“I want to take what I have, and build on it every time. Expand, learn more, become a better player, better writer, a better executor of my ideas.”
The more musical-minded among you will certainly recognise MICHAEL HILL primarily as the creative force behind Tombs, the amazing black (sort of) metal band who’s put out four kickass records in the last decade, or even, hopefully, as a member of the equally great Anodyne, his previous band. However, Mike is a man of many interests and talents, the listing of which almost fills up this entire introduction space – from running his own coffee company, Savage Gold, to his constantly exciting podcast, Everything Went Black, where he routinely discusses music, horror movies and combat sports with all kinds of fascinating personalities, to his activity as a writer, there’s no shortage of things to talk about with Mike. We chatted for over an hour, and still got the feeling another hour could go by without barely scratching the surface.
For all your many activities, almost everything seems to have originated from music. I suppose it was a big interested for you from a young age, both as a listener and as an actual musician too?
What really moved me to think about playing music myself was basically two things. One, when I heard the first Black Sabbath album, that terrifying monstrous sound that Tony Iommi was making at the time was frightening, and something that really motivated me to start playing guitar. Before that I was listening to Rush and Zeppelin and that music was interesting, but it always felt like it might be beyond my reach technically. When I heard that first Sabbath material, I’m not going to say that it sounded easy, but there was more of a raw kind of vibe to it. It seemed something that might fit within the reach of the meagre technical abilities I had at age thirteen. That’s what really put the idea in my head, that I could actually play some of this material. Prior to that I had some guitar lessons, I could play the basic chords, but anything more ambitious than that seemed like a fantasy at that point. So listening to Sabbath, the simplicity of the music motivated me to take the playing more seriously.
Then, oddly enough, back then there was a show on the USA Network called Night Flight, and late at night they’d have these concert performances, and I saw The Go-Go’s play. It was a special about them performing live, and they were playing simple music, but at this professional level, they were a band, there were other people involved, there was an audience… I didn’t know how much more I had to actually learn, but I felt that with what I knew, I could move into this other level of playing and do things with other people. You know, be involved in a bigger picture, other than just sitting in my room playing Sabbath riffs. That was right when I started getting into punk too, the Ramones, Black Flag, The Clash, Discharge and that sort of stuff, that music was also very simple. That really was where I came from – never really being a technical player, but always attracted to the more raw expression of emotion, and early punk and Black Sabbath and those types of bands really embraced that mindset. I wasn’t much of a guitar player, but I wanted to get out there and start doing stuff, start playing and jump headlong into it.
Did you start forming bands straight away, or were people to play with hard to find?
Even with that will to do it in mind, it was still a couple of years into high school where I actually started playing in bands with other people. Once again, it was all early punk and hardcore. It’s no secret that Black Flag has always been probably the biggest kind of influence on me, and in those bands it was still me taking that Black Flag/Black Sabbath kind of idea and applying it to my own ideas about what music should be at that young age. This was in the 80s, so there really wasn’t a lot of people that you could even play with, that understood the music you wanted to do. There were literally five kids in my entire high school who liked punk rock music. A bit more than that were into heavy rock and metal, speed metal was starting to become really big, with Metallica, Slayer and Anthrax, those big bands at the time. Musically, I was always more into metal too, but socially, I hung out more with punks and hardcore kids, so there was this weird sort of duality to the way I approached music. Back then, punks and metalheads never, ever mixed, it was very distinct. Two different ideas. Being metal and being punk was like oil and water, they never crossed paths, socially. Still, there would always be the occasional metalhead who was interested in punk and you’d always end up being in a punk band with a guy who was into Slayer. You can see that in the early hardcore bands, there’d often be some guy with a moustache and dudes with shaved heads, you know?
You seem to always have been pretty open minded about stuff, even at an age when we’re usually a bit more fundamentalist about genre separations and things like that.
