Thomas Gabriel Fischer is one of heavy metal's true trailblazers. First with Hellhammer, and more famously, with Celtic Frost, Fischer sketched the outlines for death and black metal and forged a unique guitar tone and aesthetic identity. Nearly 30 years after his career began, Fischer -- known still to many as Tom Warrior -- is releasing some of the strongest material of his already essential discography. Simply put, without this heavy metal pioneer, you probably wouldn't be reading this site. Our Andrew Wilhelm had the privilege to speak with Fischer from his home in Zurich. - Ed.
Thomas Gabriel Fischer can be considered one of the architects of heavy metal. With Hellhammer, his outlet for youthful angst, he laid the groundwork for the feral element of death and black metal in the early '80s. Celtic Frost, Fischer's most well-known group, gave that chaos a structure. Not only he did create an identifiable guitar sound and composition style -- seriously, nobody can do mid-paced songs like Frost did -- but their experimental streak redefined what heavy metal could be. Fischer laid low in the '90s, but reactivated Frost in the early 2000s. Monotheist, released in 2006, remains one of the few "reunion" records that can stand proudly alongside classic material. In addition, Frost went darker and doomier than before. The album and the concerts behind it were well-received, but heated conflicts between Fischer, bassist Martin Eric Ain, and drummer Franco Sesa dissolved the band in 2008. Fischer may have been down, but he was far from out.
Not long after, he formed his current band Triptykon. The group released Eparistera Daimones last year, which was lauded (especially around here) by many as a continuation of Monotheist's strengths and of Fischer's musical legacy. It's more personal than Fischer's other records, largely stemming from his anger towards the way Celtic Frost ended, but that only makes the record heavier. While all the songs are amazing, closer "The Prolonging" is almost 20 minutes of Fischer banishing his enemies to an unspeakable hell and morphing himself into something stronger than all. Weighty, yes, but only he can pull it off.
I spoke with the venerable Fischer about the band's first tour of North America, his composition style, and why most YouTube videos of concerts are terrible.
Crustcake: You recently wrapped up a North American tour. Looking back on it, what was your overall impression of the tour?
Thomas Gabriel Fischer (guitars, vocals. and programming): It was fantastic, it was the first time for Triptykon to North America. I've done many tours of North America with Celtic Frost, and leaving Celtic Frost, I left behind a big vehicle. So I had no idea that Triptykon would ever make it to that point. I had to start from scratch three years ago, and to be given the opportunity to actually go back to the United States and play a full U.S. tour is not something you take for granted when you're a Swiss musician. It's a dream of every Swiss musician to be able to go back [to the U.S.], and another tour with a new band is a huge honor. Fan reactions were astonishing. My assessment of the tour - I'm very honored and it's a huge pleasure to be back on the road.
Crustcake: Were are any particularly memorable shows?
Fischer: The United States is very different than European countries. European countries are very small, so it's one or two cities. You basically assess the entire country, you know the reaction of the country. The United States, on the other hand, is the size of an entire continent. In every city, you have a different reaction because the cities are so far apart. You have widely differing impressions on the North American tour. It's very difficult to pinpoint certain cities that are better, because, I've played hundreds of shows in America. On this recent tour, maybe the most memorable show was San Francisco, simply because there was something magical in the air and it's hard to pinpoint what it was. I think the reaction of the audience - they gave us so much adrenaline, which in turn made us give them so much adrenaline and it just formed a cyclone which lasted for the entire show, which lifted the entire evening up to a very different level. On the other hand, we had some fantastic shows in Montreal, Chicago and Pittsburgh, where we played in a church, which also lifted the entire evening out of the ordinary. There's been many such events, it's very difficult to single out a city or two.
Crustcake: Had any of your bandmates in Triptykon toured the states before?
Fischer: V. Santura, our guitar player, has been the last guitarist for Celtic Frost for some 60 shows from Australia to North America, so he's done it before. Our drummer Norman [Lonhard] and our bassist Vanja [Slajh] - for them, it was their first time in North America, but they've played Japan and all of Europe before, but not in North America.
Crustcake: Do you think they liked it over here?
Fischer: They absolutely loved it. It was very difficult for all of us when the final day of the tour started, because we all wanted to remain on tour. Of course, we're still on the road for this album and we're planning to remain on the road for this album for all of 2011. We are hoping very much to be back next year and do a second leg of U.S. concerts.
