Tombs on Philip Glass, Michael Vick and the Fear of Death

Laina Dawes

By Laina Dawes

on 06.12.14 in Features

When Mike Hill is asked where he gets the energy to perform in his band Tombs; to interview artists and musicians (both as a freelance journalist and for his podcast, Everything Went Black Media); train in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Muay Thai; and hold down a full-time job, he responds without hesitation, “the fear of death, and not accomplishing things in life that I want to accomplish.”

You would expect such a strong sense of mortality to result in urgent, chaotic music, but Tombs’ third album, Savage Gold, is mostly lean and streamlined, full of precisely-plotted riffing and showcasing drummer Andrew Hernandez II’s muscular dexterity.

Hill took a short break on a warm Sunday afternoon to talk about Savage Gold, music journalism and Michael Vick.

One of the standout tracks on Savage Gold is “Severed Lives.” There is something about the almost uncomfortable silence and the measured vocal delivery in that song that really resonates.

The songwriting process for that particular song was that it was more about subtle riffs. I was interested in using space and subtlety, for lack of a better term, to express something like [composer] Philip Glass’s “Sound of Silence” idea, and how the Swans used the space between notes to get their point across. The song itself is lyrically about the idea of life originating in another galaxy, and the lyrics revolve around that. I was trying to capture the vastness of distance, the vastness of time and evolution, and those were the ideas I was thinking about when we were putting the song together. Space is definitely a lynchpin in that song, as that is definitely one of the points we wanted to get across.

The application of your voice is also quite distinctive on this track, especially within the delivery of these lines: “It feeds the world/ this poison world/ we rule the world/ this burning world.”

[Writer/conspiracy theorist] David Icke came up with the idea about the reptilian ruling class — even though I don’t believe that reptiles actually rule the world — but it’s meant more in an allegorical sense. I’m not sure if you are familiar with this theory in which there is this reptilian ruling class that are the chess masters of all human endeavors. What I was thinking about was the globalist idea that there are forces orchestrating all these things. The song has lyrical ideas that go back into the beginning of time, but also sort of tie it together with this ancient idea of the ruling class being this unseen hand, similar to the Illuminati — how people believe that the Illuminati goes all the way back to the Knights Templar — and this idea that a secret society is pushing all of this forward. All of these ideas came together within that song, and that’s what I was trying to express.

‘I was sleeping on a couch, living out of a gym bag, staying with friends, a relationship just failed, I was between bands and I hadn’t started anything after the last one broke up. I was in this “free fall” period. That is when I wrote the lyrics in my journal.’

The second single, “Death Tripper” is another challenging track. It seems to be coming from an outsider perspective, full of unbridled rage, completely opposite of the way you present yourself, which is pretty calm and reasoned.

That song started out as just something I put together with a drum machine, and I think I actually released it as a Vasilek track [Hill's electronic, solo side-project]. When I listened to it, I decided that I should make it a Tombs song. The song is a very personal, very introspective track. The lyrics came almost completely out of my journals from about 16 years ago. There was a period when I lived in Boston as a young man, living up the ’90s, and that was a particularly dark period of my life. I was sleeping on a couch, living out of a gym bag, staying with friends, a relationship just failed, I was between bands and I hadn’t started anything after the last one broke up. I was in this “free fall” period. That is when I wrote the lyrics in my journal. Not for any reason, just to write them.

Years later, when I wrote that song — I always refer back to the thousands of pages of writing I have — I found those lines. The words I had originally written, ended up fitting with the music really well. For that song in particular I wanted to show some diversity. I like to think of us as an eclectic musical group. We play extreme metal, but have more dreary dark songs that are more inspired by Swans, Fields of the Nephilim, music like that.

I don’t think that this record has an angry vibe, but it is very introspective. Honestly, I’m not a particularly angry person. I have a lot of different outlets for dealing with that simian energy that a lot of people have but they don’t release, so it turns into these neurotic, antisocial behaviors. And then in the last two years there has been a lot of death in our circle and…I definitely see how the deaths affected the writing. Most of the record has to do loosely with death and transformation. The mystery of death is definitely the muse for this album — the membrane between life and death, and traversing that breach between the two dimensions.

Savage Gold is the first album with guitarist Garett Bussanick and bassist Ben Brand. Outside of the usual requirements of musical/technical proficiency, what are your personal requirements for bringing new people into the fold?

