Interview: Mike Hill (Tombs)
Photo by Jason Hellmann
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Mike Hill's story roughly follows the same arc as the protagonist of Fight Club. Hill earned a college degree and had a stable engineering job. Like the nameless narrator, he often flew into cities as part of his work for a corporation. He never stayed long. He felt that something was profoundly wrong, even if he used his down time to play extreme music and was plugged into the underground. He finally just walked away from the job when the local office closed. Instead of practicing basement pugilism and pissing in hotel food, he took up extreme metal full-time. That decision culminated in the release this summer of Tombs' Path of Totality. We spoke to Hill as the record started to appear on "best albums halfway through 2011" lists.
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I recently read someone describe you as a lifer when they talked about your involvement in extreme music. Does this feel like a life sentence?
It's funny, but I actually agree with that statement. Committing your life to something as marginal as extreme music can get in the way of other things like economic stability. But when I'm faced with a life without striving to do things in extreme music, it seems very incomplete. It is a bit of a life sentence, but there is a spiritual journey to it. The path I've chosen is more of a spiritual, meandering path, as opposed to a 9-to-5 job where you do your thing and get a paycheck.
Would it be possible to do the workaday job and this quest, or do you have to keep them separate?
I've been trying to find that balance for the past few years, just out of necessity. You obviously don't make a living off the music, so you need to find other things to support yourself. I have other career paths that are satisfying. But we like to tour a lot, so that's an obstacle. To try to have a serious career in an office [is difficult]; they're not really open to leaving for three months to support a record. Some of the other band members have found things they like to do between tours, and I'm still searching. I could read a laundry list of things that don't work, but the idea is to find something that does (laughs).
How have you filled the gaps?
A few years ago, I had a full-time job as a mechanical engineer. I was somehow able to take large runs of time off. In 2008, the company closed their office in the area, so it was no longer an option. I ended up doing on-location sound and mixing, the audio side of film. That's something I continue to do freelance. At times I'm very busy, and others I'm not. It opens up my availability to be on the road. That's been going on a year or so, and it's been working out.
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Did you study mechanical engineering in college?
I did. I went to Boston University. During my studies, I wasn't in a band. I was playing on my own. Back then, I wanted to just get my degree and get a job in the field. When I graduated, I ended up working for one of the largest consulting firms in the world. I was really serious about it. But I felt this void, this dissatisfaction. I hung in there with this company for a while. I traveled for them all over the country. But I just wasn't satisfied. I'd go to cities, and I'd spend a lot of time by myself. I'd go looking for shows in these towns. I would be in places like Cocoa Beach, FL for weeks. I was working all the time.
I missed playing music. I'm the kind of person who needs to do things fully [and] put everything I have into it. When I started growing as a musician, I felt like I needed to make a decision. I focused more time on touring and writing. I felt like I didn't have the resources to be an engineer. My inability to compromise forced me to make a decision. I felt very responsible to my boss and the people I worked with to participate at the highest level. And if I was gone a lot of the time, I wasn't able to do that. The fact that the office closed was a motivating factor to finally do it. I could have relocated, tried to find another firm, or networked to find another job. But I decided that I wanted to live more creatively [and] do things that satisfy me, where I didn't have to compromise.
When you were in the office, was it like what mythologist Joseph Campbell said - you felt the need to lead a more authentic life, but you kept pushing it down and neglecting it, and that was making you miserable?
I'd agree with that 100%. I'm from a very typical middle-class family from the New York suburbs. My dad worked for IBM. They've always supported what I've done, but there seemed to be an expectation I'd go into something technical or something secure. I guess all parents want that for their kids. Being typical Americans and from a different generation, my parents didn't have the creative background to know my actual wants and needs.
It wasn't like my parents told me I had to go to college and get a job, but there was a subtle expectation, and I responded. When I was younger I was like, "I need to have a 9-to-5 job and be secure". All these other things like bands felt like a distraction. I didn't know how long I'd be able to do it and thought maybe I'd be able to get it out of my system, like "this is something I did when I was 22 years old". But as you get older, you realize that true passions don’t go away, and that it's unhealthy to neglect that side of your personality. That's not good to you or anyone in your life. These lessons were hard-earned.
How do they feel about your direction now?
