Mike Hill is the grand, malevolent maestro of the New York City-based extreme metal collective Tombs. The project draws primarily from the world of black metal, but there really isn’t any devilish sound that is off-limit or that they won’t invoke to the scourge of the living and the exaltation of the damned.
The sixth album for the project was released this past Friday on Season of Mist Records. Under Sullen Skies is barren and savage in all the ways you’ve come to expect from the band and features performances by the likes of Dwid Hellion of Integrity, Ray Suhy of Six Feet Under, Black Crown Initiate recruit Andy Thomas Psycroptic’s Todd Stern, Sera Timms of Black Math Horseman, and long time personal friend of Mike’s Paul Delaney of Black Anvil.
We at New Noise are absolute drooling devotees to all of metals strange and uncanny hybrids and Tombs is one of those bands that is able to put a pin in every one of the pressure points in our primary musical meridian like a telepathic acupuncturist. As a result, we were very happy to catch up with Mike in the lead to the release of his new album to talk about the inspiration for the release and how it all came together.
Below is a transcript of our conversation with Mike Hill via phone back in October. It has been edited slightly for the sake of clarity.
I like how you’re willing to experiment within extreme metal, and that you’re willing to bring different people in to collaborate with and aren’t concerned with how people categorize your music.
Under Sullen Skys, is your 6th title. I know you don’t just throw a cool title on your albums and ship them out. What is the meaning behind this name?
There are a lot of different types of people. Some people like to simplify things to either glass half empty or glass half full. There are some people who gravitate more towards brighter emotions and brighter feelings. And there are some people who see things in the dark light of the world. I probably fall into that category. After writing all of the lyrics for this record and collaborating with the rest of the band on the material, I just sort of found these songs describing my own life, so when we were throwing ideas around for what to call it that title just seemed very appropriate for the dark subject matter. Sometimes your world view can cast a shadow over the way you feel in your own personal space. There is a book by a guy named Mark Samuels, it’s called Written in Darkness, and the title is a bit of an homage to his writing.
I can see that and I can relate to the mood you went into it with from some of the song titles as well. There seems to be a wrestling with a deprivation of some kind.
The album art is very cool as well. It’s very Lovecraftian, or I guess you could say, Bloodborne inspired, with the tentacles grasping at the church above that metal plate. How did this album cover come together?
That was all Valnoir. You just have to give him the idea for the record and then he just does what he wants to do with it. I enjoy that. I like to let people take ideas and run with them. He’s somebody I respect and I wouldn’t work with him if I didn’t think he was a person who couldn’t do something without a lot of direction. I let him take his reflections on the lyrics and come up with his own ideas. It’s just a more interesting way to work.
Right, you’re not a taskmaster. You don’t have a specific vision in mind for every aspect and demand that people produce it for you.
Yeah. I look at it in some ways the way that you’d direct a film. There are some directors that want actors to say every single line exactly how it’s written. And there are some directors out there who just create an atmosphere on set and select actors who they think can really move the material forward. And that’s my approach to the overarching project. Like there are obvious things that I have the veto power to say, “No, that isn’t working,” but most of the time it does [work] because you put the right people in the right places.
So you see yourself in the director’s seat?
Yeah! Things turn out better that way. I think that it is a better and more satisfying if you approach things that way. I don’t want to use people as instruments to execute things. I would rather have people express themselves within the framework of the band. You can’t go wrong with an approach like that if you have the right people involved.
Which directors inform your approach?
I would say right away Abel Ferrara. He did like, Bad Lieutenant, The Addiction, King of New York, that kind of stuff. I would also say Jim Van Bebber, whose a pretty obscure, DIY horror director. But Ferrara, specifically, he just has the right people as actors. He has a script and then the actors just fill in the blanks, you know what I mean?
Right, he lets them help steer the project.
He’s had like Denis Hopper, Harvey Keitel, Christopher Walken, you know, Beatrice Doll, Lily Tomlin, people who can really dig into a role and express themselves. People who will take elements of the character and really, but their own feeling into it. My approach to making records is similar to that.
So when things don’t go the way that you want them to, or go a little off the rails, how do you course correct and maintain the sense of collaboration?
