High On Fire’s Matt Pike: ‘Confront Your Enemy With Love Before You Confront Them With A Bullet’
Legendary guitarist and veteran of the riff Matt Pike is now a Grammy winning artist. High On Fire picked up the gong for Best Metal Performance at this year’s awards for their 2018 album Electric Messiah. Kerrang! caught up with Matt just after he received the good news of his Grammy nomination. “Yeah, I’m kinda tripping out on that. I was just staring at my phone going, ‘What the fuck?’” he chuckles.
This rarefied recognition from the mainstream has been a long time coming. In the early ’90s, Matt’s band Sleep pioneered the doom scene as we now know it, becoming arguably the most influential name in the genre outside of Black Sabbath. But when underground kudos led to a major label deal, their decision to consummate the relationship with 1998’s single-track, 63-minute opus Dopesmoker spectacularly backfired, and subsequently led to the break-up of the band. Within a year or two, however, Matt was back in action fronting the berserker roar of High On Fire, a band now on to the eighth in an incredible run of albums which make up one of the 21st century’s most impressive metal catalogues.
In 2009, now-defunct UK festival All Tomorrow’s Parties invited Sleep to reform to play in the unlikely environs of Butlins holiday camp in Minehead, on the North Somerset coast. Since then, Matt’s two bands have co-existed, with each releasing albums in 2018. Even a recent operation during which one of his toes was partially amputated hasn’t stopped him. And this ballsy determination extends to his insistence on speaking his mind. Whether he’s discussing drug laws, his struggles with alcohol or a dizzying array of conspiracy theories, he’s confident in his stance while retaining the ability to be humble and yet gruffly charming.
Ah yes, the conspiracy theories. Across an hour spent in Matt’s company, he’ll provide enough fuel for days’ worth of research. There isn’t room here to cover all of his beliefs, but they do include things like alien manipulation of human DNA in ancient times, the truth behind religions, and a slew of cover-ups and faked event theories. He’s self-aware enough to know his opinions might rub people up the wrong way, but he remains cheerfully honest about it all. “If none of it’s true,” he begins, “at least it’s given me plenty of metal shit to sing about!”
What was Matt Pike like as a young man?
“I was an only child, I was quiet and I spent a lot of time camping, hunting and fishing in the mountains. I was playing guitar at a young age ‘cause my uncle and grandfather used to play me songs. My uncle would play Led Zeppelin songs on acoustic guitar, and my grandfather knew all these sailor songs that were about cutting up children and making them into sausages, so you can kind of see where I might have got my dark side. But I was quiet and I entertained myself. I didn’t cry much. I probably cry more now than I did as a baby, but that’s just ‘cause I can’t drink anymore! So I cry (laughs).”
What were your teenage years like?
“I was kind of a juvenile delinquent. I got into high school, but I was doing a lot of LSD and smoking pot, and I got into a group of friends that were the wrong friends. I was in juvenile hall and then military school. I went to a small college in California, but once I started going on tour I was like, ‘Why do I need a fucking degree? What is that going to do for me?’ The only thing you can do with a music degree is either teach or compose, and I already composed. I’m self-educated when it comes to music, I’ve been around it every day of my life for 30-something years.”
Do you think anything you learned in military school was useful later in life?
“Well, some of that skills stuff was. I think being in the outdoors, some of that will come in handy later. Being able to make shelter, find higher ground, water, food, knowing directions… priceless stuff that everyone should know. And then there’s the musical education, art education and whatever reading I’ve done. Reading is a good way of shutting out the world. I think it’s a form of meditation, being able to read and shut the fuck up and be quiet. That’s an education too.”
When Sleep started, the doom scene was underground, and extreme metal was more concerned with thrash and death. Did it feel like you were swimming against the tide?