Those were my beginnings, just always being open to stuff. I didn’t grow up in the city, I grew up way out in the suburbs, and finding music was very hard. Records and information about bands were very hard to come by. I was fortunate enough to live near – and this was actually a milestone for a lot of people – a record store called Trash American Style, in Connecticut, close to the border in New York, where I grew up. That was kind of like the epicentre of my understanding of music. Even if it was only ten miles away from where I lived, at that age when you don’t have a car, it could well be on the West Coast, or a million miles away. [laughs] I always had to catch rides to get there, so the trip to go to Trash American Style was something you planned with other people, I’d go out there with my friends and I would talk to the owner, this guy Malcolm [Tent, check out his website], and he was definitely one of the people who pointed me in the direction of what I considered to be important music. He was very much into the SST catalogue, very much into the burgeoning British crust scene, bands like Discharge and Crass and that kind of thing. Also, at that time, Connecticut had a huge straightedge hardcore scene there, so I got exposed to a lot of those bands, even though that style of music isn’t something I ever gravitated towards. But it was definitely in my consciousness at that point, hardcore in general, bands like the Cro-Mags and Agnostic Front, I had a steady diet of them in my youth.
“I saw no reason why I shouldn’t listen to Cro-Mags and Christian Death and be inspired in a similar way.”
And then, also, strictly because of the album covers, I discovered bands like Bauhaus and Joy Division and that kind of thing. Because I found all those records in a punk rock record store I assumed all those bands were punk too. I would see no difference between Discharge, Black Flag or Christian Death, to me it was all like one interesting, mysterious outlet of creativity. I was aware of the differences stylistically, of course, but I saw no reason why I shouldn’t listen to Cro-Mags and Christian Death and be inspired in a similar way. I guess I was fortunate in that way, that I grew up at a time when things were hard to find, so when you found them, you looked at things really for what they were, and also in a broader sense. The availability of music was so limited, because when something came your way, you really spent time with it. These records were very hard to find, so when you got one, you’d really absorb the whole thing. There were bands that I’d take in, be into for a little while and then move past them, of course – the whole Connecticut hardcore scene was a bit like that for me, it was cool, loud guitars, fast, but not a lot of impact on me personally. It was always the darker stuff attracted me, and not just metal, bands like The Cramps or The Gun Club, I discovered The Birthday Party too and all that stuff… all the left-of-center punk music, it was something different but I processed it all as one. That’s probably why, when I started to become more mature creatively, I felt like there were no bounds that I needed to incorporate in my music, because I always had such a broad palette in the music that I liked to listen too.
Even without being a huge fan, it would have been hard to have grown in New York around that time and not have some kind of influence trickle down on you from that hardcore scene, right?
Yeah, mostly out of proximity, but I have to be honest, I was never a fan. There’s a couple of records that I really like, ‘The Age Of Quarrel’ by the Cro-Mags is a great one, ‘Cause For Alarm’ by Agnostic Front is a thrash album, really, but I was way more into what was going on on the West Coast. The NYHC stuff seemed a little too “tough guy”, there was this inherent negativity to the music that kind of alienated me a little bit, too much of a group mentality with those bands and with that scene. I was never a skinhead or anything, I never had the look of the guys who were into that stuff. Back then in the 80s that was the indicator of what you were into. If you ran into a guy with a shaved head in New York back then, you knew he was a skinhead – and not in the way we think about skinheads now – and he’d be into Murphy’s Law, Cro-Mags and stuff like that. I never had boots and braces or a flight jacket, I didn’t have a shaved head, it wasn’t my thing. Being sort of against groups, I looked at hardcore as just another way to wear a uniform. I’ve always felt very suspicious of uniforms. To this day, actually – I remember seeing all the kids who were into the ’77 punk style, with the spiked hair and the bondage pants, and to me that felt like a costume too, it was just another uniform. I guess maybe that’s why I liked Black Flag and those other bands so much, because they just looked like regular dudes. There was no image. That was more my style.
What was your first band that actually felt serious, like it could go somewhere, so to speak?