The irony is that they said, "All we care about is that you are happy and taking care of yourself". So most of the expectations I put on myself were things I perceived and were completely fabricated by my mind. It does give some insight into how I think. Sometimes I think people want me to do this or I have to do this, like there's an outside force guiding my path. The reality is that I'm doing this to myself, and there is freedom. I've always had a good relationship with my family, and they never really told me what to do. They do get concerned when things are dicey with finances. But they like to see me happy.
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You grew up in Carmel, NY. What was it like?
It's a small suburban town close to the Connecticut border. Carmel was your typical suburban career town. It was pretty homogeneous, and everyone came from the same background. It wasn't poor or rich. People had new cars. It was solid. But there was that homogeneous vibe.
One of the pivotal parts of growing up was going to a record store called Trash American Style in Danbury, CT. It was my gateway into underground metal and punk rock and hardcore. Malcolm and Kathy (the owners) offered a lot of entry points into the underground. The place was a rich resource to learn about new music. The first time I went there, they were listening to Charles Manson. The first record I bought was Past Lives by Saccharine Trust. Malcolm asked what I liked, and I said I'd heard of Black Flag and the Circle Jerks and Bad Brains. He said I should check out these other SST bands. There was also a radio station called WXCI that came out of Western Connecticut State College [now University]. They had hardcore and metal shows. On Friday nights, they had "The Metal Shop".
Those metal shows are always on at midnight or 1 am.
Yup, the middle of the night, the witching hour. That's the first time I heard Venom and Bathory and Metallica and Celtic Frost. So even though I grew up in a middle-of-the-road place, there was a small contingency of weirdoes, and that's how I became aware of music.
If you were to walk into Trash American Style, what would you see on the walls and racks?
Behind the counter, there was a slew of original 7"s like Youth of Today and Gorilla Biscuits. There was a handmade Rollins Band rug that had the sun logo hanging on the wall. There was a Joy Division poster and incense and Grateful Dead paraphernalia. There was even stuff on organic food and vitamins (laughs). The new release section would just have anything released independently. They had the Hatebeed on Victory and Bloodlet, lots of stuff
Malcolm and Kathy were really into organic culture. They were some of the first people I talked to about healthy eating. It was an important place for kids who didn't fit in or had issues with self-esteem. If you were 17 and not into playing football and didn't want to hang out with cheerleaders, it was a place to learn to take care of yourself intellectually and physically.
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What progressions did you try to make from Winter Hours to Path of Totality?
Andrew Hernandez is our new drummer and his ability far surpassed our original drummer. It allowed us to do much more interesting compositions. We could explore different tempos. We also had almost two years to prepare for this record We were able to explore a lot of things. One of the things I wanted to add was more melody, to push myself to do more vocally. I feel like I made a stand, tried to operate outside of my comfort zone.
There seems to be some consensus that all of the things you were trying on Winter Hours you achieved on Path of Totality. Do you agree?
To a certain extent. There were moments of Winter Hours where I'd try to do things and felt like I was maybe 80% successful. Things feel more complete on Path of Totality. With that said, it's now time to find something else to do. I've hit this milestone, and now I need to up the ante.
Do you get a kick of the alphabet soup genre references people use when people try to describe Tombs?
What I find most interesting is that people refer to us as a sludge band. It's one of the more inaccurate descriptive terms for what we do. A lot of the songs aren't slow, and we have blastbeats. About 70% of the songs on Path of Totality have, like, 145 beats a minute. In some ways, it's lazy journalism. I think writers who use that term haven't even bothered to listen to us and wrote a piece when they were clocking out at the end of the day.
What does shoegaze really mean? I gazed at my shoes listening to Black Sabbath when I was growing up.
I've always chuckled at that term. I guess it means looking at your feet. I've thrown that term around when I've been talking to a girl, to show that I have a sensitive side (laughs). I want to prove I'm a good listener and creatively inclined. That's how I'd use the term.
A lot of the riffs on this album seem cluttered and frenetic like an Emperor song.
I love Emperor. They are one of my favorite bands, period. I'm definitely a fan. I've always aspired to play like Ihsahn, even in my older bands. I always thought that was the standard, something to model my approach after. That band could do everything, and I've always held them in high regard.