“Yeah. Well, Sleep came out of the ashes of a band called Asbestosdeath. It was like this Sabbathy, doomy, weird thing, but we were in the punk rock scene. It was a different kind of music, but it intrigued me because I was a big fan of Black Sabbath on top of all the hardcore, thrash metal and death metal which was coming out at the time. For the first Sleep record [1991’s Volume One] we had another guitar player called Justin Marler, but he became a monk on Kodiak Island for the Russian Orthodox Church or something like that. From then on we were a three-piece, and it worked out better for me because I think it made me up my game as a guitar player. It put more of the responsibility and the challenge on my shoulders.”
At what point did you think that music could be a full-time job?
“[1992’s second album] Holy Mountain was the pinnacle point. There was some weird magic we had all of a sudden. We were just out of high school and fucking slaying it. The grunge thing happened, but we kept wearing our bell-bottoms and plugging the Black Sabbath religion. We got into dub and some of the Rastafarian, deep-rooted Jamaican stuff, with the pot-smoking and all that, but we combined it with Black Sabbath, and it really turned into something. Then at a pivotal point we made Dopesmoker. There was no way you could edit that for radio (laughs). So we got shelved ‘cause the label didn’t think it’d do anything. I think taking 13 or 14 years off was a good thing for that band, ‘cause it just festered, and when we actually got back together in England at Butlins for ATP, and it went over really well, me and Al [Cisneros, bassist/vocalist] were like, ‘Dude, we got something going on here!’ Even though we both had other bands.”
When you played All Tomorrow Parties with people like The Jesus Lizard and Killing Joke, did it feel like you were being accepted by a different audience?
“Yeah, the weird thing about Sleep is it’s kind of a metal band, but we’re not afraid of blues and we’re not afraid of being quiet. That’s the difference between Sleep and High On Fire, they’re apples and oranges. Because High On Fire is like a real metal band, we come out swinging and don’t stop. Sleep’s more atmospheric. It’s a different type of music, and it’s a different language altogether. Especially on the last album we did, [2018’s] The Sciences, there’s a wide spectrum to what we do. And we’re getting even better at it now as we’re evolving. Making that record reinvented Sleep. It’s like a new baby, even though we’re an older band now.”
Let’s talk about High On Fire. Was it a deliberate decision to make more direct, aggressive music after Sleep fell apart?
“Like I said, it’s like knowing two different languages. One’s Chinese and one’s fucking Russian or something. It’s cool to know both languages, but it’s very different. Sleep’s a little more free-form, High On Fire is very visceral and very written. Like, there’s never two Sleep shows which are the same, musically. With High On Fire, it’s not unsoulful, but the mechanics of it are very tight. You can’t really make mistakes sound all that great (laughs). Where with Sleep if I make a flub or something I can make it sound cool, more like a Jimi Hendrix feel.”
There are more hardcore and punk elements in High On Fire. On the Electric Messiah album, the song Spewn From The Earth could almost be classified as D-beat…
“Yeah, well Des [Kensel] is actually a hardcore drummer from the East Coast. A lot of High On Fire’s music is just old punk riffs that are souped up and played like a metal band.”
Clearly, with the music of Sleep in particular, you’ve never made a secret of the influence of drugs on your work. Is it fair to say that they’ve enhanced your creativity over the years?
“Oh, absolutely. I think probably everyone who’s a musician has some sort of mental tic that goes on, and I believe that marijuana and psilocybin mushrooms can help that and treat that in a constructive way, especially if it’s helping you get your music done. Like, when I was a kid, I learned how to play guitar on acid. So it really has contributed to the way that I make music. But I can do it sober, I proved that to myself when I stopped drinking in 2012. I’ve had my struggles with that, but I’ve been as true as I can be to it, especially if I’m playing music. I didn’t think I could play a show without a shot, but for a long time I was playing shows totally sober. Now I can do a little marijuana and I’m pretty happy.”
Is it weird to you that the thing that has helped you hasn’t always been legal and accepted?
“I always thought it should be legal and accepted. It’s a freedom of speech thing. Like, you go to Holland, and they treat you like an adult there. Having that freedom creates better art, whether or not it’s good for you. Drugs, I believe, tap into a little more of that power that we have deep down, in the core of our minds.”