There were a few bands that I was in prior to Anodyne that I toured with and put out records… When I lived in Boston I was in this band called Otis. It was the 90s, and we were sort of following the trends of Helmet and Melvins and that kind of thing. It was the same kind of vibe. But ultimately, looking back on it, that band wasn’t totally serious. I think all four of us had different ideas of what we wanted the band to be, there was never a unified mission statement or whatever. One guy wanted to maybe be a rock star, on the level of Alice In Chains or something like that, and for me, in my mind, I was never really satisfied creatively within the confines of that band. So even though I was one of the guys who formed the band, it never felt like a very satisfying outlet because of the limitations of having to compromise with everyone else. We were like 23/24, no one knew about communicating, we never talked about what any of us wanted to do with the band, we just forced our own agendas on everything, and it didn’t work out. There was a lot of tension, people agreeing to do things they didn’t want to do, and eventually we just broke up. We still did a lot of things, we toured Europe and everything, but it wasn’t a mature, serious pursuit for me, and I didn’t get to experience that until I was in Anodyne, until I formed that band.
Was Anodyne a kind of reaction to everything you didn’t like about Otis?
That was a response to Otis in a way, yes. That was going to be my singular idea, it was going to be the band that did things the way I wanted to do them. I didn’t want to pander to whatever was popular, or preoccupied with gaining fans, none of that. I just wanted to do what I wanted to do. Pretty much the whole mission of that band was to be free creatively and hope for the best, you know? [laughs] We were always below the surface, even if a lot of people like it now. We managed to do quite a bit of touring, we put out a bunch of records, we went to Europe once… But everything has to come to an end, and at one point we all decided we wanted to do different things, myself included. After doing those records and playing in that band for however many years we did it, that band too became too confining for the vision that I had, and we decided to put an end cap on the thing. Just disband before we started doing music that none of us were satisfied with. It was a mutual thing, and everyone was cool with it, there wasn’t a big blow out or a dramatic break up. We all just got together one day, discussed it, and we all decided it was time to put the band to rest and move on to other things. Everyone did really cool stuff afterwards, so it was a good decision.
Do you feel if the band had appeared a few years later, it could have been different?
I actually feel that Anodyne came along too late, in some ways. When the band formed, Deadguy had already broken up, I think. I was around 1996/97, there was like a year when that style of music was really popular with people. Bands like Deadguy, Drowningman, early Dillinger, even Coalesce, who still managed to remain popular for many years, but I think that if we had surfaced maybe two or three years earlier we could have caught that wave of bands. But whatever, you know? If that band hadn’t come and gone, I don’t know what I would have been doing now, I don’t think I’d be satisfied playing that kind of music these days, honestly.
Have you ever thought of doing a one-off show with the Anodyne guys? Not a reunion, but just a show as a celebration or something like that.
Nah… I’m not big on reunions or any of that kind of thing. Even if it’s just one show. That seems to be the big trend of the last decade, everyone’s reuniting, and I just think it’s like… if you missed the band in 1999, you missed it. It existed in that period of time, for a reason. As individuals, that’s who we were at that point in time. To get back to that would be a simulation of something, you’d not be getting the real experience. I’m more about trying to experience real stuff and not just playing a cover set of material I wrote twenty years ago. That’s why I’m always very critical of reunions. I’m not saying I don’t go see bands who reunite… I mean, the Rorschach reunion was fucking cool, it was great. I’m not going to be hypocritical and say that I didn’t enjoy it. But in general I’m not really into that. Often times, to make it worse, it’s like, maybe one or two original members, and then a 22 year old playing bass or whatever. That’s not really what I want to see, I want to remember bands the way I remember them.
There’s this Simpsons episode where they lose all their old family photos, Marge is really upset about it and so they try to recreate them, and obviously it doesn’t go very well. That’s what some of these reunions look like to me. Not all of them, but some at least.
