Photo: Alienation Photography

Interview: Popestars “We’re not trying to replicate Ghost exactly. We’re performing the songs that Ghost write.”

We caught up with masked drummer Xander, one of the Nameless Ghouls for the UK’s highly successful Ghost tribute, Popestars, and Director of Ghost Con UK to discuss honouring their source band, the tribute act scene, and their plans for the future of the band and this year’s convention.

I’m here with Xander from Popestars. How are we doing?

“I’m good. Hot!”

Is that generally or just because of the mask?

 “Yeah, the mask. Well, actually the mask is not too bad but the costume has four layers, the cravat and balaclava as well, so it’s pretty toasty when wearing it!”

How do you tend to feel ahead of performing live?

“Oh, I get really excited. I have a lot of nerves, but its good nerves, as I’m excited. Like butterflies, I guess?”

Yeah, those pre show jitters that then turn into pure adrenaline once you actually hit the stage.

Yeah, it’s really good adrenaline because of the excitement and I really enjoy playing this music and I love fans enjoying it as well. That’s what we do it for, for everyone else to have fun. Fans get to see Ghost’s music live that they can’t necessarily afford or travel to go and see Ghost. We’re literally providing a public service.”

So is that one of the tenants, if you will, of Popestars by providing others with the opportunity to congregate and worship?

Absolutely yeah, because Ghost will never go back to clubs, they’ll only do arenas and festivals. They won’t do small shows, or some might have anxiety and only want to go to a little show, so it gives them the opportunity to do so.”

That’s a lovely consideration!

Yeah, it’s purely for fun for everyone else to enjoy, we should do what we can!”

So as the UK’s biggest and best Ghost tribute act, how do you take the original source material from Ghost and not only honour it, but also put your own personality into it?

We have got a really good keyboard player. He’s not performing live with us anymore but he still does the backing tracks. He’s a fantastic musician and can replicate it to a tee. A new song could come out and he could recreate it within a week if he wanted to. So it helps that we’ve got really good musicians and we play the music how it should be. But naturally, because our musicians are from metal bands, without intentionally being so, we’re actually just a touch heavier.

I think that’s one reason people liked us so much when we started, we’re accidentally a bit heavier like you’d expect Ghost to be if you didn’t know their sound. We’re not trying to be, it just worked out that way.”

A happy accident?

Yeah totally. I’m not talking like blast beats or anything like that. Just a touch more in tone.”

Well, as you say, it’s still true to the source material but it’s your own personality as a natural result of the musicians that are performing with the band.

Yeah. And our singer doesn’t imitate Tobias either, he sings in his own voice. He’s a clean singer, and male, so he’s got the right fit, but he’s being himself. We’re not trying to replicate Ghost exactly. We’re performing the songs that Ghost write, if you like. A bit like how Adam Lambert did with Queen when he says he’s not trying to recreate Freddie, he’s just singing the songs so everyone can enjoy them live.”

I suppose also in a way it can kind of take the pressure off a little bit if you’re not trying to be Ghost. You are just yourselves as musicians who happen to be performing Ghost songs.

“Yeah absolutely. And our costumes aren’t 100% exact replicas, even though a lot of other tribute bands do spend a lot of money and time doing so. I source it all on eBay as close as I can and it’s a close fit. So it’s inspired by Ghost – rather than replicating exactly.

We do have some parts, obviously the mask is a very close replica and we’ve got the patches on the waistcoat, so we do have some bits. But we’re not too bothered with not being exact because we’re not Ghost. There is no point in trying to be them.”

Well, that neatly brings me onto my next question, was there a conscious effort when you were starting out at least as far as your attire on stage and also you’re on stage performances to not necessarily replicate Ghost but still be yourself and in the spirit – of Ghost?

It’s all accidental. The first gig was just the one off and I thought if we’re going to do it, we might as well get some costumes. I just got some cheap stuff off eBay, and after our first gig, people wanted more and we were getting requests from the rest of the country, even in Europe as well.