You’ve talked about professional conspiracy theorist David Icke in the past. He went from being a pretty mainstream TV presenter to someone whom almost all of the UK was laughing at. Do you relate to the way he persevered with the things he wanted to talk about, and not let any of that affect him?
“Well, I admire the man for doing that, and I also admire him for opening up my mind. It doesn’t mean I totally agree with him on everything, but I respect his perseverance. He’s an amazing dude. I don’t understand why they let him go so long, though, if he’s such a threat. Unless he’s part of the disinformation, which is kind of what I feel about InfoWars owner Alex Jones. He’s so crazy about certain aspects that you have to write him off as being over the top. He’s like, ‘There’s a war, right now!’ I believe you should protect yourself, but I don’t believe you should take up arms and start a war, because that’s not a solution to the problem. The solution is educating people, and talking, and confronting your enemy with love before you confront them with a bullet.”
Talking about Alex Jones, what do you think of his take on mass shootings, where he’s claimed that they’ve been totally faked with actors?
“A lot of people will probably be mad at me for this, but I do believe the CIA are involved. It’s the same thing with the moon landings, and it’s the same with 9/11, which is what set us up to go into Iraq when they didn’t have weapons of mass destruction. You know what that was about? That was about portals, and a spaceship under the ancient ruined city of Ur. It’s about history. That’s why ISIS started destroying everything, they don’t want us to know our own history. There was shit under there that’s valuable, that’s more than a weapon of mass destruction. And CERN [The European Organisation For Nuclear Research], that’s another fucking subject. Those people are opening fucking portals – time travel is possible, and they’re proving it, but they’re not gonna tell the public that. Are you kidding me?”
It feels like this is stuff that you’d be paying attention to even if you weren’t in a band, like you’re not just researching this for lyrics…
“Yeah, even if I didn’t believe it I’d be singing about it. Shit, when I started writing lyrics, I sang about some biblical shit, ‘cause I’ve always found the Bible fascinating. Mythology is based on things that were happening. We weren’t there, we can’t go back and see that, unless we do go back in time through a CERN portal, but there’s a correlation between that and the honest truth. Something happened that made someone write that down, or have that creative thought.”
You’ve written songs like Frost Hammer, which references Celtic Frost, and last year there was Giza Butler on the Sleep record, and Electric Messiah on the High On Fire record is about Lemmy. Do you feel it’s important to pay tribute to the people who have inspired you?
“Oh yeah, paying homage is very important. But the Frost Hammer thing… High On Fire have a lot of inside metal jokes, and Des told me that he was having a kid, his wife was pregnant, and it was really cold out. He said, ‘So, what are we gonna call the child? Frost Hammer!’ So I made a song called Frost Hammer. And the song might not be about the same thing when you write it, but you take that idea and run with it.”
When people talk about your music they don’t necessarily discuss the humour in the lyrics. How important is that goofy side of you?
“Yeah, High On Fire definitely has a sense of humour, and so do the Sleep guys. Sleep’s lyrics are deep, and High On Fire’s lyrics go deep, but I think you’ve gotta have some humility to be a serious person. To be a full human, you have to have all the emotions, to show that we’re not dead inside, and to show that we realise our mortality. As much as I try to summon [HP Lovecraft’s fictional god] Cthulhu by repeating it three times, that doesn’t mean it’s gonna actually happen (chuckles)!”
Has your attitude to your work changed over the years?
“Yeah, I used to be a little more competitive and aggressive. Now it feels like I have way less to prove and more work to get done. When you’re younger you’re full of piss and vinegar, and when you’re older you’re full of wisdom and knowledge. The driving factor as you grow older is that you have to continue the work you started.”
Have you got any musical ambitions left to fulfil?
“Oh yeah. I have a few more albums to make. I like watching how life unfolds.”
Finally, how are you doing after the operation?
“Oh, I’m good now. I took my last antibiotic two days ago. I’m feeling a little better. Yeah, that’s how I got to the GRAMMYs: the sacrificial toe! And there’s already lots of jokes flying around about that…”
Words: Olly Thomas
Header Photo: Jen Rosenstein