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A Quietus Interview

The Magickal Mysteriis Tour: Matt Pike Of High On Fire Interviewed
Toby Cook , May 1st, 2012 06:01

Toby Cook talks to one of the Quietus' favourite rock stars, Matt Pike, about the new High On Fire album and a new reissue of Sleep's mighty Dopesmoker

Very, very generally speaking there are two types of interviewee. Some want to talk about their work and how it’s the best thing they’ve ever done (it’s always the best thing they’ve ever done, even when its Lulu). Are they informative? Yes. Enlightening? Perhaps. A bit dull? Often. Others, however, you might call them fans in sheep’s clothing: “We’re not really influenced by anyone… we just make the music we want to hear”. Yeah, cheers mate, very insightful.

Sometimes though, just sometimes, you interview Matt Pike, a man for whom the word ‘dude’ was invented. A man that, as part of Sleep, helped not only define a genre but also, via the creation of Dopesmoker, created one of the defining metal albums of all time – despite the fact that it was famously shelved by their then label, London Records. He’s a man that over the last decade-and-a-bit, with his current group High On Fire, has crafted six LPs of riffs so thunderous, so brutally compelling that on listening to them your face can't help but look like it’s having the skin sucked downwards from it, whilst your hand involuntarily raises skyward into a claw, shaped as if it is holding the skull of your recently vanquished lizard-alien foe. Unsurprisingly their new album, De Vermis Mysteriis, the one he’s supposed to be plugging today, is no different.

And yet he is a man also happy to discuss why Predator 2 is the best movie ever made and the legitimacy of a former snooker presenter's claims that the human race is descended from aliens. Just don’t ask him about new Sleep material.

The dude most certainly abides…

Hello Mr. Pike, how the hell are you?

Matt Pike: Good – you?

Not at all bad. So, besides answering the same questions from people like me all day, what have you been up to?

MP: Oh, well, I guess I’m fattening myself up for touring! [Laughs] Y’know, I’m trying to get healthy for tour so I can deal with the up and coming seven months of my life and it not be hell!

Tough, but someone’s got to do it, right?

MP: Yup!

So, the new LP is done and dusted, it’s due out imminently; I understand that the concept behind it is that it’s like the most epic episode of Quantum Leap ever – where did that idea come from?

MP: [Laughs] Just me being weird! I’m kind of a dark child [laughs] and I think of a lot of bizarre, off the wall shit that usually I can’t say to people out loud because they won’t understand me. So I figure that if I put it on an album, like, maybe they’ll get it!

The title of the record, De Vermis Mysteriis, obviously has links to the grimoires of Robert Bloch and H. P. Lovecraft, but the concept is based around the idea that Jesus had a twin who died at birth, and then became a time traveller, right? Can you clear up what the fuck’s going on there?

MP: Yeah, well, he died at birth so that Jesus could live and then forwards himself through time and sees the destruction that Christianity causes and tries to travel back in time to warn his brother – who’s innocent of all this. But there’s lots of little factors in between that are Lovecraft-ian, Bloch-ish, Robert E. Howard-ish – and I kind of just put them altogether because I like religious studies and I like horror and terror and I like science fiction – like Philip K. Dick – and I like conspiracy theories and stuff like that. I just put it together and thought, like, 'Whoa dude, you’ve really outdone yourself and you’ve put a large fucking thing in your own lap here!'

Totally. This is probably a really stupid question, but if Jesus’ twin dies at birth, how does he become a time traveller? Are we just talking about his spirit here?

MP: Well, it’s not, like, a totally literal thing; it has to do with the whole story of him giving himself over, and inner understanding, y’know? Say you’re Jesus, right? And say you had on the one side Jesus and on the other side a twin brother, a ying and yang to you, and you came back and you warned yourself about the dangers of your actions; even though you meant well what it would do to the Earth, y’know what I mean? It’s about seeking inner understanding of what you do, before you do it. And it also has to do with faith and whether you believe in fate or whether you believe in quantum physics… I don’t know! It came out of me the way it came out of me! [Laughs]

And how does the title, The Mysteries Of The Worm fit into the concept?

MP: [Laughs]

If at all, I guess?

MP: Well I suppose it has to do with, y’know, buried secrets – y’know what I mean? The Book Of The Worm; It’s like a buried tale – if that make sense?

I was going to ask, and it’s interesting that you briefly mentioned quantum physics; a great deal of the work that Einstein did on relativity and the speed of light suggests that time travel is technically possible – given the moral and ethical implications though, is it really something humanity should explore?

MP: Well humanity’s already trying to explore it actually – it has to do with dark matter and black holes. There are actually places on earth, that are underground, where they’re trying to create dark matter, but in a way that it doesn’t create a black hole. But I watch too much discovery channel! Not only do I read, but I’m highly into, like, Ancient Aliens shows – I’m really into thinking outside the norm; I believe that the universe is very vastly misunderstood and our fragile, little human minds can’t comprehend the amount of mass and strange oddness that goes on in the universe in order to create, y’know?

I saw one of these Ancient Aliens programmes recently where they put forward the idea that the Nazis developed a time machine using technology plundered from and crashed alien space ship…

MP: Yeah, that’s the kind of shit that High On Fire does make albums out of! [laughs] If you haven’t noticed, half of my lyrics are about weird shit like that!

Sticking with TV and film – Terminator 2 has got to be the best time travel movie ever, hasn’t it?

MP: Oh yeah! But you know where that comes from, right?