That’s exactly right! [laughs] And then there are bands out there who have stayed together all along. Look at Slayer – I know it’s down to two original members now, but they’ve just been grinding it out all these years, they never broke up, they always just keep putting records out. Sick Of It All too, Craig Setari is the new guy and he’s been in the band for twenty years. They’ve been putting out records every couple of years, diligently touring, and they’ve just stayed the course. It just seems cheap to me, when a band breaks up, then reforms, sometimes even with just one original member… I don’t know, I’m just not into that stuff.
In musical terms, and even if you have a couple of side things now and then [dear readers, do check out Vasilek], you seem to have stabilised nicely with Tombs. Do you feel you’ve found your definitive outlet for that kind of expression, your life’s work within music?
I think I feel that way, yeah. Even within the trajectory of Tombs there have been important changes though – it started out more like a band project, and over the years, it’s been reduced more to me, creating everything on my own. For better or for worse, that’s kind of how things are right now, it’s a very singular approach to the music. It’s not to say that I’m not open to other people’s input, but it really comes down to doing things the way I want to do them and taking the music in the direction I want to take it.
“Each record can be successful, but it’s never the band in its perfect form. Everything becomes more solidified and fully realised at each step, as time goes on.”
Why do you think things have evolved that way?
I would say it’s been more out of necessity that things turned into this. Andrew Hernandez is the only guy who’s been in the band that I thought was actually invested in being in the band as far as longevity goes. Andrew and I did ‘Path Of Totality’ and ‘Savage Gold’ together, he did a lot of the touring in the early days. He joined the band shortly after ‘Winter Hours’ was recorded – the guy who recorded that didn’t do any of the touring, Andrew joined literally a month after the recording. Creatively, he had the same determination and commitment to improvement that I’ve had, he put on the hours on his own the same way I do, creating and playing my guitar. We had a good chemistry in the practice space together and hashing out song ideas. He helped arrange a lot of the songs, he’d be very tuned into what was viable or not, we had a very good relationship. Him leaving the band was just due to lifestyle stuff. His life changed, he wanted to do other stuff, and you can’t fault people for just wanting different things. I get it completely. But he treated me like a man, he talked to me like a human being. He told me about his decision, and he put a date to it – he did all the stuff up to that point, and then moved on, but gave me that heads up for me to find a replacement, and it was very straight-up, two people discussing the future without any bullshit. That’s why I respect him so much. To this day we’re friends – Tombs tours so much these days that I see him every couple of months. He lives in San Francisco now, and I see him more than I see people who live in the same city as me! [laughs] We hang out, we stay in touch, we do podcast episodes together, he’s a great friend.
Personnel changes notwithstanding, is Tombs right now, after four records, closer to the vision you had for the band when you put out that first EP?
Absolutely. From the start, I had a loose gameplan, I wanted every record to have something new. Not that I wanted to make a ska record and then a dream pop album, that’s not what I’m saying, but I want to take what I have, and build on it every time. Expand, learn more, become a better player, better writer, a better executor of my ideas. Take all that and grow it into something different, so that there’s progress. I want to be able to see things like, some of these ideas I have now, the seeds for them were planted on ‘Winter Hours’. Three albums later, that has grown into this other idea. You know? If you listen to all our records back to back, I think you can hear that all our ideas started in the beginning, and they’ve come to fruition and they’re still continuing to bloom into newer expressions. I’ve always wanted the things in the band to be that way. Each record can be successful, but it’s never the band in its perfect form. Everything becomes more solidified and fully realised at each step, as time goes on. I do believe we’re heading in that direction, some of the ideas started on ‘Winter Hours’, and even the EP before that, have been consistently present, and improving in the way they’ve been realised. That’s the whole mission of the band, I think.
Okay, so it’s time to talk about coffee! How do you become Mike, the coffee man? Is it an interest you’ve always had?
