Interview with Tom G. Warrior of Celtic Frost / Hellhammer from Rolling Stone Magazine.
The Triumph of Tom G. Warrior
His early-Eighties band Hellhammer was the laughingstock of the metal underground. Now, nearly 40 years later, the former Celtic Frost leader is enjoying a “mindblowing” resurgence
When Tom Gabriel Fischer looks back on his first band, the pioneering black-metal group Hellhammer, he still sounds rattled by the cold reception they got. “We were ridiculed,” he says in a low and sincere tone. “We weren’t taken seriously.”
When the trio formed in the early Eighties, underground metal could have been an Olympic sport. Bands like Iron Maiden and Metallica cranked up the genre’s speed and technicality with athletic drumming and intricate guitar riffs, and the bombastic showmanship of prog still lingered in its pyrotechnic solo breaks. These bands made Hellhammer look like knuckle-dragging cavemen, since the Swiss trio — novice musicians at the time — could only muster sludgy, piledriving guitar lines and plodding rhythms. Where the most popular bands of the day, like Black Sabbath and Judas Priest, had operatic singers, Fischer, who rechristened himself Tom G. Warrior on their demo tapes, bellowed and grunted. They were the opposite of what the mainstream wanted, and they suffered for it.
A particularly scathing review in the zine Metal Forces called the group’s Triumph of Death demo “death metal [at] its extreme (you’ve surely got to be dead to appreciate this)” and compared Fischer’s singing to [Motörhead’s] “Lemmy with a mouthful of warts.” Fischer was crestfallen and the negative press only hurt the band.
“When we tried to do some concerts between 1982 and 1984, nobody in Switzerland would touch us,” Fischer says. “So we invited our friends to our rehearsal room, and it was punk-like. But we never played a proper concert.”
The band put out only one commercial release, the Apocalyptic Raids EP, in March of 1984 before Warrior and his longtime collaborator, bassist Martin Eric Ain, ended the band two months later and formed the more sophisticated Celtic Frost. The new group focused on all forms of gloom — death metal, darkwave, classical music — and slowly became one of extreme metal’s most influential bands, variously inspiring Anthrax, Obituary, Darkthrone, and even Nirvana to explore dirtier sounds. As Celtic Frost ascended the ranks, metalheads reassessed Hellhammer, and the band eventually became influential in its own right, especially on the Scandinavian black metal scene — four members of the controversial Norwegian band Mayhem took pseudonyms from Hellhammer releases, and their drummer even goes by “Hellhammer.”
Now, 35 years after putting Hellhammer to rest, Tom G. Warrior has resurrected his original group’s spirit with Triumph of Death — a tribute band that performs songs from the group’s demo cassettes and the EP. The group played its first concert in Germany in June and will make its North American debut this weekend at the Psycho Las Vegas festival.
It’s the latest in a series of performances where Warrior has looked back. At age 56, Warrior now dedicates most of his time to Triptykon, which formed in the ashes of Celtic Frost, and his new, bass-guitar–focused, dark psychedelic group Niryth. He previously played a set of Celtic Frost songs with Triptykon at a festival last year and completed Frost’s “Requiem,” a piece originally launched on the band’s 1987 album Into the Pandemonium and revisited on 2006’s Monotheist, at a fest this year. Nostalgia, he says, isn’t a dirty word as long as you stay grounded in the present. During two conversations, one in April and one in August, his demeanor was serious and forthright, as he answered questions matter-of-factly with short phrases like “absolutely” and “of course” in his German-Swiss accent. He’s a man of resolve, someone who measures twice before cutting, and with Triumph of Death, he knows exactly what made him want to revisit Hellhammer.
“Without wanting to be dramatic, I don’t know how long I’m going to live and, I would like to do this before I die,” Warrior says. “A lot of these songs have a very special meaning to me, with regard to my life, my path as a musician. And I would like to play them onstage at least once in my life.” (Asked about his health, Warrior declines to comment, saying, “I’m not Britney Spears; I’m not selling my albums with my personal tragedies.”)