Not exactly…

MP: Philip K. Dick dude! It’s from a short story, I can’t remember the name [Second Variety And Jon’s World TC] but, these two different factions of people, they create these underground sword devices that go and kill any enemies that try to invade any of their space or whatever. Well the technology’s all buried underground and it gets all smart and it starts making, like, little kids and women and it starts making human beings that will follow you back into your camp and then kill you in your camp – y’know what I mean? The machines get so smart that they become the dominant and governing rule; it's man trying to protect himself, but how can he protect himself from the machine that he made ultimately to protect himself in the first place? It’s crazy shit – Philip K. Dick was part of the acid test, just like Ken Kesey, y’know, and is just a fucking deep, deep thinker dude.

Going back to the new album then – I hear that the writing process had more of an improvisational feel to it compared to previous albums, is that right? How did working like that affect the outcome?

MP: Well we had a lot of skeletons of songs, but we had kind of a deadline, y’know? They were trying to enforce a deadline and usually I don’t play that game – I’m like, dude, it’s done when it’s fucking done – but I really wanted to get it done, and Dez and Jeff really wanted to get it done. So we just did boot camp for two months; we were at the studio every day, every day, every day, trying to find the pieces to the puzzle that we had started. And yeah, a lot of it turned out kind of, not so much improvised but like close enough to improv where it’s like, well that just feels good so leave it.

And you roped in Kurt Ballou to produce it this time – how did he become involved?

MP: Well we’ve know Kurt for a while and the whole band agreed that the last couple of discs he recorded were fucking stellar and we wanted to give him a try with our sound. Y’know, we had a whole list of people; we were considering Fidelman again, we were considering Albini, we were considering Endino, but we’ve just been moving on every album or so, trying to get that right ‘thing’ and change it up a little so that each album’s a little different. And I kind of like doing that, it gives it a lot of character, it makes it real listenable – and you’re not getting the exact same album as you did last time – I think that’s a pretty important part. Like, y’know, if you’re a fan of an artist you don’t want to see the same painting twice, right? [Sound of a door creaking open…] Pardon me, I don’t mean to be rude, but I have to piss. They haven’t given me a break in like, fucking two hours!

Oh, right! No worries, I’ll give you a couple of minutes to do your business dude…

MP: Oh no, it’s cool, I’m fine, you can keep talking…

Er, ok… Moving on to the LP artwork, again it’s something in the past that HOF always seem to put a lot of effort and emphasis into getting the right person, often with stunning results, but this time you’ve gone with something pretty different.

MP: Yeah, it was Tim Lehi. Tim’s a really respected Tattoo artist, but he’s also a painter, and we were just trying to do something a little different this time – we’d been in that same ball park a while. And [Arik] Roper is astonishing man, like, don’t get me wrong it was nothing against him, we were just trying to do something a little bit different just to see where it’d go. And, yeah, I’m pretty stoked on the way this whole package turned out.

And I can see why – it’s a very evocative image and captures the themes of the LP perfectly. How much direction did you give Tim?

MP: I gave him some direction – I gave him my lyrics and explained the whole concept to him. But Tim’s good enough, he came up with two different album covers in three days. We just had to pick the better one of the two. Well, not the ‘better one’ just the one that band most preferred. And yeah, it turned out quite well.

No interview with your good self would be complete without talking briefly about Sleep, I’m afraid. Southern Lord are soon to reissue Dopesmoker, which is probably the third or fourth time it’s been released in various official and unofficial formats, what brought on the decision this time?

MP: Just because it needs to stay in print, y’know? I think that more and more people – kids and other people – are getting turned on to this record. And obviously for vinyl collectors, y’know, in case there’s sunspots and no one has their iPods anymore and stuff like that. It’s a cool package to have for a collector, and it’s an incredible piece of music and it needs to stay in print; every so often it runs out of print so you may as well make it a little cooler the next time.

So I’m going to have to buy it a third time then!

MP: Oh yeah, but dude, this one is going to look so fucking cool, it’s so rad!

There’s such a mystique to Dopesmoker – with it not getting released by London Records, stories of spending your advance all on drugs and bollocks about submitting it in a skull bog – it really is an incredible piece of music in its own right, but how much, do you think, has this mystique elevated it above the rest of Sleep's output?

MP: I don’t know. Sorry, but I really don’t know the answer to that question – people just seem to like it. It was a great burden to learn and to write that, and going through what we did trying to do it. And, y’know, it’s the most odd piece of music I’ve ever heard in my life, really fucking weird! And that right there makes it worth recording. It’s so extreme it’s like, ‘What the fuck!?’ There’s this puzzling mystery to it.

Arik Roper is handling the artwork again; I heard, I don’t know if there’s any truth to this, but I heard that the band weren’t particularly happy with the art work he produced for the last unofficial release – is there any truth to that?

MP: Really? I mean, I’ve never felt that way so I couldn’t really answer your question.

Fair enough! What can we expect from the newest art work?

MP: I’ll just tell you that it’s fucking bad ass! [Laughs]

I suspect I know the answer to this already, but is there any likely hood that we’ll ever see any new material from Sleep?

MP: Well isn’t that the mystery!...

Err, is it?

MP: You can quote me on that! [laughs]

High On Fire’s New album De Vermis Mysteriis is out now via Century Media, whilst the reissued Dopesmoker is available now via Southern Lord



Tue 22, Glasgow, UK – The Arches
Wed 23, Dublin, Ireland – Button Factory
Thu 24, Leeds, UK – Stylus
Fri 25, London, UK – I’ll Be Your Mirror