Towering Inferno: High On Fire’s Matt Pike On Icke’s Purple Reign

On the release of their awesome new album Snakes For The Divine, Matt Pike talks to Toby Cook about David Icke, that vocal issue and getting back to Sleep...

Marijuana, it’s a funny old thing isn’t it? For some it’s responsible for inumarable fits of violently schizoid paranoia, failed GCSE exams and a criminal record. For others it’s, well, it’s got us too monged to care very much about anything. More importantly though it’s been at least partially responsible for some really fucking great music. Black Sabbath’s Masters Of Reality, Kyuss’ Blues For The Red Sun, anything by Electric Wizard and Innocent Man by, erm, Billy Joel. [You’re fired, Ed]

One band more than perhaps any other though has grow to exemplify the stoner rock genre; that band is – or more accurately was – Sleep. Having solidified themselves as genre leaders with 93’s Holy Mountain – a slab of bonged out riffs, heavier than a tonne of Moroccan hashish – the group unceremoniously disbanded several years later in a cloud of (Dope)smoke, following London Record’s refusal to put out Holy Mountain’s follow-up, Jerusalem (an LP comprising of one 52 minute track).

Since then Matt Pike, Al Cisneros and Chris Hakius have continued in one guise or another – Cisneros now with OM and Shrinebuilder, Hakius with a burgeoning career in horticulture and Pike with his band High On Fire. Infinitely more "metal" that Sleep ever were, Pike’s chargers have taken time to both acquire a new audience and win over the detractors and those too cained to notice; new album Snakes For The Divine though, looks like being the police battering ram at the door that will finally garner the group the attention they deserve. And Pike himself seems pretty chuffed about it…

So firstly, how are you Matt? Been busy?

Matt Pike: Well there’s been a lot of flying in and flying out; a lot of smoking, drinking, all that kind of stuff. And a lot of playing and jamming… I guess my life’s been pretty good, recently anyway!

The new LP is finished and ready for release – I guess you’re pretty pleased with the results?

MP: Yeah, this fucking record slaaaays! I had one dude trip out on the production and I was like, “Dude, you’re insane!” But it sounds so good. Granted there may have been little things that my band – Jeff [Matz – Bass], Des [Kensel – drums] or me – would have nit-picked, but we couldn’t have been there for some of the mixing sessions because our scheduled was so fucked. I think Greg Fidelman did a fucking awesome job though, and I really don’t care what anybody says.

Snakes For The Devine has got a pretty raw, and very dense sound though, hasn’t it?

MP: Well, y’know what, on the bottom end, and a little bit with the rhythm section, I think that it’s actually a little thinner. Overall though there is a real clarity to it; I can hear the bass, I can hear the drums, everything. Blessed Black Wings [HOF’s second full-length] is an anomaly, and it all depends on the day or week that you are in the studio with a certain producer. For instance, I think the best thing about Blessed Black Wings is the drums; Albini has this weird thing with drums where it’s just out of fucking control, and that made that album what it is, this one just has a different texture. I think on the last three albums we’ve really concentrated on the production and I think that this one has a lot more clarity than the last two, which were with Endino [Death Is The Communion] and Albini [Blessed Black Wings], but sometimes you have to sacrifice one thing for another and with Albini it was definitely all about drums and thickness and the midrange, whereas with Endino it was a lot more about being experimental and psychedelic – the big, pounding drums were still there but he was a little more hands on than Albini.

Fidelman is very hands on, and I think he wanted to get a bit more separation between what I’m doing on guitar and the bass, and the way that the drums react; the way the accents are and the way the chords land. It’s all an experiment and in the long run it’s all art, it’s painting a picture – you can say one thing about one picture and another thing about another picture, but here they’re like three different pictures. It’s like apples and oranges, if you try and compare them.

So was it a decision of the bands to work with a different producer?

MP: It kind of fell in our lap that way to be honest. We could have gone the same route and done the same thing, and the same thing but we’re always trying to reinvent ourselves and recreate ourselves and we’re getting better and better at playing – Jeff Matz actually wrote a lot of this record!

