Tom G. Warrior | Only death is real

This interview has been published on Radio Metal the 17/06/2019.

“Tomorrow, my career may be ruined. Can you imagine that?”: the day before the Requiem performance at this year’s edition of the Roadburn Festival, metal legend Tom G. Warrior was tense, and understandably so. The expectations were high, to say the least: a unique event, the concert was to be the grand outcome of a project he started thirty-three years ago when Celtic Frost was at its heights. Entitled Requiem, the piece, composed of “Rex Irae”, from 1987’s infamous Into The Pandemonium, “Winter”, the closer of 2006’s Monotheist, and a central part composed for the occasion, had never been played live before. The performance promised to be historical, involving Warrior’s band Triptykon and an orchestra, the Metropole Orkest,  and without a safety net.

This interview took place the following day, just a few hours after the Requiem was completed and hailed by a packed venue. Still in the heat of the moment, Tom went back on the genesis of this long-term undertaking. Majestic, rife with emotion, a musical marriage of heaven and hell, the Requiem is more than a music piece. It’s a distillation of a more than three-decades-long career that forged contemporary metal and a chiaroscuro take on death. Literally, on the death of several of Tom’s colleagues and friends, including Celtic Frost’s Martin Ain. And figuratively, on death as the inexhaustible muse, always tightly weaved into Warrior’s creative process: the Requiem is creation and destruction, life and death made one. We also talked about his numerous other projects: the Requiem might have been taken to an end, but Tom G. Warrior still has a lot to offer…

Tom G Warrior-Shelley Jambresic

© Shelley Jambresic

The concert happened a few hours ago. How do you feel about the show? Did it go as planned?

Absolutely. First and foremost, I feel extremely relieved. I spent a year of my life working on this Requiem. As we were working, the more we finished, the more intense it became. More and more things were getting involved… At first, it was just me sitting at the computer, writing down things I had in my head for years and putting them into music. After writing eight different versions of the Requiem, I finally submitted it to Florian Magnus Maier, the classical arranger, and we started to have regular Skype and personal meetings to talk about the number of musicians, what instruments, how involved they would be… Once we made these choices, we were able to add some details. Then it was time to rehearse… With every step, the project became more complicated, bigger, more intense. These last few weeks, there were so many decisions to make, from the position of the musicians to the recording equipment… On top of that, we’d never played with an orchestra, it would be a premiere—the three parts of the Requiem had never been played live—done right away in front of the public and the press. It became quite a lot of pressure, a lot of expectation. When we started to practice in Hilversum [with the orchestra], we were so focused that we all felt cramped, very tense. We’re used to going on stage, it’s nothing unusual, but it was a different kind of project.

Now, we got through the thing without major mistakes, the audience seemed to love it, so all this pressure fell off. It’s such a good feeling after this long process! Right now, I feel fantastic. I feel very relieved, very proud, and happy. I’m thankful for the audience, I’m thankful to Walter [Hoeijmakers, artistic director of Roadburn] for making this possible, and thankful for the members of the orchestra who were really uncomplicated. They were open to working with a metal band, they gave us a chance, and were very involved… Right now, the feeling of happiness is amazing.

How many people were involved?

On stage, I think there were about thirty people plus the band. We also had detailed discussions with the recording people, the film people, the conductor, Walter and his staff, the people from the 013 for the production… Our management was involved too because a lot of contracts needed to be made and our record company was involved as well because it’s gonna be an album. It all started as a very intimate requiem many years ago, and now it has become this huge thing! As a band, you don’t do something like that every day. It’s an honor and a huge privilege. I have to thank Walter for making this possible, not least financially: a project involving that many people is of course very expensive…

How did Walter approach you with the idea?

He first got in touch with my management, a bit more than a year ago, and said he had a special project in mind. They had this new concept of commissioning bands to write something special for the festival. He asked my manager, who happens to be one of my best friends: “Do you think Tom would be interested? I would like to have a classical piece and he’s worked with classical musicians all his life…” When she told me about it, I recognized immediately that it was an immense opportunity. Walter is also a close friend of mine, so we hooked up directly. I told him: “Look, if it’s about writing something new, you know the Celtic Frost history, you know Martin has died, you know that we always wanted to finish the Requiem. What would you think if we would finish the Requiem and perform it for the first time at Roadburn?” He understood immediately the significance of this. So that’s what we agreed on: that the commissioned work would be to finish the Celtic Frost Requiem.