Someone who can see clearly what needs to be done, and will do whatever they can to achieve that. There are a lot of people out there who believe that getting into a band means you are meeting once or twice a week and just jamming and hanging out, and the “hanging out” aspect supersedes the work aspect of it. Those are the types of people I want to avoid. The types of people I want to align myself with are people who spend a lot of time on their own reflecting on music and putting in the extra work in order to ensure that their contribution to the overall project is significant, and that they put their a lot of themselves into it. And I think that’s what I found with Ben and Garrett. They really spent a lot of time on their own refining what their contributions to Savage Gold were going to be instead of just taking directions.

In the past, former musicians relied a lot on me, but even though I’m the primary songwriter, I still would like to have other people put in their own contributions.

‘It’s great that people are recognizing the material, but once someone recognizes that you have some great material, there are a billion other people that crawl out under a rock somewhere who want to hurt you.’

What do you think of album reviews? Path of Totality was a super-successful album. Was there even a thought in terms of how well your last album did in relation to shaping this one? I’m kinda assuming that reviews don’t really mean that much to you!

No, not really. It’s great that people are recognizing the material, but once someone recognizes that you have some great material, there are a billion other people that crawl out under a rock somewhere who want to hurt you. At the end of the day, I’m the one who stands in the arena by myself. I will face whatever I have to face to do whatever I have to do. And these people are just the spectators, and that’s really the way I see it.

As a journalist yourself, has this affected how you view the media in terms of when you do interviews?

I read interviews with people I find interesting. I rarely go through a metal magazine and read the album reviews. I don’t really care what someone was to say about a record. I want to discover it myself and then make my own decisions about it. I like to define things for myself. I like to explore things for myself. I have my own opinions about things and reviews are one person’s opinions that are completely subjective.

My whole beef about music journalism in general is that it is so subjective. There are tons of bands that get great reviews and they suck. But that is my opinion, and I’m not anyone to make judgments. These guys who put all their clever remarks together, they don’t have to spend any time in a practice space, they don’t have to write or create music, they don’t have to face the adversary of that block to creativity. That’s how I see it. I have a very black-and-white view on creativity. You go into an arena and you come out victorious or you don’t. If someone likes or doesn’t like my music, I don’t fuckin’ care. It’s just a statement. You can either take it or leave it.

On your website, Everything Went Black Media, you recently wrote a scathing blog about (New York Jets quarterback) Michael Vick, who was convicted of running a dog-fighting operation. As someone who doesn’t do a lot of blog posts that are directly targeted current events, what was the response to your post?

Well, thank you for asking, because I do think it is an important topic. Just based on the Facebook world — like if you are a friend of mine on Facebook, most likely you have similar interests and ideas. I would say that 99 percent of the people were like, “Oh yeah, it’s great, down with Michael Vick, we hate that guy.” But there was one person out there who just wanted to be a contrarian — he really didn’t have a problem at all with Michael Vick representing his city. I guess Vick was somehow associated with Philadelphia and this guy was from Philly — and he said, “But he’s done a lot of great things here in Philly.” And I was like, “How the hell can you not see this guy as this damaged, cruel, guy?” It wasn’t like he had one infraction, and he was like, “It was a bad period of my life, I’m sorry.” He had a longstanding history of not only abuse, but also gross, disgusting, reprehensible abuse of dogs, and I just see that as complete weakness in someone’s character. Dogs aren’t here because of man. They have rules and can exist on their own. They don’t need humans. I saw that piece on Cosmos in which some wolves have less Cortisol and less afraid of humans, so there is this symbiosis between man and dog. On some sort of primal level, there is a responsibility not to abuse these animals that trust us. That betrayal of trust is weak.

People tried to turn it into this “black/white” thing, like, “Yeah, only white people are offended by Vicks’s charges.” I don’t buy that. I know that Richard Pryor’s wife [Jennifer Lee] is an animal lover, and Chris Rock had made some joke making light of the situation, and she said, “these types of comments only encourage abuse and misunderstanding of this breed, as well as actual dog-fighting. Clearly this part of your latest stand-up routine would not make Richard laugh.” It’s not a racist thing. I think that anyone who is trying to make it into that is fucking ignorant and has some deep soul searching to do.

Cruelty is cruelty. And being an animal lover, I don’t buy that. And that Vick is making millions of dollars in New York City…I think people need to be aware of that. He just signed this multimillion dollar contract with the New York Jets. I hate the NFL. I hate sports. I think the guys are a bunch of drug addicts — troublemakers who don’t deserve to be making that kind of money.