Crustcake: Good to hear! One thing I was interested about the tour was that on some nights, Triptykon headlined, and 1349 headlined on others. Was there any reason y'all switched every now and then?
Fischer: The tour was planned as co-headlining from the very beginning. There's absolutely no rivalry between us and 1349. We shared the idea of a joint tour from the very beginning, we agreed from the beginning we would be equal co-headliners, and that's why we rotate every night, so the feeling is very fair. I think it worked very well. Some nights there were probably more 1349 fans and some nights there were more Triptykon fans, so rotating, I think, was the most appropriate thing to do.
Crustcake: About the setlist - there weren't that many Celtic Frost songs. It seemed like a very Triptykon-heavy set. How did you develop the setlist?
Fischer: It was exactly equally divided 50/50 Celtic Frost/Triptykon material. We always go on stage and play exactly 50/50, and that was our intention from the very first day we played with Triptykon at the very first rehearsal. And we also practice like that here in Zurich. We always practice; half of the practice is Celtic Frost and the other half is Triptykon material. These songs are my songs, these songs are very important to me. Each of these songs reflect a certain period in my life, a certain time, a certain emotion. They're personally quite significant for me for one of those reasons, and I really don't want to abandon playing them. For the time being, we will keep it 50/50. Maybe that will change once Triptykon has more albums, we will have more material to choose from. I think the mixture works very well and Triptykon, of course, is also the continuation of Celtic Frost. The band had a different name because it's different people, but in essence, musically and creatively speaking, it is the exact continuation of Celtic Frost. The music I'm creating, the albums I'm creating with Triptykon are exactly what I would have done if Celtic Frost continued to exist.
"The Usurper" Live in Toronto 10/11/10
Crustcake: Another thing I wanted to ask about the live show: I know in the '80s, there weren't as many recordings, but now people record concerts with their cell phones and it'll be on YouTube almost immediately after the concert's over. What do you think about that?
Fischer: It doesn't depend what I think of, it doesn't make a difference. It exists, you can't stop it, you can't influence it. In a way, it's fantastic because there were, actually, a lot of bootlegs in the '80s. I have a million bootlegs from the old days and I have bootlegs for almost every single Celtic Frost show I ever played. But it was much more difficult to get a hold [of bootlegs], you really had to be a collector, you had to contact record stores, you had to write letters to record stores worldwide or to collectors worldwide to obtain these bootlegs. What's really changed that it's much easier to get them nowadays, you can download them or they're streaming or whatever. Every fan worldwide - a fan in China, a fan in India, a fan in America, you can get the bootlegs now within seconds. That's the big difference. For fans in remote countries who might never get the chance to see a band, it's a good thing. If you speak as a musician who is conscious of quality, it's not always a good thing. Not every concert is as good as it should be, there's always technical issues, sometimes there's a bad sound because the venue is not right. There's so many things that can influence what concerts sound like, and not everyone who records bootlegs comes to the show with the proper equipment. Sometimes, these bootlegs sound terrible. As a quality-conscious musician, there's a downside that sometimes a fan who's really eager to hear the band that's never seen the band hears a bootleg that's really shitty. Which is counterproductive, of course, for the fan and the band. It's very difficult to find one conclusive opinion about that.
Crustcake: I've seen some of these YouTube bootlegs that sound like a wall of noise. They sound more like a Merzbow album than a live performance from whatever band's on stage.
Fischer: Absolutely. I mean, most of those standard issue cameras are designed for family home movies for the average joe. The microphones, they're not designed for a wall of noise, they're simply just technically overwhelmed, When somebody attempts to record a metal show, it would probably work with an ambient or electronic music concert, but not with a metal show because the microphones are simply overwhelmed. The value of the bootleg is reduced to nothing. It's like you say, a wall of noise with a picture. What good does it do? Even in the most ideal case, even if it sounds perfect, even in the case of a proper live album, there's always the question of can you capture the essence of a concert? Can you capture that on a recording, even under perfect circumstances? The aura of the concert, I think, most of the time, you can't really capture it.
Crustcake: Definitely. I had the pleasure of seeing Celtic Frost in 2006, and there definitely was a visual element that I don't think could be captured on an audio recording.
