SOMETIMES IT’S NICE—COMFORTING EVEN—WHEN METAL
is just metal. No dilly-dallying with sub-genres or crossover
hybrids—just riff after punishing riff delivered with a hell
spawn fury. Oakland, California, trio High on Fire specializes
in brutal, unadulterated metal, and at the core of the band’s
sound is guitarist and frontman Matt Pike. Cutting his teeth
with stoner stalwarts Sleep in the ’90s, Pike mined the slow,
sludgy side of metal on the band’s landmark albums Volume
One, Sleep’s Holy Mountain, and Jerusalem, but his sinister
knack for unleashing the almighty riff was as apparent as the
balls on a tall dog.
After Sleep was put to bed, Pike
formed High on Fire and began forging
a more varied metal template, mixing
faster riffs and trippy acoustic guitar interludes
with the aforementioned doom
riffing. See, Pike’s sound is as thick as
the fortified walls of a nuclear bomb shelter,
and High on Fire’s lean and mean trio
setting (with drummer Des Kensel and
bassist Jeff Matz) allows the guitarist to
dial in a huge, bellowing sound that simply
destroys. Pike is also a wicked soloist,
toeing the line between careening sheetsof-
sound chaos and slower, more melodic
approaches. To put it simply, Pike is the
full meal deal.
The group’s latest album, Snakes for the
Divine [E1 Music], is its first with producer/
engineer Greg Fidelman, a dude with
an impressive metal track record that
includes Slayer and Metallica. Previous
High on Fire albums such as Surrounded by
Thieves, Blessed Black Wings, and Death Is This
Communion sported a blown-out, almost
unwieldy low-end rumble—not a bad thing,
mind you, but their overall sonics could
be a bit murky at times. On Snakes, however,
Pike, Fidelman, and company manage
to retain the beastly roar, but with a bit
more demonic spit and polish.
Was the writing process different for Snakes
than previous albums?
It was very different. We actually had
four hours of music, so we needed to
really cut the fat. When we began writing,
the three of us would go to our
rehearsal space and just get crazy tracking
riffs. We’re not a band that rushes
the process. It takes as long as it takes.
Sorry. There are no deadlines. We don’t
put out crap, and I want it to be perfect—
every riff must be honed.
Is it safe to say that songwriting is a band
Yes. The whole band is involved.
Sometimes Des will hum a riff that he
thought of in a dream or something and
we’ll just take it from there. Or, Jeff and
I will come up with stuff. There’s never
a lack of material with this band. Putting
the puzzle together is the hard part. That’s
where Greg Fidelman helped us out
because we need a fourth ear—none of
us can decide on anything. We gave ourselves
Was Fidelman’s role more on the sonic side
or the arranging side?
Both. I like his previous work a lot,
and in the past our records have been a
little overbearing on the bass side of
things. Greg has a great ability to separate
instruments in the mixing process,
and you can hear everything that’s going
on in the music. The dude is a keeper.
He’s smart and he’s got a good ear. We
may have lost a little grit, but you can
hear what we’re actually doing, so that’s
a trade off I’m cool with.
Your tone is huge, but you do things technique-
wise that make your riffs even bigger.
Can you detail some of that?
Yeah, a lot of times I’ll vibrato a whole
power chord for a thicker sound. Tony Iommi
does that a lot. Another thing I do that he
does is play a half-step trill from the root
note of a power chord. I do that all the time.
Sometimes I do it real fast where you can
barely hear it, and other times it’s slower
and more obvious.
How would you describe your technique?
I learned completely backwards from
what Musician’s Institute would teach you,
that’s for sure! I have bad form. I attack the
instrument more like a bass player. I use
more elbow, almost like a folk guitarist rather
than a metal guy. I somehow pull it off.
Did you take lessons growing up?
I’d work out of books and magazines a
lot. When I was real young my grandfather
and uncle showed me some chords. But
when I was 12 or 13, there was a kid in my
neighborhood who was real good and actually
went to Musician’s Institute, back when
it was G.I.T., and I’d just sit in front of him
for hours and watch him play, and then I’d
go home and try to do what he was doing.
That’s where I learned about arpeggios,
sweep picking, scales—all that stuff. He was
real good. When I got a bit older, I took a
junior college jazz improvisation class and
that’s where I learned a lot of theory and
took piano. But I started going on tour with
bands, so I never finished the class.
How do you approach soloing over fast tempos,
say, “Ghost Neck” from the new record?
I do what I call the “stop and play”
method: I take home a practice CD of the
tune, and play to it, go back, and do it again—
over and over and over. By the time I get to
the studio, I’ll have a lot of ideas ready to go
and I can improvise around them and see if
some inspirational stuff comes out. Sometimes
I’ll piece it together in Pro Tools, learn
it, and then play it through for the final version.
I did that for “Ghost Neck.” That’s a
real crazy, Jeff Hanneman-kind of solo. I’m
also really proud of the title track’s solo. It’s
wicked. For me in the studio, solos are where
I spend the most time. Rhythm tracks usually
don’t take so long. I can double or triple
track a fast rhythm thing really tightly. I like
to really concentrate on the solos and when
it’s time to do them, all I do is play lead guitar,
day and night. Then when it’s time to
track, I get down to it.
What did you use to record Snakes for the
For amps I used my live rig a bunch—Soldano SLO and Marshall Kerry King
signature JCM800 heads—but Fidelman
would occasionally plug me into different
stuff, like a Bogner head. He rented a lot of
things from Slayer’s gear storage. A lot of
the solos on the record were with my ’92
tobacco sunburst Gibson Les Paul. It’s all
stock but the rear pickup is amazing. It must
have been wound on the day the guy at the
factory wasn’t hung over. It has this crazy
hot midrange. I flick between the front and
back pickup a lot during a solo, and I jack
the pickups as close to the string as I can so
they’re picking up as much activity as possible.
I also have a ’90 cherry sunburst Les
Paul that I use. I also used my First Act custom-
made 9-string. It’s tuned down to C like
my other guitars, but the three treble strings
are doubled, like a 12-string. It gives me a
weird chorus, kind of like Zakk Wylde, but
more natural sounding. It takes a while to
get used to soloing with it, but once you do,
you don’t want six strings anymore, you want
nine! I string everything with Ernie Balls and
I use the yellow Dunlop .73mm Tortex picks.