On a Thursday night in June 2002, Bay Area metal fans packed into San Francisco’s Justice League to hail their heroes, High on Fire, whose blistering second album, Surrounded by Thieves, was just out. The local trio did not disappoint. Nor, for that matter, did the opening act.
Then a little-known band from Atlanta, Mastodon was more than just a labelmate to the headliner. High on Fire had taken the group — whose members first met at a High on Fire show in the basement of Mastodon’s guitarist-to-be — under its wing, touting and bringing it on tour as a “brother” band. When the Southerners commenced their set, the intensity of the bass physically shook the building. Sternums vibrated. Sphincters quivered. It was unusually visceral, even for a metal show.
In an interview a month later, Mastodon drummer Brann Dailor noted the added exposure High on Fire was providing: “At the moment it’s the perfect combination of bands, us and High on Fire,” he told MetalUpdate.com. “I’ve seen our popularity as a band grow three times as much as the previous times we’ve toured around.”
High on Fire frontman Matt Pike was happy for his friends, though understandably a tad envious. High on Fire is a band with history. It had paid its dues, touring tirelessly, working hard on its sound, and slowly building up a rabid fan base without the help of MTV and commercial radio airplay. But its brother band was on a dizzying ascent. “Mastodon met at our show and then we took them on tour, and when we got back, the whole town was raving about them,” Pike said during an interview with this reporter in 2005. “They kind of got on our bandwagon. They’re blowing up like crazy.”
He wasn’t kidding. Now on Warner Bros., Mastodon plays the big metal festivals, tours with the likes of Slayer, and has appeared on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. It has songs in videogame soundtracks, album sales totaling hundreds of thousands, and has charted singles in the US and the UK.
High on Fire’s slower rise isn’t for lack of talent. On the contrary, the musicians just prefer to do things their own way. Like its East Bay hometown, the band isn’t flashy or trendy, but rather gritty and dedicated. It emerged from the Bay Area punk and metal scene, which found its home in dingy warehouses and bars with questionable emergency exits.
For the band’s debut, The Art of Self-Defense, guitarist/singer Pike, bass player George Rice, and drummer Des Kensel built on the droning, Sabbath-inspired pothead sound (and cultish popularity) of Pike’s former San Jose outfit, Sleep, to become a more aggressive, driven animal. With Surrounded, the band established itself as unabashed metal.
Although High on Fire has gone through a few bass players — Jeff Matz, formerly of Zeke, now handles those duties — it has earned adoration from critics at some of the nation’s top newspapers, music magazines, and Web sites. The Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl called the band’s third album, Blessed Black Wings, “the most brutal metal album I’ve heard in years.” AllMusic.com deemed High on Fire “one of the most widely respected heavy metal outfits on the planet.” And in February, Rolling Stone named Pike one of twenty “New Guitar Gods,” alongside John Mayer, Derek Trucks, and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood.
Despite all the accolades, the band members still struggled to get by. Until a couple of years ago, Pike and Kensel earned a living by digging ditches. Pike only recently quit his job as a barback and security guard at the downtown Oakland bar Radio. “We’re doing better than we have ever — that makes me happy,” Pike said. “But I fucking ate shit to do it. I don’t think we got half of what we deserve.”
Now, with the recent release of its fourth album, Death Is This Communion, High on Fire finally seems positioned to invade the metal mainstream. The last album sold 35,000 copies. And they consistently sell out 300-to-1,000-capacity venues around the world. “I think this is the record that High on Fire’s gonna break,” said longtime band manager Todd Cote. “Because the momentum has been building for three records.”
It’s not that simple, of course. If there’s anything the band members have counted on, it’s that the brutality of their sound, which has helped drive their popularity, was born of the very struggles from which they seek to free themselves. “I believe that struggling is a major component to this band,” Pike said recently, sitting on a couch in the West Oakland warehouse he calls home. “We’ve always struggled and, I dunno, that’s why it’s such, like, angry music, or somber music, because it’s never been like a fucking cakewalk to us.”
Matt Pike doesn’t like to get too touchy-feely about his past, but in prior interviews he’s revealed that his childhood was far from ideal. He was raised by his mother in Golden, Colorado, in a home frequented by Hell’s Angels. In high school, Pike became a delinquent, stealing car stereos to feed a developing drug habit.