A few moments on Path of Totality took me right to In the Nightside Eclipse.
It's one of my favorite records and something I always listen to. They can really play well, and the compositions on that record are top notch. They were one of the first bands to get into orchestrated black metal. The music was intense, and the atmosphere was layered in, and [Ihsahn] could do the extreme and melodic vocals, and it didn't come off as cheesy. I still like his solo records.
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One of the most interesting titles was "Black Hole of Summer", because when I think of summer, I think of something like The Beach Boys' Endless Summer and not something dark.
That song is about the chaotic nature of the world. Summer always makes people think about barbecues and tire swings and idyllic settings. At the same time, the chaotic natural world, the world of tooth and claw, rolls right along. Most of the violent activity in the natural world is during summer. Winter is when animals are dormant, and there's not a lot of food around. All of the chaos happens later, mating and domination and drama. That's where the title came from. The song is about reactions to chaos and man's attempt to place an abstraction on to chaos, to put order on something.
You were talking about how there's an ideal and then reality. The Beach Boys presented this clean cut, fun-in-the sun image but if you pulled back the curtain, Dennis was partying with the Manson family, and Brian had a lengthy battle with mental illness.
It was a façade. Societies and cultures are constructed to describe the world and then somehow try to control it. It's an idea I've been playing around a lot with, the idea of simulations.
I have [Brian Wilson's] Smile album, and I find some of the Beach Boys material interesting. I appreciate it and approached it because of the involvement with Manson. They did a cover of "Cease To Exist" (renamed "Never Learn Not To Love").
Your guitar tone on the album sometimes reminded me of Rikk Agnew from Christian Death. Were you a fan of Only Theatre of Pain?
That's actually the only album of theirs I enjoy. We played with Christian Death a few years ago, and it was miserable. The only guy even remotely a legitimate member was Valor. I really like the angular guitar tone of that record. I remember reading an interview - this may not be true - that they worked with someone who recorded Bauhaus. It has that '80s gothic atmosphere. I also enjoyed Rozz' vocals.
Another song is called "Silent World". C.S. Lewis wrote a novel called Out of the Silent Planet. In a nutshell, it's a sci-fi novel that touches on the meaninglessness of life.
I'm familiar with C.S. Lewis. I have a Roman Catholic upbringing, but I'm not religious at all. The time I wrote that song, I was focusing on apocalyptic things, the movement toward violence in the world. The Old Testament God is violent and vengeful. I was thinking about how we create God in our own image, not vice versa. The song sprang from that idea.
Lewis' solution to a lot of these things was to find meaning in God.
Rejecting any kind of higher power is where we should go. We should solve problems as humans and not rely on a higher power. That would help takes some of the control away from religious extremists. Organized religion in general is a way of keeping people in line.
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Your songs are almost universally about darkness, depression, and struggle. But I get the feeling you have a sense of wonder about the world, especially things like travelling and meeting people.
If I didn't write music like this, I might be in a different place mentally. This outlet helps me process things. The last year or so has been formative in terms of how I think about existing with other people. I enjoy being around people I like. I still have intolerance for ignorance and stupidity. But these days, I'm more likely to give people more of an opening to my life. Someone might seem like they aren't coming from the same place, but until you reach out, you never know. It's interesting to find out what makes people tick.
Travel has always been something I've enjoyed. I like going to new places and seeing new things, and it's something that's important to my life. To do the same thing every day, see the same people without new stories to tell or interesting people to meet - that's not for me.
Path of Totality refers to a lunar eclipse that in earlier times would leave people paralyzed with fear. But in our times, we have tsunamis, earthquakes, strange weather patterns. And people don't seem scared. They ignore it or pretend it doesn't exist.
It's because they don't experience it firsthand. If you did, you'd know the reality of the situation. People are just so far removed that none of these things seem real. This detachment is a problem. It's a price you pay to having all this information all the time. Things seem unreal in the comfort of our own home. You can watch beheadings on the Internet. But if you observed that in person, it would have a totally different impact.
So people aren't thinking about the Alaskan fishing village that has to entirely relocate because they have been washed out due to global warming.
