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A Quietus Interview

Bring Out Your Dead: Tom Gabriel Fischer Interviewed
John Doran , June 1st, 2020 07:12

He may be a prophet without honour at home, but elsewhere Swiss musician Tom Gabriel Fischer is widely recognised to have shifted the course of heavy metal. Words by John Doran

All portraits by Ester Segarra

As much as Carol Reed’s powerful noir The Third Man is a hallowed classic, it comes to us, across a gulf of seven decades, from an almost inconceivably different time. It’s hard, for instance, to imagine anyone serious in this age of absolute internet access echoing Harry Lime’s most famous pronouncement.

“In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed. They produced Michaelangelo, da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock.”

Even if it was ever true, this absolutist sentiment would now be considered glib at best. And anyone foolish enough to channel Mr Lime as part of a musical critique today would be advised to visit Discogs to buy a selection of records by Grauzone, The Young Gods, Yello, and Kleenex, for starters, before thinking about kicking off.

But if one musician alone represents the definitive pugnacious corrective to the idea of total Swiss cultural conservatism and lack of outward facing dynamic innovation, it is the iconoclast of heavy music, Tom Gabriel Fischer - a man who created a strain of sonic warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed which kick-starting a renaissance in the sound, direction and aesthetics of heavy metal.

Born in 1963, with early years spent in a “classy suburb” of Zurich, things took a sharp turn for the worse after his sixth birthday when his motorcycle racing-father walked out on the family. Due to reduced circumstances, his mother took young Tom to Nurensdorf, a small, isolated farming community, where they singularly failed to fit in. This would have been less of a problem if she had been present consistently but, in order to make ends meet, she fell into working as a mule, smuggling diamonds and expensive Swiss watches out of the country in a custom made vest. She was often away for long periods during the length of his school days and, from the age of seven onwards, he came to see her extensive record collection of heavy rock, psychedelia and jazz as being in loco parentis. But even when she wasn’t away risking lengthy jail terms in foreign countries things didn’t run smoothly. Perhaps a signifier of collapsing mental health, she started to hoard cats after the end of an unhappy relationship, with the numbers swelling to 90 animals under the one small roof at the height of her mania.

When speaking to Fischer, you get the impression that not everyone has believed his admittedly baroque-sounding early years C.V. and he says, without prompting: “I know it sounds far-fetched - like some science fiction story - but this is actually how I grew up, and none of it is invented… if anything I'm leaving stuff out because it sounds too implausible.”

He says that living in a house where most surfaces were covered with feline waste (“my clothes smelled of cat piss... I had to eat the same food as them, plain pasta… the floors were covered in cat shit, tapeworms and cockroaches”) and his ever lengthening hair, made the gulf between him and most other kids unbridgeable. While this unusual and traumatic childhood has undoubtedly shaped him to a profound degree, there was also the question of a highly stratified and culturally conservative Swiss society supporting and steering these tensions. The perception of the Fischers was probably one of a lower middle class urban family with bohemian tastes dossing among the rural working class, when in reality they were close to destitute. His only respite from the often violent bullying he suffered came in the form of long solitary walks in a local forest and ever more extreme strains of heavy metal. His isolation remained near total until his late teens brought him into contact with a handful of other metal-orientated outsiders. Inspired by some of the NWOBHM bands he idolised, and perhaps trying to create some psychic distance from his unenviable quotidian life, Fischer recreated himself as Tom G Warrior and formed the band Hellhammer in 1982.

In the process of making the unbelievably raw demo tapes Triumph Of Death and Satanic Rites in 1983 and an EP the following year called Apocalyptic Raids, he minted a future artistic blueprint for himself. He would strive to remain outside of his comfort zone and always wrongfoot expectations - something he has managed to stick with by and large. This blueprint was initially enacted by a fusion of meticulous planning, responding quickly to violent changes in luck, a propensity for gambling and an instinctive, untutored form of chaos magic. The ragged extremity of Hellhammer’s music, which married the ragged assault of UK street punk to a violent take on NWOBHM - not to mention their brilliantly bombastic look - was a huge influence on the development of extreme metal in general and True Norwegian Black Metal in particular. The majority of the line-up who recorded Mayhem’s Deathcrush EP are named in tribute to the Swiss group, not to mention their future drummer, Hellhammer.

