In terms of 21st Century metal bands, High On Fire are second to none in either heaviness or epic scope. It’s not that they’re blasting death metal or searing your eardrums with piercing screams, but the music carries a weight to it that drives itself deeper into the psyche than nearly any other band would dare to tread. Their fifth album, Snakes For The Divine (first on E1 Music), was produced by Greg Fidelman, known for working with the likes of Metallica and Slayer.
Snakes For The Divine is but the latest in a series of incrementally more epic magnum opuses. The band’s previous album, Death Is This Communion (produced by Jack Endino), stomped all over its predecessors with axe-wielding ogre feet and it’s no surprise that Snakes leaves an even bigger boot-print. As the second album where guitarist/vocalist Matt Pike and drummer Des Kensel are joined by bassist Jeff Matz (of the eternally underrated Zeke), the power trio is all the more so, a fearsomely tight unit clearly working at the top of their game.
They’ve got their work cut out for them next go ‘round.
But, before we get there, Matt Pike recently checked in from a hotel in St. Augustine, Florida, and endured a crappy phone connection to grant the following interview:
On the record, the first thing you notice that’s different is your vocals. How important is it for you to be trying new things?
It’s always been important, but I think I’ve definitely come a long way as far as me getting better, having a better range, having a style. Every album it seems to improve a little more. That’s just what came out of me, and hopefully I’ll get better than I was before on the next one. Vocals were really important on this album. They were a major part of what the music was sculpted around. Definitely Greg [Fidelman, producer] pushed me more. I did a lot of vocal writing in the studio. After I already had the foundations, I could just elaborate right on them. It turned out pretty good.
You mean you were writing more lyrics in the studio or more melodies?
It’s just different ways of thinking. It’s definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever done to sing and play. Pretty intimidating. But it’s cool too, because I’m also really challenged by what we’ve written, performance-wise. It’s pretty intense, but I like the challenge. It keeps me interested in my band and playing music, definitely.
This is the second record with Jeff playing bass.
Jeff contributed a lot to the songwriting. I think last album he contributed a lot too, but he was a little shy of voicing his ideas. This one, he wrote like a madman. Half the stuff on the album he wrote a lot of the riffs, a lot of the little weird sections and stuff. Jeff’s a hell of a songwriter, so I’m really happy to be working with that guy. Plus he’s a really awesome guy in general.
How does it work blending his material and yours?
A lot of the time, we’ll have parts that connect, or he’ll write something and I’ll be, ‘Oh dude, hang on, I got an idea,’ or vice versa. Or Des’ll have an idea too, because Des does a lot of the writing with us. It’s definitely all falling around the way he plays drums. All three of us just kind of collaborate. Albums tend to write themselves.
How much of the record was written before you went in?
We had five of the songs written before we went in there, but then, some of those songs got rearranged or added to, or I threw more vocals on top of, than what we did on the way down there. We went in there with like four hours’ worth of material but only five songs that were halfway arranged, and we finished out the record. Fidelman really helped us chop a lot of the parts we had, cut the fat on making a record. There was just so much material, it was ridiculous. We kept writing and writing and writing and not taking all our parts and honing them, so we kind of got stuck in not writer’s block, but the complete opposite. Putting it together, we got stuck and were confused about where to go with what. The pre-production totally helped with that. In pre-production, we fit the bits and pieces together.
Is that the same kind of process for Death Is This Communion? Did you do the same thing working with Jack Endino?
We went into Jack Endino’s studio ready. We had all our tracks and stuff. We had the album essentially written. We didn’t write much in the studio and what we did write was kind of off-the-cuff. This one, we went in with about half an album, then rearranged the half an album we wrote so it could be even better and then wrote other songs on top of it off the cuff, like ‘Bastard Samurai’ just happened. It took us an hour to write it and it turned out great. It just all depends.
In general, what was the atmosphere in Greg Fidelman’s studio like?
He’s phenomenal, man. He’s got a really, really good ear. He’s very meticulous, so he brings not only the creativity, but his meticulous point of view. He makes sure everything is perfect. He won’t let me double my solos unless their exact. There’s no yard sale going on (laughs). He’s a great engineer and producer. I enjoyed working with him a lot.
It seems like some of the tones he captured were a lot cleaner than on past records. Is that something you wanted going into the record?
I think that’s kind of his style of recording. It’s still a really heavy sound, but the separation between instruments. He definitely has a really clean style, where it’s heavy as fuck. Part of that is the meticulous part, where just every take he wants it perfect. He makes sure you’re exactly in tune, there’s no little wavering or anything. He makes sure every last note is doubled or tripled the right way. If you’re doubling vocals, he makes sure you do it exactly. That sound comes out of that.
