Deep Depressions: Tom Warrior on Suicide, Triptykon, HR Giger, and His Darkest Days
It’s safe to say that metal would not be the same today without Thomas Gabriel Fischer, a.k.a. Tom Warrior, the Swiss guitarist, vocalist and mastermind behind Hellhammer, Celtic Frost and Triptykon. With little more than a Flying V, an Ibanez Tube Screamer and an iron will in the face of early ’80s ridicule, Warrior helped lay the foundations for both black metal and death metal with songs that were literally written underground in a bunker outside of Zurich and later appeared on Hellhammer’s merciless Apocalyptic Raids and Celtic Frost’s untouchable Morbid Tales. After Frost went tits up—for the second time—in 2008, Warrior assembled Triptykon, a thunderous and menacing entry in the gothic doom pantheon. The band’s second and latest album, Melana Chasmata, took nearly four years to complete, for reasons that Warrior explains in the interview below. Like its predecessor—and Celtic Frost’s To Mega Therion—it features cover art by Swiss surrealist master H.R. Giger, who designed the fucking alien from, um, Alien. Did we mention that Warrior is Giger’s personal assistant? Yeah, no big whoop.
NOISEY: The English translation of the new album title is something along the lines of “Deep Depressions.” Is that right?
Tom Warrior: Yes, it’s difficult to translate exactly, but that’s an approximate translation. Of course, depressions can be a geological feature or a psychological feature. In this instance, both. Parts of the album sound melancholy, but mostly it sounds angry. I think the first one is much angrier. It was fueled by hatred and frustration over the very unpleasant termination of Celtic Frost. This new album is far more introspective and based on personal experiences—not just my own, but [those] of several of the band members. We chose the album title years ago, but since that time, certain things have happened that have made the title even more appropriate. On a personal level, it was an exceedingly difficult album to complete, and we’re all very happy that it’s done.
Why was it difficult?
The four years since the last album have been very difficult for some of us in the band, including myself. Nothing in my own life resembles the way it was four years ago. My life has drastically changed, and most of those changes have been outside any spectrum of choice. And I’m not the only one in the band who has had dramatic changes to their private lives. We didn’t know that when we started the album, of course.
It sounds like these personal changes you’re talking about have been largely negative. Are the members of Triptykon, yourself included, worse off today than they were on the last record?
I think at this point everyone is well into the recovery phase, so to speak. Everybody is on their own path with their own issues. But I’m not trying to bring up tragedy here or anything pathetic. None of us wanted to be in this situation, and none of us had any idea that the others were going through something similar. It’s a complete coincidence. We envisioned the time writing this album completely differently. But like so many things in life, we have no control. That’s why the album took four years to write instead of two. In the meantime, we’ve accepted that at least three members have completely different lives now, and that’s beyond their choice. But one of the things that has helped us through this is that we have a band and we honestly love the music we are playing and we know we are friends. I know that sounds cliché, like some kind of hippie family, but that’s the way it is.
How bad did it get?
I was really close to losing everything—much closer than anyone reading this can probably imagine. But if it got to the most extreme, I’m sure I could’ve called our bass player [Vanja Šlajh] and she would have taken care of me as good as possible. And that’s the main difference between Triptykon and Celtic Frost. At the end of Celtic Frost, I sometimes got the feeling that if I was lying on the floor bleeding, someone would still stick a knife in my back. But in this band it’s the opposite.
Is there a way to talk about what happened in a general way, without getting too personal?
It’s a legitimate question because the album was created in such a situation and the mood on the album reflects it, but I personally think it’s pathetic to promote an album on the strength of your personal tragedy. So you’ve gotta draw a line somewhere. People like Rihanna and these reality TV stars promote their work on personal tragedy, and I cringe when I see that or read that. It’s embarrassing. I can explain the reasons why this album sounds the way it does, but at this point I think that’s as far as I should go. We are in the metal scene, and there’s just gotta be a line somewhere. Maybe some years down the line, one can look back and explain things but I think it would be very cheap for me to say, “We had a hard time—buy our album!”
Did all the turmoil force to you approach this album differently—beyond the fact that it took you twice as long to complete as you’d hoped?
No, that was the only effect. I basically withdrew completely and attempted to get my life in order before I could go back to the rehearsal room. Without the permission of the band, I basically took a year off to try and figure out what my place was in life and if there even was a place for me in life. For some in the band, that was a very difficult time because they didn’t know if the album would ever be completed. I personally knew that if I would survive this time, I would complete the album. But I had complete writer’s block for a while. I had so much on my mind that it was hard for me to honestly concentrate on writing music. I attempted it several times, but I knew right away that it didn’t make any sense.
Was there a chance that there wasn’t going to be another Triptykon album?
The chance for that to happen was about 99 percent. I realize that sounds like drama to get some headlines, but I’m simply being completely honest. I’ve done this for 33 years now, and at almost 51 years old I don’t feel the need to act like a macho heavy metal musician. I’m a human being like everyone else. I have my strong and proud times, and my extremely weak and painful times, like everyone else in the world. I was completely blindsided by certain events in my life, and as they piled up and I started to feel completely powerless to change them, it eventually turned out to be too much. In all honesty, it took away the joy of living completely. Finishing the album didn’t become a secondary thing—it became the umpteenth thing in the line. It had no importance whatsoever.
