Tom Fischer is Dead (but still giving interviews)
In May of 1982, with Christian Conservatism not only on the rise in America but deeply entrenched in the countries of Western Europe and the nuclear weapon race reaching its peak, a new form of extreme music was taking hold. In the midst of this environment three kids from Birchwill, Switzerland, barely out of high school, Tom Warrior, Bruce Day, and Stephen Priestly entered the Grave Hill Bunker bomb shelter and recorded demos of ‘Death Fiend’ and ‘Triumph of Death.’ These demos were followed in December by the ‘Satanic Rites’ sessions, the intro and outro to which were inspired by deliberately slowing down the Venom single, ‘Witching Hour.’ The trio called themselves Hellhammer, and they took the Satanic imagery of Venom into whole new realms, with recordings that represent some of the earliest visions of what came to be called the first wave of black metal (a term Venom had coined), a music that represented an artistically extreme exploration of subjects hidden by religion, popular culture, and the preppie atmosphere of the 1980s. Among other imagery Hellhammer invoked specters of mass destruction, bloody pussies, and burning churches.
It is a bizarre road that front-man Tom Warrior, also known as Tom Gabriel Fisher, has taken, a road shared by bassist and co-lyricist Martin Eric Ain. When Ain joined Hellhammer halfway through the band’s brief tenure, the essential core of what would eventually become Celtic Frost was formed. Celtic Frost went on to create three mind-blowing releases: Morbid Tales (1984), To Mega Therion (1985), and Into The Pandemonium (1987). These albums were progressively experimental, to the point where the inclusion of a drum machine on the new wave-influenced song, “I Won’t Dance” from Into The Pandemonium and the glam rock debacle Cold Lake in 1989 alienated fans of the earlier material. Celtic Frost broke up soon after but reformed in 2005 to release Monotheist, an album steeped in Crowleian darkness and crushing guitar tones, winning back the favor of most fans. Yet it is the early Hellhammer recordings that arguably remain the most respected and most influential releases of Fischer and Ain’s career.
Despite releasing only one official 12” and recording only three demos (which until February existed only in bootleg form) Hellhammer have gone on to acquire mythic status, a surprising fact considering that their career spanned barely two years. Just as Hellhammer once copied Venom, they are now imitated the world over. Examples run from blatant copycats like Germany’s Warhammer and Brazil’s Apokalyptic Raids to slightly more original, but still obvious, devotees as Japan’s all-girl Gallhammer. Not to mention countless others who, like the punk bands of the late seventies, continue to pick up and pound on their instruments with limited skill and maximum aggression.
In addition to playing with Celtic Frost, Tom Warrior is involved in numerous side projects, including the industrial/electronic experiment Apollyon Sun, and is putting together a book titled Only Death Is Real – The Illustrated History of Hellhammer And Early Celtic Frost. He also maintains a blog at fischerisdead.blogspot.com The blog’s unusual url title is a story perhaps to be told at a later time. For now, suffice it to say that Tom Fischer comes across as an intelligent, serious-minded man. Imagine Werner Herzog on downers. He also seems like someone who laughs rarely, but is nonetheless in possession of certain morbid humor. In fact, he might have chuckled a couple times during this interview, though it’s difficult to be certain.
It seems like bands with Satanic or otherwise extreme content are everywhere today, but that wasn’t the case in 1983. So where did you come up with the ideas for the lyrics of Hellhammer?
Well, first and foremost, when we started we were simply a Venom clone. In 1981 when I first heard Venom there was no other music on the planet like this. The only band that approached the extremity of Venom was the punk band Discharge. Me and my best friend at the time wanted to form a band and hearing these bands proved to us that what we had in our mind was actually feasible. It encouraged us to actually form a band though we were completely inexperienced. We had just picked up our instruments. And because we were so inexperienced initially we weren’t good enough to emulate our own ideas so we tried to copy Venom and that included, of course, the lyrical content, which would explain why the early Hellhammer material is so extreme, so Satanic. The second factor is that the circumstances in my life at the time were completely radical. And the hatred and the pain and injury that I experienced every day in my private life, I used Hellhammer as valve to release all of that. Which explains the immense hatred, the aggression, and the violence in the lyrics.
There’re like a million specific circumstances. I’ve been asked about that many times now in promoting Hellhammer, but I think it’s a bit cheap to promote an extreme metal album on the back of my own personal tragedy. I feel that it’s almost tabloid material and we don’t want it to be perceived like that. All I can say is that the circumstances of my upbringing were at times very radical and I had no escape. I was a child that had no means to change the situation. I was exposed to a mother who drifted into insanity. That’s probably the simplest way of putting it. This is how I spent the years of my youth. And all around us was a provincial village of like 1,500 people all of which knew what was going on but nobody helped, which only contributed to making my life hell. And I’m not saying this to complain, this is simply the way it was and my way of dealing with it was to form a band like Hellhammer.