Now that he’s finally playing Hellhammer’s primal songs live, he’s at peace with the music. “Maybe it sounds strange in the context of extreme metal and first-wave black metal, but it was a lot of fun, actually,” he says in early August, between Triumph of Death gigs. “It’s not a surprise. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, and I knew it was going to work. So it was an absolutely fantastic feeling.”
Associating Hellhammer with “an absolutely fantastic feeling” likely would have been a tall order for Warrior in the band’s heyday. Much of the music was borne of his personal strife.
His parents divorced when he was six, and his mother won custody of him and raised him in a small farming village in Switzerland. He says now that she descended into insanity before his eyes. In Only Death Is Real, his memoir of his time in Hellhammer, he wrote that his mother was a cat hoarder and a diamond smuggler who would leave him unattended for weeks at a time to live in his own squalor until she returned. Because of this, he felt like an outcast. He started playing guitar in his late teens, played in a few bands and generally took out his frustration on his instrument.
After he graduated from high school, he joined a band called Grave Hill, fell in love with Venom — the New Wave of British Heavy Metal group that coined the term “black metal” — and joined forces with other like-minded metalheads who went by “Steve Warrior” and “Bruce Day” to form Hellhammer, essentially playing slowed-down, heavier versions of what they heard on Venom albums. In a 2007 Metal Hammer interview, Warrior recalled playing Venom’s “In League With Satan” single on 33 r.p.m. instead of 45 to make it heavier — “That was basically the birth of Hellhammer.” At the time, though, the band was an outlet for his anger at his situation.
“Had I had a perfect youth with a perfect family and none of the darkness in my youth, I would probably play happy music,” he tells Rolling Stone. “But I was thrust into situation where the world seemed very dark, and, at first, I wanted to escape it. All I wanted to do was to be normal. But then I made my world and I started feeling comfortable in it once I took my own control over it. And it led to a career which of course nobody could have foreseen. First it wasn’t a choice, and then it became a passion.”
When Warrior listens back to Hellhammer’s recordings now, he no longer feels the embarrassment he felt when the metal press castigated the group for playing so primitively. Although he was adamant at the time that the band was purely metal (in addition to Venom, his biggest influences then were British metal bands like Angel Witch and early Tygers of Pan Tang), he now hears it as a crossover between punk and metal. Most of the punk influence in the band came from bassist-vocalist Steve Warrior (real name: Urs Sprenger), whom Tom calls a “die-hard punk.” The two of them were fans of Discharge, GBH, and Anti-Nowhere League. “We weren’t good enough on our instruments at the time to emulate something more sophisticated, so punk was within the realm of the achievable,” Tom says.
The best example of how the Warrior twins’ influences coalesced is the song “Triumph of Death,” which appeared in various forms on their demo and finally on Apocalyptic Raids. On the latter release, it’s a 10-minute journey of gurgling Exorcist screams interlaced with feedback, chunky, pendulum-swinging punk rhythms, and lumbering heavy-metal riffs. “When you have been down in your grave … alive,” Tom sings. “Your mind decays, and you’re the coffin’s slave.” It’s the apotheosis of the Hellhammer experience.
“How could we not do this song live?” Tom asks during the interview between gigs. “That’s what it’s all about.
“We’re pretty much true to the final version with the extreme vocals,” he continues. “I do them spontaneously. I don’t think you can do this extremity in a conveyor-belt, photo-copy manner. It was a very spontaneous thing in the studio, and it should be a very spontaneous thing onstage. You always get a different version of ‘Triumph of Death,’ according to how the evening feels, but the song is always a nine-minute mini-opera.”
Although nearly four decades now separate Tom G. Warrior from Hellhammer’s recordings, he still relates to the songs. “I’m older but I really am the same person,” he says. “I never really conformed in my life, and I never really became a normal citizen. I’m now 56-year-old, and I still live in Switzerland, which is a very conservative country. I still stick out of society like crazy. So even though I’m older, I’m still the same Tom, in a way. I can completely identify with the songs and the perspectives in them. When I’m singing things like, ‘Burn a church’ [in ‘Angel of Destruction’] and everything I wrote in 1982, I feel exactly the same. I stand behind this 100 percent.”
