Tombs’ Mike Hill is a True Metal Lifer
Brooklyn’s Tombs are turning heads wherever they go these days. The trio, who signed with Relapse last summer, dropped their sophomore full length, ‘Winter Hours,’ on February 17. The album has been met with approval from nearly everyone who’s heard it, though bandleader Mike Hill wouldn’t know it first-hand. “I don’t know [what the response has been like],” Hill told Noisecreep. “I’m not really cognizant of what people think of the record. I don’t really like to read reviews.”
That’s not to say that Hill doesn’t care what people think, though. “I hope people like it, obviously,” he says. “Some people have been telling me that we’ve been getting good press on it, but I don’t really follow up on it. I feel like it kind of detracts– distracts you from the things that are actually important. I don’t really seek validation from other people. I wanna just keep my head down and do a good job and make myself happy, you know? And in my many years of playing in bands I’ve experienced other people that I’ve played with really take stock in what people write about and ultimately I think that kind of sets you up for a little bit of a letdown when things don’t really pan out as well as you may have been led to believe they will.”
“So, frankly, I don’t really know,” continues Hill. “People have told me that the response has been good, but… I’m already past the record. We recorded that in August of ’08 and I’m already looking to do something new and move forward with the music. We have some new material that we’re gonna be playing on this next tour, so, we’re trying to just keep moving forward I guess.”
Let’s talk about your personal musical background. What got you started, and maybe we’ll talk a bit about Anodyne.
I didn’t really get serious about playing until the mid-90s, when I was living in Boston. I played in a bunch of different hardcore bands up there. And that’s when– shortly after that period of playing pretty straight-forward hardcore music was when I started the band Anodyne in the late 90s. And that was very much inspired by, you know, Black Flag, Deadguy, as well as Neurosis and some of the mid-90s noise rock. Stuff like Unsane and Today is the Day and that kinda stuff. And that band was going on for seven or eight years before we actually decided to call it a day in 2005.
Immediately after that I started playing with Jamie Getz, the ex-Superstitions of the Sky guitarist in Versoma, which was kind of an interesting experience because Jamie and I– both being guitar players and both being vocalists– had a pretty straight-up, very straight-forward, very focused idea about what we want to do musically. And I think that, at certain points of the existence of that band we may have, you know, had some differences of opinion and clashes. That record was kind of like two guys kind of at odds– two guys who were very close friends but also creatively kind of at odds and that was the result, was that one record we put out on Robotic Empire.
But Tombs is actually pretty much a weird hybrid of the material that [Getz and I] worked on together in [Versoma] and then– essentially, Tombs is what Versoma would have sounded like if Jamie wasn’t involved and I had free reign to do whatever I wanted. So, pretty much when Versoma broke up, the following weekend I started working on material for Tombs with our original drummer who, coincidentally, was going to be the drummer in Versoma for an upcoming tour that we had, but the band just kind of disintegrated and he and I continued playing together. In a nutshell, that’s the last ten years of my life.
So Tombs is really you– it’s really your music, your ideas?
The kernel of the ideas start with me but everyone else– the other members of the band contribute in that they add a filter in the whole creative process. Everyone writes their own parts so in my mind it’s just a couple of guitar riffs and then some vocal patterns and a mood but [drummer] Andrew [Hernandez] and [bassist] Carson [James] contribute their own twist on it, like their own vibe, and that’s pretty much the process.
Talk about how you hooked up with those two guys.
Well, Carson was just this guy. [laughs] He worked at a restaurant down the street from where I lived. So, just by going into the restaurant almost every day to get coffee and sandwiches and what not– I had, I think I had an Eyehategod T-shirt on and he was like “oh, I like Eyehategod” and then from there, we just became friends. We’re similar people, we’re into the same stuff basically and he ended up coming out with us when we had our original bass player Dominic. He came out on a weekend– I think we were playing with Baroness, doing some dates up in upstate New York and at that point I discovered that he actually played music. He played guitar and sang and did all this other stuff. And he lived in the UK for a number of years and played in some bands over there. When we parted with Dominic, Carson was just– I was like, “I like this guy, he’s a good dude, he likes the same music we do,” and he was reliable, so we asked him to join the band.
