Left to right: Bassist Jeff Matz joined High on Fire founders Matt Pike and drummer Des Kensel for 2007’s Death Is This Communion, and the trio has released four albums since then. Photo by Jen Rosenstein
What about your amp setups?
They really are two different animals. The commonality between both bands is my desire for a thick, pointed midrange, and from there I tailor things. High on Fire uses a little less sustain and a little more gain, where Sleep, which may seem more overdriven, is more of a massive wall of volume and sound that’s better suited for a compressed, sustaining sizzle. The sheer volume allows me to get fuzzy, loose, and roaring.
For High on Fire, I use my old Soldanos with Orange Dual Darks because those are more modern-sounding and aggressive amps. The Soldanos have a balance and midrange that just works for High on Fire, man. Soldano is crisp, faster, tighter, and more modern sounding, where the Orange is beefier, sustains more, and lives in a more classic- or stoner-rock world.
Three pertinent things to my Sleep tone: chug, punch, and sustain. I took a cue from AC/DC and how they set their amps for pure loudness, but they got all that gain and filth from the amp just working so hard and punishing the speakers. I like being in total control of my fire-breathing dragon—that’s the it factor now.
Onstage with Sleep, I go with six Orange half stacks—I’ll have four Thunderverbs that surround the Dual Dark stack. The Dual Darks are on channel B, 3/4 distortion, 1/2 volume, and the Thunderverbs are in Channel A for a loud, crisp, projecting midrange.
Also for Sleep’s The Sciences, I fired up my 1968 Laney “Supergroup” LA60BL that was modded by Bryan Sours of Sour Sound in Portland. It’s only 50 watts, but whatever he did to that old head, it now roars like an angry god. I just plugged straight in, dimed it, and that head just screams Master of Reality.
I know that live you’ve used the Frank Zappa trick of close-miking either a small Pignose or Orange Micro Terror in an iso cab and blending that with your larger heads. Is that something you do in the studio, too?
Oh yeah, it’s all over the Sleep record. When you hear the chainsaw parts with tons of sustain [laughs]—that’s when I’m running three Pignoses, daisy-chained, with a Soldano G.T.O. driving the front of them all. It fucking rules!
I assume you get all the gain and distortion you’d dream of from the wall of amps, so how do implement pedals?
For the longest time I was never satisfied with prolonged, controlled, sustained notes in Sleep. But man, putting the EarthQuaker Devices Warden compressor, set really hot, in front of my Lone Wolf Audio Twin Snake, and then stacking the Daredevil Pedals Atomic Cock on top of that, I can hold that thing for 10 minutes [laughs]. The Atomic Cock pierces through the wall of sound for soloing and the Warden is crucial to Sleep’s never-ending sustain.
My go-to front-end smasher was the Soldano GTO, but it’s old, big, and breaking down a lot, so I’ve retired it from the road. Other drives I’ve been flip-flopping with are my signature Black Arts Rabid Mammal and a Friedman BE-OD. I removed the MXR Kerry King 10-band EQ, since they get microphonic. The extra drive pedals I have just color the distortion more than anything—but if I need to, I can unleash hell [laughs].
Let’s talk about both albums. You’ve said that the song and album title for Electric Messiah was a homage to Lemmy.
I didn’t set out to pen a tribute, but every time I sat down to write lyrics for that song, he kept coming into my head. After I came up with the line “all give praise, as the ace hits the stage,” everything fell into place. It’s a perfect description of Lemmy—one of a kind.
The “Steps of the Ziggurat/House of Enlil” is gargantuan. How did you construct it?
The lyrics are based on the cuneiform texts dealing with the Anunnaki—alien astronauts that genetically engineered homo erectus into homo sapiens—and were discovered by Zecharia Sitchin. Some historians believe modern religion came from ancient Sumeria, since they were one of the first civilizations. When you visit places like Peru or the ancient Pyramids, you realize that man didn’t just take a knife and start digging in the dirt. There was something more at work—that knowledge was given to us and we finished the work.
Musically, the song takes its time and sucks the listener in.
I’ve always really loved delayed, drawn-out intros like Slayer’s “Hell Awaits.” So by the time you get to my vocals and the actual meat of the song, the listener has a what-in-the-holy-fuck appreciation for the unknown excitement going forward. The spaceship-landing-on-the-Earth moment is when my vocals come in and the alien Anunnaki inject us with their DNA and transformed us from homo erectus into homo sapiens. I know ... wild, right? [Laughs.]
The song’s second act was Jeff’s [Matz, High on Fire’s bassist] idea—combining the first two big riffs, transitioning into the main chunk, and eventually leading into the climax. For the third and final act, I had a really good vocal day and handled all three voices—a high, medium, and low part—of Enlil, Anunnaki, and Isis.
Speaking of forceful intros, “God of the Godless” features some fleet fretwork.
That first part actually came from Jeff. He was messing around on the guitar one day, and my ear caught what he was doing and I had him show me because it just sounded gnarly.The riff sort of hung there with no direction to go, so we fleshed it out and then doubled it so it’s huge and sounds unplayable [laughs]. We tried the arpeggio up and down the neck, played it in thirds and minor seconds. Even when things don’t go in a particular direction, the “wrong” idea often leads you to what feels right.
“Drowning Dog” starts out with an Iron Maiden feel before it morphs into the album’s bluesiest track.
That Iron Maiden start [vocalizes pattern] was something I’ve had for years and would play to warm up or get sounds at soundcheck. So Jeff and I locked in that intro and I added the second part to finish its musical thought. We realized it’s an awesome jam song.
Was that an intentional fade out or a way to save a good take?
I just love how Blizzard of Ozz or Iron Maiden’s Killers or Piece of Mind have epic fade-out solos and super-chanty vocals that just draw you in, so I was trying to make it catchy, melodic, and still have the ’80s-metal fade-out factor.