They think of it as a news item, something that arrives as a tweet or on CNN.com or on an RSS feed. It's probably juxtaposed with celebrity gossip. I can't believe there are people out there that don't think industry is affecting the environment. It's ludicrous. But yet there are people who don't believe in global warming. People are also very caught up in the day-to-day and don't have the sensitivity to think a polar bear trapped on a block of ice has anything to do with them. And yet they want to read about Britney Spears because they can relate to reproducing out of control. The information age has led to a certain callousness.
I noticed on Path of Totality that struggle and the will to live is a theme. Is our problem now that life is too easy?
I don't know how much that bled into the songwriting. But I think a lot of our problems and anxieties are because of a lack of predators. We still have the same programming and the same bodies that our ancestors did a million years ago. Our bodies require use and rigor to get rid of anxiety that might build up from a sedentary lifestyle. If you are at a desk job and playing video games and don't satisfy that need for motion or action, anxiety builds up. It can lead to problems like hypertension and diabetes and emotional problems. Our bodies aren't being used the way they were designed.
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You recently interviewed Henry Rollins.
He's still one my heroes. His approach to music and doing things was a pretty profound influence. He's been able to recreate himself over the years.
What was it like to turn the tables, since you are accustomed to answering questions?
I've actually been doing a lot of interviewing in the past year. I interviewed Keith Morris [Black Flag and Circle Jerks vocalist]. He's another person I really respect.
What's important to me when I'm being interviewed is that someone is interested in what I say and is into the subject, rather than just taking it as an assignment. Being prepared going into [the Rollins interview] was crucial. Being prepared is always crucial. If you take some time with someone, then you should maximize it.
So when you are doing the promotional circuit, are you unhappy with a lot of the conversations?
I understand we are probably a low priority for a lot of people. But people can get enough information on bands with about 15 to 20 minutes on the Internet. Wildly open-ended questions aren't very constructive. I never really like "tell me about the new record…" And email interviews really break down, because I think people cut and paste the same questions. There are interviews that are formatted to ask 10 people the same question; I don't mind that. But when you do five interviews that have identical questions, you wonder what's the point. You think about cutting and pasting your answers (laughs).
Could you see yourself following a similar path as Rollins where you dive into a lot of things? You already have music, writing, and the film work.
A lot of people try to detract from Rollins now because he doesn't fit some archetype. I've always been interested in writing, but I've only become ambitious in the past year or two. Now that people are reading it, I'm motivated to improve. I started doing stuff in film out of necessity. I wanted to see what I could do. As I learn more about the process, I grow more interested. I like the idea of documentary films. I'm not interested in drama or comedy. I'd like something more journalistic. I don't see myself acting. No one needs to see that.
The people that slag Rollins don't seem to mention that a lot of the money he made he put back into releasing independent books and records.
Even if he didn't do that, how could anyone criticize someone for making a living? That's what it comes down to. Punk rock has this Peter Pan vibe that no one can make any money, ever. The last time I checked, we live in a society where you have to make money to survive. You have certain responsibilities, and there is certain overhead. If someone chooses a career path in film or acting, that's as valid as an organic co-op or a bike repair shop. How is it any better or worse? Rollins doesn't do cigarette or booze ads. And somewhere along the line, everyone compromises. You can't get around without spending money on gas. So it's hard to criticize.
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Do you get apprehensive when people start saying things like album of the year?
I try not to pay attention to it, but you can't help it. I feel uncomfortable reading reviews in general, even if they are positive. For every one review that says you are an album of the year, there are hundreds ready to criticize you. The Internet has given people an anonymous voice and allowed them to make personal attacks. A lot of the attacks just come from insecurity. Or, if people see someone doing well they want to throw a banana peel in their path. So, whenever something positive happens to the band, there's always some jackass criticizing Tombs on the Internet. If someone doesn't like our music, it's their prerogative. But when they get personal, it speaks more about them.
You mentioned spirituality a few times. What does spirituality look like for someone who admittedly doesn't believe in God?
I don't believe in God, but I believe there is energy in the world. I believe that living creatures have energy paths. One of the things I've learned to embrace is positive and negative energy. Positive is not succumbing to your insecurities and treating people well. That comes back to you in a good way. If you are insecure, then that energy will come back to you.
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STREAM & BUY PATH OF TOTALITY
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