Music was a constant in his life. Pike’s uncle and grandfather played to him as a baby, and at eight, he convinced his mother to buy him a guitar. Skinny and awkward, he gravitated toward metal bands such as Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, AC/DC, Slayer, and Exodus. Later, his tastes expanded to include punk bands such as the Circle Jerks, Black Flag, the Dead Kennedys, and the Exploited. He played a single show with his first band, a half-thrash, half-glam group called Desire.
But Pike’s criminal activities caught up to him. After spending time in juvenile hall and military school, Pike was sent to live with his father in San Jose.
Upon arrival, the seventeen-year-old discovered a thriving music scene. While still in high school, he began playing guitar in a doom-metal band called Asbestosdeath. It gained a decent local following before transforming into Sleep in 1990.
It was Sleep that established Pike as an up-and-coming guitarist. Mixing drug-induced psychedelia with hazy, weighty guitar riffs, Sleep became instrumental in the so-called stoner-metal movement. The band released two critically praised albums, which led to a major-label deal. But the ensuing album, a single, sixty-minute drone of a song, was shelved. They broke up.
Meanwhile, some three thousand miles away, Des Kensel was drumming in a hardcore punk band, oblivious to Sleep’s cult popularity. Raised in New Haven, Connecticut, Kensel picked up the drums at age ten and grew up listening to a cocktail of metal, rock, and punk.
By fifteen, Kensel was a regular at New York’s CBGB. A friend from high school worked the sound there and sneaked him in. He remembered that once, while drinking at the bar at 5 a.m., a metal chick started dancing in front of him. “After that, it sucked me into the lifestyle,” he said. In 1996, he threw his drums in his car and drove out to the Bay Area.
A couple of years later, Kensel and Pike both were looking for someone to play with. Hooked up by a mutual friend, they clicked immediately. Pike’s friend George Rice auditioned on vocals but took up the bass instead, so Pike became a singer for the first time.
It started off casually, but High on Fire would go on to become more popular than Sleep. “I wanted to do something even heavier than that,” Pike said in 2001. “That’s what was in my mind. I wanted to be heavier, just nonstop getting heavier.”
By the mid-to-late-’90s, a generation of heshers raised on ’70s riff-rock and ’80s metal had created a thriving underground music scene. Bands played a thick, distorted sound that eschewed the overproduced nü-metal that glistened on the nation’s alt-rock radio stations.
San Francisco record label Man’s Ruin was at the epicenter of that scene, with a roster that included Fu Manchu, Kyuss, Acid King, Drunk Horse, Lost Goat, the Men of Porn, the Melvins, and the Desert Sessions series started by Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme. After catching a whiff of High on Fire’s three-song demo, owner Frank Kozik signed the band to release its debut, The Art of Self-Defense.
They seemed to fit in, initially. With Pike’s background in Sleep, High on Fire naturally drew comparisons to his old band. But his increasing technical prowess and Kensel’s bashing drumming style, which relied on toms rather than double bass, gave High on Fire a substantially beefier sound. Whereas many bands start off playing fast, heavy music and mellow with age, High on Fire did precisely the opposite.
Almost immediately, adulation for The Art of Self-Defense flowed in from major publications, including Rolling Stone, Spin, GQ, Alternative Press, Magnet, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Washington Post, and the Village Voice. The praise was somewhat surprising, given the album’s brutally dirty sound. Produced by Billy Anderson — whose credits include dozens of local punk and metal bands — Self-Defense combined droning riffage and psychedelic solos for six lengthy jams.
Contributing to the heaviness were Pike’s vocals, perhaps the roughest in the genre. Far from the Cookie Monster bark prevalent in today’s metal, Pike’s voice emanated from a calloused, cigarette-burned, Jack-Daniels-soaked throat gruffer than Motörhead’s Lemmy Kilmister.
The songs were also filled with Pike’s medieval-battle and religious imagery, an aspect that — coupled with the Tolkien-inspired album artwork — would help sculpt the High on Fire aura.
Pike’s lyrics, though, tended to be dismissed as typical D&D fodder. Sample from “Baghdad”: Melding of the Riffchild/ From wall to the Universe/ Weed priest stoned arrival. Pike described his words as “weird religious theology, Illuminati, Knights of the Templar kinda theme.” Sometimes barely intelligible, the lyrics came to reveal more clearly the singer’s struggle with alcoholism and self-destructive behavior, and his relationship to his religion, which he once described as an “unorthodox version of Christianity.”