He had lost Bidi [van Drongelen, manager and active member of the Dutch metal scene who died in 2017], I had lost Martin [Ain]… It made sense on many levels: it was not just a commissioned work, it became a personal thing for us as well. That’s when it really started. I thought: “Now I have this commitment, I have to live up to this; it has to be good, it has to be something special.” Roadburn is a unique festival: people come to see art. And the whole world’s press is there, so if you fail at Roadburn, everybody will know! I knew I had to live up to the people who had died, to the reputation of the festival, to Walter’s expectations and my owns. This too was an enormous amount of pressure because I try to be a perfectionist. That plays a part in the feeling I had today when I went off stage…


Did you ever think back then, 30 years ago, when you wrote the first part of the Requiem, that one day it would be so big? Was it already a part of something bigger?

Of course! When I wrote the first part in 86, I was 22. I was 23 when we released it. Of course, Martin and I dreamed of one day taking it on stage with an orchestra, but this was a very difficult thing to do… We were nobodies at the time and we knew that it would be hugely expensive. So we said we would do it one day. We had no concept of when, but it was, of course, a dream—and not a realistic one. And then the band fell apart anyway. When we reformed it in the early 2000s, we talked about the Requiem immediately and we decided to do the next part, and then the band fell apart again. At that time, we would have had the budget to do it, we had become bigger… So I thought I would finish it one day with Triptykon and invite Martin as a guest, but then Martin died… So eventually, I thought that if I managed to finish it, I’ll dedicate it to him. The connection still exists.

I knew it was gonna be a major piece and I knew it would require a major orchestra—and since this costs nearly 100,000€… You know how the music industry is nowadays: you hardly sell any albums so it becomes more difficult to finance such big projects unless you’re a band as big as Guns N’ Roses. Even though we had this ambition, we knew it would be challenging. Then Walter called. Even if I wouldn’t have wanted to do it, I would have had to say yes because you don’t have such an opportunity twice. He said: “I will arrange the financing, the logistics, everything, I even propose an orchestra… I’ll keep your back free, you just do the artistic part.” And it’s such a gift to receive! We had to do it, there was no way around it.

Do you have a feeling of closure now that this big cycle has been taken to an end?

Absolutely. I feel it, but I also know that it will probably take a few weeks for it to sink in. All this time, after such an intense year… But yeah, now it’s finished—performed, recorded—of course, there is a sense of closure. Actually, right now I don’t know whether to be relieved and happy or sad, because we probably won’t be performing this too many times. Maybe one or two more times, who knows, but it’s never gonna be a regular thing. Right now, it’s a unique performance and it’ll probably remain like this for a while. It feels good; it’s exciting and sad at the same time. I was thinking about Martin when I was on stage, performing with the orchestra, and I know a lot of other people who were involved did too. Walter was probably thinking about Martin and Bidi… It did what it had to do. We will dedicate the album to Martin Ain and H.R. Giger as an homage because they were very important to us, just like Bidi was to Walter. It gives this a higher purpose. It’s not just a piece of music. During all these years, some very close people died…

Can it be seen as a literal requiem for them?

It was always intended to be a literal requiem. Of course, initially, I basically wrote it for myself. When I was 22, I wasn’t really thinking about death itself, but I was fascinated by the topic of death. The older you get, the more you are confronted with the end of life… The last ten years, I’ve lost many really close friends, mostly to cancer. If you read my blog, you’ve maybe seen that just in February, one of my closest friends died after fighting cancer for months—he committed suicide. I was there, at his house, until the last day. The last music he listened to was “Aurorae” by Triptykon. Death becomes a reality when you get older. When I was 22, everyone was young and prospering. I’m turning 56 this year and the time factor simply means it’s likely that a lot of people that are important to somebody will die. Then, the Requiem becomes more than just a harmless piece of music; it gets a more profound meaning. It’s no longer a text written by a juvenile band, it’s something very real. I would sit at home, listening to my demos of the different versions, thinking of Martin… I wrote a large part of the Requiem as the friend whom I just told you about was starting to die from cancer. He knew I was working on this. It all becomes a little bit more serious when you’re older, whether you want to or not…


How did it feel like to go back to this piece you wrote 30 years ago after gathering all this life experience you’re talking about?