The only song he won’t endorse now is the title track of Hellhammer’s “Satanic Rites” demo. The track has a staticky, descending guitar riff and lyrics that are particularly misogynistic, as he sings about dismembering a girl and raping her corpse. Today, he calls the track indefensible. “It’s a song I wrote after enduring an extremely difficult youth due to the actions of my mother, a person who descended into insanity while I was a child,” he says. “And that exposed me to conditions that are so beyond description that sometimes when I tell somebody how I grew up, they say I’m inventing this. … This hatred against my mother manifested itself in certain lyrics. But that’s a long time ago.
“I’ve analyzed all of the stuff,” he continues. “I’m an adult man. I’m no longer in the shadow of my mother. So nowadays a look at these lyrics in a very detached manner and I think they’re very problematic and I would never, ever perform such aggressive, terrible violent lyrics onstage, even though I know where they’re coming from. I can now understand the psychological pattern and the reasons. But there is just no way I could sing them now.”
Although he doesn’t come across as a moralist, Warrior lives a perhaps surprisingly moral life. He doesn’t smoke, take drugs, or drink excessively. “I drink a glass of wine with my friends, but I never get drunk,” he says. “Why do you need to do this to do music?” He’s also a vegan. “I care for animals,” he explains. “I care for sentient beings. And I’m against violence against innocent, helpless beings, be it Jews driven to Auschwitz on a train or an animal, or whatever. I’m against injustice and I’m against violence like this. This is also why I’m against hunting.”
He has especially strong words for Metallica, whom he criticizes for frontman James Hetfield’s interest in hunting. And though other members of the group have paid tribute to Celtic Frost, he hasn’t given them a warm reception. Warrior was incensed earlier this year when Metallica’s Kirk Hammett and Robert Trujillo covered Celtic Frost’s “The Usurper” at a Swiss concert. “They butchered it, and it was humiliating,” he says. “Why don’t they leave their millionaire fingers off it? They’ve long lost the ability to play true metal in my opinion. Maybe I should go onstage and do a really miserable version of [Metallica’s] ‘Hit the Lights’ with, like, 200 mistakes to set the balance.”
But it’s Hetfield who gets most of Warrior’s ire. “This is completely personal, and I know probably the majority of your readers will not share this feeling, but even if they had done a fantastic job, I could puke all over it because I don’t support people who go hunting bears for a hobby,” he says. “I cannot respect a person like that, even if it’s a genius musician.”
After Hellhammer, Warrior hit a new creative stride with Celtic Frost, a project he led initially alongside Ain (who died in 2017) into the early Nineties. Between 1984 and 1987, they issued a series of releases that stretched the definition of extreme metal. On Emperor’s Return’s “Dethroned Emperor,” they revamped the Hellhammer demo “Power of Satan” into a walloping, surprisingly sleek declaration of strength that opens with a powerful “Ugh!” — a signature grunt for Warrior. Their first proper full-length, To Mega Therion, mixed death-metal ragers like “Jewel Throne” with gothic electronica (“Tears in a Prophet’s Dream,” cowritten with Steve Warrior). And they embraced all of their avant-garde tendencies on 1987’s Into the Pandemonium, covering the New Wave hit “Mexican Radio,” and employing orchestral musicians on several tracks.
“Tom’s riffs are meaty and potato-y, but it’s the best meat from the butchers and the most loved and nurtured potatoes; they’re something special,” says Mikael Akerfeldt, frontman for the death-metal–turned–prog-metal band Opeth. He remembers getting into Warrior’s music when, at a young age, he swapped the price tag on Hellhammer’s Apocalyptic Raids to get it cheaper, thinking it was a speed-metal album. He was later floored by how “slow and menacing” it was. “On the early records it sounds like something is ‘wrong’ in the chain of effects, or like there’s a rogue electricity boost of sorts, like Eddie Van Halen’s sound in a way. I don’t think he knew what he was doing to be perfectly honest. But it certainly made a sound that started and ended with him plugging in the guitar.”