But it was out of the wreckage of this short lived group, that Fischer alongside long time creative foil Martin Eric Ain, formed Celtic Frost in 1984. Although they grew increasingly successful, especially in terms of influence, via a series of forward-looking releases, Morbid Tales (1984), To Mega Therion (1985) and Into The Pandemonium (1987), Celtic Frost initially ground to a halt in 1990. Their status has only grown over the intervening decades however with these records now seen by many as foundational works of extreme and avant garde metal. After a short lived industrial metal band, Apollyon Sun at the end of the 90s, Fischer has been busy this century with a briefly reformed Celtic Frost, who produced the excellent Monotheist in 2006 and his ongoing projects Triptykon and Triumph Of Death. However, as much as the band names change, it is coming to seem more and more obvious that he is working on a cohesive body of work and certainly his music exists on a self-created continuum that encompasses much of what he has made in the past.

The evidence for this has never been clearer than it is on the recent release of the Requiem (Live At Roadburn 2019) CD and DVD, which finally marks the end of a 30-year-long creative undertaking. It is a chance for those who could not travel to the Netherlands last year to experience the live concert - essentially a secular funeral mass - which featured Triptykon and the Dutch Metropole Orkest conducted by Jukka Iisakkila, ably supported by guest vocalist Safa Heraghi. The first of three movements, ‘Requiem’, which initially appeared on Celtic Frost’s Into The Pandemonium in 1987, is followed by a new composition called ‘Grave Eternal’, which clocks in at well over half an hour, before being bookended by ‘Winter’ which first saw the light of day in 2006 on Monotheist.

Fischer explains: “Martin and I formed Celtic Frost in May 1984 to have a rock band that accepted no limits artistically but I was a musician of very limited capabilities. We wanted to have the heaviness, radicalness and the darkness of Hellhammer… but not just that. In 1986 when I started writing ‘Requiem’, we had this crazy idea of working more in the field of classical music because [elements of that] had worked so well on To Mega Therion.”

Celtic Frost’s debut album of 1985 struck a Wagnerian note by including a then highly unusual sounding female soprano Claudia-Maria Mokri and an austere French horn into their palette. But if they’d ignored the rule book on this album, they wanted to rip it to shreds on Into The Pandemonium. As always, Fischer didn’t stop to worry whether he, as a self-taught thrasher with no formal training, should be blundering into this rarified world, he just went ahead and did it.

He says: “I'm not a studied musician. I cannot write scores. I had to compose everything by home recording some hamfisted demos and then take them to a classical arranger who would convert the tape into a score so the musicians could read it.

“I wrote several iterations of ‘Rex Irae’ until I had a feeling, ‘OK, this is not gonna embarrass me, I can step out with this.’ Even then it was very shaky. It was really stretching my capabilities to the maximum. But that was the purpose behind it, to make real art by risking our career, by learning new things, not just playing it safe or copying ourselves or copying others.

“To me, Into The Pandemonium is a very very important album. It is a signpost to my past; a recording that influenced everything that came afterwards.”

In his autobiography, Are You Morbid? Fischer reveals that when he wrote ‘Requiem’, he simply assumed the song would never be played live. He tells me: “We dreamt of performing it live of course, but back then it was simply impossible. We were only an underground band and it was already a financial stretch that endangered our existence to record an album with these musicians, without planning to take this idea onstage.”

‘Requiem’ has unavoidably changed in personal meaning over the intervening three decades. As a young man, Fischer, hadn’t experienced death in his personal life to the extent he has now. The song was more influenced by the writing of weird fiction authors Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft than it was by the death of anyone he knew. He says that he and Ain were “fascinated” by the concept of death, which was a “frequent guest” in their conversations: “We perceived it as something completely normal, something that's part of every life, and is its inevitable conclusion. So to write a death mass was the ultimate statement for us; to turn this eternal topic into a musical thing.”

