There are parts of writing about heavy metal that are surreal. Like sitting at a table with the legendary Tom G. Warrior less than 24 hours after his band Triptykon played this year’s Maryland Deathfest. Here is this iconic artist who played in influential, genre-toppling bands Hellhammer and Celtic Frost, and here is me. It might seem like an intimidating, harrowing experience, looking into this man’s face and hearing him talk about his experiences from the past three decades. But Warrior is such a kind, soft-spoken, humble individual that he immediately makes you feel like you’re at home talking to an old friend. Over a half hour or so, we talked about the band’s set at Deathfest, his friendship with the late artist H.R. Giger (who passed May 12, 2014 at the age of 74), who had a profound effect on his life and career, the ups and downs of his three decades in music, and the future, as cloudy as that may be. This is the first of what will be two installments, the second running next Tuesday. Many thanks to the folks at Century Media for arranging the interview, my incredible wife Christina for transcribing this, and for Warrior himself for such a wonderful, engaging conversation. Here it is, one of the absolute highlights of my writing career.
Meat Mead Metal: You finally got to play Maryland Deathfest after missing last year’s event following the passing of H.R. Giger. Tell me about the experience you had in front of the crowd.
Tom G. Warrior: The experience was fantastic. We haven’t been in the States in a while, and the audience was sensational. I have nothing but the best to say. They gave us back so much … adrenaline, enthusiasm. I thought we were a bit rusty because we haven’t played in half a year, but the energy we got from the audience erased that immediately. It was fantastic. I hope they have the same impression. We enjoyed it tremendously. It was a very important show for us. Number 1, because we weren’t in the states for quite a long time; number 2 because we missed it last time; number 3, because we followed the festival for quite a while. It’s a very important festival. I’m very happy it came out this way, and I’m blown away by the audience’s reaction.
MMM: We don’t have a lot of festivals in the U.S. I know in Europe there’s lots of festivals.
TGW: There’s almost too many.
MMM: Deathfest, for metal fans…
TGW: It has a reputation that goes far beyond the United States.
MMM: We’re a little over a year since H.R. Giger’s passing. What are your feelings now, with a year’s time having passed, and what are your reflections?
TGW: It was very difficult in the beginning. He had such a unique and strong presence that it was difficult to accept that he should no longer exist. It was very surreal for all of us, his whole circle of friends, his wife. It was just impossible to think of him as dead. As odd as that sounds. He had this magical presence, this impact on all of our lives that our psyche refused to accept this. Of course we all know, yes, it is true. So, the first few months, we all operated in some sort of trance. We drew together quite tightly, especially helping the widow, who suffered most of course, trying to give her some strength, which is difficult, and I understand that. By now, it’s much better. We all met on the anniversary of his passing. We met in the garden of his house with his widow, and we had a light dinner, and we decided not to do something somber. We just had a small garden party with just the inner circle and we reminisced, had a good time, and talked about our own lives and futures. It wasn’t a sad thing. It was a sad background, mood, of course, because we all know why we sat there. But it was a good thing. It was friends sitting there, being all brought together by this individual who changed our lives. So it was alright.
MMM: Sounds more celebratory than anything. Not like a party. But you know what I mean.
TGW: Exactly. We are all working on a major Giger exhibition in his hometown of Zurich, which will start in June. I am involved with that, as are many other of his friends. We will commemorate him, and we will remember by means of this exhibition. We tried to make it very meaningful. We will display things that have never, ever been seen outside of the house. Some new sculptures and everything. Trying to give this a positive spin, as positive as it can possibly be in this situation.
MMM: Do you see this as something that could possibly travel as well? Could it go to other places, exhibited in a museum, or will it remain in Zurich?
TGW: Possibly. There are Giger exhibitions planned in various countries, independent Giger exhibitions. Curated by one of the inner circle, who was Giger’s curator for many years. So yes, there are going to be international Giger exhibitions. And right now in New York, there’s a Giger film festival with all of his experimental and unseen films, in addition to the documentary that is playing in America. Which, I’m not saying because Triptykon is in it, but the documentary, I can highly recommend. Either go see it in a cinema or get the DVD. The director managed to portray Giger in a very private and intimate manner. It’s not just the same run-of-the-mill “Alien” and such. It’s a very deep documentary that shows Giger like you’ve hardly seen him before. So, I can highly recommend “Dark Star,” the documentary.
MMM: What does it mean to you that Giger’s artwork, which has meant so much to you, now lives on through your art?
TGW: We are a tiny, tiny part. Giger doesn’t need Celtic Frost or Triptykon to be immortal. We are blessed to have the chance to have his contributions.
MMM: Well, sure, OK. But your music still reaches a lot of people, and having Giger’s artwork represent your music has to be a major honor.
TGW: When you do an album, you think, what will be on the cover? And you either look in classical paintings, you commission someone you know who you think is good, or you approach an artist you think has something fantastic. In the case of Celtic Frost or Triptyon and Giger, it’s different in that every single Giger cover I’ve ever had has had a very distinctive meaning. It wasn’t like I approached an artist, “Hey, we need a cover.” The first Giger cover, of course, was given to us free of charge, when we were complete nobodies. We didn’t even have a record deal. Everyone around us laughed about us. We were still in Hellhammer. Nobody took us seriously. Everybody laughed about us. Everybody said, “You’re never going anywhere. You’re just playing noise.” Giger was at the height of his fame. He had just won the Academy Award. We approached him as complete nobodies, and he calls me and writes letters to me, and says, “I’m going to give you not just one painting, I’m going to give you two. And yes, I think your music and my paintings have a similar aura, message.” We were completely blown away. Everyone hates us, laughs at us. And he, a world-class artist, believes in us or at least gives a chance, becomes our mentor.