My mom’s side of the family is Italian and a lot of the appreciation for espresso and coffee comes from that side. When I was kid, there was always coffee on the table, with my grandmother, that was a big part of the family experience. Coffee, walnuts, always some kind of cake, that sort of thing. Maybe because of that, I’ve always had warm feelings for coffee, it’s always felt like a comfort for me, and then as time went on it became like a crutch to get through difficult situations. In college, for instance, for those long nights of studying, I’d always have coffee, and with time I just became one of those guys, I just loved coffee. As coffee culture grew in the United States I became very interested in all the little flavour nuances, all the different methods of making coffee, the roasting techniques, how certain flavour profiles are accentuated by those techniques, the amount of air, of heat, the duration of time that you’re roasting, all those details. The technical stuff also fell into my interests – I have a degree in mechanical engineering, so anything that has to do with processes like that is always very interesting to me. All of that coalesced into the idea of coffee, and people that know me and who are close to me kept telling me that, since I loved coffee and knew so much about it, I should try to do something with that, some sort of business. After a lot of urging, I decided to start this brand, to combine my love of coffee with a philosophy, and to put it out there as one package. That’s where Savage Gold came from.
How is it going? Are you happy with the response you’ve had?
It’s something that’s growing, I’ve only been doing it for a few years, but I’m in it for the long haul. A lot of people who start businesses, they think sometimes “oh, I’ve been doing this for two years and it’s not going anywhere”, but you need to really have the long view with everything. You need to understand that things take time. As a side note, there’s a supplement company in the United States, called Onnit, they make exercise supplements and exercise equipment and all these kinds of stuff, and they also have a philosophy with their thing… That company existed for six years even before anyone knew who they were. You need to have that kind of commitment to what you’re doing. If you expect any kind of success you need that long view with your business, because most businesses fail. Failure is when you decide you’re not going to do it anymore. It’s been difficult, of course, it’s not an incredibly profitable product at this point still, but it’s something that people care about. I definitely have a customer base, people who are supportive of it, and I have the commitment to this being a long term enterprise, which is in tune with the philosophy I’m sharing with it too – you have to be committed to what serves your higher self. Not be so preoccupied with the world of material values, and more with continually serving your heart’s calling. I’m not just selling people bags of coffee, but also maybe have them open up to the self-improvement kind of mentality that I have with it. I’d like people to take those ideas and help further the agendas of their own lives.
Do you do everything on your own, or do you work with any kind of business partners?
At the end of the day, it really is just me, but I have people who help me with stuff. I have roasters, I have a guy in Syracuse who’s a really close friend of mine who handles all the production, but when it comes the time to actually create a roast and decide the beans we’re going to use and all that, that’s down to me. Of course, when I’m on tour, I’m not roasting beans every day, there’s a guy who does that, and as for fulfilment of orders, the coffee is available on Amazon now, that’s a whole new level of partnership and it’s taken a lot of the pressure off me when it comes to fulfilling orders. Of course, it’s available from the website too, so ultimately, if I’m home, I’m the guy boxing everything up and putting it in the mail. If I’m on tour, I have a couple of people who help me out. But yeah, all these people who help out are people whom I’ve know all my life. The main roaster is a guy I’ve known for over twenty years, and I met him through music. The most recent incarnation of the product and packaging design, which is going to be rolled out in the next couple of weeks, all of it was done by Ryan Patterson who used to be in Coliseum and is now in a new band called Fotocrime, which is a great band by the way. The original Mandala design has been done by Thomas Hooper, whom everyone recognises as an incredible artist, of course, he’s done all of the artwork for the Tombs records. So everything has kind of grown from this grassroots, cottage industry idea of friendship and using people who are in our inner circle of trust.
That’s a great example of how, if you have a clear vision of who you want to be and what you want to do, you can apply it to apparently unrelated things like having a band or making coffee, and it makes sense anyway. It’s all about the way you approach things, not so much about the things themselves.