Did the Christianity around you contribute to the Satanic content?
Yes it did. In the case of Martin, who joined after about a year of the band’s existence, the Christian surroundings were very instrumental in shaping his lyrics and his understanding of the music. He grew up in what one might say were radical Christian surroundings and it had a direct bearing on his contributions to Hellhammer. In my case the content was much more personal. And I think the combination of his and my emotions is what made Hellhammer sound the way it did.
What are your views on religion today?
They’re exactly the same. Religion is pathetic. Religion is for weaklings. Religion is a modern version of scared human beings huddling around in a pack and there’s thunder and lightning outside the caves out from which they crawled. They need a group to feel comfortable. They need a group to feel strong. They need to huddle around a leader. Otherwise they feel abandoned and scared in this big dark world. So they created themselves a god. It’s pathetic. Religion is an expression of weakness. If you have to believe something, you’re basically admitting that you are weak. If you know something, you are infinitely more strong. I personally have no difficulty admitting that there are a million things I don’t know about this universe. I don’t need to create a facsimile and hang on to this just to live and make sense of it all. I know exactly as a small human being I will never understand all the intricacies of this universe. I have absolutely no problem with it either. I think the universe itself is a miracle as it is. We don’t need a god for that.
And yet there is a strong spiritual quality to your lyrics.
Spirituality and religion are completely different. I’m very spiritual, but it has nothing to do with believing or religion. It’s my emotions, my life. The older I’ve grown, the more personal my lyrics have become. When I was a teenager in Hellhammer I didn’t have enough years of life behind me to draw from too many personal experiences that I could have written songs about. I felt aggression, I felt frustration about my situation, but I wasn’t seasoned enough to pack these emotions into an original story. So we resorted to stories from religious history, from history per se, and from occultism or fantasy to convey the things we wanted to convey. Now that I am over forty I have had a very varied life and emotions flow out of me much easier, and it’s much easier for me to express events from my own life. I no longer have to delve into fantasy to convey what I want to convey. I have enough life to draw from. My spirituality happens on a very personal, a very sober level. It has nothing to do with a certain faith or believing or anything like that. I don’t function like that.
Very much so. A lot of people probably think that we were trying to move Celtic Frost into Hellhammer territory to make the band more real or enhance Celtic Frost. There’s nothing I can do to change that perception, that’s fine. But the fact of the matter is that it’s exactly the opposite. When Martin and I rekindled our friendship in 1999/2000 and reformed Celtic Frost we decided not to force this whole project. We decided to give it as much time as needed. We wanted to let the band regrow organically, we didn’t want to hurry up and record a comeback album so we could cash in a check from a record company. We decided to form our own record company, to fund the recordings ourselves and let the bend grow organically. If it will take a month, fine. If it will take ten years, fine. It eventually took five and a half years and during that time the band became a band again. It wasn’t an artificial comeback project for management or a promoter. It was a real band that was allowed to grow. And during that time, of course, Martin and I discussed Hellhammer.
Both Martin and I have very similar roots, we come from the same area, a very provincial area of Switzerland, and working together as seasoned adults of course led us to analyze our youth passively. And the fact that we let Celtic Frost grow together so organically made it much more real than what the band had been at the end of its first existence. When we released Monotheist we ourselves realized how many parallels there were on the album to Hellhammer. For example the track “Synagoga Satanae,” even though it’s a very typical Frost track there is still so much Hellhammer in it that it’s almost like a modern version of “Triumph Of Death.”
So it was Celtic Frost that made the re-evaluation of Hellhammer possible, not the other way around. The issue of the Hellhammer demos is a very organic thing and it’s not forced. The reason it came out about two years after Monotheist is simply because we didn’t have time to finish this project because we were on tour for 125 shows. We had started this project years ago but there was no way we could have done Monotheist, and the tour, and the Demon Entrails at the same time.
What exactly is meant by the title Monotheist? Is it reference to a certain deity?
Does it make a difference? It’s the same crappy mechanism. It’s the same comment on society: that people want to huddle around a leader, whether it’s a politician, or a record company executive, or a Satan, or a god. Whether it’s a Western god, or an Eastern god, or a positive, or a negative, it doesn’t really matter. It’s the same comment on a society that we have been living in for at least 2000 years. It’s simply a statement. A statement of reality. And our lyrics have always been critical. If you take, for example, “Vision of Mortality” off Morbid Tales or “Into The Crypts Of Rays,” they’re blatantly critical of religion; “Crypt Of Rays” being the story of one of the most prominent Christians in France and “Vision Of Mortality” being the story of Satanism and occultism attempted to be used for personal gain. These kinds of observations have a long tradition in Celtic Frost.
Do you keep in contact with Steve Warrior or Bruce Day?
