"If you have aspects of your life that aren't working for you, that stuff needs to be taken down and destroyed so you can open up another doorway to walk through and enter a new chapter," says Tombs frontman Mike Hill, explaining the meaning behind his band's new record, The Grand Annihilation.
Reinvention and change have been critical for Hill even before 2008 when he quit his job as a mechanical engineer to devote himself full time to extreme music. In the late Nineties, Hill played in the Boston hardcore bands Otis and 454 Big Block. Then he moved to New York and formed the angular hardcore group Anodyne, which lasted from 1997 to 2005. After that band dissolved, Hill started the short-lived shoegaze-informed outfit Versoma, then in 2007 he formed Tombs. His most sonically diverse project to date, the group explores the gray areas between extreme metal, hardcore and alternative music. The band's recently-released new album, The Grand Annihilation, is its most ambitious: Chainsaw guitars, incisive riffs, searing tremolo licks, feral blast beats and burly barks grapple with moaning melodic vocals, minor-key guitar harmonies and hazy, atmospheric passages.
"The whole essence of being creative is always wanting to incorporate new things," says Hill, who is also a Revolver contributing writer. "I haven't stopped living, so anything I experience in life is going to find its way into the writing, the music or any sort of expression that I do. I'm growing as a creative person so I'm refining the things I do."
Hill's dedication to personal development doesn't stop at recording and touring with Tombs. In 2014, he founded Savage Gold Coffee, a gourmet coffee line that he runs with a hands-on approach, and since 2012, he has hosted the podcast Everything Went Black, on which he has interviewed UFC veteran Josh Barnett, punk icon Henry Rollins and others.
Not everyone has been onboard with Hill's decisions, and not every move has worked out. In particular, Tombs' lineup has been in a near-constant state of flux since the group's formation as band members have bailed or been dismissed or, in one case, had a panic attack in the recording studio and had to be sent home, leaving Hill to play the unrecorded parts, before splitting permanently with the band. Every step of the way, Hill has adapted and forged ahead.
"If you've ever been punched in the face really hard, you have the choice of losing consciousness, giving up or continuing," he says. "I choose to keep going."
REVOLVER Like your previous albums, The Grand Annihilation draws from numerous styles, including black metal, thrash, avant-metal and even goth, yet the songs are constructed in a way that sounds more direct than those on past records.
MIKE HILL When you gain a certain level of maturity, you stop writing songs to show off what you can do and you try to actually convey more of a real idea. Some of the riffs go for more of a vibe as opposed to being a technical display. In some ways, it's more stripped down and a little less ornamental. It's more of a mode of expression as opposed to the kind of layering that we've done in the past that might obscure the actual intent of some of the songs.
The Grand Annihilation features numerous sung vocals and there's a striking duality between the harsh black metal and the melancholier passages.
I think it's just more introspective. The music, for sure, has an aggro tone to it, but I would say a good 30 percent of the material is a bit more intellectual as opposed to being visceral. One of the overriding themes of the record is balancing the physical world and the intellectual world. I'm very into the exhibition of power and a lot of society tries to denigrate physical, martial energy instead of embracing it. They place more value on the sensitive and intellectual. But that does a disservice to our primal DNA. I need to express both sides of the spectrum.
Are people generally too weak or non-confrontational?
People exist inside their heads a little too much. With all the social media connectivity out there, it's like we're preparing ourselves to enter some kind of Matrix where we are connecting to everything virtually. As primates, we need to express the physical as well as the mental.
You seem to take a positive perspective to ugly, negative situations.
Life and death is a natural process. For example, a wolf tears apart the flesh of its prey and consumes it. Is the wolf an evil creature? No, it's just part of nature. Horrific, negative things happen in nature all the time, but there's no real evil. It's just the way of the wild. I think that any kind of nihilism or Sartre-esqe, existential ennui that people have is all just egotistical, and it's not a very objective or realistic way of seeing things. People try to understand the chaos that surrounds us, but chaos is part of the natural world.
There's a dark, misanthropic vibe to The Grand Annihilation that suggests you're an angry nihilist, but that doesn't seem to be the case?
I don't think any of the lyrics have any hate in them at all … I'm a person who is generally misunderstood, anyways, whether it's because of my personal appearance or something else. People always get the wrong idea about me, so I just stopped caring.
How do people misunderstand you?
I embrace physical power. Some people find that threatening. I'm not trying to threaten anybody but that is just part of my lifestyle.
Are you referring to the combat training you do and your interest in mixed martial arts?
Yeah. I think it's important to flesh out and express that. It's important for people to get rid of their anxiety so they can be a part of society. The lifestyle most people lead as individuals in this world is unhealthy. They're sitting at a desk all day and just worrying, and never really being able to flex those primitive muscles that we have, and that leads to a lot of neurotic impulses. I usually spend the day relaxed and at peace with everything and a lot of that has to do with intense physical expression.
When did you get into physical expression and fighting?
My whole life. I was a wrestler when I was a kid. I've done martial arts throughout my life and I've always been into fitness and physical culture. It's a big part of who I am.
