Tombs’ Mike Hill: On the Quiet Pleasures of Coffee… and Black Metal

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It has been the great paradox of black metal that a genre so concerned with nihilism and decay has taken as one of its chief philosophies the pleasure of nurturing growth. The classic imagery and lyrical tropes of black metal have been concerned as much with going to battle as with going back to the earth: one of the more influential members of the original “scene,” the vocalist Per Yngve “Dead” Ohlin, of Mayhem, was said to have buried his clothes in the dirt so as to adorn himself in the malodorous aroma of rot when they were disinterred. The words he wrote for the band speak of both burial and eternal life, of forces of nature beyond the realms of corporeal experience. In moving his focus closer to the ground, Pelle sought to become a part of it. Such theatrics have become punchlines of a campy history, but black metal may yet turn green: there are bands that want to get their hands dirty.

Tombs, based out of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, are not even loosely a black metal band. But black metal is the closest genre to their pastiche of experimental music to come with an ideology and a history, even if, by their frontman Mike Hill’s insistence, Tombs does not. (Hill sees the “universe as just being chaos; Humanity just tries to make right-angles and circles out of everything, tries to implement this order.”) He draws inspiration from a class of science fiction work rooted in metaphysics and inter-dimensional spirituality. As metal has evolved away from the tired themes of decay and destruction, Hill’s music celebrates personal growth, order, and the origin of a certain kind of truth.

Hill has taken pains to separate his music from his latest venture, at least to some degree. His new line of coffee, derived from an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe bean, may share a name with Tombs’ last record, Savage Gold, but he doesn’t consider his music when selecting the beans that go into it. “It wasn’t like I was trying to convince people to buy my coffee, or that I’m going to shill some product. It was more like I wanted something that I want, and I want to give people something that I want,” he said. “Good coffee, sustainable. It’s organic, it tastes good. And it’s providing that to people [who share] this common goal of good-quality products.”

He went on: “My whole point is not really approaching this thing like a guy in a metal band, and a marginal metal band at that, selling coffee. It’s more like, this is something I like, and I want to provide it to people, and it’s not even related to music. It’s related to more overall health and fitness.” As for its relationship with the band, Hill says “it’s really independent.”

In talking to him, however, one gets the impression that they are inspired by the same themes.The setting is quiet, with promises of communion and polite conversation, enjoyed on drowsy mornings and sunny afternoons and evenings full of warmth. If the experience of drinking coffee came with instrumentation, it isn’t difficult to imagine that music to be the soft purr of a jazz saxophone or the homely twang of an acoustic guitar.

And the agricultural process by which the beans become your morning pick-me-up involves the meticulous skill of farmhands familiar with the soil. There is such common reverence for the land that informs so much of black metal that it makes sense for a band inspired by the genre to also be inspired by its environmental stewardship. Hill isn’t concerned that this virtue will undercut the darkness and chaos in his music. I asked him specifically if Wolves in the Throne Room are intentionally countering their sound and fury by being proud environmentalists.

“I think that in some cases there’s definitely maybe an irony to that,” he said. “Because I know hardcore bands, like punk bands, will a lot of times be ironic with their artwork and layout, and I think that maybe that has found its way into modern extreme music, that irony. A little bit of a sense of humor. I know with Wolves in the Throne Room, there’s no irony; those guys are definitely into the imagery. And that also kind of goes hand-in-hand with Norwegian black metal and how a lot of those early guys are into paganism and nature and all that kind of stuff.”

Coffee was an integral part of his growing up in his Italian family, and they “always had espressos, coffee on the table.” He was later gratified to find that “coffee’s full of antioxidants; there’s all these health benefits. It’s more like being involved in personal training,” he says.

Both metal and coffee as self-improvement. It began to make sense that he’d name both the album and the coffee Savage Gold. “The Savage Gold concept is more like an ideology that I’ve been carrying around for a couple years. It predates even the record, and it’s more like in alchemy,” he says. “Alchemy is always concerned with the transformation of something into gold, like gold being this higher state of being. So that’s where that idea, which shows up in all my notebooks, and writing, the scribblings that I do, just sort of a whole ideology behind it, where you start off at one point and you put energy into it, and you develop some sort of discipline that makes you push beyond your limits. Elevate yourself to another state of being.”

Hill saw the forces of alchemy at work even in the cycle of life itself. “A lot of the songs have to do with changing the state, either life to death, or something along those lines. And then, of course, the coffee company being an extension of that thing. The coffee company’s there to promote forward thinking and self-improvement and all those good things. And it just made perfectly clear sense for me to name the coffee company Savage Gold.”

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