Buried Alive: An interview with Mike Hill of Tombs

Tombs band photo
Posted 23 May 2011   Interviews

Background / NYC, etc.

TBR:  Somehow, I have the impression that you’re a native New Yorker.  True?

MH: I grew up in a small town called Carmel, NY; Carson is from South Jersey and Andrew was raised in Western Massachusetts. None of us are NYC natives.

TBR:  All indications are that the current Hardcore/Metal scene in NYC is really thriving these days.  I’d like to talk a bit more about the history later on, but would you say that’s an accurate impression?

MH: I actually think that things were a lot better back in the late 90’s and early part of the current century; back when CBGB’s was still around. I don’t want to romanticize those days but during that period, there was a different group of people doing shows and it was more “Punk” and less “Rock ‘n’ Roll” if that makes any sense. That’s just a personal thing.

NYC is an interesting place because a lot of people come here at a young age to reinvent themselves and there is a lot of posturing and defensiveness. When you go to shows these days, a lot of people are checking you out to see how “Metal” you are, if you have the cool patches on your jacket or if they can somehow benefit from knowing you. It can be very alienating at times.

That’s not to say that there aren’t a lot of killer bands.

Photograph by Brian C. Reilly

TBR: How would you describe the influence of the city on your music?

MH: I don’t feel a direct influence from New York City on our music. I was really into older bands like Unsane, Cop Shoot Cop and Swans but I’ve never really felt any deep connection to the scene here. I suppose that alienation feeling influences us, but these days, I feel like I’m drifting away and detaching from life here.

TBR: …and it’s influence on your personal life and outlook?  (assuming I’m right about you being born there) Do you think that you’ll be a “cradle to grave” New Yorker?  Why or why not?

MH: I definitely do not consider myself a “cradle to the grave” New Yorker; at some point, I’d like to move somewhere else where I can actually have some space and not live like a rat.

TBR: In today’s scene, what are the most significant factors in making NYC such a great place for heavy music at the moment?  Is it the work being put in by local promoters?  A glut of great bands?  Or are New Yorkers just drawn to hard music more as compared to other places?

MH: I think that the heavy music scene here is relatively small compared to other styles of music in New York. Mostly, people are into hiphop and R&B. There are a few really killer promoters in New York such as Fred at Brooklyn Vegan and Rich 1000 Knives that understand how to do shows. It’s a really hard city to do this kind of music in. People are into partying here and having fun.

TBR: Apart from Tombs, who are a few of your favourite local bands at the moment?  Tell us a little bit about them.

Defeatist – Really intense Grindcore with a Metal vibe.

Black Anvil

Black Anvil – Celtic Frost influenced Metal

Castevet – Hard to categorize, they don’t really sound like anyone else. Definitely a Black Metal influence but I can also hear progressive elements and a nod or two to bands like Dazzling Killmen.

Dysrythmia – Great music that is played by REAL musicians. We toured with these guys a couple of years ago and I wanted to go home after the first few days.

Flourishing – Death Metal influenced… Metal. I’ve heard the rough mixes of their new record and it has more of a Godflesh vibe than their older material

Pyrrhon – Technical Metal with a lot of atmosphere. They sort of remind me of Ulcerate

“Path Of Totality”

TBR: You’ve noted in past interviews that the lyrics are equally as important as the music.  Is there an overall theme behind “Path Of Totality”?

MH: A lot of the record deals with death and meditations on the possible ending of the world; not the end of the world in a literal sense, but the end of the age of man.

TBR: Even with the lineup changes, the band has kept a pretty consistent sound – first thing that comes to mind is that it’s very diverse.  Is that diversity a deliberate part of your musical vision/plan or would you say that this happens pretty naturally and without thinking at this point?

MH: It’s natural. We don’t get together at the rehearsal space and discuss what our next moves are going to be, songwriting is more or less organic. We all agree that we don’t want to trapped in a narrow box when it comes to our music. We all just remain open to ideas that may not necessarily be obvious and maintain a willingness to explore and keep pushing ourselves.