I learned that because I spent many years not fulfilling my higher calling in life, not being all-in with the things that make me happy. I’ve seen both sides of the coin. It’s obviously harder to follow your passion than it is to just go through the realm of the material world and what gives you the most money and the level of comfort that you want to have, that you wouldn’t necessarily have if you just followed your heart. It’s a compromise. There’s some combination of those two things, a balance, that you need to reach in your life. You can’t be with your head in clouds all the time, but you also can’t be in the material world of just making money.
“When I worked in the office, I wouldn’t see a lot of work actually being done. I’d be there for eight or nine hours a day and I’d see a lot of coffee breaks, a lot of people texting, a lot of people reading news.”
And then you do the podcast and you write and everything. Dude, your days seem longer than other people’s.
[laughs] You’d think, right? It’s funny, one of the things I remember most clearly about the days when I was an office jockey, working 9-to-5 everyday, is how little of those eight hours I actually spent working. That’s the big question, man. When I worked in the office, I wouldn’t see a lot of work actually being done. I’d be there for eight or nine hours a day and I’d see a lot of coffee breaks, a lot of people texting, a lot of people reading news, looking at the Vice website, stuff like that! [laughs] I think that, if you just took those eight hours and reduced the work that you do to two hours, you’d be surprised at how much work you’d actually get done. When you focus on the job getting down as opposed to logging in a certain number of hours, that’s the world that I live in now. I’m a results-based hunter-gatherer kind of worker now, and the mindset is the opposite – the longer you work on something, the less you actually make per hour. I’m playing with the efficiency ratios, and that’s how I think I manage to get so much done.
Your podcast has actually been a big inspiration for The Devil’s Mouth, especially for the choice of people you have on it. Do you feel that you’ve learned anything from the many awesome guests you’ve had the chance to talk to?
Absolutely. I think one of the main differences between doing a podcast and Q&A kind of interviews – I do both of those things, I’ve had a few pieces done in Noisey, Revolver or Bandcamp – is that the podcast is more like a conversation. It’s less of a questions and answers session and more like a long form conversation with somebody. Those situations, I think, are when you actually get a glimpse of someone’s process, how they do things, where they’re coming from. Their outlook on life, their philosophies. I wouldn’t be able to spend as much time talking to these people if I hadn’t had them as guests on my podcast, and the insights and perspectives I get from them have definitely informed a lot of the things that I do creatively and even in terms of lifestyle. Zev Deans, for instance, the video producer, he’s done music videos for Ghost, Behemoth, he just did one for Cannibal Corpse… I interviewed him formally and I’ve had him as a guest on my podcast at least twice, and his process of making videos and the amount of effort and research he’s put into each of these projects has very much influenced me as far as my songwriting goes, as far as creating music. It’s kind of like the inverse of what he does: he takes the music and creates imagery, and I feel that as a result of speaking with him, I’ve actually been taking more of the visual approach and using that to inspire music. Nowadays, when I write, I meditate on different things. I’ve had more visual inputs in my creative space after talking to him, I’ve hung more artwork as a result of it, for example. Miniatures that I look at, things that visually stimulate me, and as a result of that, I will channel that and create music. I take little creative cues from all these people, I just think it’s both fun and enriching to have conversations with these people.
‘The Grand Annihilation’ is still quite fresh, but have you given any thought to the next Tombs album already, by any chance?
It’s funny you ask – I just wrote a brand new song yesterday! [laughs] It’s not in its final form, but… There’s a difference between coming up with cool riffs, and when you actually see the beginning and the end to a song and you feel you’ve actually come up with something. We’ve been on the road a lot this year, so I haven’t really been writing new material, I’ve been playing guitar and messing around and recording some ideas, but I haven’t actually sat down with the intention of turning those ideas into something real. Until yesterday, when I started to be a bit more purposeful with my guitar playing and I actually demoed a whole song from beginning to end. I’m sure I’m going to add things, but it’s the idea of the first song that will be on the next record we put out, and that’s great. I’m excited about it, I can’t wait to start playing it with the other guys, and then play it live too.