By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) –One of the few bona fide six-string heroes to emerge from the Bay Area in past quarter century, Matt Pike has established some impressive guitar-god credentials between his work with pioneering ’90s stoner-rock trio Sleep and his continuing success leading his monolithic metal power trio High on Fire. Partnered with monster drummer Des Kensel since founding the band in 1998, Pike and company have built a rabid following with its reputation for savage live performances and a string of classic albums. Brutal early efforts like Surrounded By Thieves and Death is This Communion (their first to feature current bassist Jeff Matz) have given way to their more recent mind-bending conceptual opuses De Vermiis Mysteriis and last year’s celebrated release, Luminiferous.
While Pike has regularly performed and toured with Sleep since the band first reunited to much acclaim in 2009 (they are set to headline the Warfield next month), High on Fire still occupies a majority of the guitarist’s time with its extensive touring schedule. This weekend, the band tops the bill on the second day of Stinky’s Al Fresco, a two-day festival/block party on Wisconsin Street next to Thee Parkside celebrating the legacy of sleazy San Francisco club institution Stinky’s Peepshow. CBS SF recently talked to Pike about playing the Psycho Las Vegas festival with both of his bands last month, new albums in the works and getting to perform at Stinky’s Al Fresco this weekend.
CBS SF: When I was trying to set up the interview initially, the first possible time I got back was 11 a.m. Friday. I immediately thought, “Isn’t he going to Sabbath too? That could be problematic.” So did you make it to the Sabbath show?
Matt Pike: No, I didn’t. I could have, but I’m kind of jaded with shows and people right now. I have a lot of writing to do, so I’ve been keeping to myself. But I was thinking about going to Hall & Oates tonight and dropping a bunch of LSD [laughs]. Just to make up for the Sabbath dismissal. I think it would be a way scarier show. Hall & Oates is just so much more evil than Black Sabbath [laughs].
I’d just have to see “Maneater” and I’d know everything. It’s all the Illuminati secrets revealed in one song [laughs]. I was wondering about their merch; if they’d have racquetball cases that said “Hall & Oates.” There are so many merch designs that those guys could come out with that would be ironic and sellable at the same time.
CBS SF: I was wondering what was your experience was like at Psycho Las Vegas? I guess there were a few people who pulled double duty like you did, but not with two bands as high on the bill as High on Fire and Sleep…
Matt Pike: Yeah, I saw Alice Cooper. It was overwhelming. And I had fun, but I’d be trying to gamble, getting slayed at the tables…and I don’t mind hanging out with all my fans a lot, but there were points where I had to leave the hotel and get away. I’d have go to the Strip and go somewhere where no one knew me. That was a little easier. You just can’t do it 24 hours a day. You can’t.
CBS SF: Everyone was generally very accessible. You’d just bump into them. I met Arthur Brown just walking around in the lobby…
Matt Pike: Yeah, I met his son randomly and it was kind of cool. I’m like, “You’re Arthur Brown’s son? Jesus dude!” I’ve been a fan of that guy for a really long time. It was pretty amazing to see him out and about. He doesn’t play out much.
CBS SF: Did you have a favorite band that you saw, either somebody that surprised you or someone you were really looking forward to who blew you away?
Matt Pike: Arthur Brown was one of them. I made sure to go to that. And Blue Oyster Cult was amazing. It was like Dad is cool rock! They were all wearing sunglasses and all old, but they were pretty awesome. I went to a lot of the classic bands. And there’s so many bands at these f—ing things.
I did go see Mac Sabbath. I had to check them out for a minute. They’re like three songs in and the thrill is over. You’re like, “Ok, McDonald’s Black Sabbath covers. Cool dude.” It’s really funny at first, then 15 minute into it, the gimmick wears a bit. But hey man, make money doing your gimmick and all that. I do the same thing.
The thing that killed me at that whole f—ing thing was the 20-minute changeovers. Setting up Sleep and High on Fire in 20 minutes is the most impossible f—ing thing without something going wrong. It was just like, “Dude!” We can’t do that unless we can get there at nine in the morning and start messing around with s–t. It was kind of a pain in the ass…
Me and a friend of mine rented a cabin in Zion National Park and then drove back. It was three of my friends, all my buddies, and we had a few chicks up there with us and we had a really good time. I gotta like come back down to earth after all that, so it was good to go up there to the cabin and hike around, go swimming and relax for a minute. Eventually some d—–bag president is going to close all the national parks, so I’m trying to get to all of them if I can.