The second Giger cover, the first Triptyon album, Celtic Frost had imploded spectacularly, on a personal level infinitely disappointingly. I’ve had people who I thought were friends that I had to completely reevaluate my relationship with them. I discovered maybe they weren’t my friends but they were my enemies. People I’ve known for decades. I had to recreate the band from nothing. From the ruins of Celtic Frost, to try to salvage the crew, the relationship with the record company, relationship with the recording studio. I had to build up everything from nothing. I had to prove myself yet again. It was very difficult. Could I pull this off without Celtic Frost. And who is there believing me again? Giger. Before he even heard a single note from Triptykon, he agreed to give me a Giger painting for the first album. And I was so grateful. I never would’ve gone back. I didn’t want to seem insatiable or greedy. But it was Giger who approaches me with the second album of Triptykon because he was so happy with the first. Which once again blew my mind. He has never approached a band. It was always bands approaching him. Including mine. And Giger, of all people, one of the greatest surrealists of human history, which completely blew my mind, I couldn’t believe it. So every single Giger cover I have had has had huge meaning to me. Life-changing meaning. What more can I say, you know? They’re not just record covers for me. I know they mean a lot to the audiences as well, you know, the combination of these images with this music. But for me, it goes far, far, far beyond that. And we designed another album with Giger when he was still alive, before I knew that he would die. When he approached me for the second album, we decided together to do a triptych. The third album cover is designed, if we actually do a next album, it will be the last cover that Giger was ever personally involved with. Which, yet again, is something extremely special.
MMM: Let’s go to that second record, “Melana Chasmata.” I had read elsewhere that you are disappointed with it? Is that true?
TGW: Yes, that is true.
MMM: What was disappointing about it to you? I say this as a listener, my first experience listening to it – I was blown away. I loved it. I still am.
TGW: I appreciate that you like it. I feel very fortunate that audiences have embraced the album. Which by no means is something that is guaranteed for any band. I don’t take this for granted, and I’m very happy and I feel blessed that this happened. But yes, I personally take a very critical stance with this album. To me, it’s unfinished. And for me, it was an extremely difficult album to make. We started it, I personally, my contributions started after we released the first album. And I entered an extremely difficult period of my life, for unfortunately more than one reason. Both my health and certain things that took place in my private life. I had three extremely difficult years. To be frank, they brought me to the brink of giving up. And it takes a lot for me to give up. But I certainly was there. It’s only due mainly to the influence of one person in my life that I’m actually still here. But that’s the time when we had worked on the album, that the album had remained unfinished. I didn’t touch it for over a year. During the worst year, I had no strength to work on the album.
Once I had regained my composure to some extent, we gathered the band, and we had to see, is the band still together because the other members of the band were quite insecure as to where the band was heading because of my condition. After we had done that, we decided to finish the album. We gave ourselves a deadline, but the album was somehow tainted to me because of that, and I found it very difficult emotionally to finish these songs with these lyrics and everything that all stem from this era. I don’t mean to make this sound totally dramatic, but that’s the way it happened. We finished by the deadline, but it’s a difficult album for me to listen to because it’s connected to all of these things, and I think it could’ve taken some more work. But after three and a half years or so, we knew that we couldn’t work on it anymore. It was just going to make it worse. Under ideal circumstances, we should’ve gone back and finished some of the songs. We needed to move on. We needed to finish this album and leave it in the past, look to the future, that’s what we did. No one’s surprised that everybody liked it more than me. It’s a gift. It’s such a difficult album. It’s a gift. But it doesn’t make it less difficult for me.
MMM: How is playing the songs?
TGW: It’s a little more abstract. It’s not so immediate. Live, it carries a different energy, and it’s embedded with other songs from throughout my career. It makes it a little different. If you play a song from this album between a Hellhammer song and a Celtic Frost song and a Triptykon song. It’s a different context, a different mood to it. So that’s different. It’s OK.
MMM: Is it a reinterpretation live, because you’re not in that place where you were when you were creating it?
TGW: I enjoy both venues very much. I enjoy the stage very much, and I enjoy the studio very much. I always have. But to me, they’re very different. They’re different aspects of the band. So, when you take an album to the stage, it’s always going to be different. But with this album, that’s a good thing. It makes it possible to honestly play these songs with enthusiasm. It’s not forced, because people like it. For example, a song like “Altar of Deceit” has become one of my favorite songs live, because it’s so heavy and so slow and I didn’t think that would’ve been possible that it would feel different on stage.
Next Tuesday, we look at the disappointing crumbling of Celtic Frost, the status of Warrior’s relationship with the members of that band, and what the future holds for Triptykon’s music. It’s the heavier of the two installments, and they’re words I won’t soon forget.
For more on Triptykon, go here: http://www.triptykon.net/
For more on the label, go here: http://centurymedia.com/