Golden Graves

On the heels of releasing ‘Savage Gold,’ Tombs’ mastermind Mike Hill reflects on the guts of writing for gold

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Photo by Jason Hellman

“It’s painful looking back at how you expressed yourself 20 years ago.”

For what it’s worth, 20 years ago I was trying to steal cigarettes and figuring out how many times I could work “badass motherf-cker” into sentences, because “Pulp Fiction” meant the world to me.

Hill liked to read Charles Bukowski (a person once branded a “laureate of American lowlife”), but that was 20 years ago. Back then, as he would tell me, he was largely motivated by a belief in getting even.

Hill still reads a lot, but now he’s reading Graham Hancock, a world-renown author and intellectual who, depending on what you deem hip, was the original hipster. His drawings and study of numerology, monuments, altered consciousness and beliefs in a “mother culture” are some of the groundwork for a number of metal bands, whether they know it was him or not. He finds solace in Hancock. “You’re the only one that’s actually hurting,” he says to me. “They’re just living their life.” All one culture.

When writing for their new record, the sweeping and fantastic Savage Gold, he went back to his journals and he found a piece of literature he’d written whose cadence fit the rhythm of some music the band was writing, and it eventually became the song “Deathtripper,” one of the standout tracks on the release. He wasn’t afraid to go back into his past and relive the moments for his art, the ultimate in self-expression. It’s also a reminder of the past, in case you want to be doomed to repeat it.

The resulting Savage Gold is an epic piece of work, and Hill’s commitment and unwavering discipline to his craft ensures the band’s spot at the dinner table. Here, I relive those inspiring, sometimes harrowing moments with Hill.

How are you? Enjoying your off day?
I’m doing well. I’m having a pretty good day, so far.

I guess you’ve got to grind, though. You don’t really get much of a holiday when you’re in a band.
No, I mean it’s a different schedule than most nine-to-five people probably are used to.

I’ve noticed your band’s style of music, right now, is experiencing somewhat of a rebirth in popularity. Do you agree or disagree? A lot of experimental metal, death metal making its way into the public eye more than usual.
I would have to agree with that. For someone like me — I’ve spent most of my life listening to that type of music — I’m used to always hearing about new bands and always buying new records and going to shows and whatnot. But I do see more people involved in checking out this type of music that may be might not have the same kind of background that I do.

Tell me a little bit about Savage Gold. When you were formulating the tracks for the record, were you aware of this rebirth? Did you feel you were seeing more people at your shows? Did you feel any pressure to write it in that specific direction?
The way the writing process goes is, it isn’t like we start writing at a particular time and then… It’s not like we go, “OK, let’s write a new record.” That’s definitely not how this band operates. Some bands operate that way, but that’s not how we operate. There are always ideas formulating.

For example, yesterday in band practice, we are rehearsing the setlist to go on tour, but still, between repetitions of the set, there’s these riff ideas that start coming out and then will eventually become songs for the next album. That’s pretty much how things go. There’s this open dialogue we have where there are ideas always forming and being revised and being discarded if they’re not good enough.

There was not really this awareness of the, for lack of a better term, popularity of this type of music. It’s always been in our consciousness to make this kind of music. We don’t necessarily notice any more people are at the shows or more people are paying attention to the band, but (Savage Gold) would have come out, regardless.

You’re not a very wordy guy when it comes to your lyrics, so where does that come in and how does it play into the timeline of the record?
The lyrics are definitely the last thing we add to the process, but the ideas for the lyrics are reduced from pages and pages and pages of stuff I’ve been writing, all through that period of time. I have a notebook I keep with me — actually, several notebooks — for all these different ideas I have about lyrics and concepts — and some of the stuff doesn’t even start as words to a song, necessarily. It’s more of this free‑form exposition, like prose or descriptions of certain things. Then, from those descriptions, I’ll pull certain concepts and words, and then that makes itself into the framework of the songs.

Sometimes we write complete songs and after playing them a few times, we’re like, I don’t know. We’re just not feeling it. And then that song is put on a shelf or thrown out. Then, maybe a couple years later, it resurfaces. We pull a section out of that song and expand that into a whole new thing. It’s a very non‑linear process with us, and sometimes things happen out of sequence, ideas from a couple years ago, actually, pop up now, but in general, the lyrics are always the last thing to be added to the whole mix.

Do you find yourself reaching back to 2008 or 2009 trying to find ideas or concepts you mulled over to rewrite about?
Absolutely. Actually, the song “Deathtripper” on the record, that’s an unusual circumstance because I actually went back to a journal I kept in the late ’90s for the whole song. The whole song was written completely from the beginning to the end, the whole thing complete was just a series of lines I had written in a notebook.