That’s kind of a different approach for you guys, right?
A little bit, yeah. We’ve always been really tight, but we’ve always been real improvisational, allowing room for white noise. We’re a three piece, so we’d allow room for an extra drone thing going on. This album, we were just really, really, really, super-fucking tight. That kind of just happened. They’re just two different albums. And albums, once you start one, by the time you’re done, they write themselves. It’s really weird, but after you fuck with every little thing all the way through, you’re like, ‘Shit, that’s a whole thing.’ We had some extra tracks that aren’t even on the CD now that kind of got cut for time and stuff like that, that we’ll probably release later and whatnot.
There was the track on the Best Buy version of the album, and a couple of live tracks. How much more material do you have?
There are two more songs that are unreleased, ‘Mystery Helm’ and ‘Speak In Tongues.’ Both are really good songs, but when you’re expected to make an album so long, then the album ends up being an hour or more and everybody wants bonus tracks, so we just wrote a couple extra songs. I really like ‘Mystery at Helm’ and ‘Speak In Tongues.’ We’ll probably perform them live here and there, just to throw some extra shit in.
How has it been working with E1?
They’ve been really good so far. Usually, if you’ve been in the music business, you end up expecting the record label to give you some sort of red tape or some sort of crap you’ve got to deal with that’s a pain in your ass, but E1’s been really, really cool about the way they treat us. We lagged a little on the deadline, but they understood. I don’t put out shitty music, and if it takes longer, it takes longer. I can’t guarantee I’m going to have an award-winning album in one month. I wish I worked that fast, but we’re too fucking anal and picky about what we play. You gotta roll with the punches, and they were really cool about giving us a little extra time, working things out with us, and I’m glad, because it’s a better album because they gave us that time.
What’s the story behind ‘Fire, Flood And Plague?’
It’s the whole war, famine, fire, flood and plague. If you’ve ever seen Amsterdam’s flag with the three ‘x’s on it. That’s what the three ‘x’s mean. It’s all the weird shit the city’s survived, so I just based it off the whole 2012, the world’s gonna end, we’re all gonna be in a world war, blah, blah, blah, which we already are, kind of thing about my views on the world and the fears I think a lot of us have. Jeff wrote a lot of that one. I wrote the lyrics beforehand and then added some more in the studio. That one we pretty much had set in its way and I just changed a couple things vocally in the studio. But yeah, that’s Jeff’s little masterpiece. I threw a couple riffs in, but Jeff wrote most of that, as far as the riffs and stuff go.
You’re obviously used to bands coming out and sounding like Sleep, but more and more lately there have been bands specifically sounding more like High on Fire. Have you had any sense of the band’s growing influence?
Yeah, I acknowledge it. I know there’s some bands that come out. There’s bands that people take some of the sounds, but I think most of them did respectfully enough. We’re gonna sound like we sound anyways. No one’s gonna sound exactly like us. We’re pretty stylized and original, but people catch onto things and use them as tools, which is totally cool. I wouldn’t know how to play music without Sabbath, Slayer, Metallica or Judas Priest. That’s were how I learned to play metal. But I think it’s good to be an influence on other musicians. It means you’re good.
What’s the difference touring now as opposed to five years ago?
For me it’s the same as always. Shit. Only difference I’ve seen in our touring is we started jumping on all these big arena rock shows, and that’s definitely a different way of playing, entertaining a large crowd like that, than it is you entertaining a crowd in a bar somewhere. It’s got different energy, the sound acts different. That’s the only thing I’ve noticed that’s different on tour, just the places we’re playing.
Does that have an effect on your performance? How you approach the shows?
Oh yeah, definitely. Definitely. At a sweatbox or a club where it’s up close and personal, you don’t have to work as hard to get the crowd reaction. You have to work a little harder to get the crowd into you when you’re at these bigger places. There’s definitely a black psychology to crowd control.
I know you’re doing All Tomorrow’s Parties with Sleep. Any other plans for shows?
Yeah. That’s just a few one-offs that we’re just doing for September, since we played the one that was over in England, we decided to do some American shows too, to let the fans who like us over here go and check us out, have a little fun and jam. Get to travel around and make a little money. I’m looking forward to that too. Definitely a week and a half’s worth of shows. It’s a small one.
Snakes For The Divine is available now on E1 Music. High On Fire hits NYC’s Gramercy Theatre on April 9. More info at myspace.com/highonfire.