By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
High on Fire just might be the most overhyped indie metal band in the world. Spin called it one of the top five bands to watch for, Alternative Press gave its debut album, 2000's The Art of Self-Defense, five stars, and several critics placed it in their year-end top-10 lists. Fans, critics and fellow musicians alike are waiting for the band's big breakthrough--everyone, that is, except maybe front man Matt Pike. Sure, he'd like to be playing Ozzfest some day, and actually make enough money not to have to paint and build fences in Oakland between tours. But for now he's concerned with bigger things, like waiting for the Corpsewolf to rise from the grave.
"Yetis, werewolves...armies that raised the last werewolf up from the grave--Corpsewolf," says Pike of his band's new album, Surrounded by Thieves. "It's a riddle...It's about the Earth Age that existed three Earth Ages before this."
It's a riddle, all right, and not even Pike knows the answer. As if led by the hand of some unseen (but apparently big and hairy) force, he channels something greater than himself when he writes and plays--muchgreater: punishing drums, brutal doomsday guitar and pleading Lemmyesque vocals.
In many ways, Matt Pike is a stereotypical hesher. He was raised on Judas Priest and early Metallica, sports long greasy hair and a biker beard, drinks and smokes too much, speaks with "stoked"- and "bummer"-laden sentences and drops random allusions to the band Celtic Frost. In other ways, though, Pike is a complete anomaly--an upbeat, friendly and focused musician who places himself and his band just outside the current metal and stoner-rock circle by fusing ego-free metal with a smattering of hardcore riffs into a dirge-like, forbidding salute to the Yeti.
High on Fire is a metal band, plain and simple, but one that eschews many of the genre's "rules." Pike is quick to admit that he's just as influenced by the Melvins as he is by Black Sabbath. It's a cliché, but while others are imitating, Pike is innovating. His previous band, Sleep, took the slow gloom of Sabbath and gave it a heavy dose of Demerol. Sleep was slow and sludgy, trippy and, above all, heavy--combining the low buzz of post-punk and the intensity of early underground '80s metal and drawing it all out into one big hazy drone.
Sleep formed in 1997 in the San Jose area and released a few albums, most notably Sleep's Holy Mountain, on the Earache label, and the groundbreaking Jerusalem, a paean to pot. The latter album has been hailed as a metal milestone. While other bands were ripping their throats apart in an attempt to sound like satanic Cookie Monsters, Pike and company plodded away on an intricate 52-minute song with minimal vocals. It was in some ways a metal "Rite of Spring"--a genre-busting work that even freaked out fans of Sleep, not to mention the band's record label, London (a subsidiary of PolyGram), which promptly rejected it.
"It took us three reel-to-reels, and it took us four years of smoking endless pot, doing drugs and trippin' out, seeing God and everything else," Pike says about the record. The sheer logistics of writing a piece that long were impressive in their own right. How could any band--especially a completely stoned one--remember all the parts to a 52-minute song? It was a feat. "We had this big chart on the board," Pike says, laughing. "It was total math, rocket-science crap. I don't know how to write sheet music; we wrote it out like a huge chart, and every little part had a name. You had to recite the name of each part. It's the stoner version of reading music."
The impetus for the record, besides the dope, was very personal. "It was just a real weird moment in my life," Pike says. "It was kind of a good spiritual album, but at the same time the blackest cloud that ever happened to me." Ask him to expand on this description, and he can't. "I wish I could explain it in words."
Sleep disbanded in 1999 and, soon thereafter, Pike formed High on Fire. He brought in drummer Des Kensel and bassist George Rice, and the trio released their first full-length, The Art of Self-Defense, on artist Frank Kozik's now-defunct San Francisco label Man's Ruin. The first record was a departure from Sleep. For one thing, it was faster--although that wasn't exactly a hard thing to do--yet it retained traces of the old sound. Pike was wiping the Sleep from his eyes, so to speak.
While Man's Ruin introduced the band to a new audience, Pike knew the label's days were numbered. "It was cool, but I saw it ahead of time that Frank and them were kind of spreading themselves thin, signing way too many bands who weren't going to do a lot," he says. "But it was a great stepping stone, and they did get our album out to some degree. They gave us our first step as a band, so I'm glad I did it. I have no regrets." Man's Ruin filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy last year.
When it comes to Sleep's old label Earache, however, Pike doesn't mince words: "That dude's a fuckin' scoundrel!" The "dude" to whom he refers is Digby Pearson, who started Earache in Nottingham, England, in the 1980s, and systematically fed and expanded grindcore into a million-dollar business. Napalm Death, Carcass and Bolt Thrower all were Earache bands. These days, however, some of the groups have nothing but disdain for Pearson, whom they accuse of using bands and drawing up bad contracts. Pike's opinion is pretty similar. "That dude pretty much ran over every band that was good on his label," he says. "Those bands don't own anything they ever did. Digby owns it. Still owns it. Still makes money off it." Pike claims that his band has no rights to Sleep's Holy Mountain,although he also blames himself. "You know, when you're a kid, you're like 19 years old, and you want to jump on a label like Earache...you're like, 'Earache's big!' You tend to sign anything they send you. So we just fucked ourselves, as well as him fucking us, so it's not all his fault either."
Between their wrangling with Earache, getting dumped by London and the folding of Man's Ruin, High on Fire was a bit wary of labels. But the band finally settled on the Pennsylvania-based Relapse, which has an established base of metal-influenced bands. The resulting album, Surrounded by Thieves, is awesome. (Really the only way to say it.) Repetitive guitar parts twine and build into some warped fantasy, as if the listener is being chased by a monster, then Pike throws in a nod to hardcore or a noodly guitar solo; whatever metal manual he's following, he wrote himself. "I'm trying to mix it up," he says. "I see a lot of influences from my roots coming out. I've been playing more hardcore punk riffs, fucking with them, making them a little more extended, a little more metalized. I'm just experimenting, just having fun."
The real center of Thieves, though, is Kensel; this record is all about the drums. He's been known to set up his kit right next to the lip of the stage, and he's obviously tried to reproduce the pummeling on this record. The resulting fusion is brutal. "All my songs are warped!" Pike says, laughing. "I'm just trying to do what I want to do and not what anybody else thinks I should be doing. That's when you go wrong."