These days it’s hard to scroll through my Twitter feed without seeing some musician launching a new line of coffee. Which, as a remorseless caffeine addict, should fill me with jittery glee but I’ve sampled more than a few of these vanity roasts and precious few taste much better than acidic counter top mud at 7-Eleven. Mike Hill, however, is a different breed of fiend. He launched his coffee company, Savage Gold in 2014, propelled by an exceedingly solemn devotion to exploring the secrets and intricacies of the humble coffee bean. Away from the roasting ovens, Mike fronts Tombs, one of the most ambitious extreme metal outfits to storm out of grimy boulevards of New York City, conjuring a paint-stripping amalgam of black metal, death, doom and hardcore, augmented with broad flourishes of exhilarating, head-swiveling experimentalism. He’s also a dedicated MMA practitioner and the host of the Everything Went Black podcast.
Let’s just cut to the chase — how big of a coffee snob are you?[laughs] I’m not much of a snob, per se. I’m open to trying out pretty much anything but at the same time, there are certain things I won’t do. I won’t drink Dunkin Donuts coffee and I’m not big on truck stop coffee. I like to know that somebody cared about the coffee that I’m drinking and that somebody put some effort into making a good quality roast. One of the things I love about being on tour is buying a bag from a new place. If it’s grown at a relatively high altitude, it’s roasted well and it tastes good, I’m into it. It doesn’t have to be Stumptown or Intelligentsia. I’m not that guy. I just like a nice, solid cup of coffee.
You describe the Dark Deceiver blend as combining “high elevation African beans blended with Indonesian and Central American beans to form a deliciously dark smoky flavor with traces of berry and cocoa.” That sounds like a Master Sommelier describing a three hundred dollar bottle of wine. How do you even get to the point where you can notice such detail?
I’ve spent a whole lot of time developing this knowledge because once I find something that interests me, I try to find out as much as I can about it and that’s what happened with coffee. I love coffee and I’ve always been into it. Even back when I was a little kid. I grew up in an Italian family and espresso and black coffee were always around. Once high-quality stuff started becoming widely-available, I had a chance to investigate what makes one blend better than another one. That’s how I started learning about the effects of different altitudes, the varieties in different parts of the world and the characteristics of various beans that I like. That’s what got me involved in the business end of things, finding out what I enjoy and what I consider to be a high quality product and making it available to people who want to experience the same things as I do.
When you envision the ultimate coffee drinking experience, what does it involve?
It comes down to one bean – the Ethiopian Yirgacheffe bean. Ethiopia is where all strains of coffee originate, and it’s interesting that I find that one to be the most delicious. The Yirgacheffe bean tastes best when it’s medium-roasted and it has a really broad flavor-profile. To me it almost has a blueberry flavor to it. So that bean would be involved. It would also have to be something that’s been roasted within the last month, so it’s really fresh and I would hand-grind it. I’d brew it in a Chemex, which is a simple way of serving coffee; you pour the water over the grounds and the coffee just decants out of the filter into the collection portion of the Chemex. To me, that’s the smoothest coffee you can have. It just tastes great that way. It does take a little extra time to use a pour-over, so I reserve that routine for weekends, when I have the time to do that. I really look forward to enjoying coffee prepared that way. When time is a factor, I go with a French press.
I’ve tried a few different celebrity coffees and it always feels like somebody slapped a heavy metal logo on a bag of five dollar coffee and charged twenty bucks for it. What role do you play in putting Dark Deceiver together?
100% of it comes from me. I picked the beans – I mean, I’m not out on the farms picking the actual beans, but I selected the bean we’re using. I also worked on the roast profile as well. I’m not just lending my name to this. I don’t look at this like just another piece of band merch. Just like everybody has a job they go to, this is what my coffee company is. It’s a job and that’s why it’s not “Tombs Coffee,” it’s “Savage Gold.” Maynard from Tool has a range of wines, in fact, he has a vineyard, and I’m more along that vibration than some of these other guys who put their names on coffee that they don’t even drink.
I’d say it’s probably as close as I’ve ever come to it, which means it’s probably 95% of exactly how I wanted it to sound. The remaining five percent has nothing to do with anything technical; I always feel like I can improve my personal performance, so I’m never going to be 100% satisfied with something. There’s always a nuance, primarily with the vocals, or some other idea I could have expressed more clearly. If you take that out of the equation, I think that the record came out exactly as I’d hoped it would sound.
