High on Fire's seventh studio LP, Luminiferous, released early last summer, is a reminder that the band is a true force of nature in the metal world and a group that many may imitate in 2015 but few come close to punching with — a testament to the creative bonds that hold iconic guitarist and vocalist Matt Pike together with drummer Des Kensel and bassist Jeff Matz. Produced by Converge guitarist/metal and hardcore recording wizard Kurt Ballou at God City Studios, the album is the distillation of the intensity and essence that make High on Fire so great without any of the filler or unnecessary fettering that plagues many of today’s more recent metal records. Pure fire and brimstone.
We caught up with Pike to prepare for the band’s impending South Florida show (featuring the mighty Crowbar and local sludge titans Shroud Eater and Consular) about tracking the band’s most recent triumph, overcoming the learning curve of sobriety, whether we’ll hear any more new music out of Sleep anytime soon, and why the Sabbath reunion is like beating a very dead horse.
New Times: When Luminiferous first came out, you seemed really excited in the press about the results. Now that you’ve toured the record so hard, how do you feel about the record, and how has your relationship with it changed?
Matt Pike: Like always, we’re at the point now where we’re really used to going through the motions and playing the songs, and it’s always fun to have new songs to mess around with, and you always get better at them when you tour them, so I wish I could rerecord all of the songs right now. But I do still think they turned out pretty damn good for what they were. But if I could go back, I know how to play them a little better than when we recorded the album — that’s just a fact.
It seems like Kurt always brings out the best in every band he works with. Is there anything in particular you could pinpoint about working with him that suits High on Fire so well and yields such great results?
I think it’s really just his personality, and all of us really get along with him. He really does focus on each individual instrument and getting them perfect where a lot of other engineers and producers will tend to focus on a favorite instrument — even if it’s a subconscious habit. Kurt gets all of us into our own zones and gets a lot of separation between Jeff and I’s sound, which can be a problem for a lot of producers because Jeff runs both a guitar tone and a bass sound when he plays, and I have my big guitar sound. So finding the space between is a really key point in recording us, and Kurt does a really great job of that. But honestly, he really does just have a great personality, so he’s really easy to work with.
He is certainly a master at keeping instruments in their own respective realms, even when working with dense tones like you guys use.
Oh yeah, for sure! Jeff and I both use a ton of midrange — which can make us hard to work with at some points — but they’re really spectacular when you get ‘em right, as Kurt typically does.
People tend to focus a lot on what it is you bring to the table with High on Fire, but I’ve always considered the group’s labors a true band effort. What about Jeff and Des makes them so integral to High on Fire’s sound and process, from your perspective?
Definitely, and I always feel bad about how the press focuses on me because I’m the frontman, but I couldn’t do it without either of those two — especially Des. Des is who I founded the band with, and most of our music is based off of Des’ drum-playing more than it even is my guitar-playing. I just kind of follow along and sound something out to what he plays. And Jeff: Not only was he a killer bass player when I met him but he’s really improved over the years, and his songwriting has too.
I don’t think Jeff thought that we were going to be as encouraging about his songwriting and input when he joined up, and I think in his previous bands, he struggled a lot with getting his ideas across, but he’s really come into his own with us. He has been bringing some really killer music to the table. Jeff’s really upped High on Fire a big level. He’s supermeticulous about practicing and educated and a very heartfelt player, and these are all really the best qualities that you would want in a bandmate — so he’s really come through for us.
I imagine a lot of people assume that the band is less collaborative than it truly is because of what a high-profile musician you yourself are.
It’s very collaborative. Everybody brings ideas to the table, and I think the thing that you have to get used to if you’re in this band is that we shoot a lot of shit down if it’s not up to par. We have a lot of shit that we just throw in the trash that’s probably pretty good material — but we’re really picky about what we play and how it goes together, so a lot of stuff goes unused. We’ll have four hours worth of music we need to chop into 50 minutes before we track an album, and it plays out kind of like a book and a puzzle.
Since you’ve stopped drinking, have you sought other ways to get into your creative space, meditation or anything like that?
Oh, I’ve done all of it — I’ve tried everything, man. Meditation, granola… all of that good stuff. You pick up little things, and you get your little rituals. I try to get enough exercise, but I tend to smoke too many cigarettes now, and I struggle with that, but like, that’s the last vice I need to deal with. And sometimes you replace one habit with another habit, so sometimes instead of having drinks, I’ll drink way too many Red Bulls or a bunch of smoothies.
Sleep’s music really forged a genre of its own. Are there any younger bands aping Sleep these days on your radar that you dig?
Well, you know I’ve watched a lot of bands come out of the same kind of scene as us, and you could put Kyuss in there with what we were doing 15 or 16 years ago, but you’ve had a lot of bands — like Yob — that kind of took from Sleep what they needed as a tool of influence and expanded upon the idea, but we’re still jamming, and it’s really interesting that the type of music we melded together back then and still play today has gone so far.
When I’m playing with Sleep today, I totally see the difference between our band and other bands that have used a bit of Sleep’s vibe in their toolbox but have had enough respect for it to put their own spin on it, you know? It’s kind of like how Sabbath was as an influence to Sleep; we know every Sabbath cover there is — that’s obviously why we sound like Sabbath. I think a lot of bands have done that with Sleep’s sound and taken influence, but they certainly elaborated on it.
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Any word on new Sleep material?
Let’s just say we’re jamming and we’re obviously playing out still, but we came out with “The Clarity” and, while that was only one song, it was the first song we’ve done in 16 years — a big step — and we were just very happy to have that out there. The fact of the matter is that our other bands now come before Sleep’s schedule, and we don’t put deadlines on each other anymore; it’s more just fun to jam and get together with those dudes right now. When we have time for that, it will happen, and we probably won’t even tell anyone about it; it will just be there one day.
It’s probably really nice to be back at it with Sleep without the type of label drama bullshit the band went through back in the day.
Oh yeah! None of us can handle that shit! We’re too old! None of us want any drama or ultimatums anymore.
As an authority on all things Sabbath, what are your thoughts on this “final” reunion and the drama surrounding it?
I know they want to have integrity or something like that, but I think that Sharon Osbourne is way too involved, and I feel like they’re really beating a dead horse because of it now. They’re getting the business side involved way more than they’re getting the friendships involved, and the whole thing about a good band is that the friendships there are strong... It still makes sense musically that they’re there for a common good, and it just seems like they’ve all got so much management and business involved that it’s ruined any chance of them being creative.
High on Fire
With Crowbar. 7 p.m. Wednesday, December 16, at Culture Room, 3045 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $17 plus fees via ticketmaster.com. Call 954-564-1074, or visit cultureroom.net.