Left to right: High on Fire’s Matt Pike, Des Kensel, and Jeff Matz. Photo Credit: Travis Shinn

Click here to watch our Rig Rundown with Matt Pike
The first time I heard High on Fire’s debut album, The Art of Self Defense, it didn’t just impress me, it slayed me. The slick, seamless production of a major label was nowhere to be found—just a pure, raw onslaught of sound. Not only did I love the music, but what really struck me about the trio from Oakland, California, was that it had its own identity. The unbridled aggression and all the warts from the lo-fi recording had an honest, believable vibe—something that was very hard to find in rock at the time. Especially in anything you heard on the radio. In fact, a major reason why I moved to the Midwest was because you could find touring bands like High on Fire—bands with a take-no-prisoners attitude—ruling the stages in tiny little dives all over the region. There was something extremely refreshing about seeing an unknown band completely own a club whether or not they played to five people or 5000.

High on Fire guitarist Matt Pike’s previous band, the legendary underground rock act Sleep, helped reinvigorate this long-lost sound once championed by bands like Black Sabbath and Blue Cheer. Sleep and bands such as Kyuss (Josh Homme’s band before Queens of the Stone Age), Neurosis, and veteran rockers Saint Vitus, helped pioneer a revival of the early days of heavy rock by playing droning guitar riffs through simple rigs—often not much more than a loud, fuzzed-out amp. At the time, rock of this fashion wasn’t exactly in style. More sterilized forms of the genre were all the rage, because huge, epic jams that clocked in at 15 minutes weren’t conducive to radio play. A defining trait of these underground bands was that they lived for the thrill of the stage and didn’t need cheap gimmicks or cheesy distractions to take attention away from the music.

After Sleep’s demise, Pike formed High on Fire with drummer Des Kensel. The sound, while still retaining the Sabbath-esque doom elements of Sleep, was infused with the rawer elements of Motörhead. Pike’s voice and persona draw a lot of comparisons to Motörhead’s infamous frontman, Lemmy Kilmister. After laboring and touring for 12 years, HoF has garnered fans the world over and has become one of underground rock’s biggest success stories. Just recently, Metallica handpicked them to open for them on a two-week tour—a sign that years of hard work has paid off.

We recently caught up with Pike in Madison, Wisconsin, during the band’s tour for their fifth studio album, Snakes for the Divine (E1 Music), to talk about metal’s place in the music business, his nine-string First Act guitar and dual-amp rig, and what it takes to be a torchbearer in the latter-day metal underground.

How did you get into playing guitar?

Basically, I was a juvenile delinquent in Denver. One of those bad kids in high school. I did things like drop acid all of the time, hang around the smoking pit, chase girls, whatever. One of the things that I was always really capable of was playing guitar, and I had been playing since I was 8. I was pretty good at the time, but I didn’t think about it in a “I’m the best ever” sense. I just really liked to play and only cared about getting better and better at it. I’d eventually become the guy in school that taught other guys songs. Stuff like Mötley Crüe and Metallica. I eventually got caught up in stealing car stereos, then eventually the cars straight up. It was completely my own fault, and I paid for it by going to military school and juvenile hall. I ended up taking the rap for some older guys in the ring, and when I was about 14 I got shipped off to my dad. While I was there, I met this guy named Al [Cisneros]. He would eventually become the bass player and singer for Sleep. He had this band called Asbestosdeath, which was this dirge-y, Black Sabbath-y punk band. I wanted to play leads and do a bunch of crazy stuff, and they were like “No man, it’s not like that.” We’d go see these really great punk bands like Neurosis and the Melvins that were doing something new and cool at the time, and we got to open for guys like that. Eventually, we dropped the other guitarist and formed Sleep. And man, Sleep blew up really, really fast after that. I spent my 21st birthday in Amsterdam on tour, and before that we had done a tour in the States.

It didn’t last that long, though—why?

We made Jerusalem and then broke up. I’m an aggressive, competitive type of guy. I like a challenge. It’s a great attitude to have when you’re an athlete, but sometimes it’s bad when you’re a musician. I get that way to try and push the music to be the best that it can be, and if I blow you off the stage one night, that’s your problem. You should be doing that to me! [Laughs]

Then what happened?

So, six months go by and I start High on Fire. I met Des through a friend, and instantly clicked with him after we jammed. He’s one of those drummers that I know exactly what his playing is going to be like, and I think he feels the same thing. He wouldn’t have put up with me for this long if he didn’t. We’ve been working together for years and years, and we made kind of a business out of it. It’s like if you started a painting company or something. You might not get paid all of the time, but you believe in this one weird thing. For us, it’s that we play beautiful music together.

Snakes for the Divine is pretty aggressive— even for you guys.

This one is a lot more aggressive than the last one. The last one had its moments. Our bass player, Jeff Matz [formerly of Seattle hardcore band Zeke], wrote a lot more of the stuff than last time. He was a little bit shy about showing what he could do, thinking that he’d get shot down if he brought in a riff or two. I was like, “No, dude!” So he’d be down in the studio at 6 a.m., looping something in a delay pedal. I’d hear it and think, “Oh my god, dude, you’re really serious about this aren’t you?” [Laughs]

Matt Pike and hist custom First Act—which is a half-inch thicker than a Les Paul. Photo by Chris Kies.

Did this record come together faster since you guys have been playing together for a while now?

No! Jeff, Des, and I sat around Oakland for eight months, just going down to the studio and pressing record. We started thinking about how we were going to get all of this on a record, and then we met Greg Fidelman [engineer for Johnny Cash’s American V and Slayer’s World Painted Blood]. We started playing him the stuff we had, and he told us that we had about four or five albums’ worth and that we needed to cut the fat. He thought we were going around in circles, just chasing our tail, and that we could make something great out of what we had. It was a good thing, because we’re so good at writing stuff together that sometimes we’ll just keep writing and writing if no one is there to yell “Stop!” or “You need to record that!” and “You need to hone in on one thing.”

You guys have played with some really talented bassists over the years, too.

We went through George Rice, our first bass player, and he was incredible. He just got sick of the touring, and he’s a lot like me. You know, he has to be out loud and a smartass all the time. Then we got Joe Preston [formerly of the Melvins and Thrones], recorded Blessed Black Wings, and asked him to tour. After a while, he said that he was sick of us and the huge amount of touring that we do, which is like nine out of 12 months a year. Who would want to do that, right? [Laughs] It really bummed me out when he left, because I love Joe Preston. Then, we found Jeff after touring with his band Zeke. Des and I said to each other after seeing him play “We need him in our band!” I felt guilty because I didn’t want to steal him from another band. It worked out though.

Was he the only candidate at that point?

I called Hank [Williams] III, who’s a really good buddy of mine. I said “Shelton, do you want to play on the album?” That dude’s making, like, five albums all of the time, so he was pretty busy then. He’s a big High on Fire fan but he said he wouldn’t feel right there. But then he said, “Jeff Matz”— the bassist from Zeke that Des and I toured with—“is looking for a band.” Des and I were stoked, and I called him up to come practice. He can play guitar exactly like I do, and he knew all the songs. About 50 to 60 percent of Snakes for the Divine was written by him, too. I told him “I’ll just put lyrics over your riff, I don’t even know what to say.” [Laughs]

So let’s talk gear for a bit. What are you using for the tour?

Basically, my main rig starts with a Soldano SLO. It was custom made for me by Mike Soldano, and it’s the best investment I ever made. They’re not cheap. I’m using it with a Marshall Kerry King head, which has a built-in noise gate. It runs with the Assault control, which adjusts the intensity of the channel. I use it in the right way, because there is no clean tone whatsoever in that amp.