TOMBS released the EP Monarchy of Shadows earlier this year and will follow it up with their fantastic new album, Under Sullen Skies, November 20th via Season of Mist. These two releases are the first to feature the new lineup of Justin Spaeth [Drums], Matt Medeiros [Guitars], and Drew Murphy [Bass] along with vocalist, guitarist, and founder Mike Hill. Jahmeel Russell had the pleasure to speak to Mike Hill about the band’s new lineup, the new album, and more…
Northern Transmissions: Congrats on the new album. I think it’s the best TOMBS record to date.
Mike Hill: Thanks, that’s much appreciated. A lot of work went into the record.
NT: I wanted to ask you first about the new guys in the band. They’re all members of the band Kalopsia. How did you end up working with them?
MH: They’ve played in many bands but at one point they all were in the band Kalopsia. That’s primarily [guitarist] Matt Medeiros’s project. Brett Bamberger from Revocation connected me with Justin, the drummer, when I needed someone to join the band, and that’s how I met Justin. There’s a very sort of incestuous metal scene down here in New Jersey. Everyone knows each other. Just out of those three guys there’s about five different bands that they’ve all played in together. One by one, I kind of absorbed all those guys into the band.
NT: So when you started working with them you realized they had a lot to contribute to the music?
MH: Well immediately I knew Justin was a super creative guy, he and I had been in touch prior to him actually joining the band about doing a death metal side project. It never came into fruition because of both of our schedules and touring kind of prohibited that but we were always texting and emailing, saying “we need to pick this up someday and do something with these ideas we have”. So when the opportunity came and I needed a drummer I just reached out to Justin and suggested that instead of doing the side project, he should just join the band. So he joined right in the midst of the touring for [2017s] The Grand Annihilation.
NT: Did any of the ideas from the death metal project work their way into TOMBS?
MH: The songs we had worked out were definitely death metal, slams, stuff like that. A very east coast death metal sound, but none of the TOMBS material is that material.
NT: Right, I get the feeling when I listen to the EP and this new record that this is probably the most aggressive TOMBS material to date but I certainly didn’t hear a lot of death metal in the sound of it.
MH: Yeah, maybe that sort of attitude found its way into what we were writing now, a little bit more of an aggressive in your face sort of vibe on the EP and the new record, definitely.
NT: You did the last two albums with producer Eric Rutan. Were there any plans to work with him again on this album?
MH: Definitely there was, aside from Eric being an incredibly creative and talented engineer, he’s a personal friend and I really was looking forward to working with him again at some point. It was partially the pandemic, but also his involvement with Cannibal Corpse. Once he joined them as a touring member, pretty much everything else for him production wise, went on hold.
NT: You ended up working with Bobby Torres on the new album.
MH: Bobby is a good friend of Justin, Matt, and Drew. He’s a very prolific producer here in Jersey. I think he does great work so when it came time to do this thing we went with him because schedule-wise it worked out, and we recorded during the pandemic so we really couldn’t travel anywhere.
NT: I wanted to ask about the black metal influence on the band. I know even back when you released the first album Winter Hours, you name-checked Emperor as an influence. A lot of publications refer to TOMBS as a black metal band, do you yourself actually consider the band to be a black metal band?
MH: Reluctantly I say yes, only because I always have a problem in general identifying with any kind of group or ideology or uniformity. I feel there’s a lot of orthodoxy inside of black metal and that’s something I don’t feel comfortable with. However, all those things I said essentially define the attitude of black metal in a lot of ways so I think that philosophically, that’s something I feel comfortable identifying with. So there’s sort of this paradox I guess, where I don’t want to be part of any kind of orthodox but I also identify with a lot of the philosophies and attitudes of black metal where you are an individual. There’s this kind of LaVeyan idea of being your own god and person, being a powerful being in and of yourself. Those are the sort of tenets the band stands for too. So yes, in a roundabout way I identify mostly with the black metal scene.
NT: Your vocals are incredibly strong on the new album. I hear a lot of Carl McCoy and Tom G. Warrior. Are they influences?
MH: 100% yes, exactly. Celtic Frost, Hellhammer, Triptykon, the whole Tom G. Warrior body of work has been an incredible inspiration for me. He’s an artist who defies classification. Celtic Frost has influenced so many different genres of music: black metal, death metal, even hardcore music. He’s got great vocals, songwriting, just the darkness of the music. Also, Carl McCoy, Field of the Nephilim, a band that loosely falls in the goth or death rock world but another band that walks its own path. It’s essentially a very dark rock band and once again this ideology Carl McCoy puts forth in his lyric writing. That’s something I identify with as well, and he’s got such a great voice too.
NT: The guests on the record, Dwid [Hellion, Integrity] and Sera [Timms, Ides of Gemini] in particular, their vocals really compliment your voice on the songs they appear on, I was wondering if you had these people in mind as you were writing the songs?
MH: Generally we have a very involved demo process whenever we make an album. Multitrack recordings, and then we finally have enough songs and it’s like, alright let’s see what we’ve got. As I was listening to all these songs I was thinking about what other things could go in there to compliment and add different layers and dimensions to the songs. Secrets of the Black Sun, right away I visualized that song having this haunting female voice in the background and immediately I thought of Sera. She’s a dear friend of mine, and also she’s contributed to TOMBS material in the past. So in a way, she’s my go-to, awesome gothic female voice, but also there’s a personal connection there too. I think she did an incredible, haunting job on that song.
NT: The lyrics seem to deal a lot with mortality and death, did the pandemic have an influence lyrically on you?
MH: You would think so, however, most of the lyrics were written prior to March this year. I guess within the context of everything that’s been going on they do fit in with the situation and condition that the world seems to be in right now. There are a lot of people dealing with death in a more immediate way than they have been in prior years. There might have been some atmosphere once we started recording the record that contributed to that feeling. I’m sure there was. As you move through life you start thinking more about death. I tend to be a little more morbid than most people I think.
NT: You guys had a tour with Napalm Death planned this year that wasn’t able to happen. Do you have any immediate plans coming up, and are you feeling optimistic at all about 2021?
MH: We’re ready to go whenever it’s ok to go out and do these things. I don’t know when we’ll be able to perform live again. With the way things are it’s very touch and go. One of the things we did do, and this will be premiering next month, is we shot a live video but it was done with multiple cameras and a full audio multitrack recording. It’s a live set, but with some production. It’s not just us in our practice space. It’s an idea of what the set’s gonna be like when we can perform live again.
TOMBS will release their new album Under Sullen Skies, November 20th via Season of Mist. You can pre-order the album here: https://tombscult.bandcamp.com/album/under-sullen-skies