Funny you should mention that, we have probably just as much material that we haven’t released, in the demo stage, as we do songs that make it onto the record. We’ll work on material and have songs about 70% done and then realize, like “I don’t think this is really going anywhere.” So we’ll just put it on the shelf. Demoing is important. It’s always been a big part of how we make the records. We’ll usually have extensive demos before we even go into the studio, and then if I hear something that is on the demo and like the song to go in a different direction, we’ll talk about it and see how it works. Time is really the element. We write constantly. It’s not like, “Ok, for the month of January, we’re going to write the new album.” It’s not how things work in the band. We’re always coming up with ideas and there is always a backlog of stuff for us to review, listen to and complete. Or not! Sometimes we abandon them completely. It’s just a continuum of ideas and if something resonates with someone then we can do more. There are a few exceptions. Sometimes Matt [Medeiros] will come to the table with a complete song and we’ll just have to add a guitar part, a few lyrics, or a bridge part and it evolves that way. I mean, that’s a long way to answer your question I guess.
Yeah, that’s a very complete answer and I appreciate it. Who are you collaborating with on this album?
With the current line up, everyone has had input on all of the songs. We have Medeiros on guitar, Drew Murphy on bass, me on vocals, and Justin Spaeth on drums. I would say that about 60% of the songwriting is Justin and I. Matt works in complete songs which he brings to the table and then we’ll play with that. Justin has written some complete songs, and all we had to do is add some vocals to them, or a guitar layer. And other times there will be an idea that we just repetitively work on and it might not seem like it’s going anywhere and then after about a month we’ll come up with something and it will complete the song. The cycle is complete at that point. It’s really all over the map. I usually think of songwriting as this arduous, long term process, but sometimes whole songs will just fall out of the sky. As for example “The Hunger” on this last record, I wrote that whole thing in one night really. Granted, it started out a half-assed homage to Samhain and Danzig. I was thinking that it would be cool to write a song that sounded exactly like November-Coming-Fire and then the rest of the guys in the band were like “Yeah, this is cool, let’s work with it.” I even wrote that keyboard part! The whole thing just kind of sprang out! And then I thought, “Ok, if this is going to be a song, let’s write some interesting lyrics for it.” That always takes a little longer, writing the lyrics. It takes a while pouring over the books that I have and free-associating lines and trying to put that in some kind of form, you know?
It’s interesting that the song is born out of a love of Danzig, because when I first heard it I thought, “Oh, this is kind of like a Tribulation track.” Sort of black rock ‘n roll.
I’m familiar with Tribulation. They’re a fine band but I don’t really listen to them that often. I do enjoy them though.
It’s just not what you were going for.
Yeah, it’s not like I wanted to do what they were doing. I love stuff like Entombed. I like rockin’ stuff. But we don’t have too much material like that. When I wrote “The Hunger” I figured it would be a 7” or some weird track that we only play live, but the more that we started listening to it, the more we would take it to the practice space and play it, it just kind of grew legs. And I realized that it was a pretty cool song and that we could actually do something interesting with it. Hopefully, people enjoy it because we had fun putting it together.
So far it’s my favorite track off the new album.
I’m glad I asked about the lineup for this record too, because the Wikipedia entry for your band is way off.
Of yeah, the Wiki for this band is terrible. I don’t know who writes those things.
No one who you’ve mentioned so far as having been on this record is mentioned in the entry as being in the current lineup of the band.
Somehow Encyclopaedia Metallum is somehow always on track and able to keep up with everything.
You’re collaborating with some pretty notable people outside of the core line up of the band for this record. You’ve got Dwid Hellion on there, you’ve got Ray [Suhy] from Six Feet Under and one of the guys from Black Anvil, how did you go about roping them all together?
Paul [Delaney] from Black Anvil and I have been friends for decades. We’ve played a lot with Black Anvil and Paul used to live across the street from me. We’ve done stuff on each other’s albums before and I wanted to include him on the record somehow. And Dwid and I have become internet buddies, like I interviewed him a couple of years ago and we just stayed in touch. We’ll send each other things that we’re both interested in, like vampire literature, folklore and stuff about the occult. While we were working on “The Hunger,” the way the lyrics were going, I thought he would be the right guy to add to it. You know, so I asked him and he was into it and sent over his vocal tracks. And then Ray is good friends with the rest of the band. They all live out in Jersey, and he’s one of the guys playing around in a bunch of bands and is part of the scene out there. I had approached him about doing some touring guitar work for us, so we were in touch a little bit. He’s just such an incredible guitar player and that song [“Barren”] just needed something. We asked Ray to put that solo on there and it exceeded any kind of expectation we had. In itself that solo is almost like its own little song, you know? I could listen to it by itself and be satisfied. And then there are a lot of other people involved too, like Sara Timms who is from an extreme metal adjacent scene with Black Mare and Black Math Horsemen. Her stuff is more gothic, like dark rock music. She’s a good friend of mine and I’ve known her for years and she’s done stuff for us before, so she was an obvious choice to contribute her voice to that track [“Secrets of the Black Sun”]. She was gracious enough to do some of those atmospheric vocals on there.