The way I understand it, he didn’t have any gear–
He had no gear–
He hadn’t been playing–
He hadn’t been playing in years. We just kinda pieced together a rig for him. And you know, we practice a lot, so. We practice five, sometimes six days a week so it’s like– if you don’t know what you’re doing, in another two months you’ll be a master at playing the songs at least. So [Carson] came along really fast and honestly I gotta say I think that he’s a natural musician, a natural talent. For a guy who hadn’t really been that involved in a band that’s you know, trying to do something on a professional level, he really has come a long way. And that can be seen in the recording process. Pretty much all of his tracks on the records have been one or two takes as opposed to the cutting and pasting that I have to do when I go in there and lay down guitar tracks. The millions of comped pieces that I have to put together and whatnot. So I mean, you know, he’s a natural and he’s been doing a great job so far.
And Andrew, our new drummer, used to play in Asra, which is a band that was on my label. And prior to that, he’d been a friend of mine for many years and he used to do shows in upstate New York, where he’s from. Well, he’s from Mass, but he lived in Ithaca, New York for a number of years and he was real active in setting up shows up there. So, when we reached a situation with our original drummer, Andrew was just available and he indicated to me that he wanted to do something a little bit more ambitious musically, so, that’s how he ended up in the band. He learned our entire set in nine days and got on a plane and went to Europe with us.
Let’s talk about your label, Black Box Recordings.
Was that something that you, sort of, always wanted to do and, you know, eventually got around to it or was it something that just happened? How did it come about?
It was something that, for a long time… I actually attempted doing a label a long time ago and it really didn’t turn out too well, for me. It was my lack of experience– I didn’t really plan things out too well. I put out one record, it was a seven-inch by a band called Loga which featured Aaron Harris from Isis. It was his band before he was in Isis– he played drums in the Melvins kinda band. But, yeah, I learned real quick that sometimes just the idea of doing something is not enough. You have to follow through and, you know, I learned a lot from that experience.
So then, a number of years later, I had become interested in doing a label again and during that period between the ‘Loga’ record and putting out the first release on [Black Box], I learned about distribution and PR and all this other stuff, so I had a little bit more of an arsenal of knowledge put together before I made an attempt to even approach doing it again.
I realize that most of the things that I put out on the label are marginal– they’re never, not really gonna reach a huge audience but, on a creative level, I think all the release are valid. In addition to the ones I actually play on, there’s other bands I put records out by. The Heuristic, the Wayward– those are great bands that need to have music out there to people. There’s been varying degrees of success with the records. Some records I completely lose my shirt on, and some records I actually break even and make money. Just recently, I have distribution through Red– with Red through Megaforce Records. That’s helped out things quite a bit on the units– moving units front.
Are you doing things to sort of… try to keep up with the times, so to speak? You know, the way music is being consumed is so different now than it was, maybe, when you started?
One of the things that I’ve actually been really focusing on– I haven’t really been pressing CDs. It’s like, mainly, the last two releases– well, the last release and the next release are pretty much vinyl-only with a drop card for downloads. The concept behind that is you have the packaging– it’s a tactile piece of material that you can put your hands on, you know, and the music, if you want to enjoy it either in analog format, or if you wanna take it with you on your iPhone, iPod– whatever trip you use for listening to music on the go– you can just throw it on your computer and there you go.
In the future I think I’m actually gonna do more– come up with different ideas about presenting the music as well as combining a couple different mediums maybe. Kevin Custer, the guy who did our video [for "Gossamer"], and I spent a lot of time together, obviously, because we were editing everything together and I spent a lot of hours over at his studio, and he’s really inspired my to come up with new ideas for kind of making an overall sensory experience, you know, not just a record. Music, and some sort of visual component as well. So, we’ll see what happens. We’ll try to flesh out some of these ideas.
Anything you can go into specifics of at this point?
Well, one of the big concepts– the idea I kinda stole from Kevin– and Thomas Hooper, the guy who did our artwork [for 'Winter Hours']– I think he and I are actually gonna do this because he has a little bit more time than Kevin because Kevin’s a super high in-demand video producer, so, Thomas and I are gonna do this sort of piece where he puts together the visuals and I put together the soundscapes and we’re gonna have a live ‘performance’ of the soundscape and the visuals. We’re working on that right now, but I’m hoping to actually do the event at some point later in the summer. Late summer, early fall. Right now, just with all the touring we’re doing and with the release of the record, it’s kinda hard to coordinate things outside the band at this point.
Let’s talk about the video then. Is this the first full-production video you’ve been involved in?
How was it?
It was very interesting, in the fact that I’d never done anything even remotely like that before. Everyone was really uncomfortable at first, you know, because it’s unnatural. Not knowing how familiar anyone is with doing a ‘rock video’– they crank the song over this PA and you basically lip synch or pretend you’re playing. The drummer’s actually playing and I was actually singing, but we weren’t plugged into our amps or anything. It was just really weird. So, just saying that, you can understand how potentially, completely uncomfortable you could be. Completely alien.