Sometimes I get accused of being the soul record writer, and it’s not like that at all, it’s a conglomerate of all three of us really putting effort in and really spending time at the studio and figuring out the way that we all intertwine. We just keep progressing and progressing and I think that we’re getting better and better at what we do, but the experiments along the way; who records you, who mixes you, how you produce it, who does that art – which in our case is pretty much all laid on [Arik] Roper, he seems to have a knack fro our themes – and I think we’re getting better as a band; more people are listening and I think that we’re starting to develop a voice as opposed to being some weird bar band!

Arik Roper has really outdone himself with the art work too…

MP: Oh yeah, I think this one was a little challenging for him though because usually I can send him my lyrics and some of the music or demos and he’ll have something in a jiffy. But this one we were a little more particular on, so we fucked with him a little bit with, y’know, colour schemes and so on, he came up with a lot of sketches before he actually inked them and put the paint on the paper – or the canvas, or whatever – but ultimately I think that us being a little nit-pick-y about the art work made it be really good because it really does capture all the themes going on in the record.

You obviously put a pretty high premium on album art, for you, what other covers have just nailed it?

MP: Well you’ve definitely got to start with Molly Hatchet using [Frank] Frazetta. Danzig getting HR Giger to do stuff for them was awesome too, and even Judas Priest – I forget the artist’s name – but Judas Priest used the same artist [Doug Johnson, Ed] over and over, with great results, as did Iron Maiden with Derek Riggs. When you get this weird connection with the artist that works with you… Like with Mastodon – who are friends of mine – and Paul [Romano] the guy who does their art work – who is also a friend, or at least an acquaintance, of mine too – it just kind of works with the band if you work it in, because they can create while you’re creating.

And what about those covers that are just way, way off? Some of the Scorpions out-put perhaps?

MP: Oh yeah, their shit is brutal, but at the same time the Scorpions are one of my favourite bands ever! Especially the early Uli Jon Roth stuff. But you’ve got to realise that it was the 80s and there were a lot of different drugs going around – I mean, [the word] ‘Scorpions’ on a hot ass? I’m not opposed to it, it’s just not what I’d put on my album cover; metaphorically, I think deeper than that.

I hear that you are very interested in the ‘New Age Conspiracy theorist’ David Icke?

MP: Yeah, I read a lot of David Icke work based on the reptilian agenda and the creation of religion and the creation of, or the DNA taking of Man – which would be down to Adam and Eve not really being the first people, but being the first people on Earth to inseminate the DNA of the reptilian race, which is an alien race which has been on the planet forever. Now whether I actually believe this or not, I think that it makes for the best metal songs, and I went off that theory. In fact Lilith, who’s on the front cover [of Snakes…], is actually Adam’s first wife and the first time Adam inseminated her, her young didn’t come out the right way so she actually ate her baby; I based a whole bunch of the theme of this album on that particular theory. It’s not truth, it’s not religion, it’s not anything else but a sci-fi story, or a horror story, or whatever else you want to call it. It’s ancient and it involves aliens and a lot of things that I find interesting and I love the fact that it could all possibly be true.

Here in the UK he’s the subject of quite a bit of ridicule…

MP: Well you can write the dude of for being fucking crazy but his IQ is off the charts – he researches everything that he writes about. That guy is fucking amazing man, whether he’s insane or not. Have you read one of his books? That shit will seriously fuck-up your whole fucking mind about what you really believe and what you don’t believe. Now whether or not what he’s saying as actually true or not it definitely makes you take another look at the way you live, the way society is. I’m inspired by him, I think he’s an amazing man, and I think that way he writes is truth by his own soul. Whether or not anybody totally believes what he says or not, you have to take the fact that he travels the world and researches it. Outspoken people are always called crazy, but the day will come when he dies and people will be saying “Whoa, what a fucking genius!” And it always takes until the day you die for anybody to fucking listen to you. I’m totally inspired by him and I can’t wait until the day that I get to meet him.

So, how did you first become aware of David Icke?