Inevitably, music written about mortality can’t help but accrue significance as its composer gets older. The Requiem concert of last year was dedicated to the memory of H.R. Giger, the influential Swiss artist whose painting ‘Satan I’ graces the cover of To Mega Therion, and Martin Eric Ain himself who died in 2017.

Speaking about his former bandmate Fischer says: “I always dreamt of finishing the Requiem with Martin present. Even when Celtic Frost fell apart and we both knew it was very likely for good, Martin and I remained friends. We met regularly and I always told him I would finish this work with Triptykon and he had no problem with that. Had he lived I would have asked him to come onstage as a guest but as it was he died. I started working on the Requiem only a few months after he died, which was quite a significant coincidence so to speak. Of course he was on my mind constantly. At Roadburn I carried Martin in my thoughts as I was stepping out on stage to perform. He was definitely with me, and he would have been physically with me had it been possible.”

Of course, this is not to say that Fischer didn’t have any visceral understanding of what death meant at all as a young man. He recalls a particularly morbid incident from his early Celtic Frost years: “In the second half of the 1980s when we were building up the band and the record company wasn’t paying us, Martin and I occasionally did some jobs on the side. I spent a while working for social services in Zurich, and my job was to go into apartments where old people with no families had died. I had to sort through their belongings and see to their affairs. We had to completely dismantle somebody's life which was an extremely difficult job emotionally. You would see into a person's life, their books with inscriptions, their photos and you had to throw everything into the garbage. Sometimes you would be in an apartment where somebody had died without being discovered for months and you could see the outline of the rotten body visibly marked into the carpet. I'd never even thought of these things before and then I was confronted with the reality of life. As I was working I would think, 'Will I end up like this too?’ because these old people... when they were young they probably didn't think this was how they would end up either.”

After speaking to him for two hours, I get the real sense that Fischer, while deadly serious about his music, is also quite a humble guy. He refers to the Requiem release as a “stop gap” when, both in personal and general artistic terms, it clearly means much more than that. Certainly it’s not some run of the mill concert release denoting inspirational stagnancy or a stocking-filler document of a long in the tooth stadium metal act hooking up with an orchestra, due to a lack of ideas. Metallica’s S&M or, god help us all, KISS Symphony Alive IV it ain’t. Like most artists however his mind’s already on the next project, which in this case happens to be a Triptykon studio album but there’s a sense of frustration and uncertainty bordering on existential worry, caused by the pandemic.

He describes his own vision of the immediate future as “bleak” and while he doesn’t want to predict anything he feels the scene is not likely to kick start again before next year, which means many venues and clubs will struggle to remain open. He describes the amount of money he has lost personally due to cancelled gigs for Triptykon and Triumph Of Death as “staggering”. He expands: “I’m not talking about money to buy me a Rolls Royce, I’m talking about the money that pays my bills. So, speaking as someone who has a tiny organisation and is facing certain stark questions, bigger organisations, who have to pay for crew, PR, venues and agents for shows that now won’t happen, will now be facing tremendous difficulties. We’re talking about some very good people out there, such as my concert agency, and I really hope they survive because they will be missed infinitely if they don’t. They have 10,000 bands on their roster and if nobody plays a concert they have zero income. I have some very good people in my crew, and I know they have no income right now, no chance to make any income, because, unlike me, they don't get royalties from sales, or publishing money.”

As a result his year has become focused on creative matters rather than performance and his plans to record a new Triptykon album haven’t changed. At home, in the outskirts of Zurich - where he lives with his girlfriend - he has the kind of rudimentary music set up that would stretch the words “home studio” beyond breaking point. Essentially he has a guitar, an old practice amp and a recorder: “I’m an old school guy. My setup is very primitive but it’s a tried and tested method of writing. If something sounds intense on my tiny practice amp, then it will sound massive through a backline or in a rehearsal room.” Some things don’t change: he’s dealing with the lockdown by taking a lot of solitary walks in the forest to keep his head clear but obviously his need to do so is probably less profound than it was when he was 13. “How many times can you actually go and walk in the woods?” he asks rhetorically.

