Q&A: Tom Warrior of Celtic Frost, Triptykon, and Hellhammer

Tom Gabriel Warrior has produced extreme metal since the early 1980s, first with seminal groups Hellhammer and Celtic Frost and now with Triptykon.  In this question-and-answer session, columnist Todd Nief chats with the frontman about authenticity in music, beer cans in thrash metal, and the effect of happiness on extreme-metal composition.

Triptykon: “I am the Twilight”
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[Triptykon’s] Shatter EP and Eparistera Daimones LP are part of the same body of creative work. Can you comment on what you’re trying to accomplish with this, be it an emotional agenda, a political agenda, or any or all of the above?

Probably all of the above, but on this first album, it’s predominantly emotional. Of course, the sessions from the first album reflect some of the turmoil that existed when I left Celtic Frost. There’s no way around it. There’s some social commentary in songs such as “Goetia,” but, by and large, it’s my own feelings about leaving Celtic Frost, leaving my own band, leaving the summary of my life behind in a forced manner.

Nobody’s forced to read the lyrics; nobody’s forced to read the liner notes. We provide very detailed information, but by no means are you required to read all that. Music is music at the end of the day, and with music, you should create your own images in your head. I think it’s perfectly possible to listen to Triptykon without dealing with the lyrics or the liner notes. The music is intense and dark enough.

When I was a teenage fan, I didn’t speak English so well, so I just listened and the music created its own images in my head, and that’s the way it should be. It’s probably better that way.

Having read your books, you describe your musical influences in detail. You reference the new wave of British heavy metal, particularly Venom and Raven, but also some punk stuff like Discharge. To me, those artists are still very “rock” sounding, whereas Hellhammer and early Celtic Frost is this chromatic, atonal thing that, to me, doesn’t sound like anything else. Where did that come from?

Good question — probably from my weird mind. That’s the thing: I never went to music school; I never learned to analyze music the way you’re supposed to do it. I don’t know — it’s probably because that’s my own interpretation of what music should be like. Yeah, it probably is weird by necessity. I never knew that you’re supposed to play in the blues scale; I just played whatever was in my limited mind, and what was within the limited capabilities of my fingers. And that’s what resulted.

It’s all based on my emotions, and much, much less on any theory or musical heritage. I started from scratch with a bassist, Steve Warrior, who was equally untrained, and we just did what we could. It’s very authentic, at least.

“I never knew that you’re supposed to play in the blues scale; I just played whatever was in my limited mind, and what was within the limited capabilities of my fingers. And that’s what resulted.”

Similarly, the intro track on To Mega Therion sounds very classical. It sounds like Richard Strauss or something.

Those are quite big words. I would never remotely rate myself anywhere near Richard Strauss. But I’ve been deeply fascinated by classical music, by the epic emotions that classical composers were able to convey in their music. Without any amplification, without any modern means, they were able to bring across such intense atmosphere, such pride, such epic landscapes. It pulled me in deeply as a child when I heard classical music. In my own tiny, minute way, we tried to do something like that on To Mega Therion in ’85. Absolutely.

Do you think it’s possible with metal to achieve anything other than subcultural success? Do you think it’s possible to make some sort of change in the world other than having people who like “noisy music” like you?

Yeah, I actually am certain about that. Of course not on a global scale, because the metal scene has been pushed back into the underground. It’s now an underground scene again, and you reach only so many people with that. But yeah, of course. Metal fans are by no means stupid. They are intelligent people. They have a very good instinct. My experience is that yeah, you can change things if you want to change things.

It’s not mandatory; metal can also be there to head-bang and have a good time, which is just as legitimate. But of course, if you want to convey a certain point, you also want to think about certain things — not take everything for granted, and think a little bit behind the scenes. “Why is this like this? Why do human beings act like that?”

But of course, you can; you talk to those fans by means of your releases. And I’ve had uncounted amazing discussions in my life with fans who read our lyrics or…through something we did, our artwork or whatever we did, came to me or came to Martin and discussed these things with us in extreme detail and sometimes, in turn, made us think again.

Yes, definitely, it’s possible. It really depends on what you want to achieve with your band. You don’t have to be a missionary. But of course, it’s also nice if you’re given this platform to talk to several generations of people and your peers that you say something meaningful, and not just sing about beer cans, you know?

Or toxic mutants or whatever.

(Laughs) Exactly. Although, if you look at Hellhammer’s lyrics…

(Laughs) Kind of similar, although with maybe less obvious humor.

(Laughs) Yeah, exactly.

Someone just posted the documentary A Dying God that was on Swiss TV with English subtitles.

Oh, Jesus — I haven’t seen it yet.

You said something along the lines of “Celtic Frost doesn’t work when I’m happy.” Do you still feel that way about Triptykon?

That’s a good question. It’s probably less so in Triptykon, because I’m very happy in Triptykon. There’s two states of happiness: there’s your current happiness that you’re living in right now, and then there’s the feelings that you have about your life as a sum of things. And my life, as a sum of things, is rather less happy. And that’s probably where I derive my music from, and that’s why the music is so dark.

But here on tour and in the band, I’m very happy because it’s a circle of friends. I know it sounds like a cliché, but Triptykon is actually a circle of friends, whereas Celtic Frost was a congregation of enemies. There’s a huge difference in that, of course, especially when you’re on tour or in the studio and you talk to each other for 24 hours a day. I’d much rather play with a band that is a substitute family than with a band that, when I turn around, stabs me in my back.

So I am happy, but there’s been enough events in my life to keep my music dark, I suppose. The one album that I made when I was happy was made 22 years ago (Celtic Frost’s Cold Lake), and I don’t think I will repeat that mistake again.

That thing…honestly, those are still obviously your riffs.

Well, not really…

Oh, come on — some of them are. You have a certain rhythmic thing that you always do that still shows up on that album. So I still kind of like it, because I really like the way that you write riffs.

You know, if you write that down, they’re going to burn you at the stake. (Laughs) They’re going to lynch you, like Frankenstein. They’re going to stand outside your home with scythes, pitchforks, and torches.

Hey, I’ll defend that opinion. I don’t think that many people have honestly heard that record.

Of course not. And I’m happy about that. (Laughs)

But there are still good riffs on that thing. I can listen to a lot of stuff that I don’t like that much and still appreciate chunks of it.

Of course, of course.

Something like Slipknot.  That band has riffs.

I know, I know! But even the worst Slipknot album is still a million times better than that album.  I’ll say it myself. (Laughs)

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