The whole concept of “Deathtripper” was different because I wrote that song with a drum machine in my apartment. The thing was done, and then I just put the lyrics on it. Within a matter of days, the whole thing was complete. Those lyrics came from something that was 15 or 20 years ago at this point and just ended up realized now. That’s definitely a nonlinear sort of thing (laughs).

It takes a lot of self‑reflection, though, because a lot of people aren’t willing to go back and revisit two-decades-old material they wrote other than for nostalgia.
Part of the reason why I keep these journals is to look back and reevaluate certain things on a lifestyle level, too. Also, it’s painful to look back. I like to think my writing has improved over the years. I’m not, by any means, saying I’m a good writer. All I’m saying is I was a worse writer back then. It’s painful looking back at how you expressed yourself 20 years ago.

When you revisited “Deathtripper,” what caused you to connect with it now and say, “Hey, that song’s ready for the public right now. I want to take this and I want to do it right.”
When I wrote the music for “Deathtripper,” it just had a certain feel, a feeling I had back in that phase of my life, I think. I look back at those years, and the lyrics I wrote (from that time) seem to encapsulate that particular phase of my life perfectly. It also fit, structurally, really well within the song. That’s why I was like, “I want to try these out.”

That’s the beauty of modern technology. You can have a pretty developed home recording studio right here, just in the next room over. I was able to compose this entire song and record vocals to it just in a matter of days, and it all seemed to work. That demo was pretty much the blueprint for that song.

I’m going to go ahead and assume you journal today, as well? That you’ve continued this process?
Yeah, definitely.

How long have you been doing it? Your whole life?
Yeah, I would say pretty much my whole life. I was young, in my teens, when I started. I’ve always been a big fan of writing. That’s always been a big way I’ve been creative.

I think I discovered Charles Bukowski right around the same time I became a big fan of Henry Rollins and Black Flag and Rollins Band. Rollins and Bukowski, in some ways I always connected their writing styles. That’s what inspired me to document the things that had been going on in my life. … A lot of that stuff resonated with me. I figured whatever humble adventures I might be having now, I might as well write them down because they might come in handy later on in life. Certainly, they have.

Looking back 20 years compared to now, what’s the thing that causes you to write? Or is it usually something you’re struggling with?
I think, back in my younger years, I was definitely pissed off about a lot of things. When you’re 22 years old, everything’s intense. Everything that’s going on in your life is very crucial. You’re living this very raw existence where there are relationships coming and going and girls and competitions among other males in the tribe you’re operating in. Everything is super intense.

Fueled by drugs and alcohol?
Not so much drugs and alcohol for me. You’re getting those initial beatings that life normally hands out to people. You’re a young man, and you’re experiencing the difficulties of life for the first time. That’s very intense. Nowadays, the writing just comes more from an attempt to understand, I think, than from anger. I don’t particularly feel much anger towards things. I’m angered by the larger evils in the world. On a day‑to‑day level, I’m not really angered by too many things. Mainly what I’m trying to do is understand myself and the world around me and the universe, that sort of thing. That’s more of what my writing (is about) now.

When you say “larger evils of the world,” what do you see as our biggest threat?
Domestically, the biggest threat is our connection to money and profit. I think that’s destroying the country. That’s pretty clear when you look at the way bankers (conduct business), the way corporate ties and profit is valued over ethics. That’s definitely a super-generalized thing to say, but I feel like that’s true. That, to me, is a bigger evil, this obsession with material and wealth and status. Domestically, I feel like that’s what’s put us in this financial situation.

Hopefully there’s a way out of it. I think a change of consciousness is required in order for people to get on board with some different ideas that might help get through all this stuff. As far as solutions, I don’t know. I’m not an economist.

Me either. I don’t want that responsibility.
There has got to be some new people in there to figure these things out. The old systems seem to be crumbling around us right now. We just need some more new thinkers in there.

As far as understanding myself, like I said earlier, when I was in my younger years, I was very much motivated by anger and frustration. I came to a point where I had to think about the anger. Where is it coming from? Is it coming from inside, or is it an external thing? I think that, once again, it comes to a change of consciousness. The way you draw in the information and process it has almost more to do with how it affects you than what you’re actually observing.