TBR: Overall, which of the new songs are you most satisfied with and why?

MH: I dig Vermillion and Black Heaven; the playing on it is tight and I feel like I came close to achieving some of the vocal diversity that I was trying for.

TBR: You worked with John Congleton as a producer (who did an amazing job, I think).  How was the approach that you guys took in the studio different from your experiences in the past?

MH: It was pretty much the same process as Winter Hours. We did a lot of demo recordings of the material to tighten up the arrangements and help me with lyric writing. The only real difference is that John was involved pretty early on as far as checking out the demo’s. When we showed up at the studio we pretty much just loaded in and executed, I feel like we had gone through the necessary preparation and were all primed. It was all very easy; we didn’t work very long hours like I’m used to whenever we record. A lot of that is due to Congleton’s professionalism, he was definitely the most “pro” guy we’ve ever worked with.

TBR: Although it’s a heavy album overall, “Path Of Totality” is also very dynamic.  Did you guys change a lot on the fly with respect to your guitar sound or was most of that done during the mix and adjusting your playing?

MH: We don’t really do anything on the fly. Pretty much everything has been worked out in rehearsal and when it comes time to record, it’s just a documenting process. All of the experimentation is done in rehearsal and during the demo period when we’re trying to find the vibe for the new material. We tour a lot, so the execution of the songs has been beaten into everyone’s muscle memory by the time we hit the studio.

TBR: Shameless gear nerd question:  What’s your #1 guitar and which amps/cabs did you use recording?  Different from your live rig??

Music Man HD120 + Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier. Photo by Taylor Keahey

MH: Haha, don’t worry bro, I love talking about gear too. My number on guitar is an 80’s model Gibson Les Paul Studio. I have a Seymour Duncan Invader in the bridge position with the neck pick up bypassed. All of the tone pots have been bypassed as well so it’s basically just a pick up and volume control. I use a Music Man HD 130 and a Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier, it’s one of the older models from the early 90’s.

On the record, I used an Ampeg V4 cab for the music man and one of Congleton’s Marshall 4×12’s. I recently upgraded to two Vader 4×12’s both at 8 ohms. My effects rack has been evolving over the years, but for the last 12 months or so I’ve been running an MXR Distortion III for the Music Man, the Boss RV5 Digital Reverb, Boss DD-4 and DD-5 Digital Delays, Boss Super Chorus, Boss Stereo Flanger and a Digital Jam Man for running samples. I use this configuration for the live setting and for the basic rhythm tracks in the studio.

For overdubs, I usually just run one head. On record I also used a BC Rich Mockingbird with the Duncan Invader in the bridge position and a Fender Strat with a totally sick sounding new pickup by Lace, called a “Deathbucker”. The Deathbucker is loaded in the bridge position on the Strat.

SD Invader / Lace Deathbucker

TBR: There are a lot of cool atmospheric sounds during the course of the album.  How did you go about building that stuff into the songs?  Do you look at those elements as “ear candy” to be added later or do you deliberately leave room for those things in as you’re writing the actual songs?

MH: I love building up the ambient parts. It’s kind of a relaxing sideline to writing, just finding sounds and manipulating them with effects. I have a lot of these textures archived on my computer. I don’t necessarily leave room for these components in the songs, they’re more like interludes that lace things together.

TBR: Personally, I like the fact that these things are all subtle and understated – and that the guitars, bass and drums are still at the center of it all and it never gets too spaced out or fruity.  Too many bands getting carried away these days.  That said, do you ever think about or actually horse around and spend time with more of those sorts of sounds?

MH: Absolutely, but I definitely don’t want to get too self-indulgent. It’s easy to get into that sort of mindset.

Roots + NYC music history

TBR: I’d be interested to know about your musical roots, but not just the bands that you liked the best.  What were some of your most divergent musical influences growing up?

