This wasn’t the first time I’ve spoken to High on Fire guitarist/vocalist Matt Pike for an interview by a longshot, but it was the first time we’ve talked since he got sober earlier this year, and the difference was immediately apparent in his voice. He was about a week into the band’s current tour at the time — with Goatwhore, Primate and Lo-Pan for a five-week round of shows one of which I was fortunate enough to catch — and things were beginning to settle in. This is the first major touring that High on Fire has done since Pike entered rehab over the summer after dropping off the summer’s Mayhem festival, and though he admitted to some apprehension, Pike sounded clear-headed and glad to be back on the road.
Earlier this year, High on Fire revitalized their approach with the scathing De Vermis Mysteriis (review here). Not only in the fact that the album was based around a narrative concept — about a time-traveling Jesus twin — but just in the sheer sound of the thing. Pike, bassist Jeff Matz and drummer Des Kensell brought High on Fire’s tightness and chemistry to new levels, and captured by producer Kurt Ballou, songs like the arch-grooving “Madness of an Architect” or the ripping “Spiritual Rites,” the band sounded more vicious than ever before. The rawness of their bombast, something they moved away from with 2010’s Snakes for the Divine (review here), met with a maturity of process and crispness of sound that made the record easily among 2012’s best.
And while that position is nothing new for High on Fire — who’ve gone six full-lengths at this point without a real dud — the context surrounding De Vermis Mysteriis makes it standout as a landmark in the progression of the band, both musically and for the personal issues involved. Seeing them live last week, they’ve lost nothing of their on-stage potency, even if Pike is a little more reserved in his between-song banter — I was reminded a bit of his Sleep bandmate, Al Cisneros — speaking to the crowd rather than barking the war-cries of old. The tradeoff was in the performance, which was stellar, new material or old, and the band seemed poised to pick up their momentum right where they left off prior to the interruption this summer brought.
As honest and sincere as ever in the interview that follows, Pike talks about being on the road sober for the first time, about constructing De Vermis Mysteriis in the studio with Ballou and about the growth of the band as a trio with Matz — who came aboard as a full-time member prior to 2007’s Death is this Communion — taking on an increased role in the songwriting. You may also note I asked him about the Sonic Titan distortion pedal, which was something Jon Davis of Conan had mentioned earlier this year when I asked him about playing with Sleep in Norway. That interview is here if you’d like some context.
Complete Q&A is after the jump. Please enjoy.
It’s going really well, actually. Starting to get a little roll to a groove. So far they’ve been pretty good turnouts and people seem real happy and we’ve been playing pretty on top of our game. I’m having a lot of fun.
How long does it usually take you to get in that groove one show to the next?
It takes about a week or so to get used to everything and everything to get organized, all the weird little shit going on that goes wrong that you forget about. Weird pedals having their batteries go out, just the way your stage setup is, like you know, where you misplaced your strings. You just gotta get all these little different things like that organized so you know what’s where (laughs) when you have to have it and stuff.
Are you using the Sonic Titan pedal on this tour?
Actually I am! I use it for certain things, yeah. That’s like one of the best distortion pedals I have. That thing’s fuckin’ awesome. I love that thing.
Tell me a little bit about the mix of bands on this tour. It seems like you guys and Goatwhore and even Lo-Pan would bring a different crowd. Do you notice that kind of thing?
Well, so far I don’t know if I notice that much of a difference. Us and Goatwhore, we draw a pretty similar crowd, maybe get a little more of the black metallers. Lo-Pan, I’m just kind of getting used to what those guys are about, but everybody that goes to the shows seems to enjoy heavy music or are passionate about it, so yeah, it’s kind of just similar. I think we’re drawing a lot of the same people, it just helps bring a few more out. If you like live music or not, basically.
Has it been an adjustment for you being on the road sober?
Yeah, it has. It has. There’s a little more anxiety. I’ve been playing a lot – really good – probably better than I ever have in my life, but the anxiety. You know, I just don’t have liquid courage anymore. You’ve got to kind of find other ways to pull your balls out (laughs). It’s a trip. It’s a headtrip, definitely. But I’m getting used to it. I knew it’d be a little rough at first. I’m not quite as much of a “crowd” guy where I was before, so I just kind of try to concentrate on playing well and trying to get the crowd into it, but I’m not as good at it as I was when I was a little bit loopy or something. It’s a little different, but I think we’re playing better overall, and that’s the main thing. Like I said, there’s just a little more anxiety. Before, I’d be up there, and be like, “Everybody’s staring at me because they’re ‘sposed to!” Now I go, “Everybody’s staring at me, why? Oh yeah, they’re ‘sposed to!” (Laughs) And they’re looking at me, waiting for me to play. You get a little self-conscious about it. That’s just normal, man. That’s just normal.
Has playing periodically with Sleep again over the last few years affected how you approach High on Fire at all?