Before it all turns to s–t. It’s going to happen soon, too. Unless a bunch of us f—ing stand up and say something, we’re going to get past the point of doing anything about it. I believe our wisdom and our love can conquer their might, but enough of us have to be together. It’s not the might that I fear or the death that I fear; I fear for our children. We’re setting it up to be Nazi f—ing Germany. That’s what I fear.
And it’s right in front of everybody’s faces and everybody thinks its a conspiracy theory. It’s no longer a theory dude. It’s f—ing fact! Our constitution is pissed on. Our Bill of Rights is pissed on. With everything that’s happened since 9-11, it’s a f—ing different place in the world. And we’re not free. The thing that they’re running on, “We’ll keep America safe!” You don’t want to keep me f—ing safe! I can take care of myself. You can send me out into the wild and I’ll feed myself. But my liberty, that’s the thing you’re supposed to protect. It’s like Henry VIII all over again.
It’s not even him! He’s just a puppet. It’s a f—ing mess. But I’ve been singing about it and singing about it long enough, I don’t think anybody can listen anymore, or pay attention. Because everybody is so busy with Instagram, Facebook, football and every d—–bag thing that happens when he’s signing executive orders on New Year’s Eve and sneaking s–t past the public.
It’s just ridiculous. I don’t know. I don’t know how much more faith I have in even doing anything about it. And I think that’s the way they want us. Voting? Last time I voted, that was a mistake. Am I getting to political for you?
CBS SF: No, not at all. I’m just keeping an eye on the time because I’ve got this backlog of interviews to transcribe and only so much space on my recorder. But it’s hard not to talk about what’s going on in this country politically these days…
Matt Pike: I’m sorry. I go off on tangents. If you don’t direct my conversation, I’ll just keep talking. I do so many interviews, I just start rattling on about the things that are on my mind instead of answering questions…
CBS SF: The animated video by Skinner for “The Black Plot” just came out this past week and it is a spectacular epic. Was it a collaborative project, or did you just give him the song and let him run with the concept?
Matt Pike: Well, I gave him my lyrics, and then I had started writing a screenplay. I had a notion to — instead of it being just “The Black Plot” — I wrote a visual screenplay for the entire [Luminiferous] album. I was writing it for the guy who made our last video to see what he thought of it. We didn’t have the money to make another Heavy Metal or an hour long album’s worth of visual content to go with it.
So Skinner picked it up and I gave him the visual screenplay to go with my lyrics and left the rest up to him. I’m like, “You’re the artist. This is my input on it. Just do what you can to throw some of these ideas in there.” That’s what the whole thing is about. I’m really happy with it.
CBS SF: It looks stunning and it’s got an amazing amount of story condensed down into a five or six minute song, like a miniature version of Heavy Metal [Interested parties can watch the video here, but note it is NSFW and contains graphic imagery] . Both Luminiferous and the last album De Vermis Mysteriis were concept driven, so I was wondering if you’d considered a visual way to present those albums. Obviously you have…
That was kind of my goal with Luminiferous, but with everything that goes on, I’m already busy with Sleep and High on Fire. I was thinking and writing and trying to get the funds to get something done like that. I don’t know, sometimes if you just let the cosmos kind of direct you to what the next step is, it just happens. Sometimes when you employ yourself, you burn out; and sometimes you work on something for a really long time that never gets done because, 1) you don’t have the funds and 2), you don’t have the time.
So I started that when I had the time, and then it’s hard enough to get all of the movie done. Sometimes the timing just isn’t right. I’m a pretty ambitious person and sometimes I bite off more than I can chew is what I’m saying. And I think what Skinner saw was an answer; an ample answer to me not being able to accomplish everything I had in my head.
CBS SF: The first time I ever wrote about High on Fire was a review of a show at the Covered Wagon back in 1999. I was talking to Audra this weekend and she remembered booking you guys there, but wasn’t sure if it was a Stinky’s Peepshow. I was wondering if you remembered playing Stinky’s?
