Tom Gabriel Fischer, founder, guitarist and frontman of the Swiss heavy metal pioneers Hellhammer and that band’s more sophisticated second incarnation Celtic Frost, is a unique creative force. Now leading the acclaimed Triptykon, Fischer has teamed up with Mia Wallace, formerly of the Italian black metal band The True Endless, in a three-bassist group called Niryth, in which Triptykon’s bass player Vanja Slajh also appears. With Wallace also appearing in Triumph Of Death, a project in which Fischer pays his respects to the music of the long-lost Hellhammer, there’s a whole lot of bass to talk about.
How did you two meet?
Fischer One and a half years ago, Mia sent me a demo in the mail. We had known each other already, but the music blew me away. That led to Niryth; Niryth led to Triumph Of Death; Triumph Of Death led to her helping with the songwriting in Triptykon; and who knows what else will be there. We are both very charged, and very adrenalised: musically, we feel very strongly. This is one of the reasons why Mia and I became collaborators.
How did you get started as a bass player, Mia?
Wallace An ex-boyfriend who later became my partner in The True Endless basically told me, ‘Play my Fender Jazz. You have to put your fingers here, here, and here’ and so I became a black metal bassist, playing with a plectrum. There was not much room for creativity at that point. That was my career for 20 years.
Fischer Mia’s previous band fell apart because the singer died of cancer. Mia had been in the band for a very, very long time, and suddenly she found herself without a musical project.
Wallace Out of the blue, everything collapsed. In Italy nobody wanted to play with me because I’m a woman. Nobody relies on a woman there.
Fischer I got to hear some of the things that she experienced in Italy – the misogyny in some of those bands who needed a bassist, but didn’t want to give her a chance. They said, ‘A woman cannot be in a metal band’. It made me so furious, which is why I said, ‘I’ll help you’. I knew she was a good bassist, and I hated that she didn’t get a chance, mainly because of her gender, when she blew away so many of these bassists. It was insane, so that’s when we started brainstorming what she could do.
I was hoping that this attitude was history.
Fischer Same here. Before I knew her, I didn’t know this was still existing so strongly. As a man, you don’t really see this stuff. Metal is supposed to unify us all. We’re supposed to be this huge family of metal fans.
Wallace After I met Tom, I started to hope to play again – and this time I felt that I could express myself, finally. I can use my creativity that was buried in me for years, and everything came out.
Fischer We were sitting in a restaurant, brainstorming what she could do next. I was saying, ‘It’s a shame that Vanja of Triptykon doesn’t play guitar, because the two of you could be in a band and it would be astonishing’. Then we looked at each other and said, ‘Why does it have to be a guitar in the band?’ Once that thought was out in the open, then we became excited because it was something unusual. We spent the entire evening talking about what this band could be. By the end of the night I said, ‘Would it be okay if I also join, because I’m a frustrated bassist and this whole thing sounds so exciting?’ And of course once we said two basses, we said three basses.
How did you arrange the different bass parts in the songs?
Fischer Every song was demoed by me and Mia, and on the demos we determined what kinds of sounds we wanted, how to layer the basses, and how to separate them. Sometimes Mia and I were so in tune with each other that we used one bass, and we could hardly hand each other the bass fast enough. We almost began to work as one person. We were so in tune with what we felt was going to be necessary that we were like, ‘Give me this, give me that,’ and it just came naturally. Triptykon’s guitar player, Victor Santura recorded it at his studio in Bavaria. At first he was just going to record the album, but then he got so immersed in the music that he became a co-producer and also did some guest bass.
What bass gear did you use?
Wallace We recorded the basic parts with a four-string Dean, a Metalman V bass because it has a very strong presence, very deep. The solo parts were done with a Clover Bass-Tard five-string bass. We tuned to D, but like a guitar tuning.
Fischer We also used a Warwick five-string to do some more elaborate, higher things. Once we determined that the band wasn’t going to be the standard thing, we were totally open to tunings. In one of the songs we even used the pickups as frets, because we couldn’t reach notes that were high enough. We were totally open.
Wallace Effects were crucial. We have tons of them, some of them built specifically for Niryth.
Fischer We really wanted a different texture for every bass, so we used effects, but separate effects. Flanger, delay, anything. It was freeing for us because it wasn’t a standard band format. We didn’t have to adhere to any rules. We were just sitting here, having fun: we just tried whatever came to us.
Wallace I have a very particular way of playing bass. I have long nails, so I’m using a clip-on plectrum that is usually used by guitar players for classical guitar. I learned to play on the bass strings with long nails, so my finger position is not usual. When you play metal, you really need to be careful not to be too tense. You have to relax and only use your wrist, not the entire arm. I really don’t like to use fingers. If I have to do it, I will do it, but it’s not really my style.
Tom, you’re known as a guitarist, but you began as a bass player, correct?
Fischer Yes. Bass is my dream instrument. Because of people like Geddy Lee and Lemmy, my first professional bass was a Rickenbacker in 1981, which I paid off forever because it was a hugely expensive instrument. But then for my first band, we couldn’t find a guitar player for the type of music we wanted to play. At that time, everybody in Switzerland tried to sound like Krokus or AC/DC, which was basically the same thing. No-one wanted to play my kind of UK-influenced Norwegian metal style. I found a bassist but not a guitar player, so in order to have a band, I had to abandon the instrument, which killed me, and I remained a frustrated bassist over the years. I occasionally played bass on a Celtic Frost album, and I wrote songs on bass, but I became a guitar player. That’s why, when Mia talked about this Niryth project and we started determining that it was several bassists, I said, ‘Please, could I be a bassist too?’
Your partner in Hellhammer and Celtic Frost was the late bassist Martin Ain, a pioneer in his field. Tell us about him.
Fischer Martin was an extremely important counterpoint to me for almost my entire musical life, as you know. Losing my partnership with Martin was a severe blow to me creatively and on a human level, because everything that has mattered in my life musically until I left Celtic Frost was in some way connected to Martin. He only wrote a handful of songs in two or three decades, but we discussed every song I wrote, and he gave me his input to everything I did, which was crucial. I felt a huge void, a huge hole in my life, creatively, after I left Celtic Frost, and with Triptykon I was very fortunate that the audiences gave me this continued success. I felt very proud of it, but inside of me, every time I wrote an album, I missed the input that Martin gave me. He was a unique person in so many ways: he and I were like brothers. We knew each other probably too well. Mia is the first collaborator I’ve had since Martin who reaches the same level. For the very first time since I left Celtic Frost 11 years ago, I feel like I have a true collaborator. Martin is unique and nobody will ever take that from him, and of course I’m the first one to honour him for the rest of my life. I will dedicate my next album to him. But Mia is Martin in her own way to me. I’m not taking Martin away from the fans, but I finally found somebody after 11 years who is taking that place to the full extent, and that, to me, is a huge gift because I missed this forever. I think Martin, if he was still here, would approve of what Mia and I are doing. She and have I talked about this often. If he could hear Niryth, I think he would approve of it.