After years of battling their record label over their outré experiments, according to Warrior, things fell apart within Celtic Frost and he became the sole original member on 1988’s Cold Lake record, an album he entirely regrets making because of its glam-rock tendencies. “I have to live with that for the rest of my life,” he says. Ain returned and they made somewhat of a return to form on 1990’s Vanity/Nemesis but the band fell apart again years later.
Improbably, Celtic Frost’s popularity surged when Warrior was at what he considers his lowest point creatively. In Scandinavia, teenagers put off by the complexity and rigidness of thrash metal started rediscovering early black metal like Venom, Bathory, Hellhammer, and Celtic Frost, forming bands like Mayhem, Immortal, and Darkthrone.
“[Celtic Frost’s] riffs are more often than not vrange, as we would say in Norwegian; this means when you turn a sweater inside out,” Darkthrone’s Fenriz tells Rolling Stone of what appeals to him about the band via e-mail. “Also, he incorporated bending his guitar strings in several riffs and, more seldomly, a weird bending of time, like you have four-on-the-floor beats exemplified by a rubber band held straight but then they suddenly bend it by slowing down. It’s a very exciting and sickly dynamic. After a while we incorporated all these traits, here and there, in some of our songs and I was always on the lookout for other bands that sounded like Celtic Frost or had some riffs here and there. Early Napalm Death even had Celtic Frost riffs. We started playing [Emperor’s Return’s] ‘Visual Aggression’ live in 1989 and later, [Hellhammer’s] ‘The Third of the Storms,’ warming up for rehearsals.
Although Warrior welcomed the attention from the new crop of black-metal musicians, he was turned off by the behavior of some of the bands in the scene. “There are certain protagonists in that Scandinavian scene who committed murder and other crimes, and in interviews Hellhammer was mentioned as an influence,” Warrior says, likely referring to members of Mayhem and Emperor, whose members were involved in murder. “That was a very uncomfortable proposition because we felt Hellhammer was taken from us and was instrumental in something we hadn’t really intended. … I have no problem being associated with problematic things if I believe in them. But if people go and kill homosexuals, I have a severe problem with that, because I have no problem with homosexuality in any of these things. When Hellhammer is mentioned in that context, it makes me furious.”
In the U.S., the death-metal band Obituary found inspiration in Celtic Frost and Hellhammer’s primalism. The band still occasionally performs covers of “Dethroned Emperor” and the To Mega Therion track “Circle of the Tyrants” at their concerts. Obituary frontman John Tardy refers to Hellhammer and Celtic Frost (whose name he pronounces as “Seltic Frost” “just because that’s the way I’ve always said it”) as his band’s biggest influences. “His vocals at the time, the way they just pierced through you, and some of their basic and cave-man like approaches to songs is just what we love,” he says. “It’s nothing fancy. It’s nothing super intricate, but just really good riffs that cut right through you.”
During this time, Warrior felt disillusioned by the music industry. He was living in the United States, but he sold his equipment and moved back to Switzerland. He remembers attending a Queensrÿche concert with his then-wife and feeling distraught that he too couldn’t play music live. He eventually formed a new, industrial group, Apollyon Sun, but kept a low profile. Around this time, S.O.D., a side project of Anthrax’s Scott Ian and Charlie Benante, released a parody song called “Celtic Frosted Flakes,” about how the band seemed to disappear. But it was good-natured.
“Scott and I would always say that Celtic Frost had the most amazing riffs to slam dance to or to mosh to, and that they didn’t even realize that,” Benante says over e-mail. “Their songs would break down into these sections that were so heavy that I would compare to a Black Sabbath type of riff or theme. I always thought that Tom put it all together so well, the matching of heavy music, the vocals, the style, the sound. He’s definitely someone who was ahead of his time, and I don’t know if he realized at the time that he was about to start a whole genre of black metal.”