Kevin, you know, total professional made everyone feel at home and acknowledged that we were uncomfortable and tried to make the whole thing fun and he did a great job I think. It’s not something– I would have preferred to not even be in the video and just have some kind of like collage of other stuff, you know, some creative thing. Somehow, Gordon at Relapse was able to wrastle Kevin into giving him a good price on this thing, so, you can’t really say no when an opportunity like that comes up. But, you know, it was fun, I guess.
I think it’s a nice introduction, you know, to the band who might not be familiar with you.
Do you have any thoughts on people sharing music online– sending MP3s around to each other?
I have no problem at all with that, honestly. People have always shared music, be it on a cassette tape or whatever. And I think that, like, the blues jam that dudes like Lars Ulrich are on– I mean, I just don’t see it. I think that bands, at least at the stature that we’re at, don’t really make money on record sales. The main income stream for bands at our level is touring and merchandise sales. So that to me is a non-issue. And actually, in reality I feel that sharing music probably helps you as a band overall. It gets more people aware of what you’re doing and hopefully, if they’re into it, when you come through their town on tour they’ll go to the show. That’s really always been what it’s been about for me is touring and playing live. Making records is great, recording– love it all. But the main crux of being in a band is playing live. And sharing music gets more people at the show, I think.
So you guys have some tours coming up. Pelican and Dysrhythmia?
We just got back from the Dysrhythmia tour. That went really well. Next week we leave for the Pelican / Wolves in the Throne Room tour. Originally we were going to be going out with Intronaut for the month of May, but they got sucked up into the Mastodon tour, so that headlining tour got canceled. And within a 24-hour period we were offered the Enslaved tour on the east coast, but Enslaved are going to do a support slot for Opeth on their next tour and are not going to be doing a headlining tour. So, after getting all of the information about routing and guarantees and itineraries– 24-hours after receiving that information, the tour was canceled. But there’s other stuff in June I think. There’s a couple things I can’t really talk about right now because they’re not confirmed, but we’re gonna be busy regardless. It would have been nice to, right off the bat, be out for three months, but what are you gonna do?
Is there anything else in the pipeline to be released? Any splits or anything?
There’s a repress of the last split we did with Planks, the band we toured Europe with. We sold out pretty quickly of that and the repress– the vinyl’s in, and the covers should be done by the weekend, so, we’re cutting it close, but we should have all those records for the tours. That’s– as far as what we have on our plate as a band, that’s it for releases. Eventually, maybe later this year, we might do some kind of seven-inch or something small, but right now we’re just gonna be concentrating on supporting the record.
What else do you want to talk about?
Let’s see… this crazy snow we got [in New York] today, man.
You know, I remember in years past this [type of storm] was sort of a regular occurrence, several of these every winter. And it hasn’t been that way lately, so, people are all losing their shit– it’s not really that big of a deal.
[laughter] Yeah, I remember being a kid and it would snow on Thanksgiving and there would be snow all the way up until now. I think that the fact that we have 1349 playing tonight is why we have snow right now. I think that, like, the Norwegian–
Yeah, they’re playing at BB King’s tonight.
Ah, I had no idea.
I think they brought the Nordic winter with them from Norway.
Yeah. Well, I was at the Show No Mercy show last night–
–when the storm started, so, you know, there’s something amiss.
I completely forgot about that show last night. I wanted to see Krieg for a while, actually. How was it, was it good?
Unfortunately I left. I saw Liturgy and then part of Malkuth and then I left.
Know anything about them?
Local guys. It’s very, um, I dunno– I would call it ‘posi-black metal’ [laughs].
Yeah, that’s what it sort of sounds like to me. It’s different.
Brandon [Stosuy (Pitchfork, Stereogum)] has been doing a really good job with those shows, though.
Yeah, he’s good. He covers all his bases and takes care of the bands. He’s a good guy. You guys are playing one of those coming up.
Yeah, we’re playing one in April.
Do you know who that’s with?
Genghis Tron, Black Anvil, and Wetnurse.
That’ll be a good one.
Yeah. Black Anvil are tight friends of ours.
What’s their story for people who might not know?
Black Anvil is these guys who used to be in Kill Your Idols. They’re mainly hardcore guys that are doing kind of a Celtic Frost-influenced Black Metal– it’s definitely more on the Hellhammer / Celtic Frost / Bathory side. Like the early Black Metal as opposed to the second wave Norwegian Black Metal. They’re doing really well, apparently. We just played a bunch of dates with them. They’re getting better every time I see them. They’re awesome dudes too.