Fischer: Celtic Frost and Triptykon's music has a very strong bass characteristic - not just the bass, but also the guitars - that is difficult to capture on a recording. You really have to take good equipment to actually bring them across. If you record it with some cheap microphone on a cell phone or even in a hand camera, you will lose a lot of the heaviness and darkness that is experienced when you stand in the crowd. That's kind of a shame, because that's pretty much the essence of the band, the signature of the band and you can't capture that on cheap equipment.
Crustcake: The Triptykon record was in the Top 5 of Decibel's year end list, and in general, it's been well received. What's your reaction to the album's reception?
Fischer: I feel honored, I feel happy and very humbled. As I said, three years ago when I left Celtic Frost, I knew very well what I was giving up. I was stepping off quite a big ship, probably at the top of its game. I had absolutely no guarantee that I would be able to resurrect my career. The reasons for my exit from Celtic Frost are very complex and I realize that if you don't see behind the scenes, it's probably very difficult for a lot of fans to understand why this happened. So I didn't know what fans would think, if they would give me another chance. We recorded the best album we could do under the circumstance. We were really careful about the quality of the album, we worked very hard on the album, but we had no guarantee whatsoever what the public would think. The fact that the album has been received so overwhelmingly well is a huge relief and a huge honor. I've been in this industry for so many years, to find that fans are still walking this path with me loyally means the world to me. It's the audiences and the media who have made this long path possible for me and that they're still with me after all these years is absolutely amazing.
Crustcake: A lot of the songs on the album are rooted in personal issues you've gone through. Has performing these songs live help you come to terms with these issues?
Fischer: Yeah, very much so, actually. It was hugely therapeutic to actually write these songs and record them, and it still is therapeutic to play songs. Not for a second is there a moment of routine when we perform these songs. I'm always very aware of what I'm singing about in my lyrics and on stage. In the case of Triptykon's songs, it's sometimes quite intense. For example, I was standing on a stage that I played with Celtic Frost a few years ago with the person in question who, in my opinion has ruined Celtic Frost. I'm standing on stage and performing "The Prolonging," which essentially is a huge occult mass inspired by the events. We're standing there and I know I was standing there with that person. It sometimes is, it lifts me up to a different level. It's not an abstract way of performing, it's the opposite, it's an emotional, personal, intimate way of performing. I never forget that aspect, it's very present.
Crustcake: "The Prolonging" is something I wanted to comment on. You repeat "As You Perish, I Shall Live." It's seems as though you're triumphing over your adversaries and what you've gone through.
Fischer: Of course. That's basically the essence of the song. The only difference is that in earlier days, I had to sing about fantasy stories or historical figures to get across such a point. "The Prolonging," of course, is from real life, which renders the impact of the song much more drastic. It's a very different approach.
Crustcake: A lot of bands talk about issues, not always using fantastical elements, but metaphorically, instead of literally.
Fischer: Well, I can't really comment on that. Every person is different. It depends on so many factors - how you grow up, what your circle of friends is, the experiences in your life, and so on. There's so many things that influence what you write and what you're interested in. The older I got, the more I draw from my own life in writing lyrics. When I was a teenager in Hellhammer or in Celtic Frost, I hadn't lived life. Martin [Ain] and I drew very heavily from fantasy stories or from religion or history. Nowadays, the lyrics are far more personal, but as the word implies, it's a very personal process. I can't really comment on how that compares to other bands. Everyone has their own approach, and if anything, people should choose whatever they're best in to make the most authentic lyrics, whatever it might be.
"A Thousand Lies"
Crustcake: Another song that sticks out is "A Thousand Lies," because it's one of the faster songs on the album and you take a more extreme approach on the vocals. I'm curious how that song developed.
Fischer: Well, there's a lot of aggression on the album, of course. There was a lot of aggression bottled up in me due to the way Celtic Frost ended. A lot of positive intention, a lot of good faith was misused, was abused, was betrayed by one of the members of Celtic Frost. Of course, that left me with, at that time, a lot of unresolved issues, a lot of anger, a lot of aggression, and coupled with my love for extreme metal, that yields to a lot of aggressive songs, whether they're fast or not. "A Thousand Lies" is probably the most extreme song on the album, certainly in terms of speed. I love that song, actually. I think it's a very necessary song, both in terms of speed and as far as lyrics are concerned. Again, it's a very authentic song, and it's an important song. We've played it before live, and we don't play it currently, but I think at a certain point we should add it back into our repertoire for next year. I really think this song is very essential for us. Another small part of the story of the song is I wanted to sing so radical and so extreme on Celtic Frost's last album, but there was a lot objection against that. The others didn't want me to sing so heavy so I didn't, but in Triptykon, everybody's happy to hear me sing so heavy, and I'm happy about it of course too. I feel kind of unleashed and I love that freedom to sing in any way I deem correct.
