Tombs’ Mike Hill

Tombs are a metal trio from Brooklyn. The band released a superbly heavy album called Path Of Totality this year on the Upper Darby, Pennsylvania-based label Relapse Records. As the obligatory Best Of 2011 lists have started to roll in this week, Path Of Totality is doing quite well. (For a discussion on the validity of year-end lists that come out when there’s a whole month left in 2011, check out this week’s Reasonable Discussions podcast.) The album was Philly-based metal mag Decibel’s No. 1 pick, No. 2 on Pitchfork’s Top Metal Albums list, and No. 3 on NPR’s Best Metal Albums list. (Yup, NPR makes lists of metal albums now—and beginning this year, NPR also offers free streams of metal albums. Path Of Totality was one of these offerings.)

But that doesn’t mean you should give this album to your grandmother as a Christmas gift, unless she’s already really into extreme music. Nor should you take her to the Tombs concert at The Barbary this Saturday night. You should go, though. And also, read the following interview where The A.V. Club talked with Tombs guitarist-vocalist Mike Hill about the dystopic state of the world, metal on NPR, Antichrist, and Korn’s recent revelation that it will name its next album the same thing as Tombs’ 2011 album.

The A.V. Club: Everyone’s favorite nu-metal band, Korn, has a new album coming out called The Path Of Totality. Sound familiar? 

Mike Hill: In the DC Comics, Bizarro is sort of like the inverted reflection of Superman. He’s a diminished, stunted version of Superman. That’s my take on the Korn album. Both albums share a title, but one is the Bizarro version, and the other is the Superman version. I’m not saying which one is which, but that’s how I feel about the whole thing.

AVC: What does “path of totality” mean to you, and how does it capture the sound of your album and the lyrical themes?

MH: It’s about being in the shadow cast by the moon on the Earth during a lunar eclipse. A lot of the themes on the record have to do with something standing in the way of seeing the truth. It’s about some sort of shadow we’re living in that’s obscuring the truth about what’s actually going on, whether it’s society or the media or whatever. It’s obscuring something about the community, and there’s also a personal component to it.

AVC: What is it exactly that’s being obscured?

MH: The world can be a really wonderful place or a very dark place, depending on where you’re standing—or it can be a combination of all those colors. The obscurity that man puts in the way of seeing the world in a truer way creates either a light vision or a dark vision, so when the veil’s removed, we see the full range of everything. It won’t be just a depressing, grim, netherworld that we live in, and it won’t be a delusional, false sense of optimistic security some people choose to live their lives by. With the removal of the veil, we can see the full range of experiences we’re able to have in our lives.

AVC: The opening words of the album are “chaos reigns,” which is also what the self-devouring fox in Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist says to Willem Dafoe’s character. What’s the connection?

MH: When I was writing the lyrics to that song, that phrase kept popping up. I like that scene a lot―it’s ludicrous, and the movie as a whole has a lot of absurdity in it. But in my opinion, it’s not an absurd viewpoint. If you look at the full range of life and the world, there really isn’t any sense of order in things. There’s order in the man-made abstractions we use to make logical sense of the world around us, but, in my opinion, chaos is the true state of things. We can make these mathematical representations to make sense of the world, but if you take a broader view, you’ll see the actual entropy in the world.

AVC: The opening lyric of the title track is, “There’s a hole in the sky.” Is this hole the pathway to seeing things as they truly are?

MH:  Yeah. That’s sort of based on the psychedelic experience―seeing things and altering consciousness. It’s like having the pathway to receiving data that’s already out there, but the brain isn’t properly conditioned to receive the information. When you alter your consciousness, you can gain this information that’s otherwise not apparent.

AVC: The record has a lot of dystopic themes―decay, death, violence, locusts. Is this reference to a fictional dystopia, or how the world already is?

MH: In my opinion, that is the existing condition. First, mankind’s rapid multiplication of its population leads to these neurotic behaviors that people living in close quarters develop. If you put too big of a community in too small of an area, all these neuroses start appearing, and this leads to violence and decay, and so on. One viewpoint is that this happens when things are out of balance, but violence happens in nature even when things are in balance. That’s the natural order of things.