What was the turning point?
The reason I am still here is because my girlfriend pleaded with me not to take my own life. All of that didn’t happen in a single day—it took a long time for her to convince me to stick around. I had to come to terms with that, and I began to try and rebuild my life to some semblance of order. And part of that order is my existence as a musician. This is what gives me strength and pleasure in life. Once I came to terms that I would remain here, I knew I would complete the album. I’m not part of Metallica—I’m not going to go to a psychiatrist and pay an insane amount of money for some guy who doesn’t know me to tell me wisecracks. My own therapy was to write music, to write lyrics, and to try to digest all of this and work out what it meant for me. And having said all of that, the decision to stick around remains a daily challenge. But I don’t want this interview to be all downhill…
Agreed. Let’s talk about H.R. Giger.
I’m incredibly proud and happy that H.R. Giger has collaborated with us again. It means a lot to me. It means as much as it did the first time Giger worked with me in 1985. It means the world to me to have an album out there with very honest songs and a cover like that. I’m very glad to have lived for that.
The cover is fantastic, and I know there’s another of his 1970s pieces in the gatefold. Were those pieces he offered to you or that you specifically chose?
I’ve been very fortunate to work with Giger twice, and twice he enabled me to have a grandiose launch of a band, with Celtic Frost and with Triptykon. I didn’t want to be ungrateful or insatiable, so we decided to go with a different artist for this new album. But then to our complete astonishment, Giger came and said he enjoyed the first Triptykon album and said that in his mind it was the best use of any artwork he’s ever given to a band. For that reason, he asked us if we were willing to cooperate with him on future albums, and for us that was… I mean, my jaw was on the floor. It took me about a week to digest that. And then he told me I had access to his entire body of work, so after a few weeks I came back with a short list of paintings that I proposed. He approved all of them, so then as a band we all selected two paintings that we felt were appropriate. This all happened about two or three years ago. I sketched out the basic layout on my laptop and showed it to him, and he gave us the go-ahead. Again, these were chosen before anything happened to us, and as it turns out they couldn’t have been any more perfect.
Using Giger’s work on the Triptykon albums obviously establishes a visual link back to Celtic Frost’s To Mega Therion, but your feelings about Celtic Frost aren’t necessarily all positive. How do you reconcile visual continuity with a past that you have mixed feelings about?
Given that the music industry is undergoing rapid changes and changes probably more drastic than ever before, one of my personal instincts is to long for continuity where I can. So you are absolutely correct there, and of course Giger is part of that. When we did the first Triptykon album, using Giger’s art was completely symbolic for me. I approached him and explained it to him, and I was ecstatic when he agreed to work with me because I wanted to establish that this band is just as important to me as Celtic Frost was when we had a Giger painting on the To Mega Therion album. So it was a very personal gesture. Now that he has approached us, it becomes something else entirely. I hate to be typecast or predictable, and yet we’re doing this album with this cover because Giger is a completely unique artist. He is possibly the greatest living surrealist painter on this planet. Beyond the friendship I have with him, I’ve been a fan of his work since I was a kid. So it’s a huge honor.
You also happen to be Giger’s personal assistant.
I’ve been working with him for seven years now. In fact, I just came from his place two hours ago.
What are the typical things you do for him?
Everything. Anything you can imagine, I’ve done for him or his wife. My duties today, for example, were to look at a new poster line that a mutual friend is making for him and make comments on the quality and so forth. And then I was working with Giger’s wife and the same friend on establishing a foundation that will guide the Giger Museum in Switzerland when Giger has died, which hopefully will take quite a long time. But anything they ask I will do because I have such an immense amount of gratitude toward them. He’s become a mentor of mine, starting at the end of Hellhammer, when he was one of the only people to believe in a band that was widely ridiculed. He was a superstar at the time—he had just won the Oscar [for Alien] and he was at the peak of his popularity. And yet he believed in Hellhammer, a band that didn’t have a record deal, a band that everyone in Switzerland laughed at. He didn’t have to do that. We were teenagers. We were nobodies. So I owe him, and it’s a huge pleasure to work with him.
Thinking of you and Giger in a room together is like imagining the Swiss Justice League of Extreme Art or something…
You have to realize I am still very close to the frame of mind I had when I was a kid and I first discovered Giger’s work. My father had his first two books in the 1970s, before Giger was famous. He was an underground artist at that point, and there were two very amateurish books he released on some underground publication platform. My father also had a Giger print on the wall, so I looked at this stuff and I became addicted to it. I never really was able to leave that behind, so the superhero thing you are talking about is how I think of him, too. I’m just there as a small disciple. Even though I have known him for decades, I often feel like throwing myself on the floor and kissing his feet because I am in constant contact with his art. He really is a genius. He’s not just an everyday talent. He is an exceptional talent. I’m in awe of him. He’s a miracle and a mystery. So if anyone is a superhero, it is Giger alone.
J. Bennett plays guitar in Ides Of Gemini and bass in Black Mare.