“One of the greatest musical things I’ve learned through Sleep is the acceptance of space,” says Pike. “Sleep proves that one well-placed note can say more than 150 perfectly played notes.” Photo by Tim Bugbee/Tinnitus Photography
Matt Pike is much like his guitar playing—powerful, blunt, slightly pissed off, and occasionally out of tune. And he’s been playing guitar almost as long as he’s been talking. “My uncle and grandpa used to always play guitar and I just remember loving those times,” says Pike. “Ever since I could handle a guitar, I’ve been playing one.”
Pike’s headbanging lineage started in the ’90s with stoner-metal icons Sleep, and after that band’s initial burnout, continued with the ferocious High on Fire. Decades of playing have honed Pike’s perspective about his instrument and music: “Riffs are the conversation starter—that’s what brings people in, but you better have more to offer than just that,” he says. “I create with the guitar and the riff is my illustrative force.” For fans of Pike’s raging riffage, it should be no shock that the frontman/guitarist had enough to say by way of his guitar (and High on Fire lyrics) to populate two new albums: Electric Messiah from High on Fire and Sleep’s The Sciences.
“Honestly, Electric Messiah is an album we could only make after 20 years as a band,” says Pike. It took us the seven other albums to create this strong of material, but that’s a testament to how much pride we have in our work, our story, and our vision.”
Electric Messiah includes the juggernaut “Steps of the Ziggurat/House of Enlil.” Inspired by Zecharia Sitchin’s belief in ancient astronauts, the song clocks in at just under 10 minutes. “It’s my Meatloaf rock opera on the Sumerian creation story,” says Pike.
“I know ... put a tin-foil hat on me because I’m into conspiracy theories. I don’t always believe what I write about, but it’s all based on things that I could perceive as possible. I’m a truth seeker—I want to know.”
If High on Fire has been Pike’s Godzilla for two decades, threatening innocents with bludgeoning albums nearly every three years, Sleep is Pike’s smoldering phoenix. The ’90s power trio garnered a devoted cult following by way of their 1993 riff opus Holy Mountain. Sadly, musical differences and label complications thwarted their triumphant return with 2003’s Dopesmoker, which consisted of one 50-minute song. (The band doesn’t endorse the 1999 Jerusalem release from The Music Cartel.) And so the trio split: Pike started High on Fire, while bassist/vocalist Al Cisneros and drummer Chris Hakius launched Om.
But the split wasn’t permanent: Sleep officially reformed in 2010 with Neurosis drummer Jason Roeder. “When we started playing those first Sleep shows around 2010, we couldn’t fucking believe all the kids that came out,” says Pike. “We hadn’t done dick for 15 years and when we came back to all those fans, we knew the world wanted to hear more.”
Pike’s Sleep and High on Fire are very different bands, but, like a well-loved cast-iron skillet, each have gotten better with seasoning and age. PG conducted two separate interviews with the bare-chested shredder who reveals what makes the guitar a spiritual instrument, how he creates his tones for each band, and why hiccups are necessary for Sleep.
Both your bands released new albums in 2018. Describe in one word your playing discipline in Sleep and High on Fire.
Sleep would be patience, or pacing, and High on Fire would be articulation.
Can you elaborate?
High on Fire is a fancy-picking band, Sleep is a fancy-timing band. Sleep is so difficult to play. I know people would assume the speedier High on Fire stuff is a technical challenge, and it is dexterous for sure, but it’s hard to know when to hit in Sleep. If you don’t match the ‘hit’ points—or ‘hiccups,’ as I call them—you’re off that whole measure, and it can just get worse from there. With High on Fire, there are so many notes that you can hop back on the merry-go-round more seamlessly than with the dredging of Sleep.
One of the greatest musical things I’ve learned through Sleep is the acceptance of space. You don’t have to fill up every single moment with noise. I’d rather wait and drop the bomb at the perfect moment than barrage you into submission—Sleep proves that one well-placed note can say more than 150 perfectly played notes.
And what are “hiccups?”
Hiccups are what Al and I call phrasing and dynamics—when you hit notes in the middle of a measure that weren’t there in the last passage. Those small hiccups really break up and propel the hypnotic nature of our songs—it moves the funeral procession [laughs]. The music may be the same over an extended portion of the song, like in “Sonic Titan,” but the different patterns and hit points are the wrinkles that give the songs their character.
TIDBIT: Sleep’s The Sciences made a surprise splash when it suddenly hit shelves on the stoner holiday of 4/20. Distributed by Jack White’s Third Man Records, it’s the band’s fourth album.
So live and onstage, is there anything you’re dialed into to stay on pace and not miss the hiccups?
I’ll always take kick and snare in my monitors, but to stay locked in on Jason and the song’s syncopation, I get in stride with the high-hat. But I’m counting the whole piece, so I can do it without drums or bass.
When I play a bill with both bands, I’d prefer to start with Sleep. But High on Fire usually plays first, so later when I’m onstage with Sleep I have to seriously slow my heart rate down—just a bunch of deep breathing and put some Quaaludes in the meatloaf [laughs].
How do the specific playing styles and sonic differences impact your gear choices for each band? You’re still a Les Paul guy, right?
I actually used a Les Paul Recording model extensively on Sleep’s The Sciences ... more than on High on Fire’s Electric Messiah. That guitar has a classic-rock sound, it isn’t very swift, and its Bigsby can make it a tuning nightmare. I used it on a couple Electric Messiah rhythm tracks because it brings a distinct flavor, but High on Fire is more modern-sounding metal.
For Sleep, I just like having all those filter, phase, and fat tap switching options that allow for single-coil tones, and you can select between low- and high-impedance outputs that can go direct into pro mixers or computer audio interfaces, and with a flick of a switch, you can run it into traditional tube amps. It’s not the best guitar for live stuff because it has so much electrical wiring and switching, and I sweat a lot onstage, so I could see it being an issue. For recording, it’s a really expressive, inspirational instrument.
Onstage I’ve really been using three-pickup Les Pauls a lot—I need them for Sleep, and I’ve started preferring them for High on Fire. I really enjoy the tonal diversity, power, and sustain I can get with three-pickup guitars.