AVC: Is there any hope, or do you think the situation is permanent?

MH: I think human existence in the material world is just the tip of the iceberg for total consciousness. Whatever experience we have is temporary. This whole world is temporary. Our lives have a beginning and an end, and they’re not very long. I’m not on any sort of religious trip or anything, but consciousness is gonna survive somehow, even when the physical body passes away. That’s the hope, I guess. There’s no rosy future for our physical forms, but there is some other form of existence we can move into.

AVC: The album starts with the reign of chaos. In the traditional, Hobbesian view, the solution would be a totalizing political state that brings order to the chaos. In your view, would such an order-bringing state be just another veil concealing the underlying chaos of the world?

MH: Absolutely. When power-hungry entities in our society want to expand, they throw everything out of balance. I don’t remember where it was published, but I was reading this article about how we can only really keep 150 physical people in our memories. That’s partial evidence, in my opinion, for why we should have smaller communities. We should try to manage each other on a smaller level, rather than these large, unmanageable systems. Such systems try to put order on chaos. No matter what, the more people there are in a community, there will be more of a deviation from agreement.

AVC: Path Of Totality is a pretty dark, heavy, and intellectual album. How the hell did in end up streaming on NPR?

MH: Being a fan of NPR, one of my major criticisms of their music side was that there was this sort of pretense that since they were gonna have this sort of alternative expression with music. They played a lot of different music―world music, classical, avant-garde jazz, and so on. But they never really played any sort of popular music, or metal, punk rock, and hardcore. None of that stuff was acknowledged by NPR. So, in order to really have a full spectrum of music, it made sense that they’d eventually have to include metal, punk, and rock music in general.

Anyway, so this guy named Lars at NPR somehow convinced them that he was gonna be the lynchpin to put this whole thing together. I think he’s the man behind the whole thing. We ran into him in Baltimore last year, and he was talking about how he wanted to stream our record when it came out. He put it together with our people at Relapse, and they made it happen. I think it’s great. A lot of excellent stuff is streamed on NPR now, and it’s added a whole new prong to their attack.

AVC: They streamed a few metal albums this year, like Krallice’s Diotima and a few others. Do you think there’s been some sort of significant cultural change to make people be more open to this kind of extreme music?

MH: As metal as a style of music gets older, and becomes more ingrained, it stands to reason that—you know, if you think about NPR, what comes to mind are social workers, hippies, and people into organic farming and stuff like that, which is all cool. But ... as people get older and deeper into their careers, it’s not unreasonable to think that someone who owns all the Slayer records might end up working at NPR. With the fusing of the times and the decades of history of metal and extreme music, it becomes more and more a part of the popular contemporary experience. It’s a generational change.

AVC: Yeah, it’s been great to see more metal on NPR, but the station still won’t touch hip-hop, unless it’s something really soft and easily digestible, like The Roots

MH: It’s the same with most liberal, left-leaning media. They become this center, in a way. They don’t present both sides, so there’s an imbalance. They show you the positive stuff, but they’re afraid to show people the darker side.

AVC: You’ve said in an interview that you’re a bit skeptical of the year-end list process. So far, Path Of Totality’s done really well. What do you think?

MH: It’s great. We feel honored to be recognized. We put a lot of work and time into the album, but there are thousands of other bands who put just as much work into it that don’t get any recognition. It’s a deep compliment, and we take that to heart. We love it. But it doesn’t really change anything about the reality of the band. We’re still getting these really crappy European tour offers, and we’re still worried about breaking even on flights and shit like that. And that will continue to be the same as it’s always been.

AVC: What’s your favorite album of 2011?

MH: Ulcerate’s The Destroyers Of All. It’s amazing, dude. To me, it’s like the future of death metal. It’s really technical, top-notch playing with a very morose atmosphere. Definitely my favorite of the year.

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