you go to such a location and see the whole thing in rubble, because that' s where I created albums like [Hellhammer's] Triumph Of Death or where I wrote the [Celtic Frost's] Morbid Tales album. How can you not be moved when you see the whole place reduced to rubble? Basically, without you having any choice a very significant landmark of your life has been eliminated; yeah, of course that affects you no matter how 'current' you remain.

You touched a little bit on your childhood there, and you've spoken a lot about the fact that when you were growing up there was no real scene, you had no real peers and no connections - speaking as someone who tried, and failed, to get bands started growing up in quite an isolated part of rural Norfolk, I can imagine how frustrating that must've been - but to what extent do you look upon that now as a positive thing, that you had to work that much harder and that there wasn't a scene that would, perhaps, corrupt your artistic vision at that early age?

TGF: You are absolutely correct, it was essential that that happened - if it had been any different then I don't think I be sitting here now talking to you. I think it's one of the most crucial things in defining Hellhammer, Celtic Frost and my work now with Triptykon, it has remained with me ever since. It has forced me, or it has caused me, to approach everything completely differently to how I would if I had grown up in New York or even London, having access to peers, to clubs, everything - we had to devise and create everything ourselves, we had to create our own little universe. And that was a drag back then, it was very difficult, but now it has turned out to work in our advantage.

Then, as now, young metal bands are often seen by outsiders as just been a bunch of wannabe nihilistic teenagers just making a load of noise. But how much was metal genuinely a coping mechanism for you? And to a degree is it still?

TGF: Fully, 100 per cent it was a coping mechanism. It also allowed me to finally create my own world, a world that had the desired side-effect of pushing away the people who I had a hard time dealing with - teachers, parents or religious people, just the ordinary people around me who had made my life hell as a child, they didn't want to have anything to do with that kind of music, 'noise' as they called it, and that was exactly the desired effect. I threw myself into music and it had the effect of isolating me from those I hated. It was perfect.

I know that you're uncomfortable with the distinction, but you are certainly a very significant figure in metal, through Celtic Frost especially. Given where you've come from and what you've achieved, as much as you may not like it, do you force a wry smile at the status you're afforded?

TGF: Honestly, it's seems absurd. It seems absurd because it doesn't correspond to the reality of my youth. I had this extremely intense dream and desire to become a teenager, and yet there was no indication whatsoever that this would ever take place; everything spoke against it. I had no money; I had a dismal youth; I had hardly any friends; I certainly didn't have any talent; I was struggling with my instrument; I had no connections and I wasn't taken seriously by other musicians - almost every single thing spoke against this happening, and yet it did happen. And not only that but now people bestow such titles upon me, yet I still bear so much of the memory from those times that it seems very absurd - it's one extreme to the other. I simply try to create good music. Of course I'm flattered by hearing it, but it seems unreal at the same time. I'm very glad that people like my music, of course, but sometimes it's almost too much, it just doesn't seem real, it doesn't seem to correspond to the picture I have of myself which I think is a very realistic and very humble picture, and that's the picture I feel much more comfortable with.

One of the things that strikes me about both Triptykon albums is that there are many moments which could barely be described as 'metal' at all - could you ever envisage making music, an album even, that isn't at all metal? And acoustic folk EP, perhaps?

TGF: In principle, yes I could envisage that (although not a folk record), but I don't know if I have the talent for that, however. I think it's pretty preposterous to go out and say, for example, "I'm going to do a folk album", because there are folk artists who are really talented and I don't think I'm one of them. But in principle, yes, I'm open enough to do that. I enjoy other types of music; I'm a very interested person, I mean, I have done an industrial project because I was interested in electronica and I learned immensely by doing that - I hadn't programmed before and I also learned a lot about album production when I was in Apollyon Sun, the industrial project. And there's a strong chance that, given that I'm alive long enough, that I'm going to do an album of entirely symphonic music, similar to the track at the end of the Monotheist album 'Winter', for example, because I'm often frustrated by metal bands who have absolutely no connection to classical music and then going to a conductor or composer, paying him to do some artificial arrangements, and then they go onstage with an orchestra and it just sounds totally contrived and plastic. I've always approached classical music differently, and there has been some talk between me and management of doing something like that. So yes, that is a distinct possibility, but we'll see.

And of course once you really get into it you see that there are, in fact, many parallels between classical and metal music - Gustav Holst's The Planets, for example.

TGF: Of course, yes, there are a lot of parallels. And that's the thing, why is everything always so fragmented, why devise music in so many fragments and sub-genres when it's all really just music? Music should have the ability to talk to you no matter what it is. Whether you talk about a beats song, or a classic song, or a jazz song or what have you - I'm very opposed to this creation of a million sub-genres that sometimes detest each other, that's ridiculous! Music is music; it's art, it should speak to your feelings, and your feelings hopefully don't just consist of one dimension.

Triptykon play Bloodstock, taking place at Catton Hall in Derby, today; head to the website for full details and tickets