Matt Pike: Well, I don’t know if I ever played one of those, but I definitely went there on the Stinky’s Peepshow nights. I knew what it was all about. But I don’t know if we played one of those shows. It was so long ago.
CBS SF: When you heard about Stinky’s Al Fresco, were you guys immediately, “Yeah, we’re on board” because of the CW connection?
Matt Pike: I don’t know if it was that. I just kind of fell in a good place. Not that I would be against it. At first I didn’t know if it was Stinky’s Peepshow or not. “Stinky’s Peepshow is having a festival?” I didn’t really know what was going on. But it fell in a place where it was a good time for us to play and keep our chops up and get used to it.
You can’t really go too long without playing in public. You get a little rusty, so I thought it would be a good opportunity. We’re working on a new album and we can get ready for that show and make a few bucks to pay the phone bills and all that kind of stuff. And it being attached to Stinky’s Peepshow, of course I loved that little era and it was going on for a while. So all of the above made it possible.
CBS SF: I have to say in Vegas it didn’t seem like you had much rust at all. Since that was a one-off show too, did you get much time to rehearse for it in the Bay Area?
Matt Pike: Yeah, we did a little bit. We went over the set a couple of times and, like I said, we’re working the new album. So our chops are tight. The 20-minute changeovers made the sound onstage suck, but sometimes you run into that and you have to make it seem like it doesn’t suck. We did what we could, but the stage sound was horrifying. Things weren’t perfect, but we did a good job of pulling it off.
CBS SF: I’m bummed that your tour with Meshuggah doesn’t have any Bay Area dates. It’s a really great pairing of two very different but equally intense metal bands…
Matt Pike: Yeah, I kind of know Fredrik [Thordendal, founder of the Swedish avant-garde metal band]. I thought it would be kind of fun and different. I’m curious to see how it will go over with the crowd. I’m definitely going to bring it. And hopefully High on Fire bringing it as hard as we can lights a fire under Meshuggah and they’re just slaying too. It should be a really good tour.
CBS SF: So if you’re already writing for the next Sleep album, how far along are you? Are you still putting together pieces or do you have some songs finished?
Matt Pike: We need to have a few more boot camps in between now and when we’re going to try to record in March. We don’t even know who we’re putting it out with or how we’re going to fund that or whatever. But I do know once we have a finished product, a lot of people are going to buy that up. It’s just a matter of working it out. We have a lot of really, really good tunes. We’re just trying to get to the point where we’re comfortable recording that.
So we have that deadline. And I don’t want Sleep and High on Fire to both have albums coming out at the same time, so I’m going to be recording with High on Fire right after that. We’ll get the Sleep album out and do a little tour with Sleep when that pops up, and then get the High on Fire record out and do extensive touring with High on Fire. It’s hard to schedule all that s–t because you inevitably run into some red tape or some bulls–t that slows things down a bit. I’m trying to do a lot and I think I’m doing a good job of making all that happen and the guys I’m playing with are doing a good job of making it happen. There just has to be an open line of communication when it comes to scheduling.
CBS SF: So it sounds like you have a fairly set window of when you’ll be tracking the Sleep album?
Matt Pike: Well, so so. We put our own deadline on ourselves so we get it done. So we’re shooting to record somewhere in March, but we have to be comfortable with what we’re recording.
CBS SF: Would you say both the Sleep and High on Fire albums are in the same ballpark as far as the gestation of the songs before actual recording?
Matt Pike: I want to finish the Sleep one in March and then finish the High on Fire one in June. That way they can be staggered as far as when they come out. We’ve got bills to pay on both sides and families to feed on both sides, so I’ve got to make sure everybody is operable and working. It’s kind of a difficult thing, but whatever. It’s kind of how my life is anyway.
CBS SF: If you can managed to put out a Sleep album and a High on Fire album in the same year, I know it’s going to make a lot of people happy. It’s a worthy goal.
Matt Pike: It’s going to punish me, but hopefully I can buy a house and have some chill time [laughs]. Not a lot of people are giving me a whole lot of chill time. If we make it to 2018, I’m going to take some time off for sure. But I’m a workaholic.
High on Fire headlines Stinky Al Fresco on Sunday, Sept. 25. Tickets and more info here.