But not long after Self-Defense was released, Man’s Ruin folded. Philadelphia label Relapse, home to extreme bands such as Dying Fetus and Pig Destroyer, signed High on Fire for its second album, Surrounded by Thieves, which was released in May 2002.
In contrast to its debut, Surrounded by Thieves showed the band getting tighter, heavier, and faster — the result of constant touring. Though still working with Anderson, the band was moving away from the muddied sound he was known for. Most of the songs clocked in at less than five minutes; some were as short as three. “I wanted to pick up the pace a little bit, be a little less droney, and a little more active or, how do you say, busy,” Pike said after the album’s release. “I wanted to kick my drummer’s ass a little.”
At shows, High on Fire — especially Pike — came alive with a ferociousness that was stunning. Pike would play shirtless, showing off his religious-imagery tattoos. And by Surrounded, he and Kensel had become noticeably buffer, too. Pike would joke about Kensel’s Tae Bo workout, but the band was indeed toning up — a necessity given the increasing physical intensity of their playing. Some female fans even started stalking Pike and his girlfriend.
The hard work was paying off. High on Fire played a handful of dates opening for Motörhead. At one point, the band was offered a slot on Ozzfest’s second stage, but turned it down because of the tour’s pay-to-play policy. “I ain’t paying no one $75,000 to play,” Pike said. “Fuck that.”
Despite a growing audience, bassist George Rice tired of the endless days on the road under less-than-ideal conditions. “Things were rough, coming home with no money,” Kensel remembered. “He just couldn’t do it anymore.”
In the summer of 2004, High on Fire enlisted former Melvins bassist Joe Preston to play on its third album, Blessed Black Wings. Kensel and Pike spent more time on arrangements and getting out of a routine Pike said they had fallen into. The album exploded with a fury even more intense and upfront than past releases. The opener, “Devilution,” launched with a whipping drum solo and creepy, lightning-fast riffs.
The most noticeable change was the album’s cleaner sound, thanks to engineer Steve Albini, who’d worked with Nirvana and Neurosis, among countless others. “We wanted a little more of a live, upfront, in-your-face sound, instead of like we’re playing in a canyon with a big low-end rumble,” Pike said in 2005.
Blessed addressed Pike’s demons more explicitly than past releases had: Chained and shackled, earthen toil/Made to serve the whips and lashes/Quench your thirst and drink this bottle/The warrior’s chains are self-inflicted, he sings in “To Cross the Bridge.” “I was going through really weird times when I was wandering around homeless and on a drunk binge,” Pike said that year. “I just felt like I had fallen, and when I say the warrior’s chains are self-inflicted, well, that’s me keeping myself down.”
Still, the band was gaining an increasingly loyal fan base and some worldwide recognition. They were invited to play the All Tomorrow’s Parties music festival and the inaugural Sounds of the Underground tour, which featured metal superacts Opeth and Lamb of God. But High on Fire’s old-school, stripped-down style made them an anomaly — sometimes even an unwelcome one. Once, in Illinois, the crowd booed them.
Then came a string of bad luck. Pike fractured his wrist while wrestling (drunk) one night with one of the Mastodon guys. Preston departed shortly thereafter, not so unexpectedly. Kensel discovered bone spurs growing into his spinal cord that required surgery. As he recuperated, the band had to turn down an offer to tour with their idols in Slayer.
Postponing the next record would pay off, though. By the time the musicians finally got back into the studio, they’d been writing for months. The new album would be their most ambitious to date.
With each foray into the studio, the band has pushed its musicianship and songwriting further. The latest effort, Death Is This Communion, is no exception. It’s still undeniably heavy, but the band’s brute force is infused with nuance.
“Turk,” a song named for Pike’s half-Turkish heritage, starts with a flurry of crushing beats and intense riffing, then segues into a guitar hook for the verse that’s altogether vicious and captivating. “Ethereal,” on the other hand, tinkers with less harsh vocals and a slower pace for Pike to shred over.