Do you fight competitively?
You reach a certain age and you can't really — it's a young man's game. I would have to approach it with an all or nothing type of mindset in order to actually be competitive with people because there's a guy out there who's not touring for a month at a time or going to the recording studio for several weeks. He's all in with his combat preparations, so it's just not practical to do that and take making music and being creative seriously. Now I jump rope and I throw kettlebells around sometimes. But usually, I am more in the sitting-around-a-campfire-and-reflecting mode.
Have you taken advantage of your fighting skills on the road or in the band?
No, I never find myself in situations where I have to do anything violent. Everyone pretty much leaves me alone.
You mentioned how a wolf relies on instinct. There's a song on The Grand Annihilation called "November Wolves."
It speaks about embracing the primal essence of humanity. The lyrics themselves are kind of funny. On the surface, it's about turning into a werewolf, but there's a deeper meaning. If you go into the full folklore of lycanthropy, there's this process of transforming from a human into this primal beast that follows a certain cycle and has to succumb to these uncontrollable impulses. That's one of the more meaningful songs to me because it's good to get a little crazy sometimes, as long as when you're not in that world you can function as a regular person. It's taken me a lot of my life to find a balance between those two, and that's something to live by, I think.
Any good stories from crazy, primal nights?
I don't really get that crazy. We play the show. The hotel is usually on the outskirts of the city and never in some downtown location. And we just go to bed at night or maybe go to Denny's and get some coffee. I'm always thinking about waking up the next morning. I do most of the driving and morning's gonna come early. That's the governor on my behavior sometimes.
What's the first single "Cold" about?
It's about the idea of a fundamental narrative that might go on throughout our DNA that connects us to our ancestors. DNA is the one physical element that's passed on through generations. I believe that some of the visions that one may have when they're in an altered state of consciousness might be connecting to ancestral memories or a connection to the ancient or prehuman past. That song deals with that and with past lives — but not in the essence of me as an individual having a past life — more the idea of an ancestral connection. We chose it as the first single because it's a pretty straightforward song informed by the Tom G. Warrior/Celtic Frost/Hellhammer pantheon of songwriting.
You also released "Saturnalian" before the album came out. The song seems more informed by Sisters of Mercy or Bauhaus.
I like so many kinds of music and I really respect artists that try many different things that maybe aren't conventional or traditional. I love Emperor and [their frontman] Ihsahn's solo stuff. "Saturnalian" speaks about following the path of the individual and not being too wrapped up in following cultural norms. Every year in Ancient Rome there was the Saturnalian festival, which corresponded to Christmas. They'd throw caution to the wind and there wouldn't be any laws. They would just follow their desires. The song is about approaching life that way and following your passion and pursuing a path that's obscured intentionally by society. My take on society, at least in this country, is they want to keep you very much in the consciousness of the group, not in the consciousness of the individual. That's something I've wrestled with my whole life. Most people carry on what their parents and their families might have wanted for them. And the conflict arises because of what their true passions are.
You've been through numerous lineups over the years. Almost everyone you're playing with now is new. You once said that the people you play with in the band are basically hired hands and that Tombs is entirely your creative vision.
Since Andrew Hernandez, the drummer on [2014's] Savage Gold left — he was really primarily my writing partner — it hasn't really been like a band per se. It's not that I want it to have this militant environment of only me expressing my vision. I'm open to collaborating. But lately, people haven't had the desire to contribute on that level. Everyone has outside interests going on, and I'm not gonna stand in anybody's way to fulfill what their own creative ambitions are. But I've got my own things to do, so you gotta keep rolling. That's my attitude.
You seem like a pragmatic, highly motivated individual.
I have a list of things I have to do. I dream up some goals I want to accomplish and I try to figure out the most efficient way to reach those goals and that's how I've lived my life since I was a kid.
What are your goals outside of Tombs?
I would like to get a black belt in Jiu-Jitsu at some point. And No. 2, I'd like to get my coffee company Savage Gold off to a productive and profitable place. That's really something I would like to be able to devote more time and energy to.
How is Savage Gold coffee different from other specialty coffees?
There are two roasts. The Prime is an Ethiopian bean, and that's a medium roast. Then there's the Savage Gold Blue Monday, which is a dark roasted Peruvian bean. That's my favorite of the two. I'm trying to start with a manageable catalog of stuff and expand from there. I'm getting into cold brew now. Like a lot of other things, it's a work in progress. But it's something I'm very serious about and it's available on the internet and at a store [Greenpoint Natural Market] in Brooklyn.
Have you always been a coffee fiend?
Absolutely. My earliest memories are of being with my family and them drinking espresso. My mother is Italian and coffee was always on the table and always a big part of the family gathering environment. The science behind roasting and the different types of beans and the characteristics of how you roast those beans is really interesting to me. The sourcing of where you get them from and the different elevations they're growing at — all these things inform the flavor profile. These days, coffee has entered the world that craft beer has, where people are really paying attention to it and they're interested in flavor and quality. That kind of criteria applies to me whether we're talking about coffee or Tombs.