Stylistically you attempt much more here than on the past couple of full-lengths. What influenced the sonic direction?
That’s an interesting observation. I feel like from day one, this sound that we’re doing right now is one of the endpoints where I wanted the band to go, several different members ago. [laughs] My concept of the band was to be more along the lines of what this EP sounds like, so I guess every record and recording so far has brought us closer to manifesting that goal. You get closer with each record and one of my main goals has always been to resist being one-dimensional. There are tons of bands out there that only do one thing, but they do really, really well. Some of my favorite bands are like that but for me personally, I want to incorporate the full spectrum of emotions, sounds and textures that the band is capable of creating. This record has a pretty wide array of expressions and that’s in line with our goal of being extreme at both ends of the spectrum. You can have brutal, grinding black metal on there but there might also be a subtle synthesizer buried in the track with some subdued vocals. Even from our earliest recordings, I’ve wanted to explore the space between these extremities.
There’s a strong undercurrent of nihilism pervading the lyrics.
A lot of what the records deals with is how the Universe is just chaos and that the illusion of order is really just predator, hunter-gatherer or pattern recognition that man superimposes on this chaos. The things that happen on planet Earth, all these personal trips and drama and stuff like that, in a cosmic sense, have no meaning. That’s the central theme to the record. The title refers to this attitude that humanity thinks it’s reached this technological pinnacle but if you look at the previous cycles of development on this planet, we might have already reached this point of development and then plunged back into darkness by some natural disaster or warfare or an asteroid smashing into the planet, causing an ice age or something like that. As significant as everything seems, it’s really just chaos that rules the Universe.
Tell me about The World Is Made of Fire, the instrumental that kicks off the new record.
That came out of a jam at practice one night. That song’s actually pretty simple, just a couple riffs put together. I think we wrote that track when we were getting ready to go on the Pallbearer tour and I knew that that tour was going to have a lot of mellow dudes out there, sort of into chilling and listening to slow doom and just hanging out and I just wanted to go out there and fucking smash people right away. It’s a nice introductory track – a straight up instrumental with that heaviness would be a great way to kick it off. So that track came together with the idea of us writing an intro. I’ve always liked intros that build up before the record kicks in. So I’ve always wanted to do that! [laughs]
You guys are heading out on the road in a couple of weeks for a short tour. What then?
There are some tour plans that we’re working on for the fall. Over the summer I think we’re heading up to Canada for a few days and I think we’re going to do a full US tour in the fall. That’s our next major outing. We were supposed to be doing a full US tour in May but some behind-the-scenes stuff ended up happening. I won’t go into it but we had some offers happening and for one reason or another it just didn’t come together. We were planning on being out in May for a longer tour but we still had these dates coming so we figured we’d head out and see what we could do.
If you could unilaterally change any one thing about the music business, what would you change?
A really big issue right now is the lack of payment to artists through all of these streaming platforms. Since everyone is listening to music basically for free these days, finding a way to monetize that and to fairly pay artists is something I’m behind a hundred percent. I think it would make things easier for everybody if there was a little more operating cash being distributed. I’m getting physical therapy done on my ankle and today I was at my physical therapist’s office. We were cranking music, listening to like AC/DC and Whitesnake and stuff like that and there weren’t any ads, so I asked if he was paying for it and he was like, “No, it’s free.” I thought Well who’s paying these guys for these playlists? So I have a lot of questions about stuff like that and I imagine there are a lot of shady business dealings going on so if I could straighten that out, that’s what I’d do. I think everyone would be happier that way, including the fans. If you want to have artists continuing to make music, it costs them money to produce it, even home studios because you need to pay for equipment, you need to have the music mastered and all these other steps that are involved in the process. If you’re doing something that’s going to be released to a mass market, you have to pay for studio time. If you want to put out a record that sounds amazing, you have to spend money on it. If you want to listen to something that sounds like a demo, well that still costs money, just not as much money. I just think that if you want quality, there has to be some sort of exchange of funds to keep that train moving forward, because if that dries up, nobody’s going to be able to do this stuff.
May 14 Pittsburgh, PA Roboto Project
May 15 Detroit, MI El Club
May 16 Chicago, IL Chop Shop
May 18 Baltimore, MD Metro Gallery