It was an intriguing experience. We never played the first part, “Rex Irae”, live because it requires an orchestra and a female singer, and you don’t always have that [chuckles]. I would listen to it occasionally through the years—I don’t listen to my own music frequently. It was actually very interesting to have to re-learn my own music and be confronted directly with what I wrote when I was 22. Now that I speak a bit better English, I find some of the text a bit naive, but by and large, we all thought it kinda worked. It’s one of the favorite Celtic Frost songs of Florian, our classical arranger and a very good friend of ours who is also the singer of Dark Fortress. When he heard it in rehearsal, he actually had tears in his eyes, he felt really moved: he had been waiting for all these years for it to come to the stage and it was finally happening… There too, there were so many aspects to it: to be confronted with a younger self, to have to analyze my own music so I could re-learn it and everything… It was interesting. What you’ve heard today is a combination of three different Toms. You change in a lifetime; you change massively from 22 to 56. It was intriguing to me to be confronted with a younger me, a different artistic me, and to have to integrate it. It’s all me, but it’s all different mes.

Tonight, I think it really came across well, it worked. We recorded it in a couple of weeks in a studio in Hanover, Germany, and to hear for the first time with everything—every violin part, every female vocal—live, it was quite exciting. I’d never heard it like that, even when we recorded it. It was all done in pieces.

How did you choose the singer, Safa Heraghi?

It was actually a recommendation by Victor, our guitar player, and Florian. They had worked with her once before as Dark Fortress. We were talking about different singers and they said: “Look, she sings fantastic, she’s unknown, she doesn’t have an image, she isn’t associated with a band, she worked with us once or twice and we know she can sing…” I really didn’t want to have anybody famous: I didn’t want this to be a spectacle, a circus. I wanted it to be all about the music. I saw her on stage with Dark Fortress at a festival in Zürich and she sounded amazing, so I went backstage and asked her if she wanted to sing the Requiem. She almost fainted [laughs] and we integrated her right away! She wasn’t only hired, I gave her the freedom to write her vocal lines, to try, vocalize, and give us her ideas, and she came up with amazing things. I gave her writing credits. I didn’t want her to be just a hired gun, I wanted her to be a part of it, that’s why I think her vocals were very heartfelt. She put her own feelings into it.

How did you approach the writing of “Grave Eternal”, the bridge between “Rex Irae” and “Winter”?

I always knew that the middle part was gonna be very long, that it was gonna be the major part. I had a concept in my mind over the years: it would be very rhythmical, very hypnotic, almost ambient sometimes… But I didn’t have any concrete melodies. When Walter gave me the OK, I sat down to listen to the first and the last parts. It struck me that the first part is basically a band playing with a little bit of a classical orchestra and the last is composed by a band but played entirely by a classical orchestra. I wanted to find a transition. I didn’t want it to be a totally crass change: I wanted it to be a flowing transition. I decided to make it a give and take: the lead is sometimes given to the orchestra, sometimes to the band. I wanted it to be hypnotic, rhythm-driven—which is unusual for classical music—and to lead to the last part which is very ambient and sad… It took eight versions until I was reasonably happy with it. It wasn’t that easy to achieve!

The rehearsals still had a lot of imperfections, but the soundcheck was very good today. And the performance was also very good in my opinion, I’m happy with it. I think it actually worked as a transition. We had thirty people on stage and of course, the instinct is to use everything. But no, I wanted to play with it. Certainly, the people on stage all cost a fortune, but sometimes you only hear one cymbal. I wanted to take it down but also to use the whole orchestra. I didn’t want to make it obvious like a beginner would do: “I have an orchestra so let’s use every single instrument every minute!” That would have been boring. That’s why it has two parts where it almost becomes intimate. Only one of these people is playing something and only very carefully. And then you can build it up again. I love this! It becomes heavy at times, hypnotic, repetitive, heavy, and then it goes back to something more introspective, intimate… I do that with Triptykon too: sometimes our music is very minimalist, sometimes it’s very full… I become bored very quickly with music, so I try to keep it interesting for myself.


How did you work with the orchestra? It is an unusual way for them to play music, I guess.