People wanted to see us! We didn’t really have an intentional direction because it was never meant to be. It’s just aligned very well. We’ve literally done it for the love of the music and for fun. We had one meeting when we first started just too kind of get the ball rolling and no we never really made a conscious decision. We’re all generally motivated that we’re providing entertainment at the highest quality as best as we can. But we’re not going to break the bank trying to be Ghost with extravagant costumes and stage props.”

How did you come up with the idea for Ghost Con? What goes into organising an event of this nature?

“I’d never even been to a convention. I had no idea what I’d be doing and It was just me on my own. I’d done plenty of gigs before, but with Ghist Con I was literally winging it. With Ghost – Tobias  has lots of ideas and I’m almost mirroring him. I want to go big with the Popestars band and do what I can, and I have loads and loads of ideas, and I thought “Why not just put it all into one big event and have a convention?” There used to be a KISS Expo and If KISS were fine with there being a convention about themselves, I thought Ghost would be alright, which apparently they are. There’s also a Status Quo Convention where even the band members have attended and performed in their other bands. That would be a dream for me to be able to achieve that one day.”

Plans must already be underway for 2024’s Ghost Con – can you shed some light on what to expect at this year’s event?

“To answer this I shall turn to the gospel of Lemmy: “The same, but bigger!”

The Alternative Market was a fantastic success so I’m hoping we can double the amount of vendors, we’re staying at Corporation, Sheffield and they have loads more room we can use. They are really keen for us to stay with them. I initially planned to move around the country each year so that Ghost fans all over could experience the event, but the logistics and set up were much more than I anticipated and now the venue ‘gets’ it – it just makes sense to have a home for the convention, and then move the Nameless Ball around. The market will include tattooists, crafts, adult toys, jewellery, artwork and illustrators including Jonny Bush who has had several designs used for Ghost t-shirts!

There will be plenty of cosplay with the catwalk and awards which was super fun last year to have attendees literally be a part of the event, PLUS I’m introducing an Air Guitar competition this year! We’ll be developing the performance sketches further to develop through the day over several sketches. We’ll expand the gallery and exhibits, obviously we can’t have the same stuff every year – but do bear in mind that it is an expensive endeavour – I’ll do the best I can!

Band wise we have the excellent nine-piece band, The Midnight Men! Featuring members from Status Quo and Francis Rossi, Terrorvision, The Black Charade (My Chemical Romance tribute), Shush, and loads more! Popestars will headline of course, and I have put on pressure for a bigger show – they/we can’t be complacent, something like this needs something more! So, we have three specials: a daytime acoustic set complete with kazoo, a costume change for the Ghouls, AND additional members in the band taking us up to the full live quota of Ghost! This is one time only and will probably never happen again! This leaves me with two slots to fill with an appropriate masked and theatrical band!”

Perfect. Great stuff. So what else is in store for the band?

We are going back to Scotland. We went there for the first-time last year when it snowed, which wasn’t helpful. We’re going back to the South Coast and Wales. We need to work on the South East Coast and London, that’s our next hit. We want to go to new places where people haven’t had Popestars or even Ghost before, ideally. So do let us know if we need to get to your local rock bar!”

Sounds good… Let’s take this further, where in the world would you like to gig?

Well, we would love to go anywhere, but since Brexit, that’s almost an impossibility now. The fees that it costs to do, I don’t think we wouldn’t make that. It would be more expensive than going on holiday! But we do have serious enquiries from several Nordic countries we’re looking into if it really could work. Ireland would be a good place to go. There is a tribute there, Host. I wanted to do a double show with them so we could do different eras.”

It is nice that you’d consider collaboration with another tribute band.

Yeah, I do want to take the Convention there one day too. My plan is to do so within five years. The skies are not limitless, but if there’s something I can think of in my head, I’ll try and do it.”

Do you have any final words that you’d like to say to the Devolution readers?

Make bread not war. Hail Satan!”

Perfect, nice and succinct.

Interview By Lee Carter

All Live Images By Mark Bestford – Alienation Photography