When I ask him about other Swiss musicians, he becomes quite animated. I want to know if there is anything peculiar to Switzerland about how L’Eau Rouge - Red Water by The Young Gods and You Gotta Say Yes To Another Excess by Yello sound - after all they’re both outliers within their respective genres, something Tom Gabriel Fischer would know all about. He says: “In reality, there are two sorts of Swiss bands. Those you have listed are the bands I look up to and they all have their own really unique style. With Switzerland being so insular, so remote, it made all of them sound unusual.

“In Celtic Frost, we always felt a huge kinship with Yello and The Young Gods. If you actually devise a format to go international as a Swiss musician you will always sound different because you come from a very unique country, for better or for worse. Artistically speaking the isolation is both an advantage and a disadvantage, but there's also a huge swathe of Swiss bands that are very bland, very average.”

But during his near-40 year career he has proved himself to be the very antithesis of bland and highly allergic to the concept of average. How many people get to warp the culture around them and internationally as much as he has. It’s just at the cost of that age old story: a prophet is often without honour at home.

As, I said in a recent piece for the Guardian, metal has come in from the cold over the last 15 years and this is not just in terms of hipster appreciation or critical habilitation but also in more profound cultural terms. In Birmingham, the successful Home Of Metal project proves that Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Godflesh and Napalm Death are a cause for civic pride, not the city’s dirty secret. In Norway, the most notorious band in the world, Mayhem, won the heavy metal Spellemannsprisen - the equivalent of a Grammy - in 2007, for their late period masterpiece, Ordo Ad Chao. That the band who initially became famous in the first instance for murder, suicide, political extremism and violent religious terrorism, are now part of Norway’s cultural elite was reflected in 2012 by their nomination for the Statoil Prize, an arts award sponsored by the state owned oil company which has an annual stipend for One Million Kroner [about £100,000] for deserving artists. But to what extent is this change global?

Fischer, for one, clearly isn’t waiting for the same shift in consciousness to occur in his home country: “If you're in a band like Gotthard or Krokus, which are only on the fringes of metal, whose music is played on the radio and is piped into every beer tent and supermarket, then you'll get tons of awards in Switzerland. I've been shunned here for 39 years and I have to admit, I feel super offended by this. Every shitty local group - as long as they're not dangerous - they get buried in awards and coverage. My band basically does not exist. Without the UK, without Germany or America or Japan, I would be nobody, because in Switzerland nobody gives a toss about me. It was the same in Hellhammer as it is now in Triptykon. I don't think it's going to change before my death.”

Perhaps there is something preternaturally inward looking about his homeland. Nostalgia was a condition first described in medical terms by the Swiss doctor Johannes Hoffer in 1688. This “neurological disease of essentially demonic cause” was coined to describe Swiss mercenaries who were suffering from a form of radical homesickness while overseas. The condition, also known as mal du Suisse (the Swiss illness) or Schweizerheimweh (Swiss homesickness), struck them en masse while fighting in France and Italy - although other European doctors suggested, apparently in all seriousness - that they had been driven mad earlier in life by the constant racket of cowbells back home. While no doubt there are many citizens of many countries who feel certain that their homeland is the ideal nation, perhaps the Swiss are the only ones to inflate the feeling of melancholy at being abroad to the level of Satanic madness.

Certainly Fischer thinks that a lot of his Swiss musician peers are only interested in playing music on the national stage and that this attitude has been “disastrous” in general terms. Of course, he acknowledges that like it or not his country has helped shape him. Calling a band Celtic Frost was not just an attempt to unseat presumptions (“It didn’t tell you what sort of music you were about to hear… we weren’t called something heavy like Axe”) - there was also a blossoming of an interest in his country’s deep cultural history, something that was very unusual back then. He adds: “At the time this interest was profound, which is exactly why we chose the name. It wasn’t a coincidence. Martin and I really wanted to have our heritage reflected in the band name. The forest around the village where I grew up where I used to walk and where I still walk now, had the ruins of Celtic and Roman fortification.”

