HIGH ON FIRE
Matt Pike on new album Death Is This Communion, recent lineup changes and more
"I've been working my whole life for this. I've given up everything. The way I feel in my heart, everything revolves around music, my love live, my education, my everything. I put it all into my music and I'd like to be successful at it, but I'm not a very sell out type of person. It would be really hard to get me to turn to shit just for the sake of turning to shit cos it would sell more records. I'll never put a f**king bad riff on an album in my life" spells out High On Fire singer/guitarist Matt Pike when asked about his hopes for new album Death Is This Communion. Despite speaking to Rockmidgets.com at the tail end of two days of solid press, the vocalist is still in a remarkably relaxed and candid mood as he chats at length over a couple of pints of beer and a shot of whisky in the noisy surroundings of the World's End pub in Camden, North London. It could be that Pike is just used to the constant attention by now having first made his name in the early 1990's with seminal stoner metal act Sleep before forming High On Fire back in 1998 with drummer Des Kensel and original bassist George Rice. His band have since gone on to receive critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic despite never really making the commercial splash the unwavering quality of their record's warrant. It's not just metal fans and critics that High On Fire have impressed through the years though, with the Oakland, California-based threesome constantly held up by countless other acts as being a prime influence on their sound. Indeed it has long been reported that metal titans Mastodon formed after meeting at a High On Fire show just before the turn of the century.
It was their third studio album, the Steve Albini (The Pixies/Shellac) produced Blessed Black Wings (Reviewed HERE) proved to be the real breakthrough for High On Fire. A release that saw ex-Melvins/Thrones man Joe Preston replace Rice on bass duties, it featured heavily in many end of year polls in 2005. However, a hectic touring schedule meant Preston himself left the band once the record's cycle was complete, and so ex-Zeke bassist Jeff Matz joined the fold before they enlisted the help of producer Jack Endino (Nirvana/Mudhoney) earlier this year to start working on Death Is This Communion. With the album in the can and set for release in the upcoming few weeks we arrive at the present, with Dan Jones speaking to Matt Pike a couple of hours before his band took to the stage for their headlining show at the Camden Underworld:
So it's the final night of your UK tour, how's it gone?
"Fine man. The turn outs have been pretty good. We've been trying to screw some people up for the release of the record and we're going to be back in November and December. I've had a lot of fun playing."
How's touring Europe and the UK in particular different to the US? I imagine you're better established back home?
"Well we're more established in the US just because we've done like 30 tours there. We just have to do the work here that's all. It's just like anything, you go across the sea and there's differences in people's opinions, what they like and there's different scenes and sh*t like that. It's a matter of us working our way into the sea of people here."
Who do you think are more scene and label orientated? Us Europeans or the Americans? You always seem to attract the stoner rock tag…
"I hate that yeah, but I think we're finally outrunning that. It's like dude, we're not f**king stoner rock, it's metal, yeah it's kinda stoner, whatever. I just think High On Fire is its own entity. It's just heavy music man."
You've played a few dates with Russian Circles who've had a lot of good press over here lately, what do you make of them?
"You know, it's instrumental and it's soundtracking but I like music like that. It's really weird that we've been playing with so many instrumental bands lately, it's kinda ironic in a weird way, but they're all really nice guys and they're good musicians."
And once you get back to the US I understand you're touring with Mono?
"Yeah, so that's another instrumental band and then we're coming over here again with Pelican."
You always seem to tour with acts that are regarded as "forward thinking" and "intelligent". Is that a deliberate move or something that's just happened by coincidence?
"No it's just coincidence, it's f**king weird!"
You were even asked to play All Tomorrow Parties in the UK back in 2005 which was curated by The Mars Volta, what do you make of the fact that bands like that hold you in such high regard?
"I like that. We do seem to get a lot of respect from our peers and I hold them in high regard. The Mars Volta are awesome and the fact that they chose us and Mastodon and we all got to play for like an hour. They were really cool guys to us as well. They played an amazing set. They played for something like three hours or something f**king crazy. I was so impressed by that drummer, I was like 'There's no way that f**king guy's going to make it dude!' and he did and he totally punished the whole time."
So we've discussed that a lot of your peers have so much respect for you, and also the vast majority of critics do. Would you agree with the fact that perhaps you've had more critical success than commercial to date? Why do you think that is?
"Yeah!" [laughs] "Because we're good musicians that are hard to commercialise, I don't know!"
High On Fire are known as a technically great band, is that musicianship important to you at all? I've seen you feature in various "Best Guitarists" polls. How do you take those compliments?
"Yeah it is important to me. I think a certain amount of technical ability is really important but I think the even harder thing is to display your heart and your soul and the way that you feel with your instrument. I think when you have both of those and you know how to do that, that's when you become a master of your instrument. I'm striving to achieve that, maybe I'm not there yet but someday, you know, the perfect balance."
Of course you're over here touring as you've got a new record coming out at the end of the month called Death Is This Communion. What can you tell us about it?
"It's my favourite one we've done, it's got some magic on it. It's brutally heavy, it's has a little more emotional content and ups and downs on it. It's moodier which was kind of intentional as I wanted to give us a little more freedom while writing it, with everyone getting to compose interludes which was kind of inspired by later Sabbath and Pink Floyd where it doesn't stop moving and there's something always going on."