It’s true! In the 80s, when we worked in the studio with conventional classical musicians, it was always very difficult. They were from one planet and we were from another… At that time, no hard rock bands were working with classical musicians so it would always take endless explanations and experiments, and lots of times. There were a lot of conflicts, they didn’t want to do what we had in mind… But this time, when Walter proposed the Metropole Orkest, he told me: “These people are open and they can actually do this. They’ll find a bridge.” It turned out he was absolutely right. I don’t think it would have sounded like this with another orchestra. During the rehearsals, they were so open, so constructive, the dialogue with them was easy… They weren’t resisting, they were curious. That made it very easy, and I have to thank Walter for this. Florian, our arranger, had worked with metal bands before as well, so that was a lucky coincidence. There were connections on every level and they all worked very well together.

You use classical music since the beginning of your career. What appeals to you in that? Did you grow up with classical music? How did you figure out how to include it in your music?

Martin and I were very open people musically. We weren’t into music for an image. Some people feel like they have to make a point and say: “I listen only to metal because I’m a man!” But we were into music for music’s sake. Martin came from the New Wave scene, he loved bands like Siouxie and the Banshees, Bauhaus, Sisters of Mercy, early Depeche Mode… I listened to that too, and to jazz, some classical music, rock music, progressive music… Before I became a musician, in the late 60s and the 70s, Deep Purple made an album called Concerto for group and Orchestra that I found hugely interesting already. Then Emerson, Lake & Palmer, one of my favorite progressive band, went on tour with an orchestra. By that time—the late 70s—I was already dreaming about becoming a musician and I found it totally intriguing. Of course, when I first started playing music, I wasn’t good enough to ever try something like that, but I was fascinated by it.

Then we formed Celtic Frost, and Martin and I said it should be a band without any limits, any borders, any artistic restrictions. We started very shyly though. On the first Celtic Frost album, there’s a little hint of violin and female vocals, it was some kind of a test, and it worked. So on the second one, we did much more, and by the third album, we had grown very confident. That’s when we started to work on the Requiem. We simply wanted to do a heavier version of what Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Deep Purple did in the 70s. At the time, nobody was doing that in metal, that’s why it was very difficult to realize, but I’m glad we persisted because it has led to this, now. I’m very happy.

You also started to bring themes and topics into metal that weren’t there before…

But we didn’t know that! I’ve been told many times, because of the Requiem, that we were pioneers. We didn’t really know that at the time, and that’s not why we did it. We were too young to think of things like that… We also didn’t know that we would become known. We just did it because we felt like it. We also used electronic things, New Wave element in our albums, we had a drummer who was capable of some jazz stuff… We just did it because we loved this kind of music. Later, people said we were pioneers and of course we were proud of it, but it wasn’t by design at all! It’s an honor for us too, you know. It was simply that we wanted to do the music that resembled us. It’s really that simple.

In the 80s, when metal was really huge, we hated all these albums with “This album contains no keyboards” written on them. We found that stupid! Why limit yourself? You become a musician to break out of the daily limitations, the daily life, censorship, what politicians, parents, teachers tell you you can and can’t do. You break all this out, you become a metal fan, and then you start to restrict yourself? It doesn’t make any sense! Martin and I never liked these limitations so we did things how we wanted to. Metal is much more open now that it was in the 80s, but there’s still prejudice—against female musicians for instance—, a lot of people are still living in the past… I never liked it. Art is about taking risks and music is art: music is about taking risks, not about playing it safe or restricting yourself, which would be the opposite of art, in my opinion. The Requiem is a good example of that: it’s so preposterous for a little metal band from Switzerland to write a requiem that we thought: “Why not do it?” We were nobodies at the time, we had nothing to lose. We did it for the experiment’s sake, for art’s sake. We thought: “If we fail, we fail and if we succeed, we succeed. Let’s try it!” And we did. Of course, it’s not perfect, but at least we tried and it survived into 2019.

Is the Requiem Celtic Frost’s swan song?

In a way, it is. Because of the death of Martin, now it’s finished. The Requiem was one of the many unfinished things of Celtic Frost. I finished a lot of these in Triptykon, now including this. Of course, it’s a swan song, but it also makes Celtic Frost even more immortal, in a way. It’s now a part of our legacy. It’s both a memorial and a closure.