MH: Well, I started out listening to heavy metal and hard rock like Black Sabbath, AC/DC and Zeppelin. Around the age of 13, I discovered punk and hardcore when this kid named Mike Katz went to California and brought back cassette compilations of Bad Brains, Suicidal Tendencies, Circle Jerks and D.O.A. That stuff made the rounds with the small group of kids that would have been open to this kind of thing. Remember, this was the 80’s and all of this was extremely underground and hard to find. There was no internet, just word-of-mouth. We were the guys that didn’t have girlfriends so bands like Suicidal and D.O.A. fit right into our worldview.

Also, there was Trash American Style, a record store located in Connecticut that played a huge part in my musical evolution. It was there that I discovered Black Flag, the SST catalog and Charles Manson.  Malcolm and Kathy, the owners were heavy influences on me. I was exposed to so much great music by just hanging out there and listening. When I was listening to punk and hardcore, I had pretty much abandoned metal until I heard Slayer and Metallica. I responded to the intensity and speed of the music, to me it sounded like dudes that listened to Sabbath invoking bands like Black Flag and Suicidal, however, in those days both scenes were very much separate unlike today where there’s such a blurring of genres.

A lot of the diversity came just from hanging out at Trash and listening to Malcolm. I learned about bands like Gun Club, Saccharine Trust, Joy Division, Husker Du, Swans, and The Birthday Party just from hanging out and looking through the record bins. It was a real interesting vibe there. There was a lot of tie-dye and patchouli but also Venom, Black Flag and Manson integrated creating a heady aggregate of styles. I can’t express how important those years were, if it wasn’t for that place I probably would be living a very different life.

TBR: Do you have any musical influences that you think would really surprise people?

MH: A Flock of Seagulls. If you look past their haircuts, you’ll discover that they are a really good pop band.

TBR: In a few words, interested to hear your thoughts on a few NYC classics:

•    Swans/Michael Gira: Totally genius. Everything is great; my favorites being “The Burning World” and “Cop”
•    Agnostic Front/Roger Miret: “I like Cause for Alarm” and “Victim in Pain.” I was never a huge NYHC fan
•    Ramones: Totally changed my life when I was a kid. An easy jump on point when you’re 13.
•    Cro-Mags: “Age of Quarrel” is an important record, but as I said earlier, I was never a huge NYHC fan.
•    Nuclear Assault: Good, but I dig Anthrax a little more
•    Dead Boys: I was never cool enough to be into these guys. I think about girls in leather jackets doing coke and how I’d rather be listening to “In My Head” by Black Flag.

TBR: I’m 37 so demographically, Anthrax got me when I was young and impressionable.  Cheesy or not, they opened me up to a lot of cool NYHC bands that I hadn’t heard of yet.  What say?

MH: I like Anthrax, not as much as Slayer or Metallica though. I especially like the older material on Fistful Of Metal.  Joey Belladonna always put me off, but the riffing was pretty intense.

Swans / Michael Gira - photo by Lino Brunetti

TBR: Who’s on YOUR “All-Time” list of classic NYC bands and musicians?  Doesn’t have to be in Hardcore or Metal, but it helps!

1.  Swans
2.  Unsane
3.  Circus of Power
4.  Cop Shoot Cop
5.  Disassociate
6.  Black Army Jacket
7.  CR
8.  1.8 Band
9.  Kill Your Idols
10.  Death Cycle

Touring / Signing off…

TBR: You guys have been on the road quite a lot this year – what have been some of your best gigs so far and why?  Any good stories to tell?

MH: One of the most memorable tours was the Isis, Pelican tour we did. It’s a friendship story, I don’t party or get into any trouble so I don’t have any “road stories” to tell. It was great to be able to travel with Isis before they called it quits. It was during that time that we met Pelican who we’re great friends with now.

TBR: When you finally kick the bucket, what’s it gonna say on your tombstone??

MH: “Mike Hill, A man who tried, Power and Love”