On the new record you worked with Jack Endinho, what was he like working with? Why work with him? Were you a fan of his previous work?
"Yeah we were fans of his previous work and he's good friends with Jeff and it fell into his lap as he had the right timeframe, the right studio and the right everything. I didn't know him that well before but when we went into the studio he was just absolutely amazing, so we're totally stoked with this record and the sounds we got. I think he's a brilliant, brilliant engineer and he played kind of a producer rule so he pushed us to make better takes and we had the time to do that. We didn't have to hurry, hurry, hurry. We got to sit there and think and practice."
Blessed Black Wings took about a week to record it that right?
"Yeah about a week and three days mixing."
So how long did Death Is This Communion take?
"Three weeks. So there's a big difference in mixing and the time it took to lay down."
For Blessed Black Wings you enlisted the services of Steve Albini to some pretty awesome results, why didn't you go back to him?
"We thought about it. I've got this thing, I did so many records with Billy Anderson so it was really difficult for me to tell him that we were going to try something else. So we wanted to reinvent ourselves, you get stuck in a kind of rut, you know what to expect every time. So we thought we'd do something totally different and get a totally different producer and you tend to get a good change out of it. You tend to grow as a musician, you evolve."
So with Death Is This Communion coming out later in the month, how are you feeling right now knowing there's another long haul on the road ahead?
"I'm almost ready for it. Your life turns upside down every time you do something like this."
Not only does a new record bring another producer, but also another new bass player. What exactly happened with Joe Preston?
"Joe just got sick of touring dude. It's hard on someone when you're on tour for most of the f**king year and you've got some sort of home life. Cos Joe was on tour for like eleven years before that and he finally got a girlfriend and a home life and we f**king took him out and ran him ragged! I mean, he's like a good, good friend, I love Joe Preston with all my heart and so does Des, but it just got rough on him."
So instead of Joe, Jeff Matz has joined the fold. Is he full time?
"Oh he's full time, he's committed to being the band bass player. Joe just wanted to do the album (Blessed Black Wings – DJ), then he was like, 'Oh, I'll do a couple of the tours', and then he just got roped into doing all the tours!" [both laugh] "Poor guy got punished!"
How's does Jeff effect the dynamic band, does he feature much on the record?
"Oh yeah he did a good amount of writing and arranging with us. Anytime you get someone new and you get to work with them for a while and feel them out it tends to have their signature on it just like yours is. Jeff's really super good. You know he's played in Zeke before and he was great in Zeke and that's where we noticed him."
So how did it all come about?
"I was talking to Hank the IIIrd and asking him if he knew anybody, and I actually asked him if he wanted to play bass on the album and I'd find someone else to do the tours."
This is Hank from American Head Charge yeah?
"Yeah, he's awesome, he's one of my really, really good friends. Hank was like 'I don't have the time, but you know who you should call, Jeff Matz', and I was like 'Jeff Matz from Zeke?' and he said 'Yeah, he's just quit', so I was f**king on it dude."
Going back to the new record then. Obviously most people are yet to hear it at this moment in time, how would you describe the record? Is it a natural progression from Blessed Black Wings?
"Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. It's f**king awesome, I have no doubts in my mind. If I get bad reviews on this record then they're f**king idiots, you have no taste!" [both laugh] "Me and my band worked so hard on making this record bad ass. It really is one of the heaviest things I've ever heard, it's the only album where I haven't second guessed anything."
There are tracks like 'Khanrad's Wall' that sound a little different to stuff from the past, is that song indicative of more experimentation?
"Actually Jeff wrote that, Jeff wrote and performed that with Des and I'm not even on it. That was my welcome to the band, do whatever you want thing. I handed him my twelve string and said 'Go for it'. He wrote this intricate piece, he was studying middle-eastern music and he plays the tamboori on it. Jeff brought that kind of side to the band. I've always been into the middle-eastern thing since Sleep, so me and him see eye-to-eye on things like that. He's been studying various forms of it so he's been teaching me a lot of things."
Lyrically is there any theme running throughout the album?
"It's all sorts of stuff. From mysticism, the occult, political views that I have to f**king personal therapy and problems that I have. A lot of this band it personal therapy to me. If no one has noticed I have lots of anger management problems, so it's a good outlet for me, a good release for bad feelings that I have."
Are there any plans for any singles and videos from the album?
"We've already done a video for 'Rumors of War'. I wanted 'Fury Whip’ to be the deal but 'Rumors of War' is really short. The song's in two parts but it's easy to get half of the song as a single as it's only two and a half, three minutes long and it's totally punk-rock, so people will eat that up and it's easier to get on MTV or wherever as it's so short. You make a nine minute song and make a video for it and nobody's going to play it unless you're f**king Tool or something."
Ok, so finally, what do you make of the current US metal scene? A lot bands seem to be going back to the roots of metal
"Yeah, the metal thing has started up again. It's not like anybody forgot, it's like a bunch of people got lazy and not into music for a while. A lot of the new kids that are fresh to this, you know they're thinking all these bands that came from Napalm Death and Carcass are hardcore bands, but it's like no, that's the crossover band, it came from D.R.I., the blast beat? That came from f**king metal dude, I'm sorry."