In general, there are more orchestrated, dynamic parts, including several instrumentals. Pike’s new nine-string guitar gives his riffing a choruslike tone, and overall the album has a cleaner, brighter sound. “We’re trying to make the music also more interesting and mood-swingy than it has been in the past,” Pike explained. “That was a goal of ours, just with having interludes and stuff like that on the album, just making it more musically interesting on top of just complete destruction.”
Bassist Jeff Matz clearly played a role in this melodic direction — he performs a Middle Eastern-inspired jam, “Khandrad’s Wall,” on a tambour and a twelve-string guitar.
The band also has worked to make its songs catchier. Though it’s not obvious at first, Pike’s choruses and phrasings are actually hummable, a result of keeping him singing within his range, compared to some of his strained reaches on Blessed Black Wings.
While the musicians pushed themselves, producer Jack Endino pushed them even harder. “He, like, really would say: ‘You know, I thought that take was shitty, you should do it again,'” Pike said, “where Billy or Steve would have been all, ‘I dunno; do you want to live with that or don’t you?'”
When he’s writing, Pike says he steers clear of metal and listens to “weird shit like Björk.” He’s often inspired by books, and occasionally will take mushrooms or LSD to find his muse. Other times, inspiration comes from nowhere, or emerges out of dreams.
Lyrically, he continues to draw on weird conspiracy theories, such as those of David Icke, and the fantasy horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft as metaphors for his internal battles. “I’m into the mysteries of the things I can’t explain,” Pike said. “I’m also into painting a portrait of myself, my fears, the dark side of myself. And the beautiful side occasionally. More like exorcising my demons, really.”
Asked what those demons were, Pike cited hostility and fear. “Everybody has their problems,” he said. “I don’t want to get too fucking personal. Just my struggle with substance abuse, and anger management. There’s other stuff.”
Some of that other stuff may have to do with the pressures of getting older. Whereas they once used hardship to fuel their aggression, being drunk and struggling just isn’t as appealing as it was when they were in their twenties — Pike is now 35, Kensel 34, and Matz 30.
When I interviewed the band in 2001, Pike repeatedly offered swigs from a bottle of Jack Daniels he was cradling. This time around, he offered string cheese. “I’m a functional alcoholic,” he said. “I can totally drink and function. But I’m choosing this for myself because I’ve been feeling like shit.”
Matz and Pike now practice meditation and yoga, while Kensel partakes in the occasional pickup soccer game in Berkeley to help stay in shape. Which is not to say Pike doesn’t still boast about his partying. “Fuck, I got my black belt, seventh degree in that,” Pike said.
Asked for his drink of choice, Pike said he and Matz drink the French liqueur Ricard. Then he turned to his bandmates: “Dude, I did play a set once and, like, I put my hands down my pants ’cause my balls were all wet. I smelled my hand and it smelled exactly like Ricard, so I’d started sweating Ricard. … Yeah, that’s why the girls like the balls, dude.”
Uh … okaaay. In any case, the band really has come a long way from its early days. Kensel gets by without a second job, and perhaps Pike could, too, except that struggling seems to be part of his MO. “I torture myself,” he said. “Money or not or good shape or not, I’m a true Gemini.” But with Bay Area rents to contend with, the musicians have to keep touring to stay afloat, and life on the road gets increasingly burdensome with age.
It’s clearly something the musicians are thinking about more and more. “Am I going to be a 44-year-old driving a van around?” Kensel wondered aloud at one point. Since his surgery, the drummer can’t drink as much, and he headbangs less on stage. “What’s going to be the back breaker of being a touring musician?” he said. “How do I convince my wife it’s okay to leave five, six weeks at a time?”
Later, Kensel reneged on his skepticism. After all, he gets to do what he loves for a living, even if that living has been fairly meager. “We could be one day in some shithole in Texas and the next in Tokyo with five hundred Japanese kids going apeshit,” he said.
Pike agrees. “Definitely there’s times when you question, what the fuck am I doing? But I don’t know anything else,” he said. “I’m definitely a lifer. I gotta stick with what I started, so hopefully I’ll have some success.”
Their friends would love to see that happen as well. A couple of weeks ago, Mastodon performed at MTV’s glitzy Video Music Awards in Las Vegas. Taking the stage in front of 5.8 million television viewers along with Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme, Mastodon guitarist Brent Hinds proudly displayed his loyalties: a High on Fire T-shirt.