For example, having difficult situations with friends or people around you? Yeah, it’s difficult. You might be wronged by somebody. Let’s use that example. Say someone wronged you somehow. There’s some shady dealing that goes on and that person reveals themselves to be someone who is not trustworthy or honorable. There are a couple of different ways you can approach that. You can deal with the situation and put it behind you, move on and improve, or you can get stuck in a pattern of having it eat away at you, to you becoming obsessed with that person, (thinking about them) like, “That person is a scumbag and I’m going to be angry all the time about them.” Dreams about revenge or retribution. In the past, I was more prone to these obsessions with getting even.

Yeah. You’d let the anger consume you.
Yeah. I think being able to let go of anger and let go of those kinds of feelings… Ultimately, your hard feelings against that person are not really affecting that person, they’re affecting you. They’re affecting how you’re living your life.

You’re all caught up in these feelings of frustration, but you’re the only one who actually suffers from it. This other person is going through their life, completely unaware you’re feeling all these feelings about them. That realization helped me understand myself in dealing with those kinds of feelings. I think that served me quite a bit. I definitely benefited more from getting over things and letting them go than holding on to negative feelings and having that energy consume me.

When you’re younger, you’re fueled by testosterone and you feel like you have to blow up. That’s your first reaction, the fight instead of the flight. I think when you get older, you say, “It’s not really about you affecting me anymore.”
Yes, totally. You think that person’s existing in that world. That’s not my world. I’m (now) going the other way with those times and concepts as opposed to the negative, eye for an eye‑like concepts.

There are a lot of people not letting go of that themselves anymore.
Ultimately it’s healthy for you.

After being in day-to-day life and you start to enter that music headspace, whether it’s instrumentally or lyrically, what is it you’re looking at for inspiration in those moments?
I would say there are some go‑to bands that, 100 percent, I look to them for inspiration, that would be Celtic Cross, Slayer, Black Flag, Black Sabbath, Swans, Godflesh — that kind of stuff is definitely where I’m pulling the musical influences from. On a secondary level, stuff like soundtracks, David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti soundtracks. There’s a guy called Rob who did the soundtrack for the new “Maniac” movie.

R‑O‑B?
Yeah, I think it’s just Rob. He scored the new “Maniac” film, the remake with Elijah Wood. It’s amazing, dude. Totally amazing. Eventually the soundtrack for “Beyond the Black Rainbow” is going to be officially released.

I haven’t seen that. I’ll have to watch it.
It’s difficult to watch because it’s hard to follow, but the music and the imagery in movie has been a huge, huge influence on the record, I think. The psychedelic consciousness‑shifting vibe in the movie and the music itself; it’s like the ambient electronic thing, it’s definitely been a big influence. Not just sonically, but vibe-wise for Savage Gold.

(One) of the writers I have been really into recently is Graham Hancock. He’s an alternative history, Egyptologist, ancient civilizations kind of guy. That kind of stuff played pretty heavily in the last few years with me.

Graham Hancock’s work seems to reflect the theme of your band. I guess, now that you’ve said that, I can see a parallel there.
Absolutely, there’s no denying that. For sure. Yeah, Graham Hancock has been a massive, massive influence on me personally; then, through me, influencing the band. Even the imagery is geometry, mystic geometry, symbols from past civilizations. That kind of stuff has definitely crept into the vibe of the band.

Those unconventional theories and concepts about life are always fun to explore.
Yeah, totally. Regardless of whether or not we’re right about any of this stuff, it still makes you think that there are other possibilities out there. That’s always a good thing to do.

Isn’t that the most important thing here, that you challenge your mind sometimes?
Yeah, as long as you keep those brain cells active because anything other than that is just stagnation. … I see a lot of people growing older, and they don’t use their minds and their bodies, and they just start totally falling apart. That’s not how I want to go out at all.

How would you want to go out?
Oh, abruptly, in a violent manner, I guess. I don’t know.

I’ve given a lot of thought to it.
Yeah, I mean, maybe just hanging out on a beach.

I think I could handle that. The most important revelation I’ve had is that my gut tells me my balance sheet needs to be zero when I leave this world, hopefully at the same time as my wife. But we also don’t have any kids. I don’t know if you have kids. If I did, then I might be singing a different tune.
Nah, I don’t have any kids either. It’s important (we) always have another project to work on. Always have something to look forward to, a goal which to strive for, because those are the kinds of things that keep us going. That’s what I try to do. I always have something I’m reaching for, another goal. Once I’ve crushed one goal, I put another one in its place and just keep going forward.

Let’s end with this, then. If you could name one goal right now, what would you say that would be?
To write a new album. Write our next record.

This soon? By yourself?
With Tombs. To write the next Tombs record. That’s the next goal.

Tombs was posted on June 3, 2014 for HM Magazine and authored by .