Crustcake: Were there any songs in particular on Monotheist that you wanted to use that vocal style on?
Fischer: There was different takes on several songs on the album with heavier lyrics. We compared the different versions, and unfortunately in most cases, I was voted down. I did several versions of most of the songs, and I guess the others weren't prepared for so much heaviness. I don't know, it's a matter of perception.
Crustcake: Another song that's interesting is "Myopic Empire," with the piano break in the middle. How did you come up with that song?
Fischer: If you listen to my music since the formation of Celtic Frost, I love to play with vastly different sections of music within the same song. It doesn't always have to be a different instrument. I love, for example, radical tempo changes. I love going into very slow parts, add a fast part and so on. I simply love the changes of mood - there's almost a flash of ADD symptoms. I know it's in fashion nowadays, but when I was a child in the 1970s, it was a disease that was not recognized and certainly not treated. I suffered from it when I was in school, and I was never treated for it. I have sometimes wondered why I have this urge to keep changing a song, in the song. Sometimes, I wonder if this is not a factor of once having had ADD. It's hard for me to focus on something that remains stagnant, I lose interest very quickly if something remains stagnant. Maybe psychologically speaking, that's why some of my songs have radical changes in them. That's why I approach songs with a desire for rapidly or radically changing moods. But I don't know if this is an accurate assessment. Of course, adding a piano was even more drastic because it's a completely different approach to music. I was really curious to see what it would sound like.
Crustcake: What was it about the songs on the new EP, Shatter, that prompted them to be released separately?
Fischer: Well for us, these songs were never separate from the entire body of material that Triptykon wrote. We made a very thorough pre-production and we abandoned all the songs we felt we didn't want to record way before we went to the studio. Once we entered the studio, we recorded the songs we felt needed to be released. The album as it is was already very long, and we didn't want to cram any more material on it. It would have been excessive, it was already excessive as it is and it would have been more excessive had we put all these songs on. So even before the album was out, we decided to release an EP. We recorded these songs to be released, not to be lying around on the studio floor. Of course, it's completely voluntary to buy an EP or not. Either you're a fan of the band, you want it or you don't, but for us in the band, these songs are very essential - no more, no less essential than the rest of the material on the album. For example, "Shatter," to me personally, is a very important song. Musically, I find it one of the most interesting songs Triptykon has recorded so far. I'm very happy that those who want to listen will have a chance to get these songs now.
Crustcake: About "Shatter," the video for that song is very interesting. How did it come about?
Fischer: It's a concept I've had in my head for a long time and I've always been deeply impressed by German expressionism of the early 20th century. Graphic design, for example, or the movies filmed in the early 20th century. I've taken certain elements of certain expressionism, and kind developed them in Triptykon, at least the logo of the band. Certain visual elements - we expanded them into the video clip, and we were very lucky to find a director who shared that vision and worked with us in Germany on shooting that video.
Crustcake: Do you think music videos are still a relevant medium, now that MTV doesn't show videos and Youtube seems to be the primary outlet for them?
Fischer: Actually I think they're more relevant than ever. MTV never gave a shit about heavy metal, just because they had a metal show once a week for like an hour doesn't mean they really cared for metal. That show was pushed to like a late-night - for most of its existence, MTV catered to the masses and not to the metal scene. They didn't give a shit. The heavier the band, the less likely it would ever be played on MTV. Nowadays, they cannot dictate us in the metal scene, what we have to listen to, nowadays everyone can decide on their own, All the metal fans, we now have access to any video want to see. We can see all the videos from our favorite bands, we can see videos from bands we are curious about. It's up to us now, we have taken away the dictatorship of commercial industry. So I think videos are more relevant than ever. Albums are no longer being bought, so how else are you gonna assess what a band sounds like and then looks like? MTV won't play it, so you go on youtube and you see a band, you see a condensed version of a band, and at least that's a good starting point. It gives you an idea of whether you should check this band out, if you should go to a concert, what this band is all about, what they express. So yes, I think videos are more relevant than ever. If anything, the age of mass media is more visual than media's even been, since it existed.