MP: One person gave me a book, then Wino [Scott Weinrich] gave me a book too, and was talking about it, and I’ve met different people along the way who are way more into David Icke. My soundman – Chad Hargreaves – gave me some stuff when we were on tour as well and I was just reading and reading and reading and I was just like, “Dude, this is the best metal album that will ever exist in the entire world”. So I just started going off on that whole theme, and the last two albums have been based on it… Actually, those last two albums are the best stuff I have ever done in my whole life!

Don’t you think that there is a danger that people will take what he say’s a little too literally, or too much to heart?

MP: Well, maybe. Maybe it’s a little bit like religion. The way that Icke approaches it, I think, is: “I’m not trying to get you into a religion, or put you in some vice”, but some people do get into a sort of weird vice about it – I’m sure I’m guilty of it too – because it’s such a fucking weird belief. But if you take it as: “Ok, here’s a piece of information, you can take it or leave it”, it’s kind of like Jeet Kune Do and Bruce Lee, it’s like, just throw away the stuff that doesn’t make any sense. And the stuff that does make sense to you? Take it for what it’s worth and don’t take it for granted, study it and figure it out for yourself, y’know? I think that’s all that Icke is trying to say.

We’ve got to talk about Sleep for a bit; I hear that Chris Hakius has given up music and become a turnip farmer. Is that true? What does it mean for the future of Sleep?

MP: Well, he’s not a farmer or anything he just wants to be left alone in his mountains, he’s just that kind of guy. Me and Al [Cisneros] have started playing with Jason Roeder of Neurosis a little and we’re just doing a few shows, we’re not making a new album, we’re not going on tour, we’re just going to do shows here and there – it’s just fun to play [as Sleep] and it’s fun to recite that music. My main goal is High On Fire, obviously, but if you’ve done something in your life and you choose to go and re-recite it, it’s like, what’s the difference between a band and a symphony? Why wouldn’t someone play Beethoven’s Ninth if they command an orchestra? All it is, is just keeping you’re skills check. It’s about deriving joy from playing music, it doesn’t have to do with money, it doesn’t have to do with chicks or drugs, all it has to do with is just deriving joy out of playing your instrument. And reciting that stuff, man, it’s amazing, it makes me better, going back and learning my roots – and Sleep is my roots – so for me to go back and play with Sleep brings me back to where I learned how to play guitar and you’ve got to do that once in a while. You’ve got to take it organically and not take it as a fucking business escapade, it has nothing to do with that, it’s about the joy of playing and the way we want to make people feel. Music shouldn’t be a selfish thing, music should be a beautiful thing that brings joy, brings darkness or sorrow or whatever. You’re just conveying feelings that you had at a certain time and during that time in my life it was really, really fucking heavy; my mother died in front of my face, there was a lot going on. Honestly, I’ll be there playing Jerusalem with fucking tears in my eyes, y’know. Sometimes, if you go back and you retrace your steps you learn who you are and that’s kind of what we’re indulging.

No plans to bring Sleep back to the UK then?

MP: Actually in September this year we’re doing some shows [in Europe] with Jason – September first to the 12th, I think we play six shows.

Awesome! Any new Sleep material on the way too?

MP: Well, none that I’m going to tell you about!

Now, obviously Al is still active with OM…

MP: Yeah – OM, Shrinebuilder… that dude just won’t stop! That guy has got a brain on him like Buddha; he’s crazy!

… What do you think of OM’s new ‘tantric’ direction?

MP: Well, dude, I love what Al does, but what’s in Al’s brain? I enjoy playing music with the guy because me and him have a connection and we always have had, but it’s a strange thing; what’s in Al’s head is definitely not always what’s in my head, me and him are like opposites that attract.

Finally, Which id better: Predator, or Predator 2?

MP: I have to say Predator, because of Schwarzenegger; I’ve kind of just loved Schwarzenegger ever since Conan The Barbarian. But Predator 2 is cool too, I like the Rastafarians… “Fucking Voodoo magic man!”

High On Fire’s New LP Snakes For The Divine is out now, via Century Media

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