Bruce Day, only by email. We have many common friends because he has become quite a well known road manager and guitar tech. A lot of the people from Celtic Frost’s road crew have worked with Bruce Day but I haven’t met him since like 1984. But I’ve been emailing him back and forth and he has contributed to the Hellhammer book that’s coming out. Steve Warrior I see frequently. He still lives in Zurich. I’ve just seen him the other week actually. I brought him a full set of Hellhammer releases because he contributed hundreds of photos to the Demon Entrails release and he also has contributed a lot of text to the Hellhammer book. I have a very good friendship with him still.
Well the manuscript on the computer is about 85 pages, but we have hundreds of photos, so I think the balance is towards photos. The manuscript, however, is extremely detailed. The fact that Hellhammer only existed for two years makes for a very short biography, but the text itself will reveal the type of things that have never been publicly told. It’s the book to end all books about Hellhammer. The photo content is going to be sensational, we have hundreds of unreleased or extremely rare photos. We have unreleased logos, unreleased artwork, drawings, sketches. We hope to be able to publish it later this year, but more likely it will be 2009. It’s been a labor of love for like three and a half years now, to research and write this book, and I would like to see it come out while I’m still around.
You have a close relationship with HR Geiger. I heard that you were going to be guiding tours of his museum.
His museum in the French part of Switzerland is to celebrate it’s tenth anniversary this year. He has approached us and asked if we would be guests of honor and play a concert on the occasion and of course we said yes. We felt extremely honored. He is a very close friend of the band, probably more so than ever before. I am working as his assistant every week, though it is based on a very close friendship. I still carry as much respect for him as when I was a child and was first exposed to his art in the ‘70s. I am in awe of his thinking, his creativity. He’s a genius in my eyes. I am incredibly honored after all these years to even know him. The man is indescribably creative.
Do you draw or paint?
Yeah I do, but of course I’m nowhere near Gieger or ever will be. But yeah, several of my drawings have been featured on Hellhammer covers. And I have my own ‘art project’, although I put that into quotation marks because what is my art compared to Geiger? I have begun to create a series of death masks of myself, which I am casting in concrete and painting each one of them individually, each one of them is different. It’s an idea I’ve had for many, many years since my youth, to create death masks of myself, and now I finally have the leisure to do it.
Are you still doing the blog?
The blog sometimes rests for a month or so, but yeah. Right now I haven’t posted on the blog because I’ve just come home from a month of production work in Norway. (The site has since been updated.) I was in a studio that is hours away from civilization. It was literally in the middle of forests and fields in this little village with nothing around and, accordingly, my access to the internet was very limited for like over a month.
I’m not at liberty to say right now. Which is not my decision. The band is in negotiations right now and they would like to keep it quiet for the moment.
Have you guys discussed a new Celtic Frost album?
I have tried to for, like, half a year. There have been a lot of personal issues in Celtic Frost. It’s a very volatile band. The creativity that makes for albums such as Monotheist or Into The Pandemonium also has a personal effect. When we don’t create an album, all this volatility, this creativity, these egos, it’s all still there and especially when we are on the road. It’s not always easy to contain all these things which leads to a lot of personal differences. I’ve proposed to the band numerous times that we need to start working on the next album and I have failed so far. Though I am at the moment doing a side project in which I am using all the (recent) music I have written, but I’m confident that in the future there will be other Celtic Frost albums, though it’s just really difficult for me to get the band to actually work on it. I’m very impatient, so I’m working on other projects for the time being. But yeah, eventually there will be another album if I have my way. I’m not a dictator though, so I have to contend with whatever the situation is.
Is your project related to Apollyon Sun?
No, it’s going to sound very much like Celtic Frost. The music I’ve written and the direction that we’ve begun is extremely dark. It’s very heavy, very dark. It’s at the same time more experimental than Monotheist, but it’s going to be extremely dark. It’s not going to be an industrial project, it’s going to be based on the Celtic Frost style.
What do think about the band’s today that intentionally copy Hellhammer?
It’s amazing. It’s something that we could have never foreseen. I mean if somebody would have told us in 83, we wouldn’t have believed it at all. Hellhammer was so small, it was impossible to foresee something like that.
Would you ever play Hellhammer songs again in a live setting?
I would love to, but I’m afraid it’s impossible. Hellhammer was born from such unique circumstances at such a unique point in time and point in heavy metal history that I’m afraid it’s impossible to recreate that. We rehearsed some Hellhammer songs as Celtic Frost about two years ago and decided not to play them because it sounded perfect. Which is not Hellhammer. It just sounded too good to be Hellhammer. I think going on stage to play Hellhammer songs for money would be the wrong approach. That would be betraying Hellhammer. We decided to leave it and it’s unfortunate because I would have loved to perform these songs, but I’ve come to the conclusion it’s simply not possible.