Q&A: Tombs’ Mike Hill On Death, Coffee, & Savage Gold + “Spiral” (Stereogum Premiere)
You know those television ads that feature the “most interesting man alive”? Well, Mike Hill might be the most interesting man making metal music today. He practices Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. He hosts a podcast called Everything Went Black (an homage to a Black Flag album of the same name). He’s a health enthusiast and kettlebell aficionado. He interviews musicians and contributes guest blogs and posts for a number of websites and publications. He’s starting a coffee company this summer. And he fronts one of the most noteworthy bands to come from New York underground in recent years. Hill talked to us about how death influenced the new Tombs record, Savage Gold, but also made him embrace life — and his future in roasting.
STEREOGUM: With Tombs’ last album, Path Of Totality, you talked a lot about the personal exploration that led to that record, including psychedelics. What happened since that record that influenced Savage Gold?
HILL: In the past few years the specter of death has been hanging over the core members and me. Two close friends of mine died, one fairly recently and one almost two years ago. Our drummer’s mother passed away last year. There’s a heavy death theme on the record and in the lyrics. The way I see death is more like a transformation, a mystery: There’s a membrane that has to be penetrated. So there’s a lot of meditation on what consciousness and life are. That made its way into the lyrics; it was the biggest theme.
As a result of looking death we looked at life. There’s a finite timeline and you only have a certain period to do what you want to do. That invigorated me and made me want to pursue things — the idea that nothing is permanent. If you are going to do something you might as well do it, and do it with passion. If something isn’t making you happy or motivating you then you should stop doing it. Anything that’s a distraction is something you should avoid so you can do the things that make you feel good and positive. That’s a big philosophy shift for me. In the past I was about grinding through things and pushing ahead into oblivion, a mad dash to the end. That’s not how I live my life anymore.
STEREOGUM:What kind of things have you done away with?
HILL: Mainly negative people. There are certain energies that will pull you down. And there are some people that are sort of in this world of darkness. Those people are on their own path and you need to worry about your own and let the darkness go in its own direction. People that play extreme music and metal — there are a lot of negative forces in their lives. I find myself sort of repelled by that these days. I want to go on my trip with a positive vibe. I’ve sort of applied that and it’s opened up all these things. For example, I’m starting a coffee company. I’ve always been interested in health and nutrition and being an entrepreneur. That came out of this period.
STEREOGUM: Path was about man’s struggle with and eventual acceptance of his animal nature. If this album is about a preoccupation with death doesn’t that get back to the question of the ego? How you perceive death is all about your ego.
HILL: That’s something I’ve always pondered: the ego world. There is a deeper, fundamental root to existence or consciousness. In music, there are principal notes that can sound different played on a cello, piano or guitar. There are different overtones to that fundamental note. And I think that’s what life is about. There is this basic energy and everything that gets added on is just like an overtone. It’s residual.
When you train jiu-jitsu you kind of understand what it feels like to die. A few times people slip in a choke tightly and quickly. I got choked unconscious once and I imagine it’s close to what death is like. But I think martial arts make me embrace life more. Whatever you are doing, when you leave the mat you feel better and closer to people. One of the biggest benefits is being around people you wouldn’t come into contact with. It opens you up.
STEREOGUM:Where did the title Savage Gold come from?
HILL: Gold in the chemical sense is a noble metal, a higher substance. In alchemy the primary goal is to transform a low material to a higher material. One of my pursuits in life is to always improve myself and ascend to a higher level. That’s where the gold comes from, that idea. I like to throw the term savage around because it implies intensity and an animalistic approach to things. The two words fit well. When we recorded the album in Florida everything was worked out except the title. Late one night after a session we were relaxing and I looked at our lyrics and saw the term savage gold and asked if we should use it. There’s a certain cadence that lends itself well to the record.
STEREOGUM: What was it like going to Florida to work with (producer) Erik Rutan? How did you make that decision?
HILL: The experience was great. He’ll be our producer as long as the band exists. It was a very good pairing. I was familiar with his work [as a member of] Hate Eternal and Morbid Angel. When we were mastering Path Of Totality I heard a few Goatwhore songs [that Rutan produced]. The music had this liveliness and presence. That’s nothing against [former producer] Jon Congleton. It’s just that his ideas were a little different. Jon made a great-sounding recording but it wasn’t quite the record I was looking for. What I liked about Erik was all the discussions about what the record should sound like.
STEREOGUM: What did he say made Tombs sound like they do?
HILL: He was surprised we wanted a more “metal” production because his impression was that we wanted something bigger or more atmospheric. But we have faster tempos and there are a lot of blast beats. Atmospheric production doesn’t always lend itself to that music. We wanted all the drums and articulation present with some of the atmosphere of the last few records. Listening back to Winter Hours and Path there is too much atmosphere and things get lost in the reverb. At the time I was digging it because it was like My Bloody Valentine or Cocteau Twins where there is this wash of guitars.
STEREOGUM:You’ve lived in New York City a long time. What do you make of the rise of the metal scene in Brooklyn? Do you consider Tombs a New York band?
HILL: I think it’s good that there are a lot of things going on musically in Brooklyn. For a long time there wasn’t a steady venue for bands. Back in the old days there was CBGB’s and, to be honest, that wasn’t an outlet for some bands. A lot of bands couldn’t get booked there because it became this icon of punk and metal and hardcore. There was some politics playing there. St. Vitus and the Acheron are real punk venues run by people involved with the underground.
When CBGB’s closed there was a big void and a long period of time of just loft shows and super underground shows that the cops could shut down any week. Then Vitus and the Acheron surfaced and there was finally a legitimate venue bands could play. The owners knew about the bands and music and how to put a show together. Right now, it’s the best it’s ever been for bands that don’t play commercial music. Coming from a guy who didn’t grow up in New York it was impossible to book CB’s. But if you are from out of town and booking you have a good chance of playing Vitus or the Acheron.
I’ve never felt connected enough to call us a New York band. I’ve known the guys from Black Anvil for a long time and recorded their first album. They are good friends. They are one of the few bands I feel camaraderie with maybe because of their cynicism. And we only play once or twice around here a year. Most of what we do is on tour or overseas.
STEREOGUM:You started a coffee company, you host a podcast, you are writing and recording music, you are touring, and you do martial arts. Does this ever feel overwhelming?
HILL: I do all that stuff but there are times one takes precedence. We played a festival in England the past weekend. In preparation for that I didn’t train as much as normal in the week leading up to it; that’s the only way to get everything done without overextending yourself. And you need days where you don’t do anything and watch Netfix. I used to try to do everything and I would just crash and burn. Now it’s about management: don’t overtrain, sleep enough, eat right — that’s the key.
STEREOGUM:Can you tell me more about your vision for the coffee company?
HILL: I’m not sure if you are familiar with Robb Wolf — the guy who had an idea for a paleo beverage. But that was the inspiration. I am a major coffee drinker and fan. My mom is Italian so coffee was huge in our family. I wanted to be a resource to purchase good, high-altitude, single source fair trade coffee. I’ll be working with a friend from Syracuse who is a roaster. We’re working on the Savage Gold prime roast, which will be available at the end of June. I thought of the coffee company before working on the album. And when we decided the name of the record I thought the name would work for coffee or a health conscious product. It all came together.
Check out a new song from Savage Gold, called “Spirals.”
Savage Gold is out 6/10 via Relapse.