Yeah, sometimes metal can feel overwhelmingly male-oriented, so I always appreciate it when there is like, a woman’s voice on a track, or when women are more directly involved in the music-making in some other way.
So what civilizational histories and mythologies are you drawing on with your most recent record?
I’ve always been interested in northern European mythologies and its stuff that I try to work with a little bit. And the idea of different entities entering our realm and reality, and there being a veil surrounding our reality. And of course I’ve always been very interested in Mediterranean, Roman and Greek mythologies. That stuff’s always really interesting to read about. I spent a period of time working at a Santeria shop and that influenced the album as well. Being aware of the clandestine nature of that religion is very interesting to me. They try to conceal their old ideas and deities behind Christian archetypes and I found it really fascinating. When you break Christianity down, it is very pagan in a lot of ways. Especially when you get into the more esoteric forms of Christianity. Old Christians were really into idols. And you look at the Roman Catholic Church and there are all kinds of pagan things going on there, like in a Catholic mass where there is the incense and saints…
And the sacrifice!
Exactly! I mean, eating the body of Christ? Come on! I’m not religious myself and I’m not like a Satanic, Christ-hating kind of guy, but you listen to black metal and they talk about being like wolves, and I think that’s right. I don’t believe in good and evil, you just are. Reality just is. Sometimes it’s very brutal and violent. And sometimes it’s not. And that’s my approach to religion. I’m not saying anything is right or wrong, I’m saying that it just “is.” You can appreciate certain aspects of things and create your own belief system around all of these different ideas. What I do reject is the hypocrisy of modern Christianity, and modern Judaism, and modern monotheistic religions, because at their base I think they’re there to enslave people and control people. If you go far enough back though, there is mysticism in those religions, especially in Judaism. Concepts of Kabala and numerology come from old forms of Judaism. And there is a lot of value there. You can’t become a zealot against religion is what I’m saying. I like numerology. I like ideas of a fall from grace, which is kind of a Christian thing. Brahma in Hinduism. It kind of creates a rich tapestry to draw from. Stories and legends, they’re all allegories and you can draw from them for your own philosophy.
Do you think there is anyway of synthesizing all of those stories and values into a single narrative in a Joseph Campbell sort of way, or do you think that that they each need to have their own space in your mind?
Yeah, I try to do that, what Joseph Campbell did with The Hero with A Thousand Faces, but I would say that it’s closer to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, like every god exists in some form in reality and it all just depends on who gives them strength. I love Neil Gaiman, I think he’s an incredible writer, and when I read that book I thought it was a fascinating idea. Like, whatever more people believe in, that’s the new god. And it speaks to human spirituality in general. Think about it, you create so much with your own psyche and you can end up enslaving yourself. Let’s say you’re a fundamentalist Christian. Those concepts are leading you through life, but within a very restricted mindset. That belief has given you power in a kind of way, but also restraints. Conversely, if you’re a Luciferian, you think that you can do whatever you want and suffer the consequences on your own, “I’m my own god” sort of thing, then you’re like living in a different world than a fundamentalist Christian. And when I read Gaiman’s book I thought it was fascinating because it is a representation of what is going on in a person’s mind. You know what I mean?
Yeah, like religion augments the world, but it couldn’t manifest in the world if people didn’t believe that their faith had power and could change things outside of themselves.
Exactly. And it’s like a drug too. It can destroy your life, but if you’re careful and moderate your intake, you can be ok. Like, I grew up a Roman Catholic from an Italian American and Irish American family and I’m not going to say that religion is 100% a bad thing. It enriched my life as I was growing up, even if today I don’t believe in any of that stuff. But I do see the extreme versions of that mindset as evil and repressive. But I think moderation is the key to it, and I think you need to learn how to reject those things that are wrong about them.
This is all really fascinating. Is there anything else you’d like to plug about your new album before we wrap up?
Yeah, well unfortunately there are no tours. But we do have a video! There is a live video that we did that will be out sometime after the record release. Unlike a lot of the quarantine videos out there I’m hoping that this one will have some longevity, that you’ll be able to watch it in five years and still get something out of it. We did multiple cameras. There is B role and professional sound edit. It’s the next best thing to seeing us live!
Photo by Tombs.