Let me ask you– where do you draw influence from when you’re writing songs for Tombs. I’m sure it’s probably a number of places or things, but is there anything that you care to talk about on that level?
Sure. On the first EP and the self-titled record– that was coming pretty heavily from Neurosis, My Bloody Valentine, more of like a shoegaze kind of thing with a kind of metal edge to it. And I’ve always been a huge fan of Darkthrone, Nachtmystium, and Deathspell Omega, but there’s less of a pronounced element of that music on the self-titled record. And a lot of that is because a lot of those riffs were actually written while I was in Versoma– they were gonna turn into Versoma songs. So, when that band broke up, I carried all that stuff back with me and worked it into Tombs’ material.
The split that we did with the Germans Planks — that has a way heavier dose of Black Metal, Leviathan influences and things like that and also the new ‘Winter Hours’ record is drawing from the Swans / Joy Division / Darkthrone, you know, a lot of the same stuff that’s common through all– it’s all pretty much from the same body [of work], but the different percentages of things vary, you know what I mean? I’ve always been a huge [fan of] Neurosis, Swans, Joy Division, Black Flag, Deathspell Omega, Leviathan, and stuff like that, and that’s all kind of thrown in in varying degrees in all the material.
I’m curious to know where you draw your influence with regards to songs– the moods of the songs and the lyrics to the songs and– maybe, you know, even non musical influences. Anything that you read, or films, or anything along those lines.
Oh sure. It’s funny that you mention films, because I’m also pretty keen on soundtracks so, you know. Ennio Morricone and, in particular, the soundtrack for ‘Once Upon a Time in the West‘ is something I regularly listen to and the cinematic feel to that work is something that I’ve kind of carried over into the way that we construct songs in Tombs. I think that’s most notable on the self-titled record because a lot of the tracks on that record are a little longer– I think we have a couple songs that are like six minutes long. So there is kind of a visual element to when we’re writing the material and when we’re actually in the phases where we’re doing the arrangements and putting the lyrical touches down and the vocal patterns. There’s a cinematic component.
And also, I’m a huge David Lynch / ‘Blue Velvet‘ fan — that whole thing. The thing that I draw heavily [on] is his book, ‘Catching the Big Fish,’ which talks about meditation and going deep into your subconscious to get into the real deep waters and pulling out ideas and I’ve been attempting to do that with a lot of the material in this band. There’s varying degrees of success. I don’t think that– I’m not purporting to go as deep as a guy like David Lynch does, but I think that the attempt to do that is yielding a lot of interesting– at least to me– interesting material for the band.
Since reading that book, I’ve started keeping a journal of ideas. I write everything down. Anything, even if it’s completely ridiculous and I never use it or if it’s something so completely obvious that it’s like ‘oh I don’t really need to write this down,’ I write it down. Because later on when I’m trying to get ideas for lyrics, I’ll read everything as one continuous piece of work and through that I’ll develop some sort of pattern or some sort of relationship between all these different pieces that I wrote together and then some other concept will come out of that. That’s how I write most of the songs, lyrically at least. The music itself– I sit down with my guitar and I just play like Black Sabbath songs and eventually something comes up that sounds like something that I’m into. It just– the riffs are more of like, just from playing, you know? Practice, things like that.
Writing lyrics– has that come naturally to you from the beginning or have you had to work at that?
I’ve had to work really hard at it. Lyrics have always been really important to me in the music I enjoy personally. And one of the things I’ve always tried to avoid is to write lyrics that are meaningless or that don’t have any kind of emotional content. I’ve been trying at least to deliver honest content from the beginning, in all the bands I’ve played in. That’s always been a big goal and objective of the stuff that I’ve ben working on. So it comes hard.
There’s a big revision process as well. I’ll put together the skeleton of a song and then demo everything and then pretty much right up to us recording it I’m revising and making things fit better and checking the tenses to make sure the first three verses are first person and the last is second person– you know, stuff like that that people don’t typically check on. So yeah, it’s hard, and particularly on this– for me at least, I mean, some people could probably do it in their sleep– but for me I’ve got to work three times as hard I think. Particularly in preparing for ‘Winter Hours’ we did a lot of demoing and I spent a lot of time just on my own in the studio demoing vocal patterns and fine-tuning the approach to the songs and whatnot, vocally.
Any amusing stories or anecdotes from shows or touring?
Um, you know, nothing really happens man. You play a show, get in the van, drive away. [laughs]
Pretty routine so far?
Yeah, I mean, we’re not really too far out. I’m sure there’s a number of other bands you could talk to that have pretty far out stories about what they do on tour or whatever but I’m pretty not far out.