When Oliver Amberg was barely out of his teens he joined Celtic Frost as they started perhaps the most contentious shift in extreme metal history. But Amberg’s roots with the band stretch back several years; he was friends with bassist Dominic Steiner, who played on To Mega Therion (see the Hall Of Fame in our new issue for the complete story). Amberg was next in line to join Frost (as a second guitarist) after the release of Into The Pandemonium. The fallout from Cold Lake – a glam rock album that still ignites debates a quarter-century later — led Amberg to quit music and shift careers. With the passage of time he rediscovered his love for music, initially writing scores for films and video games. He recently finished his first album with industrial metal hybrid The Boris Karloff Syndrome. He talked to Decibel about why he feels a bond with Boris Karloff and how he soldiered on despite the ire of thousands of keyboard warriors.
After you left Celtic Frost did you leave music?
I was in a band called Lick N’A Promise – Dominic from To Mega Therion played with me. It was Whitesnake or Aerosmith style – old-fashioned hard rock. We had the same management as Celtic Frost. We recorded a demo with nine or ten songs but it was never released as a proper album. After that I just stopped with the birth of my daughter, who is now 23. I had to make a decision because times were quite rough with both Celtic Frost and Lick N’A Promise. I had to focus on my family.
So what direction did your life take?
I became a programmer and a project manager for the government. It’s not very rock and roll, I know. I worked for ten years for the government. It took many, many years until I had the urge to play music. I’d start writing a few songs and nothing worked out well. Maybe three or four years ago I started writing music for film and computer games. Eventually, I felt the urge to finally write and make metal music again. That’s when I started to realize that something was lacking in my life. (After Cold Lake) I didn’t want to play guitar. I picked it up once or twice a year. But it didn’t feel right. I just didn’t have the urge – maybe there was just too much negative going on.
I know Tom has discussed the fallout of Cold Lake but was it difficult for you to have been part of a record that was so divisive? Or did you have a measure of peace?
I’m at peace with it now. It was a really important stage in my career and my life. I had a lot of fun with Celtic Frost and with Cold Lake. I’m sort of astonished because I still receive hate mails about Cold Lake. It’s sort of like, this was a long time ago guys. Get a life. I was not the only person responsible for it. I was part of it but there were three other guys. It’s quite easy to blame it on me. I actually still like a lot of the songs even if the image sucked. There were some very decent songs.
When you did Cold Lake you were what, 20 or 21? People still criticize you about something that happened half a lifetime ago.
It’s really crazy. It was one year of my life! Some people just can’t live with it and it’s astonishing. When you look back at the interviews we gave everything was nice and cozy then. It’s a strange feeling that people are so aggressive. I was young and suffering from “I am a rock star” syndrome. I was overwhelmed with having a contract, a record and a tour. I was just like “ok – let’s party.” That was my big mistake. I told Tom recently that I was acting like a maniac.
Tom mentioned in our cover story last year that you wrote a letter and apologized. He was surprised to receive it.
I told him I was sorry for it; if I had the chance today I would treat it totally different. But that’s the past and it’s gone and over. There’s no turning back and I can’t change anything. (Back then) I just grabbed a chance to play with them and record. But I did behave like an asshole. I was into partying. Tom was always very focused even if he wasn’t as focused during Cold Lake because he was just married and happy. So maybe he let go a little too much.
On an online forum someone commented that Celtic Frost hired the worst guitarist ever for Cold Lake. And you wrote into the forum and said “hey it’s me, the worst guitarist.”
(laughs). I’ve heard that so many times. And it’s like, well, maybe I am? But I’m just me. You have to live with it.
When did you start having the ideas for The Boris Karloff Syndrome? It’s not traditional heavy metal. It’s very industrial.
I was eager to have new metal out but I wasn’t into the idea of rehearsals. I decided to do everything on my own but I can’t sing. I put an ad for a singer on a music forum and Natalie (Pereira Dos Santos) contacted me the day after and sent a video. It was the voice I wanted. I have a wide range of musical tastes. I love metal but I also love soundtracks and industrial.
I was happy to produce everything in my home. I programmed everything and played guitars and Natalie did all the voices. The Boris Karloff Syndrome was initially a song I wrote for a soundtrack and I really like the name. I wanted to have the ability to have any noise I wanted – the freedom. It was such a fun project. And if people like it I’m more than happy.
Were you a fan of the old Universal horror movies of the 1930s? Is that where the name came from?
Not really. When people think about Boris Karloff they think of the monster Frankenstein. But that wasn’t him. He had a whole variety of different roles but he was reduced to just one figure. I felt the same. I was the strange guy in Celtic Frost with the yellow guitar who fucked up everything. I just made a connection with him. Many people are reduced to one thing but there’s so much more behind the surface.
Do you think this album provided you the opportunity to show people that there’s more behind the surface?
Absolutely. I’m not just the guy who fucked up Cold Lake. I wanted to show there are many more sides to my story. I’m aware that no one was waiting for me. I knew no one was waiting for what Oliver Amberg does. No one cared what Oliver Amberg does. I was just happy with the songs for myself. I wasn’t expecting too much – it was just “here I am again. Listen to some songs. Like them or hate them.” No more.
Did anyone in your family try to discourage you?
They were completely behind me. And I’m not touring and doing things that are too time consuming. I never plan to play these songs live. This kind of music would need a big show and I can’t provide that.
The title Kopophobia is about the fear of exhaustion and all the songs are about sleep.
The concept came from some research I did on phobias. I thought it was interesting that some people are afraid of getting tired mentally or physically. The whole album is based on one girl who tries everything not to fall asleep. She tries caffeine. She tries cutting herself. But eventually, the sandman will get her. There’s a closeness to death with sleep and I thought it was a nice concept.
Since the new record has come out have you heard from critics or received supportive notes?
I’ve received some very nice feedback from Celtic Frost fans although I have to say many of them didn’t hate me. They were always quite supportive. I’m proud of the nice reviews and honest feedback from people. It was something I longed for.
How were you able to rebuild and keep your confidence with the ugliness out there?
To be honest, I was really hurt. I never felt good about anything I read or heard. So part of it might just be getting really old (laughs). I was ready for a brand new start.
When Tom came back and did Monotheist a lot of people jumped right to discussing Cold Lake rather than an amazing new album.
Cold Lake is like a sting. I just decided I didn’t need the sting anymore. It’s not the worst album ever – even if the pictures were bullshit. And Tom is doing great now – his music is perfect. I’ve never met a focused musician like him. I actually knew him as a fun guy. We had a lot of laughs. Maybe he forgot. He has so much talent and I wish him the best.