Crustcake: Should bands be more conscious of how they present themselves visually?
Fischer: Well, I think bands should have always been conscious about that aspect, even before MTV. I think the visual aspect of bands is extremely important. If you call yourself an artist, why limit yourself? The visual gives you an additional platform to express yourself, to bring your message across, to spread the band to the audience, just like in the songs you write, you have the music as a level, you have the lyrics as a level, and there you've been given the gift of a visual side as an additional level. Work on it as diligently as you do on everything else in the band. I think it's an extremely important aspect as long as it's not cheap or just for commercial use. As long as it obviously represents the band, I think it's very important, absolutely.
Crustcake: Going back to the EP, one of the songs, "Crucifixus," is this dark ambient piece. How did that song come into existence?
Fischer: It's from a cycle of songs that I wrote a long time - we finished Celtic Frost's last album in the fall of 2005. I wrote a cycle of about five songs that are all in that kind of style. I tried to bring across darkness and certain lyrical aspects in a completely different way than they usually do it in metal bands. I realize, I fully realize that some fans will connect with that song and some fans won't, some fans will love it and some fans will find only critical words for it. But it was an attempt, it was an experiment. Sometimes you fail with experiments, sometimes you won't. I wanted to try it. It's become a very important part of Triptykon, the song "Crucifixus," it's something we feel represents us as much as every other song. It's also played at every Triptykon show.
Crustcake: Do you think Triptykon will develop any more ambient pieces like that?
Fischer: I don't know if it's an ambient piece like that, but the door is always widely open in Triptykon for any kind of experiments, just like it was in Celtic Frost. As I've said, Triptykon is a musical continuation of Celtic Frost, it's well established that Celtic Frost didn't establish any limits with - whatever there is in Celtic Frost, and I would like to continue that. As a musician, I don't see why I should be forced to censor myself. Normal society is already about censorship and not allowing certain things. Heavy metal is a revolution against that, so why would I censor myself within heavy metal? I'm a musician, music is an art form, and art is not about censoring yourself. Art is about taking risks sometimes, not just scratching the surface and not playing the safe card. I'm definitely going to continue experimenting with Triptykon, no matter what it's gonna be. We will always remain heavy, the core of our work will always remain dark and heavy, so I think it's absolutely permissible to be a little experimental and on the fringe.
Crustcake: You've played heavy metal for almost 30 years. What has kept you interested in metal?
Fischer: It's the music that I'm passionate about, ever since I was 10 years old, I've been listening to this music. This music I can identify with most intently. I listen to a lot of different forms of music, but no music has had the impact that heavy rock had in my life. There's been ups and downs, there's been moments in my life where I really needed a break because I've been listening to it for so long, but I can honestly say no other music had had such a relevance in my life throughout all these years. I recognize myself within this music and it's my passion. It's not a job to me, it's not a routine. I've been as passionate about this music [as] I've ever felt, and I can't see any change coming.
Crustcake: Why is it important for you to keep up with what's going on now in metal?
Fischer: Once you stop doing that, you're basically dying. That doesn't just go for heavy metal, it goes for life in general, it applies to every human being. Once you stop living your life in the now, you might as well check out. You're admitting that you're getting old. I am extremely vital in my life, I'm full of energy, rage, and interest in all kinds of things. I'm a news junkie, both in history, politics, as well as in music. I want to know what kind of world I'm living in, in all these levels. Once that stops, it's time to check out. But right now, it doesn't stop, quite on the contrary. As long as I feel like that - that I'm honestly interested in all these things, I think I will remain relevant. Once it stops, I'm no longer relevant and I have no place in music.
Crustcake: Do you have any last comments you'd like to make?
Fischer: I would just like to say thank you again. Connecting to an earlier answer, I feel extremely honored and thankful to be granted to still be doing this and to have so many fans who support me, who have gone this path with me so loyally. I don't take this for granted, I try to work very hard to give something in return and I just want to thank the people for their loyalty.