Tuesday, May 06, 2008

High On Fire

Like Hopper and Fonda in Easy Rider, High On Fire’s riffs have picked up speed. When I heard “10,000” off their 1st album in 2000, I declared the opening riff the best since Sabbath. Now, with the release of their fourth album, Death Is This Communion, Rolling Stone has also noticed Matt Pike’s ability and given him the titled of one of the Top 20 “New Guitar Gods.” Of the creative process, Pike straightforwardly says, “There are certain things you know, and certain things you dick around with.”

To see them in the Bay Area, their home, on the last night of their “first” North American tour, was ideal. The show was packed for the second night when Pike and co. launched into “Fury Whip,” the first track of Death Is This Communion. They played a few classics, notably “Eyes and Teeth,” but stuck mostly to new material. Oddly, the group played few songs from their last release, Blessed Black Wings. In the middle of the show, a masked man ran on stage in his undies and jumped around like a pixie before stage diving into the pit. From the looks on the band’s faces I don’t think they had any idea what the fuck was going on. Des Kensel’s drums sounded like Hannibal’s army of elephants grinding the skulls of the dead into dust. New bassist Jeff Matz, formerly of ZEKE, added a huge bass tone. Pike communicated with the audience crammed beneath him and got some lovin’ from the ladies in the front after the encore. But before all of this, I met up with the band to talk about the tour and home-town pride.

Mattie: I woke up really hungover. Got any good cures?

Des: There’s the spicy bloody mary…
Matt: There’s the “hair of the dog” approach, or the drug you did the night before or some drug you didn’t do that helps balance and calm you. Or of course, you could always O.D. on vitamins.

Mattie: Since touring worldwide, what do you look forward to when you return to the Bay Area?

Des: Home.
Matt and Jeff: Yeah.
Matt: Having a home. Having a girlfriend. Having some sort of life.
Des: I like coming back to a nice Bay Area burrito. Then I hit up Zack’s for a slice. Those are two of the first things.

Mattie: Matt, what was it like moving to the Bay Area from a military school in Colorado?

Matt: Ahhh, I got to be a spoiled punk rocker (laughs). I moved here in ‘89. Got to go to 942 Gilman Street. I was livin’ in San Jose but I’d drive up to Berkeley and Oakland every weekend for the metal shows. In San Jose there’s still a scene there. Growin’ up I got to see Neurosis and the Melvins and all these people that were just coming up that are, like now, they’re legends. It’s weird to see that happen in front of you.

Mattie: And Des, how’d you get out here?

Des: I grew up on the East Coast, in Connecticut, and I came out in ’96. Threw my drums in the car, and drove…

Mattie: It was random?

Des: Well, no. I wanted to stop in a couple cities and jam with people. Kinda a little drum vacation. I ran out of money in SF and had to get a job, and then I ran out of places to park my car and sleep, so I found an apartment. Then I found a girl(laughs). Then I started jammin’ with Matt and I was like, Well, I got an apartment, a girl, and a band--I’m good to go. I mean, it was during the dot com thing and finding an apartment was almost impossible. But in the Mission there was just a killer punk and metal scene and I was lovin’ it. Just goin’ to warehouse shows, specifically 17th and Capp. I just became a “local” pretty quick.

Matt: And we were spoiled. People came to our first shows immediately. Not packed…

Des: Not packed, but like a 100 or 150 people on the first night we played at the Covered Wagon Saloon…

Matt: Yeah, for a band that they’d never even heard play. We were kinda lucky like that.

Mattie: Did some fans carry over from Sleep?

Matt: Yeah, a little bit but mostly just us knowing a hella lot of people. It boosted us up, gave us the self-esteem to keep going.

Mattie: Of the members of Sleep, Al and Chris went on to form “Om” and Justin became a monk, but you just got more metal. Why?

Matt: I got sick of playin’ slow. And Des comes from a hardcore/East Coast background, so we instantly wanted to try to speed it up but not play punk rock.

Mattie: Death Is This Communion slays, how’s the tour been going?

Des: It’s been killer, very positive.
Matt: I didn’t expected this response. The changes have been like--we just have more time to sound check and make sure everything’s dialed up. We’re all getting more anal about how we like things on stage and it’s the first time we’ve got a crew, a driver… Before we’d be vanning it. We’d be that band that stays on your floor and it was cool, but it’s nice to have these amenities.

Mattie: I saw you did multiple drum tracks on some songs.

Des: I think on “Headhunter” I have 4 or 5 tracks. And three on “Khanrad’s Wall.” It’s something I wanted to do for a while.

Mattie: Some people are suggesting that the guitar was held back on this album to allow the drums come through. Have you taken a “less is more” philosophy?

Matt: I don’t know about that. I think the guitar on this album is really in your face. It’s not as dry, and it’s not as up close a sound. I think that Jack went for a little different tone. But the riffs on this album are right there. I’d have to disagree.

Mattie: And you guys met Jeff through Hank Williams the 3rd, right?

Matt: No, we‘d admired his bass tone when we toured with Zeke. What happened was, I called up Hank and asked if he’d like to be a guest bassist on our next album, cause I couldn’t figure out who to get. And he said, have you tried Jeff Matz.
Jeff: It was good timing, cause Zeke was coming to a grinding halt. Our singer/guitar player is married with a kid and isn’t really interested in touring anymore. I jammed with these guys a couple times and it sounded cool and it’s been great ever since.

Mattie: Would you say Zeke is done playing?

Jeff: Zeke still plays local shows in the Seattle area, but that’s gonna be about it.

Mattie: Matt, people are beginning to catch some of your songs’ literary influences. What are some of your favorite books?

Matt: I generally love anything by Lovecraft, the LOTR trilogy, Philip K Dick, I mean Valis is bizaar, and then there’s Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories. The lyrics have a lot of agnostic, a lot science-ficiton, religion, political things, a lot of them are masked in a duality of my personal struggles or our struggles as a band.

Mattie: You guys like to add anything?

Matt: Just, uh, High On Fire’s here to slay and here to stay! I thought that one up earlier, today… (laughs)

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