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 process?
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 information overload.
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 Divine?
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.