When the Swedish band Bathory turned away from their relatively juvenile interest in Satanism, they maintained their staunch anti Christian stance, which was in turn an attack on the bourgeois sensibilities of their homeland, via a burgeoning interest in ancient Scandinavian history. A process that began tentatively with ‘Enter The Eternal Fire’ from Under The Sign Of The Black Mark (1987); picked up steam on Blood Fire Death (1988); and was realised as a fully fledged vision in 1990 with the release of Hammerheart.

In spiritual and cultural terms this is one of the most important heavy metal albums ever recorded, as it inadvertently future-proofed extreme metal for the 21st Century. It kickstarted a new movement, Viking Metal, which spread like wildfire across Scandinavia during the 1990s - running in parallel to second wave Black Metal or blending with it - encouraging a deep study, not just of Northern mythology but also of history, art, literature and culture from Scandinavian antiquity. In doing so it raised an issue in heavy metal, long before it would affect most other genres of popular music, that of cultural appropriation. When the Italian band Wotan released an EP called Under The Sign Of Odin’s Crows at the turn of the century, for example, they were slammed for leaning on a culture that did not ‘belong’ to them and for jumping on the now fashionable Viking Metal longship. The new message from a global outsider culture that essentially policed itself was clear: wherever you are in the world you have either a non-Abrahamic polytheistic religion or an ancient pre-Christian pagan culture all of your own which you are free to explore.

But Bathory were only following where Celtic Frost had already led. Fischer and Ain’s interest in Celtic culture might not have been immediately apparent above and beyond their name but their autodidact interest in history was already present in their use of Greco-Roman allusions and occult-sounding use of Greek language. As the historian Jared Secord recently described in a paper entitled Occult And Pulp Visions Of Greece And Rome In Heavy Metal, you can see the pair’s keen interest in antiquity in the title of their 1992 compilation Parched With Thirst Am I And Dying, a phrase commonly inscribed upon many fifth century Orphic gold tablets and interred in graves. Interestingly enough these tablets were not widely known about at all in 1992 outside of a small academic community. The idea of a Swiss band with a deep and abiding interest in Celtic culture became reality with Eluveitie, who formed in 2002 as a project spearheaded by Christian Glanzmann. Their name, meaning The Swiss, comes from an Etruscan inscription on a Helvetian vase from 300bce. Eluveitie are, given the absolute tightness of their lyrical and aesthetic focus, coming from a more traditionally scholarly place than Celtic Frost - they're obviously more university than public library educated - but again, they’re only setting up camp on terrain originally cleared by Fischer and Ain. If you take extreme metal to be the defining sound of heavy metal in the 21st Century (and I do) then the birth of Celtic Frost is the moment when spiritually, aesthetically and politically, this juvenile artform began to mature.

If Fischer grumbles about Switzerland today then he’s only doing so in terms of where its culture is right now - it’s clear that he’d sooner remain at home as a slightly disloyal citizen, then an ex-pat wearing rose tinted glasses. That said, it seems like he would probably agree with Harry Lime more than me and it is exactly this allergy to his country’s cultural conservatism that has helped make him who he is today: “I think the conservativeness of our surroundings in the 1980s spurred us on to have a more anarchistic view of what we were creating. The more people told us we couldn’t do things, the more we did it. I think if we’d grown up in London or New York, Celtic Frost would have been very boring, we would have sounded like everybody else probably. But in Switzerland it became our tool of rebellion. It was quite a statement but it was also difficult because this country lacked a professional music industry, music scene and music infrastructure and there was nobody we could have asked for help. But this made us different, and in addition to the circumstances of our youth, this was a fantastic combination artistically speaking. It was absolutely necessary. I don't think Celtic Frost would have gone anywhere without this.”

Requiem by Triptykon is out now on Century Media. For further reading on extreme music and pre-Christian history, see Classical Antiquity In Heavy Metal published by Bloomsbury