In that respect, the Requiem is both about death and about life going on…

It’s about death, but to me, this piece isn’t a negative song about death. It has many beautiful moments, moments when we all had tears in our eyes during the rehearsals, but it wasn’t negative tears. We were just really moved by the beauty, the intensity of it all. I think it deals with death in a beautiful way. It’s not a horror piece, it’s very aesthetic.


Requiem means to rest; it’s a very peaceful, quiet take on death…

Exactly. It’s still sinking in me that we actually finished it and performed it… For thirty-three years, it was a dream, and now it’s done. I’ve heard in the Q&A, for instance, a lot of people who, like me, combined their own feelings and experiences with the piece. It’s amazing. Our guitarist’s father died three weeks ago, I lost someone dear in February as I just told you… Everybody can relate because death happens to everybody, to every family, to everything. We tried to do it in an aesthetic, beautiful way. At times, it’s fragile, intimate… We didn’t want to use all these clichés that many metal bands use, be macho or evil or whatever. You don’t always have to do it with hammers!

Sometimes metal approaches death in an almost cartoonish way indeed; it looks like a way to distance yourself from it and not face it directly…

Exactly. It takes some life experience, I think. That’s what we did in Hellhammer: we were young, we hadn’t really lived our life yet, we didn’t know how to deal with these things. We knew them from TV, books or comics, but we hadn’t lived it ourselves. We were basically children! Now, I’m 56 and I’ve had drastic ups and downs in my life. I lost not just one but a whole number of very close friends. All of us went through all these ups and downs. So now, you approach the topic of death in a completely different manner, it’s not abstract anymore. That’s why it’s probably good that I finished the Requiem only now; being an adult who experienced death instead of a young person just imagining it gives it a much more serious, life-oriented, real flavor… Coincidently, if you go all the way back, Keith Emerson, the keyboarder of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, one of the bands that is a reason for this to exist, committed suicide a couple of years ago, and Greg Lake, their singer-guitar player, died of cancer one year and a half ago… Without them, this probably wouldn’t exist. It all starts to make sense in ways that I would have never expected to thirty years ago. It became much more real even though I didn’t aim for that. Life happens, progresses, and nobody can stop it.

In the meantime, you were working on another record with Triptykon?

Yeah, I had begun working on the next Triptykon record when Walter called me. At first, I thought I could do it in parallel, but that soon became impossible. I had also started the Triumph of Death project and the band Niryth with the bassist Mia Wallace, and without her help, I wouldn’t have been able to do this. She took a lot of weight off my shoulders: she took over a lot of the transcriptions and the arrangements for the Hellhammer tribute project, for instance. I actually had to cancel some of the Niryth recording sessions and pushed them to 2019, which caused quite a lot of problems in the band. People were disappointed; they were eager, we had written a lot of good material, but I had to say: “Look, I can’t do it now because I have a deadline for the Requiem…” It caused some trouble, which I totally understood. And I spent so much time on the Requiem at the end of last year when I had to hand it to the classical arranger that I had some problems in my private life. I was sitting working on this for days and nights! So I had to put the Triptykon work completely aside.

That’s also why I feel relieved now: it’s done, and I can as of tomorrow work on the Triptykon album again. Finally, I can actually sit there and finish these songs that are sketches on my computer. We will mix the Requiem this summer and it will come out in December as a standalone album. The actual next Triptykon album is also in the work, we will record it later this year and release it in 2020—two Triptykon albums in one and a half year!

Do you have a direction for this record already?

Of course! It’s actually also very dark [chuckles]. You’ll be able to hear a lot of parallels between the Requiem and the new album because I worked on this music at the same period, and it’s the mental state I’m in right now. It will be a very beautiful, very melodic album, but an utterly dark one as well.

For a band called Triptykon, the third record sounds like it could be the last. It’s a coincidence, right?

Yes, it is, although you never know when life ends. But no, I really love this band, I would like to do a couple more albums with it. It will be a triptych in the sense that it will have the last cover and artwork approved by H.R. Giger. We did a triptych of albums together; for the second and third Triptykon albums we chose all the art together, I designed everything, I showed it to him and he approved everything about half a year before he died. This will be the last worldwide album on which Giger was personally involved. So it is a triptych and the conclusion of something… But I already have designs for the album after that. If I live long enough, there will be more!

Many thanks to Tom and his staff for their generosity and their flexibility.
More about Triptykon and their next releases here and on Facebook

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