Within a few years, Warrior and Ain rekindled their friendship and relaunched Celtic Frost, putting out one final album in 2006, Monotheist, before an interpersonal conflict between Warrior and the group’s drummer drove him to quit the band in 2008 and launch Triptykon.
Now after decades of slogging it out, he’s amazed at the way metalheads’ opinions of his music have turned in his favor. In recent years, Triptykon’s Melana Chasmata ranked at number two on Rolling Stone’s Greatest Metal Albums of 2014 list, and Celtic Frost’s Morbid Tales was included on the magazine’s 100 Greatest Metal Albums of All Time list. “People call me ‘legend,’ which makes me feel very uncomfortable,” he says. “If I look back at my youth, this is something I would have never ever, ever thought possible.”
“I had him and his girlfriend as guests at our last show in Zurich,” Opeth’s Mikael Akerfeldt says via e-mail. “He came with the guys from Coroner, another bunch of fantastic musicians. I remember Tom said something along the lines of that we (Opeth and Coroner) are such great musicians he felt like an outsider. Both myself and [Coroner’s] Tommy Vetterli just went, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ He clearly has no idea how much of an impact he’s made. We had a few glasses of wine and I bombarded him with questions. The vibe in the room was a fan (me) meeting his idol (Tom G. Warrior). And that’s it.”
Earlier this year, the Netherlands’ Roadburn Festival asked him to complete and perform a requiem he had started in Celtic Frost. The first part, “Requiem,” had appeared on Into the Pandemonium and the last bit, “Winter,” was featured on Monotheist, but he never put out a middle section. He put the Triptykon album he was writing on the backburner and completed a piece he dubbed “Grave Eternal”; the band premiered the full, three-part work with orchestral accompaniment this past April.
“It was an intimidating proposition, because it is not quite that simple to play with the full orchestra,” he says. “I’m not classically trained. Writing it consumed most of last year and it was a very complex undertaking. It went very well, without major mistakes.” He recorded the two days of rehearsal and a soundcheck and hopes to release a stand-alone album this winter; he may also put out a DVD of the performance.
“Sometimes when you talk about old times, people think you’re stuck in the old times,” Warrior says. “I don’t think you have to choose between the past and present. My modern music is based on what I loved in the Seventies and it would have never sounded like this if I had a different youth.”
Now, in between Triumph of Death performances, he has resumed work on a new Triptykon album. “It’s probably going to be slightly darker, yet at the same time, also slightly more mesmerizing,” he says, comparing it to Melana Chasmata. “It’s almost like Hellhammer meets Pink Floyd, as absurd as that sounds. It has a floating melodic quality without being wimpy. It is ultra darkness but with a lot of beauty mixed in.”
He’s also working on the debut album by Niryth, a group he formed with Triumph of Death bassist Mia Wallace, who also plays in the backing band for former Abbath, former frontman for the Norwegian black-metal group Immortal. Wallace, he says, is the closest he’s come to finding a collaborator of the same caliber as Martin Ain. He describes Niryth as a “more psychedelic, more hypnotic version of Triptykon.” He sings only in what he calls his “dark voice,” which he compares to Sisters of Mercy’s Andrew Eldritch. “Niryth has no metal vocals or riffs,” he says. “But it is powerful music. It’s extremely groovy. The main focus point is that it’s only drums, bass, and vocals. Everybody who has heard it before thinks we’re playing keyboards, but we used the bass in an extremely experimental manner. In the studio, we use up to eight bass lines on a song. It’s actually very melodic and airy.”
But before he puts that out, Warrior is basking in Hellhamer’s renaissance. He got the idea for Triumph of Death around 2012 or 2013 and put together the band after meeting Wallace. He says he could see Triumph of Death possibly putting out live albums in the future or maybe even trying to record new music in the style of Hellhammer. For him, the reception is a vindication.
“We were so shunned, so to stand onstage at festivals in front of 15,000 people and play these songs is mindblowing,” he says. “That’s more than the capacity of the biggest stadium in my hometown. If you would have told the people who were in Hellhammer in 1982, they would’ve never believed you.