No. They’re apples and oranges, man. Yeah, I’ve learned a couple things about gear, definitely, that I use. I started experimenting at Sleep shows and then I’ve transferred that over, just having little combo amps behind my amps in case my amps go out. You have this weird control where you have a practice amp going through the house and then my big stacks. Those are on stage and those just straight up make tons of fucking volume. I learned a lot about just the way the gear works and stuff like that, but Sleep and High on Fire are apples and oranges aside of the leads. And I don’t sing in Sleep, so it makes it kind of easier on me. I can just focus on guitar and not have to worry about my voice the whole time. But, you know, those are cool, because all three of the members that are in Sleep now, we have a lot to do. We all have other bands that are constantly touring, so we get to plan a couple things a year and that’s kind of how it is, and that’s hard to do sometimes, but it’s worth it because we make good money and it’s a lot of fun. It’s something different, you know, and it takes you out of everything being tedious.
I was fortunate enough to catch you guys at Roadburn this year.
That’s the fun thing about Sleep. You can really put a lot of effort into the stage show, because the music’s all written – most of it – and it’s kind of a space-jam band, whereas High on Fire is less experimental and real organized. Sleep’s like (laughs), it’s real jammy. The parts are organized and written, but there’s a lot of room and leeway to improv, so it’s definitely a different trip.
High on Fire, especially since you brought Jeff in, has only gotten tighter and tighter.
Oh yeah, he’s something else. Him and Des, man, are both so top notch. I’m glad I can keep up with them (laughs). I’ve got two jobs to keep up with that, but if I didn’t have that, if I didn’t have such a good rhythm section, it’d be really hard to do my job (laughs).
Any thoughts on De Vermis Mysteriis now that a little time has passed?
It was a good experience. I was definitely in a trippy head space, but it was a lot of fun recording with Kurt and just being in the same room, and how old that place is and its history had some influence on me. It was an easy experience overall, recording this last one and writing for it. We were up in the mountains for like a month up in this place called Boulder Creek, and it’s just kind of secluded and away from everybody. It went great though. I think we achieved what we set out to do. And at first I had doubts. I was like, “I don’t even know if I like this,” but (laughs)…
What was it that you had set out to do?
Just with my lyrics and make a great album, obviously, and this time-traveling Jesus-twin thing. I just thought of a real crazy story which the whole thing’s based off of, and I actually, lyrically, I finished it. Musically, the band really, Jeff and Des really stepped up and made a lot of things work that were really just ideas for me. We worked well as a team for that thing.
How has that collaboration grown? How much are they contributing at this point?
Quite a lot, man. 33 and a third percent. Whereas when we started, it was kind of all me and Des writing a lot of the stuff. Once Jeff got in and started feeling comfortable writing, he writes all the time. He writes quite a bit of the material. He’s pretty outstanding at composing. But yeah, we work well together. Initially too, when you first start playing with someone, it takes a year or two to know all their angles, know where they’re coming from, know where they’re gonna land, get your brain synched up with a person you’re gonna play with for a real long time. Then it becomes like a marriage. We can just walk up and improv anything and it would sound awesome, but it’s because we’ve been studying together for that long.
Would you want to work with Kurt again, producing?
For sure. He did a great job. Everybody who’s done an album for us has done a great job. Kurt’s got a thing going for him right now. He’s definitely got a little bit of mojo, and he’s a real smart guy and if we want something kind of out of the ordinary, he knows how to do it. But we’ve recorded with Jack Endino, Billy Anderson, Steve Albini. Jesus, they’re all scientists. Greg Fidelman was a lot of fun to record with too. We’d never recorded with a big, big producer before then, and that was an interesting one too, but I really loved that album. But they all have their different sounds, too.
Will you do a European tour around High on Fire playing two sets at Roadburn next year?
Well, that’s still being talked about. I wish we could book things and have them booked a year in advance, but it never fucking turns out that way (laughs). It usually turns out where we don’t know what we’re doing until two months before and then we’re scrambling. But that’s just the way the music business and life is.
Do you have any idea when you’ll start writing again?
I don’t know. I have no idea, because Des lives in New Orleans, so he has to fly to Oakland or we have to fly to New Orleans to jam, but I plan after this tour, getting some writing done. Maybe in January, we have off. We have a tour in February, but I’d like to start working on some stuff for sure. Me and Jeff will start getting together and writing some rock, just figuring out some chord work and some riffs before we get together with Des the next time, and we’ll see where it goes.
How long has Des been in New Orleans?
I think he’s been here for almost a year now.
So this’ll be the first time that you’re writing that he’s not there.
Yeah. He will be, though. We’ve got our frequent flier miles, so he’ll be there.
What’s the tour in February?
It’s supposed to be in Europe. That’s not confirmed confirmed yet, but we’re shooting to make the budget work and figure out how we’re gonna do it, and I’m sure it’ll work itself out, but that’s gonna be pretty European and I’m sure cold, because we’re going to like fuckin’ Sweden and Norway and Finland, but we seem to do really good in those areas for some weird reason.
Scandinavia in February, huh?
Yeah, fun. Gonna be fuckin’ dark out. I’ll just bring some warm clothes.California, De Vermis Mysteriis, E1 Music, High on Fire, High on Fire De Vermis Mysteriis, High on Fire Matt Pike, Oakland, Sleep