Mention the name of Matt Pike and even veteran rockers will get misty eyed. The guitarist and vocalist for brutal stoner/doom act High on fire, it is both here, and with his formative act Sleep, that Matt Pike has made his name as a legitimate rock and roll legend. The ultimate distillation of Black Sabbath’s ‘sweet leaf’ coupled with intelligent, conceptual lyrics ‘De Mysteriis Vermis’, the band’s latest album, is a unique, exciting, forward-looking work of twisted genius that integrates elements of Bloch, Lovecraft, Philip K Dick and more into a tale that is sprawling, complex and perfectly realised. Musically, meanwhile, the band’s decision to work with Kurt Ballou (of Converge fame) proved to be inspired as the album is their rawest, most brutal effort yet, whilst still retaining the concise power of its stunning forbear ‘snakes of the divine’. To put it simply High On Fire are a uniquely brilliant band that continue to surprise and develop as the years roll by. Currently on tour with the excellent lizZard and Jumping Jack, we were privileged indeed to meet an ailing Matt (‘flu had apparently gone round the whole band during the tour) at Nottingham for a chat about the album and the tour. Courteous and amiable despite having been stuck in an extra-lengthy sound-check until just two minutes before hooking up with us, Matt talked us through elements of his inspiration and musical work which we are proud to present to you below.
To start with, you dip into the realms of high concept with this idea of Jesus and his twin as a time traveller…
He has a twin and he’s a time traveller, a traveller who goes through past lives and it incorporates string theory and parallel religions and the whole we have past lives and future lives to live and our souls are eternal, so to speak. I study a lot of theology so he goes through this whole elaborate story and in each song he wakes up in a different character, which is kind of the gist of it. I mean If I was to explain the whole thing to you it would take like a thousand words and I might as well write a book, it’s too much to put it all out for you, it’s on the record if you think about it.
What encouraged you to write a concept record of this kind?
I just started thinking it. I just kinda thought it up – I didn’t know what else to think about!
The title is interesting because ‘de mysteriis vermis’, from its first appearance in Bloch and Lovecraft, seems to have captured the American consciousness – it’s appeared in computer games, Stephen King and now as your album title – what is it about the mystery of the worm that has captured the American psyche in this way?
Well the worm, if you think about it, is like digging deep into what your digging into and it being a book and a mystery, you’re digging to find out the secret, so the title is like an explanation of what it is.
It seems to have captured the American literary consciousness as well….
Yeah – it’s an interesting little paradigm , I don’t know!
The lyrics are key to each song – how much time do you spend on each set of lyrics from the concept through to the finished work?
It depends on the day, you know, some days I do it really fast and have the lyrics and some days it’ll take me a couple of weeks to think of another character or line or something. The whole thing is kind of… it came to me a little at a time as we were playing and writing a verse, I’d think about what the riff reminded me of and what sort of story we could put behind it. I did some creative writing, that’s all.
It’s not just Lovecraft, there’s a lot of Philip K Dick I think…
Oh yeah, very much so. Philip K Dick – well there’s all sorts of things, there’s references to what you guys have here more, and in Ireland, the Green man which I made a woman because I thought it was appropriate for weed: you know, females… they kill the males once they fertilise the females, so appropriately he has to sacrifice a male to the weed lady… you know, turn the kid into weed… whatever. I don’t know – stuff just comes to me!
But he’s another literary figure who particularly has captured the American consciousness – there have been a lot of films and a lot of musicians who have referenced his work…
Oh yeah, well, that’s what I read a lot of – a lot of science fiction and horror, comparative religions and theology – that’s the best stuff… and you know D&D manuals… that’s the best stuff for metal lyrics!
The other thing about High on fire records is the amazing artwork – I bought a copy of Snakes for the divine on vinyl because of that remarkable art work – and the new album is stunning as well…
Yeah – we try to use really talented artists and, I give them little sections of my lyrics and tell them what I’m thinking and I ask the other guys in the band and they usually trust me when it comes to the lyrics and the theme behind the record and stuff like that… we all have our jobs!
So you’re quite involved in the artwork and presentation of the band?
Yeah – for the record covers, yeah, and things of that nature. They need my lyrics and they need me to explain my lyrics as they read through them… which I could do more for you if I had them in front of me. I could be more accurate about my descriptions – but this is just kind of general talking about an album that I made… not to disappoint you. I feel like a professor sometimes and an idiot at other times!
You settled on Kurt Ballou to produce the record – what did you feel he would bring to the record?
Oh man, just style! His way of doing things on the records that he sent us, and we downloaded a bunch of stuff and we were listening to his records and I was like ‘dude! That guy is murdering!’ You know, we really liked the production on the stuff we listened to, and we knew him from Converge and he was like ‘sure, yeah, I’ll do it!’
Six albums in – you have an amazing legacy as well – how much do you consider that when writing new material?
Well, I kind of have to, but then I have to kind of not think about ‘how do I top that’ kind of thing. You know, I just go back in and, with the guys, we just do what we do and try not to think too much about… I like to up myself each time and be competitive with myself, but at the same time if I think too hard about that then it stunts my growth as a musician – to think about whether I’m capable of doing any better than I’ve done, because I am – it’s just a matter of being picky!
Given that you’re so heavily involved in creating music, do you still have the time to be a music fan?
Oh yeah – I do. There are times when I won’t listen to very much music for a long time, especially when I’m writing I don’t like to be influenced by all that much stuff, or if I am influenced by things then I’ll go back to Maiden or what licks triggered me as a kid to want to get really good at the guitar and that kind of stuff.
This is the second to last date on the UK tour and you still have Europe to go – how’s the tour been so far?
It’s pretty good – it’s very punk rock, we’re getting tired a little bit because it’s very cold and the ‘flu’ went around a little bit and we’re all just trying to stay healthy and, you know, we’ve been sleeping in the van which is what I mean when I say it’s all very punk rock – we haven’t been doing the hotels and we don’t have a bus, we just have a sleeping bag and a trailer so… it’s been cool though.
Is there any place in Europe you like coming back to?
Oh shit, I don’t know! I just enjoy playing wherever man! I wish they weren’t putting us on so early every night – that’s kind of a bummer – because they kick good music out for bunch of fucking club gigs, it’s fucking retarded!
It’s been about six months since the last record came out and in that time you’ve been touring a lot – what are your plans now?
Not exactly. I have a couple of ideas which are good, but nothing real solid so we’ll just see what comes. We’ve got a tour with Anthrax coming up in the United States and it’s just like looking round for good things to do. But as far as writing new material and stuff I have some really, really good fucking ideas, I’m just not sure… it’s not been put in motion yet so I don’t want to speak about it and have someone else jump on my idea…
And with a dry chuckle, Matt quietly thanks us and heads off to prepare for the show.