With their 2012 release, De Vermis Mysteriis, Oakland-based heavy thrashers High On Fire not only secured their reign at the top of the underground, but positioned themselves as one of the most vital metal bands going today. The record, which was produced by Converge guitarist Kurt Ballou at his Godcity Studios in Salem, Massachusetts, ripped through 10 blindingly bombastic cuts of precision aural lumber—doomed thickness played at a cheetah’s pace. High On Fire were tighter and more aggressive than ever before.
Tumult followed. An ill-fated stint on this year’s Mayhem Festival led to guitarist/vocalist Matt Pike (also of stoner metal progenitors Sleep) entering rehab over the summer. Pike is back now with drummer Des Kensel and bassist Jeff Matz, and their latest tour brings them through the area this week with support from Southern black metal stalwarts Goatwhore and Ohio fuzz rockers Lo-Pan. They’ll be at Union Transfer in Philly on Thursday, Bowery Ballroom on Friday and the Music Hall Of Williamsburg on Saturday, leaving a trail of blown eardrums in their wake.
Pike checked in from the road last week for this quick interview:
How are the shows so far?
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.
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.
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.
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.
De Vermis Mysteriis is out now on E1. High On Fire, Goatwhore and Lo-Pan will be at Union Transfer in Philadelphia on Nov. 29, Bowery Ballroom in Manhattan on Nov. 30 and Music Hall Of Williamsburg in Brooklyn on Dec. 1. For more information, go to highonfire.net.